Dan’s been reviewing a bunch of stuff coming out of the Cleveland Whiskey distillery, which was a happy coincidence when their products were actually included as part of a whiskey subscription service that ships me craft spirits from all over the United States. Happily, one product I received hadn’t been reviewed already: their Wheat Penny Bourbon.
Located in an advanced manufacturing process incubator alongside several other projects, Cleveland Whiskey could be considered more of a technology company than a distillery. Founded in 2009 by Tom Lix, they use a proprietary process they call “pressure-aging” to accelerate the process to make whiskey. (We’ll deep-dive into the specifics of this process when we talk about the creation of the spirit in the Product section.)
While they have a much more extensive product line now, their first whiskey was The Eighty-Seven. Their products now have a wide range of flavor profiles using various types of wood (Black Cherry, Walnut, and Sugar Maple) to pressure-age their whiskey.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
First, a small overview of barrel aging:
The point of leaving spirits in a barrel for a long period of time is to encourage interaction between the liquid and the wood. As the wood expands during the warm daytime, it allows some liquid into the structures within the grain. Then at night, the barrel contracts, pushing that liquid back out. That process allows the liquid to break down some of the components in the wood, extracting the flavor. This usually occurs over a few years, with a longer barrel aging typically resulting in stronger flavors.
The folks at Cleveland Whiskey do things a bit differently, though. They use “pressure-aging” to achieve the same mechanical process in a much shorter period of time.
The “heart and soul” of Cleveland Whisky are their reactors, which they’ve nicknamed R2D2s. In this video, the distillery manager walks you through this unique process. At a high level, they first take a whiskey that has been aging in a barrel and empty it into one of their trusty droids (I hope it let’s out a “beep-bee-bee-boop-bee-doo-weep” noise, as an R2D2 should). That barrel then is chopped into smaller pieces, and also placed into the reactor. The reactor uses temperature and pressure to artificially push and pull the whiskey deep in the wood chunks, accelerating the aging process.
The Wheat Penny Bourbon is a “wheated bourbon”. It uses the bare minimum amount of corn required by law to be a bourbon (51%), backs it up with a whole bunch of wheat (45%) and then throws in a little malted barley for good measure (4%). The name for this bourbon seems to have been a result of the wheat-heavy recipe, choosing the “wheat penny” (the original design for the U.S. one cent piece that featured Abraham Lincoln’s portrait and was minted between 1909 and 1958 — hence the date on the bottle) as the product name and pseudo-mascot.
The bottle itself is nothing to really write home about. It’s a pretty typical glass bottle shape for a craft distillery, something we’ve seen time and again. A big, fat, round glass body, nicely radiused shoulder, and a medium length straight neck.
The interesting thing about the physical shape of the bottle is that, on top of the wood and cork stopper, is a honest to goodness pre-1958 wheat penny glued into the top. It’s not necessarily a collector’s piece, but it’s an interesting touch — and an attention to detail that should be appreciated.
On the front of the bottle is a label shaped like home plate, with an illustration of a wheat penny on it. It doesn’t take up too much space, so the spirit inside can still be seen shining through… but it is a bit large. I do appreciate the lettering and font they use here, it evokes a mid century rustic feeling that seems to go with the wheat penny motif nicely.
This is suspiciously dark for their quick aging process. Bourbon allows caramel coloring to be added prior to bottling and I feel like that’s happening here, although it doesn’t state this on the bottle. It’s also not really matching with the aroma I’m getting off the glass — this smells like a young whiskey. I’m getting a lot of raw corn and wheat, with just a bit of some toffee caramel, vanilla, and apple.
Not all of those flavors translate into the taste, either. It appears very sweet, because a lot of the raw ingredients are still shining through — like the corn and the wheat. Those components would be toned down significantly with age in a barrel, but here they are front and center. It’s all joined pretty quickly by a good bit of crisp apple and some sweet caramel before a dash of vanilla is added to the mix.
My biggest fear with this test was that the ice would eliminate what little flavor we’ve had. Barrel aging components have a tendency to not fare very well against ice and dilution, leaving only the flavors of the raw ingredients behind. And, unfortunately, that’s the case here.
The apple is pretty much gone at this point. All I’m getting is raw corn, wheat, and a touch of vanilla and brown sugar way in the background. There’s nothing showing up here that was added by the aging process — it’s all gone.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I like when I can taste the raw materials in a drink. Generally speaking, I think it’s a sign of quality when the raw material flavors are blended nicely with the aging and other components. But there’s the key: blending. If it’s only the raw materials, there’s basically nothing to work with when you reach for the cocktail shaker.
Sure enough, with this old fashioned, all I’m getting are the bitters. There are no other flavors in here to balance things out or to create interesting combinations. It isn’t overtly offensive — it sips just fine, but then again, I actually like angostura bitters. Objectively speaking, the cocktail is unbalanced and boring.
I do appreciate that there’s something more distinct and unique to this mule than just ginger beer and alcohol. The corn and wheat flavors are present, and do add some earthy and sweet components to an otherwise cheery and one-sided cocktail. The problem is that those notes are the extent of what’s added here.
What I’m looking for is something that really balances the ginger beer and makes this cocktail sing. A bourbon should stand out here rather than be a voice in the chorus. And this just doesn’t meet that criteria.
Bourbons are intended to be bold and beautiful — flavors bursting at the seams, vivid colors, and rich aromas.
This has none of that.
Dan’s recent review of their Underground Select Bourbon talked about how Cleveland Whiskey is making progress with their aging process… and, while this is better than some other rapid aging technologies I’ve seen, it still doesn’t compare to actual time spent in a barrel. This is lighter in character than you would expect from a bourbon — specifically, in the maturation flavors.
I’m looking forward to the day that we eventually see a high-quality bourbon that has been aged in just a couple days. The science is getting there — and Cleveland Whiskey might be getting closer, but they aren’t there yet.
|Cleveland Whiskey Wheat Penny 1958 Bourbon|
Produced By: Cleveland WhiskeyProduction Location: Ohio, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 1/5
There really is no substitute for taking your time and doing things right.