REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey
“A Small Batch Handcrafted American Whiskey”
Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. (Bakersfield, CA) – 90 Proof

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
The Streets of Bakersfield

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Bowen’s Whiskey (45% ABV)

Merle Haggard may be considered Bakersfield’s most famous son, but it was Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens who opined that “you don’t know me but you don’t like me” on its streets. Today those streets are running with more than country music and oil, and if you don’t know Bowen’s Whiskey, I’d counsel you—as Dwight and Buck did—not to sit and judge, but to get to know a whiskey that’s not trying to be something else, just itself. That famously independent and unique Bakersfield sound may just be giving way to an equally independent and unique Bakersfield taste.

Bowen’s brandishes these qualities proudly, advertising somewhat indefinably that it’s meant for “trailblazers that seek and value true guts, quick wit, and a smooth finish.” While these tastes aren’t the standard ones to land on a drinker’s palate, Bowen’s doesn’t seem to mind. Their entire brand is built on boldness: “It just is what it is,” they say, and “you either like it or you don’t.” Bold and uncompromising is a great way to build a brand, but it can also be alienating, and Bowen’s is careful not to push too many people away: “We’re known as the whiskey that both scotch and whiskey drinkers appreciate.”

There’s a reason they say “scotch and whiskey” rather than “scotch and bourbon.” Using techniques from a fifth generation moonshiner, Bowen’s starts with a 100% corn base and ages with “reclaimed, fire ravaged oak” from California’s own forests. The result, every bit as inimitable as Wade Bowen, founder, could hope for, is exactly what you would expect if a corn liquor moonshiner made scotch. It has the bite of a young corn spirit with the smoke and earth of the Old World.

But not, I have to say, immediately. The first glass you pour from the bottle is sweet, much more American than Scottish. Let it open up a little and it jogs memories, like the smoke that lingers in your flannel shirt after a night around the bonfire. Put a cube of ice in there and you’ll swear you’re still sitting on a stump swapping stories and cooking hotdogs. The more time this stuff has outside the bottle, the more like a scotch it becomes. The nose is unsurprisingly woody, like freshly split oak and bittersweet chocolate. And the first sip is smooth—very little spice up front, a bit more pine than oak, and truly earthy. The finish is coppery and smokey and dense, even at 90 proof. There’s more spice at the end than at the start, and all that smoke and spice lingers.

bowens2.jpgIf you came here looking for something you couldn’t find anywhere else, Bowen’s is trying real hard to be that something, and coming damned close.

Value: High—at $39, this is a really attractive craft offering at a mainstream price.

Drinkability: Medium-High—Scotch fans will find this subtle and familiar with its own character, but it will challenge those who favor bourbons and ryes.

Overall Rating: 8.3

 

**Special thanks to Jo Bowen at Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. for sharing a sample of their whiskey with us.**

 

REVIEW: Breaker Bourbon Whisky

Breaker Bourbon Whisky
90 Proof – Ascendant Spirits

There’s a war coming. Strike that. It’s already here—and I’m not talking about humans vs. mutants. (Though, if Professor X and Magneto could’ve just talked things out over a dram or two of the good stuff, who knows what might’ve been?) In the bourbon world, nothing gets a forum riled up faster than a discussion of traditional, mainstream distillers (that is, the “big boys”: Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, etc.) vs. “the crafts.” From Florida to Vermont to California, new craft distilleries seem to be popping up all over the place. That said, we all know the one thing all solid bourbon has in common is age. But time is precisely what a new operation doesn’t have as much of when just getting started. So almost without fail, this debate will circle back to the fact that many craft labels begin life with sourced distillate, making the operation an “NDP,” or, “non-distiller producer.” Breaker Bourbon Whisky is one of these products—and they aren’t interested in hiding it.

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Breaker Bourbon Whisky – 45% ABV

The nose on Breaker is sweet and airy; secondary hints of vanilla, spice, oak, and smoke all swirled in a primary base of rich caramel. Despite the sweetness and its solid 45% ABV measurement, the distinct smell of corn that often comes with younger whiskey is largely absent. As it turns out, this lack of corn on the nose is also an indicator of flavor. The first sip of Breaker is a rush of caramel with a perfect, fleeting note of rye spice and black pepper on the tip of the tongue. The sweetness will linger upfront as more rye and oak (and more of the former than the latter) are released on the back of the tongue. The finish is exceptionally smooth. It’s a mix of oak and mellow smoke. This is a soft, pleasant warmth—not a burner by any means. In other words, if you’re looking for the “oomph” of a Noah’s Mill, Antique 107, or Booker’s, this is just a different can of worms.

Two things struck me as I completed the second tasting of Breaker for this review. First, this is a bourbon with a complex flavor profile, but they seem to have released in sequence. The nose made perfectly clear that caramel would seize the first sip—and it did. The nose also presaged that, eventually, I’d be hit with smaller clusters of vanilla, rye, oak, and smoke. To me, the caramel overtones mask most of the vanilla—you sort of have to work to find it—but the rye and then the oak/smoke also appeared in order toward the back of the tongue and then on the finish. The second striking feature of Breaker is the texture. I cannot overemphasize the silkiness of this bourbon. From start to finish, this is utterly smooth stuff—something I’ll fully confess to not expecting from a five year old product. (Note: for anyone already familiar with Breaker, my bottle was #1646 from batch #19.)

So how did a bourbon that started life in the Ohio Valley but was aged and bottled on the Central Coast of California turn out so well? The short answer is that while distilling is unquestionably an important part of the production process, so too are aging and blending. And when it comes to aging and blending, the folks at Ascendant Spirits know what they’re doing. As I mentioned above, Breaker is aged five years after being twice distilled (copper pot) and each batch is then culled from eight barrels (as opposed to the dozens or even hundreds that might be included in a small batch from a much larger distillery). This is where a relatively smaller operation can put size to its advantage and hone in on flavor in very small batches. Plus, with a little help from Cal Poly (praise science!), I think it’s fair to say that Ascendant has figured out how to maximize Buellton’s temperature fluctuations and put their natural climate features to work.

BBW.jpgWill a high-quality “NDP” like Breaker Bourbon Whisky help end the feud between mainstream and craft, new operations vs. old powerhouses? Can it ultimately bring balance to the Force? Probably not. And that’s actually OK. The bottom line here is that we, as drinkers, should probably be more worried about the quality of what comes out of the bottle and how it tastes than in endlessly nitpicking the process—so long as the people putting it in the bottle are honest about how it got there. This maxim seems to work just fine for NDPs like Willett, Jefferson’s, Blanton’s, High West, Michter’s, and the Van Winkle line, so why not relax a bit and take a chance on one of the new kids?

Value: High—At around $40, this is a can’t miss addition to the bar.

Drinkability: Highest—this is a recommended pour for anyone but, owing to smoothness and sweetness, also a great introductory pour for new bourbon drinkers.

Overall Rating: 8.9

Special thanks to Kyle Herman at Ascendant Spirits for providing a review sample. Also stay tuned for wheated and port barrel finished incarnations of Breaker—coming to B&B soon!