Like many whiskey lovers, I’m always looking for something new and interesting on the shelf. I always am looking for an unusual bottle shape or a label I don’t recognize so that I can find something new and different.
Last fall, I was in in one of my local stores in the early holiday shopping season, and was scanning past a lot of noise – “festive” crap mostly targeted at wine drinkers but cross-marketed to festoon your whisky bottle with some sort of dopey flair. Who doesn’t need a mistletoe charm to slip around the neck of their bottle of Jack Daniel’s, anyway?
As I was scanning, something caught my eye – a plastic pouch. I moved in to look, and was revolted and enchanted at the same time. I had in my hand a “Porta Shots” pack of Kings Crown Whiskey, with the absolute most generic artwork ever. For a moment, I’ll retract my criticism of silly bottles like Thor that are a little too art-directed. Let’s just agree categorically that your packaging artwork should not be done in CorelDraw.
What the hell is King’s Crown? I figured, since this was precariously occupying the tense border between bourbon and, uh.. artistan… moonshine… that it was probably some sort of low-rent, ultra-reject whisky from Indiana, or maybe a head-heavy cut of something unremarkable out of Heaven Hill that they figured they could make a few bucks off of.
I flipped the pouch over to divine the provenance of this and was immediately taken aback. This “Straight Whiskey” hails from South Africa, specifically the North West province. Apparently the climate is such that you can grow “some of the worlds’ best corn (Maize)”. I’m sure it’s nice, but as a midwestern boy, I’m going to say that you’ll be hard pressed to beat midwestern sweet corn in the summer. That is another debate entirely.
Since Bain’s and Three Ships aren’t commonly stocked where I shop, this would be my first African whiskey. This isn’t necessarily the ambassador the local industry might like, I’m sure, but it’s the one I found. For what it’s worth, we have a Tampa-based importer (and PortaShots themselves in Ocala, FL) to thank for bringing us this bounty.
The Porta Shots package is pretty bizarre and sets expectations appropriately. It’s a large resealable plastic outer pouch with 25 individually sealed pouches of whiskey. The layout on the pouch itself is a little more, shall we say, traditional, but still declasse enough to make most generic mystery-blend bottom-shelfers look like luxurious and grand whiskies. Also of note was a faint hint of corn whiskey when the package was opened. Hmmm.
Each packet contains 30mL and is roughly about twice as big as a regular Heinz Ketchup packet. It’s plastic instead of some sort of foil like those Heinz packets though. I anticipated this would be a tough one to open, despite a helpful “tear here” label, and this was confirmed. No easy tear was available, so I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped the corner and poured it into a glencairn to give it a fair shot. It poured surprisingly dark.
I held the glass up to my nose and sniffed. I was immediately overcome by a reflexive central nervous system response that was somewhere between involuntary twitching and a panic response to get away from toxic chemicals. Despite the color, this was all clearly very, very young whiskey – bearing an incredibly aggressive punch upfront of raw alcohol notes, acetone, low-quality corn whiskey, raw sugar and a general newmake sweetness. Except that it’s not like your average newmake, this is bad. From the nose, I’d guess the color to be completely artificial because this bears virtually no cask influence on the nose.
The palate is similarly young – completely dominated by sugary notes and an undeniable white dog character. It doesn’t have the heat of any of the uncut white dogs you might have tried (owing no doubt to its strength), but it has that rawness. It lacks the sweet corn notes you’ll taste in Buffalo Trace’s white dog, and rests almost entirely on a bland sweetness.
The finish, which I expected to be vanishingly quick and unpleasant was actually the most nuanced part of this whiskey. The corn presence seemed most pronounced here, and even had a slight bubblegum sweetness for a second before returning to corn and newmake notes.
The bag says “Straight Whiskey”, and I don’t buy it in terms of adherence to the US definition (4 years minimum to avoid age statement). As an imported product this likely avoids that regulation, but this was either the most mysterious cask ever – imparting color but zero flavor, or it was aged briefly and colored. My bet is heavily on the latter.
It’s unfortunate to see whiskey of this quality on the shelf; obviously this is not one geared for the connoisseur. Even casual drinkers would not have a lot to love in this one. This unfortunately helps push forward an alternate image of whiskey as low-quality rotgut.
Clearly, the Porta Shots packaging says “party”, and this is a whiskey that demands to be mixed if only to cover up the taste. There’s a part of me that looks at this with the eyes of my college-age self and thinks, “this is a genius way to sneak alcohol into places that I couldn’t have carried it” – but then I am reminded I would have had to take up the unenviable task of actually drinking the stuff that I’d gone to all the trouble to sneak in.
The Porta Shots range consists of several products – three rums, two vodkas and this whiskey. A little sleuthing revealed these to be products of South Africa as well – my guess is this comes out of a contract distillery that produces pretty much anything. I didn’t see any smoking guns in my search. This being from the North West province, according to my limited understanding of South African geography, safely exempts the James Sedgwick distillery as a potential guilty party.
This is an interesting curiosity or a good way to prank your friends. I can’t recommend trying this in any serious context, unless you’re wanting to plumb the depths.
At a glance:
King’s Crown Whiskey 40% (Porta Shots packaging)
Nose: Oh god. A really aggressive punch of low-grade corn whiskey, acetone, raw alcohol, raw sugar, and a very strong new make character – vegetal undertones. It’s so young and newmakey that I have to wonder if the color isn’t completely artificial.
Palate: Thin, completely sugary – totally white dog. Not hot, but just raw.
Finish: Corn, a little bubblegum sweetness for a second. Back to corn and raw new make.
Comment: Tastes completely unaged. Atrocious.