Pure Spirits: The 1776 Bourbons & Rye Whiskeys

1776 – Of course this number will immediately bring a unique historical event to the mind. While in the United States of America every child knows what happened in that year, also outside of the US most people will associate this particular year with the American Declaration of Independence as the most important event of 1776. Can there be a more obvious idea than naming a series of whiskeys that are supposed to transport the very American spirit in liquid form after that year? (provided test products)

But is it convincing to name a whiskey in such a manner only because of the Declaration of Independence? Shouldn’t there be another connection to 1776? Actually there is another reason, since after all we are dealing with the oldest and most legendary whiskey brand in the US – well at least supposedly. Why do I say “supposedly”? Well, at this point it becomes a bit “tricky” in the jungle of the American history of whiskey, which is why we have to look closely and carefully on that matter: Whoever is concerned with American whiskey or Bourbon, of course, will sooner or later end up in Kentucky. And it was there, where in 1776 the Pepper family began to distill their own whiskey. Elijah Pepper was the first of the family to create his own bourbon, until his place was taken by Oscar Pepper in 1838, who in turn was inherited by Colonel James E. Pepper in 1867. And this Colonel James E. Pepper is a quite famous personality in American history. He was a very successful whiskey entrepreneur, and he was befriended to some of the greatest persons of his time, as for example the entrepreneurs John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, or the later President Theodore Roosevelt. Pepper also bred horses for the legendary Kentucky Derby, where the people still enjoy a nice Mint Julep until the present day. And besides that Colonel Pepper is closely interwoven with the history of the Old Fashioned: this epitome of a cocktail was supposedly invented at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky by a Bartender named Martin Cuneo and it was served for Colonel Pepper during the 1890s and later made famous by him at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan (Colonel James E. Pepper lived in this hotel for a long time). So you might see: Mr. Pepper is a heavyweight of American (whiskey) history.

But above all (as I’ve already pointed out), this man was a whiskey entrepreneur. In order to bring his “liquid gold” among the people, he used to travel through the country in his own (!) railway wagon and promoted his “Old 1776” whiskey to the people. And even back in those days the name “1776” affected the patriotic feelings of the population and since that year was also associated with the year of the founding activity of his grandfather (and his original recipe) – Colonel Pepper used those patriotic synergies like the keen businessman he was. So far so good. Why am I telling you all this? Right, I wanted to explain why I was talking about the “supposedly” oldest whiskey. After Colonel James E. Pepper’s death, the brand slowly declined and vanished from the markets. It still existed as a brand name, but there was no real Old 1776 Whiskey anymore.

And now it is the time of a marketing story, although it is not only mere marketing but also a real link to the past: A company called Georgetown Trading Co. acquired the trademark rights of the Old 1776 only a few years ago and introduced that whiskey again. So is this really the oldest whiskey in the US? Well, probably not. But you have to take into consideration that they were at least very concerned about the brand and spared no efforts. So they did not simply started to sell a Bourbon or Rye under the name 1776, no, they actually started some historical research. In this process, old original whiskey bottles of Colonel James E. Peppers were collected from the time before, during and after the prohibition, and their contents were analyzed in the laboratory. Also an old letter was purchased, in which the Colonel described in the year of 1887 the exact methods of production and the composition of the mash for his Old 1776 Whiskey. Nonetheless the Georgetown Trading Co. does not directly operate an own distillery, so they created their own blends of whiskeys from different barrels from different distilleries (although it is said that the Bernheim Distillery could be the major producer) to restore the “Old 1776”. It is easy to guess that not all of these distilleries are actually from Kentucky because according to the label it is not a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey but “only” a Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Once again: is the 1776 Bourbon the oldest whiskey in the US? Of course it is not. But maybe at least a bit. It is a little bit like the piece of a ship that has been restored, but one can ask the philosophical question as to when it is still the original and when it is actually a replica. For the purpose of marketing, the story is of course very nice and appealing and if the historical research and the effort leads to a good Bourbon Whiskey, why not?

And I am about to find out whether it is. At least “almost”, since before I will write down a few interesting tasting notes, I would like to introduce what products are available in the portfolio of the 1776er series. Let’s start with the design of the bottles which is quite appealing to me. It is simple and classic and transports the historical “flair” of the brand. On the back cover there is a drawing of Bejamin Franklin, showing a serpent that is split in “colonies” bearing the initials of several American colonies. It was originally made during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. In this war it was a call to unite and fight alongside the British Army against the French. Later, however, the drawing became a symbol of freedom during the American War of Independence and was then also used as a symbol against the British. In the latter sense it was probably meant when the producers decided to print it on the label. But now we really take a look at the individual bottles together with the tasting notes. (There are also some 15-year old bottles available in the series, but these are not subject to my article today).

