If so many different brands are getting their whiskey from the same distillery, how do they differentiate their products? The fact that Indiana-based mega-distillery MGP produces spirits for about 50 different private labels, large and small, can make things tricky from both ends. How do dedicated bourbon and rye consumers choose which one to drink? And how does a startup whiskey brand stand out in a crowded field of producers using the same distillery source? One that’s managed to create its own identity, and release some really good whiskey along the way, is Penelope Bourbon.
A family affair
Husband and wife, Mike and Kerry, teamed up with their neighbor, Danny, to make a straight bourbon whiskey to commemorate the birth of their daughter (you guessed it, Penelope). Since 2018, the brand has been releasing an excellent four-grain bourbon in addition to expressions like Barrel Strength, the Toasted Series, and Architect. Penelope uses French oak staves to finish the latter expression. There’s also a trio of barrel-finished whiskeys—the Cooper Series—consisting of interesting, relatively unusual secondary maturations (at least in the bourbon world) including French rosé wine casks; Hungarian Tokaji wine casks; and Spanish Vino de Naranja barrels, a wine that’s macerated with orange peels. This new bourbon, Valencia, is particularly good. Citrus notes complement the spice, caramel sweetness, and stone fruit notes on the palate.
We spoke to CEO and founder Michael Paladini to find out more about what makes Penelope tick.
“Penelope Bourbon has always been a blend of three different MGP bourbon mashbills,” he said. “At the time this was a bit unorthodox, but it became the baseline for every product we released up until we released American Light Whiskey in early 2022.” More about this one later, an unusual but growing presence in American whiskey based on a style from decades ago.
According to Paladini, the majority of the whiskey’s maturation takes place in two places. Either in New Jersey, where the company is from, or in Bardstown, Kentucky. This also includes the secondary maturation period. “The process of selecting our next cask finish is always fun and involves a number of folks on our team,” he said. “We are constantly testing different blends with different wine casks to see what potentially could work well together. We always strive to be unique or different, but ultimately it has to be top notch and have our entire team sign off to get released.”
The light whiskey released last year was probably the oddest expression to come from Penelope so far. The “light whiskey” designation means that it’s distilled to a very high proof, almost like vodka (between 160 and 190). This process removes congeners and, therefore, flavor. This category came about in the late ‘60s as vodka became more popular and whiskey began to fall out of favor, but was really absent from the scene for decades. This is until some brands, like Penelope, decided to revive it. “We came across these amazing barrels of 13-year-old American light whiskey that were distilled at LDI in 2008,” said Paladini. “There were not many barrels available, but they were too good to not release. We decided to release these barrels under a new brand called Founders Reserve to showcase rare, unique barrels we came across that we personally just love.”
A consumer approach
The key to Penelope’s success has been what Paladini calls taking a consumer approach to the whiskey business. That means making decisions based on preferences as a whiskey drinker rather than a producer. “Although we didn’t have any experience in the industry, we always enjoyed bourbon and knew what we liked (and didn’t like), so that’s what we went off of in the beginning,” he said. “We also wanted to focus on providing a great product at a great price. That has always been our motto and I think it’s been helpful for us as we navigate a crowded space.”
Look for some future Penelope Bourbon releases over the coming year. These include a 10-year-old wheat whiskey distilled at MGP, which will be the second release in the Founders Reserve lineup. A new member of the Cooper Series called Rio is also on the horizon. It’s a double cask finish in honey and amburana barrels.
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