Wilderness Trail stands out as a bonafide craft success story in the heart of Kentucky, where tradition and familiarity reign, and competing with the big time distilleries is a constant uphill battle. It began in 2006 (though distillation didn't properly begin until 2013) with friends Shane Baker and Pat Heist, both of whom have science backgrounds and wanted to bring an openness to the possibilities of modern technologies and processes to traditional Kentucky whiskey-making. In an environment where tales of grandpappies and rustic imagery dominate, this is a novel idea indeed, but they were lucky to be debuting just as the whiskey drinking populace was becoming nerdier and more detail obsessed by the moment. Suddenly, one could theoretically appeal to the market through detailing yeast strains and unique mashbills, rather than weaving a tall tale of antebellum romance.
The differences between Wilderness Trail and the big distilleries start with the grain itself. When Shane and Pat began distilling, they knew that in addition to their carefully cultivated proprietary yeast strains (which isn't much discussed at any major distillery with the very notable exception of Four Roses), they wanted to source the highest grade grains, from as locally as possible. These days, they source their seed grade corn, wheat, and rye from just a few miles away from their home in Danville, at Caverndale Farms. The barley comes from more northerly states, where it grows more easily and robustly. Comparing these grains to the dominantly used industrial grains that large commercial distilleries use is like comparing fresh baked bread from your local bakery to a loaf of supermarket white bread. It's just hardly the same stuff at all in terms of depth of flavor.
The next big difference comes in the fermentation, a pretty major step in the production process that you rarely hear the big distilleries talk about. This is not so at Wilderness Trail, where fermentation is a hot button passion. Just short of 100% of whiskey is made using a "sour mash" process, in which some spent mash from a previous batch is added to function as a kind of "starter" to fermentation. This ensures some consistency from batch to batch, and the high ph level keeps it from getting contaminated. In the early days of whiskey making, this was really the only feasible way of doing it, as yeast wasn't well understood, and cleanliness was a much greater concern. These days, Wilderness Trail are truly trailblazers in their use of a "sweet mash" process. In a sweet mash, the high ph spent mash is not employed, and modern technology and sanitary practices are used to maintain strict control over every step of fermentation. This control gives them more ability to play with their desired flavor profile from the get go, rather than leaving it all up to distillation and barreling for distinct character. Each ferment can be something new, or exactly the same. Control and precision is the name of the game.
All this is to say, we count ourselves amongst those detail obsessed nerds who have been wooed by Wilderness Trail, and we have probably expressed that to you if you've shopped with us in the store. We love their whole lineup, and even bought a barrel of their rye in the past that remains one of our standout private barrels. When it came time to bring you a new Wilderness Trail barrel, we decided to embrace our excitement for the variety they offer, and pick out the exact opposite of that rye: a single barrel of Wheated Bourbon. These barrels are aged on the bottom rows of their rickhouses, accentuating the natural characteristics of the mash bill, compared to the rye mash bourbon aged in the center rows, and rye whiskeys aged at the top of the rickhouse.
This wheater was aged just shy of 5 years and is bottled at a cask strength of 55.82% abv, without chill-filtration. It showcases the elegance of a classic wheated bourbon on the nose, with sweet cake batter, maple syrup, heavy cream, blackberries, and barrel char. The palate follows through on those sweet promises, with gooey butter cake (any St. Louisians here?), sugar plums, creme de cassis, dark clove spice, black pepper, and a viscous creaminess that high quality wheat always brings to the table. The finish is slightly dry and woody, with fresh baked bread notes slowly filling the back of your palate. This is big but elegant wheat from a producer that really knows what they are doing with it.