We see more and more of the “store bottlings” coming up. Liquor stores are taking the time and making the investment to go to distilleries and select a single barrel to be bottled and labeled for sale at their store only; bars are starting to do it as well. We thought you might be interested in just how that happens, and when I was contacted about such a selection, it seemed like a good time to do that.
I got an email from Nick Taylor, who runs the scotch and whiskey department for Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Massachusetts (they have several stores in the Boston area). He was coming down to Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, Pa. to pick a store barrel of Dad’s Hat Rye, and noticed that they weren’t far from where I live. He said he was a fan of my writing about whiskey, and wondered if I’d like to join him and his boss, Dave Gordon, at the tasting. I was up for that; I’d been interested in just how the barrels got picked. We arranged to meet last Thursday, August 27, and as luck would have it, we were also joined by Whisky Advocate copy editor Sam Komlenic, who happened to be in town that day.
I got there a little early, and started talking to distillery owners Herman Mihalich and John Cooper. When Nick and Dave arrived, we invited them to join us in an educational tasting Cooper had suggested. He poured three samples of the standard bottling of their rye whiskey: 7 to 9 months old, 90 proof, and blended from various casks. The samples were bottled in February, June, and the third had been bottled that morning. Coop wanted us to taste them to see the seasonal variation, the difference in what came out of the casks — all from the same Missouri cooperage, all filled with the same spirit made in the same way — because of the temperature and humidity differences as the casks aged in different parts of the year. The February bottling was spicier; June was oily, and sweeter; August’s was grainy and had a lot of rye bitterness. Quite interesting. After that, Cooper took Nick and Dave on a tour of the distillery, while Herman and I, and now Sam, continued talking about the seasonal variations.
Then it was time to taste. Cooper does the cask selection for the mingling at Mountain Laurel, and what he had done is fairly standard practice at these kinds of selections. As he’d been tasting for the general bottling, he’d flagged some barrels as possibles for single barrel bottlings, “Exceptional ones,” he said, “which means, ‘ones that I like!'” He let us know that he also picks one or two that aren’t so good to put in the mix. Why would he do that? It’s for contrast. “If you’re not used to tasting from six barrels of 117 proof whiskey all at once, it all starts to taste the same,” he said. The other barrel will stand out, and re-set your palate.
So we went at it. The barrels had been dumped into food-grade plastic barrels to take the look of the cask out of the equation, to put them all on equal footing. Keep in mind they were all Dad’s Hat, all roughly the same age…there were clear differences. More pepper in one, more sweetness in another, and then there was one with a clear hit of jalapeno. Then there was number 5, which made us all go “Wow!” Nice barrel. (And yes, we got the off barrel…which some of us liked! “It’s still Dad’s Hat,” Cooper said, “It’s just one that I’ll be blending, not putting in a single barrel bottling.”)
While Cooper was setting up another round, with fresh samples, from the top three choices, I asked David why Gordon’s was even doing a single barrel store bottling. Gordon’s is an 81 year old business, but up until they brought Nick on about a year ago, it was largely a wine-driven business. Since they got a dedicated whiskey guy, whiskey sales are up 30%, and they’re starting to develop the kind of free-spending connoisseurs in the whiskey area that they’ve always had in their wine business. They’d decided it was time to take the next step. So far they’ve done store bottlings of Glendronach, Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Knob Creek, and WhistlePig.
Ask Nick why they wanted a single barrel, and he’ll tell you it’s about the uniqueness factor. “We like Dad’s Hat, but a single bottling is…more so,” he said. “I’m looking for the the signature of the distillery, but looking for that WOW! I’m looking for that reaction.” He also noted that while they’d carried the Russell’s Reserve for a while, when they got the single barrel bottling in — a great bourbon, he said — not only did they sell the store bottling, but the regular Russell’s Reserve 10 year old started selling better. “It gets people to look.”
So now we had three whiskeys to taste; the jalapeno, the ‘Wow!’, and one with much more overt oak. We left this one to Nick and Dave. They tasted, they nosed, they looked at each other — “I think we take two,” said Dave. “We take two,” agreed Nick. They actually decided to blend the first two, working with Cooper. They really liked the Wow one, but Nick didn’t want to lose that jalapeno character. And when it’s your barrels, your bottling, that’s an option.
