We recently reviewed the Barrel Proof version of Coalition’s Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, which is a delicious product all on its own. But that wasn’t good enough for Coalition — they wanted to take that whiskey to the next level and add some unique barrel finishing processes to really make their spirits perfect. Today, we’re looking at a version that was finished in Margaux red wine casks.
Leonid Yangarber is a man who has spent quite a long time in the industry. Formerly the CEO of the American wing of Russian Standard Vodka, he wanted to strike out on his own and get into the American whiskey game. After looking around at the market and trying to find something legitimately interesting for his new product, he eventually found a stock of 100% rye Kentucky whiskey that he thought tasted fantastic and wanted to share it with the world.
But he didn’t just want to bottle it and ship it out the door — he wanted to put his own stamp on the product. With some encouragement from his wife (who was born and raised in France), he decided to import a selection of French wine casks to use for finishing the spirits.
The product has only just launched in 2021, and is incredibly new to the market.
This whiskey doesn’t try and hide its provenance — the spirit pre-dates the company, and is sourced from the Kentucky Artisan Distillery. I honestly don’t mind companies that don’t make the whiskey themselves, as long as they’re transparent about it. If you’re focusing on the finishing process and honest about where you got your spirit, I’m not one to look down on that practice. There are several distilleries using this same process (WhistlePig, for one) and they are generating some amazing, unique results.
What makes this interesting is that a 100% rye whiskey would typically be sourced from Canada, where the hearty rye grains are prevalent in the icy north. Rye whiskey was actually more common in the early days of the United States, but with the popularity of Kentucky whiskey and the rise of bourbon, American distillers focused more on corn based spirits. So finding a Kentucky-based 100% rye whiskey is quite rare indeed.
We don’t have much detail on the original source spirit other than being 100% rye and qualifying as a straight whiskey. This means that only rye grains were used in the production of the raw whiskey, which was then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of no less than four years (as there’s no age statement on the bottle, we don’t know if this was aged beyond the minimum requirement).
In this version of their spirit, the whiskey is then placed in casks (also called barriques) that previously held wine from the Margaux region of France. This Bordeaux-adjacent region is known for its bold red wine. The whiskey is aged in those casks for an undisclosed period of time before being bottled and shipped.
Coalition’s whiskey comes in some of the most stunning, art deco bottles and I am here for it.
I had a chance to speak with Leonid, the founder of Coalition Whiskey, about his unique design. He said that he was inspired by the Roaring Twenties — a period of American history typified by the glamorous art deco style… and also by prohibition. Between 1920 and 1933, the sale of liquor was illegal in the United states, and so there are no (non-medicinal) mass produced American liquor bottles from that time period.
Most of the contemporary liquor brands that reference that period lean into the bootlegging nature of the period, with rustic labels and mason jar inspired designs. Leonid wanted to do something different, instead imagining what a commercially produced American liquor bottle of the era might have looked like and using that for his new rye whiskey.
The result is something that my wife absolutely adores. It looks almost like a large perfume bottle — a wide and relatively flat body ribbed with raised lines of glass that are molded into the surface. That design obscures the clarity of the glass, while still allowing the color of the liquid shine through. The bottle sports a rapidly curving shoulder that ends in a very short neck, and is capped off with a cork and glass stopper.
If I have one complaint about the bottle, it’s that the short neck and the extraordinarily wide body make it somewhat difficult and awkward to pour into the glass. Not impossible, but it takes some practice to do with ease.
The branding on these bottles is in the form of a gold colored metallic plaque on the front of the bottle that sports the brand information and the legally required identifiers.
In the barrel strength version of this spirit (which doesn’t have any additional aging processes), the whiskey smells spicy and complex. In this version, there are still some of those same baking spices but there’s something else as well. I get the brown sugar and vanilla sweetness, a bit of baking spices, but there’s a fruit component in there — almost like a fruity sherry that is creeping in around the edges. Deconstructing it a bit, I think what’s happening is that you’re getting the apricot and the peach notes we saw in the barrel strength version, but this time mixed with some of the red wine notes from the final barrel finishing step.
