If something hasn't been done before, do you see that as an opportunity, or does the unknown hold too many risks? Whiskey finished in wine casks is nothing new, and at this point if a particular style hasn’t been done before, there has to be a reason why...right? With the ongoing popularity of rosé wine and the ever expanding demographic of bourbon drinkers, why haven't bourbon and rosé come together yet? It was this unknown that inspired Penelope Bourbon’s cofounders to explore this unproven style of cask finishing.
Michael Paladini, CEO and cofounder of Penelope Bourbon, along with the company’s COO and fellow cofounder Danny Polise, didn’t set out to prove what at first seemed unprovable: marrying bourbon and rosé. Focused on expanding Penelope Bourbon into more markets, it was Paladini’s wife that off-handedley mentioned “how about a rosé finished bourbon?” The idea stuck in the cofounders heads and they had to know, just why isn’t there an ongoing rosé finished bourbon on the market given the extreme popularity of both base products?
The reason many will probably cite is rosé wine can often be quite dry and seen as a light sipper. That is why bolder wines such as cabernet, ports, sherry, and madeira reign supreme in cask finished whiskey, and lighter wines like pinot noirs, chardonnay, and merlot are less common. A wine finish is supposed to supplement the taste of the base whiskey, but if the finish is too weak to enhance the more robust whiskey, what's the point?
Knowing full well what they were up against, Paladini and Polise went to work. Their first step was purchasing as many different rosés as they could find and experimenting by directly blending the wine with the bourbon. They came away finding one specific veridal, 100% grenache rosé worked the best. Typically known for its sweet red fruit flavors and zesty sweet and acidic finish, they decided that this would help achieve the flavor profile they were targeting.
Before they started their search for casks, they wanted to do another round of testing by soaking American oak chips in grenache rosé for 30 and 60 days before resting them in their bourbon for another 30/60/90 days. This would be another step closer to how the actual product might taste, and it ended up giving them a clearer picture that rosé cask finishing was feasible for a commercial product.
“Before we went down the route of actually looking for barrels, we wanted to have a really good idea that this was going to be something truly viable. It's not just like a name. It's actually going to be a great bourbon first and foremost,” Paladini says. “It's going to have a unique profile. It's going to have distinct characteristics of a rosé and that was the most important thing.”
When it finally came time to locating grenache rosé casks, the team knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Rosé wine is typically not aged in oak casks and if it is, it’s not for a very long amount of time. This results in the rosé not having enough time to penetrate the oak thus resulting in very little impact within the cask walls for the bourbon to pull from. Because of this, they figured they would need to rest the whiskey between 30-90 days, and determined a summer release would be bestas it would coincide with rosé's typical summer release window. But then the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S.
With the casks finally located but coming from the Southern Rhône region in France, Paladini and Polise feared the worst with the growing worldwide shutdown. Finding the casks already took longer than expected and now the only thing they could do is wait. That’s when their nerves were put to the test.
“As a craft supplier, what is going to happen to our business? There was so much uncertainty. The first thing is always thinking about cash flow and trying to be really smart. Maybe 2020 isn’t the best year as a small supplier to try and launch a new product,” Paladini says.
As May rolled around, the team received the call that their barrels were in Kentucky ready to be picked up. Being months behind schedule, a summer release wasn’t possible, so they entertained the idea of holding onto the barrels for a 2021 release. Their barrel broker cautioned them that it was unlikely that these particular barrels would be good in a year or even eight months if they sat. So they moved forward with production.
With this being their first batch, and the unproven nature of aging bourbon in rosé casks, they filled the barrels half way. They decided on a small run, which Paladini says was a blessing in disguise as they learned a lot about this particular type of aging throughout the process.
With a late September/early October release window now looking likely, they discussed holding the product until the following year in order to hit rosé’s typical summer release window.
“At the end of the day, I think everyone knows 2020 is a crazy year. In a perfect world I wouldn't want to release [in the fall]. If I'm a brewery, I wouldn't want to release my pumpkin ale in April. However, I think there's a big difference between the Oktoberfest beers and pumpkin ales in that they are very, very truly seasonal. I think rosé's notoriety is the summer, but people drink it all year round. And you know what the other thing is at the end of the day it's a great bourbon,” Paladini says.
The team ended up landing on the first week of October for their release due to the finish taking a full 90 days. As they continued to pull samples leading up to their release, they remarked about how the floral nose that was accented with candied fruit and cream notes. The palate featured soft vanilla and caramel notes with a notable well balanced finish with lingering botanical notes and a touch of heat.
“At 94 proof it's going to be an easier sipper. Bourbon drinkers will be curious to see what the flavor profile is about and it might draw in people that aren’t necessarily hitting the bourbon aisle all the time,” Paladini says.
This is exactly what the Penelope Bourbon team has worked towards with their brand: to blur the line between bourbon enthusiast and mainstream drinker. With their Rosé Cask Finish bourbon ready to hit the market, they feel the product helps move them forward with their goal. It’s a crossover product that will appeal to many different types of drinkers. They hope rosé drinkers will take note of the glass pop off cap versus a traditional bourbon bottle cork. The enthusiast crowd might be drawn in because this isn’t a common style of cask finishing and the team hopes their curiosity will give it a look (and taste).
Paladini and Polise are already looking towards 2021 and plan to target May with batch 02, which could reuse the same barrels from batch 01. The team weathered a lot of obstacles during the development of their Rosé Cask Finish bourbon, but now that it's ready and out of their hands, they wait to see if their trailblazing efforts will pay off.
Penelope Bourbon Rosé Cask Finish will release October 6th, and has a MSRP of $65. 2,400 bottles will be available in GA, NJ, NY, TN, WI, and online at Seelbach's, Mash&Grape, and Flaviar.