I’ve observed in the past that there is a symbiosis that exists between the tastes inherent to craft beer geeks and whiskey geeks, which results in a natural nexus point where fans of several flavor profiles have a tendency to meet. Specifically, those beer geeks who enjoy the roasted, chocolate and coffee-forward flavor profiles of traditional (non-pastry, I wish I didn’t have to specify) porter and stout also have a tendency to enjoy styles such as American bourbon—there’s simply a lot of natural crossover in classic flavor notes cited in each: caramel, vanilla, chocolate, roasted oak, etc. They’re natural bedfellows.
In recent years, this compatibility has given rise to various stout/whiskey fusions or hybrids, which have been achieved in a few ways. Some breweries have simply gone and distilled their favorite porters and stouts, which yields a really interesting product, ‘ala Deschutes Black Butte Whiskey. For the distilleries, though, the typical route to these types of flavors has been to incorporate small amounts of the dark roasted malted barley varietals that give porter and stout their signature flavors. These types of releases have existed on a spectrum of assertiveness and subtlety—on one end, you’ve got something like New Riff’s Winter Whiskey, which was fairly measured in its delivery of those roasty flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got something like last year’s Woodford Reserve Five-Malt Stouted Mash Whiskey, which tasted about as close to porter or stout as one is likely to ever achieve. Each distillery has its own priorities here, in terms of how strongly they want these flavors to present.
Enter, Louisville’s Rabbit Hole Distillery, a company that has grown into its own in recent years since opening its production facility in 2018 and gradually transforming its product lineup with the introduction of whiskeys distilled in house. At the same time, the distillery’s limited edition Founder’s Collection has served as an avenue for experimentation in novel secondary finishes or unusual mash bills. And the latest re-release in said series is Raceking, a “double chocolate malt” bourbon that seems to possess some of those same beer-evoking aspirations.
A word on “chocolate malt,” for the whiskey geeks in the house who don’t know the beer world as well: There are many varieties of malted barley out there, which range from extremely pale (contributing almost no color) to extremely dark. The several “chocolate” malt styles available to brewers are among the darker roasts, not necessarily named for the flavor profile they deliver but for how dark the literal kernels of malted barley have been roasted. Small amounts of chocolate malt are often used in styles such as porter and stout, and it is often said to contribute notes such as nuttiness, roast, smoke, and yes—chocolate. But one should keep in mind that flavorings are in no way involved—a beer made with chocolate malt is not inherently chocolate flavored, nor is a whiskey made with that malt. This is good to keep in mind, given that marketing terms like “double chocolate” do invoke a certain expectation/suggestion to the drinker.
So with all that said, what’s actually in this bottle? Well, this is Kentucky bourbon (non-age stated), albeit one with a unique mash bill of 70% corn, 13% rye, 10% malted rye, 4% chocolate malted wheat, and 3% chocolate malted barley. If you’re wondering, “chocolate malted wheat” is simply what is sounds like—malted wheat that has been roasted to a much darker level. The resulting bourbon is presented at a cask strength of 54.6% ABV (109.2 proof), for a rather eye-popping MSRP of $295. Only 1,335 bottles are being released, which accounts somewhat for the pricing, but suffice to say this is a lot to ask for a non-age stated bottle, regardless of the novelty.
So let’s get to tasting and see how these roasted malts translate.
On the nose, there’s an appreciable level of char and nuttiness being evoked, though it’s not necessarily in the mold of “chocolate” right off the bat—rather, I’m reminded more of nutty toffee and cacao nibs, along with charred oak, cardamom-like spice (Turkish coffee?) and roasted peanuts. There’s a maltiness that is hard to put one’s finger on, possibly a facet of the malted rye in the mash bill, along with a slightly exotic woodiness. In comparison with something like the previously mentioned Woodford Reserve Five-Malt Stouted Mash Whiskey, it doesn’t evoke the stout beer itself nearly as strongly, but Rabbit Hole never actually does specifically mention stout in their marketing. What I’m getting most vociferously here is the nuttiness, the roast and the toffee, which is nice.
On the palate, things certainly take a turn for the bombastically roasty. The chocolate is there, with actually more of a milk chocolate sweetness, but that character is sort of fighting to make itself felt over the rising tide of roast and smoke—heavy oak char, cigarette smoke and French roast coffee combine with toffee, but the word “burnt” comes to mind as well. There are some interesting dimensions of herbaceousness, rye grain and leather in the mix, but in the end it increasingly feels like the roasty astringency is taking over, drying out my palate.
This is one of those whiskeys where I feel like I can clearly see the intended effect, but where I also feel like one component has just become out of balance. I would be curious to see this flavor profile with the roasted malt presence stepped back a bit, which might allow the bourbon’s sweeter elements to come forward into greater harmony.
Distillery: Rabbit Hole Distillery
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 54.6% (109.2 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $295 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.