Smoked AmericansJune 25th, 2015
Known mostly for rye and bourbon whiskeys, the American whiskey genre has increasingly used a handful of Scotch whisky production techniques. We’ve seen the success of American single malts and used barrel-finish programs in bourbon and rye. Now U.S. distillers are smoking grains.
“American whiskey has been great, but it’s been like going to Baskin & Robbins and getting 31 flavors of chocolate and vanilla,” says Paul Tomaszewski, distiller and founder of MB Roland distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky. “There’s only been two kinds of American whiskey for a long time.”
Tomaszewski is among a small crop of distillers who are using various smoking techniques, ranging from American peat to olivewood. His co-distiller/handyman Bill Witkowski built an 8 x 12 foot poplar wood interior and tin exterior smokehouse that smokes white corn in the same fashion the region’s farmers slowly smudge high-grade burley tobacco using a technique called “Dark Fire.”
There’s no tobacco involved in MB Roland’s process, though. Rather, Tomaszewski lays down thick mounds of oak chips and sawdust procured from a local lumber mill and spreads the corn across 30 wire mesh trays.
He lights the oak, closes the two doors and short billows of smoke puff from underneath the doors, hardly detected by the naked eye. The tantalizing aromas fill the air, ranging from bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet to roasting marshmallows.
The corn smokes for three days and will later be milled and added to malted barley and rye for the fermentation step of making Black Patch whiskey. At this stage, the unique aroma can be best describe as bacon and grits. Once cooked and fermented, it’s distilled and placed in used barrels.
Although the Dark Fire technique is unique to MB Roland, it’s not the only American distillery using wood smoke. New Mexico’s Santa Fe Spirits purchases mesquite-smoked malted barley, while Nashville, Tennessee-based Corsair distillery smokes with everything from hickory to olivewood.
In fact, Corsair is the champion of smoked American whiskey. Corsair’s founder Darek Bell wrote the 2014 book Fire Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys, which gives distillers the necessary blueprints for selecting materials to create specially nuanced smoky flavors. “When we were first trying to get our distillery off the ground, we were obsessed with big smoky and peaty whiskies from Islay,” Bell wrote. “We didn’t have access to peat in Tennessee, but we had a lot of other great smoking materials, so we began experimenting.”
The result of this “experimenting” is arguably the most creative American whiskey in history. Released in 2009, Corsair’s Triple Smoke whiskey uses three fractions of malted barley, each one smoked with cherry wood, beechwood, or peat.
In Seattle, Washington, the Westland distillery plans to use American peat, which is typically protected under the U.S. wetlands regulations. But the Washington State Department of Natural Resources have allowed the harvesting of peat in the North Pacific Bog and Fen, an ecological system of peatlands along the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska to northern California and the Puget Sound lowlands. “This particular peat bog in Shelton, Washington, was grandfathered in as a harvested peat bog during World War II. It was used to soak up oil spills,” says Emerson Lamb, distiller for Westland. “It’s a unique treasure and to have one that can be harvested in U.S. is a unique opportunity.”
Before Westland began using this peat, it imported peated malt from the United Kingdom to create its peated American Single Malt.
Kings County distillery received U.K. peated malt, too, only by mistake. “We ordered malt from a UK company, which delivered a peated malt instead of our regular malt,” says Nicole Austin, the master blender at the Brooklyn-based Kings County.
Instead of saying ‘No thank you, please return,’ Austin chose to experiment with the peated malt for—are you ready for this, America?—Kings County bourbon. She added it to several mashbills and enjoyed the bacon and barbecue smells during fermentation. The peat held strong through the distillation phase, but Austin did not know what would happen during the aging process. Would the peat overtake the predominantly corn distillate or would it open the door to new and uncharted bourbon flavors?
In the end, the Kings County Peated Bourbon, MB Roland Black Patch, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, Santa Fe Mesquite and Westland American Peated Single Malt are all gambles to palates conditioned by centuries of tradition in the major whiskey-making regions. Or as Austin says, the tiny but mighty American smoked whiskey genre is filled with “innovative flavors found through pushing the boundaries.”
MB Roland Black Patch — 116.18 Proof, Distilled at MB Roland Distillery, Pembroke, Kentucky
Nose: campfire smoke, Maraschino cherry juice, grilled corn, cantaloupe and seared pork chop.
Palate: Rich Memphis-style barbecue, pepper spice, grits, with citrus and baked apple pie with a sprinkle of cinnamon over top. Short finish with a slight citrus bitter note.
Corsair Maple Smoke — 100 Proof, Distilled at Corsair Distillery, Nashville
Nose: Aromas of a candy store, very sweet smells all at once from cinnamon apple to vanilla. You do pick up that maple syrup-like aroma.
Palate: This tastes just like a rack of ribs that’s been slowly cooked over maple for a day or two. It’s smoky, for sure, with elements of sugar sweetness and lime tartness. The short finish expresses a mild chocolate note.
Corsair Nashville Cherry Smoked Bourbon — 100 Proof, Distilled at Corsair Distillery, Nashville
Nose: Freshly crushed cherries, caramel and vanilla.
Palate: This is unlike any bourbon I’ve ever tasted and reminds me of a chocolate covered cherry with bourbon. Its long finish is sweet just like the cherry.
Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Single Malt, Mesquite Smoked — 92 Proof, Distilled at Santa Fe Spirits, Santa Fe, N.M.
Nose: Anise, citrus, clove and hints of honey, tobacco and campfire smoke. This is the kind of nose that really makes the mouth water in anticipation for something special.
Palate: Right off the bat, the palate texturally feels like a single malt. It covers the mouth from top to bottom with beautiful notes of fruit, brown sugar, grilled meat, and pickled watermelon brine. The finish is long, extremely enjoyable and smoky.
Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey — 92 Proof, Distilled at Westland Distillery, Seattle
Nose: Honeysuckle, geraniums, honey, vanilla and hints of charcoal.
Palate: You could taste this blind and believe it’s from Scotland. It’s silky, drenching the mouth with rounded and full-bodied notes of fruits and hints of smoke. The long finish shows a gorgeous smokiness traditionally unknown in American whiskey.
Kings County Peated Bourbon, Limited Edition — 90 Proof, Distilled at Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn
Nose: Freshly cut oak, smoldering campfire, fruit and caramel fill the nose.
Palate: This is a unique flavor profile that I can best describe as notes of tobacco, dark cherries, grilled corn on the cob, bacon, and the charred bits at the bottom of a beef roast. The medium finish expresses a bitter chocolate.