I walked into my local convenience store one day and saw an interesting sight: something that looked damn near like a liquor cabinet with spirits for sale. There was something that looked like a vodka, another that had an agave plant on the label like a tequila, and this bottle of… whiskey? But it doesn’t say any of those words on the bottles. I needed to investigate further, taste buds be damned.
In most states, it takes a special license to be able to sell and distribute distilled spirits — a license that isn’t typically granted to gas stations and convenience stores. But what is available for these types of shops are beer and wine licenses, allowing these stores to sell non-distilled alcohol products such as (you guessed it) beer and wine.
This is where our hero (or villain, depending on your attachment to your taste buds) comes into the story. A company named Brookstone Distilling Co, reportedly a subsidiary of the gigantic Sazerac distilling company that also owns Buffalo Trace, saw an untapped market to provide a product that looked and smelled like a whiskey (or vodka, or Fireball) but wasn’t actually a whiskey… and would therefore would be legal to sell in a convenience store.
Thus was born the line of pseudo-spirits that currently graces convenience store shelves.
There’s no website for these spirits, and barely a mention of the distillery from whence they came, making providing any further detail on the history of this stuff difficult to find.
Technically none of these products from Brookstone Distillery Company are distilled. They are, as they are labeled, “grape wine with natural flavor and caramel color” — or basically a fortified wine disguised as the spirit it’s trying to be for Halloween. What that means is they make a wine, then proof it to the maximum alcohol content allowed by each state in a wine, add a bunch of flavors and coloring, and slap a label on it before shipping it out the door.
I suppose this process does technically make it “blended” in the worst aspect of that definition, but what exactly about that process is “traditional” as is claimed on the label is beyond my comprehension. There’s also a claim that this is a “special select” bottling but what makes this special is never revealed.
This fortified wine is packaged in a bottle that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a common “cheap” hip flask bottle of liquor. It’s an all plastic bottle with a squared body and a plastic cap.
There are exactly three labels on this bottle.
The first and largest is the Herd Creek branding, which does a careful job of evoking a whiskey label without ever actually calling itself a whiskey. There’s an image of a creek in the background of this label, but what relationship that has to this product is unknown since it’s squeezed out of grapes and not distilled from a fermented mash.
Label #2 is right below and continues the fable, talking about this being a “special select” bottling. But right after that, in hard to read gold letters on a black background, it reveals that this is actually a fortified wine. It also notes that there’s only 16% alcohol in this bottle, compared to a more typical 45% alcohol content for a proper whiskey.
The rear label is the least interesting of the three, containing only the legally required disclosures and a bar code.
While everything about this branding might scream “whiskey”, they do a very careful job to avoid calling it that, hence why this is just a “review” and not the usual “whiskey review”.
The smell coming off this glass reminds me of Old Crow, another bottom shelf spirit — but one that at least earns the ‘spirit’ distinction. But this is so much worse than even the lowest shelf whiskey — it smells almost exactly like the inside of a freshly re-lacquered high school gymnasium. If I were to break it down, I’d think there was some caramel hiding in the background, but I really get more of those acetone notes and other lighter compounds that you would expect if you were to sample the “heads” of a distillation run (the part you usually throw away because it’s somewhat deadly).
The liquid is remarkably thin, even for a wine. It’s about the consistency of lightly sugared water.
The taste, at first, is exactly what you get in the nose. There’s a bit of caramel that makes an appearance before the acetone notes come in, and while they are present they aren’t necessarily overpowering. On the finish there’s something with a little more substance, almost like a toffee flavor but as if it were lightly charred.
There’s no change. Considering that this is basically a watered down spirit from the start, it’s not surprising that a little additional ice and water doesn’t really hurt.
If there is one change I can detect, it’s that the acetone might have been a little toned down. It’s still there, but either my taste buds have started dying or it’s less noticeable with the ice.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Do you like drinking diluted bitters with a hint of alcohol? Good news then — that’s all this is.
There’s a hint of caramel coming through the orange bitters, but not really enough to make a difference. The orange bitters are large and in charge and it’s a wildly unbalanced cocktail as a result.
On the one hand, I’m grateful that the ginger beer completely obscures and covers the dreadful taste of this concoction. But that’s not really the point of this test, now is it?
For a passing grade, the sweetness and the caramel flavors in the whiskey are supposed to balance with the bitterness of the ginger beer. For an excellent mark, the whiskey should bring some unique flavors as well or some peppery spice to make it interesting that shines through the overpowering ginger.
Here, it’s just a slightly alcoholic ginger beer.
I get why stores have this in stock. The average person probably isn’t up on their liquor laws and just thinks that their favorite convenience store now sells distilled spirits as well as wine.
But the reality is that this is just dreadful.
I applaud these folks for finding a new way to market their product. It really is an innovative take and a smart business move. I feel like we’re going to see a ton of imitators, and then (very quickly) never hear from them again. …or so I hope.
Traditional Herd Creek Blended Special Select
Owner: Brookstone Distilling Company
Production: Owensboro, KY
Classification: Fortified Wine
Grain bill: N/A
Proof: 16% ABV
Price: $8 / 750ml
Overall Rating: 0/5
Honestly, you would be better off buying a bottle of wine. It’ll taste better, and it’s probably cheaper in terms of the price per ounce.