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.
We have an article in the latest issue, Summer 2015, titled “Big Beer, Whiskey Chaser,” about the popular practice of aging beers in bourbon barrels. We talked to a number of the foremost brewers of such beers, like Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Todd Ashman of Fifty/Fifty and Eclipse, Matthew Brynildsson of Firestone Walker, and Chris Wilson of Weyerbacher.
I decided it would be cool to get some video to go with the piece, and Weyerbacher is just over the hill from our offices — okay, over about five hills, but who’s counting! — so one morning I went up there and shot some video. It happened to be their 20th anniversary year, which is interesting for me: John Hansell introduced me to Dan Weirback, the brewery founder, all the way back in 1995. I’ve known Dan ever since, interviewed him numerous times, drove up to Albany with him one time to do an event together…and sure enough, wound up standing at the brewery’s tasting room bar with him this morning, sampling Sunday Morning Stout (SMS), the barrel-aged beer I’d come to get a closer look at. It’s a coffee beer, great stuff for 10 AM!
They were disgorging barrels of SMS that morning, and I took some fairly mundane video of that, but the audio is interesting. It’s brewery production manager Chris Lampe explaining what type of beer SMS is, and how they take one last step to make sure they don’t get a sour barrel into the blend. Have a look and listen; warning, it’s kind of loud, we were shouting over the noise of the bottling line, right beside us.
After that, I went back to the lab. Weyerbacher was the only brewery I talked to for the story that was of the opinion that barrel-aged beers had to be watched carefully to prevent an infection that would create sour beer. Sour beers are a quite popular niche right now, and Weyerbacher makes some very good ones, like Riserva, and their new session beer, Tarte Nouveau. But they do NOT want beers like SMS going sour; they’re in wood for the rich character that bourbon-soaked oak can give. The other breweries said that a variety of natural defenses kept the beer from going sour. Weyerbacher, it turns out, had experience of a barrel going sour, and with the cost of the beer and the barrel, decided that wasn’t going to happen again.
Chris Reilly, their quality assurance/quality control manager and lab manager (and, full disclosure, my former neighbor who used to drop by with brewery and homebrewing samples!), told me about the process and equipment they were field-testing for a Philadelphia company that did fast analysis of beer spoilage precursors to stop infections in their tracks. Kinda geeky, but kinda cool; and nowhere near as noisy!
If you’d like to see more of this added detail in the future — if we have it to provide — let us know in the comments. Thanks!
When Ray Schuhmann, president of Louisville’s Kinetic Corp., bought the National Distillers maturation and bottling plant now known as Distillery Commons about 35 years ago, one of his first acts was to remove all of the fixtures associated with its former use. He intended to convert the buildings into photography studios, laboratories, offices, and other uses. He told me that every time he removed a fixture or opened a wall, he discovered dozens, sometimes hundreds, of empty Old Grand-Dad pints.
All businesses have to contend with employee theft. At distilleries, it’s usually limited to individual bottles of whiskey, a theft compounded by another prohibited activity: drinking on the job. Once the contents have been consumed, making the empty bottle disappear completes the perfect crime. It’s one that has been committed thousands of times in every era and at every distillery.
So distillery workers stealing whiskey is nothing new in Kentucky and Tennessee. Sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s money, embezzlement. I remember one occasion when it was $20,000 worth of AV equipment. Usually it’s handled quietly. Nobody benefits from that sort of publicity.
Sometimes whiskey still in the barrel is stolen, but there has never been anything like the recently exposed ring that stole barrels and finished goods worth more than $100,000 from two distilleries over a period of several years. Stealing barrels is brazen. “The thefts of full barrels of whiskey in this recent case are striking,” says Jay Erisman, vice president of New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky. “Full barrels are hard to get away with. The things weigh 500 pounds when new and simply cannot be manhandled, you have to have mechanical assistance, i.e. a forklift or other hoist.” They are big, heavy, awkward, and obvious.
No doubt this unprecedented crime has every whiskey producer reviewing its security systems.
Knowing no one would comment on the current case, I asked instead how they generally protect against this sort of threat. Curiously, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) and Wild Turkey (Campari), the two victims, answered identically, word for word: “We have already conducted and continue to conduct an audit of all existing security measures. As a result of the audit, we have made adjustments and improvements to our security program which obviously we are not prepared to discuss in public.”
