We’ve tested some spirits before that claim to have been aged at sea on ships… and generally speaking, the results have been pretty lackluster. The process doesn’t seem to impart many unique flavors; at most, it improves the maturation timeline a little. But these other examples used massive barges and stored their spirits below deck — and Pilot House Distilling decided to take a different approach: strapping their barrels to the top of active fishing boats while they sail around the Arctic waters. Today we’re tasting their latest voyage’s spirits to see how much of a difference that makes.
Pilot House Distillery is a small craft spirits distillery located in Astoria, Oregon with tasting rooms and shops in Portland and Cannon Beach. The distillery was founded in 2013 by husband and wife team Christina and Lawrence Cary after their move from Tennessee to Oregon. As Christina tells it, her husband started taking distilling courses after their move to the pacific northwest and got bitten by the distilling bug hard enough that he wanted to try opening up his own shop.
The distillery was off to a rocky start after being forced to change the distillery’s name twice as the result of two different lawsuits but has found recent success after introducing Oregon’s first “ready to drink” canned cocktail in 2017 and opening up two additional storefronts over the years. Their brand focuses on the nautical history of the Oregon coast communities and even uses fishing boats from the area to age their spirits.
As a single malt whiskey, this spirit starts life as a batch of 100% malted barley which is milled into a powder, cooked, and then fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid. That liquid is then distilled in Pilot House’s hybrid pot still to create a raw whiskey which is then placed into charred American oak barrels for a period of two years — the same process used for straight bourbon.
This is where things get interesting.
For this 10th anniversary edition of their whiskey, Pilot House took a barrel of their single malt whiskey, which had already been aging for two years, and strapped it to the top of the Fishing Vessel South Bay while it went crab fishing in the arctic. This not only exposed the barrel to the salty air and spray of the environment, but also meant that there was significantly more motion of the liquid inside the barrel improving contact between the whiskey and the oak (in theory, more rapidly aging the spirit).
Once the vessel returned to port, the barrel was removed from the top of the vessel’s pilot house and the spirit was bottled for sale.
This has a slightly more modern take on the whiskey bottle shape here, one which we’ve seen commonly from other distilleries. The body is a straight round cylinder with a sharp shoulder that flows into a short neck, the whole package being topped off with a synthetic stopper. It’s a good looking bottle, but not one that would stand out on the shelf by itself.
Thankfully, though, this label does plenty of standing out. It’s a delightful illustration that blends the artwork of traditional American sailor tattoos with the history of the whiskey itself. It ties into the nautical themes of the distillery and the area in which it is located, as well as the manner in which this whiskey was matured. It’s an absolute win, in my opinion — and well worth the sacrifice of taking up the entire front of the bottle and obscuring the color of the spirit inside.
This doesn’t look much different from other single malt whiskies, and at first sniff things still seem mostly normal. There’s the same familiar aromas: honey on sourdough bread, dried apricots, orange citrus, butter, and brown sugar… but there’s also some slate-like salinity and seaweed umami notes that are clearly present and distinctive. These types of aromas are usually only seen in Islay scotch whiskies, showing up here likely as a result of that ocean voyage.
Despite the sweet and almost fruity aroma, the flavor is distinctly nautical. The flavor starts out with the usual honey dipped bread, dried apricot, and melon — but the seaweed, salty slate, and tar flavors quickly take over the profile. It really does taste like you are standing on the bridge of a fishing vessel in the middle of the arctic ocean.
What’s really surprising to me is that this isn’t a jarring shift, though. The move from one end of the flavor spectrum to the other happens in a balanced and almost beautiful way, without any bitterness or unpleasantness. Even when that tar flavor comes in, all it does is add depth and complexity to the flavor profile instead of overpowering the other components. You can think of it like the oily and thick peat smoke from an Islay scotch, only without the acerbic or bitter portions.
There are definitely some changes when we add ice; specifically, helping to bring out the flavors of the spirit itself versus the flavors acquired through maturation.
The tar-like component is pretty much gone here, with the lighter fruity notes shining through. That dried apricot combined with some vanilla and brown sugar is coming through strongly, and I suspect these flavors are more prominent in the standard / non-ocean-aged version of this spirit. What does remain from the sea aging is a salty umami component, like seaweed or soy sauce, that adds a darker tone to the flavors and gives it more character than before. It’s a good change that keeps this interesting, even on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Normally, a single malt whiskey doesn’t make for a very good old fashioned. There simply isn’t enough depth or enough character in the spirit to really balance well against the angostura bitters, and what’s left is something that is either too floral or too light to really work. In this case, though, the results are remarkably delicious.
The fruity and sweet notes from the spirit are doing a great job adding some needed levity to the flavor profile and keeping things cheerful. But the real powerhouse here is that umami flavor, balancing out the herbaceousness of the bitters and keeping things on track. It isn’t as rich or flavorful as an old fashioned made with a well-aged bourbon, but it is a serviceable and interesting version.
Using a single malt whiskey for a mule is always an interesting test… and in this case, I think it does as well as you could expect.
The flavors of the whiskey do a fine job pairing and balancing with the flavors of the ginger beer and the lime juice, producing something that reminds me of a lighter rye whiskey when used in this kind of a situation. It’s that same combination of a fruity note with something a little richer, making for a complex and entertaining cocktail.
Where this falls down a bit is on the finish — in a mule made with rye or bourbon, you’d usually see some rye content adding a peppery texture to cap things off. In this case, though, the flavor is unfortunately smooth and unexciting. It isn’t unpleasant or bad… it just doesn’t really make for an interesting finish to an otherwise good cocktail.
Usually something that claims it has been “aged at sea” doesn’t impress me, mainly because I can rarely taste any of the influence of that environment on the spirit. In this case, though, that influence is front and center with the salty umami flavor featuring as a core component of the profile of the spirit. It’s something that I really applaud Pilot House Distilling for getting right, and the limited batch of barrels per voyage makes each bottle feel truly special.
Taken neat or on the rocks, I think this is absolutely delicious. Pair this with a good cigar and I think you’ve got a winner — almost as good as a Lagavulin. It works as well as you’d expect with cocktails (solid but not stellar), but you really want to be drinking this bottle neat.
|Pilot House Distilling A-O Come Hell or High Water Oregon Single Malt Whiskey|
Produced By: Pilot House DistillingProduction Location: Oregon, United States
Classification: Single Malt Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $75 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
The uniqueness of the maturation process and the delicious flavors it produces makes this a whiskey that you should absolutely pick up… if you can find it.