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.