A couple of days ago, I reviewed Towpath Distillery’s Bourbon. Now, right after Thanksgiving, Towpath released their second iteration of wine barrel aged bourbon (a batch that yielded a very limited run of 149 bottles). Not being in Akron myself, I suckered a family member into heading to the Merchant Tavern and buying one on my behalf. There are some interesting things that happen when you finish bourbon in various barrels (as seen in recent reviews of FEW All Secrets Known and Angel’s Envy), so let’s see what comes out of some finishing in the AK-Rowdy (IYKYK).
Just like any good whiskey story, the Towpath distillery starts in the orbit of the Volstead Act. Prohibition may have outlawed alcohol, but many entrepreneuring individuals saw this as a business opportunity. Rocco Piscazzi is one such person.
Piscazzi and his associates began to set up a network of distillers and distribution throughout the Akron area, filling the void in the market for those people who wanted these previously legal spirits. They earned a reputation for crafting quality spirits, sold for a fair price. As the story goes, “they were the most successful and sought-after bootleggers in the area”.
One of the biggest thing that Piscazzi had going for him was the proximity to the Ohio & Erie Canal. The canal connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and was a major trade route through the 1800’s. By the time of prohibition, rail had taken over as the preferred method to transport goods, and the canal had fallen into disrepair… which (due to the lack of traffic) actually became a great way to transport raw materials and distilled spirits without raising much alarm. Eventually, though, prohibition was repealed and Piscazzi decided to retire as a bootlegger and opened Roxy’s Café in Akron along the canal towpath.
Fast forward to today. In Akron’s Merriman Valley (“The Valley” if you’re a local), Towpath Distillery now sits along the towpath trail. The objective is to “to bring back some family traditions using old recipes, and new world techniques to produce high quality spirits. Legally this time of course.”
Ohio is a liquor-controlled state, meaning all hard liquor is sold through a state agency. In 2016, House Bill 351 made it easier for micro-distilleries to produce more spirits and offer food for sale. In 2017, the Ohio Division of Liquor control made it possible to sell spirits directly (while still ensuring the state get their cut of taxes).
Current owner Anthony Piscazzi decided to embrace his family legacy, along with a more favorable legal standing for micro-distilleries, and his existing restaurant, The Merchant Tavern, and founded Towpath Distillery in 2019.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
The Towpath Distillery is small. Just check out the picture below, where all their equipment fits into the frame of my tiny viewfinder. There is a small pot still, a short column still, some barrels, and some bottling equipment:
Like many new distilleries, Towpath started by making vodka in 2021. A neutral grain spirit with no aging requirements allows any distillery to quickly establish itself and turn a profit to sustain itself. The vodka was followed by white rum and gin (again, similar spirits that can just roll off the still and straight into a bottle).
This specific product is a variation of their bourbon which we reviewed earlier this week, and as a result it starts out the exact same way.
The mashbill for their bourbon is not disclosed (because it’s the same mashbill as the previously-reviewed Towpath bourbon). However, they do let us know that it uses 21% rye. Being a bourbon means that at least 51% of the grain is corn — so between the rye and corn, we know at least 72% of what goes into the spirit. From there, in order to be a “straight” bourbon whiskey, the spirit is placed into charred new oak barrels for four years before being blended together with other strains and bottled.
The open question here is where exactly this whiskey came from. The label states that this is a “Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey”… which all but rules out this coming from the Towpath still, since a straight bourbon requires at least four years of maturation to be bottled without an accompanying age statement. That would make 2025 the earliest year Towpath could legally bottle a no age statement straight bourbon whiskey, which is still two years away at the time of review.
My bet is that this is actually a sourced bourbon that the distillery is putting out. This is a common tactic for new distilleries: sourcing whiskey from another distillery to satisfy a demand for an aged product while your own stock is in the barrel. I just prefer to see a little more clarity around the sourcing, or else people might get the wrong impression about the origins of the spirit.
What makes this particular bottle of their bourbon unique is the extra time spent in French oak red wine barrels. This is the second batch of wine barrel aged bourbon, and, according to owner Anthony Piscazzi, this batch is better than the first.
We’ve seen this bottle design before from a number of different distilleries and, while it might not be original, it remains a popular choice for a reason. The short-but-stout cylindrical shape of the bottle and the clean lines look great on a shelf, but won’t help it stand out from the herd very much.