Other producers were willing to say a little more. Here is Larry Kass at Heaven Hill. “We have video surveillance of all key access points at all facilities, including entrances, shipping and loading docks and finished goods warehouses, which are both monitored live on camera and recorded. We have extended this video monitoring capability to all warehouse locations, including Glencoe, T. W. Samuels, and Bernheim. In addition, there is a card reader security system for all employees that also tracks who goes in and who comes out. Finally, all premium items above a certain FOB price level are kept in a locked cage only accessible by supervisors.”
This statement from Kevin Smith, Vice President, Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs at Beam-Suntory (and formerly Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark), is so confident he almost sounds cocky: “Many years ago we implemented a number of stringent security measures at all of our distilleries, including full-time security guards, numerous monitor alarms and 24/7 surveillance camera protection. We are extremely confident in these security measures, however, we continually review our processes to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect Jim Beam, which is the world’s number one selling bourbon.”
Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses, is similarly confident, especially about the distillery’s employees: “I believe in the integrity and credibility of our employees and staff, and I can’t recall the last time we had to deal with a theft issue. Our barrel warehouses are totally enclosed and secured, and we have guard service 24/7 at both operating facilities. Surveillance cameras are installed in critical areas of operations, especially in areas which may be exposed to outside personnel, and our employees are okay with this policy.”
Rutledge is confident but also realistic. “Unfortunately, all businesses are exposed to potential internal thefts and it is improbable to think they can all be secured and safeguarded; otherwise, complacency may set-in and open the door to temptation and possible theft. It is best to be proactive when it comes to protecting company interests and operating profits.”
Here is what the biggest dog, Brown-Forman, had to say: “All of Brown-Forman’s distilleries and other production locations (bottling, shipping, etc.) have security officers on-site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they perform several tours through the facilities during each shift to monitor safety and security. We also have security cameras and card reader systems installed at most facilities to electronically monitor security as part of the overall security program, in concert with security tours.
“From a barrel security standpoint, all warehouses are double-locked and no one person is ever allowed to sign out both keys to a warehouse. All warehouses are covered by security cameras feeding to DVR’s and monitored 24/7.
“At Jack Daniel’s, we have guards manning stations at the Distillery, Bottling and our Tract 3 warehouse area as well as a 24/7 roving patrol. When barrels are entered or removed from a warehouse the truck drivers and either entry foreman or dump room foreman must count the barrels handled and both must sign off on the count. Theft would require collusion among several individuals. Warehouses are cycle counted by accounting personnel each month with every warehouse counted at least once each year.
“While not full-proof, the security protocols at our distilleries and other production facilities strike a balance of sound security measures while allowing the business to operate efficiently.”
When the recent theft ring was busted, many observers assumed the victims were caught napping, yet they and Kentucky’s other distilleries all have robust technological and human security systems in place. If the distilleries aren’t proactive enough about security, they hear about it from their insurers. Security is taken seriously. Maybe someday we will learn how a ragtag gang of softball buddies (and, we’ve now learned, at least one compromised security guard) successfully thwarted those systems on multiple occasions.
We were sad to read of the death of Kyle Rogers on Monday. Kyle, only 27 years old, was caught in the explosion at Silver Trail Distillery last month. The Hardin County (Kentucky) distillery exploded and burned to the ground on April 24. Rogers and his cousin, distiller Jay Rogers, were caught in the blast; Jay remains in stable condition at the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville. Spencer Balentine, the founder of Silver Trail, paid tribute to Kyle on the distillery’s Facebook page, saying he “left a legacy etched in our minds.”
Working as a distiller means a certain amount of truly dangerous risk: heavy machinery, heavy barrels, explosive vapors and dust, live steam, fire. You try to minimize it through proper safety procedures, but nothing is perfectly safe. Kyle and Jay met that risk face to face. In recognition of that common danger, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association has created a “Lifting Spirits Fund,” a way to donate money to cover the medical bills for the two men’s families. Every dollar collected will go to the families. You can make your donation here.
Today we present the ten highest-rated reviews from the summer issue of Whisky Advocate magazine. This issue’s Buying Guide is brimming with 110 whiskies reviewed and 19 beers. We start with #10 and conclude with the highest-rated whisky of the issue.
