Trail’s End 10 Year – not (yet!) a victim of FOMO

Kentucky bourbon finished in Oregon Garry Oak casks, brought down to proof with glacier-fed spring water from Mt. Hood.

MASH BILL – unstated (though a 10% rye quotient is likely)

PROOF – 105

AGE – 10 years

DISTILLERY – Clear Creek Distillery / Hood River Distillers (sourcing from KY)

PRICE – $65

WORTH BUYING? – oh so very Yes

I’m writing this in the midst of prime bourbon hunting season. All the big fish are being released or soon to be, and whiskey social media is awash with crotch shots and FOMO-fuming memes. As bourbon hunters tap away at their keyboards, swipe along their phone screens, wait at dawn for stores to open and feverishly DM each other one rumor, hope or another, there sits Trail’s End 10 Year on shelves for $65 or so.

I’d had a mediocre experience with the Trail’s End 8 Year Batch #002 back in 2016. I haven’t returned to the brand since. Then recently I watched the good people of Bourbon Van blind taste this relatively new 10 Year release against Henry McKenna 10 BiB, Michter’s 10, and Jack Daniel’s 10. To their shock, Trail’s End was the clear winner by far. I was intrigued.

Kentucky bourbon, aged a decade, given a second barrel finishing, and bottled at a very respectable 105 proof? If the label said Heaven Hill or, god forbid, Buffalo Trace, the msrp would be three digits and secondary would be double or triple. But although the likely 10% rye quotient of the mash bill points toward Heaven Hill as the source, the label says “Trail’s End,” rendering this bourbon FOMO free. Hood River Distillers didn’t even try to price it with FOMO-hopes in mind. At $65 after tax, this bourbon offers excellent specs.

I opened it the night I brought it home. “Woah,” was the first word out of my mouth. “Interesting,” may have been the second. I nosed it for a very long time. The aromas were not reserved so much as patient. Wood-spicy, herbal, with a deep and dark vanilla. The taste and finish then followed the nose accordingly, adding dark caramel, rich roasted nuts, and a lovely syrupy texture. This was good. “Unicorn” and “Limited Edition” worthy, I thought. And yet it’s just sitting there on shelves, right out in the open.

Now sometimes a bottle wows out of the gate, then settles in over time to something less impressive. Sometimes it’s exactly the reverse. So I wanted to give this more time to reveal its possible trajectory before spiking a unicorn horn in its cork. Also, the night I uncorked it my palate had already been thoroughly seasoned by a few other pours. Trying it without so many influences in the mix was certainly in order before drawing any conclusions.

And given Heaven Hill is the likely source, I figured I’d follow the Bourbon Van’s lead and compare it with Henry McKenna—likewise aged 10 years but slightly cooler at 100 proof due to its Bottled in Bond status, and no second cask finishing. Also relevant: the cheapest one might find Henry McKenna now is $70 before tax on average, a full $10 more than this Trail’s End.

But first, to taste the Trail’s End again on its own. Here we are now, one week after uncorking and five pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – very autumnal, murky russet oranges

NOSE – a nice blend of baking, rye, and oak spices; dark caramel syrup, dry rye bread, subtle cherry and apricot compote

TASTE – syrupy and thick, with chocolate, thick cut caramel fudge, the spice blend softening and emphasizing the oak a bit more

FINISH – oak, very dark caramel, chocolate, and rye spice, all with a nice, lingering, tingly warmth

OVERALL – oak, chocolate, and caramel, with a dollop of fruit sweetness

Today this shows a wonderful balance of dry and syrupy aspects. The nose greets brightly with its prominent dry spice blend, leaving room for those fruit compote notes to slip in and sweeten things up a bit. Then on the taste everything goes darker, drier, but also very syrupy. The caramel and chocolate, dark as they are, provide enough sweetness to soften the now very prominent dry oak. And the finish fades gradually, lingering with much of what the taste offers.

Not a party whiskey. Not a thinker either, so much as a dry wit in a contemplative mood and no agenda. Today it may not be a unicorn or L.E. experience for me. But it certainly more than justifies its price, especially in the current market. With stronger and more consistent fruit notes, this would be a steal. At present it’s a just a really great deal, and that’s pretty dang good.

Now to compare it with Henry McKenna. This particular SiB (#5149) went into its barrel on April 23, 2008. I bought it in 2018 after another April 2008 barrel won that dang award that sent the brand out to unicorn pasture. Despite its newfound status, Henry McKenna remains an undependable wild card from barrel to barrel. Some are exquisite, others a tannic mess.

I opened this McKenna the day after I opened the Trail’s End. At uncorking, it impressed me with a fine balance of roasted peanuts and oak. I could easily relate it to the Trail’s End flavor profile, furthering the likelihood of Heaven Hill being the latter’s source.

Looking at them now side by side, the lower-proofed McKenna is a notably lighter shade of those same murky russet oranges. The McKenna’s nose is likewise lighter and brighter, offering a similar spice blend only without the sweetening fruit compote aspect. This lack makes both the fruit and caramel even more apparent in the Trail’s End, which comes across thicker and richer overall. But they definitely smell like family.

On the taste, the McKenna balances its roasted nut and oak aspects with a nice smooth caramel. The finish then likewise lingers with this same trifecta, nicely balanced with a subtly simmering heat. Tasting the Trail’s End next to it, it’s a bit drier than the McKenna overall, and yet the oak is sweeter. And then on the finish those cherry and apricot compote notes come back in an initial wave, which then ebbs into the spice blend and dark candy notes.

Trail’s End / Henry McKenna

Overall, both are excellent. Both offer very similar aromas and flavors. But if I had to choose I’d go with the Trail’s End. The reason is because, for the price—roughly $10 less than McKenna—Trail’s End offers the richer, more layered experience. And as a blend rather than an idiosyncratic single barrel, I’m better guaranteed the same experience on subsequent bottles than I would on some other bottle and barrel of McKenna. This makes Trail’s End the safer, cheaper, and tastier bet.

Now, all that said, I don’t see myself running out for another bottle of either of these. Mainly because I’m largely out of the bunkering habit, preferring to spend my money on new experiences. But also, this particular Heaven Hill profile of nut, oak, and caramel is now very familiar to me. I do love these flavor notes. But I prefer them balanced with some more prominent fruit sweetness. Since I can afford to be choosy amidst the daily growing number of options on the market, why return to anything I know I’ll enjoy less than something either more centered in my preferred flavor profiles or new to my palate?

I can’t recommend seeking out this 2018 Henry McKenna SiB #5149, given it’s long since gone from shelves. But if you already know you enjoy what the better Henry McKenna SiBs offer, I do recommend saving yourself some money and risk and giving Trail’s End 10 Year a go. It’s very worth it. I’m going to enjoy making my way through this bottle.


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