That said, this is a bottle that can be greatly enhanced by a great label… but I don’t think this label counts as great. The label background is a natural fiber color, with a bold wine-colored text calling it out as wine barrel finished. Given the small batch nature of this spirit, the bottled date, the proof, the bottle number, and alcohol content are all hand written.
The wrapper around the neck calls out that it’s hand crafted in Akron, Ohio in text of the same burgundy wine color used in the label, and it’s all topped with a wood and cork stopper.
The only criticism that I have is the size of the label. It takes up over 80% of the bottle, and prevents the spirit from being the star of the show.
The aroma of this version starts out just like the original unaltered bourbon we reviewed previously: heavy on the sweetness. The biggest difference is that distinct red wine component, with dried grapes and similarly fruity notes. If I didn’t know it was a bourbon, I might think I was drinking a Tawny Port.
Taking a sip, that pattern continues with the initial flavor being reminiscent of the standard Towpath bourbon. It’s a sweeter spirit, but where the un-finished bourbon was very apple forward, this finished spirit replaces the apple with grape (which is not overly surprising).
There is still a butter, vanilla, baked good flavor profile that permeates the taste, but there are also now more nuanced flavors imbued by the wine barrel. Think: caramel, raspberry, grape, cinnamon, fig, and mild nuttiness. Just like the aroma reminds me of a tawny port wine, the flavor would be that of a very boozy port.
It’s surprising how much additional flavor was picked up from the finishing step.
To continue the same ritual I followed with the standard Towpath Bourbon, I once again reached in my freezer for another custom 31 Whiskey logo ice.
Drinking this neat is good, but drinking it on the rocks is great. The flavor somehow tastes richer than did it before. The baked good notes are more subdued, but the caramel, raspberry, grape, cinnamon, fig, and nuttiness all jump to the forefront. All in all, the entire experience tastes more smooth.
If drinking this neat reminded me of a very boozy port wine, this now tastes like a rich Manhattan cocktail — where port is used in place of vermouth. So much so, in fact, that I could not help but top this drink with a skewer of some luxardo cherries.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I don’t love this, but I also didn’t expect to. The wine flavors seem to clash with the angostura, creating a super-bitter cocktail with no balance, and a just the hint of an orange peel. The sweetness even seems to disappear in spite of the added sugar.
For as good as the spirit is on the rocks, this cocktail is some hot garbage.
I love a good old fashioned, but a Manhattan is near the top of my whiskey cocktail list (it might be in a three-way tie with a Bobby Burns and a Boulevardier), and the wine flavors seem to be a match in heaven for a Manhattan. I just don’t think this spirit is a great fit for an old fashioned, and that’s okay.
Time to call an audible here. I know we at 31 Whiskey use a Kentucky mule as our standard cocktail for whiskey reviews, and for good reason – a whiskey should be able to stand up to some ginger beer. But let’s be honest here, ginger beer and a very wine-forward bourbon just does not sound like a good idea.
A Manhattan, however, is a great use of this bourbon. The flavors of the spirit seem to be enhanced by the sweet vermouth instead of battling it out against the bitters in the old fashioned. The fact that this is a stirred cocktail (at least that is how I make mine – building it in my cocktail pitcher, stirring for about a minute, and then pouring in a coupe) seems to be a great balance between the neat and rocks flavors. It’s chilled, so the flavors have opened up more, but because the ice is not diluting you still have that stiff boozy port wine. Topped with a pair of luxardo cherries, this cocktail deserves a chef’s kiss.
I said that I was excited to see what else comes from Towpath and Anthony Piscazzi, and I am not at all disappointed. This is a great enhancement to their standard bourbon, and hope that they continue to experiment with finishing options. Akron is the home to some greats like The Black Keys and Lebron James…it might be time to add Towpath to that list.
If you happen to be in the Akron area, go check out the Merchant Tavern and check out their spirits. The wine barrel bourbon has a limited distribution, but I know they hold back several bottles to use at the restaurant.
|Towpath Distillery Bourbon Finished in Red Wine Barrels
Produced By: Towpath DistilleryProduction Location: Ohio, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 48% ABV
Price: $69.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
Do you like bourbon? Do you like port wine? This is the spirit for you.