When former Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan jumped ship to start her own whiskey brand earlier this year, and that brand was unveiled as Hidden Barn, it’s safe to say I would have been expecting something a bit more conventional. Standard operating procedure, as it were, would be for someone with Zykan’s visibility and clout to join another established distillery, or find a group of well-heeled investors buying product from major producers such as MGP, and become the face of the franchise as master blender. That’s not what Zykan did.
Instead, Zykan found a relatively unknown source in the form of Sparta, Kentucky’s Neeley Family Distillery, a company in operation since 2015. And nor were these guys producing conventional bourbon by any means—the distillery runs exclusively on pot stills, something that is almost entirely absent in modern bourbon production. In fact, practically everything that Neeley Family Distillery does is nouveau or reflective of modern tinkering, from the low barrel entry proof to the low, #2 char on the barrels. Those kinds of unusual methods yielded a quite odd, individualistic first batch of Hidden Barn Small Batch, which I found head-scratching but also intriguing. And now, the company has released their second batch in the flagship Hidden Barn Small Batch expression, dubbed Series #002. And after tasting it, it seems more clear than ever that Hidden Barn is exploring almost entirely new territory here—they’re making some weird bourbon, a distillate that I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around. Is it good? Is it mostly perplexing? It’s really hard to decide, though I’m confident that this will be a divisive bottle. I honestly think some drinkers will love it, and some will hate it.
Like the first batch, this distillate from Neeley Family Distillery is 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% malted barley, aged for somewhere between 4-5 years. It’s a bit stronger than the first expression, with my sample weighing in at 56% ABV (112 proof). And that’s pretty much where comparisons to most bourbons end. I suspect that most of this whiskey’s unique nature is owed to its pot distillation, which has left aromatic and flavor compounds in play that you just aren’t getting from most column stills, but I lack the distilling expertise to say for sure. All I can say is that this batch is even more vivaciously out there than the first one was. Let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Series #002 leads off with sweet malt syrup and huge grainy impressions, along with honey and cherry syrup—almost medicinal-like cherry. I’m getting big impressions of something like toasted oats or cereal, along with caramel, molasses and charred oak. Delicate spearmint is also there, if you can get past the sweetness and slightly stinging ethanol. It’s so malty sweet, in fact, that what it really evokes to me is American single malt. It makes me wonder, do they use malted rye in these recipes, perhaps? It’s an extremely grain-forward profile, and I really think this is part of the pot still process—it has left some of those malt/grain congeners in play, and they’ve become arguably the stars of the show.
On the palate, the thing that really leaps out first and foremost is textural—this stuff is extremely thick and viscous. It is intensely thick for the proof point, in fact, almost offputtingly so. Again, the pot still likely plays a role here. Flavor-wise, this is offering huge impressions of very nutty cocoa bean and mint, along with medicinal cherry, molasses and vanilla. Sweetness is intense, a big malty sweetness like cookies made from a brewers’ spent grains. Again I’m reminded of American single malt—it reminds me of those examples of the style that are aged in newly charred oak, and combine that oaky char with their toasted malt impressions.
This is a big, intense profile that is massively full of flavor … and yet I still can’t decide how much I like it. I think that perhaps if this same bottle was labeled as American single malt, I might readily declare that I love it. When thinking of it as bourbon, on the other hand, it becomes harder to mentally process and categorize. I hugely admire how individualistic and ambitious Hidden Barn’s distillate has been to date, but I am again left thinking that this will probably be a “love it or hate it” scenario. Some people will really click with these sweet, malty, grainy flavors, and others will simply find it too far off the beaten path.
As for the $75 MSRP, it is of course high for a bottle of bourbon based purely on the specs. But considering just how unusual this stuff is, it can hardly be judged in normal bourbon terms. This is not a 4-5 year old bottle from Beam or Heaven Hill; this is a 4-5 year old experiment in redefining the entire category. Drinkers may well find it worth their while to seek this out, just to find out whether Hidden Barn’s ambitious revision of the norms is something they want to investigate further.
Distillery: Hidden Barn Whiskey (Neeley Family Distillery)
City: Sparta, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 56% (112 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $75 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.