Redbreast Mano a Lámh, 46%, €65
Oh, hello there. Meaning hand in hand in two languages, this Redbreast was solely matured in Galician oak seasoned with oloroso for 2 years at the Páez Morilla bodega in Jerez. A slightly closed nose of eucalyptus, menthol, and apple pre-empts a rich, fruity, cherry bomb of dark sugars, strawberry laces, morello, and clove. The fabulous pot still character ends on a sliver of mint as the fruit gently dulls. (2,000 bottles exclusively for The Stillhouse, Midleton’s single pot still club)—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
Originally blended, then recasked into fresh bourbon wood three decades ago, the nose of ripened peaches, cooked pear, pecan nuts, menthol, clove, and vanilla make for a compelling combination. A surprising lift of red summer fruits as this bright whisky sashays around the mouth, the complexity measured out in installments: plum sauce, toasted oak, coffee bean, gingersnaps, clove, licorice, and hints of savory juices. It dances on and on with the whirling wood spices in no hurry whatsoever. (592 bottles)—Jonny McCormick
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve (Lot 252), 40%, $47
Finished in wet, freshly-dumped bourbon barrels, Double Barrel shows strong bourbonesque vanilla and a slippery, almost syrupy lushness. This latest batch is even creamier than the early ones made by John Hall himself. After a deceptively simple start, a mouth-filling toffee sweetness broadens into ripe tropical fruits with fleeting under-notes reminiscent of earthy dragonfruit. Hot, peppery flares punctuate the soft fruitiness as it moves to the fore and the creamy mouthfeel subsides.—Davin deKergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
The fifth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series (and the youngest of the releases so far). Distilled at the “new” Bernheim distillery and, once again, matured most recently in Stitzel-Weller warehouses. Complex flavors are well-integrated, with lovely spice notes (cinnamon, vanilla, mint, nutmeg), nougat, caramel, and subtle fruit. Long, satisfying finish. Not as distinctive as some previous Orphan Barrel releases, but more rounded and balanced. Nicely done!—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
Douglas Laing Extra Old Particular (distilled at Mortlach) 22 year old, 57.1%, £191
Deep amber. Generous sweet sherried nose; very ripe, with dried orchard fruits, chestnut puree, and indeed chestnut honey, then a little touch of meat and a pungency akin to Guyanan pot still rum. Sumptuous. As it opens there’s a fluxing mix of sticky toffee, game, pomegranate, and dried red fruits. The palate is deeply savory, with floor polish and cooked plums, finishing with fragrant pepper. The cask has a huge say in things, but the spirit copes. Excellent.—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
Handpicked from over 100 casks, this is a belter! Puréed prune, dunnage, black licorice, clove, coffee bean, and raisin-studded chocolate. It’s like scorched earth after a wildfire. There is a syrupy, dark rum-like sweetness, a medley of cinnamon, cocoa, raisin, and vanilla essence. Water flushes out some gentle smoke and adds smoothness, but by god, it’s wonderful neat. The best yet from Spirit of Hven. (294 bottles)—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
Canadian Club 1960s, 40%, A$164
Fifty years on, the standard Canadian Club becomes very complex and in-your-face delicious. Barley sugar sweetness blossoms into creamy caramel in a dark, heavy, full-bodied whisky with cinnamon, hot chewing tobacco, and sizzling spice. Acetone, dry wood, and peaches on the nose give way to musty perfumed sandalwood and fresh crisp oak, with glowing embers in the throat. Floral, sweet, and a bit nutty, it finishes slowly in leather and furniture polish. (Australia only)—Davin deKergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
Mackillop’s Choice (distilled at Mortlach) 1991, 56.6%, £198
Full gold. Weighty, but not oppressed by wood. Full, rich rancio aroma, which brings to mind an ancient cognac. It is rich and powerful, but has great finesse and perfect balance: cooked fruit, some spice, a lot of waxiness, licorice…and then the distillery’s signature meatiness. The palate starts sweetly with ripe old autumn fruits, and soft tannins. This has everything you want from a mature whisky, and from Mortlach, with added elegance. Highly recommended.—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve (Lot 1867D), 40%, $50
If you worried what would happen when Forty Creek ran out of Canadian oak barrels, you will be pleased to know John Hall found more local oak trees and had new barrels made; this time in Canada. This tightly integrated dram is rich in woody maple syrup, with raisins, almonds, and vanilla ice cream that softens a peppery glow. Silkier than the original, slightly restrained, and ever so quaffable. A longish, pithy finish begs another sip. Still a classic.—Davin deKergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
Midleton Very Rare 30th Anniversary Pearl Edition, 53.1%, €6,000
A marriage of a single cask of grain from 1981 with a cask of pot still from 1984 to celebrate 30 years of Midleton Very Rare, the job undertaken masterfully by Barry Crockett and Brian Nation. The expressive nose is redolent of polished antique violin, warm gingerbread, the herbal tinges pricked by spices. Delicate honey, rich vanilla, toasty oak, and tendrils of cinnamon segue into a dry, spicy conclusion. La Peregrina of Irish whiskey. Ain’t she a beauty? (117 bottles)—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
Seated before us, high above Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was what can only be described as a smoothness of master blenders.* We were spending an entertaining evening in the company of these men and women, little knowing it would be the final time for one of them. But before all that, let me take you back to the start of the evening.
