BBS meets Reservoir at the Lexington

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Between us we’ve a pretty formidable “US whiskies tasted” rap sheet in the BBS. So it really isn’t often that almost none of us have tried any of the pours at a tasting. But on Saturday 29th July we trooped over to the inimitable Lexington for just such a rare occurrence.

The distillery behind these untasted whiskies was Reservoir, a craft setup based in Virginia. In fact it was complete serendipity that led to the event in the first place; BBS founding member @edkingUK happened to meet distiller Dave Cuttino in Gerry’s Wines and Spirits a while back, and, as is often the case with the BBS, one thing led to another.

Reservoir take an unusual direction with their whiskies, in that the flagships are all 100% mashbills of their individual grain. So they’ve a 100% wheat, a 100% rye, and a bourbon made from 100% corn. (Perfectly legal; what would make it a corn whiskey as opposed to a bourbon would be if they were using uncharred or refill casks).

David had generously added three limited edition treats to the lineup, and agreed to talk us through all the whiskies via skype.

Confession time: before the event I had my doubts. Especially of the wheat whiskey. I’ve been tasting a lot of craft whiskey lately, both for the reviews page, and out of personal curiosity. Quality and style has varied immensely, but the one relative constant was that young wheat-recipe kit was generally slightly unripe, unready, uncompromising stuff. So with no corn whatsoever keeping the wheat in check, how was Reservoir’s going to taste?

Well, first of all, let’s talk about Reservoir’s casks. They’re tiny. I’m talking miniature. Your standard bourbon barrel weighs in at about 53 US gallons, which in real money is about 200 litres. The casks at Reservoir are less than a tenth of that. What’s more they’re charred to within an inch of their lives. The upshot of which is that they flavour the whiskey at breakneck speed.

So, glasses filled and passed around: what did we think?

“Good grief.” That’s what I thought. “This is not the young wheat that I know and don’t love.” Instead, it’s super barrel-focussed, heavily intense on flavour and as clean as a whistle. No distracting spirit acetone here; this was a story of caramel and char and orange and brown sugar. Big on flavour; perhaps not the most complex beast in the world, but with a nice balance of the sweet and the savoury, and bags of intensity. Absolutely not what I was expecting, and seriously tasty.

On to the bourbon, where things continued to impress. A shade more one-dimensional than the wheater for my taste; sweet corn and caramel with not too many layers, but again that big flavour intensity and personality; again that influence of small casks. Opinion differed on the favourite, but I’d say three-quarters of the room were team wheat. Still, if you taste this bourbon without context, it’s a cracker.

The rye was the standout though. Reservoir make an intense style of whiskey, and when it came to the rye that intensity reached its peak. More of that orange; seemingly a theme with Reservoir – perhaps the result of their Armagnac still. Mainly though, this was about the fresh ryebread and nutmeg and caramel and marzipan. Pracically popping with flavour and spice, perfectly structured and supported by alcohol levels. Awesome stuff.

Being 100% “varietals”, David encouraged us to do a little of our own blending, and there were certainly those in the group whose pour of the day was a mix of the wheat and the rye. Personally I was more of a fan of them individually, but mixing was still a delicious exercise, and a great new direction for a whiskey tasting to take. Nicely reflected the spirit of experimentation and sense-of-fun that Reservoir seem to be about, and David’s enthusiasm for his whiskies was palpable and infectious.

The mixed-mashbill whiskies that followed were an intriguing bunch. Hunter&Scott, a wheat-recipe bourbon, was more along the lines of what I’d expected at the start. A little more acetone; less influence of cask. Some brioche and bananabread on the nose, but slightly overwhelmed by estery grain. Still tasty, and the palate had a nice, silken caramel aspect, but this one was probably my least favourite of the day.

Holland’s Ghost is a brand new release and a bit of a curiosity. Single barrel bourbon finished in a stout cask. It’s a collaboration between Reservoir and local restaurateur Mac McCormack, with the stated aim of replicating the flavour profile of Stitzel-Weller-era Pappy Van Winkle. Right. Well. Erm...

For my money they should do away with that rather ambitious mission statement. Holland’s Ghost was really excellent stuff on its own merits. By my mileage the most complex of the whiskies we tasted, though oddly felt less intense than the opening trio, despite being higher proof. There was a real creaminess to it, and even an aspect of chocolate orange crème to the nose. Perfumed stuff, with a wisp of smoke on the palate amidst the creamy caramel. Something to sit with in an armchair at the end of the day, rather than something with the directness and intensity of the rye or the wheat.

Finally the Grey Ghost, one in a series of special releases by the Reservoir chaps, for which they play around with mashbills a little. This one was 80% corn, 20% rye apparently. The most “classic” bourbon profile of the day, though with a strong rye accent of crunchy, woody rye. Lots of char influence and a delicious balance of sweet cinnamon and dryer nutmeg on the palate, all overlaid with thick caramel and that splash of orange.

In short, Reservoir’s lineup seriously impressed me. Most of the bourbon I’ve been tasting in the last month has been from craft distilleries, and this was right at the top of the tree. In fact I preferred it to every craft whiskey I’ve had this month besides Balcones True Blue Craft Strength. The rye and the Grey Ghost in particular were outstanding, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at how well they’d managed the wheat, but really the whole range was more or less rock solid. Hunter&Scott was the only one that I’d personally take or leave, but it certainly had some big fans among the group when preferences were compared at the end.

I don’t know how these whiskies are going to be priced when they arrive in the UK. I’d like to see the core range around the £50 per bottle mark, at which rate they’d be no-brainers. Peeking at US prices makes me think I’m being a little optimistic though – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But the bottom line is that I’m looking forward immensely to seeing them this side of the pond, and if you get a chance to give them a taste, don’t pass it up.

For what it’s worth, my order of preference was: Rye, Grey Ghost, Wheat, Holland’s Ghost, Bourbon, Hunter&Scott. Though I can’t speak for anyone else, and the Wheat and Holland’s Ghost are probably tied. Maybe someone needs to send me a bottle of each so I can properly make my mind up...

Huge thanks to David for staying with us so long on skype and taking us through the range. What he thought of the spectacle of 15 or so BBS-ers becoming increasingly “enthusiastic” on the strength of his whiskies I’ve no idea. But it’s always fantastic to meet the people behind the pours, and hopefully we’ll see David and Reservoir in the UK again soon.

A cracking tasting all round then, after which, in true BBS and Lexington fashion, we proceeded to behave responsibly for the rest of the afternoon, and nothing particularly noteworthy happened whatsoever...

On to the next one. Once we’ve all recovered from getting so responsible.

Thanks to David Cuttino, Reservoir, Stacey Thomas, the Lexington staff and the BBS founders for another cracking event.