Whisky Advocate

New bourbon: McKenzie, Batch #1

April 28th, 2010

The craft distillers continue cranking out new whiskeys. The newest from Finger Lakes Distilling, a bourbon, releases this Saturday. Details below.

In so many ways, it’s a good time to be a whiskey drinker.


Finger Lakes Distilling’s Locally-made Whiskey Makes Its Debut Just in Time for the Kentucky Derby

It’s a common misconception that Bourbon can only come from Kentucky.  While the state puts out most of the Bourbon on the market, there are several distilleries in other parts of the U.S. making America’s Spirit.  Starting May 1, a local distillery will begin selling a New York Bourbon that hopes to rival the best from Kentucky.

Finger Lakes Distilling, the first standalone distillery in the region, began production in late 2008 and selling unaged spirits such as vodka, gin, and liqueurs in June 2009.  The distillery’s 300 gallon still has also been churning out lots of whiskey including an unaged Corn Whiskey, Rye (released November 2009), and now, Bourbon.

As a NYS Farm Distillery, Finger Lakes Distilling makes use of NY fruit and grains in all of its products.  The same holds true for McKenzie Bourbon. The corn, which makes up about 70% of the Bourbon mash bill is an organic, open-pollinated variety grown near Penn Yan, NY that contributes to the rich taste of the whiskey. 

McKenzie Bourbon is a true handcrafted product, as Finger Lakes Distilling retains control of all aspects of the whiskey-making process.  Raw grain (corn, rye and barley malt) is transported to the facility where it is milled and cooked in one of two small mash kettles.  Fermentation takes place in open top stainless tanks.  The whiskey mash is double pot-distilled in small batches before it goes through a unique aging process, including the use of new charred American oak barrels and local Chardonnay barrels for finishing.  The end result is a robust and old-fashioned tasting Bourbon. 

The founders of the distillery argue over who the whiskey is named after.  Brian McKenzie, President, started the company in the area in which he was born and raised.  Another McKenzie, Thomas Earl, joined right from the beginning as Master Distiller, though no relation to Brian.  “Everyone assumes we are brothers, and even though there are some similarities, we come from very different backgrounds.  Just hearing Thomas Earl’s southern Alabama drawl will make you think he might know a thing or two about whiskey-making,” says Brian.  “Thomas learned the trade from his family – he claims it was bred into him.”  He has also worked in breweries, wineries and consulted for other small distilleries.  Brian, a former banker, focuses on the financial, marketing, and legal aspects of the business.

Initially, McKenzie Bourbon will only be sold at the distillery’s tasting room overlooking Seneca Lake, just 5.5 miles north of Watkins Glen, NY.  The bourbon will be priced at $45 and each 750 ml bottle will be marked with a batch number. 

The distillery will host a Bourbon Release party on May 1, Kentucky Derby Day.  Visitors wearing Derby hats will receive complimentary tastings and there will be live music from 2-5 p.m.  Finger Lakes Distilling customers will also be able to attend a private reception following regular business hours to celebrate the release and watch the Kentucky Derby.

Visitors can also sample and purchase the full range of Finger Lakes Distilling’s products including Vintner’s Vodka, Vintner’s Wildberry Vodka, Seneca Drums Gin, Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey, and a wide range of liqueurs and grappa. 

Finger Lakes Distilling products are also available at over 130 retail locations throughout NYS.  “We’ve been focused primarily in our region, but have also had some success moving product into the metro-NY area,” says Brian.  “We’re passionate about all our spirits, but as a couple of whiskey guys, we couldn’t be happier to have some bourbon ready for the bottle.”

More information about the distillery can be found at

32 Responses to “New bourbon: McKenzie, Batch #1”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    Oh shoot– time to dig out the Derby hat! Hope I get a chance to taste this. Can a Chardonnay finished bourbon really taste old fashioned?

  2. MrTH says:

    Can a Chardonnay-finished whiskey be called bourbon?

    • Red_Arremer says:

      I think so– as long as it’s spent three years (actually two, right?– Cause I always forget) in oak. This has come up on this blog a couple of times.

