'Straight' bourbons and ryes are among the most tightly regulated spirits on the planet. To carry the term on the label, the juice inside can't contain any additives or coloring, and it must be produced from grain consisting mostly of either corn or rye, come off the still and go into the barrel and the bottle at specific proof points, and be aged for no less than two years in previously unused American white oak. With all of these stringent guidelines, you'd think there would be very little wiggle room to play with flavor. Innovative distillers have found a way. It involves finishing their whiskey in all sorts of notable wine barrels. Examine the shelves at the local bottle shop and it's plain to see, the movement is gaining momentum.
The Bay Area hopped on the bandwagon in 2013, when Sonoma's Prohibition Spirits
released its inventive line of Straight whiskies. Among some of the earliest wine-barrel-finished bourbons and ryes to gain traction in the industry, these spirits rest for up to nine months in barrels that were previously used to house popular red wine varietals including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel.
Their Pinot Noir-finished Bourbon is a standout, it's rich mahogany color as dazzling to the eye as the rich, sweetened notes of the whiskey are to the tongue. Although many whiskies include a touch of barley and wheat to introduce complexity to their body, the juice here is comprised entirely of corn and rye. This unique grain bill gives the wine-soaked barrels — sourced from Schug Winery in Sonoma Valley — ample opportunity to make their presence known. Amplifying the soul of this bourbon, the Pinot is much more than just a novelty; it brings something different to the nose and to the finish. Retailing at around $50 a bottle, it's a worthy addition to any liquor cabinet.
For connoisseurs willing to shell out a little something extra, Hooker's House
also produces General's Reserve
, a blend of rare bourbons aged between seven to 21 years, that is finished in American oak as well as in Bel Aire French oak barrels that were previously used to mature a Napa Cabernet. Harder to produce and to procure, if you catch this one on the shelf, be prepared to shell out as much as $150 to take it home.
Bringing a similar complexity and elegance to the world of Straight Rye is the newest release from WhistlePig
: Old World
. The $130 bottle, which is now available throughout San Francisco, is a specially engineered blend of three different 12-year-old whiskies. Each is finished for two months in casks formerly used to age French Sauternes, Madeiras, and port, respectively. A so-called "high rye" — which uses way more of the grain than the legally required 51 percent — typically has a pronounced spice to it. In Old World, hints of the sweet European wines used to finish the whiskey help parlay the spice into a background performance. A rye fit for wine snubs, the Old World should have no trouble finding a proper audience here in the Bay.
To see how they do it in Kentucky, seek out a bottle of Angel's Envy
, a reasonably priced, port-finished bourbon. And be on the lookout for more entries into this increasingly dense subsection of the whiskey world.