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Ben Holladay Bottled-in-Bond Missouri Straight Bourbon Review

Ben Holladay Bottled-in-Bond Missouri Straight Bourbon Review

Last year I was beginning to see a couple new bottles pop up on the shelves around Indianapolis wearing the name Ben Holladay. The one thing that really stood on the label was that it was bourbon from the state of Missouri. Initially, I ignored these bottles thinking of them as another craft distillery that was pushing itself into a crowded marketplace. I was intrigued about one part, though. They all seemed to indicate they were 6-years-old. I thought that was pretty unusual for a new distillery.

Then the reviews started to pop up and the hype began to build. I was intrigued. But I don’t usually trust initial reviews on products. I say this as a reviewer who understands how the system works. Sometimes those early reviews are from writers who have received a media sample and may not be willing to tell the hard truths (for fear of getting cut off from that distillery). Sometimes the reviews are rushed and they haven’t had enough sessions with the bottle to fully grasp all of its nuances. I figured this was the case with all of the early Ben Holladay reviews.

Where did Ben Holladay come from?

One day, curiosity got the best of me. I looked up the Ben Holladay operation and was shocked to see a distillery that looked like it was picked up from Kentucky and plopped down on the western side of Missouri. When I say that they have a picturesque campus (or at least a photogenic campus), I’m not lying. The place looks beautiful.

As for their distilling operation, I was surprised to find that Ben Holladay (part of the McCormick Distilling Company) had been around for a long time. Over 150 years to be exact. And while the distillery has seen its fair share of owners since then, it wasn’t until it was acquired by Virgin Island Rum Industries Ltd in the early 90s that it began truly large-scale distilling operations. No whiskey was made after the acquisition, just grain neutral spirits like vodka, gin and some clear spirits like rum.

But a $10 million investment (wait, that’s it?) in 2015 brought about changes that would prepare the distillery for the production of whiskey. Based on the pictures I’ve seen, this is when the 18″ diameter copper Vendome continuous beer still was installed. It is assumed that the two primary barrel houses – Rickhouse B and Rickhouse C – were also rehabilitated to begin storing thousands of barrels.

Tours began in 2016 after the renovations were complete. For the first time, the public got to witness the batches of bourbon being produced. The bourbon, however, would not be ready for several more years

What makes it a “Missouri Straight Bourbon Whiskey?”

You may have noticed the label for this bottle claims it’s a “Missouri Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” But what does that mean? There are lots of states that have regulations concerning the process of creating a particular whiskey in order to wear the state’s name on the bottle. Tennessee is the most widely-known one with their requirements for being called a “Tennessee Whiskey.” But for the most part, being a straight whiskey from a particular state usually means it must be made from start to finish in that state.

Missouri took those standards and went two steps further. In order to be called “Missouri Straight,” a distiller must source corn from inside Missouri. Also, any barrels used to age the whiskey must be manufactured within its borders. That certainly seems convenient for one company in particular: Independent Stave Company. They’re one of the largest oak barrel producers in the US and their operations are headquartered in Lebanon, Missouri. Hmmm, I smell the work of lobbyists.

Ben Holladay Bottled in Bond Bourbon Specs

One of the most interesting things about how Ben Holladay bourbon is made is that it has a still proof of 120 and a barrel entry proof of 118. Now unless I’m mistaken about those numbers, this is actually incredibly rare. The only other bourbon I know of that has a still proof that close to a barrel entry proof is Jim Beam. Specifically, it’s the technique they use to make Booker’s Bourbon (and only Booker’s Bourbon).

The story is that Booker Noe wanted no water to be added at any point after distillation for the bourbon wearing his name. Since the maximum barrel entry proof allowed by law for bourbon is 125, that meant that he would adjust the still to have all of the condensed white dog come off no higher than 125 proof. From there it went directly into the barrel with no additional water to cut it. And after it was done aging, it would be bottled up just the way it was. This was to create the maximum amount of flavor.

For comparison, almost all other major distilleries have a still proof between 130 and 140. Then they all cut it with water until it’s under the maximum barrel entry proof required by law.

Anyway, this version of Holladay Bourbon was aged for 6 years in 55 gallon (not a typo, apparently) barrels with a #3 Char Level. Those barrels were sourced from Independent Stave Company (of course). The mash bill contains 73% corn, 15% rye and 12% malted barley. Literally everything I just said seems to follow common-sense distilling practices and recipes. There are no weird grains or crazy distillation/aging techniques going on here. So does that make it taste just like bourbon from one of the big distilleries? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: A very polished nose full of caramel scents, bread pudding and vanilla sauce. One fruit note pops up immediately and it’s orchard fruits (primarily apples) even though I do eventually find some light cherry scents and also a faint whiff of banana peel later on. Rye spice notes are also easy to find like cinnamon and nutmeg. Be aware that if you can allow this to set in your glass for 15-20 minutes, it seems to open up exponentially.

Palate: There are a lot of really noticeable baking spices up front. The cinnamon has a bit more heat to it than a typical Kentucky bourbon, The oak doesn’t shy away from your tastebuds, you’ll find some of it, too. Rye-forward flavors like rye bread and herbal undertones can be tasted throughout. Fruit flavors center on stone fruits and a bit of lemon/orange peel. There is a pleasant layer of caramel sweetness that gives good balance. While I’m very impressed with everything I’m tasting, there is still a bit of youthfulness that hasn’t fully been aged out of the liquid. I’m only saying this to keep your expectations in check.

Finish: The baking spices are still the star of the show. Long after the sip is complete, I’m still tasting cinnamon, anise, nutmeg and some clove. Tannins from the oak are relatively balanced, never tipping towards dry or astringent. Could they be better after a couple more years? Yes, but this has made excellent progress after just 6 years. That’s a welcome change from other new distillers I’ve tried. The finish retains enough sweetness throughout with caramel and a hint of nut butter. The fruit notes have largely disappeared which is a bummer, but overall it’s satisfying.

Score: 7/10

I may take some flak for this comment, but I often judge a new bourbon brand by how similar it tastes to similar Kentucky bourbons. Competitors to this bottle would include Heaven Hill 7 Year BiB, Four Roses Single Barrel and Old Forester 1897. With those three in mind, I’d say that this is a worthy adversary to all of those.

It’s not often that a new distillery delivers a product this competent. The number one thing I found so impressive is their patience in waiting for basically all of the youthful notes to mature into such an impressive bourbon. First impressions are important to enthusiasts and my first impression was “wow!”

Final Thoughts

It’s obvious that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill craft operation. This distillery was purpose-built to keep up with the big boys. And nothing says “I’ve arrived” quite like a six-year-old Bottled in Bond product. Even other distilleries this size (think New Riff, Green River or maybe Rabbit Hole) didn’t hold back their stocks for six years. Four was about as long as they could go. In that sense, Ben Holladay didn’t just arrive to the bourbon scene, they came into town on a Harley Davidson, revving their engine and giving the finger to everyone they passed by. Now everyone knows that they mean business.

If you’re like me and you walk through your local liquor store looking for something new because you’ve already tried the other guys, then Ben Holladay should absolutely be your next purchase. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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