The history of modern day Shenk’s (Kentucky Sour Mash) Whiskey stems from an event that happened around the end of 2013/beginning of 2014. Somebody at Michter’s (based in Louisville, KY) noticed a TTB label had been filed for a product called Bomberger’s Whiskey. A new startup called Heritage Spirits (now known as Stoll and Wolfe) submitted paperwork to use the Bomberger’s name for a new whiskey product. Erik Wolfe had started the company in the hopes of continuing the tradition of Pennsylvania whiskeymaking. This caught Joe Magliocco (founder of Michter’s) and his company off-guard because they hadn’t yet thought of (or acted on) the possibility that someone else may attempt to sell whiskey under the previous two names that Michter’s was known as. So he quickly rushed two new labels named Bomberger’s Declaration Bourbon and Shenk’s Whiskey to market in an effort to stymie what he considered to be an encroachment by another company to use names affiliated with Michter’s.
Shenk’s Whiskey becomes Shenk’s Homestead Sour Mash Kentucky Whiskey
After a brief legal fight that saw Joe’s Michter’s brand come out on top, it would be another 4 years before Shenk’s was released again. This time, it sported a new label, proof and was probably a completely new product. The 2018 version was not labeled a bourbon or a rye whiskey but instead as “Homestead Kentucky Style Whiskey.” Descriptions claimed it had a rye-forward profile and was finished in French Oak barrels that had been air-dried for 24 months before being toasted. Technically, this would mean that the 2018 version of Shenk’s was very similar to the 2019 version of Michter’s Toasted Barrel Sour Mash Whiskey (except for the French Oak part and ~5 proof points).
The following 3 years (2019-2021) saw changes to Shenk’s whereby they ditched the Toasted French Oak finishing treatment and decided to age a portion of the distillate in Chinquapin Oak barrels (the same kind used in Bomberger’s Bourbon). For the 2022 release, it seems as if Michter’s has decided to put a little space between Shenk’s and Bomberger’s labels by ditching the Chinquapin Oak portion on the former and going back to French Oak. This time around, the wording on Michter’s website does not indicate that the barrel makeup of Shenk’s has been finished in toasted French Oak, but instead they actually matured a portion of it in those same barrels.
What is interesting about Shenk’s only being called a “whiskey” is that they never told us why it only fits that description. There are a lot of reasons why something is only called a whiskey when it was distilled in the US. The first might be that additives are used. The second might be that the mash bill does not contain 51% or more of any one grain. The third might be because it is aged in used cooperage. Any one of these reasons could be why Shenk’s is only labeled as a whiskey. I personally think that Shenk’s is a blend of Michter’s bourbon and rye whiskey. Once you mix the two, they cannot carry either descriptor anymore, hence the term “sour mash whiskey” being used. Why would they blend the two together? It might be as a nod to the whiskey recipe that was found in the attic of the original Pennsylvania’s distillery house that Lou Forman purchased back in the 1940s. On that piece of paper was the original recipe of whiskey they distilled before Prohibition. It called for a mash of 50% corn, 38% rye and 12% malt. Since it did not have at least 51% corn in the mash bill, it couldn’t be labeled as a bourbon.
Mixing bourbon and rye whiskey together may sound like sacrilege to some and disgusting to others, but it has been done successfully in many products before. Distilleries like Wild Turkey have given us Forgiven (and recently, Unforgotten), High West has given us Bourye and Willett gave us the Rare Release Blend of Straight Whiskies. The difference is those other brands advertise that they’re doing this. I’m not sure why Shenk’s doesn’t declare what makes it a whiskey instead of something else, but I’m almost sure they are not distilling a third mash bill at Michter’s just to make this small release.
Now that we know the history behind Shenk’s and all of its iterations, it’s time to find out what makes this year’s release special. I’m always excited about any liquid that touches French Oak and I thought the 2018 release was excellent. Will the 2022 release build on its success? Time to find out. Thanks to a generous friend, I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The nose starts off with lots of rich oak scents. Seasoned oak and oak spice come to mind the most. Fine chocolate (like being inside of a chocolatier) scents combine with vanilla. Peculiarly, I get a flat grape soda note as well. This has a lot of traits in common with a couple Eagle Rare single barrels I’ve had in the past. But the one note I was not expecting was a very slight touch of youthful distillate. This is hard to explain since it’s not necessarily green oak or herbal, but it smells closer to sawdust or cardboard. It’s not enough to throw anything off, but it is enough that whenever you do come across it, it gets your attention.
Palate: The Eagle Rare similarities continue except the mouthfeel on this one is very thick, almost syrup like. Oak is somewhat dominant throughout while baking spices and chocolate eclairs amp up the fun factor. Caramel lends its sweetness and chocolate covered espresso beans remind me immediately of the French Oak influence. Golden Graham’s cereal combines with toasted orange peel, figs and dates. I’m happy that I’m able to find fruit flavors in this one because Michter’s bourbons are typically absent of them. There is one bad trait hiding within though. I can pick up on some green wood notes that hide behind the French Oak notes and it gives it a bit of astringency every now and then. It’s like a small portion of a 2-year-old barrel got blended into the entire vat by mistake. Strange.
Finish: The finish is rather long. The whole thing is a balanced and flavorful affair that shows off lingering notes of oak, cigar wrapper, hot chocolate, vanilla cappuccino and sugar cookies. The fruit on the palate remains with some dried stone fruits. Honestly, the hot chocolate note is the star of the show.
I’m somewhat conflicted about this release of Shenk’s. It’s incredible the amount of chocolate (chocolate éclair is really the best fitting description for it) the French Oak contributes and how thick the mouthfeel is for 91.2 proof. However the small amount of youthful whiskey that pokes through occasionally really brings down the mood when you find it. It’s like watching an awesome movie in an IMAX theater in big comfy reclining seats… and then a person near you farts. It’s not like it ruined the movie, but when your friends ask how it was, you’re going to tell them about the phantom farter because it’s now a part of your memory of the movie.
I am wondering if part of the reason why I got this youthful note isn’t because this is the first year that Shenk’s will have used distillate actually made in Michter’s Shively distillery. Technically the first barrels of whiskey were filled in August 2015, but if you adjust for when they would have came of age (certainly not before 4 years old) and the estimated age of the barrels that goes into Shenk’s (my estimate is 5 to 6 years old) then it could be reasonably assumed that the 2022 release is the first iteration of this whiskey. Maybe it hasn’t been dialed in enough.
It’s hard to ever tell a person “don’t buy this whiskey” when it’s so loved. Last year’s Shenk’s was awesome. I know a lot of people that put it near the top of their “must find” lists during bourbon release season. But I think last year’s Shenk’s is much different than this year’s. It may have used distillate made at Brown Forman before Michter’s contract with them ended. Last year’s batch also used some barrels made with toasted and charred Chinquapin Oak instead of toasted French Oak. Could those factors result in a Shenk’s that won’t be what enthusiasts wanted? Maybe. I’ll just leave it at this: If you have the opportunity to only buy either Shenk’s or Bomberger’s this year, pick the Bomberger’s. If you can only find the Shenk’s at a store and it’s being sold at retail (somewhere around $90 to $100) then it’s still a good buy. But if you are looking to buy it on the secondary market, maybe this year’s is okay to miss out on. I’m sure the people at Michter’s will iron everything out for next year.
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