Your first thought when you hear “Florida-based distillery” is probably of a rum producer. And that would make sense — Caribbean spirits are popular down there, and there are certainly plenty of rum distilleries. But the bottle we’re looking at today is, in fact, a bourbon from Tampa, Florida facility Dark Door Spirits: a distillery that seems out to prove that their peninsular approach to bourbon is on par with the best in the world.
Business partners Matthew Allen and Brandon Marshall opened the Cerberus Craft Distillery in Tampa, Florida in 2016. The pair didn’t have any distilling experience themselves, but they say that the inspiration for the distillery came from an old family still that Marshall discovered among his grandfather’s belongings.
Their first entry into the world of spirits was their “Spirit of IPA” whiskey, a distilled version of a local IPA beer produced by a nearby Tampa-based brewery and provided in partnership to the distillery for their experimentation. Since then, the distillery has continued to experiment with different spirits, producing a full line of gins, rum, and one cheeky vodka titled “Pandemic at the Disco” that was inspired by their experiences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
This is one of those bottles where you get some hints at the contents, but not much detail is made transparently available… which is always a bit of a concern for me.
From the label, we know that this is technically considered a “bourbon whiskey” — meaning that at minimum 51% of the source material for this spirit has to be corn and the rest can be whatever combination of grains that the distiller pleases. There’s no detail on exactly how much corn is in here or what else might be in here, so we’re left to guess. Whatever they are, those grains are milled into a powder and then cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid which is batch distilled in their hybrid column still to produce the raw “white dog” whiskey.
As a bourbon, that raw whiskey is required to be aged in brand new charred oak barrels. Exactly how long that maturation process takes is not specified, so theoretically spirits could be placed in barrels for only a few seconds before it can be called a bourbon. Usually, though, they rest much longer than that simply because each drop of whiskey needs to use a brand new barrel… and that can get expensive very quickly.
For this product, there are some indications on the label that the spirit is one of those that probably didn’t sit very long in those barrels. This was apparently “finished on oak chips” — which is a common rapid-aging technique in which charred oak chips are submerged in the spirit. The increased surface area of the chips helps impart flavors quickly, but the trade-off is that many of the chemical processes that occur when maturing whiskey in an oak barrel over time are skipped and this process often leads to less saturated and more superficial flavors.
The spirit is then “stored” in oak barrels, which seems to be a conscious choice to avoid the words “matured” or “aged” and further indication that this probably only sat in those barrels briefly and didn’t really benefit from them.
This is a bottle shape that we’ve seen from other craft distilleries, but the work they put into the label is what sets this bottle apart on the shelf.
For the actual physical bottle, it’s a big, fat, round cylinder with straight walls, circular cross section, and a prompt and angular shoulder that finishes in a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper. Nothing terribly fancy going on here, but I do appreciate the squat stature of the bottle which is just a little bit different from the norm.
It looks like they spend most of their time and effort on the label — and while it looks good, it also hits one of my biggest pet peeves.
The design is generally pretty attractive. It reminds me of a chalkboard in front of a downtown coffee shop, with a black background and white outlines of illustrations. The brand information and such is presented in big block letters that are clearly visible and legible. There are even some metallic copper strips of ink going around the bottle, almost giving it the look of being a bound barrel like those used to make bourbon.
My only complaint is that the label, nice as it is, is massive. The thing dominates the bottle, and as a result the whiskey inside is barely visible. It seems to be a stylistic choice to prioritize the label over the contents, and I can understand and appreciate it, but I’m still slightly annoyed that I don’t get a proper view of the stuff I’m buying.
We don’t really know how long this spirit sat in a barrel (or in the oak chips used to rapid age the spirit) but the color on the whiskey we’re seeing here looks rather dark, like something close to what you’d expect for a ~2 year old bourbon. Coming off the glass are some of the usual aromas: brown sugar, caramel, vanilla — but there’s also a bit of apple and banana fruit mixed in. I do get a hint of raw corn, which is often typical of young bourbons, but it doesn’t seem to be as overpowering as you’d normally get in a young spirit.
There seems to be two waves of flavor going on here, which is a bit interesting.
