Whiskey Name: Rowan’s Creek
Distillery: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers
Whiskey Type: Straight Bourbon
Release Date: 2001 (Batch 15-09) vs 2015 (Batch 01-14)
Age: 12 Year Old vs NAS
Price: £200+ Auction Prices (12 Year Old) vs £55 (NAS)
Back in April, BBS celebrated its First Anniversary by undertaking an old versus new tasting of four different bourbons. While the 'dusties' won it that time, the results were far from conclusive.
In a new series of reviews, I will pitch old bourbons against new releases of the same label. Some of these, including the whiskey in today’s review have now lost their age-statement. Part of the reason behind this series is to see whether the recent disappearance of age statements from several popular whiskies is a genuine cause for concern. I’ll also compare some brands that either never had an age statement to begin with, or have kept the statement but are noticeably difference today. Some bourbon fans have even claimed that the recent increases in production volumes have lowered the quality of the liquid. Let's find out.
For this particular comparison, I’m looking at Rowan’s Creek, which was a 12 Year Old age stated bourbon up until a few years ago when it became NAS. Both bottlings are from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers AKA Willett. Willett has a long history, but until fairly recently, it had primarily been operating as a non-distilling producer (NDP) of bourbon and rye, sourcing their product from various distilleries but barrelling it to their own specification and (maybe) ageing onsite.
Willett started distilling again around five years ago and I’ve quite enjoyed their young whiskies so far, but both the 12 Year Old and NAS Rowan Creek in today's line up contain sourced bourbon from other distilleries (with my guess being Heaven Hill as discussed below).
12 Year Old: Almost mahogany
NAS: Amber and much lighter than the 12-year
12 Year Old: Almost overwhelmingly sweet. Rich and fruity with plenty of toffee, caramel and vanilla. The oak is slightly musty. Deeper down there is some cinnamon and lemon. A fair bite from the alcohol. To me this has all the hallmarks of pre-fire Heaven Hill liquid.
NAS: Sweet, but in a completely different way. More like candy-floss than toffee or caramel. Banana, a touch of milk-chocolate and cherry. Not as much wood and it’s more of a freshly sharpened pencil than musty oak. There’s quite a bit more alcohol and youth to this one.
12 Year Old: Rich, syrupy, ridiculously sweet, with a cinnamon and white pepper kick. It’s actually quite hard to pick out anything that I don’t associate with sugar. There is a slight soapy taste to it. Toffee, caramel, vanilla, burnt sugar, maple syrup. Fairly one dimensional in a way and maybe an acquired taste. I personally really enjoy it but feel it could end up sickly after several pours.
NAS: Very thin and sweet. Banana, acetone, vanilla and corn. There’s a nuttiness to this one and I can feel the alcohol evaporate quickly.
Summary: I am fairly confident that the 12 Year Old is pre-fire Heaven Hill and the NAS is current Heaven Hill, which makes for an interesting comparison. It is certainly evident that dropping the age statement has led the bottler using much younger whiskey. What I would say is that whilst the 12 Year Old might not be to everyone’s taste, it certainly has a complexity and depth that is lacking in the NAS version, which tastes significantly younger.
In this old versus new comparison, it's clear that removing the age statement has led to a worse product: the NAS is nowhere near the same quality as the 12 Year Old. The NAS almost feels like it should be labelled as a totally different brand, rather than merely a non-age-stated version of the same product. We'll find out next time whether another brand, Wild Turkey, has managed the transition to NAS more successfully.
Words by @MCRBourbon