Whiskey Review: 10th Mountain Bourbon

I’m not exactly an “athlete” by any measure, and skiing is one of the athletic endeavors that I could never get into. I did try it once… and never again. But for those who do ski, and especially for those who enjoy the beautiful environment of Vail, Colorado, there is a new distillery that has popped up specifically to provide the perfect spirit to kick back with after a long day on the mountain. (Or the 10th Mountain, to make a poor pun on their name.)


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History

10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company was founded in 2013 by partners Christian Avignon and Ryan Thompson in Vail, Colorado. Avignon was raised in upstate New York and his grandfather served with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, consistently relaying his fond memories of the Colorado area where he trained and encouraging his grandson to head out west. Avignon eventually heeded his grandfather’s advice and set up shop in Vail in 1998, only a few years before his grandfather passed away. Together with Thompson (a businessman in the area), the pair developed the idea to create a distillery that honored the memory of the 10th Mountain Division.

The 10th Mountain Division was formed and trained in the Rocky Mountains near what is now modern day Vail, Colorado. As the story goes, following the end of World War II, some of these soldiers returned to the area surrounding their old camp and founded the ski resorts that would put Vail on the map as a vacation destination for generations to come.

Avignon has since left the company, but the distillery remains owned and operated by Thompson and regularly engages with the local population of military veterans to provide aid and assistance.

Product

As you would expect of a bourbon, this whiskey is mostly corn — about 75% according to the manufacturer. The remaining 25% is a mixture of rye and barley, although the specific ratio of each is not disclosed. The grains are milled and cooked to create a sugary liquid, which is then fermented with yeast to turn the sugar into alcohol.

That mildly alcoholic liquid is then placed into their hybrid pot still and distilled in batches to create their raw whiskey. From there, the spirit is placed into charred new oak barrels for a period of one year before being blended with other barrels of the same age, proofed down, and bottled.

Packaging

The bottle design here is generally pretty simple and unremarkable, but it succeeds by not falling into any of the unfortunate traps that we’ve seen from other new distilleries.

Physically speaking, the bottle itself is something we have seen time and again. The design seems to be a common stock item used by a number of distilleries — which isn’t a bad thing, since the design works very well. The oval-shaped profile of the bottle provides a wide front and back, with a gentle outward slope from the base to the rounded shoulder. That base is weighty, with a good bit of glass — a smart move that will let this bottle really shine on an underlit bar shelf. Up top we’ve got a relatively short neck and a wood and cork stopper.

Where most distilleries trip up on this bottle is the label. Some distilleries want to slap a huge piece of paper on the front and doodle all over it, obscuring the contents of the bottle and generally making an unnecessary mess. In this case, the label is painted directly onto the bottle which provides an abundant expanse of real estate for that beautiful brown whiskey to shine through and be noticed. It’s nicely done, and I appreciate that they actually printed the information onto the bottle instead of cheaping out with a plastic label.


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Neat

This is just the right color for a good typical bourbon: a dark amber, not too brown and not too golden. The aroma is right on the nose, as well, with notes of brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and cedar chips. There’s also a hint of apple in here thanks to the rye content in the grain bill.

Taking a sip, the liquid is nicely oily and mouth-filling with many of the same components that we saw in the aroma. I get the cedar and brown sugar almost instantly, along with some caramel and vanilla in support. As the flavor develops, there’s a bit of spice black pepper and just a hint of that sourdough bread that I usually associate with barley.

On the finish, there’s some more of that black pepper spice, but also just a hint of bitterness that tarnishes the experience.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that the flavors in this bourbon aren’t quite as “punched in” and well-saturated as I’ve seen in other similar spirits. I wouldn’t call it “light” or “watery” by any stretch, but it’s still not as rich as I’d hope.

On Ice

Flavors that aren’t that well-saturated typically fare poorly when the ice cubes enter the game, as the flavors tend to take a beating from all that cold and dilution. I feel like, unfortunately, that’s the case here — and we don’t even get much relief from that bitterness in return.

The most prominent notes in this glass are caramel and vanilla, two core components of the bourbon identity that are hard to quash, even with added ice. There’s also the slightest hint of cedar chips and sourdough bread as the flavor develops, but that could be more wishful thinking than anything else. On the finish I do still get some black peppery spice — but I also get some of that bitterness that we saw before. Not nearly to the same level or extent, but enough that it is noticeable.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

There’s nothing patently wrong with this as an Old Fashioned. I think there’s enough caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla to make for an interesting cocktail once the bitters go into the glass. The catch here is that you do need to add a good dash of sugar in some form, since the bitterness of the bitters combined with the inherent bitterness in the finish of the spirit makes for an experience that I’d prefer to not repeat if possible. Not terrible… just not exactly pleasant.

What’s missing here is the depth and complexity usually seen with a bourbon-based Old Fashioned. Since this is such a young expression at one year old, there isn’t much flavor that has been picked up from the barrel (and especially with the altitude it has been matured at, I wouldn’t expect it to get much better in a hurry). Barrel aging flavors are usually what perform best in this cocktail and this spirit just doesn’t have much of those.

Fizz (Mule)

What I’m looking for in a Kentucky Mule are two very specific things for the bourbon to accomplish. First, it needs to balance out with the bright ginger beer and lime juice; second, it needs to provide something interesting and unique on the finish that you wouldn’t see with a vodka-based mule (aka a Moscow Mule).

On the first test, I’d say that this works just fine. There’s just enough sweetness in the caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla flavor components to balance out the lime and ginger, and I think that this is actually where the sourdough bread from the barley content in the grain bill makes a huge contribution. There’s a mellow cereal flavor that underlies the whole experience, and I think that the barley is the source of that.

The problem is that, on the second challenge, I was expecting more of the black pepper spice from the rye content to peek through on the finish. It just kind of peters out, exactly when I’d normally expect / want something memorable left on the palate after I take a sip. It isn’t the end of the world… but this might not be the best cocktail for this spirit.


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Overall Rating

I appreciate everything that they are doing here — and it does sounds like they are doing everything right. The distillery is using proper locally-sourced ingredients, distilling on-site, barrel aging the result, and bottling it with care. Unlike some other distilleries, this doesn’t just feel like a quick cash grab — this feels genuine and unique.

That said, I think this is just a situation where the spirit in the bottle may have been pulled just a touch too early. There’s still some roughness and bitterness in the spirit that could be resolved by a bit more time in a barrel, and the flavors could use a little more time baking in the oven. We’ve seen from other Colorado distilleries that the high elevation and colder climate makes barrel maturation a longer process and one solitary year in the barrel doesn’t seem like enough to really bring out the delicious flavors they want to provide.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this distillery can put out over the next few years, when they have a 2- or 3-year aged bourbon to offer.

10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co Bourbon
Production Location: Colorado, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 1 Year
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $55.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
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: 2/5
Caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, and cedar chip flavors, but not quite as well saturated as I would like and with a hint of bitterness on the finish.


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