STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
single barrel #253 (2020)
MASH BILL – 53% corn, 23% rye malt, 12% wheat malt, 6% barley malt, 6% caramel malt
PROOF – 90
AGE – 3 years
DISTILLERY – Kozuba & Sons
PRICE – $35
HIGH WHEAT RYE WHISKEY
single barrel #03 (2020)
MASH BILL – 65% rye, 35% wheat
PROOF – 90
AGE – 6 years
DISTILLERY – Kozuba & Sons
PRICE – $35
I saw these on the shelf of a wine shop near me. Being primarily a wine shop, it features only a small obligatory spirits section stocked primarily with the most common mainstream brands. But I stop in now and again because I have occasionally found hard to get bottles there priced at msrp, like Stagg Jr. or Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Given their focus on wine, they are not paying attention to the bourbon boom and its price hikes like the average liquor store does.
So there these two Kozuba whiskeys sat. Their unfamiliar red labels caught my eye immediately amongst the garden variety green and amber labels. I was immediately taken by the connection to Poland, a country I have enjoyed visiting a few times and where, oddly enough, I had my first glass of Van Winkle bourbon.
I also noticed the level of transparency on their labels—age, origin, single barrel status, copper pot distilled, complete mash bill information. And the mash bills themselves were very unique. I don’t recall ever having a rye with such a high portion of wheat as its secondary grain. And the five-grain mash bill of the bourbon seemed either awkwardly indecisive or exceptionally thought through. Given the level of integrity exhibited over the full label front and back, I assumed the latter.
I uncorked them when I got home and enjoyed both immediately. They also received approval from my partner, a non-whiskey drinker who nevertheless harbors “champagne tastes” when it comes to whiskey. She’s got an excellent nose and often comes up with flavor notes that wouldn’t have occurred to me.
Before I go into more detail, here are some brief notes on each. This tasting was done the day after uncorking, the whiskeys sampled side by side in traditional Glencairns. For fun, I then also tasted them in some handmade Polish vodka glasses I brought back from a 2016 trip to Wrocław, Poland. But first the Glencairns:
BOURBON – honey yellow
RYE – also honey yellow, slightly lighter than the bourbon despite being 3 years older
BOURBON – bright floral and grassy rye, perfectly ripe banana, malt, lemony caramel
RYE – black pepper, that banana note only darker, sanded wood, floral rye, whicker, salt, none of it very forthcoming out of the glass
BOURBON – light and creamy with a very soft pepperiness, the nice banana note now baked and soft, gentle malt notes, some oak on swallowing
RYE – spicy and floral rye, caramel, raw oak, butter, vanilla, a grittiness stirred into its smooth creaminess
BOURBON – warm, the soft pepperiness lingering nicely, baked banana and caramel, some of the malt, eventually a faint but discernible wisp of a rubbery note I associate with much older Canadian ryes
RYE – some peppery bite around a center of round vanilla-caramel
BOURBON – definitely young, and though I’d be curious to try it again with three more years on it, presently it’s a pleasant, light, almost scotch-like whiskey
RYE – okay, but tastes much younger than I would expect for 6 years, its flavors not yet fully integrated
BOURBON – if they release an older version in the future, yes. For now I’ll enjoy this bottle when I’m hankering for that nice banana note and something light but unusual.
RYE – not likely, though I’ll be curious about other future rye-centric offerings.
Well this was interesting, for sure. The younger of the two actually comes across as more mature—the flavors more fluidly blended and the texture notably creamier. It also has the more interesting flavor profile of the two, with that prominent banana aspect that shifts from fresh and ripe to nicely baked. That both the rye and bourbon share the banana aspect is interesting, pointing to something in the process uniting these divergent mash bills.
Sampled in the Polish vodka glass, the bourbon comes off even smoother and creamier on the nose than in the Glencairn, though less complex overall. No surprise given the vodka glass doesn’t make much room for nosing. Sipping it without the nose’s involvement, the notes lean toward the wood and malt aspects. The finish is likewise a touch maltier, but now, unlike the nose, edgier rather than smoother.
The rye in the vodka glass noses as reluctantly as in the Glencairn. With effort I can pull out some light caramel and oak notes, and some of the black pepper. The taste is then a touch astringent, emphasizing dry herbal rye notes and some raw wheat. The finish is both rough and buttery, with caramel, wood, and grain aspects vying for attention.
Of course vodka glasses are not meant for whiskey tasting. But I do like to experiment. I’ve found these same Polish vodka glasses work well for Booker’s bourbon, protecting your nose from the high-proof alcohol burn and favoring the core flavors of the whiskey. But here the difference between these glasses and the Glencairns feels more academic, with the vodka glasses subtracting, not adding, to the experience of the flavor profiles.
So back to the Glencairn tasting.
This was a surprising one. That the younger whiskey with the more unusual mash bill is more pleasing overall defies my expectations of age and purity. That it also presents that rubbery note I have only ever tasted in older Canadian ryes is very interesting, and opens up more possibilities in terms of understanding why a rye whiskey tastes like it does.
And when I look back on my notes at uncorking, it was actually the rye that both my partner and I pulled out a lot of the banana note, which never even came up in our discussion of the bourbon that night. My partner summed up the bourbon’s nose as “fudge, daisies, and shoreline,” whereas I said “young bright floral and grassy rye grain, toasted malt, lemon.” No mention of banana by either of us. I almost wondered if I’d made a mistake, either at uncorking or tonight, and swapped the two! But no, the glasses were correct.
So it just goes to show how whiskeys can evolve even at only twenty-four hours after uncorking.
This comparison also demonstrates what can come out of a single distillery. Even with vastly different mash bills and one whiskey double the age of the other, there are discernible similarities between them. Neither is unpleasant. Both are interesting and enjoyable. Neither wows. Both are easygoing and approachable. Both feel at once distinct yet still not unique enough to compel a second buy. Both feature similarly light, buoyant, floral flavors that are individually familiar but in their combined effect attention grabbing and unexpected.
Maybe it’s the hybrid copper pot stills used in distillation—custom made for Kozuba & Sons in Germany, and shipped from their original distillery in Jablonka, Poland, to St. Petersburg, Florida, when they relocated to the United States in 2014. Maybe it’s the particular grains chosen or the yeast. Or that their mashing and fermentation processes are manually operated rather than mechanical, slowing things down and allowing for hands-on, in-the-moment nuancing. Certainly their mash bill experiments are not tied to American whiskey traditions, reflecting the openness to grain choices that vodka traditions offer.
And for me personally, the Polish connection heightens my interest around tasting these whiskeys. I’m very curious how the Polish and American distilling traditions manifest in their tasting experience. The lightness and the herbal/floral nose of the bourbon did remind me of certain more aromatic vodkas I’ve tried. Tasting an international whiskey like this compels me to reflect on my own past experiences in Poland, but also how such decidedly different cultures can meet one another through their traditional food and drink. Food and drink make great ambassadors. Everyone needs to eat and everyone gets thirsty. The ritual of whiskey drinking provides an opportunity to be curious about our differences.
So while these two Kozuba & Sons whiskeys aren’t top of my list from a purely taste standpoint, I do find them legitimately enjoyable enough that their unusual story elevates them further. I look forward to following what the Kozuba family continues to come up with.