Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wathen's Single Barrel Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 47%, $35

In the recent Van Winkle 12 year post, I alluded to the fact that there are many American whiskey brands whose backgrounds quickly become cloudy as one starts to research them. The ambiguity can revolve around either the lineage of the brand or the source of the liquid in the bottle, but often both are suspect.

The Van Winkle brand is relatively transparent. The family has been quite open about their partnership with Buffalo Trace, and the changing sources of their whiskey over the last ten years. Their ancestral distilling lineage is also undeniable and well documented. It can be tough to tell which distillery an older bottle came from if it lacks the date stamp, but I’d put that down to a lack of modern technology on the bottling line rather than any attempted deception.

The story of Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon starts off much the same as that of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. But as their histories progress they follow divergent paths, and in spite of Wathen’s having a clear lineage, the current source of the whiskey has become shrouded in mystery.

The brand traces its roots back through two families which were both heavily involved in the bourbon industry well back into the 1800’s. The Wathens and Medleys came together by marriage around 1900, although they may have been connected prior to that. At various points through the last 200 years the two families owned no less than half a dozen different distilleries, but only one is of concern here. The Green River Distillery, built in Owensboro, KY in 1899, was purchased by brothers John Medley and R. Wathen Medley in 1940. They changed its name to the Medley Distillery, and although the whiskey was bottled under several different brand names, the brothers began to pick the best barrels from the warehouse and bottle them as Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon.

The distillery was sold in 1959, but the Medley brothers stayed on to run the plant. Charles Medley, R.Wathen Medley’s son, took over the role of master distiller in 1969. The distillery changed hands several times before closing in 1987, but it was reopened in 1988 after being purchased by Glenmore Distillers, with Charles Medley continuing as the master distiller.

In 1991 Glemore was acquired by United Distillers, and in 1992 they closed the Medley distillery (as well as Stitzel-Weller and several others) upon opening the new Bernheim distillery. In 1995, United Distillers sold off the former Glenmore assets. Many of the brands and some of the properties were sold to Barton Brands. Charles Medley was able to purchase the distillery, changing the name to Charles Medley Distillery, and much of the existing stock of whiskey he had distilled. There’s a bit of confusion on this point, Charles made whiskey at the Medley Distillery while working for Glenmore Distillers. They also owned a distillery named Glenmore, which was in Owensboro, but production there had stopped before Glenmore (the company) purchased Medley (the distillery). Since Charles was listed as the master distiller for Glenmore, many people assume he made whiskey at the distillery of that name, but this is not the case.

With a supply good quality whiskey, warehouses to store it in, and a bottling line, Charles was able to resurrect Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Through the latter half of the 1990’s Wathen’s enjoyed a stellar reputation; Charles Medley had made some top notch whiskey after all. But at the start of the new millennium things started to slowly go adrift. We know that the Charles Medley Distillery stopped producing whiskey in 1992, and although each bottle has a “bottled on” date printed on the label it is still impossible to know when it was distilled since the whiskey carries no age statement. I’ve seen some speculation that it is a 7 year old, or at least it was when the whiskey Charles had made was still being bottled. So in all likelihood those original supplies ran out sometime in 1999.

It was about the same time that they (Samuel, Charles’s son, had also joined the business) outgrew the capacity of their bottling line and contracted the bottling out to a company in St. Louis. In 2004 they had a brief supply interruption while switching the bottling and distribution over to a company in San Jose, CA. I believe the Medleys had hoped to eventually restart whiskey production at their distillery, but those plans never came to fruition. The facility was finally sold to Angostura (the company that makes bitters) in 2007. They announced plans to restart distillation there, but after investing quite a bit of money in renovations over the course of two years everything came to a halt when Angostura's parent company, CL Financial, had a liquidity crisis. They still own the dormant distillery, which has been for sale for several years now.

