Taste Test: This New Bourbon Is Aged With Vanilla-Infused Smoke—and It Works

Flavored whiskey is a category that is often maligned by “serious” whiskey drinkers, and while it’s true that taste is entirely subjective it’s also true that many of these bottles are just not very good. Then there’s whiskey with extra flavor, often due to a secondary cask finish. One of the most recent entries into this popular category is a bourbon that was finished in vanilla-smoked toasted barrels, which might just be the first time that sequence of words has been uttered in the whiskey world.

The whiskey in question, Eighth Notch, comes from South Carolina producer Virgil Kaine Lowcountry Whiskey, a brand founded in 2011 by former chefs David Szlam and Ryan Meany who make it a point to bring some of their culinary background to the whiskey making process. And to be clear, they don’t actually make the whiskey—it’s sourced from MGP in Indiana, as so many brands are. But they do take the liquid and tinker with it by infusing it with things like green tea, cherry and ginger. However, Eighth Notch is not infused with flavor in that manner; instead, it’s treated to an unconventional barrel finish.

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The team at Virgil Kaine sourced the whiskey from MGP (75 percent corn, 21 percent rye, 4 percent malted barley), and the barrels from Gainesville Cooperage in Georgia. These were toasted to a medium/heavy char. “By toasting secondary barrels, it helps add more of those sweeter notes versus darker notes,” Szlam told Robb Report. “It pulls out some extra caramel and butterscotch notes that I personally love.”

These barrels were then filled with vanilla smoke, created by literally smoking dried vanilla pods ground up in a coffee grinder and sealed for several weeks. Finally, the barrels were filled with the five-year-old bourbon, topped off with more vanilla smoke, and set aside to finish for an additional three months. “The idea came to me years ago when we were looking at ways to create unique twists on barrel-aged cocktails,” said Szlam in a statement. “After several experiments, we eventually relied on a technique used long ago in our kitchen day. Utilizing discarded vanilla beans, we were able to dry used vanilla pods and process them in a way that would allow us to smoke and infuse its essence into our ingredients.”

The result is a surprisingly tasty whiskey that is bottled at barrel proof of 116.8. A pour in a Glencairn glass fills the air with just a whiff of smoke—not peat or campfire levels, but it’s definitely noticeable. A quick nose reveals more of that subtle smoke, along with green notes of fresh wood and some sweet caramel, all underscored by some heat from the alcohol. The first thing you might notice upon sipping the bourbon is the incredibly creamy mouthfeel, an unexpected feature of this whiskey. Vanilla is front and center on the palate here, as you might expect, but there’s nothing sweet or artificial about it. That slight smokiness continues underneath notes of cherry, dried mango, a bit of black pepper and some more of that balsa wood character.

Again, this is not a flavored whiskey, but it is a whiskey that definitely has a healthy dose of added flavor thanks to the unusual and intriguing cask finish. It might not be an everyday drinker, but is absolutely worth trying for the whiskey curious and would probably work really well in an Old Fashioned or another whiskey cocktail. And most importantly, it’s another successful experiment from this whiskey brand that isn’t afraid to try something new. There are only 3,200 bottles available of Eighth Notch (SRP $80), so visit the Virgil Kaine website to find out where to get a bottle.

Score: 86

What Our Score Means

  • 100: Worth trading your first born for

  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet

  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram

  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market

  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable

  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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