I’m always looking for new spirits to try, and my local Total Wine has recently started pushing this new Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey. With nothing better to do this weekend I decided to give it a try and see what’s behind the history-rich label.
Clyde May, so legend has it, was a moonshiner in Alabama between 1950 and 1980. Producing roughly 300 gallons of moonshine per week in his homemade still that he designed himself, his product was considered to be “high quality” by moonshine standards. Arrested and incarcerated for 18 months around 1973, legend has it that he immediately went back to his moonshining ways as soon as he was released.
After Clyde’s death in 1990 his son Kenny decided to take up the family business, but in a legal fashion this time. After gaining the proper licenses and permits he started Conecuh Brands (named after the location of his father’s stills). Since production of spirits within Alabama was illegal until as recently as 2013 he contracted with a third party distiller in Kentucky to produce the spirit for his product using spring water from the local Alabama area, age it in barrels, and return the finished product for bottling.
Kenny styled his whiskey after a common formula used within speakeasy establishments (“tippling houses”) in Alabama, specifically using oven dried apples in the aging process to introduce a sweetness that makes the spirit more pleasant. This format has since been titled the “Alabama Style Tippling Whiskey” and become a distinct regional variety among American spirits.
The result was impressive, and in 2004 the Alabama legislature passed a resolution (over a Gubernatorial veto) to adopt the liquor as Alabama’s official spirit. However, much like his father, Kenny wasn’t exactly following the law. Charged with producing liquor without a license, possession of liquor in a dry county, and selling to minors, he plead guilty to the charges and passed away in 2016.
Since Kenny’s troubles with the law and eventual demise the company passed into the ownership of Spirits Acquisition Corp in Dallas, Texas and reorganized as Conecuh Ridge Distillery, Inc. Since then L.C. May, grandson of the original Clyde May, has joined the company as a brand ambassador to try to continue the family tradition.
Clyde May’s distillery is most famous for their Alabama Whiskey, but this isn’t it. This whiskey isn’t in the style of Clyde May, is produced by a third party distillery (undisclosed which one, but probably the same Kentucky distillery where their other spirits are sourced), and really is only bottled by the company. So, really, what we have here is a product almost completely unrelated to Clyde May in any way except that the Dallas, Texas based owner of the company thinks that they can sell more of their spirit if it comes with a cute semi-historical story attached.
I mean, I don’t blame them — the packaging is what initially piqued my interest, but I’ll only keep coming back to that source if it’s a good product.
There’s really nothing that tells us what went into this spirit. The grain bill is a complete mystery, but since this is a “straight bourbon whiskey” we can assume that it is at least 51% corn. The company claims that the distilled product is then barreled in new oak barrels (charred, I assume, given the bourbon distinction) for a minimum of 4 to 5 years before bottling.
The bottle design is almost as straightforward as you could imagine, a short squat round bottle that tapers to a long neck. That bottle is capped with a wooden stopper and a cork plug, something I always appreciate seeing especially in these smaller bottles.
While the bottle itself is pretty unremarkable, what the company seems to be banking on is the branding. The label is absolutely slathered in references to a deep company lore, one that doesn’t actually exist since (A) the business only started operation in 1990 (not 1946, as proclaimed by the label), (B) it isn’t even owned by the family anymore, and (C) isn’t remotely related to any spirits ever produced by the moonshiner paraded on the label or produced by the company that bears its name.
Generally I appreciate when a company expands their product line and starts trying new things. But when a company is so blatant in their leveraging of their history to try and sling otherwise unremarkable spirits it feels a little underhanded and shady to me.
Sweetness is the first thing that comes to mind when I take a sniff of this whiskey. Which makes sense, given that their flagship Alabama whiskey uses sweet apples in the aging process to add some sweet apple flavor. It also fits with the traditional bourbon flavors which uses corn to bring out the sweetness in the spirit. I also get a significant number of those other traditional bourbon smells, specifically a creamy toffee and some vanilla tones.
On the tongue the liquid has a good weight to it, more than I would expect from a 92 proof (46% ABV). The taste starts out silky smooth, but almost immediately there’s a spice and alcoholic burn that enters into the mixture more like a rye whiskey than a traditional bourbon.
As for the taste, I’ve heard this described as a peach cobbler and I can’t say that I disagree.
There’s a rather long peppery finish that lingers long after the alcohol has left your mouth, but at no point is the burn overwhelming or acidic. It’s even downright pleasant.
Really the only thing that changes between this and the neat version is that the flash of spice and alcohol that seems to happen a few moments after the sip is gone. Chilling the liquor and adding some water mellows it out without removing any of the other flavors. Those are still bold enough to strike through, which gives me hope for the next couple items.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
While the “peach cobbler” description for the liquor stands, there’s a distinctive spice that accompanies it normally. Theoretically this should make for a good Old Fashioned, and in fact it does.
The sweetness and the citrus of the orange bitters balances well with the spice within the liquor making for an actually pretty acceptable Old Fashioned.
Even with a heavy dose of club soda in this highball the sweetness and the caramel flavor still comes through. The spirit stands up for itself and still manages to add some flavor even despite being nearly washed out.
I don’t like that this is being marketed so aggressively with a brand that has absolutely nothing to do with the spirit. But the product itself is relatively good. Drinkable, and distinctive even in a mixed drink.
Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Spirits Acquisition Corp, Dallas, TX
Production: Kentucky, USA
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Grain bill: ??
Aging: 4-5 years, oak barrels
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $37.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
It’s good, but it’s about on par with Bulleit Bourbon and yet almost twice as much more expensive. You’re really just paying for the label at this point.