Store bottlings depend somewhat on the distiller; they’re going to choose the barrels you taste from, and obviously, it’s about their distillery character. But the store bottling is a great opportunity for the buyer to find something of an outlier for the whiskey, something that shines a light on the spirit, on the grain, on the barrels. Something that makes you say “Wow!” Sometimes they’re amazing; almost always they’re interesting.
The Fall 2015 issue of Whisky Advocate magazine will be hitting the newsstand in early September. Here’s a sneak preview of the issue’s Buying Guide reviews; the 10 highest-rated whiskies of the issue.
#10 – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, 43.4%, $150
A very pricy (for Wild Turkey) 17 year old whiskey honoring master distiller Jimmy Russell. Nose is hot for the proof, with oak, dried barrel drool, warm dried corn, tobacco barn, and teaberry. Entry is not hot; rather, a thread of sweet syrup spreads out into thoroughly integrated corn and oak. Finish slides into drier oak. A fascinating journey through bourbon flavors, this is both lighter and more complex than expected. I still prefer younger Wild Turkey, but…—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
#9 – Nikka Coffey Grain, 45%, $65
Sweet, with subtle, crisp, nutty oak, then comes fudge, ripe banana, and peach. The overall effect is like eating vanilla ice cream with toffee fudge and hazelnut sprinkles. The structure is thick and physical, the palate sweet and quite fat, with light hints of raspberry, fruit salad. A jag of acidity freshens the delivery on the finish. With water there’s more toffee, and it becomes slightly more yielding, with less oak. For me the gold standard of grain.—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#8 – Compass Box Hedonism Quindecimus, 46%, $200
How time flies! This eloquent blended grain marks CBWC’s 15th anniversary and the combination of these aged grains is idiosyncratic of whisky auteur John Glaser’s distinctive taste. Rich honey, apricot stone, crisp spices, vanilla custard, gentle oak char, and tropical fruits promise a real reward. Succulently juicy, with melon, apple, and caramel, subtly paced, with chocolate and dark fruit infiltrating. Slowly the sweetness depletes to black pepper and spiced roast meats. Defer swallowing for as long as possible. (5,689 bottles)—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
When Thomas Chen introduced Canadian Rockies in Taiwan, he chose Highwood Distillers in High River, Alberta, to supply a delicate yet fragrant, fruit-laden whisky that would please the Taiwanese palate. Now launching in Canada, Chen upped the bottling strength to 46% to boost the flavor. The complex, exotic fruit salad and faint lilac-like flowers that characterized the original remain, along with blistering white pepper, sweet oak caramels, and crisp, clean barrel notes on a luxurious, creamy palate. (Canada only) —Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#6 – Buffalo Trace French Oak Barrel Head Aged, 45%, $47/375 ml
Nicely round flavor profile, with complex notes of creamy vanilla, subtle tropical fruit, mocha, fennel seed, and light tobacco. Lingering cinnamon spice and cocoa on the finish. An extremely drinkable whiskey that entertains throughout. —John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
This select bottling of Bernheim Original comes from Warehouse Y on the 4th floor, and is non-chill filtered. Without the filtering, the nose is notably more expressive and becomes a real showcase for wheat grain, oak spice, caramel, and citrus. On the palate, this whiskey maintains a firm balance between soft and strong, with supple wheat grain entwined with caramel, oak, and cinnamon spice. A long, flavorful finish caps off a well-curated selection of an excellent whiskey. (Julio’s Liquors only)—Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#4 – Barrell Whiskey Batch 001, 61.25%, $59
7 year old whiskey (an unspecified “corn, rye, and malted barley” mashbill “distilled in Indiana”) aged in used barrels. Maple syrup, well-browned popovers, and Canada mint lozenges in a boozy-hot nose. Richly sweet on the palate: pastry dough, hints of anise, buttery and slightly-burnt cornbread, syrupy dark fruits: complex, rich, delicious. Water brings out more of the dough and tames the heat. Delicious, unique, intriguing. Sourced whiskey.—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
This single cask, distilled at Highland Park, is an excellent example of why distilleries sell off certain casks. On the nose it’s Highland Park’s signature sherry and peat, but on the palate it’s a beast. Monster peat smoke surfs on a lush layer of berry and malt. This builds to a peak with smoke, salt, and oak spice, bolstered by the high proof. A smoky, dry finish rounds off a monster whisky, different from Highland Park’s style, but very interesting. (Julio’s Liquors only)—Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#2 – Evan Williams Single Barrel 2005 Vintage (barrel #292), 43.3%, $29
Complex fruit (clementine, pineapple, golden raisin) balanced nicely with honey, vanilla custard, and dusty corn, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. An extremely versatile whiskey with its medium weight, easy to embrace personality, and subtle charms. Perennially one of the best values in whiskey.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#1 – The Exclusive Malts 13 year old 2002 (cask #20021), 52.2%, $ 135
This 13 year old malt from central Ireland is an uncommon foray into the Irish whiskey space for the Exclusive Malts Collection. Pure malt is the focus of the nose which supports that malt with tart green apple. On the palate this whiskey is a stunning mix of lush, sweet honey, salt, malt, green apple, and ginger spice. The balance and integration are nothing short of perfect. A long malty finish caps off one of the best Irish whiskeys I’ve had. (U.S. only)—Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96
We ran a piece by Geoff Kleinman on Portland, Oregon’s “Distillery Row” in the current issue (“Beer and Whiskey”, Summer 2015). It’s a good piece, but Geoff had a lot more material, so we decided to run it here. This is the second part, about New Deal Distillery. Enjoy!
