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.
A new Canadian whisky recently introduced across America is raising a few purist’s eyebrows. Meanwhile, at home, Alberta Rye Dark Batch has become a favorite cocktail rye with Canadian bartenders. The controversy? Dark Batch is made by adding about 8% bourbon and 1% sherry to mature whisky distilled from 100% rye grain. And though Canada’s 9.09% rule allows this, it has some whisky enthusiasts scratching their heads.
We may wonder why Canadian regulations permit distillers to add foreign spirits to Canadian whisky. I know I did. While researching my book I interviewed over a dozen retired whisky makers and though none was really certain, they all pointed vaguely to whisky baron Sam Bronfman.
They told me Bronfman wanted to compete with American whisky producers who included as much as 80% inexpensive grain neutral spirits (GNS) in their blended whisky. Meanwhile, Canadian regulations required that all components of Canadian whisky be aged for at least 3 years. This, of course, increased the cost of production.
The legend – and I am loathe to cite any whisky legend as fact – says it was Bronfman who negotiated a deal with American tax officials to receive significant tax breaks if he included spirits from struggling U.S. producers in his Canadian whisky. He then convinced Canadian officials to permit up to one part of non-whisky spirits be added to ten parts of Canadian whisky. The spirits he added still had to be at least two years old, so they were more expensive than neutral spirits, but the tax advantages made up for that.
Not all Canadian whisky makers liked this idea. The former long-time distillery manager of Schenley distillery told me he never allowed any spirits of any kind on site except those he made. His whisky was 100% distilled by Schenley in its Valleyfield distillery.
Another told me she routinely used the 9.09% rule for whisky bound for the U.S. However, she took umbrage and pretended to spit on the floor when I asked her if she also included it in whisky that would be sold in Canada. Moreover, she told me, while the rule made financial sense for high-volume mixing whisky, for lower-volume sippers it provided no advantage.
So what does all this have to do with Alberta Rye Dark Batch? Well, just this. Dark Batch is a premium whisky that uses the 9.09% rule to its limit, not just for the U.S. market, but in Canada as well. Remember, Dark Batch includes 8% real American bourbon and 1% oloroso sherry.
When the whisky was launched in Canada, master ambassador Dan Tullio wondered out loud how he would explain this to the whisky cognoscenti. “Just tell them the truth,” said brand manager Rob Tucker, “and let the flavor do the rest.” Dan wasn’t so sure, and I was certain it would bomb.
However, bartenders across Canada disagreed with us. An unofficial poll shows it has become the favorite mixing rye in about three of four barrooms. It also is a bartenders’ favorite for their own creations.
For example, according to Joel Carleton, who tends the bar at Fox & Fiddle in downtown Winnipeg and coordinates the Manitoba Bartenders Guild, “I choose this rye for the robust spicy profile and rich flavors. It embodies rye whiskies the best, and represents a diverse aroma and palate combo that allows me to mix with it more effectively.”
In an infographic that accompanied its release, Beam Suntory explained that Dark Batch was made from 91% rye. Of this 91%, about half was distilled to low ABV in a pot still and aged 6 years in new barrels. The rest was distilled to higher ABV and aged 12 years in used barrels. So technically it meets the U.S. 51% rule. Or does it? And even more, should or could it? Canadian whisky is made using Canadian processes and under Canadian regulations, so U.S. rules are irrelevant, just as they are to single malt scotch or Irish whiskey.
Tucker had warned Tullio not to get into explaining percentages of percentages because it was too confusing. But Whisky Advocate readers are keen on this; we want to know. Let’s look at that 51%, then.
First we need to know that the more flavorful the rye grain, the less alcohol it contributes to a mash. More protein equals more flavor, but also proportionally less starch, so less alcohol. Good Canadian rye grain, properly fermented to completion, will yield a fermented mash of about 6% alcohol. On the other hand, when corn is fermented to completion it yields 14, 15, even 16% alcohol. So, when all is said and done, a mash of 51% rye and 49% corn will produce more than twice as much corn alcohol as rye alcohol.
