Palate Comparison: a wine sommelier and a bourbon steward on Redwood Empire’s Haystack Needle Chardonnay Cask Finished Bourbon

REDWOOD EMPIRE HAYSTACK NEEDLE
Chardonnay Cask Finished SiB #6478 selected by K&L (2021)

MASH BILL – 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% malted barley (MGP)

PROOF – 110

AGE – 13 years 10 months, plus 2 months finishing in the chardonnay cask

DISTILLERY – Redwood Empire

PRICE – $131

I received a text from my good friend, actor Kenny Toll, around 9:30 p.m. on a Monday. He’d just landed at San Francisco International Airport on a flight from New York. Upon arrival he’d received word that the play he’d flown out to do had been cancelled, due to mounting Covid concerns. Such sudden cancellations have become a relatively routine aspect of life in the theater. So, now Kenny had a couple weeks of free time in California on his hands.

Kenny is an actor I’ve known and worked with for well over a decade. After some years commuting between acting gigs in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, he moved to New York in 2018. Between gigs there, as many actors do, he maintained a restaurant job—in his case at Oxalis, a high-end bistro in Brooklyn, NY, specializing in pairing natural wines and house-made nonalcoholic tonics with spare but elegant dishes.

Oxalis is the kind of place chefs at other restaurants go to after work to eat and drink. Kenny works there as a server and wine sommelier, an area of expertise he developed with time, attention, and many many tastings. With acting gigs slowing down to a near full stop during the pandemic, his tasting skills and interest in natural wine have grown exponentially.

For many months in 2020/21, Kenny and I met on Zoom every couple weeks to play a game of chess and sip whiskey. He always won. I joked that I was to chess what Jack Lemmon was to golf—a passionate but very bad player. These sessions were less about chess or whiskey, of course, than making the most of the new Zoom era to stay in touch more directly—something we’d likely not have managed otherwise. And, many bottles died on the playing field.

So, despite his cancelled production, it was with great pleasure that I was able to welcome Kenny to my kitchen’s red table for the first time in a few years. Rather than playing chess, I thought it might be more fun to put his wine-tuned palate in conversation with my whiskey-tuned palate over a glass of whiskey finished in wine casks.

We uncorked this bottle of Redwood Empire Haystack Needle, finished in a 60-gallon French Oak Le Grande barrel that once housed chardonnay. Though the label states 12 years, this single barrel actually aged quite a bit longer—going in on October 6, 2006, eventually transferring into the chardonnay cask on August 7, 2020, then into bottles October 5, 2020, one day shy of its fourteenth birthday.

Given the wine cask finishing, it seemed a fitting subject for a wine sommelier and a bourbon steward to compare notes. Here first are our notes in brief, tasting the whiskey in traditional Glencairns, followed by our conversation.

COLOR

KENNY – a soft, maple-syrup amber

MARK – rusty russet-orange

NOSE

KENNY – ripe black cherry, amontillado, saw dust, tiny hint of nutmeg, molasses, cedar

MARK – very refined, with smoothly sanded oak, baked red cherry, dark apricot preserves, fresh baked homemade fruit pie crust, dark chocolate in chunks, faint baking spices from some Christmas cookie

TASTE

KENNY – unripe raspberry jam, dark chocolate, amontillado

MARK – a kind of lush and richly sweet white grape right up front, almost like a dark muscat; then oak balanced with a fruity caramel syrup, syrupy dark chocolate sauce, ending with a crisp line of oak tannin

FINISH

KENNY – menthol and espresso beans

MARK – that dark sweet wine grape note, oak, crisp tannins, a bit of the syrupy dark chocolate, all well balanced with each other, lingering warmly and gently

OVERALL

KENNY – a medium bodied, aromatic bourbon that I want to drink after a heavy meal; Gives me my nightcap, dessert, and after dinner mint all in one

MARK – takes a very nicely aged barrel of a familiar MGP bourbon and elevates it a notch further with a decadent, lush, sophisticated dessert quality

WORTH BUYING?

KENNY – 100%

MARK – Very much yes!

MARK – Okay. Your thoughts?

KENNY – What I like about this is a lot of the bourbons we’ve often tried together are really intense and overwhelming, like Booker’s, and blow out my palate after a couple sips. That’s why I like scotch, because you get these really beautifully refined, subtler flavors—unless you’re drinking a peat bomb like Laphroaig. So I’m always looking for bourbon, especially when I’m drinking with Lucy [his partner], where I can just enjoy it without thinking about it, and soon you say, “Oh, where’d the bottle go?”

