Old Elk Single Barrel Straight Wheat Whiskey

OLD ELK SINGLE BARREL STRAIGHT WHEAT WHISKEY
2019 BevMo pick / Barrel 5 of 5 / Cask Strength

MASH BILL – 95% winter wheat, 5% malted barley

PROOF – 114.1

AGE – NAS (6 years minimum)

DISTILLERY – Old Elk Distillery

PRICE – $80

BUY AGAIN? – No, not because of taste, because $$ and I’d like to explore other Old Elk offerings

I first encountered Old Elk in 2017, on the shelf of an odd shop in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district. The place seemed to be positioned like an average corner store in a largely residential neighborhood. But inside it looked more like a touristic gift shop. There were colorful high-end knickknacks and some nondescript artisanal foodstuff in jars. Adjacent to the front counter stood a small incongruous shelf of whiskeys, like an afterthought. Among the slim selection sat a stately bottle of Old Elk bourbon with its prominent log-slice of a cork:

It went for $50 and I didn’t go for it. At that time, I couldn’t find terribly much online in the way of reviews. But two years later, Old Elk seems to have caught the wind in its sails and is showing up in more articles and on more shelves, both in its standard bottlings and as store-pick single barrels like this BevMo selection—number 5 of 5 according to the label. K&L, a California chain I frequent, also recently came out with a single barrel pick of Old Elk bourbon.

But it was this BevMo single barrel of straight wheat whiskey that compelled me to give Old Elk a go, despite the yikes-level pricing. I like wheated bourbons, and I’ve also liked a number of obscure single grain scotches made from wheat. So this bottle seemed a good one to introduce me to the Old Elk oeuvre.

Per the label, the whiskey is bottled by Colorado-based Old Elk Distillery and distilled in Indiana. This is a common scenario on contemporary whiskey labels. If a bottle says “Distilled in Indiana,” you pretty much know it was made by MGP. This can be a controversial matter. But as more and more bottlers have put out excellent MGP whiskeys, the grumbling among whiskey fans has been gradually ramping down. Good whiskey is good whiskey. And good taste is good taste. If a bottler is not making their own distillate, but has a knack for picking great barrels, fine—so long as they are honest about it and don’t try to spin their label such to suggest they actually made the stuff.

What is unique about Old Elk with regard to the MGP debate is that the young distillery—founded in 2013 and distributing more widely since 2016—hired former MGP master distiller Greg Metze to create their whiskeys. They make no secret about this, placing his signature prominently and proudly on their label:

This throws the MGP debate into the air. Old Elk is currently sourced, yes. But the source was only recently the longtime home of Old Elk’s “new” master distiller, a major veteran of the American whiskey industry. 

For Old Elk’s flagship bourbon offering, Metze commissioned from MGP an unusual mash bill of 51% corn, 34% barley, 15% rye, and a proprietary yeast exclusive to Old Elk. The high barley content amps up the easy-drinking sweetness and smoothness that the founders of Old Elk had told Metze they wanted. 

Another innovation is Old Elk’s “slow cut” proofing process. Typically, the process of watering a whiskey down to the determined bottling proof occurs over a day or two. Old Elk proofs its whiskeys over a few weeks. Taking more time to proof down the whiskey is said to result in a smoother, more flavorful final product since there is less heat to burn off subtler flavors.

I appreciate this attention to detail. But what does it taste like? Here are some brief notes, taken on my third tasting, five days after uncorking:

COLOR – a rich, clear, medium-bright burnt orange

NOSE – sweet with tangy caramel, creamy vanilla, butter, honey, some fresh cut oak

TASTE – a gentle prickly pepperiness, good oak amidst the creamy caramel, more butter, sliced and honey-drizzled wheat bread, another plume of the pepper on swallowing

FINISH – warm and soft, a sparkly pepperiness, the caramel, a bit of the honey, faint oak tannins, the whiff of a tropical fruit like mango

OVERALL – if you told me this was a single grain scotch my brow would furrow in surprise but I’d believe you

Well. If this single barrel offering of Old Elk Straight Wheat Whiskey is indicative of their quality and depth of flavor, I’d say Old Elk is off to a great start. I tried it in both a Norlan Rauk tumbler and Glencairn and got similar notes from each, with the Rauk predictably brightening the flavor profile and pulling out the creamy and buttery aspects. The directive of the Old Elk founders was that Metze create sophisticated crowd-pleasers, and he may very well have accomplished that task. He is, after all, the unsung hero behind many whiskeys that please crowds daily, from the ubiquitous Bulleit to High West and Smooth Ambler.

This single barrel of Old Elk Straight Wheat Whiskey is consistent in flavor from the nose through the taste to the finish. Consistency pleases crowds. And the depth, complexity, and unusual qualities of the flavor profile are just odd enough to grab the attention of connoisseurs as well. I wouldn’t call this particular bottling a great whiskey, but it is quite solidly Good.

As noted, it took my sense-memories straight to some single grain, single barrel scotches I’ve had—a cask-strength 26-year Cameronbridge; a 22-year Loch Lomond, also bottled undiluted at cask strength; even a 48-year Strathclyde that clocked in at a naturally low 96-proof. Despite Old Elk’s youth, its 95% winter wheat mash bill separates it from its American wheated-bourbon cousins, which feature bourbon’s legal minimum of 51% corn in their mash bills.

It’s a good sign that such a young distillery has started off with 4- and 6-year bottlings as their standard, rather than the more common 2-year whiskeys offered by so many new distilleries. It helps to have a master like Metze on board, too! Based on the quality of this BevMo selection, this combination of fresh eyes and experienced know-how is a good one.

Their standard bourbon is bottled at 88 proof, a clear crowd-pleasing choice that doesn’t excite me personally but I’d certainly try it. They also offer 100-proof editions of their bourbon and wheat whiskey, as well as a 100-proof rye and wheated bourbon. Lower-proof whiskeys are sometimes provided as gateway pours. Then as folks get more into whiskey, they often find 100-proof is not really that much more of a shock to their taste buds. For me, it makes a good baseline starting place, so I appreciate that it’s the standard proof for the majority of Old Elk’s products.

This BevMo single barrel came out at 114.1 proof—sparklier than some whiskeys and more tame than others. I generally quite enjoy the 100-and-teen area of whiskey proofs. They don’t yet erupt like a bonfire, yet have enough heat to pronounce their flavors with a good more oomph than the average whiskey. That is perfectly true in this instance. Smooth, flavorful, and lively, this has been a great introduction to Old Elk.

At $80 this BevMo bottle is priced on the high end. One can certainly find 6-year single barrel whiskeys for double or even triple that price elsewhere! The current K&L Old Elk bourbon single barrel goes for $55. And a standard bottle of Old Elk bourbon might cost anywhere from $40 to $55. So the Old Elk line won’t make a daily mixer for the average drinker. But in terms of providing a good tasting experience, I do indeed look forward to exploring more of what Old Elk has to offer in their standard 100-proof line up.

Cheers!

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