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When you land on the Wolves Whiskey homepage, there’s a distinct lack of information and imagery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you had mistyped the URL and instead been directed to the landing page for a high-end cult wine producer in California like Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate — the pages share many similarities. That feeling doesn’t stop at the website. The best way to purchase a bottle of this streetwear-level-hyped whiskey? In California cult wine fashion, enter your email address to get on the allocation list.
Email-based allocation lists have been around in the wine industry since the late 1990s. When there was too little of a highly coveted wine to go around, the approach for winemakers was to set up a waiting list via email. It proved an effective tool not only for managing demand for product, but also for building hype — people simply want what they can’t have. Some California wineries, like Sine Qua Non, famously have waitlists over eight years long. The same strategy has long been applied in the streetwear industry as well, whether it’s the launch of a new sneaker, a new collaboration collection, or more recently, an NFT.
The founders of Wolves Whiskey both come from the fashion world, and it’s no surprise that they’ve applied their learnings to this new endeavor. James Bond of Undefeated and Jon Buscemi of Buscemi launched Wolves in 2017. Even though the brand’s first release didn’t hit the market until May of 2019, it was quietly building hype that entire time.
While email allocation lists may be commonplace in the wine and streetwear worlds, this is the first time that the strategy has been applied to the whiskey industry. “We want to have a direct relationship with the people that discover us and appreciate what we're doing,” says CEO and co-founder Jeremy Joseph of the approach. “[It] allows us to communicate directly with these clients and with a singular focus.”
But beyond connecting directly to consumers, which has its obvious list of benefits, Wolves is also after control over how the brand is presented. “Once a bottle enters the more traditional route to market, you have distributors and retailers doing their own things that may be inconsistent with how we like to handle things,“ says Joseph. This includes egregious markups which have unfortunately become commonplace in the whiskey industry. By selling directly to its consumers, Wolves is able to control the price at which its whiskey is offered.
ALL MARKETING OR SERIOUS JUICE?
With such a new brand, co-founders well-versed in generating hype and a sleek aesthetic, it would be easy to write off Wolves as just another marketing ploy (the spirits industry is full of them). But digging deeper into the origin of the spirit, and the approach the brand took in creating it, reveals a serious whiskey that’s every bit as unique as you would hope.
The “juice,” as whiskey insiders call it, is distilled at the Charbay distillery in Ukiah, California. If the name Charbay doesn’t ring any bells, that’s OK. It doesn’t have the same global recognition as labels coming out of the Buffalo Trace distillery like Pappy van Winkle or Blanton’s. But it should, and it does in insider whiskey circles. Wolves’s master distiller, Marko Karakasevic (who is also the master distiller for Charbay), developed an approach to making whiskey that had never been done — he took high-quality, bottle-ready beer and distilled it into whiskey. “Marko, our Master Distiller, essentially invented this technique,” says Joseph. “He had the idea decades ago and ran some experiments in the still with finished craft beer custom-brewed by Bear Republic.”
Karakasevic utilizes an alembic brandy still that was imported from Cognac to distill each Wolves Whiskey release. “What Marko [Karakasevic] does is an art form,” says Joseph. “The flavors are rich and unique, and the body is massive on this whiskey.” Everything about Karakasevic’s approach is novel, and the same can be said for Wolves as a whole.
One look at the bottle tells you as much. Each Wolves Whiskey bottle features a unique label — some with Italian sheepskin leather labels that are hand-cut, embossed and then printed using UV light and others with Napa leather used by Porsche in its interiors. The spirit is held inside by a heavy French-cut glass bottle, and even the corks on some of the bottles are considered. On the Rye Project collaboration with Willett, the bottle is finished with a custom cork top that was inspired by the knob of a baseball bat that is a family heirloom of Jon Buscemi.
So Wolves passes the eye test and the hype test, but what about the taste test? Perhaps the brand’s most interesting release to date, the collaboration with Willett, is an entirely unique drinking experience. Notes of sweet tropical fruit give way to a characteristic rye spicey peppery note on the finish. It lingers, but doesn’t overstay its welcome and quickly has you reaching for your glass to start the process over again.
The Rye Project consists of 51 percent rye whiskey that was distilled in Indiana (likely at MGP) and then aged in new American oak barrels for six years. The rye was then transferred to Wolves’ facility in Sonoma County where it was aged further and then blended together with Willett six and seven year straight rye whiskey.
Bottles of The Rye Project retail for $220, which is certainly steep, but for such a unique drinking experience it’s difficult to say that it’s not worth the extra coin.
Sign up for the Wolves Whiskey email allocation list here.
Five More Reasons to Love Wolves Whiskey:
1. There’s more to the name than fancy marketing. “The name came at a lunch attended by Jon, James, and co-founder Mike Ilic. They were talking about the mentality of entrepreneurs and having to be on your own path to be successful. Like a wolf who leaves the pack. The founders were all doing these interesting things in their own fields before coming together to create Wolves, and they thought there were some parallels to how wolves exist in nature and to how we all had developed our lives and careers separately before coming together on this,” says Joseph.
2. Later this year, Wolves is also launching a handful of unique collaborations with the likes of Rolls Royce, The Quail and Other Half Brewery. This is in addition to a second iteration in the brand’s series with world-renowned whiskey maker Willett.
3. Because of the rarity of the brand’s releases, should you buy a bottle, you’ll always have something special on your bar cart that your friends have never had before.
4. Each bottle is delivered in adornments worthy of a luxury jewelry brand. Winter Run, for instance, came with a hand-stitched canvas case.
5. According to the press release for First Run, during the ten-day distillation period Karakasevic “sleeps in four-hour shifts during this time, and no one else is permitted to touch the still.”