Comparison: Three Whiskey Oddities

HIRSCH SELECTION SPECIAL RESERVE CORN WHISKEY
a single barrel aged in reused oak barrels (2009)

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 90

AGE – NAS (4+ years)

DISTILLERY – Bottled by Preiss Imports (source undisclosed)

PRICE – $43

FREMONT MISCHIEF RYE WHISKEY
aged in once-used bourbon barrels (2013)

MASH BILL – 90% rye, 10% malted barley

PROOF – 90

AGE – NAS (8 years)

DISTILLERY – Fremont Mischief Distillery (sourced from Canada)

PRICE – $40

WHISKEY BASE ARCHIVES HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERY
Single Cask #496, aged in used barrels, selected by K&L (2020)

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 133.2

AGE – 10 years

DISTILLERY – Distilled and partially aged in Kentucky by Heaven Hill Distillery; further aged and bottled in Scotland by Whiskey Base.

PRICE – $130

There is an area of the whiskey hunt I particularly enjoy, and that’s the outlands where the oddities are found. These oddball releases are usually spotted gathering dust in rando corner stores. But they also sometimes pop up in online shops. They span a diverse range of whiskeys united by their lack of convention.

The three examples here all involve bottlers sourcing whiskey from other distilleries. One names their source, the other two don’t—the more common approach. Two involve international exchanges. Two have been watered down to 90 proof and one left at 133.2, its natural cask strength. All three were aged in used barrels like a typical scotch. This renders them whiskeys and not bourbons or ryes, since the latter must by law be aged in new oak containers.

United by their irregularities, I thought they’d make an interesting comparison. Here are some notes in brief, the whiskeys all tasted in traditional Glencairns. The Mischief and Hirsch have been open for about three weeks and are just a few pours in. The Archives has been open for three days and this will be my second pour. Due to the 43.2-degree disparity in proof, after assessing the color and nose of all three, I tasted the 90-proof Hirsch and Mischief first (ordered by age) before moving on to the high-octane Archives.

COLOR

HIRSCH – very pale straw yellow of a kind I associate with young scotch

MISCHIEF – pale toasted yellow with hints of orange

ARCHIVES – very pale sienna-orange

NOSE

HIRSCH – honey, bright caramel, fresh roasted peanut, butter, fresh corn in the husk

MISCHIEF – toasted honey, a summery blend of crushed dried herbs, butter with zingy lemon, and something burnt

ARCHIVES – buttery caramel with lemon, cream, a tart fruit compote of peaches and apricot, a slight edge of burn from the proof

TASTE

HIRSCH – fresh steamed corn with butter, lemon zing, a bit of tannic young oak, a thin creamy texture with peppery tingle around the edges

MISCHIEF – effervescent, bright herbaceous rye spice, some butterscotch, buttery and light with zing from the lemon and rye

ARCHIVES – tart and tangy, with a lot of peppery bite from the proof and some raw oak tannins bashing the other flavors aside, making the caramel and fruit compote difficult to pick out

FINISH

HIRSCH – warm, the peppery tingle lingering gently, the corn and butter, all fading pretty quickly

MISCHIEF – gently fading pepperiness, caramel, butter, the rye and lemon zing

ARCHIVES – heavy on the almost gritty peppery tingle at the expense of the weaker caramels and fruit notes

OVERALL

HIRSCH – light, bright, buttery, fine, and forgettable

MISCHIEF – light, zingy, spicy, fine, and forgettable

ARCHIVES – a victim of high proof and too little barrel influence; fingers crossed it opens up over time

BUY AGAIN?

ALL – No

So, taken together, these three experiments might make an argument against such experiments. Then again if we don’t experiment we don’t discovery new things.

But let’s get into the details.

The Hirsch comes with name recognition, having been passed around for years now. The legendary A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year bottlings still turn up on Instagram and Facebook feeds now and then. Adolph Hirsch commissioned 400 barrels of whiskey in 1974. They had a mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. But the barrels were left to continue aging when the distillery Hirsch had contracted went bankrupt. A fellow named Gordon Hue then acquired the derelict barrels in 1989, contracting none other than Julian Van Winkle III to bottle them up under the name A.H. Hirsch Reserve. By all reports these are incredible. Eventually Henry Preiss of Preiss Imports acquired the brand, and, under the newly minted Hirsch Selection Special Reserve label, bottled a range of well-aged whiskeys sourced from various distilleries. After some years, the Preiss Imports line was taken up by Anchor Brewers & Distillers, now Hotaling’s & Co., which put the Hirsch name to use in another incarnation of 8-year sourced bottlings. Like a pheonix, the Hirsch name rises yet again in 2020 in a whole new rendition from Hotaling’s.

