Whiskey Review: Colonel Lee Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

As the mandatory social distancing during this COVID-19 pandemic situation continues, my whiskey stockpile has dwindled down to nearly nothing. So, in an attempt to bolster my supply without breaking the bank, I’m trying another bottom shelf bargain brand: Colonel Lee.

History

Thomas S. Moore was born in 1853, and his family moved shortly thereafter to Bardstown, Kentucky. He later dropped out of school at the age of 11 to start working to support his mother and his sisters, after his father Charles died suddenly. One of his sisters eventually married Charles Willett, whose wealthy family had made a fortune in the distilling business.

At the age of 22, Tom married Jennie Collings and went to work for his in-laws, the Willetts, at their distilleries. There he met a co-worker Ben Mattingly, who would go on to marry one into the Willett family, as well. The two became fast friends and colleagues, and in 1876 John Willett (head of the family and head of the company) handed Ben and Tom ownership of one of their distilleries south of Bardstown to operate under the name “Mattingly and Moore.”

Mattingly would rather quickly sell his shares in the new company to a group of investors, but Moore would stay on for eight more years until, in 1899, he purchased around 100 acres of land directly adjacent to the old distillery and constructed a new facility in his own name. The old Mattingly and Moore distillery company kept operating until 1916, when it went bankrupt. Moore swooped in to purchase the assets, tearing down the buildings and constructing new facilities.

The Tom Moore distillery produced 10 barrels of whiskey per day in its time and was quite profitable until it was closed down by prohibition in 1920. Tom retired at that point, but he lived long enough to see prohibition repealed and his son take over the old distillery, bringing it back online and restarting production.

The distillery was sold in 1944 to a Chicago liquor merchant named Oscar Getz who changed the name to the Barton Distillery, a name he reportedly picked out of a hat. Under his ownership, the distillery produced some notable brands such as Kentucky Gentleman, Tom Moore, and Kentucky Tavern among others.

Over the years, the company expanded to include a large number of brands and varieties of spirits, more than were just produced at that single distillery. But when they sold their Canadian whiskey venture in the 1970s, things came crashing down quickly, with more expenses than revenue and unable to pay their bills. The brand was sold to a number of owners, eventually ending with the Sazerac Company where it remains today.

Product

There’s almost literally no information about what’s in here.

They claim it’s a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which indicates a couple things:

  • The grain bill for this is at least half corn.
  • The whiskey was distilled to some very specific tolerances.
  • The spirit was stored in charred new oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
  • The whole process took place in Kentucky.

Which isn’t saying much at all. We don’t even know really which distillery this was created at, since the bottle only proclaims that it was “bottled” by Barton Brands — notably absent are any claims of production.

Which is annoying, since I went researched (and have subsequently dragged my readers through) the whole history about the company and its storied distillery… only to realize that this probably wasn’t even made there.

Packaging

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: the name. Colonel Lee seems to be a reference to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee (who was a colonel in the Union army when he was stationed at West Point), but there’s no indication about who specifically they are talking about. There is a Union Robert E. Lee that is buried in Lincoln County, Kentucky, but it’s not likely to be related. Without further clarification on the topic, this seems to be trying to leverage the name Lee to appeal to Confederate sympathizers… and for that, we’re going to drop a star right off the bat.

In general, the branding for the bottle is pretty much a slightly worse looking version of Old Grand-Dad. There’s a bright orange label with some basic artwork and branding adorning a plastic bottle (my local store only sells this in 1.75 litre bottles) with an easy pour spout and a plastic screw-on top. It’s cheap in almost every sense of the word.

Neat

It smells pretty much like any other bourbon. There’s your prerequisite caramel and vanilla, but I think I also get some crisp apple notes in there as well. It smells very “light” in terms of the flavor profile, but it doesn’t have any of the telltale aromas that I’d expect from a lower quality spirit where the heads and tails may not have been removed as effectively as you’d like (leaving in those compounds that are blamed for blindness typically from poorly made moonshine).

Taking a sip, there’s a good kick of alcohol content — which is strange since this is a 40% ABV spirit. Typically, I’d only expect that from somewhere closer to a 50% ABV pour.

As for the flavor, there isn’t really much good to say here. I get the slightest hint of caramel, but at the same time a voice among the flavors starts shouting ‘apple, Apple, APPLE!’ until it’s so loud that it drowns out the other flavors, getting progressively more tart and bitter. At the end, what you’re left with is a light flavor of sour green Jolly Rancher and a heaping helping of bitterness to keep you company.

On Ice

This is actually a rather shockingly good improvement.

Ice and a bit of water tend to have a positive impact on crappy spirits. The more unpleasant flavors and bitterness tend to drop out of the picture, and what you’re left with is a glass containing just the greatest hits: the biggest and loudest flavors from the spirit. In this case, those apple tones and the bitterness we originally saw are nearly completely vanished, leaving just the standard bourbon items.

I do get the caramel and vanilla flavors in here, but they’re neither very rich nor very interesting. At best, I’d say this is like the Branson, Missouri version of Cirque du Soleil — toned down and bland, lacking any of the original fire or passion.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

It’s fine.

No, seriously. That’s probably the best description of what’s going on here. There’s barely enough flavor to balance everything out, but it gets the job done. And the sweetness from the sugar cancels out the remaining bitterness both from the original spirit and the bitters we just added. But there’s nothing exciting or interesting that this spirit brings to the table. Again, it’s just “meh.”

Fizz (Mule)

It’s literally just a Moscow Mule.

While the flavors in the bourbon may have been strong enough for an old fashioned, they have met their match with the ginger beer. There’s no depth, no balance to the drink that I would have otherwise expected.

Which is disappointing, since the marketing for this thing says pretty prominently that it’s best with a ginger ale. I doubt that.

Overall Rating

I’ll give it credit for not being blatantly offensive to my senses, but not much. There’s some unpleasant bitterness both in the flavor and the potentially racist branding that’s keeping me from giving this anywhere near a par rating. For the price, I recommend Evan Williams instead.

Barton Brands Colonel Lee Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Barton Brands
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $8.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

Overall Rating: 0/5
I would have given it one star… but their lack of good taste extended to the name, too.

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