So, what we do know is that more than 20 years after the Medley distillery fell silent it is likely that all of the whiskey produced there was put into bottles long ago. It is probable that Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon transitioned to a different source sometime around 1999. The problem with a sourced whiskey that carries no age statement is that the source and the age can change at anytime and the consumer has no way to know, unless the company decides to reveal that information. I’ve seen some speculation from 2011 that the whiskey was being sourced from Heaven Hill, but that was just speculation based on the flavor profile. It’s anyone’s guess if the age is still around the presumed 7 year mark, or if it has drifted downward. 

Unfortunately the information I have laid out above was quite difficult to put together (hence the two and a half week gap since my last post), not to mention all of the incorrect and conflicting stories that had to be sorted through. The worst part though is that the Medleys have chosen to obfuscate much of the true information rather than being forthright with the details of their whiskey. It starts off subtly with the way the wording is laid out on the label: “Eight generations, 250 years” is presented in a way that misleads many people into thinking that the bottle carries an 8 year age statement. The tag that hangs from the bottle’s neck has text laden with terms such as “exacting standards”, “family yeast” and “hands-on expertise”, all of which do a very good job of making it sound like the Medleys are still actively distilling this bourbon. And then there is the website: with a page titled “our distillery” featuring a picture of the distillery that they sold six years ago, and a picture titled “bourbon in the works” showing frothy liquid in the fermentation tanks (presumably taken in 1992); deceptive is the only word that comes to mind.

Going back and reading old threads on bourbon discussion forums can be quite informative. It seems that Wathen’s was well liked in the late 90’s and still had its fans in the early 2000’s in spite of a slight drop in quality. It was speculated that Charles had the ability to select good barrels, regardless of their source. In a 2011 discussion the reputation of Wathen’s was still intact for the most part, but in more current reviews it seems to be drifting closer to mediocrity. Maybe Charles’s palate is not as discerning as it was in his earlier years, or perhaps he is letting his less experienced son choose the barrels now.

I tasted a bottle from Barrel number 745, bottled on Jan 18, 2013. Here are my impressions:

The color is light golden amber.
On the nose I get dusty grain and mild earthy spice notes. The aromas are densely packed, but with mild to moderate intensity.
The palate is mild up front but quickly becomes fairly robust. Sweet vanilla, fruit and grain are the main components with just a slight off flavor in the mix, though it’s not terribly complex.
Toward the end it smoothly transitions into a warming spice laden finish which lingers for some time as it gently fades. As all the other flavors fall away, the slight off flavor from the mid-palate re-emerges at the tail-end.
Overall it’s a decent bourbon. I’m a little indifferent to the early/mid flavors, but it comes to life on the finish, with just a hint of disappointment at the very end.

Looking online I saw a huge range of prices for this bourbon, from $25 to $60, but it generally seems to run around the $35 mark. It’s not a bad whiskey, but I think many better options are available at that price point, and I’m really bothered by the deceitful tactics used to market it.


Seth Brewer said...

Good research work! Well, LOTS of research work, which I take at face value to be good! I have a bourbon bar in Lexington, KY and I was in a conversation last night about sourced juice and where Wathen's comes from. I was talking to one of the most knowledgeable guys I know in the bourbon business and we had two divergent ideas about Wathen's- due largely to the verbiage on the package that pointed out. The fact that there was/is a Medley Distillery- and a new "Medley Bros." product- further builds the plausible assumption that this bourbon is not sourced. However, as with Black Maple Hill, the California address is a big clue that there is a shell game at work.

VT Mike said...

Thanks Seth, I definitely spend a lot of time trying to confirm the info that I find (or at least make sure there isn't conflicting info on the subject). Old posts on the forum can be very helpful if you know who the trustworthy posters are and spend the time to look for the info that's buried in there. I tasted through several "craft" bourbons this week, so more on the subject should be posted soon.

Seth Brewer said...

Thanks for the response Mike- and the recommendation. I like Straight Bourbon as well. I also like Sour Mash Manifesto. I am adding your site to my reading list! Let me know if I can ever help you get info for anything you are writing- I have contacts at most of the distilleries and distribution companies, so I can get to most answers with some digging.

