My stance in general on flavored whisky is that if sugar is involved, I stay away from it. I also generally don’t review them, since their purpose is usually to “enhance” cocktails with specific flavors or to provide sugar to ease the burn of whisky when taken as a shot. Really, this stance is hard to defend, since in essence all whisky is “flavored” by oak – or by compounds that are extracted by the high-proof alcohol over time, including wood sugars. Going one step further, many of my favorite whiskies are “flavored” by the sherry or other (sweet) contents left behind in newly-dumped barrels that are then used to age whisky. It shouldn’t be surprising that scotch is allowed by law to have a certain small amount of sherry or other wine mixed into it (specifically whatever is still sloshing around the bottom of a recently-dumped wine cask). This sherry can even be ADDED to a dry cask to “season” it before the whisky goes in. It’s tough to stand on some kind of moral high ground and claim that sherry added to whisky is OK, but cinnamon syrup is not.
Still, I stand by my prejudices, even if I can’t defend them.
Here’s an interesting exception. Rather than adding hop-flavored sugar syrup mixed up in some lab, which is what Hiram Walker and its ilk would do, Sons of Liberty set out to create a whiskey that evoked refreshing summertime IPA beer by actually distilling an IPA beer wash, suspending hops in a gin basket during pot-still distillation, and then dry-hopping the finished (aged) whiskey! No sugar syrup, no weird chemicals, just artisanal ingredients treated with respect and the creative use of traditional brewing and distilling methods to craft something innovative. I can bend my indefensible position on flavored whiskies for that.
Sons of Liberty’s Hop Flavored Whiskey is a seasonal release (they also have a Pumpkin one). Distilled from an IPA (India Pale Ale) wash, and then distilled with a gin basket hung in the pot still containing Cascade and Centennial hops. The resulting “whiskey” (or malt gin?) is aged for less than 2 years in American oak and then dry-hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace hops before bottling at 40% ABV.
Batch #3, Bottle #447
Nose: Piercing notes of grapefuit juice, pine sap, and orange peel. Very perfumed, with fruits and florals in dizzying number. Not particularly bitter (yet), but very strongly reminiscent of the scent of a freshly-poured draft IPA. The whisky notes are overshadowed by the hops, but there is a biscuity, fruitcake-like depth to the aroma.
Palate: Sweet. Medium-bodied, with hops notes that are at first strongly bitter, and then calm down and become familiar – pine resin, lemon peel. There is a slight undercurrent of pale malt and vanilla, but as an afterthought.
Finish: On the short side. Surprisingly not bitter. Some of the fruit notes linger, becoming jammy. Fades with pine, lemon.
With Water: Oddly, a few drops of water seem to mute the hop notes, leaving not a whole lot behind. I would definitely not add any water to this. Out of curiosity, I tried a dram of this on ice and found the same thing – the hop notes are very muted and without them, there isn’t much else going on. I would either drink this neat or use it to create a subtly hop-infused whiskey cocktail.
Overall: There is no question that the hop character is fully and prominently displayed, with all of the full range of hop-derived flavors and aromas but amplified and carried by the alcohol, to the point that the whiskey itself is little more than a vehicle for the distilled, concentrated essence of IPA. Surely this was the point, and it’s one of the more successful flavored whiskies I’ve tasted. I’m very glad that the “flavoring” of this whisky is restricted to the use of hops, rather than the type of sugar-laden syrup that other flavored whiskies suffer from. I suggest that if you come across a bottle of this and you’re a fan of hoppy beer that you buy it just for the novelty of it. You won’t be disappointed by the quality, even if you’re not really sure what to do with a hop-flavored “whiskey”!