*Sincere thanks to Clyde Mays and Conecuh Ridge Distillery, Inc. for the sample.
Well, shit…where to begin.
Clyde May was an actual, real person. This is somewhat important to note because the bourbon world is full of people who actually were not really people. Ol’ Clyde was apparently an Alabama moonshiner and bootlegger of some renown from the 50’s through the 80’s. I think it probably comes as a shock to most of us that there even were renowned moonshiners and bootleggers from Alabama in from the 50’s through the 80’s, but that’s neither here nor there. Reportedly, what set Clyde apart was his attention to quality (that’s what usually sets moonshiners apart) and his “technique” of throwing a few apples in the barrel along with the spirit to mature and flavor things a bit. Mr. May was so renowned as a bootlegger that he was arrested for it in 1973. The brand’s legend goes that he set his still back up the day he got out of prison, but the brand’s legend would say that, wouldn’t it? It’s not nearly as exciting to say that a moonshiner saw the error of their ways and never condensed vapor through a copper worm again. That kind of penitent behavior doesn’t sell whiskey.
Clyde May died in 1990. His son Kenny May wanted to preserve his father’s illicit distilling legacy and in 2002, after creating the Conecuh Ridge brand, contracted out the production of some legal whiskey. How this preserves a moonshiner’s legacy I have no idea. This is where things get just a little nutty. The Wikipedia page for Conecuh Ridge states that the distilling of this whiskey was outsourced to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, LTD. (KBD) but KBD didn’t actually start distilling their own spirit until 2012, which means that the Conecuh Ridge product was sourced from a source who had to go source it. Of course, the Wikipedia page for Clyde May/Conecuh Ridge also says that Watergater John Mitchell convicted Clyde May and then took over Clyde’s cell when Mitchell himself was convicted of Watergate stuff in 1974…which is just pure silliness, especially since Mitchell wasn’t convicted until 1975. But I suppose accuracy and honesty is in a bit of a tailspin here anyway so we’ll proceed.
So in 2002, some Conecuh Ridge whiskey is produced. Back then, their “Alabama-style” whiskey was a bourbon with apple flavoring added. A far cry from moonshine with actual apples tossed in the barrel, but whatever. That chemically flavored whiskey is still in the brand’s line-up today. In 2004, the Alabama legislature, dazzled by shiny marketing and presumably with nothing better to do, passed a joint resolution declaring Conecuh Ridge to be “Alabama’s Official State Spirit.” Alabama’s congress apparently didn’t see any irony in celebrating the state by honoring of a man it once convicted, with a whiskey made entirely in another state. Did I say entirely? That’s not entirely true. Conecuh Ridge claims to have sent tanked Alabama water to whoever was making the whiskey to use in the mash, so I guess technically a little Alabama got in there. Not all was rosy for Alabama’s Official State Spirit, though, a few months after its anointing, Conecuh Ridge had run into enough supply and distribution problems for the state-run liquor stores to stop carrying it on a regular basis. A few months after that, Clyde May’s son, Kenny, carried on the family tradition of running afoul of various liquor laws and was found guilty of several charges. As a result, Conecuh Ridge lost its distribution license and the Official State Spirit of Alabama could no longer be sold in Alabama. Interestingly, or perhaps predictably, there was some conspiratorial clamour about the now ousted Kenny May being set up and torn down by a former mayor and partner in a rival “Alabama” whiskey attempt called Redneck Riviera. It should surprise no one that this Redneck Riviera blended whiskey, which also was not produced in Alabama, went pretty much nowhere, so it’s a little hard to say what effect orchestrating a bust of Kenny May had on a competitor’s brand. Let’s move on.
Because of this unseemliness, the Alabama legislature, presumably with nothing better to do, tried to revoke Conecuh Ridge’s status as Official State Spirit. For unfathomable reasons this attempt failed, and the title stayed put. With Kenny May no longer involved, the brand and company cycled through several ups and downs and several ownership changes, at one point even being CEO’d by Wes Henderson who went on to found Angel’s Envy with his father, Lincoln Henderson. Conecuh Ridge filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and in 2009, the Alabama brand was purchased by an investor group from Texas. In 2014, it was restructured and refinanced as Conecuh Ridge Distillery Inc. which is now, according to the label on the bottle, based in Florida. So just to re-cap, Clyde May’s products are not made in Alabama and they are owned by a company called Conecuh Ridge Distillery which is not actually a distillery, and, being located in Florida, is nowhere near Conecuh Ridge, AL. There is no Conecuh Ridge distillery. The Official Spirit of Alabama has never been made in Alabama and has pretty much nothing to do with Alabama save for this mildly embarrassing history.
