When I started reviewing whiskey, I decided to stroll through my local liquor store and buy anything that claimed to come from Texas. I figured a local approach would be a good start, and most Texans enjoy Texan things so it would be a match made in heaven. Some of these local finds have turned out great, others have been disappointing or downright misleading. And Red River Texas Bourbon Whiskey is certainly an interesting story of its own.
Western Son Distillery, the producer of record on the bottle, was originally founded as JEM Beverage Company in 2011 by John Straits, Evan Batt, Michael Pfeiffer (hence “JEM”, I suppose), and Ben Jenkins. The stated goal of the company was to bring fine craft spirits production to Carrollton, Texas, a town just northeast of DFW airport.
Since it was founded, the company has focused on production of various flavored vodkas and spiced rums, spirits that typically do not require aging prior to sale. In 2015, the distillery moved to Pilot Point, Texas to a newer and larger facility with attached tasting room, and in September of that year the company rebranded to Western Son Distillery. In June of 2016 they expanded to include the Whistle Post brewery located next door.
The distiller on the label is not the actual producer of this spirit, thanks to a recent sale of the brand to another company, Premier 360. A Dallas, Texas distributor founded in 2013, Premier 360;s social media accounts previously represented brands such as SX Liquors, Erotique Liqueur, and Longhorn Vodka. At the moment, their website is entirely dedicated to Red River Whiskey.
The average whiskey consumer can be forgiven for not knowing this, though. The bottles of whiskey actually still retain the Western Son branding, thanks to an approved labeling variance from the ATF allowing the new owner to continue using the existing screen printing templates on their bottles. We only figured this ownership puzzle out because we reached out to Western Son for more information on the product.
Buckle up, because trying to find out what’s actually in this bottle has been a bit of a ride.
This bottle might be the only Western Son product I can find in my local Twin Liquors, but since they sold the brand to Premier, there’s no mention of it on their website. The only products listed on Western Son’s site are the various varieties of vodka. They still own the domain for Red River Whiskey, but as of publication there’s no content on the site beyond a SquareSpace parking notice.
According to one source I was able to find, despite being labeled as “crafted and bottled” by Western Son, the bourbon for this spirit might actually be imported from an undisclosed distillery in Kentucky. Another source thinks that there’s at least some bourbon produced on-site and blended with other sourced whiskey.
When I reached out to Western Son for clarification things got even murkier — this was when their representative stated that Western Son had sold the Red River brand “a couple years ago” and was no longer affiliated with the product having sold to Premier 360. On that website, they claim that the bourbon is a “proprietary blend” of corn, rye, and malted barley, but makes no statement about the proportions or where the whiskey is actually distilled.
Regardless of where it comes from, the spirit claims to be aged in charred oak barrels appropriate for a bourbon and then finished in Napa Valley.
There is no statement of age on the bottle so it’s also unknown exactly how long this bourbon has been around, or how long it sat in the pinot noir casks prior to bottling.
It looks like an oversized hip flask and I kind of like it.
The body of the bottle is flat and square, with a shallow depth. This produces something that looks very similar to the Woodford Reserve bottles, but taller instead of being quite as wide. The shoulder of the bottle is gently rounded and meets in a medium length neck that’s still easy to handle. The whole package is topped off with a wood and cork stopper.
In my opinion, the labeling is the most interesting part of this bottle (beyond the fact that the labeling still bears Western Son branding). The shoulders are draped in a cape of white and bear the branding and variety information, making sure to highlight the supposed Texas provenance of the spirit. The remainder of the bottle is transparent and allows the whiskey to shine through, with some gold lettering for the legally required distillery information and bottling details.
What I like about the white cape over the bottle’s shoulders is that it hides the consumption for a while. You can drink probably a good third of the bottle and it will still look like the bottle is completely full. At the same time, the transparent body allows the whiskey to shine through which should rightly be the true star of the show, and it shows off the interesting reddish tint of the spirit.
The liquid is way closer to the red end of the spectrum than normal. So close in fact that I was concerned that the whiskey was trying to get away from me. Physics jokes aside, it seems like some of the pinot noir has had an influence on the whiskey not just in flavor but appearance.
That said, I can’t detect any of the wine’s influence in the smell of the bourbon. It smells… like a bourbon. I get caramel, toffee, vanilla, and some sweetness in the background.
Tasting the liquid, however, is a different matter. There’s definitely something else in there, adding an earthy yet fruity tone to the background. Those bourbon flavors are still present and very much in the foreground but there’s something peeking out from around the corner as well.
I was hoping that the ice would tone down the bourbon flavors and let me get a good look at the pinot noir flavors hiding in the background. Instead what I have is now a bone stock bourbon. There’s the toffee, the caramel, the vanilla, and not much else.
That’s not to say that it isn’t good. The bourbon parts of this bourbon are still excellent, but there really isn’t a whole lot of value added from the pinot noir casks that I can see.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
It’s a good Old Fashioned, but that’s because of the bourbon and not necessarily because of the pinot noir casks.
The bourbon is delicious, and the sweet caramel flavors do a great job providing a counter balance to the orange bitters. But again, the pinot noir flavor that’s been added from the barrels just doesn’t come out strongly enough to make a difference for me. It’s still just a very standard bourbon.
I’m going to be honest: this is how I used about 90% of the bottle. This is damn delicious.
The bourbon itself is great. The flavors are on point, and the spirit is great. In this format , though, it’s perfection — adding a bit of sweetness and vanilla to the ginger beer for a well rounded and balanced drink.
It’s delicious, but because they started with a great bourbon. Not because of the finishing.
I think that the problem (if any) here is that I really don’t get much from the pinot noir casks. The source bourbon is good and I always love to see people finishing it in different ways, but in this case I don’t see any benefit from the finishing process beyond the color. What little of the flavor I get is only accessible in the straight up format and once you add a bit of ice, it’s completely gone.
That said, I’m always irked by whiskey where I can’t determine where it came from or what it’s made of. I like the end result, I just wish the distillery had been as transparent as their bottles about where they actually get their stuff. Whoever that distiller may be.
Red River Pinot Noir Finished Texas Bourbon
Owner: Premier 360
Production: Kentucky (Aged in Texas)
Grain bill: Corn, Rye, Malted Barley
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 41.2% ABV
Price: $34.99/ 750ml
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Overall Rating: 2/5
It’s good, but the circumstances surrounding its production are a little too murky for my taste.