First there is the classic bourbon of the series, the “1776 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Aged 7 Years”. It is made only in small batch production and was allowed to mature for 7 years in American oak barrels. This is not needless to say because in the bourbon segment, the NAS principle (No Age Statement) is quite common. With 38% of rye in the mash, this Bourbon is quite rye-strong, which I personally like very much. Fortunately, the 1776 is not chill-filtered and comes with a promising ABV of 46%. The bottle costs around 40 euros.

Tasting Notes “1776 Bourbon Aged 7 Years”:

Aroma: I tend to subjectively describe one of the typical characteristic notes of a bourbon that is described as an intense vanilla by most of the people as also very “orangey”. Here, however, I am really fascinated that the beautiful and intense vanilla is actually very “pure”. Almost like a creamy vanilla pudding, which shows fine orange notes only after a while but only in a very subtle way. Enwrought with cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices, this Bourbon really knows how to please and is also surprisingly different than I expected.

Taste: The aromatic and clear vanilla also cuts a fine figure on the palate, along with a subtle spicy side with cinnamon, some clove and a fine orange. A little oak is also there after some time but no trace of “glue”, as some people attribute it to many Bourbons.

Finish: medium-long, fine, spicy and with increasing oak

The “1776 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – 100 Proof” is certainly the more potent brother of the 7-year old 1776. In contrast to the British, proof statements are always simple with American spirits: 100 Proof is 50% ABV. Again we are dealing with 38% rye in the mash and also this one is not chill-filtered. I was a little bit surprised that this one comes “only” with a difference of 4% ABV. But hey: 4% can be much of a difference. So maybe it’s better to trust the blend master of Georgetown Trading Co. This one also costs about 40 euros.

Tasting Notes “1776 Bourbon 100 Proof”:

Aroma: The higher alcohol content is hardly noticeable on the nose. Instead, it immediately becomes clear that this is a bit more spicy bourbon, which is certainly due to the higher alcohol content as a carrier of aroma. A distinct plus of oak mixes with caramel, cloves, nutmeg and other spices. A cool mint note is also there (which I like very much).

Taste: The fine oak bitterness is evident on the palate, nevertheless the 100 proof also impresses with a nice, vanilla-caramel-sweetness, which is enhanced by the spices of the rye. A pleasing bourbon, despite the 50% vol. I do not feel any disturbing alcohol and therefore would not go for further diluting it with water.

Finish: spicy with caramel and oak

In addition to the bourbons that I have presented above, there are also two bottles of rye. I am very happy about this since I am a big fan of rye whiskey. Basically, we encounter a similar game according to the alcoholic strengths as with the Bourbons, only a little bit higher. The “1776 Straight Rye Whiskey – 100 Proof” is the “weaker” one compared to the “1776 Straight Rye Whiskey – Barrel Proof” (50% ABV vs. 58,6% ABV). So the Barrel Proof bottle seems to be the Goliath of the series. With over 90% of rye in the mash it promises to offer a lot of spice and flavor. Both Rye bottlings play in the same league as the Bourbons with around 40 euros per bottle. So here are my tasting notes of the two rye varieties:

Tasting Notes “1776 Rye 100 Proof”:

Aroma: No doubt this one is a rye whiskey! The aromas are stronger and spicier compared to the bourbon: honey, herbs and a caramel that’s already tending towards chocolate appear on the nose. There is also some oak spice, cloves, nutmeg and some mint.

Taste: The impression from the nose is also confirmed on the palate: Milk chocolate, caramel, and spices that can be itemized easier by adding a few drops of water. A beautiful rye whiskey!

Finish: medium-long, spicy, with oak and caramel

Tasting Notes “1776 Rye Barrel Proof”:

Aroma: In fact, the picture of aromas is similar to that of the 100 proof, but to my surprise there are additional fruity tones, such as apples, pears or quinces. But then again there is caramel, honey, chocolate and a lot of spices from the rye and the oak barrel. A great first impression!

Taste: Intensive, spicy, full-bodied, I would recommend a few drops of water, though, since 58,6% ABV can be quite pungent. This in turn brings out chocolate and wild honey, also some vanilla shines through. Fruit notes and herbs such as mint and some thyme can also be found. The barrel proof is the more complex one of the two Ryes in my eyes, although I also like the 100 proof really well.

Finish: long and spicy

Buying sources: The 1776 Whiskeys can be obtained at specialized retailers or online.

3 thoughts on “Pure Spirits: The 1776 Bourbons & Rye Whiskeys

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