KOVAL SINGLE BARREL MILLET WHISKEY
certified organic and kosher
MASH BILL – 100% organic millet
PROOF – 80
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Koval
PRICE – $21 for a 200ml bottle
BUY AGAIN? – No, but I was glad to try it.
I came into a full 750ml bottle of Koval Millet Whiskey back in 2016 when I briefly partook in a local shop’s whiskey club. Very soon I realized I preferred to make my own $pending choices and dropped out of that club. But before I had, one of the offerings was this novel Koval Millet Whiskey. It’s been a while since then, and all I can remember is that it tasted like a young rye. Now that my palate has three more years on it, I thought I’d give the Koval Millet Whiskey a second shot.
Koval was founded in Chicago in 2008, and is among the growing number of independently owned craft distilleries committed to using local ingredients and offering a certain amount of transparency. The barrels they use are 30 gallons, charred to level 3, and made in Minnesota. Their grains are all from organic farmers in the Midwest. Aside from sourcing the barrels and grains, Koval does everything else themselves, from milling the grains to distilling the mash and on through to bottling.
When initially creating the distillate to be barreled, only the “heart cut” is used, leaving the “heads” and “tails” behind. This refers to the chronological front and back ends of a distillate during its distillation process. These extreme ends contain unpleasant flavors, yet are typically retained in small amounts to add nuance and character to a whiskey. Koval prefers to get to the heart of the distillate and stay only there. The final results are always bottled as unfiltered, certified organic and kosher single barrels, never blended.
Something Koval does not disclose is the age of their whiskeys. By American law one must indicate the age of a whiskey on its label if it is under 4 years. So if no indication of age is provided, then you know what’s inside is at least 4 years old.
I’ve never seen a Koval label with an age statement on it, which would suggest a 4-year minimum. The Koval website does share the broad note that whiskeys in their Limited Edition line, at least, are aged 2 to 4 years. That is the only acknowledgement of age to be found among Koval’s media. This language suggests that they do produce whiskeys under 4 years old. Therefore their labels should reflect this, especially given each bottling is of a single barrel of one age and not a blend of several.
I’ll leave the legalities to Koval and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Though I do value honest marketing, my concerns here are less legally oriented and more to do with connoisseurship. Even more than mash bills and barrel size, age is a detail that whiskey enthusiasts are very keen to know. And at this stage of the whiskey game, the motivation for hiding a whiskey’s age is difficult to comprehend. Given all that Koval does share, their equivocal language (and lack of language) around age statements seems a rather odd omission.
These behind-the-scenes details aside, what does the Koval Millet Whiskey taste like? Some notes in brief:
COLOR – pale orange blossom honey
NOSE – sweet grain, light floral rye-like aromas, grassy hay, light banana bread, faint young oak, faint vanilla, a whiff of fresh fried bacon, caramelized sugars
TASTE – thin texture, watery honey, banana bread, toasted oak chips, some faint pineapple rind, toasted white bread with butter and a light dusting of cinnamon, the sweet grains emerge again on swallowing and with a light breezy flare of floral spice
FINISH – faint honey sugars, grain, and sweet raw oak tannins, all fading quickly, leaving a surprising lingering warmth with a bit of buttery honey if one works at noticing it
OVERALL – young, thin, both rough and refined, not unpleasant, but uneventful
For all the evident care and detail put into it, this is a remarkably underwhelming whiskey. The idea of millet, an ancient grain with roots in India and Africa, is intriguing. But the effect is quite run of the mill. If I didn’t know it was 100% millet I would have guessed this to be a young rye whiskey, as I had back in 2016. They share similar floral and grassy qualities.
Also, this has been watered down to 80 proof, the minimum required for it to be whiskey. Even a small amount of added water, let alone an ice cube, would destroy the delicate flavor balance this whiskey strikes. Koval’s Millet Whiskey is easily among the wateriest whiskeys I’ve experienced.
To be clear, it does not taste bad, or even off-putting. The faint, laidback flavors are actually quite pleasant. It’s just that it’s kind of boring. There is no event, merely an innocuous passing of time. If I want a background drink that allows me to fully concentrate on something else, there are tastier low-proof experiences than this that are also far more affordable—Jim Beam Repeal Batch, Evan Williams 1783, Writers Tears Irish Whiskey, Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye, and Forty Creek Barrel Select, to name a handful. None of those examples share Koval’s values around local sourcing, organic ingredients, the aim for small-scale singularity, and—despite Koval’s weird omissions around age—transparency. But admirable ethics and values aside, this whiskey is neither fun nor compelling to drink. It’s the quiet, affable party guest nobody thinks to chat with. Mixed in a cocktail it might vanish entirely.
If Koval ever ventures into older, or even cask strength releases, I’d be very eager to try this millet offering again. I suspect the oomph of higher age and proof would raise it from a forgettable pleasantry to a memorable pleasure. Koval might not agree. But they’ve been at it for over a decade now, so, they should have the means to release older and higher proofed whiskeys. If they’re choosing not to, I wonder why…