Whiskey Review: Southern Distilling Co. Southern Star Standard High Rye Straight Bourbon Whiskey

There’s nothing I like more than a high rye bourbon — the flavors and the textures you get from these are typically intense and delicious, and make for some great cocktails. I’ve been looking for a local distillery here in North Carolina that makes a great version, so today we’re giving the high rye straight bourbon whiskey from the Southern Distilling Company a shot.


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History

Born in Statesville, North Carolina, Pete Barger spent twenty years working as an industrial engineer before coming to the realization that he really didn’t want to be doing that anymore. Together with his wife Vienna, the couple decided in 2013 to purchase a 20 acre farm in his hometown of Statesville and open a whiskey distillery. It made perfect sense — Pete’s background in industrial design and engineering lent itself to the task, and by 2014 whiskey had started flowing out of their brand new stills.

While the facility and the company are newcomers to the whiskey production scene, Pete has noted in interviews that they are simply carrying on the rich tradition of whiskey distilling that has been a staple of the North Carolina economy for generations. The rich fertile soil and excellent weather conditions in the state make it ideal for growing crops and, once farmers started having an excess of grains at the end of the year, they naturally turned to the time-honored tradition of turning spoiling plants into cash via whiskey distilling.

Southern Distilling Company is a distillery designed to make good bottles of spirits for sale under their own label, but also markets their services heavily to other facilities and offers the ability to “white label” products for sale under other brands’ labels.

Product

Despite being the “Southern Distilling Company” on paper, all of their products seem to be branded as “Southern Star” on the label (not to be confused with the Southern Sun, the spaceship from Space Mutiny).

For their “The Standard” high rye bourbon, Southern Distilling starts with a grain bill of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. That’s definitely on the higher side of the normal proportions we see for a bourbon, but since there’s at least 51% corn in the mix it still qualifies. Those grains are milled, cooked, and then fermented in one of Southern Distilling’s large stainless steel open-top fermenters to create the mildly alcoholic “distiller’s beer” that is the source for their whiskey.

The next part seems to be right up founder Pete Barger’s alley: distillation. Using their Vendome copper pot and column stills, the distillery concentrates the alcohol in that distiller’s beer and selectively captures the elements they need to create the flavor profile they want for their whiskey. The resulting raw spirit is then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of at least two years before it is blended together, proofed down, and bottled for sale.

Packaging

We’ve seen this bottle before, time and again. I think I associate it most strongly with the Old Forester Statesman product, personally. It’s roughly cylindrical in shape, with a flared base, outward tapering sides, rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck. Nothing to write home about — but this is a classic liquor bottle design for a good reason. People like it and, uninteresting as it may be, I can’t knock them for that choice.

Moving on to the label, this reminds me of old bank notes or stock certificates. The spiral embellishment along the top and bottom is giving off that “anti counterfeiting” vibe, along with the faux watermark on the body of the label. Otherwise, the design is straightforward and simple, with large block lettering and clear annunciation of the brand name.


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Neat

This is a beautifully dark liquid in the glass. It’s that perfect shade of rusty orange that you hope to see in every bourbon, but only find every so often. It’s such a great hue, I almost wish they had a smaller label to better show that color off to the world.

Coming off the glass is a rich and sweet aroma that’s heavy in the dark fruits: dried figs, plums, dried apricot, walnuts, along with some generous helpings of brown sugar and vanilla. It’s very close to the “Christmas fruitcake” note that you typically see associated with heavily aged spirits.

Surprisingly, that rich aroma doesn’t quite translate into the flavor. As soon as I take a sip, I’m getting some cedar chips and those kinds of aromatic components, stuff you’d describe as “heads-y” elements in distiller’s parlance that is indicative of a skew towards retaining some of the lighter components that came off the still early in the distillation process. That strongly colors the flavor profile, leading to what feels like a drying out of the tongue (probably supported by the rye content for that effect) and a muting of the rest of the flavors.

I do pick up some other elements, especially on repeated trips to the well. I’m getting some of the rye bread notes, vanilla, caramelized brown sugar, and a bit of dark chocolate for depth and richness. But the fruity notes seem to have all but disappeared.

On Ice

I was really hoping that the added ice in the glass would help bring out the fruity notes in the whiskey. Ice tends to reduce the less saturated flavors — especially those that are generated through the distillation process instead of the maturation process. The fruit typically comes from the interaction between the barrel and the amino acids in the whiskey, which should mean that the ice would reduce the “heads-y” components and let the fruit shine. But that doesn’t happen.

What we get instead is a better balanced spirit, and one that still has plenty of depth… but doesn’t quite bring the level of character and fruitiness that I was hoping to see. I’m getting some slightly charred brown sugar (like the top of a creme brulee), vanilla, dark chocolate, and a little bit of orange zest for spice, but not the rich fruity complexity that I was hoping to see.

To be clear, that doesn’t make this a bad whiskey. This is actually pretty good, and does a great job pulling these flavors forward over the rocks in the glass. I’m just stuck on the promise of that aroma and hoping we’ll eventually see it translate into the flavor.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

There is one thing that a darker and richer bourbon does well, and that’s make a delicious old fashioned. There’s something about the interaction and balance between the dark chocolate in the whiskey and the aromatic bitters that makes this a particularly enjoyable drink.

The only fly in the ointment here is that, for some reason, this comes out a little more on the bitter side than I would have expected. I think that’s probably a factor of the rye content peeking through and providing more black pepper spice alongside the dark chocolate — and while it isn’t a deal killer, it does mean that you probably want a little bit of sugar in here to make it perfect.

Fizz (Mule)

All of the elements that I typically like in a mule are here. I’m getting some dark chocolate adding depth and complexity to an otherwise overly bitter and bright cocktail. There’s some peppery rye content that adds texture and interesting characteristics on the finish. All signs point to good things happening… but for some reason, this just doesn’t come together the way I would have expected.

The word I’d use to describe this is “muted”. I think it’s missing a bit of vibrancy, probably with a touch too much dark chocolate added to the mix and throwing off the balance.


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Overall Rating

For a young distillery, this is a good showing in terms of the quality of the spirit. The color and the aroma is amazing — and while the flavor doesn’t quite live up to the promises of the aroma, it has enough depth and richness to be serviceable in just about every cocktail we tried. You may need some tweaks to make it perfect, but this is a good start.

Which, for this price point, isn’t a terrible thing. The bottle won’t break the bank, and it does a solid job as a whiskey. There may be better options on the market that you might want to investigate, but in terms of value for money, you’ll be happy with what you get.

Speaking technically for a moment, one thing that I didn’t really get was the “high rye” portion of the whiskey. Typically, a higher rye content will have some crisp apple and black pepper notes, but in this case I think the apple folded into the dark chocolate, and I’m only seeing the spice in that context too. If these notes were a little bit more crisp and clear, I think I would have like this better.

Southern Distilling Co. Southern Star Standard High Rye Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Production Location: North Carolina, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $37.95 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 3/5
A good, serviceable straight bourbon with dark chocolate notes.


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