I like whiskey, but my wife hates it and prefers wine. Usually, we can agree to disagree on our beverage of choice, but Agitator seems to want to mix those two concepts together and see what comes out the other side. Have they found something that both whiskey and wine aficionados will enjoy?
Jeff O’Neill is a veteran of the wine industry, specifically on the business side. He founded Golden State Vintners in 1985 and led it as its CEO, eventually shepherding its sale 19 years later which gave him the cash to fund other ventures in the industry. In 2004, he founded O’Neill Vintners and Distillers, a company dedicated to building brands within the wine and spirits industry specifically through vertical integration of wineries.
In June of 2019, the TTB approved O’Neill’s company to create the Agitator line of whiskies. Agitator had previously been stood up as a wine brand by O’Neill’s company in 2018, bottling a bourbon barrel aged line of wine. Turnabout being fair play, the company decided that they now wanted to bottle a wine barrel aged bourbon.
The provenance of this whiskey is about as hard to decipher as a blind tasting a red wine.
Agitator doesn’t actually make any whiskey. I don’t think they make any wine either, for that matter. As in, they aren’t the original producers of the product. It seems like what they do is buy an already completed product, age it for a period of time (called “finishing”), and then bottle it under their own brand. It’s a process as old as whiskey itself and, done well, can be downright delicious.
In this case, the spirit starts as a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey of unknown origin. Due to the labeling, we know it has to have started as a grain bill of at least 51% corn — but what else was thrown in there is completely unknown. After fermentation and distillation, the spirit should have been placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of four years (two is the absolute minimum, but anything under four requires an age statement which is notably missing here) prior to being shipped to California for finishing.
In this case, it seems like the Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey was added to oak red wine barrels for finishing. Exactly what style of red wine was previously in those barrels is not disclosed, but I’m going to guess that it’s the barrels from their “Red Wine” product which is a blended red from California grapes. Additionally undisclosed is the time that it spent in those barrels. So, for all we know, this could have sat for a day in those oak barrels and still met the requirements.
The bottle is a pretty slick design. It’s a more modern shape, featuring a cylindrical round body that flares from the base to the shoulder, then sharply angles inwards towards the medium length neck. The whole package is topped off with a wood and cork stopper.
Something I dislike about this design is that the label is massive. It takes up nearly the entire façade of the bottle and makes it difficult to see the whiskey inside — which is quite the accomplishment, given the dark and unique color that is available. It seems like they are trying to mimic the label scheme they used for their wines, where dark-tinted glass makes it difficult to see the contents so the label itself becomes the key to attracting customers. Good idea for wine, terrible idea for whiskey — unlike wine, light doesn’t damage whiskey and there’s no history of tinted glass in bottling whiskey. Instead, most whiskey buyers want to see the contents and know what they’re buying, and then show it off on a whiskey shelf or home bar.
They took a wine merchant’s approach to labeling a whiskey bottle. Swing and a miss for me.
There’s definitely something a little richer than the usual bourbon aroma coming off the glass here. Those traditional caramel and vanilla notes are still very much a major component, but the red wine influence isn’t being subtle. It smells almost exactly like if you just had a glass of red wine, finished it off, and refilled it with bourbon. Which isn’t bad at all — it actually all seems to blend well.
One interesting aspect is that I smell a hint of rye bread in there, which makes me think that there might be something more complex going on with the whiskey than straight corn.
Taking a sip, I can see where this could have gone well… but it seems to have just gone a bit pear shaped instead. The flavors start off great, with that sweet caramel and vanilla flavor mixing with the fruity notes from the red wine, delivering on all of the promises of the aroma. But as the flavor develops… there’s not much else to it. In fact, as the experience wraps up, the finish is something that I’d almost describe as flat. Not exactly bitter, but the flavor seems to have gone away and all that’s left is a little bit of black pepper spice from what I assume is the rye content of the spirit.
Usually, with a little bit of ice, the more delicate flavors are the ones that suffer. We typically see them reduced or eliminated, with only the bolder flavors remaining behind. And especially for finished spirits, the aspects that are imparted in the finishing process seem to be the first to go.
That’s mostly the case here as well, unfortunately. The red wine notes are diluted and muted almost to the point where they are nonexistent, the only thing remaining from them being a little bit of richness in the remaining flavors. What is left are the caramel and vanilla from the bourbon, as well as a little bit of a pepper kick at the end.
There’s nothing specifically bad about it at this point — it just doesn’t really have much above and beyond a standard whiskey to recommend it.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
At this point, what’s in the glass is pretty much just a standard straight bourbon whiskey. There’s all the usual flavors but, especially once you add the angostura bitters, there isn’t much of a hint of that red wine finishing left to be seen.
Even so, as just a plain old straight bourbon whiskey, it’s not terrible. Pretty average if I’m honest, with no real surprises — but the caramel and vanilla sweetness does mix well with the bitters and a touch of sugar. It’s a fine old fashioned, but it won’t knock your socks off.
There’s really two things I’m looking for here: specifically, that the flavors balance well with the bitter ginger beer and that there’s something unique that the whiskey brings to the conversation. In this case, both of those statements are true… but probably not because of anything that comes from the finishing process.
What balances well with the ginger beer here is the traditional whiskey flavors of caramel and vanilla. There’s plenty of sweetness on hand to balance out the rather harsh ginger, which is definitely appreciated. And as for adding something unique, that pepper spice does the trick quite nicely.
The problem, as I alluded to, is that both of those things could have been accomplished without the red wine finishing process. There’s almost nothing here from that process that has an impact on the flavor, which is disappointing. Essentially, this is one standard unit of whiskey with nothing special about it.
Taken neat, Agitator seems to be one of those cases where the finishing process really does add something to the conversation above and beyond what we usually see. That red wine flavor from the finishing process comes through clearly, mixes well with the whiskey, and produces a flavor profile that’s plenty interesting enough to keep me coming back. Then again, we aren’t straying too far from the beaten path here — port cask finishing (port being a fortified red wine) has been a common practice for at least a few decades now.
I’d like to see a little more detail from the manufacturer about what’s in the bottle, a little more time in the red wine casks, and fixing that flat finish would go a long way towards improving this spirit in my opinion. But even as-is, it’s worth the money.
|Agitator Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: AgitatorOwned By: O'Neill Vintners and Distillers
Production Location: California, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $29.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
Definitely not agitated that I spent my money on this bottle.