Most non-alcoholic faux spirits are really just a blend of flavorings and water in a pretty bottle. The botanicals are distilled in some water, and then added to more water. But the folks at Spiritless seem to be taking a different approach: actually using alcohol and distillation techniques to create an alcohol free whiskey. Which, to be honest, is a pretty cool concept.
The three founders of Spiritless (Lauren Chitwood, Abby Ferguson and Lexie Larsen) started out working together at Olio Event Group. One day, they were trying to organize some non-alcoholic options besides soft drinks and sodas for a corporate event that they were hosting — and while they could find gin and beer alternatives, they couldn’t find anyone who made a good alternative for their hometown hero: bourbon. Seeing an opportunity in the market, the three female entrepreneurs founded the Spiritless distillery in Louisville, Kentucky in late 2020.
Their product, Kentucky 74, is named because they are the 74th licensed distillery in the state and, according to numerology, 74 is an auspicious number.
The process they are using for this whiskey is honestly brilliant, and I’m not sure why anyone hasn’t thought of this before.
Technically speaking, this isn’t whiskey. And the label rightfully doesn’t claim to be whiskey, it just says that this is for “bourbon cocktails”. Which is correct, because this actually seems to be slightly closer to a gin in terms of the way it is produced.
Unlike most non-alcoholic options on the market, Spiritless actually starts out with a spirit: high-proof neutral spirits are brought into the distillery and mixed with different kinds of oak chips and staves. That mixture is placed into their still, where they vary the heat and pressure to extract the flavors of the oak into the spirit and mimic the barrel aging process.
Once the spirit is appropriately soaked, they run the still just like you would as if you were making any other kind of spirit. But here’s the catch: normally, distillers will focus on the spirit rolling out of the condenser, and either discard the leftover contents of the still or use it as “backset” in following distillation runs. Spiritless does the opposite. They capture the alcohol portion of the spirit to be re-used in the next run, and focus on making what’s left in the pot delicious. They call it “reverse distillation”, and it removes pretty much all of the alcohol content from the finished product while maintaining the flavors within.
Once all but 0.5% of the alcohol has been removed, the distillers blend different batches together to create a finished product and ship it for sale.
There’s nothing crazy going on with the bottle, but that’s the point: it’s supposed to feel very much like a traditional bourbon bottle.
The body of the bottle is cylindrical and flares slightly from the base to the shoulder, where it sharply angles in towards the short neck. It looks like a traditional pudgy whiskey bottle, but that sharp angle gives it just a touch of modern aesthetic. The bottle is capped off with a chunky wood and cork stopper that continues the “whiskey” experience.
As for the label, I do feel like this could use a bit more work. It’s mostly just a big white piece of paper with a 74 on it and the names are in an overlapping-letter font, which doesn’t quite read well from the other side of a bar. I get that there are all sorts of designs embossed onto the paper, and it looks great in oblique lighting, but that really only shows up when you have the bottle in hand. It just needs an extra bit of designing from a consumer perspective, in my opinion.
This liquid definitely looks the part for a bourbon — it has that deep amber-to-almost-brown color that you’d expect from a well aged bourbon. It also has some of the aromas you’d expect, but mainly oak is coming through. It smells like I’m standing in a lumber yard, with raw oak and sawdust being the primary components. Beneath that and adding a layer of complexity is some toasted brown sugar, a touch of licorice, and a tiny hint of baking spices.
All of which are barrel maturation components, which shouldn’t be a surprise since that seems to be the primary focus of the process.
That said, I was not expecting the flavor I got when I took my first sip. I was expecting something a little more smooth and oaky, but this tastes like someone added too much lemon juice to a cocktail. There’s a tangy bite up front that I wouldn’t classify as bitterness, it’s more like a citrus component with some of that citric acid combined with some ginger. Following that are some raw oak flavors, like those you’d see in a younger bourbon and including some of the sawdust we saw before. These flavors work, though, and compliment that ginger flavor. As the flavor develops, there’s a hint of cherry, some baking spices, and then on the finish a touch of bitterness at the back of the tongue that usually I associate with artificial caramel coloring.
The good thing about adding some ice is that the initial shock of that citrus note is significantly toned down, and allows more of the flavors shine. Thanks to the ice, I can now pick up some additional components, like a bit of orange citrus, more of the ginger (and in a more pleasant manner), and some vanilla hints as well.
More good news is that the flavors haven’t really diminished all that much. There’s less of that initial shock, but I’m still getting a good bit of well saturated flavors in this liquid — all of which should lend itself well to cocktails.
I do want to note that there’s still just a bit of tartness on the finish, so it might be a good idea to think about a splash of simple syrup or a cube of sugar if you want to try this on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Like I’ve mentioned, there’s already some tartness or bitterness going on in this liquid even before we start adding stuff. Do yourself a favor and make sure to add some ice or some simple syrup to the cocktail and don’t just slam some bitters into a couple ounces of this stuff, as it really makes a difference. And don’t be shy to up the quantity of these mixers a bit.
Once you’ve got this appropriately sweetened, this is remarkably the closest thing to an Old Fashioned that I’ve had in this category. Ritual does a fine job emulating something close to a highland scotch whisky, but it doesn’t have the depth or complexity that an Old Fashioned needs to really get cooking. Here, we actually have all of those oak notes in sufficient saturations to make the cocktail work — the oak notes provide some depth and complexity that allows the angostura bitters to balance nicely and make for a surprisingly enjoyable cocktail.
There are two things I look for in a good whiskey-based mule: that the flavors balance out nicely up front and that there’s an interesting texture on the finish to keep it from being too boring. This hits both of those criteria. I’m absolutely floored — this is delicious.
I was expecting this to be about on par with a young bourbon given how it’s made, with some young wood flavors front and center that quickly get overwhelmed by the ginger beer. Instead, there’s a whole cast of characters that seems to be supporting the oak, from orange citrus to baking spices that all balance deliciously with the ginger beer and lime juice. It’s a complex and rich flavor with just enough oak still coming through to remind you that you are drinking something (sort of) bourbon-based and not a vodka-based Moscow mule.
On the finish, I’m getting a little bit of a tangy bite, but it’s one that is pleasantly balanced with the rest of the components and doesn’t seem out of place. I think that’s a result of the ginger in this faux bourbon, and it works really well.
These three women set out to create a non-alcoholic whiskey that makes good cocktails, and I think they hit the nail on the head. It isn’t just a “whiskey alternative”, this legitimately recreates some of the flavors and experiences that you’d get from a traditionally flavored and produced bourbon.
That said, there is a catch or two. You’re not getting the sweetness of the raw corn that you’d see in a bourbon, so you need to add some sugar to make it work properly. And you aren’t getting any of the raw distillation flavors, only really the stuff that would come from barrel aging. But, then again, the barrel aging components are really what stand out in whiskey-based cocktails and make them work, which makes me feel like the team at Spiritless focused on the important stuff.
(And while this works phenomenally well in cocktails, I do not recommend trying this neat. It is not a worthwhile experience; save your time and go straight to a cocktail.)
|Spiritless Kentucky 74
Produced By: SpiritlessProduction Location: Kentucky, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Price: $35.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
A delicious alternative for whiskey that works great in cocktails — just remember to add a bit more sugar and resist the urge to try it neat.