One of the best things about my local spirits shop is that some of the smaller whiskey producers show up every so often. In this case, I was walking through one evening after work and ran into Michelle Kooper herself offering free samples of her Sweetheart of the Rodeo whiskey, and I was immediately interested. I bought a bottle and took it home for further study.
Troy and Michelle Kooper have been in the distilling business for quite some time. After refining their craft working for other whiskey brands, they decided in 2012 to focus their combined knowledge on a family brand, opening Kooper Family Whiskey and starting down their own path.
While the label might say “made in Texas”, they don’t hide the fact that they source the raw whiskey from other distilleries around the country and bring that un-aged spirit back to Texas. Once in the Lone Star State, they age the whiskey in their own barrels and bottle it for sale.
According to the bottle, this whiskey started its life in a column still in Indiana, which hints rather strongly at MGP as the source (one of the biggest distilleries who commonly produces spirit for other brands). The website says that this is a “high rye” bourbon, but the grain bill only lists that this is 75% corn and not much else. The exact details are fuzzy, but we’ve reviewed some solid products that start their life in the clear-as-mud MGP distillery, so that’s not an immediate red flag as far as we’re concerned.
From there, the whiskey is aged in Fayette County, Texas in charred American white oak barrels. The label claims that this is a “straight” bourbon whiskey, which would seem to indicate that the spirit has sat in the barrel for at least two years but the specifics are, again, rather murky.
The bottle itself is a design we’ve seen time and again for craft distilleries: the round body that expands outwards towards the rounded shoulder and finishes in a medium length neck that bulges in the middle. The whole thing is topped off with a cork stopper. It’s a common design because it’s appealing and works well, but there isn’t much unique about it.
The label is also fairly standard, with some gold lettering accentuating parts of the branding and a black and white illustration of a woman front and center. I appreciate that the label doesn’t completely obscure the bottle, allowing the amber color of the spirit to shine through around the sides.
I’m not quite sure what is the significance of the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” branding, but as far as I can tell it’s also a 1968 album by the Byrds.
Even on its own, this spirit smells like an old fashioned. There are some delicious caramel and vanilla notes, but there’s also a solid dose of citrus and orange flavors mixed in that add some complexity.
The whiskey is a solid 45% alcohol by volume, but it seems to be a little bit light in terms of weight to me. I’d expect this out of something closer to a 40% spirit.
The taste delivers exactly on the promise of the aroma. There’s the orange flavor and the caramel front and center, with a touch of vanilla hiding in the back like a shy high school student at the homecoming dance. Once the flavors make an appearance, they are overpowered almost as quickly with a strong alcohol bite. Which is strange considering the relatively middle of the road alcohol content it actually has.
Overall, it’s damn delicious. And the good news is that after a few glasses the alcohol bite isn’t as noticeable! I don’t really get the peppery finish that I would expect from a “high rye” bourbon, but it might just hiding behind that caramel front flavor.
My expectation was that the orange flavor would be covered up by the addition of some ice, but really the flavors are all there. The only difference here is that the alcohol burn is significantly reduced — which really, just makes the experience much more enjoyable.
One side effect of that reduced alcohol burn is that I can actually taste the peppery finish that one would expect from a high rye bourbon. Clearly it hides behind the caramel when taken neat, but comes out charging when you add ice. So yeah, I totally get it now. Consider that box checked.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Given that there’s already a good dose of orange flavor in this spirit to start, I expected that the orange and the bitters would be overpowering and make the drink unbalanced. Turns out I was wrong, it just makes the whole thing better.
What I would recommend is that you don’t skimp on the sugar. I usually try to avoid the sugar cube where possible (I’m watching my figure, don’t judge me!) but in this case there isn’t really enough sweetness in the underlying spirit to properly balance out the bitters. You do need a touch of sweetness in the glass to give it a helping hand.
This is surprisingly good. It’s making me think that I should buy another bottle of Slow & Low Rock and Rye and see how that does in a mule.
I was concerned that the orange flavor in the spirit would clash with the lime juice and the ginger beer, but instead it’s a complimentary flavor. It’s more citrus-y than normal but not in a bad way, more like a painkiller cocktail than a traditional Kentucky mule.
If there’s one thing I would note, it’s that the drink is a little on the sweet side. The peppery finish comes through in the end to add a bit of spice — but it doesn’t entirely balance things out. It might be a good platform to add some sliced jalapeno peppers or something else spicy to make it interesting.
It’s good. It’s really good. I’m disappointed that this isn’t actually distilled in the state of Texas and that there isn’t more information about the source of the spirit, but the end result isn’t something you can argue against. It’s a solid bourbon with some interesting orange and pepper flavor that makes everything taste great and is worth a try.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Kooper Family Whiskey
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Grain bill: Unknown
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $39.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Orange you glad you gave it a try?