Bottom line at the top: Lovell Bros represents the paradox a great deal of the new craft whiskeys represent. It's technically excellent. The flavors are exact and the distillation executed with precision. Judging on technique, this is a surpassingly good whiskey. The problem with the craft whiskey movement (defined as small distilleries making small amounts) is that they have neither the time nor the inventory to do the aging. They have a hard time waiting years; nor can they blend for specific tastes choosing among thousands of barrels. Instead, they get months instead of years and a handful of barrels. This can be—and in this case is—not crippling but certainly worrisome. The grain-forward flavors, if that's what you're looking for, are there in splendor and can probably work in specific settings. In comparisons with aged, big-market whiskey in classic settings, it comes up just short each time. This is a whiskey we can recommend emphatically for craft beer drinkers, who will revel in the grain and probably love it on ice or perhaps even with soda water (and thereby avoiding the carbs!). It will likely disappoint bourbon drinkers familiar with the deep, rich, oak-driven flavors.
The Lovell Bros product comes in at roughly $35, which puts in the realm of whiskey like Knob Creek, Crown Royal Reserve, and Four Roses among other well-known luminaries. It's in this group that it needs to compete, either by differentiating itself in flavor or outright defeating them in some form or other. So it is these whiskeys we had in mind in tasting and comparing. When at the store, staring at the shelf with the Lovell Bros daring you to try the unknown over the known, is it worth the risk?
Lovell Bros Neat
The aroma announces immediately: with strategic options of differentiation or just "being better than," the nose is going for differentiation. The nose is all grain with a dominant note of corn. There are no familiar wood flavors of vanilla, caramel, etc (or too subtle for our nose). It's pleasant like popcorn on a cold night wrapped in a blanket before a well-known and adored movie. The taste is similarly grain without the deep, oak wood flavors. In our opinion, the execution is beyond reproach. At 86 proof, the spirit is balanced perfectly, almost no needle or burning on the tongue, and a soothing, warming finish all the way down. The flavor would be more familiar to a beer drinker than a whiskey drinker (despite being corn instead of hops and barley). The spirit is true to the ingredient... really a celebration of grain. It's a heritage spirit in the sense that where centuries past people distilled eau-de-vie from fruit with the aromas and notes of the plum or grape, this is a grain spirit telling of wind-swept grain fields.
For all that, is it better than popular bourbons on the market? Only if you're specifically looking for something different. The smell of modern (and by that we mean in the last 100 to 150 years) bourbon stands in sharp contrast. The taste is full of wood flavor. The finish is long and full of char. If you dislike char and like grain (or beer), then you'll find the Lovell Bros particularly appealing. But as a competitor in the whiskey market, it's very young, very naive, and lacking in the full-bodied finish of finely aged whiskey. To us, this almost feels more like a vodka than a whiskey and is certainly in the realm of exotica and outside the mainstream. One buys it as an addition or an adventure rather than a staple.
Lovell Bros in a Manhattan Cocktail
Grain might show well in a variety of cocktails and we went first to the classic Manhattan... ours was about 3 parts to 1 whiskey to vermouth with a dash of bitters to dry up that vermouth sweetness that we find distracting. With the Lovell Bros, it's good! The grain is present and blends nicely with the whiskey. They're complementary like guitar working with a bass. Ordering this in a bar, we wouldn't be remotely upset. Yet we tried a Manhattan with Knob Creek bourbon. Aside from being instantly familiar, instead of being complementary pieces we're now experiencing perfectly melded pieces. We're experiencing a musical chord. It's better. It's not that the Lovell Bros is bad—not at all!—but the Knob Creek is simply better.
Lovell Bros in a Ginger Ale Highball
This drink has a ton of variations. We use about 4 or 5 parts ginger ale (garden variety Canada Dry) to 1 part whiskey. It's best with a twist of lemon peel but lacking a fresh lemon we used lemon bitters. One could easily draw comparisons to Dark and Stormy or Moscow Mule cocktails with the whiskey as a replacement for the rum or vodka respectively. It's good! The grain and lemon go nicely together and the ginger ale is a nice contrast. This is truly a beer-drinker's cocktail and it tastes a bit like a beer with lemon in it. We compared it to the same drink made with Four Roses bourbon, another well-aged and well-regarded product. Again, the drink is just better with the Four Roses. The oak-driven flavors blend so effortlessly with the ginger ale and the finish gives such a nice impact to the drink, one is instantly transported to the Vegas swimming pool in the cool shade at the high heat of afternoon. We say it again: it's not that the Lovell Bros is bad it's simply that the Four Roses version is better.
Lovell Bros in a 19th at Augusta
This is a drink recommended by Lovell Bros and we like the idea because it calls for a mix with beer. It asks for 2oz of whiskey, 2.5oz of sweet tea, a half-ounce of lemon juice, and topped with pale ale. Since we've been claiming the whiskey is reminiscent of beer and grain all night long, this seems a particularly appropriate cocktail designed to showcase the Lovell Bros to its best effect. We used a real lemon and Pure Leaf Sweet Tea. We compared it to the WL Weller 12yr as a relatively inexpensive but highly-regarded and hard-to-get bourbon. For the pale ale, we went mainstream with Sierra Nevada (the recipe says "topped" so we used 3oz of ale).
The drink smells like beer and lemon (no surprise there!). It tastes... funky. No other way to describe it. It's a kind of beer... thing... beer turned hideous. One of our number claimed it's like you're already drinking what it will taste like in the morning after it's gone flat in the glass from last night but you drink it anyway because you have a bad hangover. Between the Lovell Bros and the Weller, it tastes slightly better with the Weller but nothing like good. Maybe we screwed up with the recipe. Maybe we're such whiskey snobs here at Proof66 that we won't ever like beer cocktails.
Lovell Bros in an Apple Sour Cocktail
Giving Lovells Bros cocktail recommendations one last try, we turned to their Apple Sour, which calls for 1.5oz of whiskey, 1.25oz of apple juice, 0.75oz of triple sec, and 0.25oz of lemon juice with a couple dashes of orange bitters; shake on ice and pour on the rocks. We compared to the WL Weller once again, used our organic lemon, North Coast Organic Gravenstein Apple Juice (never from concentrate!), and even sprang for Grand Marnier instead of triple sec. We even used designer orange bitters with Regans'. This drink was given every chance at being successful.
In the Lovell Bros, it smells of grain and apple, rather like a hard cider. There's a trace of citrus but for some reason (because of the apple?) it presents as more lemon than orange for all the orange liqueur and orange bitters. It tastes like a sweetened, apple-flavored beer. Again, not good. (Lovell Bros needs help with their cocktail recipes... it works better in the classics). In the Weller, it was a lot better... it tasted far less like a beer (absent the grain) and more like a bourbon cocktail. It's still not a great cocktail—we'd not order it again in a bar— but we'd finish it.
Drink Lovell Bros for the adventure; drink it for the departure; try it in long drinks on hot days or in other cases where you crave beer but want whiskey. But don't expect it to replace your favorite aged bourbon.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received a 750ml bottle of Lovell Bros free of charge for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]