Way back in the long ago (2015), the Whisky Waffle lads down in Tasmania put on cowboy hats took a swing through American whiskies. They did a nice job and gave the US of A a fair shake, tasting a few old standards (which failed to impress) followed by some truly interesting and innovative whiskies. Along the same vein, I’m going to look at a couple interesting whiskies available now and compare them to the standards. I’m starting with Dead Guy Whiskey, from Oregon’s Rogue Distillery. To show the difference between a craft-distilled whiskey vs. a standard industrial scale dram, I’ve got Jim Beam bourbon lined up. And Beam are industrial at 52M liters per year! In contrast, Rogue has a single tiny 550 gallon still and probably produces thousands of liters a year.
Obviously it’s not apples to apples but just because they are small doesn’t mean they are good (Rogues first efforts were not well reviewed). The comparison is also odd as Jim Beam is, by law, mostly distilled from corn and the Dead Guy is pure barley malt. But the aging would be similar (a couple years) and they are both American.
Where it comes from
Rogue started in 1988 as a craft brewer of ales, with Dead Guy as its signature offering. Famous in the mid-2000s for the aim of being ‘the most expensive’ craft-brew beer producer, Rogue has focused on quality, in sources of their ingredients and production. They’re very savvy in how they market the provenance of their ingredients (many of them from Oregon). Though Rogue is heavy on marketing, they are a genuine independent craft distiller, not just a ‘craft line’ from a larger conglomerate.
My wife and I toured their brewery a long while back and returned in 2019 to visit the distillery as well. Of the latter, we were able to see only their cooperage, as the still room was closed for maintenance. It’s a nice tour, though short–it’s a small operation–but they let you in the guts of the place right in the front door. You literally walk through the brewery to get to the gift shop and cafe. After some tastes of their brews, you see the rest of the brewery and following a walk across the parking lot to their distillery and cooperage, the tour concludes in a small bar apart from the brewhouse where they share some tastes in ‘standup’ fashion (from a platter of plastic cups). It’s a far cry from the extensive tours and fancy tasting rooms of the big Scottish producers, but it’s also more intimate–we got to walk around the floor of the cooperage and get an explanation of each step of the barrel-making process. Needless to say, they have intimate control of the quality of their barrels. For some photos of their (small) distillery operation check out their website. You can see part of the cooperage below.
The Dead Guy
We tried a few whiskies at the tour but the Dead Guy stood out. This is distilled from the same malt (sans hops) as the Dead Guy ale (2-Row, Munich & C15 Malts) and ‘free range coastal water‘ (which is pure marketing fluff). They also use a different yeast than the ale, so it is not exactly Dead Guy ale boiled down. However, it is aged (for at least 2 years) in ex-Dead Guy ale barrels, and considering the barrel is one of the prime sources of flavor, you expect a flavorful result.
Indeed, the nose is sublime, sporting a very rich maltiness, spice (nutmeg, allspice, hint of clove), and a vibe I’ll call ‘grass drying in the sun’ from that well-cared-for oak. There is none of the boggy minerality of single malt Scotch.
In comparison, the Jim Beam is quite sweet, has a bit of malt and oak character, a little green grassiness, but none of the deep spice as the Rogue. Where the Beam is mostly malt-sweet and a hint of red apples with toasty oak to balance, the Rogue palate hits with spice, a bit of heat, toasted nuts and a ton more body, with sweetness as a subtle note, not the main theme of the song as with the Beam. The heat from the alcohol stops short of being unpleasant; this is definitely a young whiskey, and lively. Its finish is moderately long and reminds me of a highland Scotch: sturdy spice, moderate but sharp tannins, with a lingering herbal component–a touch of basil and oregano. In contrast, the Beam finishes pretty blandly, with the sweet palate giving way to a bit of oakey structure and a cardboard aftertaste.
Rogue Dead Guy Whiskey, American Whiskey, 40% ABV
Nose: Malt, spice (nutmeg, allspice, clove), drying grass.
Palate: Mildly sweet malt, spice (as on the nose), a touch of red pepper. Lively: some of the heat from a youngish spirit (2 years casked).
Finish: Spice, moderate but sharp tannins, lingering savory herbs.
Bottom Line: Currently on sale from BevMo for $40 a bottle, this is a killer deal. It is normally $52, which puts Dead Guy right in the range of some good 12-year Scotch whiskies. Normally Beam is about $20 a bottle and you ask, is the Dead Guy twice as good as Beam? No, it’s far better than twice as good. Dead Guy is not Bourbon and not Kentucky Straight, it’s it’s own thing and it is quite good. Would I pick it before a Highland whisky like Glendronach? I might at that, if my mood was spicy. But not often.
Extra points today if you can show where I used ‘whisky’ where it should have been ‘whiskey’ or vice versa.