June 1, 2020
Gentle and sweet, the aroma is adorned with caramel, green apple, cream soda, brown sugar, and toasted oak, with coconut and almond drifting in late. It’s a delightful concoction of scents that are allowed to stand on equal ground, and are only held back by their moderate intensity.
Surprisingly thin and watery at first before the flavors kick in and jumpstart your curiosity. A nicely tempered flush of sweet vanilla, chocolate cake, cherry, pecan, and syrupy oak with a dash of pepper follows. It's a delicious medley of well-balanced flavors that in conjunction with its low cask strength proof, produces a rich yet gentle sip that is a joy to drink.
Drying oak turning slightly bitter leads the finish down a dangerous path. Toasted almonds, banana bread, black cherry, and dark chocolate are introduced and take command of its aftertaste, providing a pleasant flare of flavor. It ultimately ends on a dry note that is neither exciting or beneficial, leaning more towards acceptable than outward glee.
There have been many whiskeys that feature well known celebrities as part of their story. Brett Ratner with The Hilhaven Lodge, Metallica with Blackened, Bob Dylan with Heaven’s Door, even outside of whiskey, George Clooney with Casamigos and Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin to name just a few. So it’s up to you if you feel celebrity appeal adds or detracts from the experience you get out of a particular bottle.
Being from Tennessee, 13 years old and considering its mashbill, it is safe to say this was sourced from George Dickel. Its age statement is impressive at first glance until you realize the amount of 13 year old Dickel on the market, which include Dickel’s own Bottled in Bond release, numerous private selection single barrels, and various non-distiller producers (NDP) sourcing it for their own brands. In fact, it's probably oversaturated the market, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be amazing single barrels released of it, well-crafted blends with it, or creative finishes that can be done to it.
Marianne Eaves was called on to blend Sweetens Cove, and is a celebrity in the bourbon community in her own right. She worked extensively under master distiller Chris Morris at Brown-Forman and was directly responsible for Old Forester 1870. It wasn’t long after that release that she left the company and was hired by Castle & Key Distillery. After a few short years, Eaves left that company before they released their first whiskey distillate. Her resume doesn’t include many products that she was solely responsible for, which makes it hard to discern her particular style of blending.
At face value, Sweetens Cove doesn’t offer a drastic improvement from other 13 year old Dickel bourbons, but what it does offer is much more subtle. While plenty sweet, it also features a more interesting and expertly balanced flavor profile compared to many Dickel whiskeys I tasted it against. Its finish is its most disappointing factor and the major anchor pulling down this bourbon from reaching greater heights. Most interestingly, is its low proof for a cask strength bourbon. Dickel isn’t known for this, so it would be interesting to know if low proof barrels were purposely sought out, if Dickel changed their barrel entry proof in the late 2000’s, or if Dickel simply sold off higher proof barrels first and now are left with predominantly lower proof barrels as many recent Dickel barrels have clocked in at a lower proof. The end result though is a bourbon that sips lower than its proof, yet is rich and surprisingly flavorful despite its thin mouthfeel.
Quite frankly $200 is a bold price and somewhat insulting to the Tennessee market where this bourbon is sourced from, and for the first month of release, is exclusively available to. Even at an impressive 13 years old, many brands are sourcing 10+ year old Dickel and offering bottles at a fraction of the price. They often taste very similar to where many might not be able to tell the difference unless they were side-by-side.
Of course the notable names involved create value from a marketing viewpoint, which in turn increases the end cost to consumers. This was never going to be priced the same as another NDP sourcing the same bourbon without all of the names involved, and from a business standpoint it shouldn't be. The average consumer isn’t going to be informed enough to know similar variations of this product can be bought at a fraction of the price. Celebrity names draw attention along with higher prices, and this is why more and more celebrity spirits continually hit the market. Sweetens Cove is aiming wide and casting the biggest net in hopes of catching the biggest fish (or is it whales?). Regardless of the story and who is involved, it ultimately always comes down to what’s in the bottle.
The bourbon’s nose and palate are well crafted and make a good argument to justify its price, but this $200 bourbon will struggle to win over some people with its finish. It comes so close to nailing a great performance yet falters in its final act threatening everything that came before it.