It’s standard practice to do a lot of things faster these days. Email replaced the fax. The Internet replaced the Encyclopedia. Jump in your Tesla and mash the gas. No more pesky waiting! On anything! Ever!
It turns out this also applies to whiskey and bourbon. This particular category – compared to vodka and gin – once needed to age for years before it was worthy to bottle. Not anymore.
Brands like Highspire, Hudson Baby Bourbon, Koval and Catskill have all come out with products that have rested less than a year in the barrel. The trick is a smaller, five or 10-gallon barrel, rather than the standard 53-gallon. The wood to spirit ratio is lower, and it takes less time to achieve an essence of wood and a rich color on the spirit.
Yet it poses the question, do the best things come to those who wait? And, why would you want to age faster? Is there definitive, modern science behind this new smaller-barrel method? Or is it just marketing?
We had a lot of questions.
“There’s been a real explosion in the demand for whiskey,” Phil Casaceli told us, sitting down on a barstool inside his bar, Daddy-O. Casaceli is a whiskey fanatic, and he stocks more than 400 spirits this dreamy, dark ode to liquor and to sports, in Manhattan’s West Village.
“With the whole revolution in cocktails, the demand has risen so much, companies are claiming they are experiencing shortages,” Casaceli says. “I think maybe they are holding back product to further create demand. It’s a way to kind of create a cult status around stuff like Pappy Van Winkle … make a new buzz around something old like whiskey. Regardless, it can be hard to find some products.”
One result of whiskey’s rampant popularity has been this new category of flash-aged options coming into the market over the last many years. Instead of 48 months in a barrel, some are spending a mere four.
“Our Hudson Baby Bourbon is the first spirit we ever made,” offers Ralph Erenzo, co-founder of Tuthilltown Spirits. “We began with small barrels, because we weren’t making enough to use a 53-gallon barrel. We calculated that it was coming ready in about 4 to 6 months. Some might think I was making more money this way, but it’s not true. From a distillers point of view … you get it on the shelf fast, but with less product. The costs are equal. This young whiskey is also not what people are used to. Our Baby Bourbon has won awards, but it’s not a classic taste. It’s different. We like to think different is good.”
We decided to sit alongside Phil at Daddy-O and to become judge and jury on what was good and what was not. Besides … we had a pile of the bar’s famous tater tots in front of us, and nothing better to do with our Tuesday.
We created two categories. Then, we just sounded off.
Taste Test Category 1 - The Bourbons
Contenders: Hudson Baby Bourbon (the youngster), Evan Williams Straight Kentucky Straight Bourbon (the old faithful) and Angel’s Envy (relative newcomer, aged four to six years in port casks).
“There’s a little cherry to it and a smooth, sweet, medium-quick finish. I think this has a beautiful taste. I enjoy the slight hint of red wine.” – Us.
“It’s easy for me to pick this one out in a blind tasting because of that distinct, sweet fruit that you get from the port casks. This is good stuff.” – Phil.
Evan Williams Straight Kentucky
“This stuff tastes like whiskey. I can’t figure out how to describe the taste other than whiskey. You know when you go outside and it’s exactly 72-degrees? And you can’t tell whether the weather is warm or cool, because the temperature is just dead even? This is that, but for whiskey.” – Us.
“This is the stuff you would see in an old Western. The guy walks in the bar and just slams a shot down and throws coins at the bartender. Not much to write home about, but it gets the job done if you are out to get drunk or drink all night.” – Phil.
Hudson Baby Bourbon
“Sweet on the nose, very woody on the finish with some dessert spice and fruit.” – Phil.
“It reminds me of walking through a barn. There’s some malt and leather. It’s young and raw and hotter.” – Us.
“The raw character of bourbon is still there. It’s in your face. There’s something you can detect that seems unfinished to me. It’s not my style of bourbon, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s just different.” – Phil.
Taste Test Category 2 - The Rye Whiskies
The Contenders: Knob Creek Rye (a big, $55, 100-proof), Old Overholt (a $15 American classic, aged three years) and Highspire (a “swiftly aged” pure rye whiskey rested in California wine barrels)
Knob Creek Rye
“Because of the high proof, you expect lots of heat. You get that with this one and also nice sweetness. It’s got more burn and lots of rye flavor that comes forward.” – Phil
“We like a good rye. We could have a glass, maybe two of this, but the proof on it is a bit too much for one to drink it all the time. - Us
Old Overholt Rye
“At the first sip, this one is very sweet with dark fruit, and incredibly smooth. If I want to ease from a bourbon into a rye, this is my gateway drug.” – Phil
“We are getting pungent earthy notes from the rye, but there’s a sweetness that mellows it out. It’s very easy to drink. We love this. We mean love. – Us
“Yes. Me too. The beauty is, you don’t get rye and then sweetness. Or just one or the other. You get them all at once in harmony.” – Phil
“You forgot to mention it’s only $15 retail. - Us
Highspire Pure Rye Whiskey
“They use 100 percent rye mash. We were expecting a ton of heat because of that, but the nose is yeasty and old and funky. It’s very woody. The second sip it opens up. - Us
“It reminds me weirdly of a Genever. You do get a lot of flavor in those four months, but what’s interesting is I don’t get much in the way of the wine barrels doing anything special to it. This is definitely for the experienced rye drinker who likes pungent, musty-attic notes. Adding water cuts out a bit of that heat.” – Phil
“We love the packaging and the blue wax on the bottle. We might gift this to a hardcore rye lover who’s open to trying new things.” – Us
“It’s all about what you personally like,” Phil concluded, popping another tater tot in his mouth. “That goes for anything you are drinking or eating. You like what you like. Trying new things is always a good idea. Never hurts.”
We both agreed that overall, the experienced, experimental drinker is going to probably take to these younger styles more. We wouldn’t hand one of these to someone who’s never had whiskey and say, “here … this is whiskey.”
They are different, and it’s going to take a bit of previous knowledge on what classic whiskey actually is to appreciate those differences.
Is different better? No. It’s just different, and in life, there’s always room on this writer’s shelf for one more bottle of booze.