The resurrected Hirsch brand continues their march towards a more diversified portfolio with the addition of their newest label: A Cognac Cask finished bourbon. Last year Hirsch surprised us with a large release of single barrels that were definitely sourced from Willett. These high-proof knockouts delighted many fans of the brand who couldn’t seem to find a bottle of Willett Family Estate in their area. For the most part, the Single Barrels were well-received although they were nowhere near the elite status of the sourced barrels from Willett’s heyday.
Earlier this year, we learned that Hirsch must not have used all of the Willett barrels they had sourced. This news came by way of a press announcement that they were set to release those same barrels but with the twist that they had been finished in Cognac Casks. For the most part, this release has been somewhat unheralded among reviewers. I don’t know if it’s the fact that enthusiasts are starting to get their fill of sourced, 6-to-8 year old Willett or if the finishing barrel that Hirsch selected was not appealing enough.
Hirsch The Cask Strength Finished in Cognac Barrels
For myself, I am a big fan of Cognac finishes for bourbon. I find their fruity, almost “white grape juice” addition just what most of those bourbons need. Jim Beam and Heaven Hill are two such bourbons that need help in the fruit flavors department. But the more I got to think about it, Willett’s own bourbon needs it too. I find too much cinnamon and cornbread notes in standard Willett ryed bourbon and not enough fruit. Plus, the mouthfeel for Willett remains on the thinner side. My hopes were that the Cognac casks would improve that somehow – maybe by adding a syrupy viscosity to the final mingling.
One final interesting fact I want to cover before getting into the tasting notes: This bourbon was finished in these Cognac Casks for 18 months. That seems, by what I’ve seen in the industry so far, to be entirely too long for a bourbon to be finished. Granted, maybe there was an official taster who closely monitored how each barrel was coming along but I feel as if that couldn’t be the case here. I offer Bardstown Bourbon Company as an example of a company who produces quite a few finished bourbon variants that see a set period of time (also 18 months) to rest in the secondary barrel. Most end up tasting like a barrel proof version of whatever the finishing barrel was.
Will Hirsch fall down this same trap? Or is Willett’s own distillate be up to the task? It’s time to find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: For 18 months in a finishing cask, I’m honestly surprised that my first sniff immediately reminds me of the unmistakable scent of Willett bourbon. And by that, I’m talking about the cinnamon undertones, slightly rye-forward profile (star anise) and lighter overall style of distillate. The Cognac cask does impart its fair share of fruit the further I dig with notes of berries, brandy-soaked raisins and grenadine syrup. There is a musty wood smell that I am going to chalk up to the 30+ year old Cognac cask’s well-soaked wood. I also find other scents like lemon meringue, chocolate and cornbread with butter. The nose has a lot going on but it still doesn’t feel “whole.” It’s still like drinking two distinctly different spirits blended together.
Palate: The flavors I’m finding are all surrounded by some intense, yet well-rounded heat. This is to be expected at 127 proof. Red pepper flakes and cinnamon Red Hots play nicely with flavors of Heath Bars and Tootsie Rolls. The Cognac Casks seems to be combining with the rye grain notes to morph the fruit flavors I’m getting on the tongue. There are still more berry notes (blueberries) but they’re tart. Speaking of tart, that’s how the citrus notes come off too. Cherry Sangue Morlocco mixes with licorice and there is a honeyed sweetness that envelopes it all. I’m still surprised that even through all of these notes, I can still pick up on a sort of youthful green wood note and a decent amount of malt notes.
Finish: The finish is richer than I remember the regular Hirsch SiBs being. And that’s a good thing because I think they needed some help in that regard. Some rye notes show themselves in the form of mint and menthol. But the dry oak adds a barrier to the cognac influence that makes it seem as if the sweet, grape-forward flavors didn’t exactly mingle with the bourbon notes that well. The finish shows a double-sided spirit with floral, grape-forward flavors on ones side and cinnamon-forward bourbon on the other.
My previous experiences with Cognac-finished bourbon revolves almost entirely around applications to MGP bourbon. I am less experienced with other styles of bourbon receiving this treatment but am always willing to try. Bardstown Bourbon Company Ferrand is one such bottle that did it well. But I can’t say that I had the same fondness for Hirsch’s attempt using Willett’s bourbon. I think that a good attempt was made but it didn’t necessarily come off as being the complete package. The Hine casks helped to add the fruit that I wanted to find and even the overall mouthfeel. But Willett’s original recipe bourbon does not seem to be the most suited to accepting a barrel finish.
I think that the problem with this batch of Willett bourbon centers on the fact that the proof is too high. That’s a strange thing to hear coming out of my mouth (a person who loves high proofs) but it seems like Willett distillate gets thinner the higher in proof it gets. And while I have no scientific basis for what I’m about to say next, I think that high proofed bourbons have a hard time allowing a secondary barrel finish to show through. This may be the case here.
There are many fans of modern-day Willett that won’t care what I have to say about this bottle. That’s fine and they will buy it anyway. I think this is a very good product and would be fine to buy at retail prices but I don’t think you have to chase one down on the secondary market or feel like you’ve missed something monumental. Hirsch did what they could with the barrels that were leftover from the single barrel release they did last year. I still look forward to seeing what else they can cook up for their brand in the years to come.
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