There’s a mistaken belief, among a lot of novice and intermediate spirits consumers, that “more” almost universally equates to “better.” It’s the assumption that a special release of a spirit is invariably going to boast a finer overall experience or flavor profile than the original installment—an extension of the brown liquor novice’s assumption that “older” always equals “better” as well. You see the phenomena to the greatest degree in the worlds of whiskey and rum, where additional cask finishes are a popular way to premiumize an existing spirit, such as finishing a special version of a whiskey/whisky in wine or sherry barrels, or an aged rum in port barrels. In each case, the special edition produced by the secondary cask finish is meant to display added complexity on top of the original spirit … or that’s the goal, anyway. Sometimes, the simple truth is that a portion of the original spirit’s virtue gets muddled in the process, resulting in a bottle that is arguably less interesting than the “everyday” release.
In the past, I’ve often used Vermont’s WhistlePig Rye Whiskey to illustrate this concept. I have always been a fan of the flagship WhistlePig expression (the 10 year, 100 proof rye), but the 12-year “Old World” variant was less of a favorite. That version, with portions aged in port, sauternes and madeira casks, is presented at a less robust 86 proof, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why in the past I found it lacking in the brand’s signature, spicy verve. Certainly, it was hard to look at its $125 price tag on the shelf, some $50 higher than the standard WhistlePig rye, and not think that the 10 year represented a much better value.
And yet, to taste this new version of WhistlePig 12 Year from alcohol subscription service Flaviar, I’m starting to wonder if perhaps my previous assessment of the brand was lacking due to the blend, rather than the concept. With their new “Chef’s Blend” of WhistlePig 12-Year, Flaviar has essentially taken this concept back to the drawing board, coming back with something substantially different—and I think, substantially more interesting. Even at 86 proof (that part is still the same), this is a very flavorful dram.
The first thing that the Chef’s Blend does differently is adding another style of barrel to the mix, in the form of sherry—a characteristic well known to many scotch drinkers, myself among them. Then, it plays with the sliders significantly, adjusting the percentages of everything in the blend. To compare the two:
WhistlePig 12-Year Old World Cask Finish: Port (7%), Sauternes (30%), Madeira (63%)
WhistlePig 12-Year Old x Flaviar Chef’s Blend: Madeira (40%), Sherry (30%), Port (20%), Sauternes (10%)
That is quite a bit more port influence, and quite a bit less madeira and sauternes—and along with the inclusion of the sherry, these additions are felt in a very pleasant way. With that said, let’s get to the tasting.
On the nose, this blend is warm and nutty, with a ribbon of toasty maltiness (despite it still being 100% rye whiskey) and loads of fresh mint/lemon balm. Toasted rye bread is there in quantity, along with cracked peppercorns and a hint of green apple.
On the palate, heat is nicely subdued—this is very easy drinking, as you would hope for the proof, while retaining enough fullness of mouthfeel to avoid registering as thin or watery. Toasted rye bread and light caramel are present but don’t get carried away, and as on the nose there’s plenty of mint and that hint of baked apples. Probing deeper, the sherry provides roasted nuts, and (presumably the port and madeira) offer elements of red berries. Perhaps surprisingly, the finishing barrels here actually aren’t extremely assertive in terms of how dominant they are over the overall profile—this doesn’t read as a “sherry bomb,” or a madeira bomb, or any kind of “bomb.” Rather, it is plenty complex, and pretty well balanced for neat drinking, allowing you to search for individual notes from any of the finishing barrels, although it might need a bit more strength to stand up as the base of certain cocktails. Still, as a neat dram, this is very nice on its own, with no need for dilution.
For more information on this particular blend of WhistlePig 12-Year, you can check it out here.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.