What is “Sour Mash”? Many a bottle of bourbon proudly displays this moniker, as if I should both know what it means and also be impressed. A quick Google search and I now know: it means they dump some of the previous spent fermented mash into the new mash in order to start the fermentation process with an injection of live yeasts. A similar process is used in the making of sourdough bread. This has the double effect of kickstarting the new fermentation and also controlling the initial growth of unwanted microorganisms. As nearly all bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey brands use the process and has no discernible effect on flavor, it’s really not something that belongs on a label. Tradition is tradition, however, and so I sat down to drink some highly recommended Black Maple Hill Small Batch Sour-Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Yeesh.
Aged in American white oak and bottled at a hefty 47.5% ABV (95 proof), Black Maple Hill is a vatting of vintages in a “small batch” from KBD (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), a group owned by the storied Willet family which doesn’t (yet!) distill any of its own product, but rather sources it from (several) other distillers in Kentucky.
In a previous version of this post, I mentioned that some Black Maple Hill was distilled at Heaven Hill in Kentucky, and was corrected by an astute reader. After some more Internet research, all I can say is that the whole issue is hopelessly confused. KBD owns the barrels of the source whiskey, but nobody knows for sure where it was distilled, or whether that location changed recently and heralded a decrease in the quality of the brand. Regardless, my bottle says “Bardstown, KY”, which may (or may not) indicate anything about its provenance. It’s from a very recent batch.
Nose: Perfectly round – practically spherical. All the characters are here: piquant cinnamon, sticky toffee, pine sap and freshly-hewn oak. The bold 95 proof crawls up your nose, but it carries aroma with it. Deep under all the cooked sugar flavors (caramel, toffee, the gooey stuff in pecan pie) there is a narrow band of cherry fruit and coconut. Despite the name, I don’t get any maple syrup!
Palate: Medium bodied. Soft on the palate initially, but then it burns with the full strength of 95 proof. Distinctly sweet, with prominent cherry notes, mild spices, and a deep resounding woodiness.
Finish: Pretty long. Coconut sets in at first, evolving into vanilla bean, espresso, and sour cherry lozenge with an entire lack of bitterness! Trails off with some slight hazelnut.
With Water: Water brings out some interesting vegetal notes – green banana leaves, lime peel, raw sugar cane. However, it thins the body and disarms the potency of the alcohol, and the flavors with it. Toss a few drops in your last sip, but don’t water the whole glass.
Overall: No low points, although it verges on woody in places. Round and bold in the nose, soft and sweet on the tongue, and lingering on the finish. This stuff is hard to find, and very much delivers. To my bourbon-novice palate, it’s dang good for under $40. The brand is not as fervor-inducing as Pappy Van Winkle, but it blows some similarly-profiled bourbons like Knob Creek out of the water. I have to say, if this is inferior to the old Heaven Hill distillate, I definitely missed out!
Update: David D. at K&L just posted a few more tidbits about Black Maple Hill, how it’s sourced, and why it’s rare at the moment. Short story: It’s a blend made at KBD from Kentucky bourbon sourced from who-knows-where. According to Drew Kulsveen at KBD, it’s “made with whiskey from two different distilleries and the formula has never changed. It’s always been the same recipe.” As David D. puts it, Black Maple Hill is an independent label purchased from another independent label. Of course, we still don’t know which bourbon(s) it contains, or how old they are. Ah well. [David’s Post]