SMOKE WAGON UNCUT UNFILTERED
MASH BILL – MGP 36% rye mash bill
PROOF – 114.6
AGE – NAS (blend of 4 to 8 year bourbons)
DISTILLERY – Nevada H&C Distilling Co.
PRICE – $65
BUY AGAIN? – Heck yeah!
I first saw the unusual Smoke Wagon bottles in a Total Wine & More back in 2017, I believe. What’s this Las Vegas bourbon? I thought. I associated Vegas with drinking, but not with distilling. No one associated Vegas with distilling, in fact, until Nevada H&C came along. The city had to create a distilling license just for them.
In any case, there in the bland aisles of TW&M, the ornate Smoke Wagon bottles seemed to be trying a bit hard. Also the prices weren’t cheap. So I didn’t take a chance that day.
Time passed and I started to follow Smoke Wagon’s Instagram account, where co-founder and master blender Aaron Chepenik keeps up a steady stream of short, fun, spontaneous videos revealing nearly every step of the blending process. I almost feel like I know my way around the warehouse after watching so many of these. Sometimes Chepenik lets fly with some critique of the whiskey industry, revealing his bias toward keeping things honest. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme that firmly establishes the no-nonsense, do it yourself approach Chepenick champions.
The H&C website is the opposite of the bottle design—straightforward, unadorned, purely practical. Yet in its simple strokes it communicates the same message that the Instagram account does, namely that there will be no b.s. here. They source whiskey from MGP, age it in the intense Las Vegas desert heat, and blend it meticulously to get batch after batch of fun bourbon. Fun like a BBQ with a bucking bronco ride. Fun like the annual rodeo or county fair. Fun like a hearty laugh with friends and family on a hot summer night outside.
So clearly my perspective has shifted since that first encounter in 2017. And this Summer 2020 batch of Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered is my introduction to the line. Upon uncorking I was hooked. Now, two weeks later and a third of the way into the bottle, here are some notes. I tasted it first in a simple tumbler. It seemed somehow the fitting vessel. Then to get another perspective on it, I did also try it in a traditional Glencairn. Here are the tumbler notes and the Glencairn will follow.
COLOR – a vibrant orange with russet, gold, and brassy highlights
NOSE – very enticing and rustic, spicy with cinnamon and dried ginger, then caramel gritty with roughly ground sea salt and black pepper, some still juicy dried king apricots after it takes more air
TASTE – that overall rustic quality right up front, enveloping the spices, a nice oakiness, then the caramel now with chocolate
FINISH – caramel, chocolate, some of the dried ginger, and a nice pepperiness lingering
OVERALL – like its maker, Chepenik, this is friendly, robust, with kick and wit
One could put this on ice, or mix it in cocktails. But for me this makes a great neat sipper. It’s spicy without blowing your head off. It’s sweet without going saccharine, savory without drying out. In its rough and tumble way, it’s exceptionally balanced. I didn’t want to even bother with the Glencairn. But in the name of science…
Here the color shows itself more softly, a mildly rusty orange. The spice in the nose is distinctly baking spice, with caramel and a strong buttery note, like a buttery fruit pie crust. On the taste the caramel brightens up front, then the array of spices kicks in. On the finish the spices tingle on a soft layer of caramel, and then a soft but surprising burst of heat emerges to linger a long long while… woah…
So it’s good in the Glencairn, and distinctly different. But I gotta say it just looks, feels, and overall tastes better to me in the tumbler. Suddenly the Glencairn feels over engineered, and at odds with the personality of this bourbon. It’s certainly doing its job, bringing out aromas, flavors and sensations, and they’re good. But as I continue to make my way through this bottle I expect I’ll be trying it out in a variety of tumblers.
Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered is a study in how the maker truly influences a whiskey and the experience of drinking it. To my mind that influence is 100% legit. There is the purist argument that any influence outside the liquid itself shouldn’t be considered. Blind tastings help one to explore this perspective, and those can be fun. I enjoy them. But just like an artist’s own life can be found somewhere in their art, or a chef’s personality reflected in the meals they craft, so too a whiskey can be soaked in the personality of the person who made the series of innumerable choices that brought it into being. Why is Wild Turkey 101 so dependable? Because Jimmy Russell has been so dependable—for going on seventy years!
Just watch a handful of Aaron Chepenik’s Instagram videos and then taste one of his bourbons. You’ll see what I mean.
This is a bourbon to cheer you up. A bourbon for parties and friendly gatherings. I’m drinking it now in early September as Summer rolls into Fall, and it feels perfectly timed—that mix of heat and crisp breezes. In the Winter it will warm me up. In the Spring it will brighten my mood. A year-round bourbon.