As soon as you take a sip, you are hit with this thick, oily flavor profile that consists mainly of charred oak, dark chocolate, burnt brown sugar, and molasses mixed together with a bit of vanilla. Imagine you just tried making caramel in a saucepan with brown sugar and vanilla, but you left it on the stove too long… this tastes like the crunchy bits you’d scrape off the bottom of the pan.
That flavor sticks around, coating your tongue and coloring everything that comes afterwards. Which is useful, because the second wave of flavor is much closer to what I’d expect from a young bourbon. There’s a ton of raw corn in that second wave, bringing some sweetness and a bit of earthiness combined with a bit more of the brown sugar and vanilla. On the finish, there’s a bit of raw alcohol that provides a bit of an unpleasant bite.
What we saw when taken neat is that there are some heavy flavors on the front of this spirit that are almost overpowering, and then an alcohol bitterness or bite on the finish that could use a bit of curtailing. Typically, that’s a perfect use case for a couple ice cubes… and in this case, ice definitely seems to have helped.
There’s more of a coalescence of the flavors — the two waves of flavor profiles are hitting much closer to each other, nearly on top of one another, and as a result you’re getting a much better blend of them. The darker flavors are balanced out much more nicely by the sweeter raw components like the corn, and there’s much less of an alcohol bite on the finish. It actually tastes like something I’d want to sip, versus the bipolar confusion that was this spirit taken neat.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I might have been bemoaning the darker, richer flavors in that first wave when taken neat earlier in this review, but now that we’ve gotten things toned down a bit with the ice cubes they actually make a fairly delicious foundation for the bitters in this Old Fashioned. Those deeper flavors balance out the herbaceous bitters very nicely, and create a cocktail that almost needs no cherry on top. A slice of orange peel is all it really needs, bringing some citrus to the party that completes the vibe.
My one complaint is that there still isn’t a lot of complexity here. That orange slice is necessary because otherwise this is a one-note symphony and I’m not that much of a Philip Glass fan (but I am a bit of a music nerd, clearly). I’d like to have seen some variety in the texture of the whiskey — adding something like a bit of rye content to give it a spicy kick or even a bit of malted barley for some velvety smoothness. Instead, this tastes like a nearly 100% corn mix bourbon, which is a bit boring.
The good news here is that the flavors continue to balance out nicely. The richer and darker notes from the charred caramel and brown sugar do a great job mellowing the ginger beer and lime juice into an enjoyable and delightfully sippable cocktail. It definitely adds something unique to the mix that you wouldn’t normally get with a lighter and less characterful spirit like vodka, or even with a lesser bourbon.
Where I get a bit disappointed is the same note I had from the Old Fashioned: the lack of an interesting texture. Once again, it all seems very one-note, without any peppery kick or spicy component. Definitely not a deal killer here, but that complexity is something that really sets a well-designed spirit apart from the middle of the pack.
It’s really surprising how clearly you can differentiate the flavors that came honestly to this bourbon and the ones that have been “rapid aged” into the mix. That bimodal distribution when taken neat is as clear an image as you could possibly imagine: darker, richer, thicker flavors that are almost overpowering, but with the sweeter flavors from the raw materials only coming in the second wave. Ideally, those flavors should coalesce a bit better, and that’s exactly what happens when you actually leave whiskey in a barrel for a long period of time.
That said, once you start using this spirit in other applications (on the rocks, in an Old Fashioned, etc) it actually performs well. Those flavors come together and create a profile that works nicely for most cocktails you’d want to try. It’s the opposite of what you normally see in a rapid-aged whiskey, where the flavors are strongest when taken neat and fall apart like a house of cards the second you try to do anything with them.
I think the biggest challenge for this spirit is the price. At this price point, there’s a ton of competition from some very competent distilleries — and while this is a pretty good example of a rapid-aged whiskey, it doesn’t really hold up to the other challengers. It isn’t really something you can sip neat, and it doesn’t have a ton of complexity or texture. It’s good in a cocktail, but that’s about it.
|Dark Door Spirit of the Oak|
Florida, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $47 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A rapid-aged whiskey with some richness and depth that makes a decent cocktail — but don’t bother drinking it neat.