      • Rick Duff says:

        2 years in New Charred Oak is the rule.
        Didn’t care for Woodford’s Sonoma Cutrer’s Chadonnay Finish Bourbon..
        but that may have more to do with a lack of maturity in the bourbon.

      • Matt B. says:

        The 2 year requirement is only needed to call it “straight” – it’s still bourbon as long as it meets the other specs: >51% corn, distiled at <80% abv, barreled at <62.5% abv, aged in new charred oak, nothing added except water to bring it to bottle proof.

        Their blog says it's aged 18 months, but in 10-gallon barrels. Pricing will be $45 for a 750ml bottle which seems very reasonable for a craft product.

        Google Maps says it's 196 miles away from me, but I'm still considering the nearly 4-hour drive.

      • sam k says:

        Also, any age less than four years has to be stated on the label. After that, it’s all open territory.

    • Jonathan Johnson says:

      Woodford Reserve did a chardonnay finished bourbon a few years ago that was excellent.

  3. Daron says:

    Great post, looking forward to to trying it and love Finger Lakes Upstate NY support!
    Also can’t wait for the next issue of the mag.

  4. sam k says:

    The McKenzies are making all the right moves as they progress with their product line. Their grain is grown locally, adding genuine terroir to the spirit, and they hold true to tradition while looking ahead for interesting variations on technique that can add to the end result.

    I have not tasted any of their products, but everything I have read makes this operation seem like a top-teir player in the craft distilling world. I may just have to schedule a trip north sometime soon.

    John, have you reviewed any of their whiskeys? I couldn’t find any in a search of your site. I’d be curious what you think. I have had good reports from others, though!

    • John Hansell says:

      They’re sending me a review sample of the bourbon. I also have the rye, but have not reviewed it yet. I am often hesitant to formally review the first release whiskeys from microdistillers, for the same reason I don’t like critically reviewing brewpubs when they first open. I’d like to give them a chance to “hit their stride” first. I might post up some informal thoughts, though.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        A negative review can cripple a fledgling brand for sure. Knowing this many critics who want to be supportive of new distilleries giving their early releases unearned praise. I think that holding off on reviews is the wise course. There are other ways to promote interest in a distillery than by saying it has the best stuff on the market.

        Incidentally, are you thinking these days that you hit Stranahan’s with a review to early in the game?

      • sam k says:

        Good points, well considered.

  5. sam k says:

    Just now noticed the open-pollen corn concept. What a throwback! Can’t argue with the price, either, especially compared to many other craft (and even mass-produced) brands.

  6. Seth Nadel says:

    This looks pretty interesting, actually. For some reason it reminds me of the Tuthilltown Baby bourbon. I like what these companies are doing in the industry.

  7. I’ve had the good fortune of sampling the McKenzie Bourbon and I’m thrilled for its release. The fact that they distill to a lower proof and barrel age at a lower proof makes for a more aromatic and complex spirit. The quality of the corn they’re using is also hard to beat.

  8. Chistian C. says:

    I can’t say enough about how thrilled I am with what the McKenzies are doing. I went to grammar school with Brian in Elmira NY, and he’s a stand-up guy. I have a bottle of his rye sitting in my kitchen right now, and hope to get some bourbon soon. It’s too bad that I’m in California, and can’t make it to NY for Derby Day. Hopefully they can get some distributor support in CA so I can sell his products at my liquor store.

  9. […] he announced the impending release of McKenzie […]

  10. Maxim Pensky says:

    Sorry to have to rain on the parade. Tried the newly released bourbon yesterday at the Derby release event, and was told that it was aged 18 months in sherry casks.

    The result is…pretty bad. Harsh, no body or character, none of the balance and complexity, the “bourbon-ness” that you look for in any of the respected distillers, big or small. I’m sure I know a whole lot less about spirits in general and bourbon in particular than a lot of readers of this blog, but I’ve drunk my share of a few dozen larger commercial and small batch bourbons, and have read up on the product a bit. So relatively but not absolutely ignorant. Still, this stuff was basically firewater. Am I missing something?

