Deerhammer Buena Vista Brandy and Downtime Single Malt Whiskey Reviews

Deerhammer Distilling Brandy and Whiskey
Deerhammer Distilling Brandy and Whiskey

There are a lot of really interesting things going on in the craft distilling space, but there are also a lot of common pitfalls that the category tends to fall into, and unfortunately those pitfalls are captured perfectly in Deerhammer Distilling‘s Buena Vista Brandy and Downtime Single Malt Whiskey. Being a small craft distiller is a nearly impossible endeavor. Producing spirits is an extraordinarily expensive and complex process that requires an immense amount of resources, both human and financial. It’s alway tough to give a bad review to a product or series of products that you know are the result of a lot of love, passion, and hard work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually help these producers to make better products when people give glowing reviews to products that aren’t great, just because they are made by a craft spirit distiller.

Deerhammer Buena Vista Brandy (80 proof / 40% ABV, $25 for 375 ml bottle) – made from grapes grown in the Colorado mountains near where Deerhammer is located, this brandy has been “aged less than 2 years in French oak.” Unfortunately as age statements go, “less than 2 years” really doesn’t give us an exact age range. It could be 1 day less than 2 years or it could be 30 days, both of which would qualify. The nose on the Buena Vista Brandy is strong sawdust, a signature aroma from French oak. It’s hard to get past the massive barrel impact, but underneath there is a nice raisin and wine grape note. The entry feels thin and slightly watery with light oak notes with raisin undertones. Almost immediately the sharp oak barrel notes begin to take over, and by the time we get to the midpalate they are unpleasant and dominant. The oak spice peaks at the end of the midpalate and carries on for a long spicy finish, not something you typically get from aging in good French oak barrels. The finish is also overly dry.

Deerhammer Buena Vista Brandy is a perfect example of a product that was pushed too hard in the barrel and released too soon. There’s a reason why most brandy comes out after at least 2 years in a barrel, and is often blended with much older spirits. A spirit goes through many phases in its journey through maturation, and there’s nothing you can do to it that can replace the element of time in this journey. The assaultive sawdust element on the nose and the uncharacteristic level of oak spice suggests the possibility of aging in smaller barrels, or perhaps a barrel that was poorly or overly toasted. This level of barrel impact is so high that further maturation probably wouldn’t do this brandy much good. To add to the issue, this brandy is effectively $50 per 750 ml which is a fortune for an American brandy, especially considering that Paul Masson VSOP is $13 per 750 ml. We know a lot of love and pride went into the bottle, but in the spirits space, that’s just not enough.

Deerhammer Downtime Single Malt Whiskey (88 proof / 44% ABV, $48 per 750ml) – as with the Buena Vista Brandy, oak is the leading note on the nose, with a mix of oak spice and campfire char, and not in a good way. It’s immensely difficult to dig beyond the oak to the malt notes underneath. After a tremendous amount of digging, we did come up with honey and vanilla notes, but they are so hard to pick out that we imagine the average taster won’t be able to get at them. The entry of the Downtime Single Malt Whiskey is also a little thin and watery to start but has some light, sweet notes there including the honey and vanilla. Moving into the midpalate there are some nice flavors – the honey intensifies and gives the spirit some body – and a small amount of peat smoke emerges as does the oak spice from the barrel. Towards the end of the midpalate there’s a burnt coffee note along with a dark chocolate note, but the oak spice dominates and makes the other flavors hard to enjoy . The finish is hot, dry, and spicy with a bitter oak taste that lingers for quite a long time. The finish is nothing short of a train wreck.

Deerhammer Downtime Single Malt Whiskey is aged 9-12 months in 30 gallon barrels and it shows. Small barrels are extremely hard to work with: they tend to give you way too much oak in too short of a time. Malt whiskey also needs much more time than 9-12 months to actually mature, and all the oak flavor is covering up the fact that the spirit is still very much an adolescent, which is quite apparent in the finish. There are some interesting flavors being played with in Downtime Single Malt Whiskey but the spirit needs the time and space to properly age. Orson Wells once did a famous commercial that stated, “We shall sell no wine before it’s time”, and Deerhammer and other craft distillers need to embrace this ethos with their spirits, no matter how painful it is financially. You can have the best distillate in the world, but if you don’t give it the care and time it needs in the maturation process, no one will ever know.