As we sipped our cocktails, a man slipped unnoticed through the crowd at the Scotch Whisky Experience, armed with a microphone. It was John Ramsay, Edrington’s former malt master for Glenrothes. Following Ramsay’s welcome, he revealed his esteemed panel of fellow blenders standing on the balcony above us to spontaneous applause from the one hundred assembled guests. And well they might, for we were in the presence of living legends.
Upstairs, each blender manned a table and personally filled your glass, affording attendees unprecedented access to ask the blenders any whisky question they liked. David Stewart, the Balvenie malt master for William Grant & Sons, was the first face I saw on entering the bar. He was pouring Balvenie Doublewood 17 year old after a third day of judging more than 100 whiskies. Opposite him, a smiling Billy Leighton, master blender for Irish Distillers, had two open bottles of Crested Ten to pour. It’s a hidden gem of an Irish blend, with a higher pot still content and higher proportion of sherry casks than regular Jameson and I was glad to be reacquainted with it.
There was Angela D’Orazio from Mackmyra, who had brought some new expressions including Mackmyra Sommartid (meaning summertime). As the canapés from the Amber restaurant circulated under my nose, I made my way through to see Gordon Motion, the man who assumed the mantle of master blender for Edrington after John Ramsay’s retirement. Gordon had a busy evening as he was dispensing drams from the Art Deco bottles of Cutty Sark 33 year old and many guests found that one taste was simply not enough.
Next, I entered the brightly lit chamber that holds more than 3,500 bottles of the Diageo Claive Vidiz collection, one of Whisky Advocate’s Seven Wonders of the Scotch Whisky World. Richard Paterson was holding court, educating attendees on how to nose and taste Dalmore 15 year old. At least I think it was Richard Paterson…the nose and moustache looked right, but where was the knotted silk necktie? Where were the gold cufflinks? I was unaccustomed to seeing Richard so casually attired in a black polo shirt. What would his tailor think?
Back to back with Richard was Caroline Martin of Diageo, her bottles of Haig Club glowing in the light. Working tirelessly in the adjacent tasting room were both Shinju Fukuyo, chief blender for Beam Suntory, and Tadashi Sakuma, chief blender for Nikka (a former panelist at WhiskyFest New York), sending guests between the Yamazaki 18 year old and the Nikka 12 year old, despite their companies’ great historic rivalry.
After the session concluded, we trooped upstairs to the conference room that has been recently refurbished at a cost of $750,000. One by one, the blenders stood up to regale us with humorous anecdotes from their years in the industry. John Ramsay treated us to some uproarious tales from when he worked at Strathclyde distillery in the 1960s including a former colleague’s attempt to beat the excise man by slyly swallowing a significant quantity of siphoned grain neutral alcohol (ABV 96%), and a hilarious (though unprintable) tale about the time John was persuaded to take part in a police identity parade on his way home from his shift.
Gordon Motion, who worked as Ramsay’s assistant for many years, recalled the time both men were presented with a bale of Glenrothes tartan. John followed the advice of his boss and had his tartan fashioned into a stylish sports coat but that wasn’t really Gordon’s style: he confessed (to much laughter) that instead, he had re-covered his dining room chairs in the fabric. With a knowing wink, Gordon presented John with a gift to thank him for serving his final year as ISC chairman: a footstool (‘time to put your feet up’), made from wood taken from the washbacks at Highland Park and covered in the aforementioned Glenrothes tartan.
Richard Paterson took to the mike to lead the room in a tasting of Jura Turas Mara, the audience trying to second guess his trademark weather reports whenever he brought up a historical date. Despite stern warnings from Susan Morrison, the venue’s Director, who has overseen the transformation of this building into a top tourist attraction, Paterson still cleansed his glass in his inimitable style, flicking a dram across the pristine bespoke carpet (and several unsuspecting guests). Susan scowled from the back of the room while the audience whooped and cheered for more.
