Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Campari Group
Distillery: Wilderness Trail Distillery
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: NAS (Aged at least 4 years per TTB regulations)
Mashbill: 64% Corn, 25% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Color: Dark Gold
MSRP: $60 (2023)
Wilderness Trail Distillery was founded by Shane Baker and Dr. Patrick Heist. Baker got his mechanical engineering degree and Heist studied microbiology and received a Ph.D in plant pathology both from University of Kentucky. In 2006, they formed Ferm Solutions, which combined scientific expertise with alcohol making operations across the world. The two became highly respected yeast and fermentation experts in the distilling, brewing and wine making industries, and in 2012, founded Wilderness Trail Distillery. In late 2022, Campari acquired a 70% stake in Danville, Kentucky’s Wilderness Trail Distillery for $420 million. The distillery’s overall value was placed at $600 million. The remaining 30% is set for acquisition in 2031, based on the outstanding capital of Wilderness Trail.
Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon Bottled in Bond enters toasted and #4 char barrels at 110 proof after coming off the still around 137 proof. Batches consist of 18 barrels and our review bottle is from batch no. 18K0922. Nowhere on the bottle does it state “high rye” and the main way to tell is the black label band that wraps around three sides of the bottle, and the inclusion of “rye” in the mashbill markup on the side of the label. The company’s wheated bourbon looks similar but replaces the black band with a yellow one and rye with wheat on the side label.
A surprisingly potent aroma may catch you off guard as a hefty amount of caramel billows from the glass. The caramel then turns to candy corn, fresh cut grass, buttercream frosted cinnamon rolls, and raspberry cream. It's well composed and balanced as all of the scents cohere nicely. There’s a rich oak scent near the tail end of the nose that nicely caps off this enjoyable aroma.
Like the nose, the palate starts off with a burst of rich caramel. Plenty of bourbons feature a caramel note, but this is notable for its overall richness and viscosity. It's thick and mouth coating which further draws out notes of butterscotch, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and a touch of raspberry. Late into the palate, a minty note develops that is careful not to overpower and helps to maintain your interest level. The palate is largely straightforward but its flavors, like its aroma, work well together thanks to their overall richness.
The finish takes a sharp and unexpected turn due to its high rye content. As straightforward as the palate was, the finish introduces a slew of completely new flavor notes. A strong taste of cinnamon hits first and is quickly followed by bitter chocolate, rye spice, barrel char, and black pepper. It's a noticeable 180 from the palate. A nutty underbelly of the finish is soon revealed and is accented by an almond note. The finish is quite expressive and spice-filled as it slowly begins to lean dry. The mint from the palate also carries over and lingers long after the sip ends. As interesting and dynamic as the finish sounds, in application it struggles to reach higher highs due to its barrel char and lingering dryness.
When Wilderness Trail hit the scene in 2012, they were able to very quickly and skillfully avoid the “yet another craft distillery” tag during the flood of startup distilleries at the time. One of the ways they did this was by offering a better product than so many of the rush-to-market bourbons that appeared during that time. Wilderness Trail quickly developed a passionate fan base that has stayed with them throughout the years. This combination of quality and customer base allowed them to continually grow and ramp up production, and as some expected, led to their buyout.
Campari, who also owns Wild Turkey, isn't exactly short on supply and quite possibly was looking to expand their brand portfolio through flavor diversity and/or the expertise of Baker and Heist. Wilderness Trail whiskeys have done well to not taste like they’re from a typical big Kentucky distillery, though that gap is getting smaller as the years go on.
Their high rye bourbon is a great example of this. Caramel, a common flavor in most bourbons, is present here, yet noticeably more potent. The bourbon also has a distinct mouthfeel which helps amplify its notes of butterscotch, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. Most notable is how pronounced its rye component is during the bourbon’s finish. While it’s not overly unique or out of left field, it stood out to me in good and bad ways. It’s the bourbon’s combination of cinnamon, bitter chocolate, rye spice, barrel char, and black pepper that makes the finish an unexpectedly blunted and spicy affair. That may turn off some who are used to high rye bourbons offering only a mild increase in rye characteristics that can be found in Basil Hayden or Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond for example. Here though, that seems like the bourbon’s hallmark calling card.
Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon’s $60 asking price definitely puts it in the realm of many of its peers. While prices of many products - not just bourbon - have increased over the past few years, many distilleries, especially established craft ones, have been trending in the opposite direction. Wilderness Trail on the other hand have been slowly increasing their pricing during that same time. When I took a look at their Wheated Bourbon in 2018, their pricing was $46. The buyout from Campari seems to have little direct effect on their pricing so far. Where Wild Turkey offers some of the best value in bourbon, that same pricing mentality hasn’t been carried over to Wilderness Trail just yet. Campari may have decided to keep Wilderness Trail as their boutique artisan product despite their expected increase in production in the years ahead. Here and now though, many will accept its $60 price point when deciding to purchase it, but the High Rye Bourbon’s conventional caramel dominated palate along with its interesting yet average finish could butt up against its asking price.
Its name doesn’t lie, this “high rye” bourbon features a bold rye influence that will challenge many who are used to a mellow style of bourbon.
Since Wilderness Trail’s inception, the distillery has had a lot of fair and unfair expectations thrown at it. Ushered in as one of the forerunners of the new craft whiskey scene during the bourbon boom’s last decade, their whiskey has held a lot of promise. Breaking away from the stylings of the big Kentucky distilleries has now become standard practice, but it wasn’t always that way. Wilderness Trail’s bourbon continues to taste uniquely theirs, though that seems to be lessening with each passing year.
Many brands now offer a high rye bourbon, but many seem to fail at capitalizing on just what that actually means. Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon is a bourbon that lives up to its name. Its high rye component combined with ample barrel char that comes out in force during the whiskey's finish gives the bourbon a lot of character, but it's also a bit too much leading to a noticeable sharp and peppery dry finish. It's a very particular style of bourbon that Wilderness Trail doesn’t shy away from and instead goes into it wide eyed and steadfast. I won’t say that Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon isn’t going to be for everyone, but I know some people’s aversion to the sharpness that rye can bring to a sip. Credit is due to Wilderness Trail in only 10 short years producing a bourbon that can stand up to the quality in many of the big Kentucky distilleries’ everyday products. Though it can’t compete in value, it brings a touch more uniqueness to the table, but I’m still not sure if it’s enough.