Comparison: Two Courage & Conviction Single Malts – Bourbon Cask & Dr. Jim Swan Batch

COURAGE & CONVICTION BOURBON CASK
Batch: Nancy Fraley (2021)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 92

AGE – NAS (3+ years)

DISTILLERY – Virginia Distilling Co.

PRICE – $87

COURAGE & CONVICTION STANDARD RELEASE
Batch: Dr. Jim Swan (2020)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 92

AGE – NAS (blend of ~3 to ~4 year whiskies aged in bourbon, cuvée, and sherry casks)

DISTILLERY – Virginia Distilling Co.

PRICE – free sample ($75 at msrp)

Courage & Conviction was originally brought to my attention by a reader of this blog back in July 2020 when I posted notes on another American single malt, Westward, from Portland, OR.

When I looked Courage & Conviction up, I was quite impressed by the uncommon level of transparency presented on the Virginia Distilling Company’s website. There was everything from the expected age statements, mash bills, and casks used for aging, to unexpected details like exact milling and fermentation data, the precise number of each barrel type used in the blend, even a chart of temperature fluctuations in weather over the aging periods.

Transparency wins me over to a distillery like few other modus operandi. I ordered up a bottle of the current batch at that time, named after Dr. George G. Moore, a valued colleague of the distillery.

My kind reader was correct. This was a unique and exceptional American single malt. Very different from other more rambunctious American single malts I’d had, like Westward or Old Potrero or Great Wagon Road’s Rua. With its well-balanced blend of bourbon, cuvée, and sherry casks, it reminded me very much of certain Irish Whiskey experiences—bright, fun, lively.

The good people at Virginia Distilling were then kind enough to send me a bottle of the second Courage & Conviction batch, named after another trusted colleague, Dr. Jim Swan. Using oh so slightly older barrels among the bourbon cask ratio of the blend, the release came across with slightly more assurance than its predecessor, which itself had been a quite confident whiskey. This second batch’s added emphasis on certain cream and custard notes, in balance with its range of fruit notes, took my sense memory more to scotch whisky than Irish whiskey.

With about a quarter of the Jim Swan batch remaining, I’m very pleased to now have in hand a bottle of the Bourbon Cask release to compare on its own, separate from its Cuvée and Sherry Cask siblings. For science it would have been great to have the full flight of individual Bourbon, Cuvée and Sherry Cask bottlings on hand. But $$$, so, I’m happy to start here anyway.

The Jim Swan batch has now been open for four and a half months and is nearing its end. The Bourbon Cask has been open about a week and I’m three pours in. These brief notes were taken using traditional Glencairns.

COLOR

BOURBON – very pale straw yellow, brightly reflecting everything and anything nearby

STANDARD – a more toasted straw yellow, also very reflective in the glass

BOTH – these demonstrate whisky is more than just sunlight in a glass…!

NOSE

BOURBON – bright, creamy, lemon zest and salt, a tropical fruit like papaya, some tart peach

STANDARD – bright, similar aromas as the Bourbon Cask only a notch richer and darker by comparison, also a nice red berry jam note of some kind

TASTE

BOURBON – darker than the nose, creamy, soft vanilla-caramel, old fashioned watermelon hard candy, a soft flash of nectarine

STANDARD – salty, bright oak, cream, caramel, dry lemon peel, a grilled peach compote or preserve using brown sugar

FINISH

BOURBON – a lingering pepperiness sets in on the edges, leaving the creamy notes and a grilled grapefruit peel note

STANDARD – warm, tropical fruity, drying, some chunky caramel fudge

OVERALL

BOTH – These are very similar, both swirling around in the same flavor profile—cream, caramel, a variety of stone, tropical and citrus fruits—with ebbs and tides of individual notes coming in and out…

WORTH BUYING?

BOTH – Yes

That was challenging. These two editions are indeed quite alike. I’d pick out a note in one but not the other. And then that note would turn up in the other and have receded in the first. Very interesting.

One key, sustained difference—other than the subtle but discernible color difference—does seem to be a certain drying quality that comes from the Jim Swan release. It’s very subtle. I might not have even picked it out without the Bourbon Cask next to it to compare.

But the similarities are such that now I really wish I had the Cuvée and Sherry Cask releases on hand as well. Perhaps more input would help me tease out the distinctions further—especially knowing the Jim Swan batch features older Bourbon Cask whiskey in its mix, adding its influence. This Bourbon Cask is said to be at least 3 years old. It could be older, though given the light color I wouldn’t suspect by much.

I’m suddenly hit with that feeling you have in the moment you realize you’re lost. Senses heighten and you’re not certain which way to go. American single malts come in such variety, like any category of whiskey. And as I said, most examples I’ve had have been much darker and wilder than any of my now three outings with Courage & Conviction. So sitting with these two bottles, experiencing how they seem to behave like twins—sharing impulses and guessing one another’s thoughts—my discernment is thrown for a loop. I can pick out differences. Then those differences hop the fence into the other glass.

Making consumer recommendations seems premature until I’ve had a chance to try the Cuvée and Sherry Cask editions as well. I can’t simply say What the heck, buy all four because they’re expensive. And given these two are so similar, were that to turn out to be the case down the full line, I wouldn’t consider it money well spent given you could buy any one of them and get what Courage & Conviction has to offer.

Again, I say that not yet having sampled the full line up, so, this is me theorizing.

I like these. Given the price, and the range of single malt options out there worldwide, I can’t say I’ll make Courage & Conviction a regular item on my shelf. I think Virginia Distilling Company would do well to make sample boxes with 200ml bottles of all four more widely and readily available. This could help people try things out and hone in on which bottle(s) they want most to invest in at the full price. The Jim Swan was sent to me gratis. But had I bought it, and the Cuvée and Sherry Cask editions as well this Bourbon Cask, that would have been a $350 investment in a side by side experiment, and I didn’t yet feel compelled to make that kind of investment based on the tasting experiences I’d already had.

Make no mistake, I do recommend this stuff. I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s legit. Especially on a bright sunny day like the one on which I’m tasting these today. For a whiskey from a young craft operation, there is a lot of accomplishment in each of these bottles. Their attention to detail is very evident. I can’t wait to experience what these whiskeys taste like in another few years, given how impressive they are now. And I would love to experience Courage & Conviction at cask strength at some point.

All good things to those who wait. So, until then…

Cheers!

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