Despite the jocularity, the audience Q&A still tackled some serious issues; challenging the master blenders on non-age statement whiskies and their prices, the preservation of the historic Kennetpans distillery site, the role of computers in the blending lab, and the disappearance of Johnnie Walker Green Label from many markets. (A hat tip to Martin, who wound up fielding most of the tough questions.)
What else did we learn? The blenders have enormous respect for one another and relish their rare get-togethers. As they are all at the top of their professional game, there are no egos and no company rivalries. Blenders across the board feel subordinate to the marketing departments, which clearly creates a degree of friction. Master blenders like, nay, prefer the creative freedom of non-aged statement whiskies because they can use the casks they desire with the flavors they seek, rather than be restricted to the portion of the inventory that’s passed an arbitrary number of years. Intriguingly, Shinju Fukuyo responded affirmatively to my question inquiring if Suntory had ever conducted maturation experiments filling Scotch whisky into mizunara (Japanese oak) casks and a product may not be too far away. I would love to try that some day, for sure.
With Ramsay retiring from his chairmanship, it is clear that this particular panel of blenders will never convene again, which made this congenial evening very special indeed. As the guests filed out into the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the blenders could finally unwind. Out the corner of my eye, I spotted Richard Paterson relax and slip into something a little more formal, pulling on a smartly tailored jacket complete with patterned pocket square. Ah, that’s better!
*I don’t believe there is a recognized collective noun for master blenders, so I simply made one up. Alternative suggestions are welcome in the comments below.
The term ‘legend’ is one which is bandied around rather too freely these days. There are, however, a few figures who richly deserve that accolade. Jim McEwan is one. After 52 years in whisky, he has announced that he will be retiring. It seems a strange term to see, as “retiring” is hardly the term anyone would ever use to describe Jim. Countless whisky lovers the world over have been educated and entertained with his stories, peppered with the surreal absurdity of Scottish west coast humor, stories which grew longer and more hilarious with each retelling.
His whisky life started on August 1st, 1963 when he was taken on as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore. After working in every other area of the distillery, he ended up as cellar-master, and then trainee blender. In 1986, he was made the distillery’s manager.
It was in this role that I first met him…on the back of an inflatable banana. You see, surreal. It was the start of a cherished friendship. Spending any time with Jim gets you immediately swept up in his enthusiasm and passion for whisky, ideas and schemes pouring from him. Within the space of a few hours he had arranged for me to work night shift for a week at Bowmore, with the days spent driving around the island with him, meeting distillers and the people who made the island the place it is. It as the start of my whisky education, because he drilled into me the lesson that people make whisky.
In time, he became ambassador for Bowmore, but more importantly (and perhaps not always to the delights of his bosses), an ambassador for Islay. He knew that whisky is about community, something which is even more important on an island. It has always been more than just ‘whisky’ or ‘product’ to him.
It was a philosophy which he then applied when he became master distiller at Bruichladdich on its reopening in 2001. Bruichladdich was a chance to put his dreams into place: experimenting with different peating levels, getting barley grown again on Islay, looking at casks, designing a still and making gin, bringing employment to the island.
He may have been the public face of the Laddie, but in conversation he would always deflect the attention to the team. He was having fun, asking questions, creating a new community. He was hard-headed, but he was right. Behind the fun at the tastings was genuine passion for whisky, its history, its flavors, its inextricable links to Islay.
Once, when filming at Bruichladdich, I asked him to tell us about the mill. Now, the thing about filming is the need to be succinct. Jim started to talk. 20 minutes later, in an uninterrupted stream, he had taken us from the history of Bruichladdich, to biodynamics, organic farming, terroir, through the family history of the island’s farmers, then into Celtic mythology and the Vikings. He paused for a second. “Now,” he said. “The mill…” We all fell about laughing. It was the most difficult editing job the team ever had. Eventually they just let it run. It was Jim, after all.
The next generation is ready to take over. Time to nip across the burn to the house next door and his always supportive wife Barbara, his daughters and the grandchildren.
“The distillery is in great shape,” he told me. “I’ve done as much as I can here. We’re making great whisky and the whole team are fantastic: Allan Logan, Adam Hannett, Duncan MacGillivray, the Budgie, John Rennie…there’s 80 folk working here now. It’s a good feeling.
“It’s been a fantastic journey but now it’s time for the family. It’s time to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to see them become wee Ileachs. I realized when they left the last time that I didn’t want there to be another summer when I wouldn’t see them because I was working.”
There is a sense of an era now over, but I hope, like Frank Sinatra, he’ll never fully disappear. We wish him well.
Thanks Jim, it’s been a blast.