There are a handful of bourbons that have a long and storied past, bourbons that have influenced the course of history or been involved in significant cultural events. Today, we’re looking at one of those unique bourbons: Rebel Yell.
In 1849,William Weller founded the W.L. Weller & Sons company. Weller was a distiller who pioneered the use of wheat instead of rye in bourbon for a lighter flavor, and the company produced their own distinct bourbons until they merged with the Stitzel distilling company in 1910. The subsequent company then became the Stitzel-Weller distilling company.
Sometime around 1950, Charles R. Farnsley (former Louisville mayor) had the idea to create the “Rebel Yell” brand to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Weller bourbon. His idea was to create the whiskey in small batches and distribute them solely in southern states (“rebel yell” being a term used for a particularly unique battle cry used by the Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War).
The company would eventually break up in 1972. Weller bourbon would be purchased by the Sazerac company and be produced by the Buffalo Trace distillery, but Rebel Yell was purchased by David Sherman Corporation (now Luxco, who also produce Everclear grain alcohol) and production moved to the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. They also expanded distribution to include the northern states.
In 2018 Luxco, opened their own distillery in Bardstown just down the road from Heaven Hill dubbed Lux Row Distillers.
Rebel Yell has been a major cultural influence. Famously preferred by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, it was also reportedly the inspiration for Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell song.
While Luxco has their own distillery now, it seems like Rebel Yell is still produced by the Heaven Hill because the label states the spirit is “bottled for” Luxco instead of being bottled by Luxco. This will hopefully / probably change sometime in the future as their self-produced whiskey gets to the appropriate age.
The whiskey starts as a combination of 68% corn, 20% wheat, and 12% malted barley. Interesting is that there’s no rye in the grain bill, something that Evan Williams includes in their usual recipe (Evan Williams is made in the same Heaven Hill location). From there, the grains are mashed, fermented, and distilled before being put into charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Luxco seems to be in the process of re-branding their spirits and, as a result, Rebel Yell has gotten a facelift. There’s still an impression of torn paper at the top of the label, but the lettering is a dark bold black instead of the previous version in faded Confederate grey.
Overall, the bottle is a fairly standard design: portly and round-bodied bottle with a rounded shoulder and short neck. The bottle is capped with a plastic and cork stopper.
It’s a rather standard design for a bottle, with no chances being taken here. And, as usual, my pet peeve of an opaque label obscuring our view of the whiskey within is present.
There’s two things I get in the aroma: honey and alcohol. It’s the same kind of alcohol smell that I expect from something like an alcohol swab at a doctor’s office, not necessarily something I want in my beverage. That said, it’s not as overwhelming as some of the “bottom shelf” blended whiskey offerings, more like a hint than a main attraction.
The spirit starts off smooth but quickly develops a significant alcohol bite. Similarly, the flavors take a moment to build but they come in hard and fast once they’re on the field. The company claims that there’s some raisins in the flavor profile and I can definitely taste those, as well as some spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and perhaps a little star anise. As usual for a bourbon, there’s some caramel in there as well.
The finish isn’t necessarily the most pleasant thing I’ve ever had, as it lingers for a bit and seems to stick to the roof of my mouth. But it isn’t the same kind of disgust I find with things like Fireball.
It’s not terrible, but it’s not really something I would consider drinking again neat.
With a bit of ice this mellows out nicely and becomes a pretty standard bourbon. There’s the vanilla and caramel flavors creeping in, and even a bit of spice perhaps that’s still peeking through.
The only downside here is that a lot of those flavors that we started with have tailed off and disappeared. Then again, so has the alcohol aroma and taste. So I guess this is a “you win some, you lose some” situation. I personally think its a bit more win than lose; it’s much more drinkable with the ice.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
For a drink that started out with a bit of a rocky beginning in this review, I’m surprised how well this makes for a proper old fashioned. The caramel and vanilla balances nicely with the bitters and the citrus in the orange for a beverage that works.
That said, this still isn’t as good as other spirits I’ve tried. I usually prefer a bit more rye content in a base spirit bourbon, as it adds some extra spice to a cocktail, and this is lacking in that arena. But otherwise, its a solid base bourbon for an old fashioned.
There’s really nothing notable here. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
The goal of a whiskey mule is to have the bourbon add something to the drink besides the alcohol content — something to hold its own against the ginger beer, in a complementary way. Iin this case, there might be a bit of that smooth wheat taste in the mix, but otherwise there’s nothing peeking through the ginger beer to make itself known.
In general, it’s fine but it’s definitely not my favorite. Drinking it neat is a less than pleasant experience, and in a cocktail it isn’t adding much to the mix. Given the other decent-yet-inexpensive spirits on the market, I’d say this is one to pass rather than to buy… unless you’re a Billy Idol fan, that is.
Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Production: Bardstown, KY
Classification: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
Grain bill: 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley
Aging: Unknown (minimum 2 years)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $18/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
Not sure what Keith Richards saw in this one.