Once again, this whiskey certainly brings some big numbers when it comes to alcohol content — 54.4% ABV. Unlike some of the other heavy hitters on the market, though, it doesn’t feel like I’ve just been punched in the face when I take a swallow. The experience is a bit smoother and more refined.
As with the barrel proof edition, there’s a buttery texture to the whiskey, which may partially be explained by the alcohol content but also by the flavors involved. The brown sugar sweetness is the first component to make an appearance along with a bit of vanilla, which is followed very quickly by the nutmeg and cinnamon in the baking spices. From there, a bit of dark chocolate creeps into the equation and it adds some depth, complexity, richness, and just a hint of bitterness to the flavor profile. Some of the fruit makes an appearance on the finish, specifically a bit of peach and apricot that all melds together in a delicious mélange together with some of the red wine notes from the barrel finishing process.
One thing that is suspiciously absent is the black pepper spice that I usually see at the end of the experience. That doesn’t seem to be shining through as you’d usually expect from a rye whiskey, but that might be a result of the aging process mellowing it out a bit. What I do see on the finish instead is almost a bit of a bite, akin to what I’d normally expect from the tannins in a glass of red wine.
In general, adding a bit of ice tends to change the flavor profile around. Especially when it comes to barrel finished spirits: the barrel finishing aspects are usually the first to go out the door. What happens here is a unique situation, though: I think what you’re seeing here is what happens when the worst aspects of the barrel aging process remain while the flavors underneath are rearranged.
In general, the fruit has swapped places with the spices. It’s a sweeter version of the spirit with the apricot and peach up front (and maybe even a touch of apple), and the spices now playing a supporting role. It’s a lot closer to a delicious New York apple cider than it is a rye whiskey at this point.
With one exception.
The bite from the tannins in the red wine is still there in the aftertaste. It adds a bit of unbalanced bitterness to the flavor profile that knocks things off kilter in a way that is unfortunate, but ultimately minor.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is a bit unfortunate, I think.
I really liked the old fashioned that came out of the barrel strength edition of this whiskey. It was nicely balanced with some interesting depth to the flavor. The problem I’m running into here is, once again, that bitterness that seems to be plaguing the whiskey.
You can absolutely overcome this issue — a bit of extra sugar will tone things down and make it once again a good old fashioned — but with the “standard” level of sugar I use, things are just a bit off. Its not an insurmountable issue, though, unless you’re watching your sugar intake.
There’s some good news and some bad news about this mule. The good news is that the bitterness from the tannins is pretty much eliminated. The bad news is that it’s still suffering from the same mediocrity as the standard edition.
There are two things I look for in a good mule. Specifically, I look to see that the flavors have balanced out in the cocktail, and that the whiskey brings something unique to the table that you wouldn’t see with a vodka.
In terms of balancing the flavors, I think this does a great job. The bitter and bright ginger beer combines with the fruity and rich aspects of the whiskey to turn that combination into a delicious experience that is as refreshing as it is interesting.
Where this falls a little flat is with the uniqueness factor. Typically, the easiest way to do this is with the peppery spice from the rye content in a whiskey, but that isn’t present here. There is no spicy kick to the finish, which means there’s no pepper coming through in the end, and I find myself missing that a bit.
I love the branding, and I love the concept of this whiskey. But in this specific case, this is a barrel aging experiment that didn’t break in their favor. I feel like the red wine barrels added way more tannins to the experience without adding nearly as much flavor as I’d hoped, and the result was just a bitter version of a much better product. I applaud them for the attempt, and I look forward to seeing what other experiments they have in the pipeline.
|Coalition Margaux Barriques Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey|
Produced By: CoalitionProduction Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45.4% ABV
Price: $89.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
I love the “standard” barrel strength edition of this whiskey, but in this case I think it’s an experiment that didn’t exactly pan out.