I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a frequent bourbon drinker, and I have to look up the code words that go along with bourbons—in this case, “straight.” According to Angel’s Envy, to be sold as “whiskey” in America, a spirit must adhere to the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906). To wit: the spirit has to be “straight,” that being defined by certain proofs at casking and bottling, being cut with only water and, most importantly, aged for 2 years. In this review, we’re looking at a 5-year-old bourbon. That doesn’t sound like much aging to a Scotch drinker (minimum 3 years in Scotland but 10-to-12 is more common) but there is the climate to consider.
Stein distillery (website) is a small, craft distiller, one of many Northwestern distilleries launched in the last 10 years. Stein itself opened in 2009, and the distillery is located in Joseph, OR—which is on the eastern edge of the state. This is important as a lot of folks imagine the cool rain forests of the Pacific Northwest when they think of Oregon. Joseph, on the edge of the Wallow-Witman National Forest, is in an area characterized by summers that are sunny and hot during the day, cool at night, with cold winters and dry weather year round. In other words, high plains (it is over 4,000 feet in elevation). The seasonal temperature variations are similar to the traditional bourbon-making areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. Given the higher temperatures than Scotland, you don’t need as much time to age (higher temperatures cause chemical reactions to speed up) and the fact that American bourbon is aged in newly made, charred oak casks means you are going to get more flavor (and different flavors) from the wood in less time than from a second-use barrel as common in Scotland.
Given the temperature profile, we expect Stein’s bourbon to be similar to Kentucky bourbon. However, western Oregon does not have the oppressive humidity* of the traditional Bourbon-making areas so I would expect the angel’s share is higher for Stein than it would be for an eastern bourbon. Might it also cause more volatile compounds to escape more quickly during aging, resulting in a gentler nose? Perhaps.
Stein does not call out the mash bill though by calling their spirit Bourbon they are required to have at least 51% corn. As you can see from the photo, they do small batches (“micro-distilled” in marketing terms). They even hand-number the bottles. Stein is not a high volume producer.
So what do you get? At $50 for 750ml, you are paying a premium price for American whiskey, but then it is aged longer than most and one expects the micro-distillers can take special care over their ingredients. I’d say they hit the mark. Compared to the mass-produced whiskey giants like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels (hilariously reviewed—not positively—by Whisky Waffle here and here), Stein’s bourbon delivers a remarkably subtle flavor profile. To a Scotch drinker, it is sweet throughout, but not sickly sweet. I suspect the grassy nose and green oakey palate are due to the new white oak American barrels, and the extra time spent in such barrels. But you have to ask, why don’t the big producers provide similarly subtle notes? As with as good Scotch, it’s up to the quality of the barrels and, again, being a small producer means Stein can take more care over the casks as they do with ingredients.
Stein Distillery Straight Bourbon, 5 years, 40% ABV
Nose: Prairie grass, freshly cut oak, clove, cinnamon.
Palate: Vanilla, green oak, wheat toast, almonds, a bit peppery, with moderate tannins cleaning up afterwards.
Finish: Fairly lengthy, green oak coming to the fore, vanilla still strong, tannins fading gently, leaving vanilla at the end.
Bottom Line: An interesting, refreshing flavor profile. A little sweet, but not cloying and leavened well. I’d really like to know what a Jim Beam fan thinks of it.
* Not my words, that’s what Accuweather is calling for this week in Clermont, KY.