    • sam k says:

      Maxim, I think you may indeed be missing something. I think if anyone tastes a craft distilled product from a recognized category and expects that spirit to taste just like the mass produced versions, whether “small batch” (a vague term in itself) or mass-distilled, they are already missing the point of craft distillation. Neither would I endorse a product that falls so far out of the definition of the category as to be unrecognizable.

      I was fortunate to receive a sample today of McKenzie Bourbon, and based on your assessment, was prepared to not be pleased with the finished product. As it turns out, that couldn’t be farther from what I experienced, and I tend to be much more in line with Andre’s assessment (below) than yours.

      Is this a deep, well-rounded bourbon in the traditional sense? No, but neither does that detract from the pleasantness of this whiskey. I find it to be light and sweet in body from the youth of the spirit and the sherry influence, with just enough wood to make a smoky bit of difference. Where we really part ways here, though, is on your assessment of harshness. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the smoothness of this spirit, especially at 91 proof.

      That said, I’m not being critical of your review. I have always maintained that taste is subjective, and that if we all liked the same characteristics in our whiskey, we’d all be drinking the same stuff (God forbid), but I see a lot of promise in what the folks at Finger Lakes are doing, and I look forward to their next effort. I’m convinced that they’re on the right track, and that it will only get better!

  11. Andre Girard says:

    We got a half bottle sampler from the distillery, prior to the launch. It was blind tasted by the 3 club founders and we were all axcited about the product. Doesn’t taste like a bourbon for sure. Very unusual and particular. We’re reted aroud 89% each. We muct got a bottle to try this, believe me, thaT,s quite different !

  12. Andre Girard says:

    Sam was right,

    The main point is most people expect bourbon to taste like “mass production” bourbon. That’s not the case here. Don’t smell, don’t taste like a bourbon… So f***ing what ?! Chardonnay with bourbon?! So fu**ing what again?! Don’t really care about the regulations, if it brings a new kind of product on the market, something quite different from what we usually expect from a “regular” bourbon…where’s the problem ?!

    The same case apply for single malts scotches, with all their regulations and the power from the SWA on scottish distilleries… The drop curtains over innovation.

    When McEwan and Bruichladdich released the Celtic Nations (vatted from irish whisky and single malt) they asked to stop the production! Same thing with Compass Box Spice Tree (?)…

    Let the market to the job itself… If peoples don’t like the product, they will tell and-or they won’t buy the product… Seems to be a crime to think out of the box in whisky industry…

    (as french is my first language hope my ideas are clear and well explained)

    • Red_Arremer says:

      My feelings about regulatory activity in the whisky industry are mixed, Andre.

      As much as I’ve often despise the S.W.A. and as much as I’ve always loved Compass Box– As much as I categorically disagree with the S.W.A.’s decision on The Spice Tree– I am also greatful that there is a degree of stuffiness, a sense of opressive traditionalism, about scotch.

      I am greatful for the level of conservativism surrounding scotch because it supports a level of historical consciousness, which gives positve substance to the intuitive sense that as valuable as the sctoch drinkers current preferences are so is the body of scotch experiences, which await him– the feeling that as much as scotch is a simple source of pleasure so also it’s something which that one grows to love for what it is aside from the ability of this or that expression to gratify instantly– the certainty that scotch influences you as much with its nature as you influence it with your wallet.

      Of course, in terms of conserving and respecting tradition, regulatory agencies rarely deliver the goods unadulterated. As Diageo gets a free pass to seel it’s casks in cellophane to keep out the angels, Bruichladdich is told to cease production of Celtic Nations. Rather than protecting the fundamentals from dilution by the whims of marketers, the S.W.A protects the slow moving overgrown multi-nationals from the smaller, hungrier, and quicker up-and-comers like Bruichladdich.

    • sam k says:

      Andre, your English (and your attitude toward whiskey) is fine…way better than my f***ing French!