And this Redwood Empire is quite the high-end experience of what you’re talking about. There are more affordable bourbons that give a subtler experience. But certainly for the money, this is offering something pretty—I don’t know if it’s “unique,” but it feels uncommon. There are familiar flavors, but they’re coming across in an unfamiliar way. And it’s so elegant, like old fashioned dark mahogany furniture in a contemporary room. It feels old and new at the same time.

I don’t know the circumstances by which this chardonnay cask was prepared. But a lot of these tasting notes we’re getting are the quintessential oak flavors, the spices, vanilla, and other woods like the cedar. I wonder if what the chardonnay cask might be giving is… I keep coming back to that menthol finish. It’s a bright acidity bouncing through, and white wine will generally have a touch more acid to it. Not always. Chardonnays can also be elegant, soft and lush. But white burgundies can be clean and a little more crisp, and I can sense a bit of that in this bourbon.

When you’re tasting wine and it’s from a French oak barrel versus an American oak barrel, is there a distinction that you’ve been able to find?

Honestly I’ve not had a massive amount of American barrels with wine, because Oxalis specializes in French. But I did just have one of my favorite wines, Daniel Ramos, from Castilla y Leon in Spain. The guy makes Grenache exclusively. They call him the Grenache whisperer. He ages his rosé, which has only seven days of maturation on the skin, in American oak. It tastes like you took sherry and a super earthy bourbon and mixed them together with a little bit of red wine. It’s crazy, I’ve never tasted anything like it. I think a lot of that intensity is the new American oak giving it baking spice, almost a syrupy whiskey quality.

And in wine do they also char the inside of the barrels?

They do. The way you traditionally seal the French oak barrels is to char them. With a lot of the natural wine makers I’m working with, they’re using neutral oak.

Which means?

Old oak, meaning used barrels. So, the way I describe it table-side to a guest is, you take a bag of tea. The first time you steep it, that’s a new oak barrel. You get so much flavor, so much tannin, all of it. Now take that teabag and put it into a second glass, it’s going to have less flavor. And a third glass, less, and so on until finally there’s so little flavor you’re only getting some of the oak’s textural components. It’s still changing the water, but you’re not getting any of that original flavor. So “neutral oak” is the tea bag after ten steeps. The wine’s still fermenting, the barrel is still a porous container with oxygen getting in and effecting it, and you’re getting texture from the wood itself but nothing of that brand new fresh oak flavor.

With scotch, because they’re always aged in used barrels—unlike bourbon that must be aged in new barrels—they will sometimes specify whether it was aged in a first-fill versus second-fill sherry, for example, so you can get an idea of what the tasting experience might be like in terms of the intensity of the sherry influence.

With natural wine specifically, they very often don’t want any outside presence on the wine.

Outside of the grape?

Exactly, outside of the natural fermentation. So they actually seek out the most neutral possible fermentation vessel. That’s why they also like stainless steel. It imparts nothing. No texture, no oxygen, just straight grapes fermenting. You often get a lot more intensity because the oxygen isn’t opening flavors up outside of the grape itself.

So then with stainless steel, does aging even matter? Does time still have an impact?

Not really. It’s just the natural ambient oxygen that’s locked inside. Really you’re just letting it settle. Then they might move it from stainless steel into oak for six months, to give it just a little bit of influence.

Like bourbon in finishing casks.

Right.

My understanding is that wine is still aging, still changing, in the bottle, whereas bourbon is frozen in time until you uncork it.

A hundred percent.

Why is that?

It has to do with oxygen. In the wine bottle there are still yeasts going through fermentation. As the wine settles in the bottle, oxygen is seeping through the cork very subtly and changes it, softens it, opens it up. This is still-wine, I’m talking about. Sparkling wine is something else.

Corks are also used for bourbon, though, and the bourbon doesn’t change because it’s distilled.

Right, whereas the wine is still alive and fermenting. Natural wine especially can be vastly different from month to month. We might open a bottle and it doesn’t taste ready yet, so we let it sit for six months and open another bottle and now it’s ready, so we start serving it. But sometimes it can develop imperfections that ruin it. Certain bacterias can get in and overpower the intended flavors. Sometimes it will taste like wet dog, which they call “mouse.”

Mouse?! Who ate a mouse to know that taste? Is that just a friendlier sounding term than “wet dog,” so they say “mouse” to gross people out less?

