Meet Noble Oak, a Whiskey from the same group churning out some of the big Scotch names you’ve come to know and love. And they’ve got this cool notion that everyone can help make the planet greener just by drinking some really good Whiskey. Their method: for every bottle purchased, they plant a tree.
That’s a conservation plan we can get behind.
So we sat down with Tom Johnson, Noble Oak’s national brand ambassador, to talk about what differentiates Noble Oak from other American Whiskeys, why red-sauce-based Italian cuisine is your best pairing option and who you should be listening to while enjoying a tipple.
Tell us more about Noble OakTom: Noble Oak is the first innovation brand and first foray into the American Whiskey category from a company called Edrington. Edrington isn’t really a household name, but the products that Edrington makes are, including three tremendous single malt Scotches: The Macallan, Highland Park and Glenrothes.
The portfolio is renowned for its unparalleled oak cask aging standards. Edrington is based out of Glasgow, Scotland and is actually owned by a charitable trust. In fact, one of our principle pillars is giving back and giving more, in order to support the trust in its charitable efforts. So it was out of this expertise in oak and passion for giving back that Noble Oak was born.
How did you get into the Spirits industry and end up at Noble Oak?Tom: I have been in food and beverage for about a decade now, and I started in New York City. I had kind of a mid-life crisis in my early 20s, and ended up moving to New York and living on a friend's couch. As I was going through this mid-life crisis he said, "Come sleep on my couch. I'll stick my neck out for you and get a job." Because one of the things in New York is that it's tough to get a New York gig without New York experience.
I started in the deepest pool of all: fine dining in Chelsea at a restaurant called Colicchio and Sons. I did that for about a year. Then, I worked my way to Jean-Georges for a few months before finally getting into the bar side of things. From fine dining, I managed to jump over to a bar that was opening in Brooklyn called Extra Fancy around 2012. I was on the opening staff at Extra Fancy as a jack of all trades, and that was where I got to cut my teeth in bartending.
That turned into DJ-ing, bar consulting and traveling all across the country in the craft cocktail world — so things like Portland Cocktail Week and Tales of the Cocktail — and meeting people all over the country.
Fast forward to 2016 and I said, "I'm gonna ride a bike across the country." That’s what got me to Seattle, where I jumped in at a bar called Foreign National. And then about a year into my tenure in Seattle, this Noble Oak gig arrived.
It was actually an old bar regular of ours from the early days at Extra Fancy in Brooklyn who was launching a brand with Edrington. And she reached out to me and said, "Hey, we're looking at Seattle as the place that we're gonna launch this brand. Do you know anybody that would be a good fit to launch a new American Whiskey in Seattle? It's gonna be a Sherry finished Bourbon. Every bottle plants a tree." And I said, "Yeah. I am your person." I shot my resume up through all of the normal channels and got chosen, and that's been the last three years of my life now.
Can you tell us more about Noble Oak Double Oak Bourbon?Tom: Bourbon has to hit a few key pillars. It needs to be distilled, aged and bottled in the United States. It's gotta go into new charred American oak casks. And it needs to be made predominantly from corn. There are a couple of other key pieces, but those are the big ones.
Most Bourbon lives its life in one cask and maybe gets blended together with other casks that are in the warehouse from a similar mash bill. What we do is introduce a second wood into this process, whereas 99% of the Bourbon that you see on the shelf spends its entire maturation period with virgin, charred, American oak casks.
After Noble Oak starts its life in these virgin, charred, American oak casks, it then spends time with the same wood that ages Edrington's tremendous single malt Scotches. If we zoom out and think about what Edrington does as a company, they make these great single malt Scotches. And across those Scotches, the key defining thing is Sherry-seasoned, European oak casks.
Edrington as the Scotch maker has a fully controlled cask making program that includes both American oak but predominantly European oak. From sustainably felling the trees, to making the casks, and then partnering with Sherry bodegas in Jerez, they get these European oak casks, and fill them with Sherry. The Sherry bodegas keep the Sherry, and we get the cask back. So now we've got these European oak casks that have been living with Oloroso Sherry in them for six to 18 months, and it adds this flavor element into it.
Now, some of those casks are coming to the U.S. and the staves are used for finishing Noble Oak. That’s the double oak piece that you don't see in most Bourbons, and what really defines the flavor profile. So you're getting this tremendous American Whiskey that has all of the vanilla, toffee, caramel and corn notes that you get in your favorite Bourbons, but also these rich, dark, stewed fruit, dark chocolate flavors and a lot of baking spice that is more characteristic of rich sherried Scotches. In a way, it's almost like Bourbon and Scotch had a baby, and you get it at a really approachable price point.
