This piece isn’t for the person who already enjoys the products at Rock Town Distillery and keeps them stocked in the liquor cabinet. It’s only partially for the first-timer, the person who has heard about Little Rock’s only distiller but has still yet to try them. No, this piece is for the numerous people who tried Rock Town when it first came out and haven’t gone back.
When Rock Town Distillery first opened its doors in 2010 to quite a bit of fanfare, the initial impressions were, well, disappointing. None of the spirits was really ready. More time was needed to develop the profile of each liquor, and that’s a generous assessment. Some of the stuff was just downright bad, and the first year ended up being disastrous for head distiller Phil Brandon.
That was six years ago. Rock Town Distillery has since won numerous national and international awards for its work, not the least of which was being named the 2015 Whisky Bible’s U.S. Micro Whisky of the Year for its single barrel bourbon. The Whisky Bible again honored Rock Town this year for one of its malts with a score of 93.5 out of 100, a rating of “brilliant.”
I’ve been a fan of Rock Town for a few years now, so I was thrilled to get to attend a warehouse tasting event this weekend with Brandon and 10 other people. This is the first time Rock Town has allowed the public to follow Brandon around and taste from the barrels themselves. A $30 ticket got us full pours from four different barrels and a special whiskey tasting glass, which is not a bad deal at all.
Brandon started out by letting us taste from one of his rums, which has been aging for almost three years. The rum itself showed plenty of character, with prounounced dark chocolate notes swimming around hints of vanilla and tropical fruit. But the color and the faintness of vanilla told the story; while this rum has potential, it’s not yet ready. The barrel was plugged and put away for another day.
While we sipped and commented, Brandon walked us through making spirits and some of the more interesting aspects of Rock Town’s business. We found out that the Scotch Whisky Malt Society actually buys entire barrels of bourbon from Brandon to sell under its own label. We learned how sorghum and unmalted barley from Arkansas farms are being used to make new, interesting versions of bourbon (and I can’t wait to taste those). And we discussed how Rock Town’s popularity is growing in markets like the United Kingdom and New England.
And the tasting continued. A sour mash whiskey reminded me most of the original grains that went into the still while also bringing forward whispers of banana leaves and clove. The extra acidity provided a new, exciting way to taste the spirit. And of course, we had to try an in-progress sample of Rock Town’s now famous bourbon. While it still needed some time to further age, it wasn’t hard to validate Brandon’s craftsmanship at work. Smooth, rich and warm, Rock Town’s trademark depth was already evident in this spirit. And before we ended the night, we got a special treat. One of the party discovered an old rye barrel that Brandon had forgotten about. The four-year aging process had evaporated most of the spirit, but Brandon extracted enough for all of us to taste. It was powerful and coming in at what had to be 150 proof or more. A little water opened up the spirit beautifully and showed that the whiskey’s balance was still intact, with spice and sweetness in even measures, even if the alcohol content was staggering.
It would have been a good night stopping here, but Brandon had a special finish in store. Rock Town has purchased a massive 500-liter sherry barrel and filled it with pre-aged wheat whiskey. Although the whiskey and the barrel have only interacted for a few months, the influence of the sherry was already coming into focus. Sweet and slightly fruity, but still young, this whiskey has the potential to be something truly great a few years down the road.
And that’s the final impression I want to leave you with. Just like its spirits, Rock Town has aged beautifully. The old days of harsh liquor with little character are gone. In its place is now an expert distillery known around the country and the world for its quality. And it’s right here in Little Rock! So if you can still taste that subpar bourbon from the opening days, it’s time to give your mouth a rinse and try again. We have a truly special distillery here in our city, and I hope you’re ready to give it a second chance.