Batch 1 (September 2022)
MASH BILL – undisclosed KY bourbon(s)
PROOF – 102
AGE – 6 year minimum
DISTILLERY – Rare Character (sourcing from a “legacy distillery” in Kentucky)
PRICE – $93
WORTH BUYING? – I’ve wavered on this question, but ultimately Yes.
This is an unusual one.
There are a growing number of non-distiller producer (NDP) brands taking up old, discontinued labels and putting facsimiles of them on bottles of MGP or undisclosed Kentucky this or that. Some NDP founders will lay claim to a distant family heritage or revived old mash bill. Julian Van Winkle famously still blends each annual Van Winkle release based on his own memory of the original Stitzel-Weller product made under his family name, but using new whiskey distilled by Buffalo Trace. Occasionally great lengths are taken to faithfully recreate old methods, as with the recent Leopold Three Chamber Rye. Looking to the past to make a “new” product comes in many forms.
But I’m unaware of too many NDPs—if any at all—actually doing quite what Rare Character has done with this Fortuna release.
Fortuna was among the more popular Kentucky labels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Phil Hollenbach, a German immigrant, founded the brand in the 1870s, distilling under the company name of Glencoe. Among his partners were the Stitzel Brothers, who would eventually establish the now infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Decades later, the Rare Character team have sourced six top quality barrels from an undisclosed “legacy” Kentucky distillery (meaning one of the biggies) in an unusual attempt to recreate the flavor profile of the Fortuna brand, using a rare vintage bottle of the original Glencoe bourbon as reference.
Needless to say I was intrigued.
Founded by Pablo Moix and Peter Nevenglosky in 2021, Rare Character came about when the 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns forced so many people in the restaurant and bar industries to find other employ. Moix has worked for years and to great success and renown as a bar owner, restauranteur, and spirits expert. Nevenglosky is the CEO and Co-Founder of Drifter Spirits, representing Avuá Cachaça, Paladar Tequila, Svöl Aquavit, and others. They put their combined tasting and branding expertise toward founding a company that would showcase unusual bourbon and rye projects of—as their name suggests—rare character. Faithfully recreating the flavor profile of a long lost brand would seem to fit the bill neatly. Who does that? As chief taster and blender, and self-proclaimed bourbon “super fan,” Moix was determined to recreate the original Fortuna flavor profile exactly.
In 2022, Moix and Nevenglosky were joined by Andy Shapira, a member of the Shapira family centrally involved with Heaven Hill Distillery for three generations. Shapira’s involvement does justify speculation that the undisclosed distillery from which this new Fortuna draws its stocks is Heaven Hill.
Seelbach’s and K&L have been granted the lion’s share of this inaugural revived Fortuna release. Anyone who shops online with K&L knows their staff reviews tend toward the enthusiastic by default. But over time one can somewhat discern whether the enthusiasm is a hard sell or a genuine expression of whiskey love. If only the spirits buyers comment, maybe it’s marketing or maybe it’s love. But if a large number of other staff pile on the praise, as is the case with Fortuna, in my experience that means something genuinely unusual has been bottled.
I ordered a bottle online, picked it up, and uncorked it right away. If it was as incredible as the K&L staff reviews suggested, maybe I’d want to get a second bottle while I still could.
At uncorking I was not quite as blown away as the K&L crew seemed to have been. The bourbon was good, no question. It seemed kind of unusual, and yet very familiar—both and yet neither. It was hard to put my finger on the experience. What was I tasting? Something special or mundane? Did I even like it?
The nose hit immediately with a prominent dark pine note submerged in rich caramel. After that came oak, baking spice, vanilla taffy, old fashioned peppermint candies, dry maple syrup, dry roasted nuts, dry chocolate cake with sugar icing. The taste was dry, thick, gritty with wood and rye spices, but also syrupy. The finish lingered with black pepper, very dry caramel, dry chocolate cake, and dark chocolate chunks…
Really good, actually. But not the wowzer for me that the multiple K&L kudos made it out to be. There were no significant fruit notes, for example. Being so much more dry than sweet, it didn’t rank unusually high for me. It tasted as good as many other high quality dry pours I’ve had—certain Knob Creek SiBs, vaguely like the better Henry McKenna SiBs, or even more recent Home Base Bourbons.
I wanted to see how it would open up…
So here we are, three weeks after uncorking and halfway through the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – pale amber-oranges with brass and honey highlights
NOSE – a very balanced blend of dried orange zest, pine, baking spice, and oak right up front; then comes some cherry, caramel, black pepper, and syrupy stewed apricot
TASTE – orange peel with juicy pulp still clinging to it, oak, finely ground black pepper, a bit of vanilla-caramel syrup, roasted nuts (especially peanut), a burst of prickly heat at the end
FINISH – a chocolate breakfast bread note emerges subtly from behind a lingering, balanced wash of roasted nuts, subtly edgy tannic oak, baking spice, and now subtler orange peel
OVERALL – at once excellent and okay
Well the fruit notes have certainly emerged, and they’re a welcome addition. But this bourbon is a conundrum. Given the unique intent to replicate an antique flavor profile with a small batch blend of contemporary bourbons, I really want to like it more than I do. I can’t un-know the backstory, of course. It’s a significant aspect of the appeal. I imagine without that story I’d certainly enjoy this, but might feel I’d overpaid for the experience it offers.
Having now spent three weeks on half the bottle, I believe what holds it back for me is the prominence of that edgy tannic oak note, mingling with the similarly edgy black pepper—like I’ve just over-peppered a meal. Just a bit. These notes make a through line from the nose to the taste and on into the finish.
On the nose they’re actually quite addictive. I love nosing this bourbon. There is a rustic, granular aspect to these aromas that balances nicely with the orange and caramel. Then on the taste the orange goes a bit more pulpy, adding a sweet juiciness that compliments the syrupy caramel and helps balance out the wood and spices. The finish lingers, long but subtly, settling eventually into the drier tannic oak notes.
I’ll never know how close Moix got to the original bourbon. Assuming he nailed it, this tells me bourbon today can be as good as bourbon yesterday. Great contemporary Heaven Hill products—e.g. certain Elijah Craigs or the better Henry McKenna outings—are on par with this Fortuna revival. Other NDP offerings, like the Calumet 16 Year or Redwood Empire Haystack releases, offer similarly layered, well balanced tasting experiences. The orange peel aspects take me to certain Booker’s releases, and the rustic qualities remind me of some Four Roses SiBs. So Fortuna 2022 is in good company.
If Rare Character puts out a second batch of Fortuna, or if Moix attempts to replicate another lost brand, I’ll certainly give those efforts a go should the price remain in the two-digit realm. But if the brand makes the virtually inevitable climb to three digits, it’ll be a tough sell for me unless it features exceptional age or other rarifying stats.
Meanwhile I will enjoy the second half of this bottle thoroughly.
K&L spirits buyer David Othenin-Girard and Rare Character founder Pablo Moix discussing all things Fortuna: