You may think that I’m going to start this review by telling the story of Arby’s, the nation’s 16th largest fast food chain in terms of revenue. You’d be wrong. You may think that I would tell the story of General John J. Arby who led the Atropian Army to victory over the invading Arianan Army. You’d also be wrong, I just made that up. Veteran’s who have ever wargamed will get my reference though (raise a glass to our vets today!). But what I really want to talk about, nay, CELEBRATE is this bottle of Arby’s Smoked Bourbon and the story behind the company that made it.
Sadly, Arby’s did not open up its own distillery. Where would they even do that if they wanted? I’ll tell you where; Colonial Heights, Virginia. Almost right outside the gates of Fort Lee or right off I-95, it’s home to the world’s largest Arby’s (I’ve been there!). The inside of this Monolith to Meat looks like a much fancier restaurant with upholstered seats, a fireplace, a giant totem pole and 5 different “eateries” to partake in (including an Eskimo Pie Shoppe and a Burrito counter). I just realized I know entirely too much about Arby’s.
Arby’s Smoked Bourbon
Rambling aside, it’s time to get down to the business of finding out who made this Arby’s bourbon and what were they smoking (ba dum tissss). Fresh from the social media spectacle that gave us “Curly Fry Vodka,” Arby’s looks like they’re planning on associating their brand with hard liquor the way that Taco Bell associates their menu with potheads. And who can blame them? Barbeque and Bourbon are as natural a pairing as Quesaritos and Grape Ape. The press release actually gives us the name of Arby’s source for their new bourbon and it’s a distillery near Cincinnati called “Brain Brew.” Oh, so this Arby’s bourbon is sourced from a craft distillery? Case closed, right? Not so fast.
I looked into Brain Brew’s website and it was… a lot. From glamour photos of their bourbon next to glencairns filled almost to the brim (is this a joke? Or did they hire a teetotaler for a photographer?) to bourbon “finished with 200 year old oak” (huh?) there are a lot of things that make me question the entire operation. First of all, it becomes apparent after a little digging that they do not distill their own bourbon at all. They refer to man named Edmund Dexter over and over again like he was a famous master distiller in the late 19th Century. In reality he was nothing more than a rectifier. This appears to be a person in history that they are trying to channel in their whiskey descriptions.
Speaking of whiskey descriptions, I have never seen a non-distiller producer brag so much about the awards they won for their whiskey. It’s cool that they are proud of their awards, but a majority of those competitions are pay-to-play. I don’t think Joe Public would realize this though. Something else that is interesting is that they keep talking about these “special staves” that were used to make their whiskey. Some were from Sherry casks (apparently they obtain them through their association with Edrington, an international spirits conglomerate based in Scotland who owns Macallan) and some were from oak that they claim is 200 years old. The math they did to arrive at that number was that they salvaged oak posts from old barns in the area that were 100 years old. According to their calculations (and the rate at which an oak tree grows), the trees would have been 100 years old when they were cut down, so… 200 year old oak I guess?
Anyway, as I was dissecting every word and sentence for key words (or lack of key words), it occurred to me that when they talk about the wood staves imparting their flavor into the whiskey that they are inferring a process other than mother nature and time. Many more Google searches led me to a site that basically said they were using vats with heat and pressure where the whiskey would get added in along with the wood (be it chips or staves, I don’t know) and it would essentially come out like a “Cleveland”-style Whiskey. Ugh. And if I’m wrong about the exact process that their various whiskies undergo, then just know this much; they are not making barrels out of the wood that they talk about and finishing the whiskey in it. There is some trickery going on here.
But wait there’s more! As I’m pouring over the descriptions, I start to notice a pattern in the numbers… Dexter Straight Bourbon is “crafted from a 36% rye bourbon,” Paddle Wheel Bourbon is “crafted from a 21% rye bourbon,” Deckhand Rye Whiskey is “crafted from 95% rye” and Keelboat is a Four Grain bourbon that sees ryed bourbon blended with a wheated bourbon that contains a “high wheat content in the mash bill.” Hmm, I wonder if that high wheat content happens to be 45% wheat? You know where I’m going with this, right? Brain Brew’s barrels are all sourced from MGP. Arby’s Smoked Bourbon is MGP.
Brain Brew does try to throw off our scent one more time by claiming that Eureka! Ranch is actually a sister company and the location of their distillery. Okay, so maybe Eureka! Ranch has the full gamut of fermenters, cookers, stills, etc and just so happen to produce four different whiskies that just so happen to resemble common MGP mash bills. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Well if you start to look up Eureka! Springs and its operations, you’ll see a building that appears more like it contains office space instead of a place that contains all of the equipment needed for mass production of spirits. More research also highlights the fact that Eureka! Ranch is affiliated with certain brands like Noble Oak (which is a sourced whiskey that also says “Distilled in Indiana” on the label. Eureka! Ranch’s website has no mention of distilling operations. Instead, it focuses on teaching and mentoring prospective clients on how to encourage ingenuity and inventiveness in the workplace. This is starting to feel like the movie “The Usual Suspects” with all of these false leads and plot circles.
But in the end, it all comes back to MGP. I get that maybe Arby’s might not have wanted novice bourbon buyers to realize that their bourbon came from Indiana (from a distillery looks like a factory from the outside). But Arby’s and Brain Brew didn’t have to go through all of this effort to conceal where the bourbon was coming from in the first place. Just own it. We’ll still buy it.
Now that I’m done with my Master’s Thesis, it’s time to talk about the bourbon. We know this much about it: It is not marked as a Straight Bourbon, so we don’t know how old it is. It could be anywhere from 1 day old to 5 years old. I highly doubt it’s any older than that. Regardless of its age, Brain Brew takes oak staves and smokes them with Hickory, Mesquite and Pecan Smoke. Wait, they’re smoking wood with… wood? Maybe not! Barbeque Pellet Grill owners know that Traeger has perfected a technique whereby the hardwood pellets that they sell are actually a combination of red and white oak (depending on the type of pellet) with a flavoring oil added in to mimic the wood description on the bag. So when the Arby’s label says “Hickory, Mesquite and Pecan Smoke” it may be that oil with the essence of hickory, mesquite and pecan was heated up to its smoking point in a chamber where oak staves could soak it all in. Then after the oak stave gets this smoke infused into it, the stave is likely chopped up, put into a vat with the bourbon and then the pressure (and heat?) forces the liquid into the wood. Reducing pressure probably pulls it back out, completing the flavoring impregnation. This is sounding more like the Frankenstein’s Monster of bourbon than I was expecting.
So why are they doing all of this? Why not just add in the damn hickory, mesquite and pecan oil essence into the bourbon? Because then it couldn’t be called a bourbon (no additives allowed!). I suppose this is the cheapest way to achieve a smoked effect in the whiskey. I’ve seen other companies try to do the same thing, like Hard Truth Distillery in Indiana. Those guys take a new charred oak barrel and smoke the inside with other wood before filling it up with sourced whiskey and letting it finish for a while. But that would require a lot more capital and space for a small business like Brain Brew to house. Plus, this is Arby’s we’re talking about.
All of this writing now has led up to the moment of truth. What does the final product taste like? Well partner, pull up a seat, order yourself a Meat Mountain (you’ve never heard of Arby’s Secret Menu?) and find out with me. I tasted this neat, in a glencairn, while eating a giant Meat Mountain Sandwhich.
Nose: The most prominent note is Barbeque Lays Potato Chips. There’s an air of artificiality about it, but it’s still kind of fun. You can smell the wood smoke, but it’s the Mesquite that is the most dominant out of all of them. Honestly, there is a ton of sweetness to the nose, almost like it was finished in a very wet Cream Sherry Wine cask. Another way to think of it is the smell of Grenadine Syrup. There’s no escaping the youthful grainy notes either, but it’s not exactly youthful in other ways (think: hay, green wood or apple skins). The final note I start to get after a while sitting with the glass in hand is this burnt marshmallow note that is actually the highlight of the entire nose. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be there, but it’s unexpectedly welcome.
Palate: The smoke comes off as a bit artificial on the tongue. If you were expecting true barbequed meats, you will probably be disappointed. In fact, the smoke flavor has this annoying note of industrial solvent that doesn’t ruin the drink entirely, but tastes out of place. I realize that imparting smoke into liquid the way they did is bound to be difficult, but this flavor is not entirely my jam. The taste of campfire in my mouth is headlined by both the hickory and mesquite wood. If the pecan wood is supposed to taste like pecans (which I don’t think it should) then I’m not sure you’ll find any here. Surprisingly, it’s a cherry-type wood note flavor that sticks out the most even though the label does not indicate that was used at all. It’s almost too sweet to say it’s smoke
Finish: The astringency of the smoke and wood do battle with the cloying, residual sweetness. I swear this tastes like it has a tiny bit of syrup added to it. But the finish is still quite long and weird. You’ve never had anything like it. If you are a fan of smoked Old Fashioned’s, this is nowhere near that. But it sure does have the sweetness of one.
5.5 may be a rough score to give this bourbon, but it’s honestly not a bad bottle or one that you should’ve avoided buying. It’s actually kind of a fun novelty once it was all said and done. I realize that my opening sequence of finding out where this bourbon came from has little impact on the enjoyment of what’s inside of this bottle. Additionally, when compared to other bourbons that concentrate on smoke like Warbringer Warhammer, this is actually quite pleasant all around.
In a sea of gimmicks and questionable labeling, Arby’s Smoked Bourbon is still a strange site to see. The mesquite (and other types of) wood being integrated into bourbon these days is approaching “fad” levels as everyone is trying to find out how to use it correctly (Old Forester, Wild Turkey, Whiskey del Bac, Warhammer). So I’d offer this one bit of advice for any whiskey maker that is toying with the idea of releasing one in the future: skip the mesquite. I think that there are so many woods out there that could impart great flavors if it was just given a chance. But when these producers add mesquite to the mix, it always throws the final product off balance. The creosote/solvent mixture just doesn’t hit the right notes for what people are looking for in easy-drinking whiskies. This version of Arby’s Bourbon almost goes down the wrong path with it too.
I know that this bourbon sold out instantly on the website it was released on. That shows that innovation and name recognition is still something that sells products. But if you’re feeling bad about missing out on this release, I’m telling you that it’s really not a big deal. There will be more just like it. In closing, Arby’s Vodka may have tasted like Curly Fries, but their Smoked Bourbon was always for the taters.
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