Bottle Kill: Sam Houston 12 Year Bourbon Release No. 3

Release No. 3, Batch CA-1 (2019)

MASH BILL – 74% corn, 18% rye, 8% malted barley

PROOF – 98

AGE – 12 years 4 months

DISTILLERY – Bottled by Three Springs Bottling Company, KY, for Western Spirits, KY (source not stated, though the mash bill points to Barton Distillery)

PRICE – $104

BUY AGAIN? – No, because $$$ in combo with a too familiar (though good) flavor profile

One way some restaurants have been staying afloat during the pandemic is by converting to a To Go operation, and, if they have a bar, also a bottle shop. It was at one such place that I picked up this bottle of Sam Houston 12 Year Bourbon.

Western Spirits is doing an interesting thing with their Sam Houston line. With each release they create some handful of batches—two for Release No. 1, nine for Release No. 2, and eleven for this Release No. 3. Each individual batch is then distributed in one specific state, thus the batch number “CA-1” for this California batch.

Batches are comprised of three barrels selected and blended by John Hargrove, Vice President of Manufacturing Operations at Bardstown Bourbon Company and former Master Distiller at both Sazerac and Barton 1792. One may assume Hargrove not only knows what he’s doing but also has some insider access to choice barrels.

This is Sam Houston, not John Hargrove. 🙂

As for the bottle’s namesake, Sam Houston, much has been written about him. Born in Virginia in 1793, he ran away from home as a child and for a time lived in Tennessee with a Cherokee tribe. They gave him the name Colonneh (meaning Raven) and adopted him into the tribe as the Chief’s son. When he came of age, he fought in the War of 1812 and soon after became a political protégé of Andrew Jackson’s, representing Tennessee’s Seventh District in Congress for two terms before being elected governor in 1827. He resigned in 1829 and returned to the Cherokee Tribe. Three years later he moved to the Mexican territory of Texas, where he eventually became involved in strategizing and executing the 1836 defeat of general Santa Anna. The battle cost Houston his ankle, shattered by a bullet. But the victory resulted in the Treaty of Velasco, granting Texas independence from Mexico. Houston was twice elected president of the new Republic of Texas. When Texas was made an American state in 1845, he became the new state’s senator. Houston was a person of contradictions—born White but raised with significant influence from the Cherokee, a staunch supporter of both slavery and preserving the Union. These and many other of his personal and political contradictions gradually brought his political career to an end, shortly before his death in 1863 at the age of seventy-three.

To sum up all of that history so briefly is to do it a great disservice. There is so much to be explored and unpacked there, and the Bourbon’s label and website leave it all largely unexamined. It is interesting, in any case, that a Kentucky operation chose to honor a prominent figure of Texas who had no significant history with the Bluegrass State. Regional pride has always been such a mainstay of the bourbon industry. One must assume there is a story behind the selection of Sam Houston as namesake to this product. But the Western Spirits website does not provide these details.

My father is a fan of American history and has read a great deal about Sam Houston. So when I went to visit him and my mother recently, I brought this bottle with me to uncork and share. After a week I came home with about a quarter of the bottle remaining. Though the usual custom would be for a long-staying guest to leave the bottle behind, my father’s spirits interests have ebbed and he ultimately prefers El Dorado County’s many local wines. This bourbon would have sat unenjoyed on his shelf until my next visit. On this visit, for example, I noticed a bottle of Rubicon Rye I’d left with him in November 2019 hadn’t gone down by one ounce!

Drinking the same bourbon each night consecutively, I noticed its subtle but perceptible evolution. This gave me the idea of continuing with it as my nightly pour through to its end—an experiment in tracking a bourbon’s airing out in compressed, unbroken time, rather than irregularly over many weeks or months.

So here we are now at the bottle kill pour. Tasted in a simple brandy glass as I had all the previous week, these are tonight’s notes. Then I’ll describe the evolution from uncorking.

COLOR – rich vibrant orange with sparkly golden yellows

NOSE – both dusty and refined oak, thick bright caramel, dried hay, rye spice, vanilla, some faint cherry eventually growing stronger with air

TASTE – oak and caramel, rye spice, hay, faint apricot, a nice soft pepperiness

FINISH – oak, bright caramel, the soft pepperiness

OVERALL – one for oak lovers, that’s for sure, and a solid, quality pour if ultimately less unique or memorable than one might hope for the $$$

So just last night these notes would have been a touch different. But let me go back to the beginning:

At uncorking a week and a half ago, it was all cherries and oak—emphasis on the oak. But a decidedly cherry/oak bourbon. I remarked how classic it tasted, like what one might expect a bourbon from decades ago to taste, a little roughness amongst its refined flavors. Out of the gate it was good, but not as complex as I would hope for the price.

As the week went on, the cherry aspect very soon disappeared, leaving oak and caramel without much nuance outside those two dominating flavors. This remained consistent for several days. Then just three days ago, sipping at it after some fresh apple pie with vanilla ice cream, the cherries made a sudden return. I’d have credited the apple pie for luring them back out of the glass except that the next night, without the pie, the cherries remained. They were very present just last night as well. But now, gone!

I’m taking my time writing up these notes, sipping occasionally at the final ounces, hoping the fruit flavors will make a more solid return. Is it what I ate today? How much water I’ve had? That I’m back home?

The CA-1 batch of Sam Houston Release No. 3 is good. It’s solid, quality bourbon. Had I not known from the mash bill and John Hargrove’s involvement that it’s sourced from Barton, I’d have guessed MGP. Though the rye spice is evident, none of the pretty floral notes I associate with other Barton products are present in this batch. Perhaps that is a matter of age. I’d be curious to try Barton’s 1792 12 Year next to this. Last night I did sample a bit of Lucky Seven 12 Year, also sourced from Barton, next to the Sam Houston and the difference was significant. Lucky Seven definitely smacked of the classic Barton profile, whereas with this Sam Houston one must search for it.

It’s all a good reminder of the natural if ultimately inexplicable science of aging whiskey. It comes across as magic. How is it that one barrel of a whiskey aged 12 years can taste so different from the next? The factors are innumerable, even if the distillate comes from the same mash bill and goes through the same order of events. Microclimates in the warehouses. Each barrel being made up of wood from different trees. The precise timings of a given batch’s fermentation and distillation processes…

Now taking the very final sip… Lo and behold, no cherries, but those pretty Barton rye florals have started to emerge. Is it the power of contemplation? Or the flexibility of a bottle of high quality bourbon. Sam Houston 12 Year is that.

I can’t flat out recommend it, though. Despite the fascinating journey I went on with it, from first ounce to last it was never as complex as I expect for a bourbon in this price range. There are cheaper options offering similar experiences in terms of quality and complexity, such as the glut of Knob Creek Single Barrels aged around 15 years that came out nationwide last year and still show up from time to time. The Remus Repeal Batch line out of MGP is also similarly aged and offers greater complexity overall at about 25% cheaper.

But if you do find a bottle on sale, and you are indeed an oak fan, you might consider giving Sam Houston a go.


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