It’s a very specific taste. Very often, if we open a wine and it tastes mousey, we pour it for the staff to try and we say, Here, this is mousey, and they go bleh, and we say exactly. A touch of it can be okay, actually. But you have to drink that bottle fast, because in just three hours the wine can go from great to really bad.

How is tasting this bourbon different for you than tasting wine? I don’t mean the flavors, of course, but the process.

Honestly the tasting pattern is the same. But it takes a different skill to get through the alcohol. With the intensity of the proof, at first I feel like the gasoline needs to clear before I can get inside of it. With wine, you let it sit for just a moment, so the musty smell can lift. But here I need to really work through it slowly.

Right, which is why I poured us a palate warmer to get us going, that 94-proof Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel. Still it’s quite a jump up to the Redwood’s 110 proof. When I taste with people who are very new to whiskey they often say at first that all they can taste is alcohol, while I don’t taste it much, if at all. But that’s only because I’m acclimated to how a 110 proof bourbon tends to arrive.

It’s training, like anything else. People at work will approach me as if I’m an expert on wine, which I’m not. I just know a bit about it because I work with it and I’m interested in it.

Well, you don’t have a degree or something like that, but you’ve been doing it for quite a while so you have an experienced palate.

Right. So when someone new at work asks me, Where do you start? It’s such a big vast world. I say yes, it’s intimidating, and I’m intimidated by it. Just start tasting wine. That’s it. Every single day, you have free reign at this restaurant, nobody’s going to get mad at you if you pour a little bit of three wines and taste them. And everyday you do this, say what’s different. Why is a Pinot Noir different from a Gamay, different from a Pinot Denise. Where are they coming from? Sicily, Loire Valley, Rhone. Notice the patterns.

Just start with three wines you know nothing about and ask, What’s this grape? Pinot Denise. Weird grape, I’ve never heard of it before. Oh, it’s an indigenous red grape from the Loire Valley. Cool. What else is from Loire Valley? Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc. Where is Loire Valley? It’s here. If you go a little bit up here it’s Champagne. What’s Champagne? What is sparkling wine? There’s a thread to how you learn about things. People look at it too broadly at first. You can focus in on just one wine, and let that wine lead you where you want to go.

I recently did a post on a Japanese whiskey, Nikka’s Yoichi Single Malt, which is actually Japanese, not scotch imported to Japan to be aged and blended there. And the next day I did a post on a scotch, a 20-year Tamdhu, from Scotland’s northern Speyside region. And these two whiskies back to back had me thinking about terroir in relation to my palate. Most of what I drink is bourbon, then rye. So I have a harder time parsing out a Japanese whisky or a scotch. Whereas with a bourbon or rye, I can understand what I’m tasting and put it into words much faster.

Terroir as a concept is a relatively new consideration in whiskey, as compared to the wine world. But its impact has become very evident as I’ve continued to pay attention to it. Woodinville bourbons, for example, are so clearly a product of their distillery being situated in a heavily forested wine country, where the air is so fragrant, and so their open-air fermenting vats are taking in all that fragrant bacteria. Or places like Home Base Spirits and Dry Diggings Distillery, where they’re quite consciously working to figure out what is specific to the northern California terroir. What is a northern California bourbon profile, as compared to a Kentucky or Indiana profile?

And they’re doing it! Having grown up here, I can actually taste it. Their whiskeys conjure very clear memories for me, very quickly. Memories of playing in fields of tall dry grasses when I was a kid. Climbing oak trees in Fall versus Spring. Dry granite on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas versus wet granite when I used to swim in the American river up toward Tahoe.

I imagine it’s the same with wine, except that since terroir has been a part of the wine conversation for so much longer, the awareness of regionality by wine fans is much more detailed. Like Côte du Rhône. That’s the only “du Rhône” I used to see. Now I see This And That du Rhône, all these little sub-regions.

It’s all legally defined, with the AOC laws, the appellation d’origine contrôlée. If you want to call your wine an AOC Rhône wine, you have to use specific grapes.

Just the grapes? Or do you have to physically be in that region?

Both. So in northern Rhône the main grape is Syrah, and in southern Rhône it’s Grenache. Both regions use both those grapes, and others, of course. But if you know it’s a Rhône wine, it’s hotter in that region, the grapes have thicker skin so you get bolder, more tannic, higher alcohol lines, and lots of pepper. And when it’s Grenache specifically you’ll get a little more raspberry jam thrown in. That’s classically what you get. But with natural wines, where they throw the rules out the window, they’re like, Ha ha, you thought you knew what this Rhône was going to taste like but it doesn’t!

