Established in 2012 by business partners Aaron Chepenik and Jonathan Hensleigh, the Nevada H&C Distilling Company is located in the heart of The City of Second Chances – Las Vegas, NV. With an initial plan to source aged bourbon stocks from MGP as well as distill their own whiskey from scratch, a sudden and unforeseen change in the Nevada state laws leading to the creation of a Craft Distiller’s License meant the guys had a tough decision to make: either become Craft Distillers, start distilling from scratch, and not be able to bring in or bottle the 2000 barrels of prime MGP bourbon they had sourced in Indiana; or become registered Rectifiers, abandon their dreams of being Craft Distillers of bourbon, and put those aged stocks to proper use. They chose the latter and 4 years later in 2016 they launched their pioneer product, Smoke Wagon Small Batch bourbon. Named after the 1873 Colt Single-Action Army revolver, AKA ‘The gun that won the West`, the Smoke Wagon brand features 3 bourbon products and 1 vodka product all in distinct glass bottles with raised imagery of desert sage (the NV state flower). Whereas the vodka bottle is clear glass and features a replica Morgan silver Dollar inlaid into the bottle glass, the bourbon bottles vary from a screen printed bottle to the elaborate raised glass amber bottles of their Small Batch and Uncut & Unfiltered whiskies which feature the company’s logo stamped in wax inlaid into the bottle glass. The company’s logo features two of these Smoke Wagons over the state of Nevada with their motto derived from Seneca, “Bibamus Moriendum Est” (Drink, for we must die).
Today the company continues to contract-distill bourbon at MGP which is then aged in MGP’s warehouses and imported as needed. By varying the age, warehouse floors, and barrel positions, they blend to achieve the respective profiles for their bourbon whiskies. Currently, they’re operating out of a 4,000 sqft. facility that already doesn’t meet their developing demand and expect to easily exceed 1,000 barrels bottled in 2021. Their bourbon stocks consist of various aged stocks going back as far as those purchased back in 2012 to today, thus ranging in ages from 4 years old (the new contract-distilled stuff) to 12 years old (the original barrels). The company claims that becoming rectifiers instead of craft distillers worked out to their benefit as they later learned that the percentage of loss within the first year for barrels of whiskey distilled in NV can be as high as 48% v.s. the industry average of 10% per year due to the desert climate.
If you’re a bourbon enthusiast of any sort you would want to be living under a very big rock to not have heard of the Smoke Wagon brand. Championed by founder, blender, and full-time Instagram badass Aaron Chepenik, the brand has gone from strength to strength in the past year as knowledge of them and the quality of what they’re bottling spread like wildfire through the global bourbon community. With the hunt for sources of quality and well-matured MGP bourbon always afoot, it wasn’t long before Smoke Wagon fell into the crosshairs of the bourbon community. Combine this with eye-catching packaging and a social media controversy involving the proprietor of a San Diego-area liquor store, who had seemingly exploited a loophole in California’s liquor laws to pilfer an entire single barrel pick chosen by the online whiskey club Bourbon Enthusiast, and the brand has gone from being obscure to becoming a household name.
Today I’ll be looking at the standard Smoke Wagon bourbon range aswell as at a 10 y.o. store pick of their bourbon provided by my good whiskey friend Irishwhisky88. Tom muled a bottle back from a visit to Vegas in 2019 and was kind enough to share a double with me.
Smoke Wagon Straight Bourbon
Straight Bourbon – 92.5 Proof (46.25% ABV) – Non-Chill Filtered
Released in the Fall of 2019, Smoke Wagon Straight Bourbon is the brand’s entry-level bourbon. Created with the vision of an affordable everyday bourbon that maintained the unique and unmistakable Smoke Wagon profile, the barrels chosen for this bottling came from the top two floors of the warehouse and were never rotated. Due to the higher heat at the top two floors of the warehouse during the summer, this whiskey matured at a quicker pace than is standard according to the brand’s website.
