I’ve tasted enough whisky now to be relatively jaded when trying new bottles. “Mild sherry influence,” I think, or “mediocre ex-bourbon,” or “run-of-the-mill high-rye bourbon.” I relegate new bottles to a handful of Old Curmudgeon categories like “OK for cocktails, I guess” and “Could buy it if they’re out of Rittenhouse” or “Slightly better than other sub-$30 blends” or “Pretty good, but way overpriced.” You laugh because it’s true. I’m the “Scotch Snob” now, apparently, and it shows. Imagine my surprise, then, when I tasted Cut Spike, a single-malt whiskey from – of all places – Nebraska. Yes, you read that correctly, it’s a bottle of fine two year-old Nebraska Single Malt. I can hear the snorts of derision from here. You can quit laughing. This whisky opened my eyes in a way that hasn’t happened since I-don’t-know-when. It’s amazing.
We whisky bloggers try to avoid the word ‘smooth’. It’s the kind of thing that frat guys say to impress each other while choking down shots of Jack Daniels. “Smooth” implies that the alcohol isn’t prominent, which can be achieved with any spirit by adding water to lower its ABV. I struggle, then, to find a word to describe Cut Spike. Silky? Round? Screw it. This stuff is SMOOTH in a way that no vodka or blended scotch could ever be. It rolls around your tongue, soft and intensely flavored without so much as a hint of burning.
The fact that Cut Spike is only two years of age is astounding – in a blind test I would have said 12 at least, but more likely 18. This can be attributed, in part, to the use of charred new oak barrels (a la bourbon), which is a rare to nonexistent practice with whisky made from malted barley. Cut Spike is a micro-distillery in La Vista Nebraska. They use mostly domestic barley malt and do a 5-day ferment with brewer’s yeast and limestone-rich Nebraska water. The wash is distilled in a pair of copper pot stills (300 and 500 gallons) with a small heart cut. The wood is all new charred American oak, but they use several different char levels to coax different effects from the wood.
The whiskey is an odd, ruddy brownish tinge. Dark, like a bourbon, but without the sparkling topaz color. According to Cut Spike, they do not add any coloring agents to the whiskey. They also do not chill-filter. My bottle is from Batch 001, bottled 8/1/2013. Bottled after two years in oak at 43% ABV.
Updated 3/27/2021: I tasted a small sample of the second batch of Cut Spike at a blind tasting event this week, so please scroll to the bottom and check my results if you’re considering buying something other than Batch 1.
Nose: Intensely sweet butterscotch and toffee. If a nose can do a double-take, mine just did. This doesn’t smell like 2 year-old paint thinner in wood, this smells like deeply mature malt whisky with a lot of oak influence. Vanilla fudge, white chocolate, and “blondie” brownies. Deeper in, there’s a faint sappy green wood, like freshly-snapped saplings. Sweet and flawless. Wow.
Palate: Soft and supple. Maple sugar candies! A reprise of the aroma, but with endless waves of bakery treats, caramels, vanilla, and a whallop of oak tannin. Is it malt whisky? Is it bourbon? Somehow, it’s the best of both. No tongue burn to speak of.
Finish: Medium/Short. The sweet notes drop away quickly, leaving a little drying tannin and some faint herbal flavors, like mint or menthol. No bitterness.
With Water: At 43% ABV, this is hardly crying out for water. A few drops seem to (oddly) dampen the sweetness and add only a hint of charcoal. On the tongue, the water seems to draw up tannins and even a little bitterness. I don’t see any need for water here.
Overall: Unreal. Who knew that if you took Nebraska water, malted barley, and new charred American oak, you could make magic? And in only two years! I was hooked at first sip, and now halfway through the bottle I can’t believe I ever lived without it. Cut Spike has exactly the right amount of wood character – aging this any longer under the same conditions could make for an overly woody, muddied mess. 43% ABV seems perfect for mouthfeel, body, intensity of flavor, and lack of burn. It has less harsh, acrid notes than most bourbons, and more flavor than most malt whiskies aged in reused wood. There is no hint of acetone or vodka-like flavors despite the young age. It is, perhaps, a little on the sweet side for those who prefer drier spirits, and the finish seems a little lightweight. Those are nitpicks, though. This is easily the best American spirit I’ve had short of Pappy 15 (which is a wholly, entirely different whiskey), and among the best malt whiskies I’ve had. Considering that the malt whisky category encompasses all of single-malt scotch, that’s saying something.
Batch 2 Notes: I did not have enough liquid to perform a full review, so I thought I’d add some notes here for people looking in the store at a “batch 2” of Cut Spike. Batch 2 is wildly different – night and day – from batch 1. It features a dominant soapy perfume note of lavender dish soap, sweet and tart tropical fruits (passion fruit, exotic citrus), a syrupy body, and a cloyingly-sweet cotton candy bubblegum flavor on the palate. There is almost no hint of oak at all, let alone new oak, and basically none of the “baked sugar” notes survive from batch 1. It was widely hated by the tasting participants. I heard through the grapevine that Cut Spike’s master distiller wanted to change the recipe after batch 1, which explains why it is different. I would not buy a bottle of Batch 2, and my admiration for the distillery has been damaged. I would only buy a bottle of future batches if I had an opportunity to taste them first. “Fool me once…”