*Sincere thanks to Rabbit Hole Distilling for the sample.
One of the hardest things about this craft spirits boom of the last several years has been separating the wheat from the chaff. Distinguishing not just the true distillers from the opportunistic source-and-bottlers, but also between the ones who are generally honest and upfront, and the ones that hide behind carefully crafted marketing. While, yes, we can all agree that selling a product relies on marketing, there is a difference between using a few extra superlatives in a brand’s otherwise honest story and just blatantly making up some crap.
With all that in mind, I tend to approach reviewing new craft spirit brands with a mix of about 65% trepidation, and 35% gleeful bloodlust…or depending on the day, 65% gleeful bloodlust, 35% trepidation. In terms of marketing, will I find a load of horseshit, or will I be pleasantly surprised? In the case of the recently reviewed Clyde May’s Bourbon, I found horseshit…a great big silly pile of it. In the case of Louisville, KY’s Rabbit Hole Distilling, I found a mildly pleasant surprise and, I’m not afraid to admit, a small bit of enlightenment.
Founded in 2012 by Kaveh Zamanian, Rabbit Hole Distilling was apparently brought into being by his falling in love with someone who helped him fall in love with Kentucky and with Bourbon. Pretty straight forward, right? No dubious family recipe or backstory, just plain old inspiration…and presumeably a vast reservoir of financial wherewithal to work with. Like many other new distilleries, Rabbit Hole’s plan was to build a craft distillery and in the meantime, release products made elsewhere that hopefully reflected their vision. It’s here that I was pleasantly surprised. All too often, new brands gloss over the fact that they didn’t have much to do with the actual making of the product their label is on. In contrast, Rabbit Hole has been very upfront about their products. While perhaps not completely transparent, they’ve been pretty darn translucent at least, and that’s a refreshing change of pace.
In many of Rabbit Hole’s promotional materials, and in a response to a post on Reddit, Zamanian has been happy to openly discuss his products and has been quick to point out that there’s a difference between contract distilling and sourcing…and that he does a bit of both. This is where the small bit of enlightenment happened for me…or perhaps it was more of a reminder, really. Obviously, there’s a difference between contract distilling and sourcing. A contract distilled spirit is produced to a specification for a brand, whereas a sourced product is more or less a finished one, picked for use by a brand who may or may not treat it further by blending or cask-finishing. I knew all this, but in the muddled haze of all these new brands it’s easy to overlook the difference between the two, and to remember that each has its place and purpose.
For their current line-up, Rabbit Hole has contracted the production of two whiskeys, and sourced product for its other two releases. The sourced products are what Rabbit Hole calls its fingerprint series, meaning that they’ve taken some existing spirit and put a small final stamp on it to make it their own. One is a sourced five year old bourbon that’s been finished in PX sherry casks by Rabbit Hole, and the other will be a sourced London dry gin that’s been aged in their ex-rye barrels. The contract distilled products, the one’s I’ll be taking a look at, include a straight bourbon and a straight rye.
The Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon was, according to Zamanian’s Reddit post, inspired by craft beer and the non-traditional mashbills of craft distilling championed by folks like Corsair’s Derek Bell. It is made up of 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malt. Obviously, corn and malted barley are no strangers to bourbon, nor is wheat, but malted wheat, that’s a little different. My almost completely uneducated guess would be that using a malted wheat instead of normal wheat would introduce more sugars into the mash, perhaps speeding up fermentation time and sweetening things a little. The honey malt is the real oddball here. Similar to traditional German Brumalt, honey malt is produced by soaking the grain to convert the starch to sugar, drying it, and then roasting to brown the grain and produce a bit of a Maillard Reaction, one of the finest and most loved reactions of all time. This last step renders the sugars mostly unfermentable, therefore, the honey malt is used to more directly flavor and color the water used in the process. In brewing, honey malt and Brumalt are used relatively sparingly, usually in fuller-bodied lagers like Märzens, brown ales, porters and stouts. In distilling…well, I don’t know, this is the first I’ve heard of anyone using honey malt so I guess we’ll see how it affects a whiskey.
While Rabbit Hole does not confirm this in their official literature, it doesn’t seem to be much of a secret that this bourbon has been produced by New Riff Distillery which is located in Newport, KY. This bourbon is two years old and has been matured in the standard new American oak barrels with #3 char. The barrels have been coopered by the Kelvin Cooperage, with whom Zamanian has personal connection owing to the owners being old school friends. The Rabbit Hole Distillery is located in Downtown Louisville and will include not just the distilling plant, but a restaurant, tasting rooms, an event space, and of course, a gift shop. They plan to have construction finished and things up and running by the fall of 2017 at which point they will commence making their own versions of these whiskeys.
The Nose: Young, slightly hot stuff. Up front, there’s pithy orange, floral honey, and soft, julep-ready mint leaves. Behind that, biscuity notes of those almond windmill cookies, along with cracked wheat crackers, sweet corn pudding, and a subtle bit of toasted rye. As you’d expect, there’s not a lot of oak on the nose, but there’s a lot of cinnamon red hots, a bit of earthy vanilla bean, and a little candied ginger.
The Palate: Young, slightly hot stuff with a thinly creamy mouthfeel. The pithy orange is back as is the honey and mint. There’s more brown sugar, but less baked goods, more straight up toasted grain. The rye is more present here as well – greenish, herbal, and sharp. Along with the hot, drying cinnamon, a bit more youthful, slightly grippy oak shows up along with ginger, fine black pepper, and a touch of slightly overcooked popcorn.
The Finish: Young, slightly hot stuff. Orange peel, almond extract, and floral honey trail off leaving hot cinnamon and mint to finish things off.
Thoughts: Young slightly hot stuff…but also fairly enjoyable. If the interesting mashbill made itself known, I suppose it would be in the strong grain notes, but I have to say for such a young whiskey, I was hoping for more of that mashbill to come through. This does have its moments though, and succeeds in progressing nicely from nose to finish and keeping its youth (barely) reigned in. Is there enough uniqueness to justify the $~50 price tag for such a brash youngster? That’s harder to say, my inclination is no, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this seems like a good start, and heralds some good things to come as Rabbit Hole’s whiskeys gain a bit more age.
Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon, +/-2016