Mile High Spirits got into the barrel-finished whiskey business back in 2022 when they introduced their first “Barrel Share” finished bourbons. The idea was that MHS would loan out freshly dumped whiskey barrels to local breweries who would use them to age beer in. Once the beer was finished and dumped, the barrel would be returned to the distillery where it would be filled back up with aged bourbon. Colorado is known for having a huge number of breweries per capita, so this was an instant success.
Now for 2023, they’ve turned their attention towards finishing their whiskey in something other than beer barrels. Thankfully, they have chosen one of the two most popular barrel finishes to try on their bourbon – Port wine (the other would be Sherry). Wyn Ferrell, Mile High Spirit’s “Secretary of Keeping It Real,” told me a couple more specifics about this particular barrel of Port wine. He said that it started as a 225 liter French Oak barrel that previously held Tawny Port. Wyn didn’t tell me if the base bourbon they used was their regular ryed variety (70% corn, 20% rye and 10% malt) or if it was their new wheated variety (just substitute the rye with three different varieties of wheat). Maybe when I taste it, I’ll recognize what it is since I recently reviewed a single barrel of their wheated bourbon.
A closer look at the bourbon and the finishing barrel
Mile High Spirits makes some great bourbon and rye whiskey. The reason why they appeal to me so much is because they take their grain selection seriously. This is also what attracts me to another local distillery that does the same thing – Spirits of French Lick. There is something to be said about a distiller that recognizes that they can shape and mold their whiskey to be something more if they just pay attention to the grains.
I’ve typically found Mile High’s Fireside whiskies to have a base profile that highlights spice, chocolate, coffee and herbal rye notes. Oddly enough, I also get a hint of bubblegum across the board. I don’t know if they share the same opinion about what their products taste like, but I’d like to think it impacted their decision on what kind of finishing barrel they were going to choose.
There are many varieties of Port wine to choose from. But in the world of Port finished-whiskey, there are really only two: Ruby and Tawny (White Port has also seen a surge in use too). The difference between the two have to do with aging techniques and oxidation. Ruby Port has less oxidation and is therefore brighter and fruitier. Tawny Port’s aging technique sees exposure to oxygen as part of its maturation process. The liquid reflects that too. It’s not as red as a Ruby Port. Instead, it takes on a brownish color. The flavor profile also becomes much more nutty with caramelized sugars and dark fruits.
I may be putting words into Mile High’s mouth, but I think that Tawny Port was the right choice for this style of bourbon. Mile High makes whiskies with a lot of acidic, earthy flavors that would pair well with a thicker, nuttier profile. The acidic and bright notes of a Ruby Port might elevate the earthy notes of the bourbon too much. So I think they chose the right Port variety for this experiment.
Alright, enough talk about what this bourbon could be like, let’s fill up our glasses and see what it’s actually like. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but the Port wine influence ends up being lighter than I thought it would be. This allows a good balance between bourbon and wine. I smell chocolate, table syrup, toffee and nuts. The wine comes off somewhat fruity – albeit with slightly darker tones. Figs and dates combine with this sort of funky minerality that might be the most memorable part about the whole nose (in a good way). You’ll see that last note come up again soon. There’s also some telltale Mile High Spirits Fireside bourbon scents on the nose too like bubblegum and fresh herbs. You’ll never be bored smelling this one.
Palate: Strangely, the wine taste that first pops to mind is more of a “Marsala” type than Port. That’s because the wine notes have such a tangy quality about them. It’s really captivating. There’s some spice here and there like ground pepper and cinnamon. It never gets out of hand because the wine controls much of the heat it could have.
On the sweet side of things, honeycomb and Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drink (along with its associated minerality) can be found. I’m able to taste pine needles and astringent green peppers – something I think stems from the high-rye nature of the base bourbon. Finally, there continues to be a very slight nuttiness that I also observed on the nose. If you were expecting to find lots of sweet berry flavors, this doesn’t really have any. It’s more concentrated on that heavy, oxidized wine flavor.
Finish: The finish has a syrupy sweetness that sticks to the inside of my cheeks. It’s a pleasant end to the experience. Some of that multivitamin minerality remains, kind of like a grape flavored Kool-Aid. There’s also lingering flavors of candy cane, bubblegum and cherry cough syrup. Most of these notes I feel can be directly attributed to the Tawny Port. Still, it’s a satisfying ending overall.
I was certain that the lighter Port notes on the nose were going to translate to a lighter Port flavor on the tongue. That was not the case here. Tawny Port notes made up about 75% of everything I tasted – at least that’s what I felt like. Still, this is a solid offering for one of the trickier barrels to finish a whiskey in. I felt like it’s a win that Mile High got their bourbon to shine through enough that I could still taste it. My last few finished whiskies from other distilleries tasted almost exclusively like the finishing cask that was used.
Mile High Spirits was a whiskey that I reached for if I was in the mood for something with a spicy kick or one that would give me a sort of outdoorsy feeling while sipping. It was at its best sipping in the spring or fall when the temperatures would get cool enough to enjoy it outdoors. But this Port-finished bourbon doesn’t invoke those same kinds of feelings. Instead, its appeal lies in its rich, dessert-like character that tones down Fireside’s lively character. And even though it’s not winter outside (yet), this would be a killer Christmas-time pour alongside a fire and some cookies.
Sipping whiskey, to me, evokes the moods and feelings that the smells remind your brain of. This is why I applaud the decision of Mile High to break away from the traditional and do something different. This Port Barrel Finish is the perfect direction to take and I think anyone who finds a way to land one of these bottles will be just as impressed as I was.
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