Cleveland Black Reserve Bourbon

Bourbon, 6 Months + 6 Days, 50% ABV, $30

Bourbon, 6 Months + 6 Days,
50% ABV, $30

I was connected up with Tom Lix at Cleveland Whiskey by my good friend, Cap’n Jimbo, who provided a sample of his Black Reserve Bourbon, which is produced using his patented Pressure Aging® process. This process simulates each day of the distillate’s interaction with the wood by varying the pressure so that the it is forced into and then out of the wood. In this way, the claim is that aging is simulated in a fraction of the time and that the equivalent of a much older whiskey is produced in a fraction of the time.

I took it very slowly with this whisky, giving it much more of a look than I typically do, because I believe that:

  • I would be naturally skeptical, but I want to be completely objective,
  • Tom would be sensitive to any negative comments, so I wanted to be sure of what I was saying,
  • this is an important review and not just a tasting of another whiskey… there’s more at stake here because of the claims.

To this end, I avoided reading any reviews and received very little information from Tom or any other source.  I also spent a good couple of weeks and several hours getting experience with Black Reserve.  I allowed time for the whiskey to “breathe” over a couple of weeks while drinking samples and looking for changes.  Of course, I also experimented with water to determine how the whiskey reacted.  In short, I treated this whisky with much more care than normal.

My initial reaction was that this whiskey smells and tastes like bourbon… that’s a good start.  There’s the typical caramel and vanilla with fruits and spices as you would expect.  At 100º, there was an expected burn on the nose along with notes of cherry, wet grass and apple.  The taste was vanilla, lemon, tart cherry, underripe pear, green apple, white pepper and raw ginger.  The finish arrived with a tannic, dry, bitter taste of onion powder and pepper without much mouth feel as it arrived.  While the basic bourbon flavors were there, the young, greener notes were apparent.  Despite the aging claims, this whiskey tasted young… very young.  Adding water just washed out all of the flavors and ruined the experience, so I would not recommend any dilution.

I continued to sample Black Reserve for a couple of weeks and noticed the addition of sap and mild turpentine on the palate (no changes detected by the nose).  The finish was still very tannic with a lingering burn against a backdrop of sap, mild stinkbug (no kidding) and a hint of soap.  While the flavors did develop a bit (not for the better), the whiskey still had a very light mouthfeel and young, green flavors.

I had a friend of mine and fellow whiskey connoisseur offer his tasting notes as well and here are some highlights:

“Nose seems very alcoholic & woody [with] some nuttiness (almond?). Definitely smells like bourbon.”

“Hot, tannic, woody, a hint of nuttiness, slight caramel, no vanilla to speak of, continues to burn without water added.  It’s actually better than I expected. Nuttiness is morphing into turpentine.”

“Adding water… little more sweetness on the palate now.  Don’t care for the finish… not balanced… flavors I don’t like linger.  Just got a hint of cinnamon on the nose [and] some pepperiness now.”

“I think it tastes like a below average aged bourbon.  I don’t hate it, but I’ll let you enjoy the rest of the bottle”

Obviously, the aging claims are bogus from my perspective as this whiskey doesn’t taste like aged bourbon at all; however, the patented process and what it’s able to produce really intrigues me.  Also, I have to say that Tom Lix has been a nice guy to deal with… providing a free bottle for review and interacting throughout the process without anything but gracious responses and an interest in providing my feedback to the production team.  In no way was he overly sensitive to my reaction to his whisky… he just took it in stride and I really appreciated that.  His process has produced some good results as well as some unfortunate side affects (based on my tasting experience) that I’m sure he’ll continue to work feverishly to improve.  Do I think that his objective of fast aging will ever be met?  Of course not!  No matter what this process accomplishes, it cannot turn forward time and produce age… that’s just not possible.  I do think that it has some promise and might produce some interesting whiskey, but it won’t be aged whiskey.  I encourage Tom to continue to develop his process to see what it can produce… you never know what he might discover.

The point of interest with this whiskey is rooted in the technology as compared to the artisan craftsmanship employed in the making of the most revered whiskeys.  I have a great respect for those pioneers who have developed the methods that today’s artisans employ, for the skills that the artisans of today have developed and for the continuous, innovative tweaks to the craft that many of these same artisans discover.  Technology does play a complementary role in the development of fine whiskey even today and these artisans benefit from technology that didn’t exist years ago.  In my opinion, these artisans should not be the target of the Pressure Aging® process because it just can’t compete with the real thing.  Cleveland Whiskey should be creating new types of whiskey and competing with other mass produced spirits.  The objective of the process is obviously to produce something faster and that relates directly to cost.  If they can produce a whiskey very cheaply, then they could undercut the price on every whiskey out there and create a new standard for low cost.  While I’m not interested in that stuff, I’m sure that lots of people would be… not the least of which would be the corporate marketeers.

Today, Cleveland Whiskey compares their Black Reserve with Knob Creek 9 Year Old Small Batch (another 100º bourbon).  They conduct their own taste tests and claim that 1,644 out of 3,010 participants have chosen their Black Reserve over Knob Creek so far. That’s almost 55%!  Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine a single participant choosing Black Reserve and I’ve tasted both, but tastes do vary and I want to respect both the participants choices and Tom’s tasting events.  Knob Creek is just one bourbon though and it’s not a great one anyway (their Single Barrel is!).  At a cost of $30, Black Reserve would have to compare to Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel, Eagle Rare 10 Year, Old Grand Dad (less than $10), Old Grand Dad 114 (less than $20), Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (less than $15), Old Forester Signature, Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel, Elijah Craig 12 Year, etc…. and there are some great whiskies in that list.  It’s just not a battle that can be won, in my opinion, and that goes directly to the claims of producing an aged whiskey without actual aging.

Unless you want to experience the product of this unique process, I would skip this whiskey altogether.  The only interesting aspect is the process and not the flavor.