When Brown-Forman released their first new brand extension in the past 20 years by debuting Coopers’ Craft back in 2016, we weren’t exactly taken with it. Positioned as a value brand bourbon, filtered through beech and charcoal, it was seemingly meant to be an “easy-drinking” option, but some element of character seemed to have been lost along the way. Certainly, it was hard not to conclude that better bourbon from the same company existed on the shelf, at arguably even better prices. Look no further than Brown-Forman’s own Old Forester, a brand I consistently love, all the way from its 86 proof original, right on through the Whiskey Row Series and the annual Birthday Bourbon release. Tasting those, it’s clear that Brown-Forman knows what it’s doing. So what to make of Coopers’ Craft?
Now in its third year, the lineup has debuted its second product, Coopers’ Craft Barrel Reserve, a 100 proof (but not bottled-in-bond) bourbon. Rather than charcoal filtering, the gimmick here this time is in the brand’s own handmade barrels, which involve “a unique chiseled and charred American white oak barrel that allows the whiskey to interact more deeply with the wood, creating a robust and more complex flavor profile.” Presumably, that extra surface area helps to make up for a quicker aging process.
Given that we didn’t love the original Coopers’ Craft expression, this seemed like the time to reevaluate the line. Unfortunately, I ended up coming to much the same conclusion the second time around: Coopers’ Craft Barrel Reserve may be trying to do something interesting, but its execution seems to be lacking. One gets the sense that this is not the bourbon they’d like it to be.
On the nose, Coopers’ Craft Barrel Reserve has an assertive note of sawdust, which I presume is what the distillery is saying themselves when they call it “fresh hewn oak.” If you’re thinking to yourself that you’ve rarely heard a distillery describe their product that way, you’d be right—but it’s accurate. The wood is present in spades here, but it seems very green and young, a spiritual opposite to the decadently deep char found in Brown-Forman’s Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whisky. There’s also something distinctly peanut-like on the nose, to the point that my addled mind wrote down “peanut butter?” with several question marks. Big spice notes of pepper and cinnamon round things out, but the young wood dominates the nose.
On the palate, I’m reminded of the fact that the original, 82.2 proof Coopers’ Craft seemed oddly hot for its low ABV, and this 100 proof version just dials that up further. An initial rush of slightly harsh ethanol gives way to waves of pepper/cinnamon spice and sticky toffee sweetness that is fairly pleasant, before a more subtle finish of grain and pepper that is largely covered up under more green, wet oakiness and aggressive booze. In general, it seems like the volumes of these flavors are simply a bit out of whack—the ethanol is too expressive, and the wood notes don’t quite fit with the rest of its decent flavor profile.
All in all, this isn’t objectively bad bourbon, but it is a product that doesn’t seem to have a place in the market to call home. At a roughly $30 MSRP, it’s not as if this is breaking the bank, but it exists in the exact same segment of the shelf as the 100 proof Old Forester Signature, which is superior bourbon in every way and from the same company to boot. With a choice between the two, OFS is the obvious pick in just about any scenario.
Of course, that’s all a matter of taste. But between the likes of Old Forester Signature and Cooper’s Craft Barrel Reserve, we know what we’d choose.
City: Louisville, KY
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $30 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.