But in Canada we don’t generally use mash bills. Rather, the individual grains are fermented and matured separately before blending. So, a whisky made from 51% mature rye spirit and 49% corn spirit will contain about equal amounts of rye and corn alcohol. At 91% rye spirit, Dark Batch leans very heavily on this spice-rich grain. But if rye brings intense spice, fruit and floral notes to the whisky equation, corn balances that with a luscious, mouth-coating body. And oloroso sherry? It enhances those fruity, floral notes, polishing the roughest edges off the rye.
Yes, the corn whisky came from Kentucky and the sherry from Spain, so if you’re a whisky geek who eschews “additives” and demands that everything comes from the same distillery, you may take umbrage. But if you taste Dark Batch blind in a line-up, you might be surprised. For, as we have seen in here Canada, you just might enjoy the tingly dance it does on your tongue. Until you get that chance…you might want to suspend judgment.
I’ve just spent two days at Buffalo Trace with other journalists, learning more about the Single Oak Project, the coming distillery expansion, and the philosophy that drives their continued experimentation. It’s been a great time, and really makes me feel good about bourbon’s future. Here’s what happened.
First, I added two words to my vocabulary: “de-ricked” and “re-ricked.” Buffalo Trace has bought back Warehouses R,S,T, and U, the remaining original buildings on the distillery campus. They had been built fast and filled fast in the late 1940s, when the distillery owners didn’t want to get caught in another lack of stock similar to what had happened in World War II.
But bourbon sales dropped in the 1970s, so the buildings were sold and rebuilt as office buildings in the 1980s, which is when the de-ricking took place; all the ricks were taken out, carpet and drop ceilings installed. But lately the occupancy—mostly state government workers—had been slipping, and the real estate company lost the buildings to the bank…Buffalo Trace’s bank. The distillery offered the bank a dollar more than the note on the buildings, and the deal was done.
Two of the warehouses are in the process of being re-ricked now (the other two won’t be cleared of the current tenants until 2017, under the terms of the deal), and the work is proceeding at a furious pace. Construction teams were working hard on the fifth floor, bolting together pine 4X4s, while the first floor was already filled with 10,000 barrels. In January, that first floor was still offices!
That’s only four additional warehouses, though, and Buffalo Trace is finally flexing the full muscle of their impressive distilling capacity. Those warehouses won’t be empty for long. That’s why the decision was made to buy 282 acres on the ridge above the distillery. At least 30 warehouses will be going in on the new property, at 50,000 barrels each, a new warehouse every five months for ten years. They’re already growing corn up there, a non-GMO strain of white corn dating back to the 1860s, to make an estate bottling of bourbon.
There’s only a tightly-winding narrow road up to the property now (which is apparently how the former owner liked it). That’s why they bought a parcel of 50 acres that connects out to Rt. 127, which will become the main access to the site for construction, emergency, and — eventually — barrel trucks. Although…Brown is still toying with the idea of either pumping bourbon up to the site for barreling there, or with a conveyor to get the filled barrels up the hill. Big ideas are bubbling.
There’s one more warehouse that’s of special interest at the Trace. Remember the Warehouse X project, the five-chambered test warehouse? 150 barrels of bourbon are in there now, testing the effects of light on aging. Light? The barrels are opaque, solid oak! But light is energy, and light on barrels warm the whiskey. So some chambers are in total darkness, one’s in natural light, and one’s at half-natural light. What if light makes a positive difference? We discussed, bemused, the possibility of completely redesigned warehouses with walls of glass.
The air-handling systems at Warehouse X, which can heat or cool or change the humidity separately in each of the four chambers not open to the outside, are capable of quickly matching the sudden swings in temperature and humidity common in this part of Kentucky (and were fully half the expense of the construction). Probes in two barrels in each chamber measure temperature and pressure. Fascinating whiskey aging research is being done. (You can read more here.)
But all these new developments—plus a new automated shipping warehouse, expanded gardens and an archeological survey of Col. Albert Blanton’s gardens, an expanded Visitor Center, and another restored building from the 1790s—weren’t even the main reason we were in Frankfort. We were there to taste the top five whiskeys from the Single Oak Project.
A quick reminder: the Single Oak Project was designed to test variables in bourbon aging, in what president Mark Brown puckishly called “Project Holy Grail,” a search for the way to make the perfect bourbon. Bourbons were barreled in oak from single trees, split into bottom and top halves, but varied by things like which mashbill (wheat or rye bourbon), what type of warehouse floor (concrete or wooden rick), and entry proof (105 or 125). (You can learn a lot more about the project here.)