There’s a bumper sticker commonly seen in Portland, Oregon that reads “Keep Portland Weird”. Although weird is a relative term, as one tours the many craft distilleries in Portland, it’s clear that each marches to the beat of its own drum. Portlanders aren’t concerned with what the rest of the country is doing, they’re intensely curious about exploring the boundaries of their own world and work, and they’re willing to work together in a way you just don’t see in other parts of the country.
Tom Burkleaux is kind of weird (in a good way) by any standard. A former Marine sniper, Burkleaux does computer programming during the day and then runs his distillery at night. New Deal Distillery has grown considerably over the past few years, moving locations and increasing its staff from three to fifteen. New Deal has also put their hat in the whiskey ring with their first whiskey release, New Deal Bourbon Whiskey.
To understand New Deal’s whiskey, it’s important to understand their history with vodka. New Deal really got their start making vodka, and not as a placeholder or cash crop to help fund their whiskey, but as a primary product. Producing vodka came out of Burkleaux’s love for vodka, something that genuinely shows in their products.
The distillery produced two main vodkas, New Deal Vodka and Portland 88. The former showed off the signature craft of the distillery, while the latter provided a lower cost, well polished, and filtered offering for the large population in Portland who are budget-minded and manage to live by piecing together several jobs with DIY interests. Burkleaux got a fair amount of heat from other craft distillers for using commercial neutral grain spirits in the base his Portland 88 Vodka, even though he re-distilled, cut, and polished the spirit. Several years ago in the Pacific Northwest there was a major argument over requiring a craft distiller to ferment what they made, and this set the standard in Washington, but not in Oregon. Tom stuck to his guns and showed that, no matter what the source, he could make a good vodka that people liked.
In many ways Tom Burkleaux wears the label “mad scientist,” in the most complimentary of ways. His stacks of experiments line the back wall of the distillery. During our visit there he pulled out bottle after bottle of different experimental spirits: “Here’s one where we used just the German smoked malt. Oh, here’s what happens when you add sugar to the corn mash (something he sells as Wildcat). This one is just strange, don’t drink it! Just smell.” It’s through these experiments that he developed New Deal’s Gin 33. Gin 33 is a complex mix of pine, honey, lemon-lime, and mint, but it’s all just an elaborate Burkleaux magic trick, as the gin contains one lone botanical: juniper.
When you are at New Deal , you never know what Burkleaux will pull out. “Want to see something really cool?” he asks me with a sly smile and a slight twinkle in his eye. The answer is, of course, YES! and after a little fiddling, Tom produces a bottle of Red Terra Agave Vodka. Part of New Deal’s success comes out of contract distilling for smaller producers. For Red Terra, Burkleaux was approached by a prominent tequila-producing family from Mexico who wanted to transform some traditionally distilled tequila into… vodka.