That brings us to Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey. To be fair, much of the aforementioned history doesn’t make it on to the label of this one, though perhaps not for a lack of trying. This bourbon has a very busy label, complete with faux stamp embossing, faux filmstrip around the neck, overlapping images, and at least five different fonts. There’s also a lot of misleading text that’s craftily vague in such a way that the brand could claim it’s not trying to be misleading. Right up on top, there’s a date, 1946, and the name Conecuh Ridge Distillery. Maybe that was the year that Ol’ Clyde set up his first still. but since we’ve already established that there’s never been a Conecuh Ridge Distillery, it’s really just a pretty meaningless date. Next up is some printed script, carefully crafted to look casual and fountainpen-esque, proclaiming “carefully crafted – Conecuh Ridge, Alabama.” This is just plain deceptive. It’s a blatant attempt to make it look like this whiskey is made in Alabama. It’s no secret there’s never been a Conecuh Ridge Distillery and the whiskey isn’t made in Alabama, so why include this? Below that there are some official looking spaces that look like there’s been more handwritten info filled in about the batch and recipe number. The thing is, it’s (big surprise) printed, not handwritten, and as far as I can tell, the same numbers are found on all bottles of the Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon. More meaningless info, more deception. Around the side there’s a slogan, “say watcha be & be watcha say” which just pretty much takes the fucking cake. If Clyde Mays Bourbon truly believed in saying what it was and being what it said, it would say in big bold letters “sourced bourbon from an undisclosed distillery that we try to pass off as being from a made up distillery that somehow honors the legacy of someone who is not really involved with the company in any meaningful way.” I suppose I should mention that the label does disclose that the whiskey is distilled in Kentucky and that the company is based in Florida, but it does so in accordance with the law, not in accordance with its fanciful hype.
I hate to make this much fun of a couple of guys and a brand of whiskey…well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t enjoy making fun of a couple of guys and a brand of whiskey overly much, but the marketing and history of this brand is just ridiculous. The whiskey world is full of a lot of crap when it comes to backstories and labeling, but this one seems to take it to another level. Products like this are fair game because these days, with all the sourced brands and made-up distilleries, it’s pretty hard for a consumer to know what they’re actually buying. Trying to make a buck riding the bourbon boom is one thing, being this deceitful about it is another. Is the bourbon in this bottle good? Well, yeah, I guess it’s ok, no thanks to Conecuh Ridge “Distillery,” but, who cares? For what it is, a reportedly 5 year old bourbon, it’s way too pricey, basically, you’re paying for the brand image. To a certain extent, that’s always the case, but when the brand image is so spurious and contrived…why bother?
The Nose: Bourbon-y but initially, also a little alcohol-y. Spiced oranges, overripe pears, orange blossom honey, caramel and a little butterscotch emerge after that initial hotness blows off. Lots of vanilla bean and vanilla syrup, with a bit of greenish rye grain coming through as well. The oak is strong, tannic and a little rough edged, with nutmeg, cinnamon, a little clove and a faint hint of fennel.
The Palate: A little numbing and hot. At first, the sweetness on the palate is less complex and a little empty seeming; brown sugar and vanilla syrup with a bit of candied orange. The rye is more assertive here, more toasted and less herbal along with toasted pecans, dried vanilla beans, and baker’s chocolate. More strong oak notes, sharp-edged and grippy, with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, black pepper, and a little burnt corn oil..
The Finish: This finishes a little hot, too. Brown sugar and vanilla sweetness trails off quick leaving edgy oak and spice, and a little barrel char to hang around.
Thoughts: Like I said, this is ok. It’s a slightly roughish five year old bourbon with a decent nose but a palate that’s a little blown out by the heat and the edginess of the wood. In other words, it would be a good sub-$20 bottle. Unfortunately, this is a $40 bottle of sub-$20 bourbon. A $40 bottle of sourced bourbon with a strange little history and some shady marketing. Skip it.
- “Clyde May’s Whiskey.” Clyde May’s Whiskey. N.p., n.d. Web. Mar. 2017.
- “Company Overview of Conecuh Ridge Distillery, Inc.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, n.d. Web. Mar. 2017.
- “Conecuh Ridge Whiskey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. Mar. 2017.
- May, Tony, “The Kenny May Story.” Union Springs Herald. N.p., 23 Sept. 2015. Web. Mar. 2017.
- “Official Emblems–State Spirit: Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whisky.” Alabama Department of Archives and History. N.p., 6 Feb. 2014. Web. Mar. 2017.