      • Andre Girard says:

        Thanx for the comment Sam.
        Hard to translate all my ideas in english but it’a a good practice believe me.

        Now about all the regulations and the SWA mega power on scottish distillers. I understand the “importance” of regulations on whisky industry, but still think it’s too restrictive for a lot of distilleries, new and small – micro distilleries in particular.

        My main point is; if people don’t like the product, they won’t buy it. At this point, regulations are useless. No matter if the label says “single malt scotch whisky” or “bourbon whisky”, a bad single malt-bourbon-whisky will still be a bad whisky, no matter the regulations.

        If you now look the results on the market, we can now taste and buy very nice products from all over the planet (Mackmyra Preludium, Amrut Fusion, Eddu Silver etc etc for exemple) who are now kicking scottish distiller’s asses as they are able to issue innovative products at a reasonable price. With the exponent rising prices on single malts, customers now have the choice to buy wherever they want for a lower price.

        Can you explain to me (as a buyer) why i need to pay around 400 bucks for a manager’s choice single malt, a 10-12 years old single malt ? U fu**ing kiddin’ man ?! I can affort a couple very nice bottles of bourbon and a Amrut Peated cask strength for the same price.

        The only way for single malts distilleries to release new products seems the cask finish issue. Arran issued more than 25 cask finish the last 4-5 years… Visit the Bruchladdich website and have a look on their new releases…. Man, i should sell my home to be able to buy only the new Bruichalddich range… It’s all in cask finishes for now… mainly… Is it the only way the distilleries vs the SWA can deal in order to bring new produts to market ??? Maybe a reason so many scottish distilleries were (will be closed)… they maintly taste the same…no innovation, no new ideas allowed… and don’t really need to talk about the prices again…

        Innovation is the hardcore of the market, bring me new products, open the barrier of regulation, be inventive and let the market and customer deceide what they want and what they like to buy.

        • Red_Arremer says:

          The hardcore of any market is sales, Andre, not innovation.

          Innovation is associated with notions of iconoclasm and progress, both of which can drive sales. There is also a notion that big companies have their money tied up in the status quo and stand to take a loss if things change, whereas little companies can make a gain in that case. Another idea is that things staying the same for a long time is bad. Put it all together and you get the view that change is good, and little companies are going to bring it, so it is economically and politically correct to support little companies.

          Unfortunately, that means that people like me are going to get labeled as economically and politically incorrect by people like you– Because people like me will pay more for good scotch then they will for innovation and they thereby falsify you belief that the “hardcore of the market is innovation.”

          I agree with you that regulations are not always helpful and that Diageo’s overpriced manager’s collection, and other products like that, are worse than insulting– they’re bad for whisky. But I do not agree with your blanket statements about sameness of all scotch any more than i agree with my mother that all the music I like sounds the same.

          • Andre Girard says:

            Good point. At the end it’s all about business…right.

            But without innovation the single malt market will – one day – hit the wall… Like a lot of campanies who were in business for years and years and now they disapear… why ? They were unable to follow the the changes and adapt themselves to the waves and fluctuations of new type of buyers-customers.

            Dont want to label u Red.

            I have around 200 bottles in my whisky room, a few bottles worthing 500-600$, most of them around 100$. As i said, a lot of scottish single malts are overpriced… where is the ratio price-quality when i pay 100$ for a Lagavulin 16 YO vs 140$ for a Clynelish Coastal 14 YO (in Quebec)…

            I can have a AMRUT peated cask stength for about 90$ (and that was one of my favorite whisky last year, and i’ve tasted a few believe me… have a look on our website !) So, why i should pay 60$ more for a single malt of equal or lower quality ? Just because it came from Scotland ??? Come on?!

            U make me practice my english a lot today !

          • Red_Arremer says:

            I was just making a point about “the hardcore of the market” not everything, Andre– “Sales” aren’t the bottom line for me. I’m more concerned with richness of experience which comes from individual experiences being situated in rich contexts of which scotch appreciation is certainly one.

