*Special thanks to MH and Common Ground PR for the sample.
I have no idea how to write a review of Rebel Yell without addressing its racially charged name. The Luxco-owned line of whiskey takes its name from this high-pitched, kind of squealing, not-all-that-frightening tactic used by Confederate soldiers as they fought the Civil War in an effort to preserve their Southern way of life, which really just meant fighting for their right to buy, sell, overwork, abuse, and kill other human beings with gross impunity. Certainly it was a complex time, but the South’s secession was firmly rooted in its fervent support of the inhumane practice of slavery. The Confederate flag represents a group of people who thought slavery was a good thing worth fighting for. Likewise, the confederate “rebel yell” was a battle cry used in the Civil War by people who thought slavery was a good thing worth fighting for. While I’m sure there are a few (there’s always a few, aren’t there?) who find this criticism too politically correct and liberally codified, one needs look no further than Rebel Yell’s history to see that the brand itself knows its name is potentially divisive and offensive, and over the years, has tried to distance itself from its origins.
According to the brand’s website, Rebel Yell was created in 1936 by a man named Charlie Farnsley who happened to be the mayor of Louisville at the time. He also happened to be the nephew of Alex Farnsley, who was Vice President and Treasurer of the rather newish Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Mayor Farnsley reportedly wanted to make a bourbon especially for Southerners, and Uncle Alex was only too happy to supply the juice. Yes, you’re reading that correctly, Rebel Yell was initially made at the legendary Stitzel-Weller, right alongside W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Cabin Still. For the first half of its life, the brand was purposely only sold in the south, with its label and paraphernalia adorned accordingly. For most of its existence, Rebel Yell’s front label featured a saber-wielding Confederate horseman riding into apparently righteous battle. The whiskey is touted as being something called “Southern Sour Mash,” and no small amount of space is used up declaring it “exclusively for the Deep South.” The verbage on the back of these old labels invokes the Battle of Chickamauga, scene of the Union’s most significant defeat. Even an accompanying box for early 70’s Rebel Yell was decorated to look like a regimental drum. Clearly, this whiskey had a target audience.
An interesting aspect of all this is that while the bottles glorified the Southern warrior, some of the advertising of the 60’s and 70’s attempted to glorify a bit of peaceful, pastoral Southern hospitality. The ad at right conjures up Magnolia trees and beautiful women, insisting that they, along with hospitality, “belong to the South.” Magnolia trees are found in many places around the globe, and beautiful women make up approximately half the humans on the planet, so Rebel Yell was perhaps overstating their claim here. I’m sure it was a difficult task for the ad men of the time to somehow intertwine this peaceful image with that of the still-bitter, grudge-holding Confederate horseman. Another ad from that time, 1969 to be exact, was less bucolic, and playfully antagonistic towards Northerners. Leading off an ad by telling drinkers to not serve Rebel Yell to Northerners doesn’t sound like Southern hospitality to me, and making a big, somewhat non-sensical deal out of the whiskey being “unreconstructed” (see what they did there?) again sounds a little rancorous.
In any case, this long-standing marketing approach obviously worked well for Rebel Yell. In 1972, Stitzel-Weller, including Rebel Yell and its other brands, were sold to a huge company called Norton Simon which was famous for, among other things, Canada Dry, McCalls Publishing, and Hunt Foods. In 1984, it was decided to make this exclusively Southern brand less exclusive and allow it to be sold all over the country. According to Reid Mitenbuler’s “Bourbon Empire,” the owners recognized the divisive potential of their brand name, and in an effort to appeal more broadly, toned down the Confederate horseman, and dispensed with all the mentions of the old South and the Civil War. In the mid-80’s, Norton Simon sold it all again to United Distillers (that little Scottish outfit that eventually became Diageo), who quickly decided to export the brand internationally. In some cases the labels for the overseas bottles actually bore a Confederate flag instead of a horseman. The use of the that flag would not have played well domestically, but I suppose foreign ignorance of American history allowed for a more “romantic” view of that tendentious emblem.
