There’s an interesting moment for a whiskey company built on well-aged, high-priced blends of sourced bourbon, where it needs to decide its strategy as it relates to younger whiskey that it has had a hand in distilling itself. For a company like Blue Run, it could very well have continued to exist as an entity that would put out occasional, critically acclaimed batches of well-aged, sourced bourbon, and used the industry cache of former Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge to assure that people would be paying attention. But those singular, individual batches don’t result in a ton of product to sell, and eventually you want to establish a pipeline of “your own” spirit.
For Blue Run, that has meant having their own recipe contract distilled by Kentucky’s up and coming Castle & Key Distillery, resulting in this year’s first release of Blue Run High Rye Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Now they’re back with Blue Run “Reflection 1,” seemingly the start of a permanent series of younger bourbon releases, distilled at Castle & Key under the supervision of “liquid advisor” Rutledge.
Where you run into a potential problem is price point: This is a roughly 4-year bourbon, at 95 proof (47.5% ABV), with an MSRP of $100. It goes without saying that this is far out of line with the standards of the legacy distilleries of Kentucky, and even out of line with what Castle & Key charges for their own, similarly aged product. The math just doesn’t seem to work—the company has sold 13- and 14-year-old bourbon, near cask strength, for $200 or less, but the 4-year, 95 proof bottle is $100? That feels disconcertingly like Blue Run has used the acclaim of their well-aged sourced batches to set an unrealistically high price point for the Reflection series.
But who knows? Perhaps the liquid will justify all of that. This bottle is drawn from a batch of 200 barrels, with a blend of different char levels between #3 and #4 chars. So with that said, let’s get to tasting and see how it is.
On the nose, Reflection 1 reads as bright and honeyed right off the bat, with apricot-like stone fruit, along with floral impression, light caramel, some fresh-ish lumber, citrus and spice in the form of faint anise and rye spice. There’s also something slightly combining doughy/toasted breadiness, perhaps like fried bread. I’d say “French toast,” but it doesn’t suggest quite that much sweetness or decadence to me.
On the palate, this is bright again, with orange citrus and stone fruit, along with rye spice, creamed corn, black pepper and a little hot cinnamon candies, floral vanilla and caramel corn. It reads as a little bit hot for the relatively mild proof, perhaps owing to its relative immaturity. Still, there’s actually a good amount of complexity here that most distilleries would be happy to have in a bourbon of this age range, with some herbaceous tones dancing on the edge of a decent balance between sweet and spicy.
On a broader level, though, one might say that Reflection 1 reads as complex enough for a whiskey of its age, but not dynamic enough for a whiskey of its price point. It has some depth to it, but it needs even more. Or in other words, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this bottle, and this is actually one of the better advertisements I’ve seen so far for the advancing prowess of Castle & Key. Likewise, if Jim Rutledge developed this recipe, it’s probably a pretty good one, but it’s the economic side of the spectrum that feels out of alignment here.
Of course, in the end it will be up to the customer base to sort out the issue of value for themselves, and in a time of soaring price tags on whiskey of all kinds, perhaps this is just the new status quo. But as long as Wild Turkey still costs $25 at the local Virginia ABC, this particular type of $100 bottle will probably remain a hard sell to many.
Distillery: Blue Run Spirits (Castle & Key)
City: Frankfort, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 47.5% (95 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $100 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.