This produced 192 bourbons, all at 8 years old, which were released in batches over the past four years. People who tasted them were encouraged to review them online at the project’s website. The data were collected, put in a spreadsheet, and examined. Recently the last batch was released, and the results of all the reviews were weighed. The five bourbons which scored the highest (with at least ten reviews each) were presented to our group of 9 spirits writers…plus Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, Harlen Wheatley. We sniffed, tasted, swirled, added water and repeated, and them Brown polled us to call out our 5-star ratings on each one.
Release #80 was the clear winner: what was it? Surprisingly close to the distillery flagship, Buffalo Trace! It was the rye bourbon mashbill, aged in a barrel from the bottom half of the tree (the bottom half bottlings did better overall), at a 125 entry proof. We didn’t discuss our tastes, but I found this one to be complex, with wood and grain in good balance and a very nice finish. Apparently the group agreed: #80 garnered five 5-star ratings, and the most any other bottling got was two.
Does the research end there? Of course not. For one thing, there’s a lot of research to be done on warehouse design and siting. Almost every company builds the warehouses the same way, but there’s been no rigorous testing done on whether that’s the best way. Orientation, top of hill vs. valley, in the woods or in open fields? No one really knows, and you get the distinct impression that this ignorance—their own, not just the industry’s—really bothers Wheatley.
Then there’s the whole issue of supply: are they making enough whiskey? Well, who knows? Brown was quite frank about that. “None of us really know what we’re doing,” he said at one point. “We don’t, Beam doesn’t, Brown-Foreman doesn’t. We’re just betting people will keep buying bourbon.”
On a trip where the differences between what things were like 20 years ago—when a younger Harlen Wheatley abandoned the distillery laboratory facility because of a steam leak no one had the money to fix—and today—when Buffalo Trace has the money to have 17 full-time gardeners on staff—kept coming up as a head-shaking topic, it was clear that the bet was just that: a wager, not a prediction.
In the heart of thoroughbred country, maybe that’s just how it’s going to be; betting’s in the blood. Given the depth of research and commitment and experimentation at Buffalo Trace, they seem like favorites in the long run.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal wrote a brief, yet detailed, story about a bourbon barrel shortage. The piece quoted a university professor, a Brown-Forman executive, the Hardwood Market Report and respected coopers, all of whom pointed toward fewer white oak trees and stave mills to turn logs into barrel staves. It was a reasonable story that got chopped up into unreasonable pieces that became what Chuck Cowdery calls clickbait.
But people wouldn’t click if they were not interested. And the entire world is interested in… bourbon barrels. Who knew?
Before long, neighbors were texting me about this barrel shortage and the story was trending in places where comments take on a life of their own. I came across one commenter who called the Americans inability to reuse barrels “waste.” He was quickly put in his new charred oak place, so kudos to the keystroking whisky police.
Beyond its interest level to the normal people, though, this story caught me off guard. Sure, I’m known to sling the word shortage from time to time, but I stay on top of my bourbon barrel news. I am always asking distillers where they’re procuring wood, what are the prices, etc. At the Bourbon Classic event I emceed, I specifically asked Four Roses, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and a few other companies if they were having barrel shortages. They all said no.
Thus, this story surprised me. Did the WSJ reporter scoop me on my own beat?
“I have actually read about the shortage (or potential shortage) of white oak trees and bourbon barrels. I have not heard anything different from our barrel supplier than we discussed at the Bourbon Classic events,” says Jim Rutledge, the master distiller for Four Roses. “I don’t know if a possible shortage of barrels is being felt by the numerous small distilleries that have started up in recent years, but as far as I am aware, none of the eight major Kentucky bourbon distillers are feeling a pinch on supply at this time.”
So, who is feeling the supply pinch? Apparently, as Rutledge said, it’s the smaller distillers.
Brad Boswell, president of the Independent Stave Cooperage, says the established whiskey distillers make up the lion’s share of the demand for new barrels. “These established distillers have long-standing relationships with their coopers and for the greatest part their demand is being met by the cooperage industry,” Boswell says. “I’m certain that greater than 95% of the global demand for new American oak whiskey barrels is being met at this time.”
Boswell says the smaller distillers are caught in the gap and are making the “great amount of noise regarding their shortage of new barrels.”