The idea is unique, but the experience of the actual liquid is even more far-fetched. Red Terra has all the classic tequila notes with soft, sweet roasted agave, vanilla, and black pepper on the nose, and even on the entry, but in the mid-palate everything turns into a clear and true vodka, with a crisp, clean finish. “Wow, that’s #%$*ing strange!” I exclaim, knowing how bad the words sound even as they leave my mouth. “So strange, but so good,” I correct. Red Terra is a total head fake, and simply unique. It shows how a distiller like Burkleaux can apply his sensibilities to almost any spirit category.
That leads us to New Deal Bourbon . Like everything that Tom Burkleaux does, it’s a bit of an experiment, and like most things that Tom does, it’s a success. Instead of adding rye to the mix as most craft distillers seem to be doing, Tom went with 1/4 wheat (50% corn, 25% barley and 25% wheat), which gives the bourbon a soft and round quality, which counter-balances the fact that it’s been aged in 25 gallon casks. Burkleaux’s sensibilities also shine through in the mix, as the base has been distilled to focus on the soft and clean elements of the mash bill. It’s young, just over a year, but it just works and the result is an affable, light whiskey – the kind of crossover whiskey that’ll win over vodka drinkers, not only to whiskey but to the craft world.
The biggest lesson you can learn from Tom Burkleaux at New Deal is that a craft distiller who has a style and knows how to apply it across their products has more to offer than a distillery trying to chase the market. “My sniper instructor used to say to me, ‘simplicity baffles the modern man,’ and I think that just about sums it up,” remarks Burkleaux.
The New Deal Distillery is located at 900 Southeast Salmon Street in Portland, Oregon. Currently their New Deal Bourbon, Wild Cat (a corn and sugar mash spirit), and Old Tom Gin (which is amazing) are only available for sale at the distillery.
We ran a piece by Geoff Kleinman on Portland, Oregon’s “Distillery Row” in the current issue (“Beer and Whiskey”, Summer 2015). It’s a good piece, but Geoff had a lot more material, so we decided to run it here. This is the first part, about House Spirits. Enjoy!
In many ways House Spirits Distillery been one of the more precocious of Portland’s craft distillers. As one of the early tenants of Portland’s Craft Distillery Row, House Spirits helped craft and shape the community and culture of Portland’s craft distilling scene. This was a natural outcropping of the deep roots founders Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff had in Portland’s craft beer and wine scene.
House Spirits was also one of the early distilleries to collaborate with a bartender to help formulate one of their products. The bartender in question was Ryan Magarian, who has now grown into a successful restauranteur, and the collaboration was Aviation American Gin.
Aviation Gin was a home run for House Spirits, and that success powered forward the distillery in a very specific direction. The velocity of Aviation was enough to tear a rift between the distillery’s co-founders, and in late 2010, the pair decided to split.
Lee Medoff broke off from House Spirits to start his own distillery, Bull Run Distillery, and Christian Krogstad brought in outside investment, including former senior execs from Fiji water, the co-founder of Milagro tequila and famed San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana.
This kind of turmoil surrounding success would be an early example of how success can be as difficult and complicated in the craft distilling space as failure, a lesson that many craft distilleries would eventually learn.
With the turmoil of the past behind them, House Spirits began to really focus. With Aviation Gin fueling their growth, the attention could finally shift towards whiskey. The result of that shift was House’s Westward Single Malt Oregon Whiskey.
In Portland, many craft distillers work closely with craft breweries to have their barley malted, grains milled and mash cooked. This enables them to have a smaller footprint in the distillery and eliminates the expense of gear required to mash. In line with Portland’s locavore culture, House selected a Northwest barley, which they fermented with ale yeast, which was then distilled to make Westward.
With Aviation Gin paying the bills, and an investment group committed to growth, House Spirits had a luxury that most craft distillers simply don’t have: time. Instead of releasing their whiskey at the one year mark, House Spirits decided to hold on for a full three years of aging.
To keep their growing fan base engaged, House Spirits created a special line of spirits that could only be purchased at the distillery. House Spirits Apothecary Collection. Through this collection, House could let spill, small amounts of their whiskey, along with other unique and experimental projects, including aged aquavit, Ozu, and a coffee liquor.
The program was so successful, and the small distillery had so many people visiting, that House Spirits decided to make good on the concept of an Apothecary and created an entire spirits store, The House Spirits Apothecary, complete with cocktail mixers, bartending tools, cocktail books, and of course House’s own spirit products.
