Whiskey Review: Ezra Brooks Black Label Kentucky Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey

There’s nothing that epitomizes American whiskey more than seeing a business opportunity and seizing the day — especially if in the process, you might stray a bit outside the law. From moonshiners to rum runners, it’s a time honored tradition and Ezra Brooks’ history modernizes that story a bit, setting it in the Mad Men age of marketing and branding.

History

The Hoffman Distilling Company was founded in 1880 by S.O. Hackley. Shortly after founding the distillery he teamed up with business partner Ike Hoffman, who created a number of successful whiskey brands and eventually bought out Hackley. Unfortunately things didn’t go well, and by 1912 the distillery went bankrupt. The name lived on, purchased in 1916 by L.&E. Werthheimer before being torn down at the start of prohibition.

After the end of prohibition the distillery was re-built, and L.&E. Werthheimer hired two brothers, Robert and Ezra Ripy (sons of the famous Thomas Ripy, a legendary 1800’s distiller), to run it. Their siblings, the other two brothers of the Ripy family, would also become distillers and would start the Wild Turkey brand.

During this period, the company started producing new versions of whiskey, and would often produce and bottle spirits as a white label for other brands. Some of the early Pappy Van Winkle bottles would come out of this distillery, and one man named Frank Silverman saw an opportunity.

During the previous decade, sales of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey had soared over 900%. Even the acquisition of the brand by Brown Forman Co wasn’t able to increase production enough to satiate the market, and by 1957 there was a distinct shortage of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Silverman saw an opportunity to serve that market, and designed a bottle and label that mimicked the Jack Daniel’s style. The brand name he chose: Ezra Brooks.

The gambit worked, and Silverman made a tiny fortune. He also drew the attention of Mighty Jack, who hit him with a lawsuit in 1960 for trademark infringement. The lawsuit didn’t stick, though — Silverman had changed just enough to merely ape the appearance without crossing the line into infringement, and the court ruled in Silverman’s favor.

Ezra Brooks would continue to be produced until the Hoffman distillery closed its doors in 1970, shutting off Silverman’s supply.

The brand name was kicked around for decades, sold to a company called Medley and then again to Glenmore before Luxco purchased the rights in 1993 and restarted production of the spirit. Founded in 1958 as the David Sherman Corporation, Luxco also produces Everclear and Rebel Yell at their Bardstown, Kentucky facility.

Product

Some sources think that this whiskey might actually be produced in mass at the Heaven Hill distillery instead of the Lux Row distillery, which is an idea supported by the label itself. That label prominently states that the whiskey is distilled in Kentucky (although it doesn’t say where) for Luxco, which is very different from saying it is distilled and bottled by Luxco.

It starts off as a grain bill of 78% corn, 12% rye, and 10% malted barley that’s cooked and fermented. Interesting to note is the phrase “sour mash”, which refers to the process of using yeast left over from the previous fermentation to kick off the subsequent batches. In this way, the same strain of yeast is used for every run of whiskey, and is genealogically linked all the way back to the first bottle.

From there, the mash is distilled and placed into new charred oak barrels. After a period of time (4 years according to some sources), the whiskey is pulled from the barrels, and filtered through charcoal prior to bottling. This is a different take on the “Lincoln County Process” that defines Tennessee Whiskey — Jack Daniels filters its whiskey prior to aging, but Ezra Brooks filters it after the aging process is complete. And naturally, since this is made in Kentucky, it isn’t eligible to be called “Tennessee Whiskey.”

Packaging

There’s definitely a striking similarity between this bottle and the usual Jack Daniel’s trade dress. It’s a square slender bottle with a fluted neck, sporting a black label with someone’s name on it. Even the font is similar (but legally distinct) to Jack’s font.

Some things I appreciate about the design is that, while it’s a big label, it isn’t taking up the entire face of the bottle. There’s more than enough space around the sides to see what’s inside and to show off that beautiful brown liquid. And personally, I just always like a good black background with white text. So clean, so simple… so easy to read.

The whole thing is topped off with a plastic and cork stopper.

Neat

Despite the different order of operations, the whiskey comes out smelling remarkably similar to other charcoal filtered whiskey like Jack Daniels. It smells sweet with a heavy dose of caramel and banana, with a bit of vanilla in the background. It’s got a bit more caramel in it than Jack does, but that’s not a bad thing.

As for the taste, it delivers almost exactly on the promise of the aroma. There’s the usual caramel and vanilla notes that you would expect from a bourbon, but there’s also some fruity notes of banana in the background.

At the end there’s a good bit of peppery spice on the finish from that rye content that lasts long after the spirit has been swallowed. But the nice thing is that it’s smooth and without any unexpected bitterness or bite.

On Ice

Normally, with some ice, the more delicate flavors disappear and what you’re left with are the bold items. In this case,though, that doesn’t happen.

Even with the added ice, all of the flavors are still there. You don’t smell the whiskey as much as before, but you can certainly taste that caramel-banana flavor with a bit of a peppery kick.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

It’s not quite as well balanced as I’d like, but it’s still serviceable.

The sweetness and the flavors in the whiskey are a little too light to really do battle with the bitters and the orange essence, but it’s making a valiant effort. A little bit of added sugar goes a long way here and helps bring it all together in a more coherent cocktail.

Fizz (Mule)

There’s a couple things that I’m looking for in a good mule: in particular, I’m looking to balance out the powerful flavor of the ginger beer and the whiskey to add some uniqueness to the cocktail. While this isn’t the best example of a mule I’ve ever had, it’s certainly not the worst.

The caramel and vanilla sweetness pairs nicely with the ginger beer, and while it’s not quite enough to completely balance out the drink, it still does a good job trying. What does work pretty well, however, is the peppery spice at the end of the experience that kicks in and adds some complexity that was sorely missing.

Overall Rating

No one should be looking at a ~$12 whiskey and expecting miracles. In this case, it does a fine enough job — it adds some flavor to your glass without any ill effects or unpleasant notes, and does it on a budget.

Compared to other similar spirits I’ve had, specifically Evan Williams Green Label, I think I prefer the Evan Williams version better. But just by a hair.

Ezra Brooks Kentucky Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Ezra Brooks
Owned By: Luxco
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $11.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

Overall Rating: 3/5
Just as intended: an acceptable substitute for Jack Daniels that doesn’t break the bank (or even dent it, really).

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