Rebel Yell 100 (and then things went off the rails…!)

REBEL YELL 100

MASH BILL – Unstated. Rumored 75% corn, 20% wheat, 5% barley. Also rumored 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% barley. So…🤷🏼‍♂️

PROOF – 100

AGE – NAS (4+ years)

DISTILLERY – Bottled by Lux Row Distillers (rumored to be distilled by Heaven Hill)

PRICE – $27

BUY AGAIN? – Oh yes!

Like my notes on Medley’s Private Stock, which ran off into Buffalo Trace territory, this post also began with the intent to focus on one bottle and then ended up taking flight—in this case deep into the wheat fields!

But to begin with, Rebel Yell 100:

FIRST TASTING (ABOUT A MONTH AGO):

COLOR – a light amber, like apple juice

NOSE – lovely, bready, with apricot and cherry

TASTE – sweet, lightly fruity, wheat, caramel

FINISH – warm, sweet, lingering with vanilla and caramel

OVERALL – This is good. I may no longer need to sweat over hunting Weller Special Reserve.

After that first tasting, I tasted it a second time about three weeks later, and in a tumbler rather than the brandy glass I usually use for tasting. The nose came across with the same bready and stone fruit notes. The pallet was also the same as the first time around, only with an added woody bitterness on swallowing. The finish then was dominated by that bitter woodiness, with a faint sweetness of toasted sugars and caramel underneath. Not as impressive overall as the first time.

So I tried it again in a brandy glass. The nose was immediately richer, like my first impression. The pallet was also more like first time, with far less of the bitter wood—though that was still discernible. The finish was peppery, caramel, with the bitter-edged woodiness far less present than in the tumbler. Very interesting.

So for this third time around, now about a week after the second, I again used the brandy glass. Here’s what came of it:

THIRD TASTING:

COLOR – that same light, apple-juice amber 

NOSE – baking-spiced caramel, fresh wheat bread, fresh cut oak, faint apricot and cherry

TASTE – a tingly pepperiness up front, then sweet oak and light vanilla-caramel, oh so slightly astringent

FINISH – warm, tingly, caramel and sweet oak, a gradual warming in the chest

OVERALL – A solid bourbon with a nice balance throughout of spice, fresh wheat, oak, and bright sweet caramel

I like this new Rebel Yell 100 quite a lot. The 80-proof version was never anything to sing about. But what a difference 20 proof points can make! The flavors pop with greater vibrancy and definition. Both are non-age-stated, and one might logically assume they’re blended from the same age range of barrels. However it all comes together, this is easily the most impressive new affordable addition to the wheat bourbon category of late, doing for wheaters what the relatively new, also eminently affordable, Old Forester Rye did for ryes.

Of course, it’s the Weller and Pappy Van Winkle craze that is prompting various distilleries to add wheated bourbons to their offerings. And I’m so glad. The Weller / Van Winkle phenomenon is at once the biggest joke on consumers by consumers, and the most legit pursuit. They are excellent bourbons. But by all reports, inside the bottle they are still the exact same excellent bottom-shelfers they always were. The only thing that’s changed is the prices—particularly the secondary market prices, which have made their way onto retailers’ price tags as well.

So I couldn’t help but wonder how Rebel Yell 100 might compare to those revered wheat bourbons that “started it all.” Off the cuff, I expected it would hold its own against them. But there’s only one way to find out…

I uncorked a bottle of the standard Weller Special Reserve. At 90 proof the Weller packs less heat than Rebel Yell 100, so in that respect at least it’s not an even comparison. To clear my 100-proofed pallet I waited about 20 minutes and swished a lot of water. Here then are some notes on the Weller Special Reserve in brief:

WELLER SPECIAL RESERVE (2018 bottling)

Freshly uncorked (or, unscrewed)

COLOR – rich toasted honey-orange

NOSE – sweet glue (?!), oak shavings, a fruity caramel center

TASTE – thin, both soft and crisp, with fresh lemony caramel, a touch of astringency in the oakiness

FINISH – caramel and that faintly astringent oakiness, with a very soft pepperiness lingering at the back of the pallet

OVERALL – Fine. It’s a good, simple, pleasing wheat bourbon at $25 or so. $30 tops. I need never chase it for higher prices. Glad to have it on the shelf but won’t worry when it’s not.