Finally, in 2013, Westward Oregon Straight Whiskey was ready to go. The big problem House Spirits had was that although the whiskey was ready, they didn’t have a lot of it. House made the decision to release Westward in 375 ml bottles with a hefty price tag of $55. “We didn’t want a collector to sweep up all our whiskey in one fell swoop,” explains Christian Krogstad. “We priced it a little high so that we knew we could have enough to sell to individuals who were interested in it.”
The strategy worked, and Westward remains one of the best small craft whiskies that you can actually buy. No lotteries, not long lines: it’s there, in small quantities, for sale.
First thing you need to know: this is not a story about whiskey. At least, not on the surface. It’s about gin. But it’s very much about the kind of innovative thinking small distillers are bringing to the shelf, and that encompasses whiskey. Read on, you’ll see.
I took a vacation with my family (my wife, and our two adult children) recently. We traveled to Iceland (where we visited the Eimverk distillery), then Scotland (where we dropped in at Talisker), then wound up in Ireland. While we were relaxing in Lismore after some long driving days, I took the opportunity to pop over to Cappoquin, on the Blackwater river in County Waterford, and drop in on Peter Mulryan at his new venture, the Blackwater distillery. Peter’s written a few pieces for Whisky Advocate, and made the jump to the production side of the business only recently. Blackwater is producing a rather tasty gin, and has plans for whiskey and poitin (though Peter told me that recent regulatory changes have made innovation in those areas much more difficult; might have to investigate that).
But we were just two friends, having a cup of tea and talking spirits (and beer; later we spontaneously decided to go see the nearby Dungarvin brewery, where he’s been doing some interesting barrel-aged collaborations). I wasn’t taking any notes or pictures; in fact, I’d left my notebook and camera in the car outside. Then he told me about his new barrel-aged gin…and I had to go get my notebook.
Take a look at those four barrels in the picture to the left. They’re about 50 liters each, and they’re full of gin. Barrel-aged gin is not a big deal; small barrels aren’t anything new (and 50 liters isn’t even particularly small). What’s very different is the wood. These barrels are made of juniper wood. If you’re like me, you’ve pictured juniper as a shrub. Turns out that juniper can also be a tree. Peter found the wood in Serbia (which is apparently the hottest place to find oak these days, too), but couldn’t find a cooper who was willing to try making barrels from it; he finally got a guy in Finland who was willing to take a shot at it.
They’re beautiful barrels, too, with a smooth, rounded finish on the stave ends. But it’s the smell that’s most impressive. The little storage room was full of a fresh, richly piney scent. Peter said he had to change the formulation of the gin a bit to get it to work with the juniper wood; “It’s the same twelve botanicals, but in different proportions. The juniper wood is a bully, a steamroller; too long in there, and the gin’s undrinkable.” But with only 60 days in the juniper, the gin was marvelously different from the unaged product; more juniper, but not as bright, a softer juniper, and a creamy finish. Delicious stuff. Peter’s pretty confident he can get multiple uses from each barrel, given the overpowering strength of the effect.
So…not whiskey, as I said, but it got me thinking. Not all barrels used for whiskey were oak; I was just reading old records that described American rye whiskey aged in hickory barrels. Certainly not all barrels for American whiskey were new, charred oak; we know that. Brown-Forman has done some experiments with different woods, there’s an English distiller aging “whisky” in chestnut wood (“whisky” because anything aged in wood other than oak can’t be labeled as “whisky” in the UK).
More to the point, as I’m watching small distillers try new recipes and fiddle with process, I’m seeing something that I suspected would be true. Namely, that most whiskey drinkers, especially the new ones, really don’t care — or understand — about the label terminology required and regulated by the federal standards of identity. “Whiskey” is the key word, and if the small type says “WHISKEY DISTILLED FROM A BOURBON MASH” or “CORN WHISKEY — A BLEND”, well, that’s just not that important to them, probably because there are so many varieties in the standards that are so close. I’d agree with them. I like the idea of small distillers doing straight whiskeys, but I’m very curious to try whiskeys aged in different woods, distilled from significantly different grains and proportions of grains…and I don’t really care what they’re tagged by the standards.
What I do want to see is good descriptions of just what I’m getting either on the label, or easily accessible on a distillery page on the Web. It’s a good story, it’s a good hook, it’s good information. And it’s the kind of thing that makes me go get my notebook.
