Wathen’s Kentucky Bourbon Single Barrel

WATHEN’S SINGLE BARREL
Barrel #0059 selected by K&L in 2016, released in 2018

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 94

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Contract distilled by Charles Medley Distillery from an unnamed Kentucky source

PRICE – $43

BUY AGAIN? – This barrel is long gone. But another, absolutely.

Wathen’s is a lesser-known curiosity. Some people know to seek out the annual, always quirky, barrel proof single barrel releases that pop up at select shops. Lately the Medley Exclusive Selection single barrels, also bottled at barrel proof, have been picked by a truly short list of exclusive shops and whiskey clubs. And occasionally one can still find dusty bottles of the exquisitely weird Medley’s Private Stock 10 year, a one-time release from 2015. But the standard single barrel release, whether a store pick or not, seems to fly under the radar largely unappreciated.

Charles Medley worked for years with the likes of the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and has insider clout in the industry. So while his namesake distillery contract distills its products and is not an actual distillery itself, the Medley family have total control over every aspect of the distilling process—mash bill, yeast strain, entry proof, etcetera. Who they’re contracting with, nobody but they know. Their bottle is suspiciously like the famed Elmer T. Lee, suggesting Buffalo Trace Distillery is a possibility, which would dovetail with Medley’s Stitzel-Weller past.

But the folks at K&L seem to suspect Barton Distillery, which quietly does a lot of contract distilling. The fruitiness of the Medley/Wathen’s profile could convince me of Buffalo Trace. The earthier, more herbal aspects could convince me of Barton, and frankly I lean more toward that possibility overall.

But the guessing could go on all night.

This K&L selection was bottled in November 2016, then got lost in a warehouse. The bottles sat there until early 2018 when they were found, and in March 2018 they were finally released. I picked one up then, and for over two years it has been lost again among my bunkered stash. I finally cracked it a week ago and was taken by that weird Medley/Wathen’s thing that always takes me.

What is it? Typically it’s a varying mix of salty caramel, stewed tart orchard fruits, and earthy elements like moss, sand, or gravel. A 2018 barrel proof release, #40 also from K&L, conjured images of magical forests with sandy streams and twisted old tree trunks wrapped in thick moss. The 2015 Private Stock was all buttery salted caramel with lemon, dried mango, and herbs. The 2019 Drammer’s Club LA Medley Exclusive Selection, left totally unfiltered and with bits of barrel char swimming around in it, seemed to draw on the Private Stock’s penchant for salted caramel and the barrel Proof #40’s earthy emphases, while pumping up the tart cooked nectarines, peaches, and apricots. And though these bottles are never age stated (save the 2015 Private Stock 10 Year) every single barrel I’ve tried always looks and tastes like it’s in the vicinity of a decade, the flavors all nicely settled in together.

So let’s dig into this long lost single barrel #59 and see where it leans. The bottle has been open for about a week and I’m on the third pour, tasting it in a simple brandy glass.

COLOR – a nice rich orange with hints of both yellow and red

NOSE – there it is: salty caramel, earthy herbs, warmed apricot, a bit of cherry, all nicely baked together in a buttery flakey pie crust

TASTE – following right on from the nose, the earthy herbal elements most prominent now, but still nicely complemented by the caramel and fruit aspects

FINISH – here the caramel kicks up a bit, with a nice sweet tang to it, the earthy flavors go toward moss on fresh oak, with a salty sandiness at the edges.

OVERALL – More earthy than fruity, a nicely balanced blend of savory and sweet

This is at once very easy and very interesting. It has a good dose of those Wathen’s earthy aspects—sand, stone, moss, moist oak—without going quite as extreme as that 2018 K&L barrel proof #40. It’s not nearly as salty-caramel-forward as the 2015 Private Stock, but shares some of the same stewed and baked fruit qualities. The prominent earthiness will make it “not for everyone.” But if you like that area of whiskey, you’ll dig this.

I’m long out of that barrel proof #40 and the 2015 Private Stock. And I don’t quite yet want to uncork a 2017 barrel proof #19 I’ve been sitting on—too many other barrel proofs open right now. But I do still have some of the 2019 Drammers Club LA Medley Exclusive Selection. Curious, I poured a glass.

This Medley Exclusive Selection clocks in at a robust 126.65 proof, a good deal hotter than the Wathen’s #59. And as I said it is 100% unfiltered in any way, so there is a syrupy richness that’s unique. Here are my notes on it from this past May. And here now are new notes from tonight, two-thirds into the bottle and tasted in a simple brandy glass:

COLOR – a syrupy baked pumpkin orange

NOSE – I get the salt and earthiness, roasted peanut, thick dry caramel

TASTE – here the tart summer orchard fruits and the sweetness of the caramel kick in immediately, everything very syrupy and thick

FINISH – those tart fruits now baked, and the rich sweet caramel, fading very slowly

OVERALL – an amped up variant on the typical Medley/Wathen’s profile range, and remarkably smooth for its proof

In the wake of the explosion that is the Medley Exclusive Selection, the single barrel #59 tastes like herbed water. Wow. The 94 proof of the #59 simply cannot hold up to the smooth blast of the Exclusive Selections’ 126.65 proof.

That is not at all to say the single barrel #59 isn’t good after all. It just shouldn’t ever follow a sticky flavor bomb like the Exclusive Selection.

If you value utter consistency in your brands, the Wathen’s Medley bottlings may not be for you. But if you like a bourbon line that is paradoxically as consistent as it is inconsistent, you’ll dig it. Every bottle I’ve tried has stopped me and left me thinking, without at all being a purely intellectual tasting experience. The earthiness, often even granular and gritty, is always tempered to some degree or another by a variety of stewed, baked, or otherwise cooked summer orchard fruits, and always laced with that salty caramel. For me it makes a great magical forest of a flavor profile that I love to wander around in and explore. Makes me want to watch The Princess Bride or Time Bandits.

I won’t reach for this every day. But I’ll reach for it.

Cheers!

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