HORSE SOLDIER BARREL STRENGTH BOURBON
MASH BILL – 70% Yellow Dent 2 corn, 20% soft red winter wheat, 10% two row barley (combination distillers malt and base two row).
PROOF – 112.44
AGE – NAS (rumored 8 years)
DISTILLERY – American Freedom Distillery
PRICE – $87
BUY AGAIN? – I’m still on the fence, but given the price likely no
These notes were taken about a third of the way into the bottle. I poured half a shot each into a Norlan Rauk Heavy Tumbler, Libby brandy glass, and Glencairn. To get at what this challenging bourbon is up to, I cycled back and forth through the trio of glasses at each stage of the tasting. I took this more elaborate approach out of a desire to give this bottle a thorough chance. I’d been struggling with it since its uncorking, yet something has kept me on its side…
So, here first are the notes in brief:
COLOR – a beautifully golden orange, like late summer sunsets
NOSE – sweet paint thinner, sweet grass, vanilla saltwater taffy, a bright whiff of caramel, a dash of cinnamon
TASTE – that sweet paint thinner, a lemony and juicy caramel, a peppery flair like jalapeño, fresh cut grass, sweet but thin vanilla
FINISH – not very intense, but a lingering warmth at the back of the throat with a bit of the bright caramel aspects
OVERALL – A conundrum… Is that paint thinner aspect a deal breaker? Are the other sweet aspects enough to make it worth sticking around for the ride…?
I picked this bottle up on an impulse, first because it’s a wheat bourbon, and second after reading the unusual story of its makers—a group of Green Berets who served as first responders at the 9/11 tragedy’s Ground Zero:
Stories are powerful in whiskey. But they can also be used to mask a thinner tale inside a bottle. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think this bourbon may simply have an aspect I personally don’t favor—that sweet paint thinner note.
I’ve written elsewhere about how Horse Soldier immediately reminded me of a Wyoming Whiskey single barrel I’d had, in which the varnishy aspects were so strong and off-putting they upset my stomach and I eventually gave that bottle away. With this Horse Soldier Barrel Strength bourbon, however, I’ve noticed that with time in the glass the sweet paint thinner aspect eventually lifts enough to make more room for the appealing fresh cut grass, caramels, and vanilla. Once things cross over it’s enjoyable. And, unlike the Wyoming Whiskey single barrel, my stomach has no particular reaction to it.
Trying the bourbon in three different glasses brought out different emphases. The Rauk Heavy Tumbler emphasizes the brighter aspects and the grassiness. The brandy glass leans toward the caramels and spice. The Glencairn is interested in the vanillas, and adds a sting to the spice. In each glass, the paint thinner aspect ebbs and flows without ever fully dissipating. The line between sweet paint thinner and sweet grass is actually blurrier here than with that Wyoming Whiskey single barrel. Still, I’m on the fence as to whether the wait is worth it given the initial sips inevitably emphasize that displeasing note. Not a great way to start.
Given the price, I don’t know that I’ll explore Horse Soldier’s range of whiskeys much further. In addition to the Barrel Strength, they also offer an 87-proof high-rye Straight Bourbon, a 95-proof Small Batch wheat bourbon, and a 12-year barrel proof called Commander’s Select. I admire the contributions of the founders and want to support them. The metal label on the front of the bottle is made of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center rubble:
They’re clearly dedicated people. This might keep me open to trying other bottles in their line-up. But it would not be a pursuit steeped in my enjoyment of the actual bourbon itself.
To be very frank, if the folks at American Freedom Distillery were more transparent about their product, that would be, to my mind, more in line with their marketing’s emphasis on their contribution to 9/11. But instead they send mixed signals about what exactly they’re bottling, and how. The label seems to suggest the bourbon is “handmade” by them in Ohio, despite their distillery being located in Florida.
Does “handmade” refer to the bourbon, the metal label, the bottling process? There is no mention on the label or website of where the bourbon itself is actually distilled, which could be a contractual omission. Suggestive, equivocal language like this is typical of many bottlers who source. It’s legal language, though it doesn’t make an honest impression.
There is simply no reason these days to not be as transparent as possible when you’re sourcing and blending. Nobody is going to actually steal your secrets or your product with them. There are simply too many factors involved in whiskey making. And customers will always, always respect a brand more when it’s straight-up honest. Especially when that brand stakes a claim to something as significant as the 9/11 tragedy.
If nothing else, Horse Soldier is another firm reminder that whiskey is inherently political, no matter what whiskey fans or marketers say about it being welcoming to everyone and that true connoisseurs leave politics at the door, etcetera. Whiskey is drenched in politics, and American politics are drenched in whiskey. Horse Soldier is one embodiment of that fact, and of the question as to how matters outside a bottle impact our taste for what’s in it.
I’ll continue to enjoy puzzling over this bottle. I may not know if I’ll buy another until the last shot is poured. But if you asked me now I’d say this is my first and last Horse Soldier bourbon, and I nevertheless look forward to experiencing how it continues to evolve over time.