And why is that?

Because they don’t follow the AOC rules, so aren’t legally allowed to have that traditional stamp of quality, which means “a good wine” in terms of expectations. They’re just a vin de France, which is a universal category for table wine, cheap drinkable wine. And so they can do what they want. They might not use the “right” grapes for their region, or they don’t add sulfur. Maybe they want to make a rosé, and it’s from Rhône but it’s not peppery and bold.

Is natural wine and organic wine the same?

Generally. It’s an umbrella term, with no specific stamp. All it means is there’s limited intervention in the wine making process, from the fields to the cellar. That’s it. That can encompass organically grown grapes—no pesticides, no machinery used. Horse ploughs and handpicked grapes are more common. Machines will take all the grapes. Handpicked, you can toss out the rotten grapes and be more selective. Biodynamic vineyards, where there’s biodiversity in the fields, mixing grape vines and olive trees maybe, and maybe you have sheep walking around, naturally fertilizing the soil. And astrological ideas, like picking the grapes when the moon is full and that kind of thing. But a big one is there’s no filtration, no clarifying methods, and no use of sulfur. So you get straight grape juice, lots of sediment, and the imperfections and variations that come of that are not necessarily considered bad things.

So in talking about terroir, natural wine really gets terroir. And terroir doesn’t always taste great. It’s the earth, it’s dirt and grass and air. Cultivated wine is certainly impacted by terroir. But you’re cultivating it to have a specific flavor, whereas natural wine is allowed to do its thing and can be weird and wild and fun.

For sure, natural wine for natural wine’s sake doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good wine. A lot of people are jumping on that bandwagon and dismissing natural wine as not good. Someone will say, Oh it’s a natural wine, and turn up their nose. And I’ll say, But this natural wine is also a good wine. If it’s not good I wouldn’t want to give it to you to drink.

Right, just like how a cultivated wine could be good or bad, despite the AOC designation.

Exactly.

I started reading a book on terroir and whiskey. But it’s so academic I had a hard time staying with it and eventually I put it down. But I want to go back to it, because I’m really fascinated by terroir. When I drink whiskey, there’s the cherry notes and the oak and those things. But most of the associative experiences I have with whiskey are not fruits or wood, they’re more like, Bing! That time when I was in the pine forest and the wind was blowing and…! Memories pop up, in which the flavor notes play a significant part, but only a part of a greater whole, of an experience in a time or place that was meaningful to me. Terroir is a place in time. So terroir as an ingredient in the making process seems to be an aspect of whiskey, or wine, that is key to helping people connect in a personal, very specific way.

One of the things we talk about when we’re teaching people to taste is, for example, if you’re tasting a classic Sauvignon Blanc you’re going to get apple notes. So people will say, It tastes like apple. And I’ll say, Great, good call. You’ve just described a person but not their age. Are you talking about a baby or somebody in their seventies? If you have an apple and its unripe, it has a very specific taste. If you cut a ripe apple in half and leave it on the table and it oxidizes and gets brown, it’s going to have another specific taste. Apple, as a note, is broad. There are a million apple notes.

Like caramel and oak in whiskey.

On this subject, I’m curious about your now empty glass. Nose it and tell me what you get.

…I’m getting so much more cedar and forest notes, pine, a subtle brown butter quality.

I’m getting a dollop of something chocolatey and caramel, but mostly oak. I can get some of the cedar you’re talking about. Different woods and wood spices. Some people will leave their glass out all night and in the morning check it again to see how it’s oxidized.

My first night in town, it was such a stressful night of travel and I’d just found out the show was cancelled. So I poured myself a scotch and crawled into bed. Then I finished the scotch and filled the glass with water, and at four in the morning I woke up and took a sip and thought, Hmm, scotch water.

What scotch was it?

It was Ardbeg.

Oh, Ardbeg. That’s not going to leave the glass anytime soon!

Well should we compare this Redwood to something else?

Let’s do it.

So this is a Smooth Ambler Old Scout single barrel from 2017. It’s also sourced from MGP, though I don’t know which of their two main bourbon mash bills. No wine cask finishing here. But a very similar proof at 111.8. It’s also a relatively similar age at 12 years, a touch younger than the Redwood. That means they were distilled roughly around the same era, 2005 for the Old Scout and 2006 for the Redwood—though in a way that’s an irrelevant detail. Two barrels side by side, filled on the same day, can end up tasting quite different, let alone two barrels filled a year or so apart.

