Do you have to be an expert to drink whiskey? No. Should you be an expert to write about it? Perhaps. Did that stop us? Of course not.
HERE AT MILWAUKEE MAGAZINE, we have a lot of experts on staff. Art, dining, theater, cooking, beer. Fonts. We can talk circles around you about fonts.
But whiskey? Ehhhhh…
Nevertheless, a rare confluence of newsworthy whiskeys furnished by the distillers ended up in our office this week, so we decided to convene a panel of tasters in the boss’s office while she was out of town and make it Whiskey Wednesday.
The spirits of happenstance were Pabst’s Blue Ribbon Whiskey (obviously of interest in the iconic beer brand’s longtime hometown); and two offerings from a new-to-Milwaukee brand, Old Dominick.
Now, the first thing you need to know about Blue Ribbon Whiskey is that it’s clear, not brown like nearly every other whiskey we’ve come across. The label says it’s aged for five seconds, which was a legal workaround to avoid having to call the stuff moonshine, which is probably more apt. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Pabst’s whiskey is made by New Holland Brewing in Michigan, a craft brewery that has been distilling spirits since 2005 and has been a distribution partner of Pabst since 2017. It’s an 80 proof spirit with a grain bill of 52% corn, 28% malted barley, 17% wheat and 3% rye. It runs around $21 for a 750-milliliter bottle.
This Q&A with Esquire has a lot of good information and backstory about the spirit, including some rich lore about it being the kind of whiskey Pabst founder Jacob Best would have made. OK!
My initial impression, Jacob’s best intentions aside, was that in my experience with whiskey, the barrel-aging was pretty damn important. My Tennessee cousin fed me some unaged whiskey at a wedding down there once and I’m pretty sure a part of me remains dead from that experience. I do trust the pros at New Holland to do better, but … isn’t an essential part of whiskey its oaky, vanilla complexity?
The expectations did not rise after the first pours. The aroma is harsh and alcohol-forward – “like nail polish remover,” one taster said.
From that nadir, Blue Ribbon Whiskey’s stock rose somewhat – sipped from little plastic shot cups, it tasted better than it smelled and had markedly less burn than we were expecting. I picked up a pretty assertive mealy corn character that I can’t say was pleasant, and there was an earthy, almost gym sock note that I couldn’t place until someone mentioned it was a little like tequila. But compared to regular whiskeys, it was quite neutral; one taster called it “the vodka of whiskeys.” “This is something I’d buy if I wanted to get drunk and not taste anything,” another said.
The Pabst PR team launched this whiskey at an event last month that featured a lot of bells-and-whistle trappings and several featured cocktails created by local mixologists. One notion was that it might serve well in an old fashioned, balancing the sweet or sour mix. We weren’t really buying that. But we did buy Coke, because whiskey coke is a thing, right? Blue Ribbon Whiskey flopped here, too, with that unpleasant corny-gym sock note carrying through, or maybe even standing out more in the midst of the sweet caramel goodness of the cola.
No, it’s not bourbon, so it’s not really fair to compare it to that. But the entire conversation around this whiskey revolved around what we wanted it to be: Bourbon. Or at least something aged longer than five seconds.
OLD DOMINIC IS A PRE-PROHIBITION distillery in Memphis, Tennessee that was rebooted in 2016 by the great-great grandsons of its eponymous founder, Domenico Canale. It’s launching sales in the Milwaukee market this fall.
Editor’s note: Old Dominick is a Milwaukee Magazine advertiser and provided the bottles reviewed here with no conditions.
Memphis Toddy is a revival of one of the standards of the original distillery, a bourbon mixed with “a curated array of natural ingredients” that finishes at 60 proof. The recipe specifics are not disclosed, but the label mentions notes of citrus, botanicals and honey. It also bears an unusual instruction to shake well if the those additions fall out of suspension in this hazy liqueur-like beverage. The 750-ml bottles retail for $35-$40.
The delectable aroma was well met after the mineral-spirits blast coming off the PBR pours. That honey character blends with an orange marmalade note for a decidedly whiskey old fashioned sweet vibe – sweet and inviting.
The sip, though, is nicely balanced, with prominent spice notes emerging: anise, cinnamon, the kind of stuff you’d put in mulled cider. That thought led one taster to note that she’d like to Memphis Toddy warmed up in a mug – presumably while wearing a sweater, deep into autumn. Another mentioned it’d be a perfect cocktail-in-a-bottle to inject a little interest in the beverage lineup for a holiday gatherings, without the work of mixing every glass.
“I feel like I could sip this over ice,” one sampler noted, before I pointed out that that’s exactly the serving recommendation on the label.
Memphis Toddy was a crowd pleaser, at least among this group of dilettantes.
Some basics first: Huling Station is 90 proof, with a high-rye mash (44%; anything over 50% is considered rye whiskey) that we discovered mid-tasting and surprised us. The balance of the mash is corn (52%) and malted barley (4%). The 750-ml bottles sell for around $40.
Oh, and it’s brown. That’s normal, but it bears mentioning. And it smells pretty good, actually! One sniffer noted robust caramel maple notes, and vanilla. That, even I know, is at least in part a result from aging in charred oak barrels, as most whiskeys are. And caramel, maple and vanilla – that’s good stuff. That’s what we like in bourbon.
Once we started sipping, though, the panel split. We all agreed we liked Huling Station better than the PBR (which, again, is an entirely different animal). “Now this is whiskey,” one said. There’s still an assertive alcohol heat that, to our relatively untrained palates at least, crowds out the more nuanced flavors detectable on the aroma. Our tasters who know their way around whiskeys the best gave split reviews; two saying they like it at its price point, a good sipper with rocks and a little bit of water.
Another thought it was “too hot too fast,” and she demonstrated what she felt was a superior, “slower” taste by pulling a half-finished bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve bourbon out of her desk. (This Whiskey Wednesday was rather impromptu, so we were very impressed by her stash.) And despite a significantly higher proof (120), this was a more flavorful sip, with a slower heat that ended up smoother than the Old Dominick.
This concludes the inaugural MilMag Whiskey Wednesday! We can’t wait for next week. (Just kidding. Probably.)