By Richard Thomas
The aspect of the American craft distillery boom that amazes me the most is how micro-distilleries have sprung up in Kentucky, right among the big players of the American whiskey industry. Kentucky has a population of just under 4.5 million, and while it is true that many of them love a good pour of whiskey, they are already very well served as hosts of the lion’s share of America’s whiskey-making.
One such example of a (very) small distillery looking for a sunny spot in the midst of Kentucky’s giants is Hartfield & Co. Located in picturesque Paris, Kentucky, they have brought bourbon back to Bourbon County for the first time since 1919.
Hartfield bourbon (formerly known as the Gentleman, a name dropped as the result of a trademark dispute) is made with a high-malt mash bill of 62% corn, 19% rye, 19% malted barley. Whereas malt is typically used in American whiskey for the sole purpose of introducing the enzymes needed to convert grain starch to sugar, which is then fermented, Hartfield has brought the malt up to make it a fully fledged flavoring element in their whiskey. They then distill to 115-120 proof as opposed to the legal maximum (and more usual) 160 proof, so as to keep more of the oils and other compounds in their distillate. What comes out of the still then goes straight into the barrel, so the entry proof is 115-120 as well.
Those barrels are Char #3, 5.8 gallon small barrels made in Minnesota. Those who have swallowed the line that “all small barrel whiskey sucks” will probably roll their eyes at that, but more expert, sharper-eyed readers will have picked up two critical distinctions that should already point out how this won’t be the case of Hartfield’s small barrel bourbon. For one thing, they aren’t simply imitating standard, big distiller practices and dumping the results in a small barrel. Another is that barrels from a Minnesota cooperage are going to have the northerly, tight-grained oak staves like those used by FEW Spirits, which restricts absorption from the wood.
Bottled at 100 proof, Hartfield & Co. Bourbon has a slightly dark, syrupy amber appearance in the glass. The nose shows that it’s a young, small barrel whiskey for sure, with some corn huskiness and woodiness there, and it’s a touch hot.
The flavor is where things turn around and defy expectations. Predominately vanilla and cookie spice sweet, the bourbon has a tasty current like toasted popcorn, cooked just a hair too much, that gives the whiskey a trace of a smoky element that isn’t anything like barrel char. At the same time, that smoky trace isn’t overpowering like some of the smoked craft whiskeys I’ve tasted. This flavor profile comes out of the boosted malt count, and makes it quite distinct from other small barrel craft bourbons I’ve tried.
From there the finish is a touch spicy, but in a mellow way and leaves only light warmth. Overall, Hartfield’s bourbon makes for a nice little sipper: simple, but interesting too.
$47 per 750 ml bottle.