Nose: The nose opens with light caramel, young rye grain, citrus, faintly toasted nuts, and a herbaceous charred oak note.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with faint caramel and faint red fruit, peppery rye spice moves from the back of the palate across the tongue. Once this fades notes of honey-roasted almonds, citrus oils, and vanilla are left.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering rye spice before notes of forest honey, faint toasted nuts, and grains emerge fading into an aftertaste of faintly herbaceous caramel.
True to the original vision that guided the creation of this whiskey, it falls smack bang into the enjoyable everyday bourbon category. The flavours are inoffensive, the spice isn’t overwhelming, and the whole affair is a viscous, creamy affair that’s unmistakably Smoke Wagon. If this is to serve as an introduction to those who are not yet at the level of Uncut & Unfiltered then it completes this task diligently. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that this is both a great introduction bourbon for those friends who are trying American whiskey for the first time as well as for those at the very beginning of their whiskey journey. What this whiskey does well is that it’s not an abrasive and grain-heavy introduction whiskey. Yes, it shows its youth in places but never in a way that detracts from its sip-ability. Instead it gives nuanced, if slightly muted, flavours that you could easily drink every day or use in a cocktail without any regrets.
Smoke Wagon Small Batch Bourbon
Straight Bourbon – 100 Proof (50% ABV) – Non-Chill Filtered
The flagship bottling for the brand, Smoke Wagon Small Batch was released in 2016. Created with the vision of a great-tasting high-rye bourbon, older and younger stocks are married together to create the target profile which brings the best of both old and young high-rye bourbon together, according to the brand’s website.
Nose: The nose opens sweet with cherries, red fruit, and subtle caramel, followed by earthy baking spices, faint charred oak, and citrus peel oils the longer you nose.
Palate: The palate opens sweet and viscous with caramel and faint corn notes before earthy black pepper spice, a touch of dark stonefruit, citrus peel, and baking spices emerge. As the heat from the rye fades more tannic and dry cacao oak develops on the palate as you continue to chew.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering rye spice from the palate before earthy baking spices, caramel, and dark chocolate lead into a long, warm aftertaste of tannic oak and spice.
Now we’re talking business! Only the next step up in the portfolio and already the quality has taken a massive step forwards. Small batch is where anyone who takes their bourbon seriously will begin to find their feet in comfrotable waters. It’s thick, oily, packed with sugar, spice, and everything nice, whilst providing a balanced experience between young grain-forward bourbon and older barrel-forwards stocks. At 100 proof (50% ABV) it hits the mark perfectly with the added proof carrying the oils and the flavours with ease as they wash over the palate. If you’re going to make anything your flagship whiskey it’d better be good and this ticks all the boxes for me. Personally, this would be my daily sipper because 100 proof is where I prefer my whiskey to sit if I’m having it frequently and don’t want my face melted off.
Smoke Wagon Uncut & Unfiltered Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Straight Bourbon – 112.64 Proof (56.32% ABV) – Non-Chill Filtered
Based the same vintage blending process they use to blend Small Batch, the goal with Uncut & Unfiltered was to create high proof bourbon that tasted its best neat. True to its name there’s no water added or flavour removed with the whiskey passing through a mesh filter before being bottled at the batch proof indicated on the label.
Nose: The nose opens with big floral red fruit and cinnamon alogside faint caramel, vanilla, earthy baking spices, rye grain, cacao-heavy charred oak and a touch of ethanol.
Palate: The palate opens thick with maple syrup, warming rye spice, deep floral red fruit, earthy baking spices, and faint notes of citrus peel. The longer you chew the more barrel notes emerge with cacao and dark chocolate as the spice moves down your tongue.
Finish: The finish opens with sharp citrus peel spice and lingering rye spice before barrel spices, maple syrup, dried red fruit, and charred oak fade into an aftertaste of tannic charred oak, sour dried red fruit, and floral vanilla.
