We Tasted Four ‘Vintage’ Whiskeys Made By A Wine Sommelier

Is there a best age for bourbon? 12 years is often cited as ideal. After that, things get pretty oaky. Fans of Eagle Rare 17 would beg to differ, of course, and super old expressions certainly have their (very rich) aficionados. Unaged whiskeys have made a comeback in recent years, too. As a baseline, bourbons must see at least two years in the cask, but four is more typical; whereas the catchall term “whiskey” has no minimum age.

Now Pinhook — a bespoke label with roots in New York and Kentucky — wants to expand the discussion of whiskey aging. And they’re doing it by bringing the wine term “vintage” into the conversation and releasing their core line on an annual basis. Pinhook’s philosophy is built on the notion that a group of barrels and grains will uniquely express themselves differently every year (much like grapes do). The company’s co-founder and master taster Sean Josephs, a certified wine sommelier, has a dream of shifting the conversation around vintages and whiskeys to make it “more similar to wine.” His process is rooted in the world of wine-making, with an emphasis on the journey from terroir to glass.

“In the wine world it’s so accepted that nature dictates the wine,” Josephs says. “Even though grapes and grains are very different things, it’s still a natural product shaped by nature.”

The overarching philosophy here is to let the spirit “be what it’s meant to be” without manipulating into something it’s not. That means that Pinhook’s expressions may be more floral one year and then more fruity or honey-laden the next. Where Pinhook differs from other whiskey brands is the approach to the blending and aging process — which carries a certain “not all who wander are lost” vibe.

“You don’t know what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “You’re just trying to achieve the best thing.”

That’s a big shift from the approach of larger macro-brands, who start off with a flavor profile and ABV that they know they need to hit for consistency. Nothing is predetermined. This means that the same expressions from different vintages can vary greatly. To dive deeper into this approach to whiskey, we tested the Pinhook’s signature bourbons and ryes in the $38-$50 price range.

Bourbon War

The Whiskey:

Bourbon War is the first in Pinhook’s Vertical Series. In this series, the idea is to follow a group of barrels that are all the same age that all have the same mash bill and all filled within a span of months at MGP, then aged at Castle & Key Distillery, formerly the abandoned Colonel E.H. Taylor distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, built in 1997.

“To me, it’s like the ultimate vintage opportunity because you’re able to taste this from ages four through twelve and really understand what one year of age does to the bourbon,” Josephs tells us. The expression is then proofed at what Josephs’ considers the ideal proof for each blend. For example, Pinhook’s four-year bourbon is at 98 proof. The next Bourbon War is the five-year 104 proof, which is being released this fall.

Tasting Notes:

The nose has a fruity aroma, particularly that of pineapple. With each sip, comes a palate of nutty notes and baking spices such as clove. It doesn’t have much of a lingering finish — however, that didn’t prevent us from going back for more.

Pick Bourbon War if: You are feeling especially adventurous and want a non-traditional bourbon palate, then this is the route to go.

Bohemian Bourbon

The Whiskey:

The average age of Pinhook’s High Proof Bohemian Bourbon is just shy of three years old. Next year, Pinhook will have a mix of barrels to work with ranging from three-and-a-half to four-years-old to play with.

Tasting Notes:

Just like Bourbon War, the nose of this one is fruity, but more on the citrus side of the spectrum with tangerine and lemon standing out. The cocoa and toffee come together harmoniously on the palate. The lasting finish has just the right amount of heat.

Pick Bohemian Bourbon if: You’re a purist wanting a bourbon that’s subtlety sweet and has a lingering bite.

Rye’d On

The Whiskey:

Rye’d On was awarded Double Gold at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The juice was sourced from Castle & Key and is the first rye to come out of the distillery in half a century. It has the standard 95 percent rye and five percent malted barley mash bill. But the distillery has thrown out any idea of what rye is “supposed” to taste like.

“Even at 95 percent rye, rye doesn’t want to be just one thing,” Josephs says. “It’s almost like people are shaping it to be that because rye is ‘supposed’ to be one thing.”

Tasting Notes:

Retailing at only $38, Rye’d On is right on with its palate, quality, and pricing. The cinnamon scent draws you in, while the cherry and toffee flavors keep you engaged. The warm spice is a welcoming finish to a well-balanced profile. We’re thinking of ditching bourbon and replacing it with this brown-hued rye beauty when we make a Mint Julep. Hello, Rye Julep.

Pick Rye’d On if: You’re new to the world of rye, this is the best bang for your buck in the Pinhook line.

Tiz Rye Time

The Whiskey:

The inaugural Vertical Rye series was launched just last month with the release of Tiz Rye Time. The series ties itself to young thoroughbred racehorses that grace the brand’s labels. Tiz Rye was released at a proof of 97 and the vertical series is blended from a selection of 50 rye barrels.

Tasting Notes:

Another cinnamon nose, but this time with a hint of tangerine. Apricot, clove, and maple flavors come together for a palate that’s as irresistible as it is unforgettable. There’s a nice, subtle heat on the finish.

Pick Tiz Rye Time if: You’re wanting a proper intro to rye. This is a traditionalist’s dream.