Ezra Brooks is one of those days-of-yore sounding bourbon names that could easily make you think he was the inventor of the high rye mashbill or the “Louisville Limp” technique of rolling a barrel from rickhouse to rickhouse.* In fact, the name Ezra Brooks was mostly an invention by a few guys, one of them an opportunistic fellow with the not-so-days-of-yore sounding name of Frank Silverman. In the first half of the 50’s, thanks to a significant investment and clever marketing, Jack Daniels’ sales soared 900%. In 1956, the brand was sold to Brown-Forman who found out that those soaring sales had also put a dent in the Jack Daniels stocks. A year later, the brand faced a shortage and was forced to more strictly allocate its product. Frank Silverman came up with the idea of bottling a bourbon and damn near copying everything about Jack Daniels in order to take advantage of this sudden popularity boom and resulting short supply. From the bottle shape to the label to the advertising slogans, nearly everything about Silverman’s Ezra Brooks was an intentional rip-off…except that it was bourbon made in Kentucky, not Tennessee whiskey made in Tennessee. Jack Daniels took Silverman and Ezra Brooks to court over the apparent counterfeiting, but lost. The court saw the two as distinct, individual products made in different places, and with no evidence that one was being passed off as the other or that consumers were being misled into buying one over the other, it sided with the defendant. If you’re interested in reading a much more detailed, legal-minded recounting of this, I heartily recommend checking out this great piece on the Sipp’n Corn blog. If you want to go read that now, go ahead, I am a patient boy, I’ll wait, I’ll wait, I’ll wait, I’ll wait.
Interestingly, even though Ezra Brooks was a bit of a knock-off, developed to take advantage of Jack’s success, the bourbon in the bottle actually had some pedigree. Silverman contracted the production of Ezra Brooks from what was then called the Hoffman Distillery. The Hoffman Distillery began life in 1880 as a small still set up by one S.O. Hackley. Hackley soon partnered with an Ike Hoffman, and grew two well-known brands, Old Hoffman and Old Spring. The distillery was bought in 1916 by distributors L. & E. Wertheimer but was still known as the Hoffman Distillery. After rebuilding in the mid-30’s, L. & E. Wertheimer hired Robert and Ezra Ripy to run their distillery. These Ripy brothers were two of four sons of Thomas Ripy, one of the more famous Kentucky distillers of the late 1800’s. The Ripy name isn’t quite as embedded as, say, Beam, but it has been influential. The other two Ripy brothers, Ernest and Forest, had founded the Ripy distillery after Prohibition. This distillery made a name for itself by making the whiskey for Austin Nichols’ Wild Turkey brand. When Austin Nichols purchased the distillery, the Ripy brothers stayed on, with Ernest training a young Jimmy Russell who would go on to become Wild Turkey’s master distiller and the popular face of the brand. So yeah, suffice it to say, when it came to bourbon, the Ripy’s knew what they were doing. Back at the Hoffman Distillery, Robert & Ezra Ripy, the Wertheimers and Frank Silverman set about creating the Ezra Brooks brand. The legend goes that everyone liked the name Ezra, but were not so keen on the Ripy part, so they instead decided to substitute the unrelated, fictitious last name of Brooks.
It did not take long for the brand to take off, and by 1968, the Hoffman Distillery was renamed the Ezra Brooks Distillery. The brand then went through the usual ownership changes and production facility closures that brands really seem to like to go through. It was at one point acquired by Medley, which was later acquired by Glenmore, who then, unceremoniously dumped the brand in the 90’s and sold it to the David Sherman Company which went on to become Luxco. Today the brand is represented by the 90 proof Black Label bourbon, a 101 proof 7 year old straight bourbon, a white labeled blended whiskey, a cinnamon flavored something or other, and something called Bourbon Cream which sounds both suspicious and delicious all at the same time.
Earlier this year, a newcomer joined the line, the Ezra Brooks Straight Rye Whiskey. This young whiskey (aged for 24 months reads the label) was distilled by MGP Ingredients in Indiana. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to another 95% MGP rye, so imagine my surprise when I tasted it and found something much less ubiquitous. This one is definitely not made solely from that 95% recipe. In 2013 MGP introduced two new rye recipes into their repertoire. One was a more conventional mashbill of 51% rye, 45% corn, and 4% barley malt. The other was a more unconventional mashbill of 51% rye and 49% barley malt. Over at the Bourbon Guy blog, their review said that while MGP did not disclose which mashbill was used to make this one, the Luxco PR company did confirm the whiskey contained corn. So, now we know that the Ezra Brooks Rye was made with either the 51/45/4 recipe, or possibly some combination of all three of their rye recipes. In other words, we don’t know much, but we do know that this is not the standard Indiana rye we’ve seen so a lot of over the last several years.
The Nose: A relatively mellow and sweet nose with just a bit of youngish bite. Initially, there’s juicy orange, and those Brach’s caramel swirl taffy candies. Along with that, there’s vanilla extract, bruised apples and hint of Juicy Fruit gum. The rye comes across as lightly herbal, not toasted, with subtle peppery notes. There’s just a touch of dusty oak, but lots of cinnamon hard candy (I swear this one’s not sponsored by a candy company) and a touch of fennel. There’s a bit of heat to the nose, but far less than expected, really.
The Palate: There’s more of a youngish, hot burn once it passes the lips, but again, it’s less than I expected for a 24 month old whiskey. The palate is less sweet, more rugged with spiced apples, honey, and burnt sugar at first. The more prominent rye still has an herbal, greenish quality, but also shows off more roasty toasty grain. There’s slightly bitter vanilla bean and baker’s chocolate leading to rough, slightly grippy oak, cinnamon stick, candied ginger, and white pepper.
The Finish: Brown sugars and vanilla syrup hang around with toasted rye, bitter chocolate, tannic oak, cinnamon and pepper.
Thoughts: You know, for what it is, this is really pretty decent. Rye can be quite good when it’s young, and this one lives up to that. There’s a bit of a jump from the relatively gentle and sweet nose to the more vigorous, rugged palate, but all in all, this manages to seem a little older than it is. I found it sippable enough neat, but preferred it with ice. It works quite well in cocktails; the vibrancy and measured complexity of the palate fitting in nicely to a Manhattan, a Brooklyn, or an Old Fashioned. Weighed against two other sub-$20 ryes, The ~$18 Ezra Brooks fares quite well. It’s a little richer and more complex than both Old Overcoat…sorry Overholt, and Jim Beam Rye. There’s definitely room on the shelves for a decent inexpensive rye like this. Recommended.
*Totally made that up.
- Burke, Eric. “Ezra Brooks Rye.” Bourbon Guy. N.p., 28 Feb. 2017. Web. March & april 2017.
- Corn, Sipp’n. “Copycat Whiskey – the Story of Ezra Brooks and Jack Daniel.” Sipp’n Corn℠. N.p., 25 Feb. 2015. Web. March & April 2017.
- Cowdery, Charles K. Bourbon, Straight: the Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Chicago, IL: Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004. Print.
- Cowdery, Charles K. Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey. Chicago, IL: Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2014. Print.
- “Jack Daniel Distillery, Inc. v. Hoffman Distilling Co. | 190 F.Supp. 841 (1960).” Leagle. United States District Court W. D. Kentucky, Louisville Division., 15 Dec. 1960. Web. March & april 2017.
- Regan, Gary, and Mardee Haidin Regan. The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys. Shelburne, VT: Chapters Pub., 1995. Print.