Anonymous said...

Well, figures I just bought my first bottle of this stuff. My tasting was similar to yours, though I think you could fool me that this is a quite fine bourbon at the price. But I'm with you--deception, whether just implied or explicit, pisses me off.

When you say there are other more worthwhile bourbons in this price range (I paid $25 today) I'd love to hear what they are. I hope I have most of them on my list, but it's blogs like this that keep turning me on to new things to try.

Seth Brewer said...

For my part I tend to stay with bourbons sold by the distillery that makes them. Each distillery has many labels, acquired or invented over the years, but those labels are generally comprised of bourbon made from just a couple mashbills. For example, Buffalo Trace, one of my favorite distilleries and maker of most of my favorite premium bourbons, has three mashbills: high-rye, low-rye, and wheat. (They have a rye too but that's not bourbon and we're talking bourbon.) Many of those brands don't say Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY- they say Old Fashion Copper Distillery, Frankfort, KY (as on E.H. Taylor) or some other entity, named undoubtedly to legally insulate different brands and partnerships from liability of other brands. But the point is, it's not as easy as just looking on the back label to find bourbon sold from the source versus sold to a third party that slaps a new label on it and calls it something else (like Wathen's).
An argument can be made that there is nothing invalid about these private labels, since some human has chosen a flavor profile that should be consistent across bottles of that product. If the customer likes the bourbon and is happy with the price, that's legitimate business. Are there not, after all, panels of tasters at Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve etc who taste and cull barrels for the juice that fits the flavor profiles of their products? At Buffalo Trace there is a subjective line between Ancient Age and Blanton's, Old Charter and Eagle Rare.
So that subjective line is drawn by you. You decide if you want your vegetables to come from the grocery store or the farmer's market. You decide if you want to drink your bourbon neat or with water. You decide how much you care about the provenance and terroir of your bourbon.
All that philosophical babble aside, the best deals in bourbon, in my book, are the eponymous labels from each distillery. Those are your Buffalo Traces, Four Roses Small Batch, Maker's Mark, Woodford. Other solid values: BT's Weller 12 if you can find it (Julian Van Winkle buys the sweeter barrels to bottle as Lot B and PVW), BT's Elmer T Lee if you can find it, Beam's Elijah Craig 12yr, Beam's Evan Williams Single Barrel (can be inconsistent, as all single barrel products will be).
Like with wine, find something you like and then work your way from there. Enjoy the hunt!

VT Mike said...

My short list of good Bourbons in the $20 to $25 range is:
Old Grand Dad 114
Weller Old Antique 107
Four Roses Yellow Label
Eagle Rare 10 year.

Joshua Gonzales said...

Sorry, but Evan Williams and Elijah Craig are produced by Heaven Hill. They are not Beam products.

Seth Brewer said...

Third effort at a reply so I'll be brief.
Thanks for the catch Josh G- you are correct of course. That was a slip I have made before because Elijah Craig and Parker Beam's Parker's Heritage products are available at the Heaven Hill distillery. And Beam and HH products are distributed in KY by the same distribution company.

Anonymous said...

Hey there. I have an unopened bottle which states "Barrel 206...Hand Bottled 10-7-2004". What do you think this one comes from?

VT Mike said...

If a bottle of Wathen's from 2004 came from the Medley distillery it would have to be at least 12 years old, which is pretty unlikely. Beyond that, there's really just no way to know where the whiskey was sourced from.

Anonymous said...

Elijah Craig, 12 year. Drinks like a $50, at half the price.

sdskyle said...

I have typically gone for Elijah Craig 12 yo in the past for my budget bourbon, but my last bottle was disappointing. I have been going for Forty Creek lately for a budget whiskey. It's good, but not Bourbon; it's a Canadian blend. I also really like Winchester Rye (but their bourbon is terrible). I do love bourbon, though! And I'm not rich! So I'm always on the lookout for good bourbon that doesn't break the bank. I'll have to give Wathen's a shot. It's hard to come by here in TX, though.