This 2009 Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey is an anomaly among the Preiss Imports Hirsch bottlings, which largely featured exceedingly well-aged whiskeys. At only 4+ years old, this single barrel corn whiskey is the youngest one-off Preiss seems to have bottled. It’s not at all bad, even easily drinkable. But overall it’s unremarkable. I’ll sip away at the bottle slowly, paired with corn recipes, salads, or fish dishes.

Fremont Mischief Distillery revved up in Seattle, Washington, in 2009. They did what many new craft distilleries do: source whiskey for bottling while distilling their own make and waiting for it to age. The bottle I found was produced in 2013, and is a now discontinued 8-year rye sourced from Canada. The fantastic bottle and label design is its most outstanding feature, with the whiskey inside making a perfectly fine but forgettable effort. I was not surprised to learn it was Canadian in origin, given it immediately took me back to some Forty Creek Barrel Select I’d once had.

What I appreciate about this Mischief rye is it’s lively zing. It grabs your attention, but like a vibrant personality at a party whom you soon realize only has a handful of jokes and not much to say. It’s pleasant enough, dry and edging toward astringency without tipping over. I can imagine continuing to enjoy it out on the back stoop on crisply sunny summer evenings when I don’t want to think too much about what I’m drinking.

The Archives is one of many bottlings put out by the Netherlands-based Whiskey Base group, one of the more active European bottlers with a seemingly world-wide appetite. This barrel of 10 year Heaven Hill distillate was—according to its sole U.S. retailer, K&L—aged for six years in Kentucky before being shipped off to Scotland for another four years of aging. What Heaven Hill was intending to do with a whiskey aged in used barrels we’ll never know. But Whiskey Base took it for a handful of years and then sold it back to us.

The result is a somewhat scotch-like bottling with an overwhelming, rather brusk Kentucky hug that smothers out the various subtler flavors. (And I say that as a big fan of high-proof whiskeys.) I can tell the flavors are in there, and they even taste appetizing. But they never get past the harsh proof and tannic oak. At uncorking I was startled but excited by this bottle. Now just three days later, that initial jolt has already lost the charismatic sparkle of its first impression.

I experimented with adding five drops of water. After letting it sit to mingle for about five minutes or so, I tasted it again. The nose showed more caramel right away, with some sweet corn and cream. The proof still leapt to attack if I nosed too forcefully. The taste was brighter, with livelier fruit notes by comparison to before—though only by comparison. The proof still dominates, grinding its pepperiness all over the other flavors. And the finish still leaves a feeling of the other flavors having been scorched away.

So I experimented again, this time with twelve drops of water and letting it mingle for twenty minutes. The nose was now notably less burning, with exceedingly faint notes of salted caramel, vanilla, peach, and apricot. The taste followed suit, those same flavors stronger and with a mild but notable astringency. The finish allows more of the fruit compote to come through, though it quickly fades, leaving an emphasis on the bite of the proof.

All in all, a not terribly likable whiskey. Such a lot went into making it—hauling it from Kentucky to Scotland, aging it another handful of years, bottling it up and shipping it all the way back to California. All that effort, and, though theoretically interesting, the expensive result is a mildly irritable, and irritating, whiskey. From here on out I’ll drink it with plenty of water, for sure. Or dole it out in samples to curious friends. But I’ll think twice before plunking down the money for such international anomalies again.

In terms of encountering exciting new whiskeys from off the beaten path, this comparison was a bust. Though all three qualify as off the beaten path, as tasting experiences they range from passable to off-putting. None offer a flavor event of special note, just a label with intriguing copy printed on it. At $40 I don’t mind so much. But at the Archives’ $130 price tag? I should have waited for another similarly eager whiskey geek to test it out first. 😉

On the other hand, this is the gamble of picking up obscure curiosities. Sometimes they end up dazzling. I may reign in my spending limit on these odd hunting excursions. But I’ll certainly continue the pursuit. The hunt itself is one of the pleasures of this whiskey journey.

Cheers!

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