Sometimes I read a Yelp review for a restaurant where the reviewer cuts the business to shreds because of crappy street parking, because they didn't offer a particular kind of sandwich, or because they didn't like the other customers. These people are the worst.
Sometimes I check to see what else these people have written if I consider them especially stupid or crazy. One lady rated a laundromat three out of five stars and said, "Well, it's a laundromat. What more do you expect?" And yet, she did expect something, and shaved two stars off of her review to convey some kind of vague disappointment. As such, she backhanded the business because it didn't bend over backwards to provide her with some kind of ascendant experience. Whatever that might have been.
This is a roundabout way to say that my philosophy has always been to review things on the basis of what they are rather than on the basis of what they are not. There is a distinction, and I think it's precisely why the buzz on Stranahan's is so divisive. Considering how good I think the whiskey is, I think it warrants some explanation. I'm not going to say everyone who hates on Stranahan's fits the mold of the lady above, but I think it explains a good chunk of them.
First, it is not a bourbon. Stranahan's isn't corn-heavy nor indulgantly sweet. The mouthfeel and flavor profile are totally different. If you want all American whiskey to taste like bourbon, Stranahan's will defy you. It's also not a single-malt scotch. It's made purely from Barley, sure, but it's made up of a blend of whiskeys between 2 and 5 years old. Here again, it tastes totally different from a typical scotch.
If you're entering into the world of American Single Malts and have more than just a passing familiarity with either scotch or bourbon, comparisons might seem inevitable because—hey—it's whiskey. But I don't think that's doing fair justice to Stranahan's and letting it succeed on its own terms.
What you do get is a massive arrival of toasty malt. Stranahan's does this perhaps better than any other whiskey I have on my shelf. There's a warm and nutty arrival that begins to get progressively bigger in the mouth until it sits somewhere between bread pudding and roasted chestnuts. Swallow (when you're ready) and Stranahan's finishes out with a little cinnamon and enough dessert cream to be supremely enjoyable. Oak grips hard the whole way through.
Be warned, however: Stranahan's can be real rough-and-tumble stuff. That oak I mentioned before is extremely assertive (to the point of introducing some sourness to the taste development here and there). The whiskey is also 47% ABV—and tastes like it. It comes out of the barn kicking. Scotch aficionados looking for something with a lot of rounded-off edges will likely be disappointed in this.
So who's this for, exactly? I'd say 100% rye fans are the closest target market, since they won't mind getting all the flavor they can get their hands on regardless of any potential downsides. Bourbon drinkers looking to branch out will be similarly well-rewarded, as will scotch drinkers intentionally looking to move away from the soft apple and light peat combination of their last 10-to-12 year bottle of Glenwhatever. That's not a bad profile, mind you, but one that's pretty damned common.
Stranahan's is one of a kind—for better or for worse. That's a selling point in my book, and it's what I'd reach for in order to pour someone a taste of what I think the category is all about.