Whilst the UK spirits sector continues to grow at a pace, it is US whiskey (particularly bourbon) which is expected to expand the fastest, with estimates of an increase in sales of 26.7% over the next five years. Whether the EU’s stiff 25% tariff, implemented in June 2017 in response to Trump’s taxes of steel and aluminium imports (now, now children) dampens demand remains to be seen, but producers and distributors for the most part seem bullish about the prospects for the UK market. So much so, that Lux Row Distillers, who recently opened their new distillery in Bardstown Kentucky are releasing a new bourbon outside of their home market in the form of Rebel Yell French Barrel Special Finish.
Lux Row are not the first US producer to dabble with French oak. Buffalo Trace’s 2015 Experimental Collection was obviously deemed to have successfully ticked some boxes as the distillery has recently announced that the second part of its Old Charter Oak Series will also feature the wood type (Mongolian oak being utilised for the inaugural release).
Rebel Yell French Barrel Special Finish is Lux Row Distiller’s first non-US release. Hitting the shelves sometime in September/October this year, the expression will be initially available only in the UK, before being introduced in France and Italy at a later date. The bottling is created from Rebel Yell’s standard wheated bourbon profile of 75% corn, 20% wheat and 5% malted barley with a 6 month finish in toasted French oak wine barrels. The French oak is of course a virgin cask, remembering the requirements of only storing in ‘charred new oak containers’, and presents a softer, more subtle (and less sweet) wood influence in which to finish the spirit in.
The bottling initially consists of a mere 6,000 bottles – though I’d imagine that if it flies of the shelves they’ll likely be more produced. Lux Row’s Master Blender and Distiller John Rempe suggested to me that the expression is being used as a ‘test bed’ for the distillery – recognising the UK’s high demand with an exclusive release which might pave the way for more Rebel Yell being seen on these shores in the future. The product is being priced cannily, with an RRP of just £30 – well within the confines of the accessible end of the market, and similar in price to Rebel Yell’s already available expressions.
So, let’s review it……
Woah. Woah. Hold up.....
Whilst already announced, the actual release of French Barrel Special Finish is not for another three to four months – as such, the expression I got to sample for review is drawn straight from the cask at 61% ABV. The actual release will be issued at 45% ABV, and seems far from finalised as yet. I’ve attempted to crudely replicate the ABV down to the eventual bottling strength, but, in all honesty this will not be fully representative of the ‘real’ release…..as such, you should consider this more of a preview and take my thoughts with a pinch of salt.
Nose: Well-rounded with pronounced fruit, spice and coffee-shop pastries. Apricot flans, Morello cherry Bakewells and warmed cinnamon buns are joined by a cup of cappuccino with a healthy chocolate sprinkle. Burnt caramel and toasted breakfast cereals sit with nougat, toffee popcorn and vanilla wafer biscuits. Reduction expresses unrefined brown and cinnamon sugars alongside touches of golden corn and hay.
Taste: Highly viscous with tons of chewy mouth texture. A deeper and darker flavour than the nose suggests – overcooked cinder toffee, intensely cinnamon spiced dark chocolate and drizzles of thick maple syrup. The fruit selection is darker also – cherries still, but joined by nutmeg spiced stewed plums. The development is cask-driven – a combination of fresh and charred cereals, singed pasty crusts, vanilla and toasted oak. Dilution softens up the punchy arrival with pulpy fruits and less of a saccharine kick. But, at the same time it pronounces the spiciness of the French oak with a roiling wall of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Finish: Quite long, with fading spicing, metholated oak and soft, silky tannins.
I’ll admit to being rather sad that Lux Row are not releasing this expression at the cask strength I’ve sampled here. The French oak is quite the successful partner to the Rebel Yell spirit – it offers a sense of creaminess, and reduced sweetness (American oak contains more sugars and vanillins) whilst still retaining the toast and spice I’d expect. Reduced, things were somewhat more saccharine and certainly more cask-forward – not quite as sprightly and defined. Nevertheless, as a preview of the upcoming Rebel Yell French Barrel Special Finish I’m intrigued for the full release later this year. It’s not as sweet as some, nor as punchy as others, but is does possess a finish which has noticeably altered the overall composition of the liquid. If the balance and profile can be maintained once the casks have been blended and reduced down to 90 proof, at £30 I’ll happily pull the trigger.