A few months ago I was in the Florida Keys, browsing the bourbon selection at a local store on Summerland Key. Unsurprisingly, I saw a lot of the larger brands on the shelves and was getting pretty disappointed that I wouldn’t have anything new or local to try. Luckily, tucked away on a lower shelf I spotted a new bottle that happened to be crafted right there in the Keys: Key West Trading Co. Smuggler’s Choice.
Key West Trading Co. was founded by JD Martin, aka. Smuggler Jim, in 2018. Martin is a 5th generation distiller with roots going back to Kentucky. Having grown up in the distilling business, he had the knowledge to reproduce the family recipe first used in 1883 by his grandfather.
Now operating on Key West Island, Key West Trading Company produces bourbon, vodka, rum, and absinthe. Martin is the first member of the family to “go legal” with his distillation business — as Martin describes it, “I wanted to bring my family heritage of a reputation for Top Quality spirits and old school customer service to Key West”.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Overall, Key West Trading Co. does not share a lot of information on how this product is made. We don’t get a defined mash bill for this bourbon, but we can assume that it’s at least 51% corn since it’s calling itself a bourbon. We can also safely assume that it’s been aged for aged for some time in new charred oak barrels.
The one piece of information shared by the company is that the the aging process of this whiskey is accelerated using the “TerraPure” process. You may recall that we’ve reviewed a few other whiskeys using a proprietary accelerated aging process (such as Cleveland Whiskey Eighty-Seven and Underground Select).
Developed by a company named Terressentia, TerraPure is a rapid aging process that claims to enhance a spirit with additional flavor and filter it without the typical years-long wait associated with traditional barrel aging. The process, according to their site, “transforms ordinary spirits into outstanding ultra-premium spirits significantly quicker and at a lower cost”. How they accomplish this amazing feat of science is basically by throwing it in an ultrasonic cleaner after sitting in a barrel for a bit. In theory, this encourages more interaction between the whiskey molecules and the components from the barrel aging process.
Unlike the process used by Cleveland Whiskey, which is kept as an in-house secret, the TerraPure processed is licensed by Terressentia to distilleries (in this case, Key West Trading Co.) and has been independently studied at the University of Charleston.
After going through this science experiment, the newly made bourbon is bottled and shipped for sale.
You don’t often see whiskeys packaged in rectangular bottles, so the shape stands out in the whiskey aisle. The bottle is tall and a consistent rectangular shape from the base to the shoulder, at which point it abruptly and sharply angles into a long neck. The bottle is topped with a synthetic cork.
The black and gold label on the front of the bottle fully embraces the pirate themes abound in Key West. At the top of the label is a square rigged tall ship cutting through the waves, and the label itself resembles a faux treasure map (or regular map, but let’s go with the fun of a treasure map) with the script name right in the center. While the label embraces the vibe of the island, I have to admit that it’s visually busy and also does not have much functional reason to be so large.
The first thing I notice when pouring a glass of Smugglers Choice is the light wheat color of the spirit. That light color is not surprising, considering the fast aging process. This is something common we’ve seen in other spirits that use similar processes, but here it is definitely lighter than most bourbons that I’ve seen.
The spirit gives off very gentle and sweet aroma notes with most of the nose coming across as caramel or brown sugar with some slight pepper undertones. Given the light color and sweet smell, I would almost guess that this was a rum if I had not seen the label first.
The first sip reveals a light bodied whiskey with very sweet notes. You can pick up the caramel and brown sugar flavors that comes across the nose, but there are also notes of white chocolate and pepper. There is also a very distinct oaky flavor, which is surprising considering it spent very limited time in a barrel.
There are some surprising changes when you pour Smugglers Choice over a few rocks of ice.
First and most notably, we now have a distinct flavor of blonde iced coffee. That’s one I didn’t expect from the initial flavor profile when taken neat, and really shows just how much impact that ice really has in a spirit.
The other flavor that was surprising was that of light cucumber, like the cucumber water you’d get at a spa. Vegetable flavors aren’t something commonly found in a bourbon, which definitely makes this a head scratcher for how it made its way into the bottle. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing… just an interesting result for this spirit.
Besides these two new surprise flavors, the other traditional notes of caramel, brown sugar, and pepper are still there — they’ve just taken more of a back seat to the newcomers. All these new layers and added complexity actually made me really excited to see how this would perform in a cocktail.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
(Quick note about a testing discrepancy here that I want to highlight: I was on vacation and not expecting to do much whiskey tasting, which left me with limited mixing supplies. I was able to scrounge up some stevia and an orange, but I had no bitters available. So while these results are somewhat representative of our usual tests, there’s enough of a difference that you may want to take this version with a small grain of salt.)
The resulting cocktail resembled an old fashioned well enough, in my opinion. Up front, there was a good level of sweet and nutty flavor components from the spirit, and the stevia actually provided not only a touch of sweetness but also a touch of bitterness that gave the drink some depth and complexity. In the end, this left an impression of a buttery, walnut-flavored cocktail that was more interesting and a bit more delicious than I was honestly expecting.
When you are relaxing on the beach, bourbon is usually not the first spirit that comes to mind. Rum, tequila, or even a touch of pastis might be a bit more popular. But Smugglers Choice stands out as a great mixer that does well on the rocks and could hold its own in most summery cocktails. While I may not make extra space in my luggage to bring a bottle home, I will definitely pick up another bottle next time I am in the Conch Republic.
|Key West Trading Co. Smugglers Choice Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: Key West Trading Co.Production Location: Florida, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A surprising solid find from a Key West distillery – a light and flavorful spirit that works well in a cocktail or on the rocks.