BUY AGAIN? – Only at a good price, and then not if my shelf is already full

Minus the odd glue aspect, the nose is actually somewhat similar to the Rebel Yell 100, only drier, dustier, less distinct. On the pallet the Weller is not quite as enjoyable, given the thin texture and more prevalent astringency. The finish likewise suffers from that lingering astringency, whereas the Rebel Yell 100 leaves caramel and oak behind and that nice, gradual warming in the chest.

Next I poured some Weller Antique 107. This particular bottle is a 6-year age-stated store pick—single barrel #248 (2018) from Cask in San Francisco. Here the proof is higher than Rebel Yell 100 by 7 points, and it’s a single barrel rather than a mass blending. So, again, a slightly uneven playing field. But let’s see how it tastes:

WELLER ANTIQUE 107 (SiB)

Open roughly 2 months, with about ½ of the bottle remaining

COLOR – rich orange, both bright and deep

NOSE – rich sweet caramel up front, some nice and sweet fresh-cut oak in the background, faint cooked apricot

TASTE – tingly, fruity caramel, rich and crisp, a small dash of astringent oak at the end

FINISH – The lightly astringent oak lingers at the back of the throat, then the rich caramel is left to gradually fade behind that bright fresh-cut oak

OVERALL – Good. Most any Weller Antique 107 store pick is going to be worth having around for its pungent caramel aspects. But as the price continues to climb…?

BUY AGAIN? – A store pick? Sure! The standard bottling, not likely.

This Weller Antique’s nose was all sweet caramel to the Rebel Yell’s sweet wheat. As it’s opened up, the Rebel Yell’s nose also now has a lightly boozy quality to its fruit aspect, whereas the Weller Antique is dominated by its caramel, with that faint cooked apricot in the background.

I’ve never had a Weller Antique store pick I didn’t like. Some are better than others. But in my experience, all have proven superior to the standard Weller Antique bottling. I’ll gladly keep them at the ready on my shelf. But as the price continues to rise (from $40+ to even $60+ in the last year alone) I’ll be less likely to worry about their absence there.

After tasting this Weller Antique, I went back and sat with the Rebel Yell for a few sips. Though it has less punch than the Weller Antique’s 107 proof offers, the Rebel Yell was also less astringent in the oak aspect. I might prefer it overall. That’s nit-picky. They’re both good.

And then I decided to push this wheat flight off the usual flight patterns. Because, why not?

By sheer coincidence, on the day of this tasting I picked up a bottle of Horse Soldier Barrel Strength Bourbon, a 112.44 proof wheater, priced at $87 tax and all, with a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% barley.

The story behind American Freedom Distillery and their Horse Soldier line is one of those “too good” stories that can leave one suspicious about the quality of the product. The bourbon world is filled with stories. We love them, but sometimes suspect them to be a ruse—which, if we’re honest, we also kinda love. Is an elaborate story on the label an attempt to beef up a smaller tale told inside the bottle? Here’s the Horse Soldier backstory from the American Freedom Distillery website:

Days after 9/11, the USA responded with a daring insertion of small teams of Green Berets mounted on horseback. These brave men are honored today by the America’s Response Monument at Ground Zero. Nicknamed the Horse Soldiers, these same men make the bottle in your hand with the image of this statue… American Freedom Distillery was a dream turned reality for a special group of friends who served our nation in its’ darkest days; answering America’s call as generations before us have. Ours is a true story, which we leave for others to tell. Today we hand craft this American product with the same sense of mission, training, and honor. Simply put it is made by us to share together and with you. Taste hard work, challenge, sacrifice, reward or whatever your unique American dream is in every bottle. We put our passion, our pride, and our shared dreams of the future in each and every drop. Premium spirits that will stand the test of time. We gave our all then, we give all now to you our loyal supporters and to our beloved charities. Thank you and know your purchase helped others today and for that we salute you.

