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New Riff 8-Year-Old Bourbon Review

New Riff 8-Year-Old Bourbon Review

It’s taken a while, but New Riff has finally hit a major milestone.  For the first time ever, they have released an 8-year-old bourbon.  Of course, New Riff has been distilling for longer than that.  They began their operations in 2014 and began filling barrels shortly thereafter.   By August, 2018 they had a celebration party where they shared their new Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon with 2,200 people all along the Purple People Bridge that spanned the Ohio River.

Ever since then, it’s been full-steam ahead for the distillery.  Founders Ken Lewis and Jay Erisman started the distillery with a vision of being different.  They enlisted the help of Larry Ebersold, former Master Distiller at Seagram’s, to help them start the distillery from the ground up.  Larry’s first bit of advice to the duo was to find someone with lots of experience (and expertise) in fermentation.  He suggested they might take a look at brewers instead of distillers.  His rationale was that the flavor of whiskey is derived from how a mash is fermented, not how it’s distilled.  Ken and Jay followed that advice and ended up finding their guy in Brian Sprance from Boston Beer.  Larry began to teach him (and the rest of the crew) the finer points about distilling shortly thereafter.

Over the past four years, New Riff has rolled out with a steady release of experimental whiskies with increased age statements.  But for the most part, their standard Bottled-in-Bond (and Cask Strength) Bourbon and Rye Whiskies have remained only 4 or 5 years old.  This is because New Riff was trying to hold back 20-30% of their yearly production to develop enough of a stockpile to have sufficient older aged stocks when that day came.  The owners of New Riff never offered us an exact date of when they’d open up their lineup to consistently older products, but it seems like the time has come.

Not Bottled in Bond?

One of the things that New Riff has championed since day 1 has been their commitment to Bottled-in-Bond whiskies.  So much so, in fact, that their signature bottle shape actually has two different versions with one of them containing the words “Bottled in Bond” in raised glass letters.  That’s an added expense that shows they mean business.  I am mentioning this because when New Riff first announced this was an 8-year-old bottle and 100 proof, I automatically assumed it was Bottled-in-Bond.  I had to stare at the label for a while before I realized it does not state that.  Instead, I learned that the bourbon used in this release had been distilled over two separate seasons.  Therefore, they could not legally give it the BiB designation.  Does that mean they’re going to not care as much about using that designator in the coming years?  Or will they eventually move back to a BiB designator?  Time will tell!

New Riff Bourbon Cliff Notes

We already know that New Riff puts their own, err, “riff” upon each whiskey they make.  So even though Larry Ebersold taught the crew about whiskey making by replicating MGP/Seagram’s whiskies, New Riff wanted to make each recipe their own.  That’s why their 95/5 rye sees the 5% malted barley portion substituted with 5% malted rye.  Similarly, MGP’s “High Rye” bourbon mash bill – 60% corn, 36% rye and 4% malted barley – has been slightly revised to be 65% corn, 30% rye and 5% malted barley.  This is the recipe used for the bourbon in this release. 

The yeast strain is likely the same (or a slightly tweaked version) of the “V” Yeast Strain that MGP and Four Roses shares (Four Roses says theirs isn’t exactly the same as the MGP one though).  This yeast is used in everything New Riff makes from Peated Single Malts to Rye Whiskey.

Finally, it comes off their 36″ diameter copper column still and goes into the barrel at 110 proof.  From there, the barrels were probably aged in New Riff’s own warehouse.  I say “probably” because New Riff had been leasing out space at Castle & Key’s Warehouse B (the longest barrel warehouse in the world) until very recently.  When it was finished aging, the whiskey was cut to proof with no additional filtration and bottled at 50% ABV.

So how does it taste?  Let’s find out.  I sampled it neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: A rich and sweet nose of brown sugar and caramel followed by a noticeable increase in oak over the 4-year-old version.  Vanilla scents accompany the leather notes.  Fruit scents appear like apricot and a hint of blackberry + raspberry jam.  Strangely, I’m picking up a slight smokey note in the background.  Is it barrel char I’m smelling?

Palate: No prickly youthfulness here, but there is a certain liveliness about each sip.  Cinnamon notes play with allspice – why didn’t I find this in the nose?  Leather and oak also stick out in a surprising way.  Having not really experienced this much in a New Riff product before, my brain is trying to process this new experience.  But I like it!

Each sip definitely delivers the mature profile I was hoping for.  There are still many bright, standout flavors like tangerines, raspberry/blackberry jam and fresh-cut pears.  There’s even an underlying floral taste that’s hard to describe.  But overall, this is a fairly rich bourbon when you get down to it. 

Finish: The fruit and floral notes are the first to drop from the finish while a licorice flavor replaces them.  If the nose and palate made you forget this was a high-rye bourbon, the finish will definitely remind you.  A dusty cinnamon note hangs around for a while caramel and barrel char begin to fade away.  Frankly, the finish is a bit on the short side.  It doesn’t disappear immediately, but most of my favorite flavors do.  My mouth is eventually left with a little barrel char and cinnamon.  I wonder if it was bottled at barrel proof if it would last longer?

Score: 7.7/10

For four years, I’ve been reviewing various forms of New Riff Bourbon, Rye Whiskey and every experimental release i could get my hands on.  I’ve been waiting for the day when their more mature bourbons would see the light – and that day has finally come.  The whole reason we’ve been putting up with the wait has been because we were promised that it would be worth it.  Bourbon – or any whiskey for that matter – needs time in the barrel and 8 years is actually very close to what many consider to be its sweet spot.  So does it hit the sweet spot?

It feels like it does.  As I was drinking it, my mind kept wandering to one particular whiskey that it feels closest to: Four Roses Single Barrel.  Squint hard enough and you’ll see similarities in their recipes, yeast, age and proof.  And if you can see that, the pricing makes a lot more sense.  Don’t get me wrong, $68 was always going to be an “instant buy” for me when I saw the age and proof, but some people have beef with it.  The industry standard these days seems to be about $10/year aged for anyone except the largest Kentucky distilleries – so what more do you people want?  The point is this is a quality-made bourbon that I had no issues shelling out this kind of money for.    

Final Thoughts

You may sense a bit of hesitation in my review so far.  I have purposefully avoided calling this a “Great” bourbon.  For something that I had high hopes for, the extra oomph wasn’t quite there.  And perhaps my expectations were too high.  It is just 8 years old, after all.  Maybe there is another dimension to the layers of flavors that becomes unlocked at the 10 or 12 year mark.  Maybe a special release at barrel proof could help it out.  I just don’t know.  But what I do know is that New Riff’s bourbon is better when it’s older.  It’s just not mind-blowingly better.

I’m truly excited for the day where I can award a New Riff product a rating in the “8’s” but that day hasn’t quite come just yet.  It’s getting closer with every passing year and I know the focus is there.  So while I’ll say that this bottle is an absolute “must try” for this year, don’t go into it with unrealistic expectations.  This is just the beginning of a very bright future.

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Jason Gerace

Wednesday 13th of March 2024

Great write up, thanks. I have been slow to get on the New Riff train -though I have liked what I have tried - but I've been waiting for the company and the juice to feel like it has fully matured. Seems like we are getting closer.