BLACK MAPLE HILL -
OREGON STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
As we move into fall, I find myself steering away from highballs or cocktails towards straight drams of spicy, smoky whiskey. Whether it is Scotch, Bourbon, or any other spirit, I enjoy accentuated notes of fire-charred oak. So, when selecting a new pour for the Duke Club, I first thought was to return to straight bourbon.
While Bourbon’s home is undeniably Kentucky, it is not exclusive to that state. In fact, there are other more important factors that come into play, such as aging in virgin American White Oak barrels, including at least 50% corn in the mash bill, and restrictions on distilling, barreling, and bottling strengths. While the Midwestern climate in Kentucky certainly plays important factors in its aging, excellent bourbon can be found all over America.
While I typically search for lesser known labels to present to my club members, I also find it important to revisit and review the merit of highly regarded or widely discussed brands. This next bottle I am presenting has gone through an evolution in its life and has the more elite bourbon connoisseurs in heated debates. I do not consider myself an expert, nor do I intend to sway drinkers in any one direction. Rather, I stick to the facts, so here is what you should know about the debated Black Maple Hill “Oregon Straight Bourbon.”
This month, for Just A Taste’s Duke Club, I am excited to feature Black Maple Hill Oregon Straight Bourbon.
Bottle Snapshot: Black Maple hill “oregon straight bourbon whiskey”
Blender/Bottler: Paul Joseph, California Vineyards, Inc.
Region: Joseph, Oregon
Mash Bill: unknown (minimum 51% corn with rumored hi-rye content)
Distilling: unknown (must be distilled to no more than 80% abv)
Aging: unknown (must be aged minimum 2 years in new charred American White Oak barrels at a maximum of 62.5% abv); bottled at 47.5% abv.
Serving Suggestions: neat, with splash of water, or with ice
Cocktail: spirit-forward cocktails, such as old-fashioned, manhattan, or in the Just A Taste Maple Old-Fashioned:
No color additions
Nose: cooperage, fresh charred barrels, baking spices, banana, black walnut, maple, fig, toffee
Palate (neat): warm, rich body with focus on spice and oak flavors
(with water): hidden fruit and tea comes forward (dried plum, orange zest, earl grey, vanilla, lavender, honey)
Finish: warm, lingering spice with sweet expressions of fruit and oak
About Black Maple Hill
The story of Black Maple Hill is a case study in branding and market demand, reminiscent of that of Pappy Van Winkle or The Prisoner red blend. In 2000, Paul Joseph, owner of California Vineyards, Inc, an importer/distributor in California, commissioned a private label, Black Maple Hill, from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Not to be misled, neither Black Maple Hill nor Kentucky Bourbon Distillers are in and of themselves a distillery. Rather, at the time of BMH’s inception, KBD was purchasing bourbon from other Kentucky Distilleries. However, Paul had a good nose both for whiskey and for branding. Unfortunately, due to the bourbon shortage beginning in the mid-2000s, change was inevitable.
Since Paul was sourcing whiskey from another group (KBD) sourcing whiskey, his supply was certain to diminish. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers was responsible for several recognized brands; Willet, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Old Bardstown to name a few. In response to the craft whiskey craze, KBD released the now iconic Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon in 2008. At this time, they shifted their focus away from custom bottling to their Willett Family series, and by 2012, retracted their contract with Paul for Black Maple Hill. However, at this time, his brand had taken off and people everyone where snatching up bottles as quickly as they hit the shelves. He had to find a new source, so he looked closer to home. Enter the Stein Distillery.
Paul began looking for a new source of whiskey closer to his west coast home in California. By chance encounter, he met the Stein family, tasted their whiskies, and knew they were on to something. At that time, the Stein Distillery only released younger 2- and 4-year bottlings; however, after tasting some of their older reserved barrels, he was determined to move forward. By 2014, Paul re-branded Black Maple Hill into shorter squat bottles and released his Oregon Straight Bourbon and Oregon Straight Rye.
About Stein Distillery
The Stein Family consider themselves pioneers in the Oregon distilling community, and they undeniably have a unique approach. They first purchased land for growing wheat, barley, rye, and other grains in Joseph, Oregon in the 1970s. By the early 2000s, Dan Stein was wanting to retire from the construction company, and his son Austin wanted to leave his corporate job for something more intimate. By 2006, the plan came together. Austin, with his wife Heather, opened Stein Distillery in 2009 with his father Dan as the master distiller. Today, Stein Distillery is one of the few distilleries in the world that oversees the entire production from grain to glass.
In the late 2000s, the US saw a steady rise in “craft” distilleries opening across the country. Some producers, unbeknownst to the consumer, would purchase pre-distilled juice and age it on location, making the label distillery seam misleading. Still other labels, such as Black Maple Hill, either bought prepackaged bottles (called “shiners”) or blended the whiskey themselves. Even throughout the world of authentic distilleries it is uncommon for the distiller to have control over their own source of grains. Kilchoman’s 100% Islay, featured in our 2018 Dram Club, comes to mind, as does Journeyman Distillery in Michigan, but this is truly not often the case. The Stein Family is unique in that it controls the quality of every aspect that finds its way into your dram. Some people argue that true characteristics of the grain get somewhat lost through the process of distilling and aging, but if you talk to any grapegrower, winemaker, or sommelier, they all say that wine is made in the vineyard. Perhaps there is a certain middle-ground where care for the grain affects quality, or at least consumer appreciation. Still, we are certain to see an increase in spirits made by organically grown grains, and maybe more “grain to glass” producers will emerge.