For a while, it was as if new distilleries could do no wrong. Each inaugural release would break records based on hype alone. But in the last year or two, it seems that the hype has subsided and new whisky brands have started to need more than just novelty to attract attention. What’s more, new distilleries have increasingly started to focus on building long-term brands instead of breaking short-term records.
To build their brands, new distilleries try to set themselves apart with the stories they tell and their presentation. For example, Sonoma distillery tells a story about being the first distillery in the Sonoma wine region, with a founder focused on a mix of traditional and modern production methods. The brand is “premium Californian whiskey” and the bottle is wide and round, unusual for an American whiskey. It certainly offers enough novelty and intrigue to make some people buy their first bottle from the brand.
But for a new whisky brand to last, it needs more than marketing. The whisky needs to be good. It should be better than the alternatives in the category, or of a similar quality whilst offering something unique. Many new distilleries are putting huge amounts of time, money, and effort into making sure they do produce good whisky. Differences in production, leading to differences in the product, are what new brands hope will make you buy again (and again and again and again). New distilleries are experimenting with everything from grain roasting to yeast strains to fill strength. Sonoma's most notable production difference is that they double distil their bourbon in alembic pot stills, rather than using the more common column still or column-and-doubler setup that is typical in established bourbon distilleries.
There's another reason that new distillers put so much into their grains, their yeast, their distillation, and their cask types. They're often under financial pressure to produce whisky that drinks well at a young age. The alternatives include spiralling debt and producing vodka – both extremely unpleasant options and best avoided. But distilleries have to be careful, because they only get one chance to make a good first impression. Some new whiskies are excellent at young ages, but others have been bottled much too young or with the spirit character erased by small or overactive casks.
Today’s whisky is a wheated bourbon with a mashbill of 70% corn (from both California and Canada), 25% wheat, and 5% malted barley, bottled at 46% ABV. According to their website, Sonoma Bourbon is at least 15 months old and mostly over two years old. Three years is the minimum age for whisky in the European Union; it’s unclear whether bottles of Sonoma Bourbon distributed in the EU meet that requirement. The whiskey is aged in medium char new oak casks of three sizes ranging from small to standard: 57 litres, 114 litres, and 200 litres.
It can be purchased here in the UK for a shy under £50 from retaillers such as The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Young and unusual! Grainy, on cooked corn and porridge. There’s some starch too – mashed potatoes – all with a bit of vanilla varnish on top from the casks. With water, the grains move towards white wheat like some in-progress baking bread. A wide array of olde farmstead breakfast smells.
Taste: Yeasty buttered white toast, still with corn and vanilla varnish, and more spices and herbs than the nose – ginger and rosemary. Spirity off-notes of plastic and glue also make an appearance. With water, the taste is sweeter. There’s now some honey on that white toast, but there’s a bit more glue on it as well.
Finish: Medium length on black pepper cornbread.
Is this different to mainstream bourbons? Absolutely. Is it better? Not to my tastes. Sonoma’s spirit character is distinctive and I do like it enough to be interested in tasting more of their whiskey, especially if I come across one with a higher age statement. But I wouldn’t buy another expression from Sonoma without tasting it first. The whiskey is immature in its current form and needs more time to develop. This was my first impression of Sonoma and it wasn’t a great one.