My goodness this is good whiskey! It carries all the heft you would expect from barrel proof MGP bourbon and then tops it off with great layered flavours, an amazingly syruppy mouthfeel, and a subdued rye or tannin burn as it rolls across the tongue. At 112.64 proof (56.32% ABV) this still has some bite but the influence of the viscous mouthfeel means the heat and spice don’t overwhelm or distract from the overall drinking experience. When I first tasted this it instantly reminded me of Four Roses bourbon at barrel proof with lots of floral and dried red fruit notes mixed in with deep maple syrup, rye spice, and barrel char notes. Sipping this it’s no surprise that Smoke Wagon have achieved the level of noteriety they have in the past year. If it’s great tasting barrel proof MGP bourbon that you’re looking for then you need not look any further, that is unless you can get your hands on a barrel pick!
Smoke Wagon Private Barrel
Single Barrel Straight 10 y.o. Bourbon (Barrel #5406 from Warehouse W64) – 112.8 Proof (56.4% ABV) – Non-Chill Filtered
Now that was a smooth segue! The final whiskey in this review is of a Smoke Wagon Private Barrel pick by Total Wine in Las Vegas, NV. The NV H&C D team claim that some barrels have such a unique taste they deserve to be presented on their own – and it would seem that the bourbon community agrees. These barrels are set aside for the Smoke Wagon private barrel program where customers buy an entire barrel of bourbon that’s as old as 12 y.o.+. Every bottle is marked with the barrel’s warehouse number, how long it has been aged for, and names the retailer or bourbon club that selected the barrel for its flavor profile.
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel and tart red fruit alongside earhy baking spices, faintly herbaceous rye, cloves, charred oak, and ethanol.
Palate: The palate opens thick with red and black stone fruit stewed in brown sugar followed by baking spices, a kick of herbaceous rye spice, dark chocolate, and bitter charred oak. The longer you chew the more barrel-forward it becomes with barrel spices and dark chocolate oak notes coming forth.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering spice, tart red fruit, dark chocolate, and herbaceous rye fading into a long warm aftertaste of tart red fruit, tannic oak, and herbaceous rye.
Now this is the pick of the bunch! Not only do we have a 10 y.o. age-stated single barrel but it’s also brimming with deep caramel notes that I wasn’t getting as much of in the Uncut & Unfiltered, aswell as added red fruit notes and less rye spice. It also has a more defined nosing and drinking experience and pulls out all the stops to deliver a bourbon that has taken all the positve aspects of the Uncut & Unfiltered and has put them in one bottle. The fact that it’s not blended with younger stocks has definintely given it more of a mature profile with less young corn driven notes, and it’s easily one of the better MGP picks I’ve tasted to date. Once again this pick reminds me of a Four Roses Single Barrel pick, only now it’s a better version of what we’re getting in Uncut & Unfiltered.
In conclusion, I’m very impressed by the Nevada H&C Distilling Co. and the versatile range of whiskies they produce under the Snoke Wagon brand. No only do their whiskies taste great but their people seem down to earth and passionate about what they do, with the whiskey repeating this back in volumes. From their most basic straight bourbon, through to their flagship Small Batch, and limited release Uncut & Unfiltered, aswell as their barrel picks, you’re getting really solid, well-matured, MGP bourbon that’s non-chill filtered and expertly blended. Yes, they continue to source whiskey for this brand from MGP, however, their hands were forced by State law, and I’m glad they are doing so because not only are they sourcing amazing whiskey but they’re also as open and honest as they can be about this – and it’s great to see. My personal preference for their whiskies goes Uncut & Unfiltered, Small Batch, and finally Straight Bourbon with each being a distinct improvement on the one it follows. Sure, this review also included a store pick (and it was the best of the four), however, that’s not much help outside of giving some perspective as to how great these can be due to their very limited yields.
Try or Buy?
These bottles are currently only available in limited markets, however, as distribution expands, they tend to do so at a reasonable prices wherever they land. As such, I would highly recommend that you choose the one that lands in your preferred proof range and then also pick up an Uncut & Unfiltered (if you can) because it’s delicious. If there is a store pick available I’d highly recommend you jump on it asap because chances are it’s going to be solid, sell quick, and be worth every penny.