It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a bourbon. Aside from taking time off to write my book, I must admit that I’d gotten bored reviewing whiskey. I have continued to enjoy selecting and tasting private barrels, but I didn’t see the point of reviewing bottles few others have an opportunity to make decisions about. Limited editions are no different.
With a few notable exceptions, craft distilleries have fallen into two general categories for me: “Terrible” and “Wow, that’s not terrible.” How many times can you hear, “This will be incredible in a couple of years?” At this point, do we really need more bourbon brands?
So, in March, when Noelle Hale reached out to me to tell me all about Holladay Distillery in Missouri, I expected more of the same. Of course, it all begins with a story, doesn’t it? Back in the 1850s, Kentuckian Ben Holladay knew exactly what the limestone springs in Weston, MO were good for, and he made good use of it. Ben’s distillery, the oldest business in the Kansas City area, underwent a $10 million renovation in 2015 and started distilling bourbon again for the first time in three decades. Would I like to try their first release, a 6-year bottled-in-bond, real Missouri bourbon?
At this point I made it clear to Noelle that she was welcome to send me a sample of their bourbon, but my opinion has never been for sale. I didn’t get into this many years ago for free bourbon and it’s the last thing I need today. My reviews are fair but honest. And they’ve also gotten me blocked on social media by at least one brand I actually like (just not one of their products).
It wasn’t going to help that Holladay’s Master Distiller Kyle Merklein went to Kansas State (I’m a Kansas Jayhawk) and he doesn’t appear to have paid his dues apprenticing under any legends in the industry like one is “supposed to”. This had letdown written all over it. In fact, prior to opening the bottle, I really didn’t dig much into the history or even the production process because I knew how this was going to go, and my research wouldn’t matter. There was no way I was going to like it.
Boy, do I love being wrong. I really do.
The review is below and [spoiler alert] I liked it. So yes, it’s an enjoyable bourbon. But there are other reasons to appreciate what’s going on at Holladay that make them a brand worth paying attention to.
To begin with, this is a six-year bottled-in-bond bourbon. A bottled-in-bond bourbon only needs to age four years. In this market, it’s downright unfathomable for a distillery to wait to release their first bourbon at six years old. But six was always the sweet spot for that location, and they were unwilling to compromise.
To that end, Merklein may be a new name, but he has wisely focused on the past. Holladay bourbon has been brought back to life via detailed logs that contain the original mash bill and production process. He’s cooking the corn in two separate cookers at different temperatures to release different flavors. He’s also using a column still with a doubler. That’s the way it was done, so that’s the way they do it.
Barrels age in two seven-story ironclad rickhouses that are not temperature-controlled. There will be fluctuations of up to 30 degrees from the lowest floor to the top, not to mention the full four seasons you get here in the Midwest. Combine all this with the limestone water and you have all the ingredients for a classic bourbon.
A $10 million distillery renovation along with a custom glass whiskey bottle indicates to me they are well-funded and planning to be around for a while. I like the embossed bottle and the classic old-school label, but I admit I was surprised to find a screw cap rather than a bar top closure. That’s just a personal preference.
- DISTILLER: Holladay Distillery
- MASH BILL: 73% Corn | 15% rye | 12% Malted Barley
- AGE: 6 Years Old
- YEAR: 2022
- PROOF: 100 Proof (50% ABV)
- WHERE TO BUY: Ben Holladay Bourbon is available only in select markets in Missouri and Kansas.
NOSE: A complex blend of sweet aromatics, a little floral, some grain notes, and a bit of oak. This is a joke, right? I don’t get a nose this good from some of the major distilleries.
TASTE: There are no wild turns here; The taste is true to the nose, and it has a chewy mouthfeel that really stands out. The flavors give way to some dry oak tannins that almost wink to say, “Yeah, we didn’t rush this one out the door.”
FINISH: At 100 proof, I wasn’t expecting to be overpowered and I wasn’t. The warmth did hang around a nice little while after the sip, and I certainly enjoyed the company. I typically add a drop or two of water to a whiskey just to see how it changes, but I don’t recommend it here. Nothing is improved. The nose is the standout, and it becomes muted when you dilute the bourbon.
SHARE WITH: Your buddy who loves trying something new. It’s a fun bottle I plan to take with me on a summer getaway because it’s so versatile. I bet it makes a good cocktail too.
WORTH THE PRICE: $59.99 for a quality 6-year Bottled-In-Bond bourbon is more than reasonable.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: This is an easy bottle purchase at this price.
OVERALL: I enjoyed this bourbon and I look forward to coming back to it to see how it changes. I’m not suggesting you will be blown away, but for a first release, this is shockingly good. Great nose, good mouthfeel, and a stable balance of flavors.
Transparency and Authenticity are two words used in their marketing materials, and the Holladay Distillery embraces both. Each bottle is labeled with the distillation season and year along with the bottling date. It also lists the warehouse aging location and what percent was aged on which floor.
I’d like to thank Noelle and the folks at Holladay for inspiring me to wake from my bourbon writing hibernation. I look forward to taking a drive down I-29 to visit there sometime soon to check it out for myself. Holladay is off to a strong start.
Ben Holladay Bourbon is aged in a level three, charred, Missouri white oak barrel and is non-chill filtered. It is produced using many of our original methods including a two-grain cooker system, same distillation proofs, and barrel entry proof.
This is handcrafted small-batch bourbon, with each batch being pulled monthly from different barrels spread out on different floors of our two seven-story rickhouses and blended by our master distiller to match our strict criteria for flavor profile.
Approximately 80% of the very first batch will be sourced from barrels that were aged on the fifth floor of Warehouse C, the largest rickhouse on-site. The remaining 20% of the bourbon will come from barrels aged on the first floor of the same warehouse.
The ratios of each subsequent batch of Ben Holladay Bourbon will be unique as we embrace the variable aging between floors. The temperature can vary by as much as 30 degrees between the top and bottom floors, resulting in differences in taste between barrels that have aged in the cooler temperatures and higher humidity found on the first floor versus the warmer and drier conditions on the higher floors. These differences are most dramatic in the early years and diminish over time, but are still present at the six-year aging mark.
Due to the unique variations of each batch, the Ben Holladay Bourbon label features a blending chart to help distinguish the individual batches and allow consumers to identify the blending process used.
Disclaimer: Holladay Distillery provided Bourbon & Banter with a sample of their product for this review. We appreciate their willingness to allow us to review their products with no strings attached. Thank you.