Let’s cut to the chase: Up until today, every craft whisky I’ve tried that’s come out of Washington state has been excellent. So, upon seeing a bottle of OOLA’s Waitsburg Bourbon available in my Flaviar subscription, I figure what’s the worst that can happen?
On paper, everything seems to check out. This is 5 year-old bourbon which was previously sourced and blended but is now all made with a four-grain mashbill distillate from OOLA’s own small distillery in Seattle. They’re using locally-grown Washington State soft white winter wheat and organic corn from Waitsburg, WA, along with locally-sourced barley and rye. The mashbill, which probably changes based on grain availability, is around 65% corn, 25% rye, 13% malted barley and 12% white winter wheat. The whiskey is aged for a short time in small 10-gallon barrels to kickstart maturation, and then is moved into standard 53-gallon barrels. The final bourbon is bottled at a respectable 47% ABV. Before you ask, OOLA is the name of the owner’s dog.
Despite some thorough digging, I’m unable to determine what batch number represented the switch from blended sourced bourbon to 100% in-house spirit. The distillery tells me that they began using “mostly” in-house barrels in their marrying tank by 2016. My bottle is from Batch 86, for what that’s worth, and the bottle label mentions the act of “sourcing the finest aged bourbon available”, so I’m guessing I have one of the prior blended versions. It’s also worth noting that reviews online seem to vary, with a lot of respectable reviewers giving this bourbon high marks. This could be due to batch variation (which is a much bigger deal with small-batch craft spirits), or it could be due to the switch away from blending sourced bourbon. Impossible to tell.
There is also a cask-strength edition available, and OOLA also produces gins, vodkas, and other craft spirits.
Nose: Vodka-esque acetone notes greet (assault?) the nose first, followed immediately by an almost-cloying refined sweetness, like powdered sugar or unflavored rock candy. The vodka is accompanied by some nice (by vodka standards) notes of fruit-and-flowers variety (juniper berries, kiwi, orange blossom). And now that I’ve noticed the juniper, I can’t get the scent-memory of gin out of my head.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Woody up front, with a lot of pine sap and wet sawdust. Not too hot, even for 47% ABV. The sweet notes are prevalent here, as well, with abundant caramel/butterscotch and a nice light cereal flavor. Alas, what would be a nice light bourbon flavor is marred by more of that acetone / paint thinner.
Finish: On the short side. Rock candy again, a touch of pine, and a bit of barrel charcoal that isn’t quite bitter. A bit thin, and over quickly.
With Water: Water, of course, amps up the vodka notes. It does add a pleasant silkiness to the body, but I’d still say skip the water.
Overall: A thoroughly disappointing experience. One has been conditioned, these days, to think of craft whiskey as the purview of the quality-obsessed, the flavor-conscious, the skilled craftsmen who can do it better than the big boys because they aren’t shackled by the lowest-common denominator or hampered by a board of directors. This is, however, distinctly worse than most bottom-shelf bourbons in every way I can think of. I’ve only tasted that acetone/paint thinner note in the cheapest spirits (usually those blended with straight grain whiskey), and this has no backbone of oak nor raft of flavors or aromas to offset the overpowering suggestion of vodka.
I’m sad, I wanted to like this more. I hope it’s a fluke or a bad batch. I hope this is not representative of the newer 100% own-distillate bottlings that are on the market now. Despite that hope, consider the effects of Anchoring – the name of this distillery will forever be anchored in my mind to this first bad experience.