There’s an element of geographical snobbery in the world of wine and spirits. If it’s not Champagne, it’s simply sparkling wine. Not from Bordeaux? Merely Cabernet or Merlot. And if it’s not produced in the swath of land between Louisville and Lexington, many people believe it can’t really be bourbon.
In fact, the requirements for bourbon are not specific to Kentucky. Legally, the whiskey must be produced anywhere in the U.S., made from at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels; in addition, it must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol) and be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.
Even so, when I was offered a sample of Watershed Distillery’s Barrel Strength Bourbon from Columbus, Ohio, I refused. It wasn’t snobbery: I had reviewed Ohio’s Cedar Ridge Bourbon some years back and thought it was a fine product, but there’s more alcohol than time in the world at this point. They ignored the refusal and sent the bottle anyway, and I’m glad they did.
Watershed has a curious history. Greg Lehman, the founder, played professional volleyball in Switzerland and followed that up with a successful career selling medications to commercial producers of pigs and hogs (seriously). When he became bored with sports and swine, he found a business partner, raised some cash, and opened Watershed in 2010. Lehman wanted to concentrate on bourbon and gin. Gin was the easy part, but bourbon needs to be aged between two to six years in barrel before release. While the bourbon matured, Watershed paid the rent by selling their acclaimed Four Peel Gin.
Ten years later, Watershed is growing steadily and has recently expanded its distribution to Michigan and Georgia, as well as to retail stores and restaurants in South Florida. In addition to multiple expressions of gin, they also produce vodka and apple brandy, and are one of the few U.S. distilleries to make nocino, the unique walnut liqueur of Northern Italy. Their regular bourbon is aged four years in barrel and bottled at 90 proof (45% alcohol). Last fall, to commemorate their 10th anniversary, they released a Barrel Strength Bourbon ($70)—six years in cask and 119.3 proof.
As mentioned, I opened the bottle as a skeptic, but was immediately drawn in by the aromatics: sweet and spicy, with overtones of vanilla, molasses, lime and black pepper. To make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I poured some Woodford Reserve and placed it side by side; the aromas rising from the two glasses were remarkably similar. The mouth feel was rich and voluptuous, with a considerable amount of spice and heat on the finish—understandable, at nearly 60% alcohol, but very well integrated into the texture of the spirit. The good news is that this is underpriced for the quality in the bottle; the bad news is that it will take some effort to find, but it will be worth it.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.