Just over a week ago, I had the good fortune of finding myself with a free Sunday afternoon in southwest Michigan. With a quick google search, I knew exactly how I would kill that time: a tour of the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan.
While there, I picked up a few bottles that are reviewed below. But first, a little bit about Journeyman.
Early in the tour you learn that much of Journeyman’s brand identity comes by way of the facility itself. The Journeyman Distillery is housed at the historic E.K. Warren Featherbone factory. What is a featherbone and why is there a featherbone factory? E.K. Warren was a corset builder. Sometime in the late 1800’s, Warren visited a feather duster factory and discovered a specific feather that was always discarded as useless in the feather duster industry. This feather had a course quill. Warren studied this quill and realized that it was a perfect substitute for the whale bones that were then used in corset making, which were rigid and brittle.
This featherbone would revolutionize corset making. It would also become instrumental in whip making. Warren became instantly a millionaire. He constructed the factory and became a huge influence in the community.
While Journeyman’s factory home, the featherbone, the corset and the whip are certainly noteworthy in the current branding of the Journeyman products (more on this below), it is Warren’s influence that is the most ironic and interesting. Warren was a teetotaler and avid prohibitionist. During his prime, he was able to convince the county to become “dry” and personally paid the county the amount of tax that would have been raised by the sale of alcohol. His opposition was noteworthy – and he died on the exact date that the 18th Amendment (prohibition) was finally ratified. With a distillery now operating in the house Warren built, it should be no surprise that (legend has it) Warren haunts the factory from time to time.
While a cool backstory might sell a first bottle, Journeyman’s whiskeys themselves may be earning some staying power. As I would learn in the tasting session (consisting of 16 different spirits), Journeyman has a recipe for something different.
Without attempting to create debate, many new whiskey producers in the United States attempt to compete head-to-head with the big boys. Most use traditional bourbon recipes consisting of corn, rye and barley (or possibly, corn, wheat and barley), but attempt to expedite the production process using smaller barrels. This is a difficult battle, and many would argue that this is a battle that most new distilleries will not win.
Journeyman does use smaller than standard barrels (standard being 53 gallon, with Journeyman using as small as 5 gallon barrels in production). But what Journeyman hasn’t done is to limit themselves to traditional recipe formulations (which, generally speaking, are usually combination of only 2 or 3 grains). By way of example, Journeyman’s Buggy Whip Wheat and the Corsets, Whips and Whiskey products are 100% wheat products (most wheat whiskeys still use corn). The Last feather Rye is a rye/wheat/barley blend (most rye whiskeys don’t include wheat). The Silver Cross Whiskey is equal parts corn, rye, barley and wheat, and even the Featherbone Bourbon is a blend of all four grains (with corn being at least 51% by law, and most bourbon’s usually only use, at most, 3 grains).
Tasting notes for four different Journeyman whiskey products are below. I’d encourage you to try them out and see if you think that Journeyman pulls off something unique and different with its unique mash bill recipes.
Featherbone Bourbon (90 proof) (NAS):
Nose: There is uniquely some old and new on this nose. Some acetone and corn hit right away. But prominent behind those notes are deep cola, rich toffee, caramel and vanilla, with a bit of spice. A bit floral – some traditional rye notes of mint and dill – along with leaf tobacco and wheat. Although the profile is much different, the nose reminds me of the wheat and barley combination that are present in the nose of Maker’s Mark.
Palate: Corn; malted barley and wheat sweetness; toffee, caramel and cola; heavy spices like the nose. Rather excellent mouthfeel for its age and proof. Warm, but not hot.
Finish: Heat and spice carries over from the palate to the finish. Toffee. Some lingering sweet cherry tobacco, caramel and melon. This leaves the palate coated for quite some time.
Conclusion: When I just drink this to enjoy, I don’t appreciate it nearly as much as when I try and study it. There is much more to this one than original meets the eye. It is a quality spirit, and the unique four grain recipe adds complexity and interest. This is a fun bottle to pick up if you are in the area (or at the distillery), and if you can appreciate a quality craft bourbon, this one has enough nuances to make it interesting.
Silver Cross Whiskey (90 proof) (NAS, but aged in 5 gallon barrels for 4-6 months).
Nose: Dark chocolate malt balls; fresh baked rye and wheat breads; baking spices; dark fruit. Not much burn, as this doesn’t really jump out of the glass.
Palate: Initial rye bread with other muddled flavors most influenced by malt balls, some vanilla and baking spices. Not a bad mouthfeel, but if a mouthfeel can have flavor it would be “malt ball.”
Finish: A continuation of the palate flavors with some additional wheat influence; lingering burn and muted bittersweet chocolate covered . . . yes, malt balls.
Conclusion: Form over function: the intent at using equal parts corn, rye, wheat and barley leaves this feeling very muddled. My overwhelming takeaway from this is (obviously) malt balls, which is interesting, but not exactly fitting to my palate. Youthful barley seems to dominate. Not one I’d consider buying again (and with only a 2 oz sampler I picked up after doing the distillery tasting, I’d say I made a good choice).
Last Feather Rye (90 proof) (NAS, aged in 15 gallon barrels) (formerly known as Ravenswood Rye) (60% Rye/40% Wheat)
Nose: Young rye herbal spice (dill, white pepper and rye); wheat sweetness and simple syrup; banana bread. Enough alcohol burn to tingle the nose.
Palate: Initially soft on the palate, but a bit of vanilla and rye spice appear after a moment on the tongue; some sweet orange/lemon citrus; more simple syrup; some lightly toasted wood. Chewing this a bit brings in some delicious rye herbal notes. Slightly thin.
Finish: Medium to short, with rye, vanilla and banana. After a bit of wait, heat and spice fade in and out. Some residual sweet herbal notes that leave you wanting to go back for more.
Overall: For me, rye tends to develop more quickly than corn and wheat. This is certainly young, but the rye already had developed some nice notes. And the lack of young corn that is traditionally used to supplement the mash bill is a definite plus. Again, this is a fun bottle to pick up if you are in the area (or at the distillery). My second favorite product produced by Journeyman.
Corsets, Whips and Whiskey: 121 Proof (Cask Strength) (NAS)
Nose: Strong wheat/grain sweetness; brown sugar and toffee; honey; baking spices; fresh oak. Obviously at 121 proof, there is some burn to the nose, but the other notes still shine through.
Palate: Incredibly rich brown sugar and toffee sweetness; grain-forward; some fruit; cinnamon-sugar; and, I hesitate on this one, but there is a strong new car leather-seat smell, but in taste form. Very thick and mouth coating.
Finish: Medium in length, but powerful and full. The finish begins as the palate ended, with that car leather flavor, but has a rich brown sugar cinnamon spice and wheat sweetness. A bit of char that lingers.
Overall: I can’t say enough good things about this one. For most true bourbon and American whiskey fans (aficionados?), you won’t fool them into “liking” a proof-down, under-aged, small barrel whiskey. They may buy a bottle or two for the novelty or for a variety, but they will inevitably come back to comparing it to a priced-half-as-much-but-twice-as-old-and-better-to-drink product. But with cask strength, this really holds up well against just about anything around. I know there is a lot in the $60 price range. I’d say, given the chance to buy this limited release, it is a good pickup. My favorite of the tour.