I returned from Kentucky with an increased knowledge and excitement about bourbon. While on the trip, I nailed down a visit to Broken Barrel Whiskey Company right here in Los Angeles.
Here are highlights from my interview with Benhaim….
It is not often that you get offered the chance to take an ax to a bourbon barrel but Broken Barrel Whiskey Co. is shaking the spirit game up, in more ways than one.
You have to start with the barrel staves. It is the logical next step from Benhaim’s first spirit venture, Infused Vodkas just taken to the next, grander level. Swapping fruit and vodka for wood and whiskey. The staves are not limited to former Bourbon barrels but include rum, mezcal, sherry, Armagnac and even Amburana just to name a few. And it is not chips or chunks, it is the whole stave.
It is so integral to the product that when Benhaim first coined the name Oak Bill, his teams first response was, trademark that. Which he did. The Oak Bill is now as prominent on the labels as the malt bill and Benhaim envisions the term being used far into whiskeys future.
Another shake to the status quo is that the finishing is done here in Los Angeles and not in Kentucky (Owensboro to be specific). My big question was, why not a location in Kentucky, or a distillery here. Bring the “juice” closer, as it were. The answer was a bit of a wistful, maybe in the future. The business is in that small “for now” phase where everyone pitches in on bottling day.
I should pause here to talk about the whiskey that I tasted in Benhaim’s office which is stacked floor to ceiling with bourbons, gins, rums and vodkas. So many that a computerized inventory is needed lest you forget a bottle in the back of a shelf.
I started light then moved up to cask strength before sampling two other smaller batch offerings. California Oak has an Oak Bill of 80% Cabernet cask and 20% French Oak. It is 88 Proof and super easy to drink and a great vehicle to show off the wood notes. Next was the Small Batch which used 40% Ex Bourbon, 40% New French Oak and 20% Sherry cask. I tend to gravitate to whiskey that doesn’t Kentucky Hug you real hard so the slight wine note from the sherry helped cut the increased proof.
Next was the rye, which is another pull for me. I find the spice a big plus in creating a balanced drink. Broken Barrel’s Heresy Rye was my favorite of the tasting with another super small batch rye that was entered into competition, code name Magic Rye.
Both the Rye and the cask strength have the same Oak Bill as the Small Batch. But I found the Cask Strength to be a bit too burly at 115 Proof. By that point in the tasting my mind starting wandering to what beer barrels would be great to splinter and add. Perhaps a Pastry Stout or a Baltic Porter. Or go big and age a Triple IPA in wood and then see if the hops pulled into the whiskey.
Purists may scoff but I see a blank canvas where creativity can flourish. There will be some weird or wrong tastes along the way, Benhaim pointed out that Scotch staves do not work at all, but when a combination clicks. It could be magic just with a few swings of an ax.