The Bard Distillery (makers of Cinder & Smoke) is a small-scale operation located in Graham, Kentucky (which is part of Muhlenberg County). Founders Thomas and Kim Bard are the eclectic duo that are behind the brand. Kim was a NASCAR driver (and currently is a Monster Truck driver) and Thomas is a mechanical engineer by trade who worked his way up the ranks of professional motorsports pitcrew jobs to eventually become a crew chief. Whether or not he was ever Kim’s crew chief is not mentioned, but it’s still interesting to see what people in the bourbon business did before the allure of brown water takes over their lives.
The Bard Distillery officially earned their Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) license in 2019. Known as DSP-KY-20064, they have been distilling spirits for at least four years now. I am unsure what kind of still they use. There are no pictures that show the completed assembly (but some pictures showing a part or two being shipped in). Based on social media, they have plans to install a 500 gallon hybrid pot/column still. As of the time of this writing, there is only one lone picture I’ve found on their Instagram showing a very primitive-looking setup that I think they’re using to test recipes until they get up and running. The whole setup appears to be located inside of the gym at the abandoned school complex they purchased in Graham.
I have no doubt that they’ve produced some kinds of distillate because there are pictures of barrel tops showing their DSP number along with batch numbers that start with the letter “X.” I’m betting dollars to doughnuts that those are indicating there is “experimental” whiskey inside. What I’m getting at is that even though I think they have distilled some whiskey, they do not have any produced and aging at the moment. In other words, every drop of spirits that has been released has been sourced.
Cinder & Smoke Founder’s Select
The earliest release under the Cinder & Smoke name was a small batch blend of 13 year old barrels sourced from Tennessee (so it’s you-know-who). It was released in December 2019. 3 of those 13 years were spent aging in Kentucky – presumably at whatever location the barrel broker was storing them at before Thomas and Kim bought them.
Once they purchased the barrels, they transported them to Graham to batch them up. Instagram pictures show that there are at least four ~1,000 gallon stainless steel blending vats inside of the gym that are used to dump the barrels into.
2 years later, in December 2021, Cinder & Smoke Founder’s Reserve (Batch 1) was released. This used a new bottle shape with a new label that told us how many bottles were in the batch as well as the proof. It also said it was Kentucky Straight Bourbon – not Tennessee. What’s strange is that they’ve elected to hand-write the proof in, yet all of the batches so far have remained 100 proof. Couldn’t this just be printed on the label instead?
Who distilled the barrels used for Founder’s Select and how old were they?
No clues exist as to where Bard Distillery sourced the barrels that go into Founder’s Reserve. All we know is that it was distilled and aged in Kentucky. I have assumptions that it was distilled at Barton Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Another logical choice could be it was made at Bardstown Bourbon Company. Either way, I think it was a distillery in Bardstown not only because of the city’s many distilleries having a history of sourcing bourbon, but also due to Thomas Bard’s lineage of being the 4th Grandson of the founder of Bardstown.
Speaking of age, there is also no mention of how old the barrels are. We know they are at least four years old, but if they are older than six, that could rule out a lot of distilleries that they could have come from – including Bardstown Bourbon Company. So I scoured their social media for any more clues – and found exactly one. It was on this barrel – you can read a “17H16A” next to the word “Date.” To me, this would indicate the barrel was distilled in August, 2017. The Bard Distillery was not distilling in 2017 so we know this is a sourced barrel with their DSP number painted on the rest of the head.
If we use August 2017 as the date that the barrels were produced – it’s a good bet that these are what make up Founder’s Select. And if the third batch of Founder’s Select was released sometime around May, 2022, that means that Batch 3 is a few months shy of being five years old.
Five year old bourbon for $100 is a hard sell. I know the packaging looks pretty nice (clean design, hand-written information on the bottom, etc) but wow, what is up with all of these companies selling five year old sourced bourbon for $100 or more these days? I’m immediately wondering if these are either the choicest barrels that have ever been sourced or if this is more of a necessity to pay off the high cost of starting a distillery – especially when you’re having to renovate a 100 year-old school.
Either way, I’m going to find out. Let’s see how this bourbon tastes. I sampled it neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Scents of caramel, leather and rye spice offer some standard bourbon notes. The leather note may be an early sign that this is, in fact, Barton distillate. There’s also a note much like zucchini bread. If you think that scent is impossible or made up, I assure you from a lifetime of eating my mom’s that it is very similar to banana bread sans bananas. Scents of baking spices are coupled with a bit of lemon/citrus zest. The nose is pretty good overall but there is a cardboard note that lurks in the background that is tainting the experience.
Palate: The baking spices I found on the nose are unleashed on the palate. Only they’re not really there to provide an interesting contrast – they’re wild and untamed. Cinnamon in particular is hot and there’s not much sweetness here to even it all out.
Raw, grain-forward notes and unbaked dough signal a bourbon that was not ready to be dumped yet. Surprisingly, there is a host of fruit flavors that I’m picking up on to include cherry, banana runts, grape soda, lemon rind and licorice. While those might all sound very enticing, they did not taste their best due to that lack of sweetness.
Finish: The finish has residual notes of fruit, grain and spice. There is also a lot of astringent green wood. Yeasty dough has been sprinkled with black pepper and red pepper flakes while cherry hides in the background. Molasses tries to sweeten the flavors, but has a hard time keeping up.
One thought I had while tasting this was just how similar it feels to a bottle of My Old Kentucky Home – a sourced bourbon produced by the Boundary Oak Distilling Company. It’s just not good. If this somehow is older than five years old, there’s no way it tastes like it. The barrels also taste flawed – partly because the tannins taste raw and unbalanced. There’s a lot of green wood and astringency in here. The one upside is the fruits are bright and attractive – but that’s the way most young bourbons taste anyway.
Additionally, one look at this in a glass next to a product like Evan Williams 1783 shows me that the Cinder & Smoke is actually very light in color. The pictures I took are much too generous but editing it to show more of a true color would have dulled down the other colors just as much. So you’ll have to trust me when I say that the liquids appearance is closer to straw than brown.
This is a flawed, thin whiskey that is a terrible value. I’m all for new distilleries supporting their start-up costs by sourcing barrels – but they need to be better than this. At $50 this would be too expensive. But at $100, it’s just ridiculous.
In this strange world we live in, there will be people that will want to convince me that this was a fine bourbon, maybe they’ll even call it a great bourbon. I am always shocked at the feedback I hear sometimes. There should be no disputing this one though, this is not good bourbon and you are being swindled if you decide to lay down your hard-earned money for a bottle. What this industry needs is some sort of rule where the age must be on the label no matter what. I think if more people knew just how young this is and tastes like, that they wouldn’t buy it. We have to stop the madness of $100+ five year old bottles before it becomes the new norm.
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