In a related post, I mentioned that an easy and affordable way to discover new bourbons, especially before purchasing a full bottle, is to find a great bourbon bar and try unfamiliar bourbons. I’ve started making a list of great bourbon bars in the Memphis area and I decided to practice what I preach and try a bar and a new bourbon. One afternoon while checking the stock at one of the local bottle shops, I asked the sales guy what he thought were the best bourbon bars in the area. He recommended Hog & Hominy. I had been there once before, but not specifically for the bar experience, so I headed that way.
Hog & Hominy is a local (i.e. non-chain) restaurant owned by executive chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. They have at least three other restaurants in the Memphis area. All are top-notch. The Hog & Hominy website calls the restaurant a “wood burning neighborhood eatery.” I arrived around happy hour — the parking lot was full and the restaurant was starting to fill up. There were open seats at the bar and I headed there — after all this was my destination.
Neither the restaurant nor the bar is large; there are about a dozen seats at the L-shaped bar at the back wall of the restaurant. The bartenders were friendly and quickly brought a bar menu and a glass of water (cold, no ice). While the bar menu lists only about 30 bourbons, there were probably an additional 20 to 30 behind the bar that were not listed in the menu. The prices seemed very reasonable, running from $6.5 a pour to as much as $20, however the $20 pour (High Wire 9 Four Grain) seemed to be an outlier. Most were $12 or under.
I struck up a conversation with the head bartender, asking for his recommendations for something not on the menu, as most of the menu choices were fairly familiar to me and my mission was to try something new. Many of the ones he suggested were old familiars, although one that he brought out was new to me: Rabbit Hole. He explained (incorrectly I believe) that Rabbit Hole was started by Jim Rutledge of Four Roses after he retired. After many web searches, I believe that he had mistaken this for the failed startup attempt of the JW Rutledge distillery.
Before deciding on the Rabbit Hole, I asked to see the bottle in order to examine the label. Here’s what it said: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 95°, Batch #4, Bottle 2707, #3 Char, Four Grain Mashbill, Matured over 2 years. They went on to list the mashbill as 70 percent corn, 10 percent malted wheat, 10 percent honey malted barley, and 10 percent malted barley. I reminded myself that I was out to try something different and not to worry so much about the details, and told the bartender to bring one neat. It arrived in a Glencairn glass (which gave the bar an extra point for serving in good glassware). Continuing to read the label, I pulled out my phone to see if I could find additional information as some of what I read raised some questions.
First, when I think of four grain, I think of a bourbon that has both rye and wheat in the mashbill. My initial thought was how can they call this four grain when two of the grains are barley. Is honey malted barley that different from malted barley. Technically, yes, but again, both are barley grains. And the wheat — malted wheat? My pain with the label didn’t stop there. My understanding of “straight bourbon” is that it must be aged at least two years (and this was) but that if it is younger than four years, the age must be specifically stated on the label (and I don’t think that matured over two years qualifies as specific). But I digress — we’re here to taste a new or different bourbon.
Rabbit Hole ordered and delivered, I went into my standard tasting routine. First a good swirl and a check of the color and legs. Next a good nosing. Due to the semi-open nature of the kitchen and the size of the restaurant, nosing was a challenge. I love the smell of wood fired cooking, but when you are trying to pick out subtle aromas in whiskey, the kitchen smells can get in the way. Nose and tasting showed some apple pie and baking spices and light cinnamon. The youth of the juice showed as I did get some alcohol coming through. The finish was medium to short and ended on a slightly bitter note, again, this could be due to the age of the whiskey.
The suggested retail price for Rabbit Hole straight bourbon whiskey is around $55 — the point where I slow down and really question if I need a bottle in this price range. Tasting at a bar first is definitely the way to go. I’ll have to say that, for a young whiskey, it was better than average, however it didn’t impress me enough to purchase a bottle for my shelf.
I’ve had better bourbons at much more reasonable prices. I will give this one another try at some point, as tastes can vary on different days or in different situations. I’d like to see what this bourbon is like once it has reached four or more years old. I certainly hope the distillery has plans to continue to age it and release it at an older age.