“Some people like our stuff and some people don’t, and that’s just fine with us.”
– Gary Fleshman, General Manager, Rogue Ales
It was a pretty strong statement that started off my tasting of Rogue Distillery‘s spirits. Best known for their micro-craft beers (like the Dead Guy Ale), Rogue has made a move into the spirits space with a line of Gin, Rum and Whiskey. With distilleries split between their Oregon coast location and downtown Portland, Rogue doesn’t have the luxury of having all their spirits under the same roof. Their rum, which is distilled from C & H sugar, is done by a single apprentice without the immediate oversight of a master distiller. Their barrel management also seems to be pretty slip shot, with spirits sitting in a variety of barels at a variety of ages.
“We want to get this out there as soon as possible and when they found out that things had to sit in barrels for a long time they got pretty pissed.” – Gary Fleshman, General Manager, Rogue Ales
As a whole, the Rogue spirits clearly reflect a distilling program in crisis. Of the six spirits I tasted, at least three of them ranked as some of the poorest distilled spirits I have ever tasted.
Rogue Spruce Gin (90 proof, $35) – Of all the Rogue spirits I tasted the spruce gin was the only one that wasn’t absolutely unpalatable. It’s an interesting concept to use spruce as the top note of a gin, but it completely takes the place of juniper, which they almost completely abandoned (there is a trace amount as a technicality so they can still call it gin). In addition to the pronounced spruce, the gin is also heavily flavored with cucumber. It’s on the nose, in the palate and is almost more dominate than the spruce itself. There are also some ginger and citrus notes in the taste but those peter out. One could safely argue that Rogue Spruce Gin is not really a gin, it’s more a spruce/cucumber frankenstein of a spirit.
Rogue Pink Gin (90 Proof $35) – If you didn’t know that this is gin, you’d never guess it. Aged in pinot noir barrels, this gin strips away any and everything that even remotely works about the Rogue Spruce Gin and turns it into something overly sweet and barely palatable. The Rogue Pink Gin has some vanilla and cherry on the nose that lead into a pinot and vanilla like taste. But this batch of gin was seriously off. The body was hot (not in a good way) and it finished hot in a way that’s indicative of a poorly distilled spirit. As I tasted this, apprentice distiller Bree Winchell kept repeating to me over and over, “We only use the heart. We only use the heart” like a mantra, but it’s clear that in the batch of pink gin I tried the cut came too soon and there is clear evidence of heads in this distillate.
Rogue White Rum (80 proof $39) – As with the Rogue Pink Gin, I found some serious issues with the distilling of Rogue’s White Rum. Hot from the first sip through the finish, this one-note rum was simply disgusting. It tastes like it contains the heads of the distillate with a varnish-like tone to it. What’s even more shocking is the price tag of $39. I was told that Rogue is phasing out their white rum and I can say that’s the only good news about this spirit. I really thought the white rum was one of the worst spirits I have tasted, until I tasted the Hazelnut Spice Rum.
Rogue Hazelnut Spice Rum (80 Proof $35) – Notable for the fact that it is now the single worst distillate I have ever tasted, the Rogue Hazelnut Spice Rum is vile and disgusting. It is probably more suited to clean paint brushes than to be consumed by a human being. The nose of the rum is so disgustingly strong that it overpowered everything else I tried to taste and I literally had to step away from the table to actually be able to smell the other spirits. If the nose is bad the taste is worse. It resembles what I’d imagine infusing varnish with hazelnuts must taste like. The finish is straight hot.
Dead Guy Whiskey (80 Proof $40) – I’m a huge fan of white dog and young spirits, and so the fact that this whiskey is only aged for 1 month really didn’t phase me. What phases me is a whiskey that is this bad (as it may very well be the worst whiskey ever made). With strawberry banana Jolly Rancher in the nose, Dead Guy Whiskey does not smell anything like whiskey – it smells sacchariny and artificial. The taste is not much better: fatty and overly sweet, limp and lacking any of the great qualities of a young whiskey. If the Rogue White Rum has heads in it, the Dead Guy Whiskey seems to have tails and it’s flat, candied finish is as underwhelming as its taste. Dead Guy Whiskey comes from the sweet wort (minus the hops) from Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale and it’s aged in lightly charred American White Oak. That should be a nice recipe for success, but again, poor distilling obliterates strong elements.
After tasting this series of spirits it is clear to me that all is not well in the house of Rogue. Distiller John Couchot comes out of the world of chemistry and perhaps hasn’t made the leap from scientist to artisan craftsman, or perhaps the real issue lies with the companies motto of ‘get it out the door’ and ‘some people will love it and some people won’t’. Unfortunately with spirits this poor, I’m afraid the people who won’t like it will vastly outnumber the people who do.
Update: Since this original review Rouge has released the Oregon Single Malt Whiskey (80 proof). It took the 2010 American Distilling Institute Gold Medal at the 2010 ADI conference. For completeness sake I decided to give it a try. The good news, it’s not as bad as the Dead Guy Whiskey, the bad news, it’s not legions better. Sporting a very think amber color the Rouge Single Malt has been aged just three months in barrel. The nose is strong banana with an undertone of barnyard animal. The entry is syrupy sweet, almost like corn syrup or molasses. There’s not too much going on in the body of this whiskey and it finishes pretty hot with burning at the front of the mouth. Not a whiskey I’d recommend.