LEE W. SINCLAIR FOUR GRAIN BOURBON
bottled in bond release (2020)
MASH BILL – 60% corn, 17% wheat, 13% oats, 10% caramel malt
PROOF – 100
AGE – 4 years
DISTILLERY – Spirits Of French Lick
PRICE – $62 (includes shipping)
THE MATTIE GLADDEN BOURBON
single barrel #233 selected by Seelbach’s (2020)
MASH BILL – 55% corn, 35% rye, 10% malted barley
PROOF – 103.8
AGE – 4 years
DISTILLERY – Spirits Of French Lick
PRICE – $65 (includes shipping)
When most anyone thinks of whiskey in relation to Indiana, they likely think of MGP. It’s a massive operation known more for producing whiskeys bought and bottled by other producers than for its own products. For that reason, MGP had an unearned reputation for being somehow cheap—the big whiskey mass producer.
But over time, as it sunk deeper into the consciousness of whiskey fans that that well-aged Willett single barrel rye they loved and paid dearly for was sourced from MGP, as was that excellent Smooth Ambler Old Scout 12 Year single barrel that similarly blew them away, acceptance of MGP as a legitimate distillery grew. And when Old Elk wanted to make certain they got off to a good start, they tapped former MGP master distiller Greg Metze to steer them in the right direction. One taste of MGP’s relatively recent series, Remus Repeal Reserve, should be enough to correct anyone’s misconception of MGP products as subpar.
Now there is another Indiana distillery gaining attention. Spirits of French Lick has Fred Minnick’s endorsement, and this is a significant influence on whiskey fans. Minnick is arguably the single most influential American whiskey journalist. But he does not follow in the Siskel & Ebert tradition whereby one either gives a championing thumbs up or damning thumbs down. Minnick consistently notes the shifty nature of impressions that whiskey can make on us, how his experience with any given bottle can change even day to day. He also regularly reminds his followers that his is but one point of view, and as subjective as anyone’s.
So when Minnick highly recommends something, it carries weight for me. I trust him to be considered. I also know that just because he likes it, that doesn’t guarantee I necessarily will. One is always taking a chance when trying out a new whiskey, and the tasting experience is as dependent on what the drinker bings to it as on what the distillery has bottled.
But that’s the journey. Would we want it any other way? If every whiskey was only either “great” or “bad,” how boring that would be. It’s the variety, and the conversations that can come from a variety of experiences and points of view, that make the journey interesting. If we’re lucky, we never arrive anywhere. We keep going.
So here we are, one week after uncorking and a handful of pours into each of these two bottles. I’ll taste the lower-proof Lee W. Sinclair first, followed by the higher proof Mattie Gladden, both in traditional Glencairns.
LEE W. SINCLAIR FOUR GRAIN BOURBON
COLOR – really vibrant sandy orange, almost like a glazed pottery clay of some kind, with shades of sienna
NOSE – reaches right out of the bottle when uncorked and the glass when poured, with fresh milled grains, dry cinnamons, crusty breads, crystalized honey, dry raw cut oak, a faint apricot with black pepper
TASTE – a light but syrupy texture, cream of wheat, buttery wheat bread drizzled with honey, a soft warm peppery flare on swallowing
FINISH – the peppery warmth lingers gently with faint cinnamon pastry bread dough and sweet honey notes
OVERALL – the slogan, “respect the grain” is very evident here, with the grains very present without coming off as “grainy”
BUY AGAIN? – when it’s available on the shelves near me and a bit older
THE MATTIE GLADDEN BOURBON
COLOR – vibrant orange, outlined with sienna
NOSE – not forthcoming and yet pungent and complex, with fresh bread and grain notes slathered in a sweet stone fruit compote, honey, plus a nice dash of freshly dried herbs
TASTE – breadier here, and the fruit compote kicks up as well, the honey now toasted and caramelized, and then the herbs bloom into a bouquet of floral notes
FINISH – a solid peppery warmth, with lingering peanut, bread, and apricot preserves
OVERALL – a nice, fresh balance of grain, bread, fruit, and floral notes
BUY AGAIN? – when it’s available on the shelves near me in another incarnation, whether another cask strength single barrel or an older batch
First off, these are unlike either MGP or any Kentucky whiskey flavor profiles. They are more relatable to craft whiskeys I’m familiar with from Northern California, with their emphasis on grain and bread notes, yet they are immediately distinct from even those.
Despite tasting these in succession and not going back and forth between them, it’s difficult not to compare the two products. They share the same maker and age, have similar proofs, but are distilled from entirely different mash bills. Their color is remarkably similar. The Lee W. Sinclair is more eager to reach out of the glass, but then more subtle and subdued; whereas the Mattie Gladden is reserved in the glass and yet, when you get up close, it comes across with greater strength and complexity. Overall, the Lee W. Sinclair is drier and the Mattie Gladden fruitier.
I’ll share with you now: at uncorking I was fairly disappointed with both of these whiskeys, particularly the Lee W. Sinclair. At that time it had a very strong wet cardboard note. It’s not a flavor note I have ever been able to get past. The next day I tried it again and the cardboard note persisted. Rather than draw my conclusions, I left it alone until today.
