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Ben Holladay Bourbon Lore 18 Barrel Blend Review

Ben Holladay Bourbon Lore 18 Barrel Blend Review

It’s no secret that bourbon personalities have been putting their names on single barrel picks for years now. Some of them, like the guys over at Bourbon Pursuit, have even gone as far as creating their own companies in an effort to take full creative control of their own products. But recently it appears that single barrel picks are waning in their popularity among enthusiasts. I personally think that the market is too saturated with them and they’re getting repetitive. How many Starlight or Maker’s Mark picks do you really need in your collection?

So a new trend is emerging in its place: custom blends. The benefits come into focus after you look at the shortfalls of single barrel picks. First off, they can’t be improved upon. What’s in the barrel is what you get. Second, what if all of the barrels you can choose from are mediocre? You either have to lower your standards or walk away with nothing at all. And the biggest one is that single barrels usually have a very small number of bottles that come out of it. If you’re picking for a large group or store, a lot of people will inevitably miss out.

So what’s the answer? Customizing your own blend. You can virtually build the taste profile you want while also creating enough product to meet the demand for your whiskey. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s been relatively rare until only recently.

Bourbon Lore

I’ve been loosely tracking this Bourbon Lore release for a few weeks now. I knew it was happening, I knew it involved blending together 18 barrels and I knew a familiar name who was involved (David Jennings over at Rarebird101). But I still didn’t understand what Bourbon Lore was. I assumed it was a group of super-influencers who were using their collective clout to make and sell whiskey blends. Then I was pointed in the direction of the Bourbon Lore website.

While scanning the associated names and pictures of the BL Team, I felt like I didn’t recognize a single person (aside from David and possibly Clay Risen). The team seemed to heavily focus on content production, marketing, tech and business operations. Did any of them actually drink bourbon before joining the team?

Depending on your point of view, this is either refreshingly different from the typical talking beards that dominate WhiskeyTube (seriously, look at the Bourbon Lore pictures – have you ever seen such a lack of facial hair with something involving bourbon?) OR it comes across as big business minds seeing an opportunity to make some money within a traditional social activity/hobby. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Bourbon Lore is the brainchild of Mason Walker – aka “The Arizona Ascot” – a wealthy antiques collector and former CEO with an extensive collection of whiskey. The story reads that one day he was looking around at his expensive bourbon collection and wondered how he could turn it into something that made him money.

His plan to do so involved starting an exclusive club. He would pull in talent that would help him produce and promote (one of his crew has experience with Nike ads) the club. From there, they’d sell memberships for experiences and access to taste rare bottles. There is also the opportunity to do barrel picks. All of this comes at a price, but it’s clearly something that didn’t exist on this level just yet.

Bourbon Lore is still very new, so Mason’s team wanted to do a big project that would have lots of visibility. Doing a single barrel pick or two was probably too small to gain much attention, but a large blend that produced thousands of bottles could be the ticket. However, the big Kentucky/Indiana/Tennessee distillers didn’t have programs to accommodate something like that. Risking it all on a small craft distiller might be a recipe for disaster if the bourbon wasn’t up to snuff. What they needed was a distiller that was neither too large or too small. What they needed was…

The Ben Holladay/Bourbon Lore Collaboration

As I detailed in my previous reviews, Ben Holladay is either a gigantic craft distillery or one of the smallest big distilleries. However you choose to look at it, the bourbon they have been making over the past 8 years has been very well-received. Luckily for Bourbon Lore, Ben Holladay accepted their request to work with them to create a large blend of barrels. They chose the online retailer to handle the logistical side and then selected various high-profile WhiskeyTuber’s to send media samples to review the final product and hype up the release.

The barrels that made up the 18 barrel blend are at least 7 years old. Ben Holladay bourbon first came off the still in 2016, so this is about as old as it gets from their rickhouses. The barrels they chose from was a ryed bourbon recipe which has a mash bill of 73/15/12. No word was given on if the team had the opportunity or even wanted to blend with Holladay’s wheated bourbon (which has a growing fanbase behind it).

The final blend was bottled at cask strength (or is it called Rickhouse Proof?) and was given a sticker that indicated the exact bottle number out of 2,982 total bottles. The side label indicates that the oldest barrel was distilled on March 9, 2016 and the youngest barrel was filled on December 19, 2016. The barrels were only aged in Rickhouse C (one of two rickhouses that Holladay uses) and came from floors 1, 2, 4 and 5.

So how did the blend turn out? Thanks to my friend Mike, I get to find out. Let’s get to tasting. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: A sweet, likeable nose that hits all of the traditional bourbon scents. Caramel, vanilla and cinnamon French Toast sticks. I can find a hint of white chocolate and curiously, a light wood scent. Not quite oak, but more like sandalwood. It has more in common with that wood aromatically than oak in my opinion. Finally, I can find a little bit of grits throughout.

Palate: Baking spice flavors are the first ones I find on my tongue. Cinnamon and brown sugar-covered biscuits combine with clove, allspice and black pepper. The baked goods flavor continues with a notes of Johnnycakes (or Hoe Cakes depending on where you’re from). One of the more unique notes is Birch Beer (the less-sweet cousin of Root Beer).

For fruit notes, I find cherry lozenges, orange flesh and pear skin. For tannins, I find plenty of oak, which can be drying at time. In fact, the oak combines with this feeling of chalk that makes for a wholly unique sensation as I chew it. It’s like it creates friction between my teeth and cheeks. Strange. I also find a hint of dry hay while I chew as well. Nothing offensive, but just unique enough to stand out.

Finish: The finish becomes a bit drier as it loses some of the sweetness. As a whole, the oak is the star of the finish and it tastes much older than its stated age. There is a lot of old leather and a bit of ash that I can taste as well. I wasn’t expecting that for a 7 year old bourbon. The heat and spice lingers throughout, never letting you forget the proof. The fruit leaves with the exception of a little bit of cherry.

Score: 7.8/10

This was a well-blended bourbon that hit all the right notes when I tasted it. If I had to pick a bourbon it most closely resembled, I would probably go with Old Forester based on the drying oak notes and spicier profile. I found it extremely drinkable with a lot of punch. It’s a bourbon that was blended to hold your attention.

The BL team and Holladay’s Master Distiller did a great job with ensuring that no one note was dominant and that there was a good mix of fruit, oak and spice. The one thing that jumped out to me that I circled in my notes was how this bottle seemed to taste about 2 years older than it actually is. At the same time, it also felt like it had 10 more proof points than it actually did. Depending on how you like your bourbon, this could be the kind of profile you were looking for.

Final Thoughts

Bourbon Lore’s introduction to the bourbon community was a huge success both from a sales point (this sold out instantly when it launched) and from a hype point. Online reviewers seemed to trip over themselves to see who could give it the best review. I was skeptical myself, but the bourbon is really quite good with no obvious flaws. Are there things it could be better at? Sure. They could have added a couple more sweet barrels to reduce some of the dry traits. Additionally, I feel like the fruit notes could have a bigger role. But as it stands, this is a bourbon that should be worth the $100 that it was originally sold for.

This isn’t the last we’re going to hear of Bourbon Lore. I’m sure there will be changes in the future with the products they do and the brands they do them with. I also wonder if we won’t see some copycats with their business model. But the fact that they came out swinging with a blend like this shows that they mean business and I can only hope it will help to pave the way for more interesting things in the future.

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