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Style Check: This Craft Whiskey Distillery Made a Polarizing Cask End Work

Style Check: This Craft Whiskey Distillery Made a Polarizing Cask End Work

This is not a retraction. I’m not taking back any of the anti-amburana wood vitriol I’ve spouted off over the past few years, and I still firmly believe that using this type of wood for a whiskey cask finish is more often than not a mistake. But if I come across an instance where it sort of, kind of, mostly works, I’m happy to admit as much, and in the case of the new Hard Truth Farmer’s Reserve that seems to be the case.

Hard Truth Distilling Co. is a craft distillery located in Indiana, the state that is also home to the much larger, decidedly non-craft distillery MGP. While the latter is a massive operation that makes whiskey for many different brands, Hard Truth focuses on distilling rye and bourbon, as well as some other spirits, in small batches in the town of Nashville, Indiana. These whiskeys are on the younger side, but they are incredibly good across the board, as evidenced by the recent batch of cask-finished ryes the distillery released. Farmer’s Reserve marks the second time that Hard Truth has partnered with Mellencamp Whiskey Co., a company founded by Levi Collison and Hud Mellencamp, the son of the great John Mellencamp. The bottle’s label features one of the elder Mellencamp’s paintings titled “American Boy And Girl,” which is as Mellencamp a name as you can think of.

Farmer’s Reserve is a blend of Hard Truth’s Sweet Mash Bourbon and Chocolate Malt Rye, a whiskey made from a mashbill that includes malted barley that was deeply roasted to bring out notes of cocoa. According to master distiller Bryan Smith, 45 barrels of the bourbon and eight barrels of the rye were blended together, an intentional formula meant to highlight the flavor that the chocolate malted barley brings to the palate. The last step was the addition of sections of toasted amburana wood to the whiskey, a stave finish more along the lines of what Maker’s Mark does to some of its expressions than a full barrel finish. According to Smith, the reason for this was to control the impact of the amburana wood. “I have tasted far too many whiskeys which lost their balance using this wood as a finishing element,” he told me. “Our goal with this whiskey was not only to showcase our chops in the art of blending two of our own whiskeys, but to also create a whiskey that weaves unique flavor elements (amburana and chocolate malted barley) into a flavor profile that is rich, complex and cohesive.”

I’d say he’s succeeded. Amburana usually just dominates and overpowers every other flavor in a whiskey, basically turning it into liquid potpourri. Some other distilleries and brands that have tried using amburana as a cask finish (and failed, in my opinion) include Barrell Craft Spirits, Penelope Bourbon, and Rabbit Hole. But somehow it works here. Yes, you still immediately recognize this as an amburana-finished whiskey with its deep notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, incense, and cocoa powder on the palate. But Smith and his team have managed to show some restraint by removing the wood from the barrels before things got out of hand, resulting in rich notes of cherry, dark chocolate, caramel, and toffee. At 106 proof there’s a bit of heat on the finish, but that also makes this a good candidate for enjoying over a large ice cube.

So no, I haven’t changed my mind about the use of amburana wood as a cask finish—in most cases, it still doesn’t work. That’s okay, I doubt it will become as popular as maturing whiskey in a sherry cask or even a mizunara barrel any time soon. But it’s nice to find an example of an amburana-finished whiskey that doesn’t assault you with Febreze-like intensity. Hard Truth is a craft distillery that should be on your radar, and this new whiskey is yet another example why.

Score: 89

  • 100 Worth trading your first born for
  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet
  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram 
  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market
  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable
  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

Source: Robb Report

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