As I am often wont to say, simply buying up sourced bourbon and packaging it as your own—without transforming the product in some way—is an avenue of the American whiskey world that seems to see increasingly diminishing returns. It’s all well and good if you’re an independent bottler marketing your finds as pricey, ultra-premium products, ‘ala Kentucky Owl or Old Carter—those companies are typically offering well-aged, cask-strength releases that are difficult to obtain anywhere else. But if you’re buying younger, “off the rack” bourbon, as it were, from the likes of MGP of Indiana, it’s become almost a necessity that you do something to make the product your own before it’s bottled and shipped off to consumers. Otherwise, it’s just one more sourced bourbon among so very many.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most common ways to modify sourced bourbon is to give it a “finish” in another style of barrel, which is exactly what the small Buffalo, NY distillery known as Tommyrotter has done here. This is a distillery that has previously specialized in vodka and gin, both of which have won their fair share of acclaim, but they’re now moving more permanently into American whiskey. To do so, they’ve chosen Tommyrotter Napa Valley Heritance Cask Bourbon as their flagship product—a blend of sourced bourbons from MGP, finished in Cabernet Sauvignon wine barrels (French oak) from Rutherford, Napa Valley, CA for three months.
Credit where credit is due—they didn’t just take any available MGP bourbon and stick it in those barrels, either. Rather, this is a blend of three different MGP bourbons from their “high corn,” “high rye” and wheated mash bills. That means the result can technically be called a four-grain bourbon, or blend of bourbons, which then receives the wine barrel treatment. The whiskey is then bottled at a respectable 47.5% ABV (95 proof), which the distillery markets as “overproof,” although I think most whiskey fans tend to reserve that term for 100 proof or more if I’m being honest. Also of note: This whiskey was originally put out by Tommyrotter as a limited release back in 2017 for prices closer to $70-80, but the $50 MSRP it now carries as a flagship is considerably more reasonable for what you expect to pay from a smaller craft distillery for a younger sourced (and then finished) bourbon.
Regardless, let’s get to tasting and see how the time in those wine barrels may have influenced this MGP spirit.
On the nose, I’m not initially getting a lot of indication of the Cabernet finish, although the profile is pleasantly familiar: Honey and light caramel, into mild oakiness, along with hints of cocoa and clove. A consumer might be expecting more red fruitiness in particular, especially given the marketing—its absence doesn’t “hurt” the product, per se, but I would expect there to be drinkers who wanted to see it more vivaciously captured here.
On the palate, this bourbon initially comes across as sweet and grain-driven, with a somewhat malty character that can probably be partially attributed to the wheated bourbon in the blend. Heat is respectable, and appropriate for the 95 proof. Again, the “wine barrel” aspect is most definitely on the subtle side—there are fleeting impressions of strawberry and brandied cherry, but they’re not really the star of the show. Rather, what I’m getting in greater assertiveness is honey, a younger sense of graininess, light caramel and sweet spice—cloves and licorice in particular. The French oak has likely contributed some of these pleasant spice notes, but I find myself wishing for a more unique exploration of the wine barrel—perhaps the three months just didn’t pick up as much character as the distillery was expecting.
Despite that, Tommyrotter’s bourbon highlights some blending competence, and an interesting choice to blend three different MGP mashbills makes it an interesting novelty for bourbon geeks who love MGP products in particular. Perhaps subsequent releases will highlight the wine barrel aspect more intensely, or perhaps there’s additional flavors here I’m simply missing, but the end impression is of a solid younger bourbon blend that is likely intended to be more unique than it really is. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future blends find their way into more memorable territory.
Distillery: Tommyrotter Distillery
City: Buffalo, NY
Style: Four-grain straight bourbon
ABV: 47.5% (95 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.