The Mattie Gladden was more immediately pleasing to me at uncorking, with no trace of that cardboard note. But the flavors didn’t taste quite integrated yet. I appreciated the strong fruit elements adding sweetness to the drier grain and bread notes. I just wished then that they blended together a bit more neatly.
Now, a week later, the Lee W. Sinclair has lost that cardboard note almost entirely. I did catch a fleeting whiff of it on the palate, but it came and went and then never returned, so it didn’t seem worth including in the notes above. And the Mattie Gladden now seems to have settled into itself, like a good soup where you can taste everything both individually and together.
The Spirits of French Lick motto to “respect the grain” reminds me of the folks at Workhorse Rye here in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. They are similarly committed to showcasing the unique flavors of individual grains, rather than favoring the impact of vanillin and caramelized sugar notes that come from charred oak barrels—easily Kentucky’s defining element.
This tendency of the craft distillery community to favor elements of their locality helps distinguish their products from what the big distilleries in Kentucky offer, or even MGP in Indiana. What a craft distillery can claim in terms of uniqueness is not length of history and tradition, but the local grain, local water, local weather, in combination with the distiller’s personality—in a word, the terroir.
Terroir is a minor controversy in the whiskey industry, despite its central place in the wine community and its parallels in other aspects of world culture. I frankly don’t understand the committed arguments of the terroir deniers. They seem a bit like the flat-earthers. Terroir makes sense on so many levels. Just as any individual human being’s personality and world view are a result of some combination of nature and nurture, so too will any whiskey taste as it does due to the nature of its ingredients and how they were nurtured by the distiller. Choices that human beings make intermingle with the natural qualities of the grains, water, wood and weather. And eventually you have a whiskey.
In these two bottles, Spirits of French Lick achieves exactly what they claim on their website:
“We are very precise in the way we represent who we are and what we produce, playing the part of both distiller and historian. This approach gives us a very unique place in the industry, not just in terms of our story, but also our methodologies of double pot still distillation, retention, and concentration of flavors. We rely on both time-tested practices, and new innovations in our distilling program. Through these processes, we craft a spirit that has defined character, equally driven by grain, barrel, yeast and experience and following Spirits of French Lick’s only rule: ‘Respect the Grain’.”
They are the largest strictly pot-still distillery in Indiana, combining old-fashioned distilling practices with grains from smaller local Indiana farms. They blend a respect for tradition with a 21st Century recognition of the need for agricultural sustainability. They mash custom grown heirloom grains in unusual combinations. They use low entry proofs and char their barrels lightly, allowing the grains to compete with the oak barrel’s influence. In addition to whiskey, they also produce vodka, rum, gin, brandy, aquavit, and absinthe.
In line with their historian impulse, their products are named after lesser known Indiana personalities—flamboyant spirits from the region’s past. However, the personalities they’ve chosen in these two instances are not as progressive as their commitment to sustainable practices. By honoring a wealthy male banker and a scandalous female bordello madame, they celebrate tired clichés of male and female capitalism and exploitation. The extravagant tycoon is a regular figure in popular American myths. The celebrity outlaw is likewise a key character in American lore. Sinclair and Gladden fit neatly into those traditional narratives. But what did they do worth honoring, other than to get rich in questionable businesses? And how does honoring them connect to respecting nature’s grains, water, and wood? The choice of Gladden and Sinclair seems unexamined compared to other very forward-thinking aspects of Spirits of French Lick.
Returning to the experience of the whiskeys themselves, though the flavor notes I get from these whiskeys are not entirely unprecedented—the emphasis on grain and bread notes reminds me of other craft distilleries like Home Base Spirits, Stumpy’s Spirits, Tom’s Foolery—there is a richness and sophistication at work that sets Spirits of French Lick apart.
At uncorking, when those wet cardboard notes were present, I was sadly ready to relegate them to my no-can-do list. I just can’t stomach that particular flavor area. Now I’m curious as to why in this bottling that flavor has vanished, whereas in other bottlings from other craft distilleries it hangs around for the life of the bottle. Just as there are terroir deniers, there are also those who deny that any given bottle of whiskey “airs out” and changes flavor from uncorking to bottle kill. I don’t understand those people either. Some need for the illusion that life is consistent must drive them.
I’ve just started to read Rob Arnold’s book, The Terroir of Whiskey. As I get deeper into it, perhaps I’ll find some answers to my questions. In the meantime, I expect I’ll continue to enjoy this double intro to Spirits of French Lick. Their Lee W. Sinclair Bottled in Bond and this Mattie Gladden single barrel pick from Seelbach’s leave me more curious than ever about the significance of the craft whiskey movement, and the contribution it is making, not only to the menu of tasting experiences available to whiskey fans, but especially to raising awareness of the environmental implications and impact of what we buy to drink.
The other thing these whiskeys have me ruminating on is the role of expectations in our life journeys. Expectations are a killer of creativity and of learning. Held to flavor standards set by MGP, Kentucky distilleries, or Northern California craft distilleries, these two whiskeys would fail to measure up. Of course! Because they have nothing to do with those distilleries. Taken on their own terms, freed from expectations and “shoulds,” they are their own unique, interesting, and tasty experiences. Which way of approaching life—through the filter of our pre-existing expectations, or open to what might be—will take us on the more fulfilling journey?
Having two good whiskeys on hand makes ruminating on these matters all the more enjoyable.