Saturday, September 30, 2017

Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon

stats: straight bourbon, Washington, 45%, $55

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m sort of fanatical about whiskey. This will occasionally open up some nice whiskey sampling opportunities for me. Recently, couple of very kind and generous relatives were visiting family members who had relocated to Washington State. On a mid-August morning I received a message on Facebook letting me know that they were in Seattle and planning to visit a distillery in Woodinville (a small city of 12,000 which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area).

My aunt and uncle were wondering if I knew of this distillery and if I had tried any of its whiskey. I was about to explain that with the number of new craft distilleries opening all over the US in recent years, it was hard enough to keep track of the ones in the tiny state where I live, let alone the many that are on the other side of the country. But I kept thinking to myself “Woodinville? Woodinville? Why does that sound familiar?” And then I remembered; I had just read about this distillery on The Chuck Cowdery Blog a few weeks prior.

Woodinville was in the news because it had just been bought out by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate which has owned Ardbeg and Glenmorangie since 2005. Woodinville was established in 2010 and its owners had a vision of making good craft whiskey which had been aged in traditional 53 gallon barrels for a respectable amount of time, and selling it at a fair price.

I’m going to take a moment to point out a few important differences between craft whiskey and craft beer. Before craft beer started to catch on in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the small number of remaining American macro-breweries were all making essentially the same product, and they weren’t making particularly good versions of it. Craft brewers brought variety and quality, and consumers were willing to pay a premium for that.

While the American whiskey industry had dwindled to just a handful of large distilleries, they had never really compromised on quality. Perhaps Bourbon’s reputation had suffered in general during its years of unpopularity, but American distillers continued to make fundamentally good product. Also, In spite of the small number of distilleries, there were still a large number of brands supported by these producers. This at least gave the appearance of good variety to the casual observer.

When the craft whiskey distillers started to pop up over the last 10 to 15 years, they were at a big competitive disadvantage. Bourbon was a very traditional product and while some innovation would be embraced, anything too esoteric would have a hard time catching on. Most of these outfits lacked the capital and / or financial backing to set up operations and keep producing for multiple years while their whiskey aged properly. Even if they could do that, economies of scale meant that their final products would be much more expensive than those of the old guard.

Some companies took the route of producing vodka or gin to support their whiskey productions. But that market has become oversaturated and it seems like most of the companies that were successful with that model have stayed focused on making money with their clear spirits. Other craft distillers went the route of using very small barrels (5 gal, 10 gal, 15 gal, etc) and short aging times. Despite claims to the contrary, this doesn’t make for particularly good whiskey. Then there’s the business model of setting up a Potemkin distillery and secretly buying aged whiskey from one of the large, established distillers and selling it as your own. Going down that path runs the risk of miring one’s brand in controversy and possibly disgrace, as was the case with Templeton Rye.

Woodinville was one of the exceptions; they made all of their own whiskey and even though they started off with some youthful releases, they were only using 53 gallon barrels and consistently selling a five year old bourbon and a five year old rye by their seventh year of production (although there is no official age statement on the label of the bottle I have). To do this, they had to limit sales to their home state. Granted, their whiskey does sell very well there.

As I noted above, the whiskey business is an extremely capital intensive one to break into. Once established, it takes even money (again with a slow return on investment) to grow operations and expand into new markets. It’s really not surprising that Woodinville sold out to LVMH; it was probably the only way they would be able to grow beyond Washington State.

Many people are bewildered by the astronomical sums that are being paid by the big players in the industry for these relatively small outfits (in the case of Woodinville the sum was undisclosed, but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap). But these valuations aren’t based so much on assets or current sales as they are on the future growth potential of the brand. With a crowded marketplace and many older, established brands already reaching their saturation points, one of the surest paths to future profit is via the acquisition of a brand that is relatively new, but off to a good start with a solid reputation.

My aunt and uncle had offered to procure a bottle of whiskey from the Woodinville distillery shop and bring it back east, riding silently on their drive across the country. I graciously accepted, and noted that I’d love to try this new bourbon from the Pacific Northwest. Little more than a few weeks later the newest addition to the collection was in my hands. I really love the bottle and label design; let’s see how it tastes.

The nose is bold and expressive, but not sharp or punchy. The vanilla aromas are the most obvious, but caramel, spice and delicate toasted notes join in, making it very well rounded. This really does smell like a very well made traditional bourbon.
On the palate it seems like it’s going to be a little hot right up front, but the flavors open up quickly, keeping everything harmonious. A bit of underlying sweetness shows itself early on and lends to a full mouthfeel, but that caramel-driven character stays as a minor influence and is eventually overtaken by drier notes that emerge as things moves on. The mid palate shows leather and a hint of dark red fruits as complex spice notes develop.
The finish becomes increasingly dry. Toasted oak, nuttiness and dry spice become dominant, but balance is maintained.

This really is a lovely bourbon and I’d say it’s every bit as good as Woodford Reserve, which it purportedly competes with in terms of sales volume in Washington State.

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