Diageo’s Johnnie Walker line will see the debut of a new series of limited bottlings, the Johnnie Walker Select Casks, different wood-finished whiskies (the number of releases is unknown at this time). The first will be a Rye Cask Finish, released in September in U.S. markets. Diageo North America marketing director for Scotch whisky Brian Cox was quoted about the new series in Shanken News Daily, saying, “We’re considering Select Casks as an annual limited edition.”
The whisky grew out of Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge’s ongoing experimentation with the Johnnie Walker blends. The Rye Cask Finish is aged for 10 years in first-fill American oak, giving it a familiar vanilla smoothness, then finished for a month in rye casks to add a spicy note. “It’s fair to say the blend is generally more Speyside than our western island and coastal malts, with Cardhu remaining the heart,” Cox said.
It is bottled at 46% ABV, a higher proof than the other marques in the Johnnie Walker portfolio, in order to provide a more distinctive character when used in cocktails. The Select Cask series is chill-filtered, “in order to maintain Johnnie Walker’s classic texture and mouth-feel.”
“We have a team of 13 blenders experimenting with different whiskies,” Cox said. “Some experiments, like Double Black, turn out to be very much in the house style and available in enough quantity that we can make them permanent parts of the portfolio. Some are more finite by nature, involving research to learn more about different flavor profiles, aging techniques, and so on. Rye Cask Finish is one of the latter.”
The bottle will sell for a suggested retail price of $45. As single malt prices (and bourbon and rye prices) continue to climb, it’s good to see some interesting new products coming into the market at a price that encourages experimenting. It’s also interesting to see that the slowly growing availability of used rye barrels isn’t going unnoticed by Scotch whisky makers.
Warlike destruction came to Louisville this week. When I saw the Whiskey Row ashes, the smoldering charred wood, facades holding on by historic bricks, I was reminded of the carnage of war and my personal moments in it. I was taken back to a time I once tried to forget, only to fail and be forced to deal with the memories. In Iraq, I was an Army photographer. I walked through the streets and villages, and in homes, with an M-16 slung from my side and a Nikon D1X firmly gripped, always ready to capture combat or whatever.
Halfway through my 2004 deployment, I lost count of how many car bombs I photographed and eventually became numb to the site of splattered human remains. On June 24, 2004, I photographed two car bombs and later came under fire, as an RPG headed right toward me, only to bounce—a lucky dud round—and fly over my head, sparing my life.
My war past has collided with the present. It began with the Silver Trail Distillery fire on April 24 that burned the Hardin, Ky., distillery to the ground. The still suffered a “massive” failure and exploded, injuring cousins Jay and Kyle Rogers. Kyle would later die from injuries sustained; and as I blogged about this, I kept wondering why and how, and genuinely felt pain for the families and the Silver Trail Distillery, which is currently suing the still maker. (You can contribute to their families through the Kentucky Distillers Association’s Silver Trail fund.)
During all my efforts to build awareness for the Silver Trail victims, I still could not believe what had happened. People are not supposed to die in distilleries. Tragedy is expected in war; good times are expected in whiskey.
On July 6, Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row caught fire. Tears fell down my face, as I saw the image. How many people were inside? Is this the end of a beautiful historic district? As the thick flames rose high, smoke encompassing the entire district and neighbors were evacuated, I hoped for the best, but feared the worst.
Nobody was hurt. Thank God!
When I finally arrived at the Whiskey Row buildings—111, 113 and 115 West Main Street—the next morning, the smoldering continued and firefighters still actively fought the fire. Brown-Forman co-owned the buildings and planned its new $45 million Old Forester distillery next door.
Old Forester had yet to begin construction and was merely a hole in the ground, so it was never at risk. The historic facades remain in place and the Louisville mayor remains optimistic the 1850s-era building fronts can be saved, but firefighters told me it’s unknown whether they’ll hold. They also said that there’s no way of knowing what caused the fire until they’re able to safely get inside to study the debris, which may take a few days.
For now, the firefighters valiantly save Whiskey Row and deserve the nation’s absolute gratitude for trying to save Louisville’s history. Brown-Forman said plans remain unchanged and it hopes to hold an Old Forester groundbreaking later this summer.