In 1993, United Distillers closed Stitzel-Weller Distillery and transferred Rebel Yell’s production to their new Bernheim Distillery. In 1999, the brand was sold to the David Sherman Corporation which eventually became Luxco. During this time, that discontented Confederate horseman was joined by a less regionalistic, yet still apparently rebellious cowboy who may have liked to raise his voice at times. Currently, there’s nary a mention of the Civil War or the old South on the bottle label, or on the brand’s website. What started as Farnsley’s exclusively Southern, defiant bit of Confederate patriotism, eventually wisely chose a far less contentious path. The rebel of today’s Rebel Yell has more in common with Billy Idol than with Billy Anderson, choosing denim, motorcycles, and open-face helmets over horses, sabers, inhuman subjugation, and Confederate gray. Nonetheless, despite this evolutionary shift away from the brand’s original message, the Rebel Yell name remains, and there will always be controversial aspects to it.
Ok, enough soapboxing. Let us put those controversial aspects of the name aside and check out what’s in the bottle. Luxco has long outsourced the production of Rebel Yell to Heaven Hill. While the recipe, or at the very least, exact production methods have changed from Stitzel-Weller to Bernheim to Heaven Hill, Rebel Yell is still a wheated bourbon (meaning the rye in the mashbill has been swapped for wheat.) For much of its more recent history, the brand has been more of a bottom-shelf dweller, but lately, Luxco has strived to change that. The line has expanded from a single expression to a group of seven whiskeys; two flavored things, the approximately four year old flagship Rebel Yell, the possibly older, higher proof Small Batch Reserve, a small batch rye, the American Whiskey, which is an interesting-sounding blend of bourbon and rye, and this relatively new Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel. In general, there’s not much wheated bourbon out there at the moment. Makers Mark and Larceny are the two most visible ones, with Van Winkle, Weller, and Old Fitzgerald holding down the overhyped, impossible to find end of things. With that in mind, it’s good to see Luxco expanding and pushing this brand into more mature, higher-end territory. The 10 Year Old was “limited” to 2000 cases for its 2016 release, with that number doubling for its release in 2017.
The Nose: Man…that’s a nice, strong, solid, mature bourbon nose. Lots of sugared sweetness; warm caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream, brown sugar, and little maple syrup as well. Less prominent notes of cherry cola and a little pineapple tangerine juice are tucked behind. The wheat shows up as it usually does for me, as stoneground wheat crackers, crisp and grainy with a little plain popcorn as well. Strong but balanced oak and spice notes, polished wood, bourbon vanilla bean, cinnamon, a little eucalyptus, and a bit of star anise.
The Palate: Rugged and less sweet than the nose portends. The sugars are now a little burnt with nutty toffee, black cherry, and pithy orange. More notes of toasted wheat along with some blonde vanilla brownies. The oak is even stronger here, full of mouthwatering tannins, but as with the nose, it’s balanced and integrated. Lots of spice as well; vanilla bean, hot cinnamon, clove, menthol-y mint, and black licorice, with a little burnt kettlecorn leading to the finish.
The Finish: A bit of brown sugar and corn oil, but mostly some lingering, nicely grippy oak notes, with vanilla bean, clove, mint, and a bit of barrel char hanging around as well.
Thoughts: This is great bourbon, and welcome one at that, there just aren’t enough older, higher proof wheated bourbons out there. The nose initially hints at more sweetness than there actually is, but it also shows off the whiskey’s impressive, balanced complexity. The oak plays a central role, but not an overly dominant one, it’s integrated nicely throughout. This is a smooth, sippable delight at strength and those sturdy oak notes hold up well over ice As good as this is, the $50 price tag seems a little high, but perhaps that just where we’re at these days. Well built, expressive and delicious – definitely recommended.
- Feldman, Joshua. “Rebel Yell – Past and Future.” The Coopered Tot. N.p., 21 Feb. 2015. Web. Jan. 2017.
- Feldman, Joshua. “The Tragedy of Old Cabin Still.” The Coopered Tot. N.p., 13 Apr. 2014. Web. Jan. 2017.
- Lippman, Linda, and John Lippman. “American Whiskey: A Visit to the Ruins of Stitzel-Weller and the Louisville Distilleries.” American Whiskey. N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2017.
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- Minnick, Fred. Bourbon: the rise, fall, and rebirth of an American whiskey. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2016. Print.
- Mitenbuler, Reid. Bourbon Empire: the Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. New York: Viking, 2015. Print
- “Rebel Yell.” Whiskey ID – Identify Vintage and Collectible Bourbon and Rye Bottles. N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2017.
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