When it comes to highly rated whiskey, you’d normally expect that the craft distiller would be king — someone who has been toiling away in their dark and steamy distillery perfecting their recipe, obsessing over the barrels in their rickhouse, and spending an inordinate amount of time blending batches to get just that perfect flavor profile. But in reality, a lot of the more highly prized bottles actually come from larger distilleries and are simply finished or blended by the name on the label. Smoke Wagon is one of those brands: despite an inauspicious pedigree, it’s still a highly sought-after bottle.
The story of Nevada H&C Distilling actually starts at a trendy bar in Los Angeles in 2004, where future founders Aaron Chepenik and Jonathan Hensleigh ran into each other by pure chance and formed a lasting friendship. Together, they opened a bar called The Griffin where they spent a large amount of time (too much, by their own account) tasting spirits and finding things that they like.
With a taste for whiskey, they decided to open their own distillery in the city of Las Vegas in 2012. It was the first distillery in city limits, and the city actually had to create a new business license specifically for them. Six years later, though, their first spirits were ready for sale.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
While this is technically a distillery, many of the spirits that these folks use are actually sourced from MGP (the massive bulk spirits distilling company). In this case, they start with the “high rye” version of MGP’s whiskey, which reportedly starts with a blend of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley.
There are actually two “strains” of MGP whiskey in this bottle, and the difference is the maturation. Both start off as the same recipe of bourbon, but while part of the mixture rests in a charred new oak barrel for eight years, another selection only sits for four years. The two differently aged whiskies are blended together to form the bottle we see here today.
I’m going to put a big caveat here: this isn’t the usual bottle these things come in. Normally, these spirits are bottled in a very dark brown glass, but with the ongoing materials and supply chain shortages happening, they haven’t been able to get their hands on that stuff. Rather than wait for the planets to align, the company decided to use a standard clear glass and ship it out as soon as possible.
Caveats aside, even without that dark brown coloring, this bottle looks amazing. It’s clearly a custom design that they’ve had made specifically for them.
It’s a common shape for a spirits bottle — a straight walled cylinder, rounded shoulder, a relatively long neck, and all of it capped with a standard cork and wood stopper. However, embossed into that glass is a masterpiece — a general flower pattern around a flat circular area where a wax stamp with the distillery’s logo on it.
And in that logo is their latin motto: “Bibamus Moriendum Est.” Which in English means “drink, for we must die” — a fairly morbid reminder to make the most of the time we have and not waste it on bad bourbon.
The label proper is rather small, with a white background and metallic gold ink for the specific product information.
I love this bottle design, and I actually like this clear glass version better than the normal brown glass because this allows you to better see the spirit inside.
The liquid is a beautiful amber color, and smells great in the glass with a medium intensity aroma. The first thing that hits you is the sweetness of the aroma — specifically, some of the caramel and toasted sugar notes from the barrel. There’s also some raw corn in here, some orange citrus, and just a hint of vanilla.
A lot of those flavors translate very well into the flavor, specifically that orange citrus. It’s gone from being a part player to nearly the star of the show as the first thing I taste, backed up with some brown sugar and vanilla. Which is all just fantastic.
The only problem is near the end, as the spirit is transitioning towards the finish. There’s a bit of roughness that spikes in, which pretty much ruins the flavor profile for me and leaves some bitterness in the finish.
A bit of ice can really help a bitter spirit, and I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. Thankfully, it also doesn’t come at the expense of many of the other flavors.
I can still see the orange and the brown sugar in the flavors here; honestly, the biggest difference is that spike of roughness on the finish disappearing. With it gone, there’s a really nice finish now, with some more complex baking spices adding to the flavor profile and mixing with the orange and brown sugar as the flavor trails off into the sunset. It’s a much better and more interesting experience.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This spirit is a bit on the lighter and sweeter side compared to my usual go-to for an old fashioned cocktail, but I must admit that it still does a pretty good job.
I think what makes the difference here is that orange note in the flavor profile adding some interesting citrus notes to the drink. I have a set of orange bitters on hand specifically to add that when it’s otherwise MIA in an Old Fashioned, but here that’s not necessary. It’s more of a mid-century (fruity) old fashioned than a deep and rich version, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.
As a mule, this certainly hits all of the marks. There’s enough flavor in the whiskey to balance out the bright and shiny ginger beer nicely, it adds some additional complexity that a vodka mule doesn’t have, and overall it’s pleasant and drinkable.
But… it’s a bit boring, if I’m honest. It’s a pretty flat and bland version of a mule that doesn’t have any surprises. There’s no spice coming through, no interesting textures that it pulls of. It’s competent, but forgettable.
Despite the inauspicious starting point in MGP’s distillery, this turned out to be a pretty good whiskey. There are a lot of great flavors in here that work really well together, and I can definitely see that some care and attention went into this product.
For the price tag, this is a pretty great bottle. I think there are still some rough edges that could use a little refinement, but in general I’d be happy if this was the result every time I pulled the $45 slot machine lever.
|Nevada H&C Distilling Smoke Wagon Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Nevada H&C DistillingProduction Location: Nevada, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $59.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
Smoke Wagon: the bottle is a smoke show, and you probably won’t have smoke coming out of your ears after buying this.