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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey

Engaging in a full ground assault on Upstate New York wine & spirits makers, Kristen's family and I visited Finger Lakes Distilling last week.  With Brian McKenzie at the business helm and Tom McKenzie (not related!) running the distilling, the company began operations in 2007.  They have since created a serious product lineup:

Whiskey - Two whites in addition to a Single Malt Pure Pot Still, Bourbon, Rye, and Wheat.  The newest member of the group, the wheat whiskey appealed to me the most.  I'm not the biggest wheater fan, but this one softer and sweeter than its three brethren.  The single malt pure pot still (aged 2 1/2 to 3 years, I believe) tasted very very young.  Whisk(e)y production is a difficult business, requiring producers to hold onto their products for a long time during maturation.  New distilleries are often in a hurry to get these out onto the market in order to bring in some revenue and stay open.  The Upstate climate is closer to Scotland than Kentucky for all but a couple months of the year, so a malt may need 5 - 8 years before it has shed its new make trappings.  The rye was a stinger indeed, full of mint and rye seeds.  The bourbon (purchased by my in-laws) is reviewed below.
Gin - Seneca Drums and the Distiller's Reserve.  The Distiller's Reserve was really good, while the in-laws emptied a bottle of the Drums before I got to it.
Vodka - Two products: both grape-based, one flavored with local berries.
Brandy - Two products: eaux-de-vie-style Pear and a cognac-style Grape
Grappa - Two products: Gewurztraminer and Riesling based.  I've had the Riesling grappa twice, and, like the Distiller's Reserve gin, I actually prefer it over the whiskies.
Liqueur - Four products, Cassis, Raspberry, Cherry, and Maplejack.  Kristen's family liked the Maplejack a lot and picked up a bottle.

The distillery uses local fruits and grains to make all of these spirits.  They reuse their barrels as often as possible and do all of the bottling and labeling on the premises.  They are much more forthcoming about their production than most companies tend to be, so I highly recommend their website for a ton of detail on their processes.

Now, onto the bourbon.

Brand: McKenzie
Distillery: Finger Lakes Distilling
Location: Upstate New York
Type: Bourbon Whiskey
Mash Bill: 70% corn, remainder split between malted barley and rye
Age: five years
Alcohol by volume: 45.5%
Batch: #11 (2013)

The first ten batches of their bourbon were aged in small 10-20 gallon barrels for (I think) 18-24 months.  The new batch, 11/2013, that I tried was the first in the more classic-sized 53 gallon barrels, aged for five years.

Color - Very dark gold
Nose - Right up front there's citrus, mint toothpaste, and a lot of spice reminiscent of The Rye Storm (cracked white pepper and cinnamon Red Hots). From the oak, caramel is much more present than vanilla.  Overall it's intensely vegetal -- kale and herbs (oregano?) -- with honey providing some relief.
Palate - Herbs here too, along with a number of different honeys and toasted cereal grains.  A bit sharp and hot, the oak and grain seem separate at this early age.  Corn Pops!
Finish - Pretty sticky and intensive, the finish is where the oak comes in, making this stage feel the most bourbony.  Beyond the oak: Corn Pops, sweet potato, and rye.

WITH CLUB SODA (ration of 2 club soda : 1 bourbon)
More oaky, sweeter, but the herbs still stand tall.  It's almost like a charred-cask-matured American herbal liqueur.

Kristen and I tried this at the same time, both finding the Corn Pops note simultaneously.  It was our favorite part.  Most of the rest was very green, grainy, and hot.   Adding club soda helps a bit.  It would probably make a fascinating Old Fashioned, with the bitters and citrus stirring things up a bit and the ice cooling it off.

So, if you're heading over to Finger Lakes Distilling, here (again) were my favorites: Distiller's Reserve Gin, Riesling Grappa, and the Wheat Whiskey.  But if you're looking to get socked in the mouth, their bourbon and rye will do the trick.

Availability - At the distillery and some New York retailers
Pricing - $45
Rating - 70


  1. I really want to like their rye whiskey - the idea of sherry cask maturation for rye sounds like a match made in heaven. But it also sounds like it needs at least a few more years under its belt to really work properly. Hopefully they'll get there eventually.

    1. Yeah, I believe there's a good sherry cask rye somewhere out there or in the future. Since my first home was 15 miles south of the distillery, I hope Finger Lakes gets to it first or does it best.

  2. I really do wonder how many of these craft "bourbons" pick up such strange characteristics, especially if (as in this case), they are aging them for 5-ish years in full-size barrels. It seems like there's almost always some sort of weird, vegetal or herb notes. If it was just one, I'd write it off as a bad batch, but I've noticed these flavors in at least 4 different craft "bourbons". Do they just need more time in the barrel to smooth out?

    1. I'm wondering about that too. It's either oak, climate, or (gulp!) spirit that's causing this. These bourbons are being made in different climates and I'm pretty sure everyone is not sourcing their barrels from the same cooperage. So that leaves spirit issues, which sounds like a big problem to me.

      If anyone has a better idea about this, please let us know!

  3. Finger Lakes has also made a pure pot still whiskey like Redbreast. Did you get a chance to try that one?

    1. Sweet mother of pearl! I had too many single malts on my mind when I wrote this one. They don't have a Single Malt, it was the Pot Still that I'd tried. Now corrected in the post. Thanks Eric!

    2. No problem. Did Finger Lakes mention what their ratio of malted and unmalted barley was? This is probably the first single pot still (or pure pot still) made outside of Ireland which is simply extraordinary for the whisk(e)y world.

    3. They didn't. That was one of the questions on my list for them, but the pot still whiskey was so much NOT my bag that I was already reaching for the next whiskey when the finish hit. Very new makey.

      It is interesting that no else is giving single pot stills a try ANYWHERE. Maybe the new Tullamore distillery will give it a try? Or maybe Cooley? Or even another US distiller. It must be a heck of an art to master.

    4. Indeed I've often wondered why no one else is attempting pure pot still. To me, it doesn't seem too difficult to throw some unmalted barley on top of the malt. Heck the whiskey style might have completely disappeared if it weren't for Midleton keeping it alive so it makes me wonder if there is something hard or unprofitable about investing in pure pot still.

    5. Good points. I'm wondering if it's maybe a marketing decision. The "Single Malt" designation is more familiar to US consumers than "Pot Still". Plus there's more data and info available for single malt production for new distillers. I would like to see someone other than Midleton make a good single/pure pot still whiskey.