  • Thanks for your comments on the single malt whiskey. I’m always looking for some new whiskies from the US, so I’ll know to stay clear of this on you mentioned.

  • Geoff, as the owner of Deerhammer and the maker of the spirits that you took the time to review, I thank you for your critique. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy either offering. Both spirits have, until now, been very well received from critics retailers and consumers. It’s quite possible that they’ve been received by folks who are being far less critical than they should. It’s also possible that you may have received a sample (particularly in the case of the whiskey) that had something wrong with it. The issues you’ve sighted do not seem at all apparent in any of the drams I’ve poured for myself along the way, so I can’t help to wonder if your bottle was indeed flawed in some way.

    In regards to the whiskey: We didn’t release Downtime after 9 months because we were strapped for cash — we are lucky to have a tasting room that keeps us comfortably above water with whitewhiskey/cocktail sales. The original plan was to rest these 30g new american white oak casks for 2 year or as long as necessary. The spirit that goes into the casks is identical to our whitewater whiskey which is comprised of 20% specialty malt (a blend of chocolate and crystal malts) in addition to the ordinary two row malted barley. The whitewater whiskey has some really bold chocolate, tobacco, earthy notes that work amazingly well in cocktails (If you’re ever out this way, Geoff, I’ll make you a white dog old fashioned that i’m 100% sure you’ll enjoy). For the aged version of this spirit, I did not want to scrub away the specialty malt flavor contributions with excessive aging that might contribute overbearing vanilla carmel notes. While those flavors are nothing to scoff at, there are plenty of great $30-50 american whiskies out there with those standard flavor profiles. I was after something different. At the 7-9 month mark of the Downtime maturation, I was getting a really nice balance of chocolate, coffee and caramel. After a lot of side by side comparison to other whiskies and some extremely positive feedback from others in the industry, I opted to bottle our first cask of downtime at the 9 month mark.

    We are completely sold out of our first release from which you received a sample, but I do have a few bottles that were set aside. I’m going to go though these bottles and see if there are any that might be noticeably “off” from the rest of the batch. I’m not looking to change your opinion of the whiskey you tried from us, and I’ll certainly take your feedback into account on future bottlings. If I do find that you might have received a flawed sample, I’d like to get you a proper sample that conveys the unique coffee/chocolate/malt ballence that we’ve enjoyed so much.

    Thank you again for your time and thought these two offerings.


    • Lenny, thanks for your comments. Given my extensive experience with the aging process for whiskey, it’s pretty clear that the issue comes from your barrels. Small barrels are tough to work with as the surface area exposure to the spirit is exponentially more than in the standard barrels. A high toast on a new small barrel pushes the barrel impact so that it peaks far before the spirit has really matured. I know Balcones does some of their stuff in small barrels, but often blends between different sized barrels to mitigate this impact (not always successfully though, we’ve got a review of their Brimstone upcoming which highlights even their misstep in this space). Malted barley goes through a number of different cycles throughout the maturation process. Of course the timeframe for this really is determined by climate and in your case altitude, but from a grain perspective the real sweet spot for malt is around 10-18 years in a more neutral barrel. Of course corn matures MUCH faster and peaks at 6-9 years (depending on the environment for aging). When you downsize the barrel you push the barrel impact but aren’t really fundamentally altering the peak maturation point. Put simply there’s just no substitution for time in the aging process.

      I didn’t really mean to pull you out as an example of some of the issues with craft distilling, but your two products both are perfect examples of potentially good underlining base spirits totally obliterated by pushing the maturation process. You of course aren’t alone in doing this, it’s a very wide spread problem. Another problem in this space, unfortunately, is the over exuberant feedback that’s given to craft distillers, just because they are craft distillers. I deeply empathize with the heart and soul that goes into making these products, but in the same way I think that it’s important to step aside from the ‘who and how’ something was made and evaluate it based on what’s presented in the glass. The problems aren’t unfixable and one of the great things about craft spirits is that adjustments can be made…

  • Rick Herrera

    Kudos to you on this exchange between a critic and the distiller. It’s mature, thoughtful, and respectful. This is the caliber of give and take that isn’t seen often enough in so many walks of life in the US. Well done.