After digging around for further articles and reviews, I decided to give it a go. Bottle now in hand, I still have questions…

The age is not stated. Yet it’s widely reported (here and here, for example) to be 8 years old. That said, I was told by the spirits buyer of the shop where I picked up the bottle that the distillery rep told him it’s a blend of “older sourced juice” and American Freedom’s own distillate. The distillery’s website doesn’t get into any of this, listing only the one mash bill.

The distillery is based in St. Petersburg, Florida, according to its website. The Horse Soldier Barrel Strength bottle’s back label, however, states that its contents are “handmade and bottled by America Freedom Distillery in Columbus Ohio.”

No mention there of where it is actually distilled. Suggestive yet inconclusive language is typical of many bottlers who source. It’s legal language, though it doesn’t come across as transparent as many whiskey aficionados would prefer. Increasingly, distillers are jumping on the transparency bandwagon—Home Base Spirits and Tom’s Foolery, for example. Or Bardstown Bourbon Company, which is now printing mash bills, ages, origins, and blend percentages right on the label.

The specific grains in the Horse Soldier Barrel Strength mash bill are named on the American Freedom Distillery website—yellow dent 2 corn, red winter wheat, malted and two-row barley. These happen to coincide with grains also named in mash bills from Tom’s Foolery Distillery, itself in Burton, not Columbus, Ohio. This doesn’t prove anything and could be mere coincidence. But it’s interesting. (And I’ve had a fondness for certain Tom’s Foolery bourbons in the past…) Theoretically, the juice could be distilled and aged in Burton and then shipped to Columbus for bottling. The “handmade” claim could be in reference to the bottles themselves, with their metal label fashioned out of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center site after September 11, 2001.

In any case, what does this mysterious wheater with a good story and ambiguous stats taste like?

HORSE SOLDIER BARREL STRENGTH (2019 bottling)

Freshly uncorked

COLOR – rich dark orange with a bit of copper

NOSE – custard, caramel, lemon, apricot, pound cake soaked in booze, a touch of paint thinner in the background as it airs out

TASTE – Woah! Many things in succession. In this order: caramel, pepper, sweet paint thinner, lemony pound cake…

FINISH – warm, sparkly, sharp caramel, bright wheat, the faintest remnants of the paint thinner…

OVERALL – A conundrum. Striking, for sure, in both pleasing and not as pleasing ways…

BUY AGAIN? – I need to wait for this bottle to air out more to answer that…

Nosing back and forth between Horse Soldier and the supposed subject of this post, Rebel Yell 100, the latter’s nose has continued to grow lovelier with air, its soft apricot bread aspect becoming richer and more distinct. The Horse Soldier’s nose is an even more booze soaked apricot bread. But the similarity is striking. Is this the influence of wheat?

If this Horse Soldier Barrel Strength is indeed 8 years old, it could use more depth of maturity for its age. The paint thinner aspect is an unfortunate constant from the nose on through to the finish. But the way the pallet unfolds in quick yet distinct waves is striking. This bottle is the most unlike the other three bourbons I tasted tonight. It’s that paint thinner aspect, the sheer range of contrasting flavors, and particularly how those flavors arrive individually in such rapid succession.

The paint thinner note is, to my shock, not entirely displeasing in this instance. I’ve had other bourbons featuring variations of this flavor that were ultimately too off-putting for me—e.g. MB Roland Dark Fired Barrel Proof, Sagamore Double Oaked Rye, a Wyoming Whiskey Barrel Strength SiB (also 20% wheat), all of which I eventually gave away. The higher proofs might factor in to all this, though the Sagamore Double Oaked Rye is only 96.6 proof, so, perhaps proof isn’t the deciding factor. Nor can the key factor be wheat, since the Sagamore is a rye…

The Horse Soldier Barrel Strength very much reminds me of the above noted Wyoming Whiskey SiB, which was picked by K&L back in 2017. I immediately recognized the similarity, even two years on. That Wyoming bottle was similarly proofed at 113.8, also a rollercoaster, which in that case eventually crashed for me. Looking back at my notes on it, I also wrote “Woah!” in response to the pallet, noting further: “What is that? Sweet cedar, vanilla, a hint of something buttery-varnish…”

As I said, I finally gave that bottle away. It actually upset my stomach. This Horse Soldier has a similar paint / varnish aspect, though its far less off-putting. And my stomach is doing fine. Maybe I’ve gotten steelier since 2017?

