When it comes to the American whiskey scene, drinkers haven’t exactly been hurting for high-end sourced bourbon releases in recent years. In fact, it has seemed at times as if this has become the most desirable new bourbon venture for entrepreneurs to target—spend liberally on sourced bourbon, cook up a historical sounding name and concept for your company, and jump right into the market offering “limited release” batches at price tags of $100 or more. With bourbon mania showing few signs of abating, one wonders if the most common sources of well-aged Kentucky bourbon—Beam, Heaven Hill, Barton, etc—will even be able to keep up with these types of companies and their thirst for 15-year-old barrels, although we should keep in mind that these releases are typically so small in terms of barrel count that the market can theoretically support quite a few of them.
Still, it seems almost presumptuous to arrive on the market as a brand new company, with two initial releases with MSRPs of $139 and $279, does it not? That does feel like it’s asking an awful lot for a name without a track record behind it, or even transparency in terms of the source of the whiskey. It takes a certain breed of risk-taking consumer to agree to plunk down $279 on a bottle of 14-year-old bourbon from a mystery Kentucky distillery, from a non-distiller producer (NDP) releasing its first ever product.
And yet … sometimes, these things still do turn out well. I can’t actually speak to that $279 bottle, which was the initial “Timeless Reserve” batch of 14-year-old Kentucky bourbon from new NDP 15 Stars Fine Aged Bourbon. But I have now tasted the company’s second release, 7 & 15 Year Old Private Stock Bourbon, and the quality of the liquid in the bottle helps smooth over this release’s $139 price tag. It’s still asking a lot, to be sure, and at that kind of price point you pretty much have to be bottling something excellent. And thankfully, this is rather excellent.
15 Stars Fine Aged Bourbon is the somewhat curiously named brand in question, the rather gaudy number of stars being a reference to Kentucky’s status as the 15th state in the Union. The product of father and son entrepreneurs Rick and Ricky Johnson, 15 Stars is currently a series of luxe sourced bourbon releases, though the company is also in the process of distilling its own product via the always prolific Bardstown Bourbon Co. It seems safe to say we probably won’t see that whiskey for a while, though, so let’s focus on what we have here.
The rather awkwardly titled 15 Stars 7 & 15 Year Private Stock is, as the name would imply, a blend of two sourced bourbons (distillery unknown) from Kentucky, at 7 and 15 years. These have been blended and bottled at a sturdy 53.5% ABV (107 proof), primarily sold through online shops. So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this is very sweet, inviting and honeyed in tone, with notes that evoke honeycomb, vanilla, citrus and stone fruit up front, suggesting something akin to a richer Creamsicle. Upon those rich, sweet and fruity tones, the whiskey then layers on notes of pepper, hints of cocoa, and judicious oakiness and faint licorice. Ethanol is not too aggressive, allowing you to breathe deep on the heady sweetness.
On the palate, this bourbon blend is quite sweet and approachable, with just enough heat to make itself felt. I’m getting honeycomb candy, blonde caramel and lots of sweet citrus and apricot, combined with vanilla frosting. The effect is quite bright and positively “sunny”—this bourbon has a certain cheeriness that I haven’t encountered lately, but found quite charming. Moderate oaky intensity, meanwhile, helps to rein in the sweetness with a little tannin, though this still is ultimately tilted in the direction of sweet, while hints of cassia bark and a little licorice give it a bit more complexity. The proof point is really excellent, making for an extremely approachable and crowd-pleasing dram, with the slightest bit of edge to it. It is, in short, hard not to really enjoy this one.
Would it be that much better to know what distillery was producing this particular dram? Certainly, and one gets a sense that you could probably find a similar profile with superior bang-for-your-buck, if you were willing to do a little looking. But in terms of the blending prowess displayed, you have to tip your cap to the folks at 15 Stars for this 7 & 15 Year Private Stock release. It’s not cheap, but undeniably tasty, making for the continuation of a very promising debut in the American whiskey scene.
Distillery: 15 Stars Fine Aged Bourbon
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 53.5% (107 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $139 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.