Bourbon’s troubles weren’t over. One day after the fire, the National Weather Service reported 95 mph winds in the Bardstown area. Microbursts caused severe wind damage to Heaven Hill’s Warehouse O and moderate damage to Warehouse P. O’s roof folded over like a pancake, half dangling over the side, the other half splayed open just feet way. About 1/3 of P’s roof was sliced open like a tin can. They reminded me of buildings pelted by rockets and mortars.
Inside, though, was a different story. It was a magnificent and rare look at a roofless bourbon warehouse. Sunlight and rain trickled down through both warehouses, and the open roof gave the impression that the hand of God could come in at any moment and swipe a few honey barrels.
The sides slightly wobbled when pushed without the roof stabilization. I can’t count how many times I’ve been inside booze warehouses; they all feel stiff and sturdy with an occasional crick and crack. Warehouse O, an 18,900-barrel warehouse, was springy, yet eerily didn’t make a sound. Perhaps I was just looking up the whole time, amazed by the rays of light seeping through the cracks, and ignored the normal rickhouse sounds. Aromas also normally fill a warehouse, but not in O. With an open roof and significant moisture, Warehouse O’s normal caramel and vanilla sweetness were lessened by airflow and dampness.
Amazingly, although I was not allowed to walk into the ricks for safety reasons, I could not see or smell busted barrels. In fact, only a couple casks appeared to be out of place, and they were half in the rack. I saw barrels with 2004 stencils and the warehouse manager said the oldest barrel was likely 20 years old, so there’s no doubt that this was an important warehouse to the Heaven Hill inventory.
The whiskey is safe and will likely go into the normal production, with a Heaven Hill spokesperson saying it’s “highly unlikely” they would create a special project similar to Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse C “cyclone” bourbon.
As I sought information in the Heaven Hill story, I felt different than during the Silver Trail or Whiskey Row tragedies. At some point, I realized the roofless warehouse circled back to the whiskey and the numbness of carnage did not take hold. It was all about the bourbon.
Bourbon is beautiful. I love tasting it, explaining the subtle nuances in a wheated bourbon vs. the meatier high-rye bourbons, and I love digging deep in archives and interviewing production officials to find editorial nuggets for bourbon fans. Bourbon has become my passion, a career choice that I hope spans my lifetime.
And I sincerely hope this is the last time that Kentucky distillers must endure the ashes and death meant for war.
Along with the whiskey samples we get here at the magazine, we get whiskey-related gadgets. Most of them aren’t worth your time — hats with flasks and sippy straws, “whiskey pong” sets — but some of them are things that pique our interest. Those fall mainly into four categories: flasks (we’ll always try out a new flask), chilling ideas for individual glasses of whisky, apps and guides, and the new rush of wood insert ‘whisky improvers.’ We try them out, and if they’re interesting, or superior, we’ll let you know.
To be honest, most of them don’t make the cut. The various non-ice chilling devices — stone, metal, ceramic — scare our dentists (or break, which is even more concerning); a flask is a flask (except the ones with the cool glass insert…and alcohol-soluble adhesive holding it in place!); we have our own set of Buying Guide reviews; and…the wood things just seem shady.
But recently I tried out two things that I do think are worth passing on, a flask, and a chilling glass. Have a look.
The first is the Vargo Titanium Funnel Flask. I tried this once, back in early May, and it has become my go-to flask, even over the monogrammed Dalvey flask my wife gave me. It’s not particularly stylish, it holds more than I usually like to carry in a flask, and the cap doesn’t have a hinge attaching it to the body of the flask, something I’ve come to appreciate in my own fumble-fingered way.
So what’s the story? Three things.
First, it’s titanium. That’s not just ‘gee-whiz, it’s titanium,’ it’s about the lightweight strength. I carry it in my hip pocket, I sit down, I lean on railings, I am not mindful of it…and there’s not a dent in it. It’s also about the inert nature of this nonreactive metal, which is to say, the whiskey doesn’t taste funny or metallic after three days, or change color. I’ve had whiskey in there for over a week, and it looks and smells and tastes the same as a fresh pour from the same bottle. That’s really nice.
Next, it’s expensive at about $75, and you can’t engrave it, but it’s less expensive than other titanium flasks (significantly less) or the Dalvey, though the Dalvey completely blows it away when it comes to classy-looking.
