My wife (aka the only one in the family with an MBA) has a deep admiration of “mission driven brands” and how they improve the world while simultaneously turning a profit. And I suppose she’s worn me down because I was drawn to this Double Oak Bourbon from Noble Oak, a company (of sorts — we’ll get to that) which promises to plant a tree for every bottle they sell.
This one took a minute to unravel and, while all of the connections still aren’t exactly clear yet, there’s enough to understand the players behind this spirit.
Noble Oak isn’t actually a company. Well, it’s a company in the legal sense, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond a website and a bottle. It looks like it’s a paper company that is used primarily for the brand of whiskey that we have here today. I have no reason to doubt that they actually use the funds to plant trees (or, more accurately, fund an organization called One Tree Planted to plant trees on their behalf) — I just don’t think anyone actually works solely and primarily for Noble Oak.
A quick search through the TTB records reveals that this label was approved for Brain Brew Ventures, which runs a blending and bottling operation in Newtown, Ohio called Brain Brew Custom Whiskey. Founded in 2012 by Doug Hall, the business aims (as stated in their initial 2012 filing for a business license) “to encourage and facilitate the continuing spirit of American ingenuity and inventiveness.” Their shop location matches the bottling location on the back label of this whiskey, so that tallies.
Brain Brew pioneered an aging process they call WoodCraft Finishing, which claims to have the same aging effect on whiskey in a matter of hours that usually takes years to develop. As they described in their unsuccessful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, they are already using the process in their whiskey production and plan to use the technology to allow custom spirit runs to be produced in small batches for individuals (think: weddings, etc). Rumor has it that the process is essentially putting the whiskey in a pressure cooker with some wood samples.
The outlier, what truly threw me for a loop, was that the Noble Oak website lists the world famous Edrington Group in the bottom bar… implying that they are in partnership with the same folks that run Macallan, Famous Grouse, Highland Park, and more. It seems a bit strange that a world famous distilling company would use a small time operation like Brain Brew to produce a whiskey on their behalf, but that seems to be exactly what happened. According to Brain Brew’s website, Doug Hall previously worked with Edrington in his sister company Eureka! Ranch.. which explains the Scottish connection, but the extent of that partnership is unclear.
It doesn’t seem like Brain Brew actually runs a distilling operation. Instead, they seem to source their spirits elsewhere, apply their WoodCraft rapid aging process, and then slap a label on the whiskey for sale.
In this case, the bottle says that the spirit was originally produced in Indiana so we can heavily suspect that the actual distiller of this whiskey is the mass distillation shop MGP, which produces spirits for a number of different products and brands.
As a bourbon, the grain bill for that whiskey needs to contain a minimum of 51% corn, but what else went into the mix is unknown. After fermentation and distillation, the whiskey would need to have been placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of time before being sent to Ohio.
According to the bottle, this whiskey then went through a “proprietary finishing process” — which we can safely assume is the WoodCraft process that Brain Brew developed, where staves of oak sherry casks are added to the whiskey and then heated and pressurized to force the flavor from the staves into the spirit.
Overall, it’s a somewhat bland and uninteresting bottle.
The glass bottle itself is a round cylindrical shape with a rounded off transition to the base and the shoulder. There’s a medium length neck, and the whole thing is capped off with a wood and cork stopper. Not really a design that takes many chances.
The label takes up quite a lot of real estate for something that doesn’t really say much. There’s a silhouette of an oak tree and a brief description of the whiskey, but otherwise this is just a lot of blank white space. I can see them going for the minimalist / “less is more” aesthetic, but I feel like it comes up a bit too minimal and ends up bland instead. It also doesn’t do a great job conveying their “buy a bottle and plant a tree” appeal.
Generally, the label takes up a lot of space and blocks you from seeing the whiskey inside. But, given that they didn’t actually make the whiskey in this bottle (just a bit of finishing), they don’t seem concerned.
The aroma coming off this glass is very light in intensity — I can barely detect anything even when I have my nose practically buried in the glass. What I do detect is pretty bog standard: a solid bit of brown sugar sweetness with a touch of vanilla from the original oak barrel aging, mixed with a dash of raw corn.
Taking a sip, the flavors here are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a young bourbon. There isn’t a great deal of intensity or novel flavors — instead there’s just that caramel and vanilla flavor that you’d expect, followed by a little touch of bitterness, and finishing with a bit of a black pepper spice. Almost makes me think there’s a bit of rye content in the grain bill here.
The one thing I don’t really see is the sherry influence. I suppose you could make the argument that this is a little sweeter than what I assume MGP’s standard bourbon recipe produces, but it isn’t enough to be noticeable.
Normally, with a bit of ice added, the more delicate flavors drop out and the harsher elements are significantly toned down. And in this case, that holds true and I think it’s to a better result.
The primary flavors here aren’t going anywhere — specifically, the sweet caramel and vanilla notes which are a hallmark of a barrel aged bourbon. Those are some resilient notes that remain pretty much no matter what you throw at this whiskey. And thankfully, that hint of bitterness has completely disappeared.
What you’re left with is still a very lightly flavored whiskey, though. There isn’t really a lot of depth or complexity to it.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Continuing the trend, this is a good, standard old fashioned. But that’s also the problem.
In the glass, things taste good. That sweet caramel and vanilla flavor pairs well with the angostura bitters for a flavorful and well balanced experience. But like a bourbon version of an Andy Warhol piece, that flavor is deeply superficial.
In the end, there’s no depth or complexity to the cocktail. It’s good, not great.
There are some thing I look for in a good mule. Specifically, I’m looking to see that the whiskey can balance out the bitter ginger beer and that it can add some depth and complexity to a rather shouty cocktail.
In this case, the balance is there. There’s plenty of sweetness and caramel to provide a good balance to the ginger. But that’s about as far as it goes. There aren’t any unique characteristics that the whiskey brings to the table beyond the standard bourbon aspects, and that pepper spice I detected up front has all but disappeared.
What we have here isn’t a bad bourbon — it just doesn’t stand out. This whiskey is trying to make its way in a very crowded segment of the market, competing directly against spirits like Four Roses, Bulleit, and Basil Hayden’s. Other distilleries have found ways to differentiate their spirits by using niche distillation techniques or unique flavor profiles, but this is really just mass produced bourbon that’s had a chunk of sherry wood in it for a while. There’s just not enough flavor there to get it to stand out when other better options are available, and often for cheaper.
I like innovation. I like that they took a chance. Heck, I like that they plant trees. Most of their risks just unfortunately didn’t pay off.
|Noble Oak Double Oak Bourbon|
Produced By: Noble OakOwned By: Brain Brew Ventures
Production Location: Ohio, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $34.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
This is in Four Roses territory in terms of price. Get that instead, and go plant a tree anyway.