When Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan announced she was leaving the Kentucky bourbon powerhouse in June, it was an unexpected shakeup to the whiskey scene, removing a fixture who had become quite central to new product selection, blending and marketing at Old Forester. However, it was also a clue toward the inevitable fact that a new company was likely in the making—someone who has received the attention and press of Zykan over the last five years doesn’t just drop off the radar. They use their departure as the launching pad for a brand of their own, and that’s exactly what Zykan (and her legendary palate) have done with the upcoming launch of Hidden Barn Whiskey.
A true understanding of Hidden Barn, as a concept, is just beginning to leak out into the whiskey world, but suffice to say there’s a lot of esoteric, unorthodox technique involved in its creation. Zykan has reemerged with a business plan that seems simple enough on the surface, but gets more and more novel the more you look at it.
First things first: This is a sourced American bourbon brand, and Zykan has not started a distillery of her own. That’s not really a reasonable option for someone in her position, to start from scratch and wait years before a product becomes available—it would squander her own name recognition in the industry during the interminable wait for mature whiskey. Nor is Zykan’s background in distilling to begin with—she has always been known for the attunement of her palate as a taster, which is why she bore the Master Taster label at Old Forester to begin with. Hidden Barn is thus a concept built around Zykan’s prowess as a blender. As she said to The Bourbon Review:
“I don’t wanna be a master distiller. I don’t distill, and I don’t want to be a master distiller that doesn’t distill. I like to play with it post-maturation. I like to take the pieces and tell a story with them. I like to paint a picture with them.”
But Zykan isn’t just buying barrels of mature whiskey from the usual suspects among the major Kentucky distillers. Rather, the sole source of Hidden Barn whiskey (at least for now) is the small Neeley Family Distillery of small-town Sparta, Kentucky, roughly half way between Louisville and Cincinnati. This is a really intriguing and important choice for several reasons. For one, Neeley’s bourbon isn’t particularly well known on the national scene, and thus there’s not really a concrete critical consensus about it in place already. And secondly, the Neeley Family Distillery (under Master Distiller Royce Neeley) is making bourbon in some really novel, uncommon ways, with an eye toward cutting-edge techniques to maximize flavor. Combine the unconventional approach of the source with Zykan’s blending, and you have the components that make up Hidden Barn.
The first Hidden Barn release is a small batch bourbon of only 7 barrels—it’s unclear whether “Hidden Barn Small Batch Bourbon” is meant to be a regularly recurring product or not, but Zykan seems to insinuate that even if it is, there will be plenty of intentional variation from batch to batch. This is a high rye mash bill (70% corn, 20% rye, 10% malted barley) bourbon, and notably it is entirely pot distilled, which is very rare indeed in the modern bourbon scene. Whereas almost all the major bourbon players run a double distillation through a column still and then a pot still “thumper”/doubler, resulting in a fairly clean and concentrated spirit, Neeley is running double pot distillation. This results in a lower distillation proof, and then a lower barrel entry proof—both methods that are less efficient in terms of how much whiskey they ultimately yield per batch, but both methods that are thought to result in a more flavorful, complex spirit.
In fact, that seems to be the common refrain of the techniques being used by Neeley Family Distillery—pretty much every decision they’ve made seems calculated to leave as many delicate congeners (aroma/flavor compounds) in the product as possible. In addition to the low distillation proof and low barrel entry proof, they also operate a sweet mash rather than sour mash system, and age their bourbon in notably low barrel char #2 barrels. The resulting spirit is non-chill filtered and typically bottled at cask strength, which is definitely on the low side, around 100-110 proof. Hidden Barn refers to this as “doing things the hard way,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
This first Hidden Barn Small Batch Bourbon release (Batch #001) is “presented at an undiluted batch proof of 53% ABV (106 proof),” and carries a decently steep MSRP of $75—it makes sense if you understand the cost of some of the production methods described above, but could still be a tough sell to those unfamiliar with Neeley’s whiskey. It has no age statement on the label, though the “straight” designation with no other details tells you it’s at least four years old, and the company cites in its notes that it is “4-5 years.” This batch will be available in Kentucky, Colorado, Florida and California, “with more distribution expected before the end of the year.”
So with all that finally said, let’s get to tasting and see what Jackie Zykan has cooked up.
On the nose, this bourbon immediately leads off in some interesting and novel directions. My initial impressions are deep and earthy, but also distinctly grain forward—I find myself wondering if the pot distillation has left more of those grain-derived flavors in play that might otherwise be lost. Deep caramel ribbons are met by shredded wheat, toast and a little rye grain and tobacco. Apple crisp and vanilla offer a sweeter dimension, while anise spice suggests a twist of licorice.
On the palate, the baked apples pop up again, along with lots of cinnamon, and distinctly toasted grain. This is positively malty at times, with something reminiscent of oatmeal cookies, along with smooth, sweet caramel. After sitting for a few minutes, more roast is emerging as well, with late-developing coffee. Fairly sweet and pretty rich overall, it’s quite viscous on the palate for the proof, while the ethanol is quite nicely incorporated.
I have to say, I find this bourbon very interesting from an academic standpoint. It has elements of the flavor that definitely suggest youth, but they’re tempered by a specific type of richness more reminiscent of maturity. It may be that this spirit is currently somewhere between those points, which would make sense with the age statement. To be honest, I usually don’t react all that positively to bourbon flavor profiles that I identify as notably “grainy,” but there’s something about this one that appreciably hints at a spirit with considerably more depth and soul. Some of that is no doubt due to Neeley Family Distillery, and some of it to Zykan as the blender. Regardless, it will no doubt be fascinating to see where they go next. A lot of whiskey fans will be watching.
Distillery: Hidden Barn Whiskey (Neeley Family Distillery)
City: Sparta, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 53% (106 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $75 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.