Anyway, so some similarities that make them a logical comparison. But they also could be quite different.

Looking at them side by side, they’re similar in color. The Old Scout is slightly deeper.

The same brand of orange, but a slightly darker tint. …Nosing them, the Redwood jumps out at me with more eagerness, and the Old Scout is more reserved.

Absolutely.

And I can smell—this isn’t a smell, but—I can smell the syrupy-ness in the Redwood, whereas the Old Scout is drier.

Very much so. It’s a fruit thing with the Redwood. There’s something cherry or raspberry on the nose, like candied berries.

The fruit notes in the Redwood are more fruit pie filling for me, meaning sweeter, wetter. I get cherries on the Old Scout, but more like high quality dried cherries.

Have you ever put a Luxardo cherry in your Manhattan? That’s what I’m getting in the Redwood, that syrupy quality you mentioned. Just on the nose though, not on the palate. The Old Scout is more mulled cherries, with the sweetness dissipated into the baking spices. It’s not as sweet, more savory like in a cherry pie. The Old Scout has more heft to it, where the Redwood is more—there’s this word we use in wine, it’s a terrible word—zippier.

Like a vespa.

…Tasting it, the Old Scout seems like a guy who’s seen a little more of the world, he’s more contained. The Redwood Empire is more the young gun, ready to take on the world, full of piss and vinegar.

That’s interesting because, literally, the Redwood Empire is older.

I know, so I’m wondering if this might be coming from the chardonnay cask. There’s also that really intense menthol finish on the Redwood that I don’t get on the Old Scout, which has such a soft finish.

Describe what you mean by menthol. Is it a taste or a feeling?

It’s a taste. Like five minutes after you brush your teeth. It’s not mint. It’s that bright, subtle peppermint thing that lingers. I get that in the Redwood, but not the Old Scout.

That’s so interesting because for me it’s the opposite. With the Old Scout I immediately get more of what I would call “menthol,” which for me means both a sensation and a taste, like a mint with a cooling heat.

This is what I love about tasting. One of us says I get this and the other says, Really? But I get that. So, what did we each eat today that’s changing our perceptions?

What did we eat today, and also what have we eaten in the past. Let’s say we’re actually tasting the same thing here, having the same experience, but we’re calling it different things because our life experiences are different. So I’m reaching for certain words or memories that have to do with my life, and you for yours. It gets psychological, in a way, and one can see how in life even people with shared experiences can get confused by one another because of language.

That’s why I find tasting comparisons so beautiful. Because we’re both right and we’re both wrong, and so in a way we’re neither right nor wrong. It’s more about what we’re experiencing in this moment.

These bourbons are definitely family. If they were siblings, they’re both smart, but the Redwood is more indulgent, maybe more emotional; while the Old Scout is more reserved, drier in their humor, less inclined toward decadent behavior.

The true test would be having a sample of this Redwood Empire before they put it into the chardonnay cask. But tasting these two side by side, I do suspect this Old Scout is the same mash bill. The rye quotient tastes similar to me.

I know more about what aging does to a wine’s flavor profile than to a whiskey’s. Tasting a super old Riesling as opposed to one that’s very young, for example, is like night and day. The aging pulls back the sweeter notes and emphasizes the umami, subtle, rich, meatier flavors. And that’s why I wonder if, even though the Redwood is older, it’s coming across sweeter and more vibrant because of the wine cask finishing.

Well it would make sense. It’s a major difference between the two bottles, assuming they’re the same mash bill. They’re similar ages and proofs. I’m very familiar with MGP bourbons at this point, and this Redwood Empire has a distinct difference to it. I can taste that it’s MGP. But that chardonnay cask must definitely figure into what’s particular about it.

This is great, to take what I’m used to doing with wine and apply it to whiskey. When we’ve sat here in the past and tasted a whole slew of different whiskeys, they all taste distinctly different because we’re going for variation. But to sit here with two very similar bourbons, I can apply what I’ve been doing the past few years at Oxalis to this. It’s different. But principally it’s the same.

Any final thoughts on these?

Both are very tasty, first off. But I would drink them in different places. The Redwood feels like after dinner, sitting and chatting, a nice palate cleansing quality to it. With the Old Scout, I want to sit in front of the fireplace with a book and think about life.

I’m very glad to have them both on hand. And glad to welcome you back to the red table.

Cheers!

Cheers!

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