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  • Writer's picturePeter Miles

Penelope Toasted v. WR Double Oaked

Penelope ‘Toasted Barrel’ Finished Bourbon.

The History of Penelope.

Penelope was started in 2018 by Mike and Kerry Paladini. As with most whiskey start-ups they began as a GRQ NDP (non-distilling producer) and partnered initially with Castle and Key and then with MGP, Bardstown Bourbon Company and Speyside Cooperage. On the face of it they were and are outsourcing all (?) whiskey making activity, functioning primarily as a marketing operation, promoting their brand. Check out their staff list. However, what they are doing they are doing very well.

Penelope Bourbon initially distinguished itself with a 4-grain mash bill and a focus on barrel conditioning (toasting – charring) and the use of staves etc. More recently though there appears to have been a somewhat chaotic expansion of options, and a drop in ‘consistency’ if not the quality of their product.

The company has just now (May 2023) been acquired by MGP for $100M+ as this major distiller looks to expand into the ultra-premium ‘craft’ market.

What are Toasted Barrels?

This particular toasted whisky is described as having a ‘toasted barrel’ finish. What is that? The concept originated in the wine industry. The idea of toasting barrels is to heat the fresh new wood up enough to split and crack it without burning it, exposing uncaramelized wood sugars and providing a greater surface area for interaction with the spirit. The addition of a light char after toasting is typical practice, and the Woodford Reserve Distillery was among the first major whiskey producers to use such an approach for post maturation ‘finishing barrels’ starting around 2012 with their ‘Double Oaked’ release.

(Note that charring before toasting makes no sense, as heating up an already incinerated surface is not likely to change it much).

Mash bill: The Penelope website indicates a wheated bourbon on the main page for this bottling, switches this to a high rye on the ‘Product One Pager’ but, bizarrely, references to a ‘four grain’ also remain on the page. So only Penelope really knows, or perhaps they don’t know, or even care.

Batch: Batch 23-301. Unstated batch size.

ABV: 50%. 100 proof. Previous versions were at “Barrel Strength’ but it looks like they are settling for this 100 proof, at least for now.

Matured: Based on the label we have 5 years of maturation (presumably the time spent in the first barrel, probably resting at MGP) and then they “finish (the) straight bourbon whisky in a new, freshly toasted barrel”.

The label indicates a char level of 5, (a bit like a volume setting of 11) and a toast level of ‘heavy’ (I understand that a ‘medium’ level is also available). It is unclear if the char of ‘5’ is on the original maturing barrel (my best guess?) or if that high char level is applied to the finishing barrel after the ‘toast’ (would seem excessive).

The label looks to me to be the product of a marketing department who have only a superficial knowledge of exactly how their whiskey is made.

All this ‘provenance’ stuff aside, how good a whisky is this? I put it up against the well established Woodford Reserve Double Wood.

Cost: ~ $70/750ml bottle.

Color: Burnished 1.1 (Whisky Magazine Scale).

Swirl: Light rim with some puckering and multiple fine legs running down the glass.

Nose: Very light aroma. with a quickly appearing alcohol prickle. There is not much here. Some caramel and hints of vanilla. Very slight funky ash smoke with some faint ‘chocolate pudding’ thing going on in the background. Pleasant enough but unremarkable.

Taste: Light body, with dry wood upfront and some candy sweetness quickly emerging. The alcohol hit is quite sharp for a 100-proof whiskey. Licorice overtones and some vanilla and malty sweetness develop as the wood fades. Certainly nothing unpleasant but it is a little underwhelming.

Finish: Medium, with some dry wood and some light smoke notes lingering.

Verdict: Actually, a reasonable bourbon, with a nice balance and nothing much to dislike. However, it falls short of the expected hefty ‘wood extracts’ flavor profile that you might expect. The WR Double Wood tasted on the side is clearly a richer, smoother, and more profound ‘wood finish’ experience with fewer ‘distractions’. As such it is difficult to recommend the Penelope at $70 but it would have been a decent buy at, say, $40.

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