Returning fully to the Rebel Yell 100 after all this…

I’m appreciating the loveliness of its nose in particular. As it’s continued to air out in the glass, that soft apricot breadiness indeed now dominates, reminding me of the similarly pleasant Home Base Bourbon Batch #10. (No wheat in that mash bill. Where does this apricot bread note come from?! The barley?) The pallet now has a bright, sugary caramel to it—though still a hint of that astringent oak, more prominent now than at the top of tonight’s flight yet still not off-putting. The finish lingers with a lemony bright caramel. This is a good bourbon.

So yes, I do believe this new Rebel Yell 100 offers a great alternative to Weller Special Reserve, and certainly also to the standard Weller Antique 107. Store picks of Weller Antique feature enough special qualities that they need not be set against the Rebel Yell 100 if one were debating which to buy. Whereas the Horse Soldier Barrel Strength is on its own path entirely, far more parallel to that of Wyoming Whiskey than to either Weller or Rebel Yell. And at $87 the price is significantly higher, so in that respect it’s also in another class.

Lux Row has hit a home run with its 100-proof edition of Rebel Yell. Other distillers, like Smooth Ambler and McKenzie, have also made exceptional and unique contributions, though to a higher price bracket. The world of wheated bourbon is a burgeoning, beautiful place. This is perhaps the one great impact the Weller / Van Winkle craze has achieved. It seems plausible the wheated bourbon trend could do the most to help burst the bourbon bubble, and bring some level-headedness back to the bourbon craze. With increasingly more options—especially high-quality, affordable, readily available options—perhaps prices will come down all around.

One can hope!

P.S.

Later in the evening, my wheat flight having landed, I broke down and poured a shot of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year. I hesitate to risk adding to the Van Winkle hype. But how could I resist going even further on this wheater flight?

OLD RIP VAN WINKLE 10 YEAR (2016 bottling)

Open roughly 4 months, with about ¼ of the bottle remaining

COLOR – a lovely, rich, shiny copper

NOSE – like Weller Antique 107 only much more refined, with caramel the main event, and a nice light oak background

TASTE – soft caramel with an easy peppery edge

FINISH – elegant, warm peppery caramel, lingering long and fading slowly…

OVERALL – There’s a reason folks like this. It’s very good. Worth maybe 1.5x the suggested retail price, tops. So $70 to $100. But good luck!

Those notes sum it up. I’m glad to have this bottle on my shelf. I’ve been savoring it slowly these past four months and it’s remained very consistent over time. At a good price I’ll gladly keep it in stock. But for three digits there are more remarkable whiskey experiences to be had—and for three digits a whiskey really does need to be remarkable.

After tasting these five wheaters—three of them siblings—I believe I might be picking out what that wheat thing is. A sweet grassy quality—maybe hay is a better word—leaning sometimes into oak and other times into bread. When younger, wheaters come with an astringency. Older, they’re smooth and mellow. I won’t say which of these five bottles is “the best.” That leads to nonsense. Of them, I’d say the Rebel Yell 100 and Old Rip Van Winkle made the strongest impressions tonight. Though for pure surprise factor, the Horse Soldier Barrel Strength deserves attention. (I’ll certainly do another review of this bottle after it’s been open a bit longer.) In any case, I’d turn none of these down.

Taking this flight has given me some perspective. I feel clearer on what is particular to wheated bourbon. Though I didn’t try the Smooth Ambler Big Level or McKenzie Wheated BiB on this outing, they would have been worthy stops on this flight. The Weller / Van Winkle lines, for better or worse, have thrown down the wheat gauntlet. No offense to Buffalo Trace Distillery, but I do hope many more distilleries will take up the challenge and together unseat the royal wheat monarchy. The bourbon world could use a more democratizing parliament of choice!

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