            There is no reason whatever you should pay for overpriced single malts. I consider the single malts I buy to be fairly priced. For instance, I love Octomore, but I haven’t touched it because of the crazy bill on it. There are better values in bourbon, and way better values in rum. There are also occasional values amongst the craft distillers, but usually in that case I’m looking for uniqueness more than value.

            Anyways, where I live (Boston, Massachusetts) Clynelish is less than Amrut Fusion– And I’m still looking forward to tasting and possibly buying Fusion. Out of interest, what different types of whisky do your 200 bottles consist of? Are they all craft distillers or mostly bourbon, scotch… Japanese?

          • Andre Girard says:

            First thing… you MUST try Octomore… that’s a tremendous single malt. If you are looking for experience… i’ll find it… We should try the OCTOMORE Orpheus shortly and Jim McEwan told me this one is one of his favorite whisky… but 200$ a bottle… ouch…

            You know what? we both looking for the same thing: experience the malt bring to us when tasting… Fully agree with you. But for companies… business is their final point. Better exemple: most of them lower their % of alcool (Jura, Highland Park, Bowmore). They say’s that’s for flavor etc etc… but we all know that’s for business…

            About my collection: about 20 bourbons, 8-10 japanease, a few different thing from various country, Australia, Belgium, France, Canada, Asia… but about 85% of my collection is scotch whisky.

            We’ve founded a whisky club so we’re able to buy a lot of bottle we cannot affort alone. That’s the reason we can taste and rate so many bottles…eee… so expensive bottles.

            So you’re in Boston, so you know about Federal Win’es and spirit… A lot of good stuff there…

          • Red_Arremer says:

            Sure, I know Federal Wine and Spirits– In fact, I attended a terrific tasting there, hosted by Evan Cattanach, this past Thursday night. Definetly the place to go if you prefer want to taste before you buy– all those open bottles… 🙂

            We probably do look for the same thing. My point is just that the whether a fresh-to-the-market whisky is progress or novelty, innovation or mere variety depends on how it is situated within a historical context. There should be a knowledge of what has made whisky great and an attempt to add to that greatness, not merely to provide more choices or exchange one paradigm of whisky production and appreciation for another. Legal constraints on the usage certain terms, such as, for instance “scotch,” can be integral to the continuation of progress, quality and innovation.

            In an age of massive global markets, it is often the case traditional goods are outsold by mass-produced imitations– Imitations, which are utterly satisfactory to folks who have little or no experience with the the real McCoy. From the stand point of economics the consumers who are intimately familiar scotch are vastly outnumbered by potential consumers who have only vague impression of scotch. In a highly simplified scenario, it is reasonable that the scotch preferred by more of those who know little about scotch is should seem a better product than that preferred by more of those who know more about scotch. Which means that scotch producers might want to redesign scotch to appeal to nonscotch drinkers.

            It is the uninformed mass market, then, which may be the enemy of traditional scotch whisky values– Not traditional scotch whisky values, which are the enemy of whisky innovation in general. After all, one can always make something which doesn’t conform to the label laws as long as one is ok with it not being called scotch.

            I for one will accept a degree of opression from whisky tradition as long as whisky tradition ensures that whisky producers answer to considerations, which are not purely economic.

            Btw, I have tried Octomore several times and I really love it. But I won’t buy a 9yo from Oban (Diageo) for 600$ and I won’t buy a 5 yo from Bruichladdich for 200$, even if they are cask strength.

  13. whiskeygal says:

    I, too, have had a chance to taste the bourbon from Finger Lakes Distilling tasting room this past week, and I have to say that I’m *glad* it doesn’t taste like whiskey from “any of the respected distillers, big or small.”

    Also, please be aware that this whiskey was aged in new charred-oak quarter casks and finished in sherry barrels for a total of 18 months, not aged for 18 months in sherry barrels.

    To each their own as far as taste goes – it is a subjective thing, but I have to agree with Andre and Sam
    – it’s meant to be different than the rest! The smooth and distinctive flavor is what I appreciate in this newly-styled bourbon offering!

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