Leroy McGinnis, founder of the Cuba, Missouri-based cooperage McGinnis Wood Products, adds that the competition among the cooperages and the loss of loggers hurts their ability to fulfill new orders. But McGinnis makes about 600 barrels a day for wine and whiskey producers, charging $150 for the average bourbon barrel. He refuses to take on a “highest bidder” approach and simply maintains his existing customers. McGinnis’ largest customer is Heaven Hill Brands, but he also services the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville and several craft distillers. He must say no a lot.
“We get emails everyday wanting barrels,” McGinnis says. “We have plenty of timber. We just don’t have the loggers anymore.”
The Kentucky-based Dunaway Timber Company acquires timber from private land owners and turns them into logs and then into barrel staves for the Brown-Forman Corporation. Dunaway owner Henry Christ says there’s not even a lack of loggers for his operation. “The logging community (at least in our area) has enjoyed a good logging winter season and stavemills are competing stronger than we have seen in recent years to attract the logs in their direction so that they to can take advantage of this growing market,” Christ says.
As you may recall from a 2013 Whisky Advocate article, I traveled with Christ and Woodford Reserve’s Chris Morris to learn what kind of a tree makes a great bourbon tree. That field research was done more than three years ago and Christ says his stave production has increased 10 percent since then. He says Dunaway pays more per stave log, but the inventory remains strong. “A log hits my yard today and will be inventoried for two to three months before processing,” Christ says. “But the cooperage inventory is so low due to increased barrel production that we are producing and selling this week and delivering next week. The demand for barrels both domestic and export is at record levels and cooperage production is running the same direction. ….For the most part, the stavemill is prepared to ramp up production if and when the loggers can get in the woods.”
There’s even promise for the oak growing in Kentucky, Christ says, with the U.S. Forest Service saying that Kentucky is growing at twice the harvest rate, offering a slight glimpse into the future supply of oak—at least for Kentucky. “We are not experiencing a shortage of timber or logs here in Fordsville, Ky. We can find the timber,” Christ says. “The real question is can we afford it and get it harvested fast enough to meet our current production needs.”
Of course, like anything, money talks. Boswell says his company has continued to raise its pay for white oak logs. At the same time, Independent Stave is developing new suppliers and territories to find cooperage-quality logs.
Since the majority of the oak used for bourbon barrels comes from private landowners in the Ozark and Appalachian areas, there’s likely a significant number of lumber mills driving through oak-friendly towns and seeking land with 65- to 80-year-old straight white oak trees that could be turned into stave logs right now. These landowners are positioned to receive bids from several companies, eventually increasing the price for the log. Independent Stave even has the No. 1 spot on Google for the search term “selling white oak logs,” with this online solicitation.
If you’re sitting on a gold mine of white oak, perhaps it’s time to sell. The value is based on state. A Grade 1 Stave Log in Tennessee averaged $817 per log last year, according to the September Tennessee Forest Products Bulletin, while the Missouri Department of Conservation indicates some stave logs sold as high as $1,400 apiece last year compared to the top price of $415 in 2012.
“Loggers, log brokers, and sawmills are all very motivated to sell white oak logs to our industry at these prices,” Boswell says.
So while there’s a national perception of a bourbon barrel shortage, the world’s largest cooperage says it’s “getting more volume” of white oak logs. And the larger distilleries are not experiencing a shortage. Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller Denny Potter tells me that the barrels are there, but are expensive.
However, for the newer 1 to 50 barrels-a-day distilleries, the barrel shortage is real. The major cooperages are giving barrel preference to their long-time customers, or may also be charging a premium for barrels. So many craft distillers are finding themselves on the outside looking in, either having to make a difficult financial decision to pay more than they can afford or to be put on a waiting list. “The craft spirit industry has a ton of energy and they’re wanting more barrels,” Boswell says. “While they are relatively small players in the industry, their cumulative voice is very loud and rightfully so.”
Meanwhile, as the bourbon boom continues and so-called craft whiskey is beginning to compete against the industry stalwarts, the barrel could become the great equalizer, and I really hope the distillers facing barrel concerns are able to stay afloat until barrels are affordable and available again. I’d hate to see good up-and-coming craft whiskey distillers make the shift to vodka.
Nobody wants to see that.