But most of all, it’s The Funnel, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a flask. Check out the picture: it’s a substantial, integrated, silicon funnel that flips up to fill, then flips down out of the way. It’s easily washed after filling, once the cap is screwed back in. Best of all, it really works. I’ve had zero problems using it: no spills, no bubble-ups, no clogging, and it even lets you fill right up to the top…and then easily pour that last half-ounce back in the bottle (or into a glass, if you’d rather). I’ve tried a lot of funnels for flasks, but this is the killer app for flasks.
To tell the truth, like I said, I’ve been using the Vargo flask for two months now, and I can’t find any flaws, other those little ones I mentioned. If they made one about 2/3 this size, put a black glaze on it, and chained the cap to the body? Pure perfection. But I’ll happily take it as it is.
The second thing is the Whiskey Wedge glass, from Corkcicle, a company that has a variety of drink-chilling gadgets. We’ve all seen the molds for oversized balls of ice, blocks of ice, shards of ice that you then peel out of the mold and put in your glass. The Whiskey Wedge does it differently. It comes with a glass, and a silicon mold that fits over the glass, a big black wedge that fits down into the glass. The top has a hole, and an overflow area. Clean the mold and the glass, fit the mold into the glass, and fill with water; pour off the excess. Put it in the freezer. When it’s solid, the mold comes out easily; no, really, it does. You’re left with a wedge of ice that’s only in contact with the whiskey on one side.
Does it work? Yes, it does. I poured the Wedge full of Booker’s the other night, on a hot summer evening, and slowly drank it down on my deck (that’s work at Whisky Advocate, folks). By the time I was done, well over half the wedge was still in place, and it was still sticking to the glass. No clanking, no fast melting, no whiskey hiding under an oddly melting block. I’d have to have at least two of them to keep it going, of course, but as well as it works, and as cool as it looks, that’s looking likely.
Enjoy your summer more with a flask that easily goes with you wherever you go, and a chilling glass that brings your whiskey to a more appropriate American drinking temperature.
Hey, remember that coffee-finished whiskey from Bowman I posted about back in March? Distiller Brian Prewitt was going to decide whether to bottle it or not, after tasting it.
Well…he did. It came out as Abraham Bowman Coffee Finished Bourbon, and all of it was sold at the distillery in Fredericksburg, Va. I got a sample, and while the coffee aroma isn’t that present, the coffee flavor in the whiskey is solid, and pure, and — to this coffee drinker — right tasty.
But it’s gone, as most of the Abraham Bowman line is. This set of bottlings is designed to be — in the tradition of their parent company, Sazerac, and Buffalo Trace — experimental, almost to the point of whim. And now that mashing and fermentation facilities and the new still — George — are in place at Bowman, the experiments will continue.
I asked Brian Prewitt about the Bowman line.
How much of each release do you make, and is it only sold at the distillery?
The Abraham line is very limited and while we like to have a nice stock of each release at the distillery, most of the Abraham is sent out to retailers across the country.
How do you choose which ideas will be moving forward? Is it completely trial and error, or is there method to the madness?
There is a method to the madness, but it is also a process of opportunity. I have several trials laid out that I would like to attempt, but I also know that inspiration comes in many different ways. For example, for the coffee finish I was thinking about trialing something like the coffee finish but wasn’t sure what variable to trial first. By chance, John Freund from Ricks Roasters came into the distillery and thus the coffee finish was born.
We constantly maintain a list of ideas, adding items as they come up. For many of the experiments that we trial we try different variables to see what works. Not all variables or experiments make the grade. Sometimes, the ones that I am concerned about turn out to be remarkable, but because I deemed them to be potentially a higher risk for failure, I may produce less whiskey for that variable.
Will you be using different mashbills, mashing, and fermentation regimens now that you have control on that in-house?
Absolutely! The first batch of whiskey off of George [the new still at Bowman] will be slated for [the] Abraham [line] and will be our original bourbon recipe. Afterwards, we are going to trial different grains, mash bills, techniques, fermentation profiles, yeasts, distillation methods, and finally aging and finishing regimes.
Will you ever repeat one?
My hope is to find a whiskey that is truly exceptional and the process that it takes to make that truly exceptional whiskey. If we find one that we feel is exceptional it is a possibility that we will make it again but most of our experiments are likely to not be repeated.
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.