What is the flavor profile?Tom: When I taste Whiskeys or distilled Spirits, I visualize an equalizer, the way that you would with music — treble, mid, bass. And it starts out like a normal Bourbon on the front end. When I think Bourbon, I think about corn. I think rich, fluffy, sweet, yellow cornbread. And it's that corn grain that is predominant with American oak characteristics. And American oak is really defined by these vanilla, toffee, caramel sweet notes, but also with a high alcohol ethanol content because it's a new oak. And it starts out like that, but then the secondary wood comes in on the mid-palate.
In the middle of the palate, it has a really long finish compared to a lot of other Bourbons in the category, and that's where the baking spice comes in. And that's what you get from the European oak. So that's like clove, cinnamon, nutmeg — things that you would get in a good pie.
Then, on the back end, it has this very long denouement, and that's where you get the stewed fruits from the Oloroso Sherry element. So a little bit of jaminess, red fruit and raspberry. I really get dark chocolate from it, too. Because when you taste really good 80-plus percent cacao chocolate, it has these very fruity characteristics to it that are very tropical but also very dark in color and flavor palate, like currant.
What food pairings would you recommend for Noble Oak Bourbon?Tom: I think that Noble Oak's flavor profile is gonna be a lot like a rich red Wine. One of the places that the brand has done very well has been Italian restaurants. Think red sauce type dishes and things like steak, lamb and heavier meat dishes. These are gonna be where Noble Oak really thrives.
If you’re making a Veal Parmesan or a heavy red sauce pasta dish, then I think that those are the places where it'll really shine because it's got a big, rich profile. Noble Oak by itself, or in more traditional cocktail preparations, is gonna thrive with richer dishes that you would pair with a rich red Wine.
Tell us a bit more about your partnership with One Tree PlantedTom: Our partnership with One Tree Planted is central to the thesis of what Noble Oak is: we are a great Whiskey with a noble heart. Every bottle plants a tree.
But this isn't just throwaway Whiskey that plants trees. It's a tremendous Whiskey from one of the most reputable Whiskey producers on earth, using their Scotch bonafides and cask know-how to make delicious juice, all while using the platform of Spirits to give back toward reforestation efforts.
One Tree Planted was a natural fit for Noble Oak as an homage to the wood that imbues flavor into the Whiskey and also an homage to all of the reforestation efforts that are being done.
One Tree Planted is a great partner because they are a similarly small, scrappy upstart that's punching above their weight class and doing tremendous work. They plant trees internationally all around the globe. We've been involved with some of Australia’s reforestation efforts after the wildfires, but primarily we collaborate on a level where we are able to focus on local communities where people are engaging with Noble Oak. So our key markets have been Washington State and the Emerald City; through One Tree Planted, we work with a local organization called Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust for tree planting initiatives.
What does the future look like for Noble Oak?Tom: Noble Oak Bourbon was the first to launch back in October 2017. And then, in January 2019, Washington State launched Noble Oak Rye, which is finished with port wine cask staves. It’s tremendous and delicious. We were in the process of rolling that out nationally right when shelter-in-place happened, so it launched in upstate New York (again, a similar trajectory as the Bourbon), Michigan, and Austin, Texas and the greater Texas area. The plan was just to keep rolling that out to California and other markets going forward. Hopefully that's where we'll be picking back up as soon as they let us out of the house. Beyond that, we’ll continue finding new ways to engage with our awesome tight knit community of fans and innovating from a product perspective as well as a standpoint of sustainability.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The one that would be most practical to my daily life these days would be the ability to metabolize alcohol perfectly but also, the ability to never get jet-lagged. Those would probably be my top two right now.
2. How would you explain Noble Oak in three words?
Community, sustainability, delicious.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I like the stuff that's probably considered indie, but I also really like alt country — modern Americana type stuff. Like, Wilco, Neko Case and Jason Isbell. And, to be honest, a Noble Oak Old Fashioned is the perfect thing to drink with all of those records.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
This one is really tough for me because I've done a lot of fine dining, and there are so many different types of foods that I love so much. But it would probably have to be something like mom's lasagna. Like, that's the thing that I might have the strongest emotional connection to and it's just something that I love. I'm a carb man, all day every day.
And for a drink, one of the first drinks that I fell in love with -and that just seems too apropos- would be the Last Word. It’s surprisingly not a Bourbon drink, but rather a Gin drink that I still love.
5. Assuming Noble Oak is your favorite, what's your second favorite Bourbon?
I gotta give a shout out to Wyoming Whiskey, which is one that just joined the Edrington portfolio. It's a really tremendous wheated Whiskey with all non-GMO grains. It's super interesting and has a very soft vegetal quality that's very different from a lot of the traditional Kentucky Bourbons, but I really love Bourbons. I mean, I love a lot of the cask proof stuff out there too.
** This interview has been edited for clarity and length.