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.