Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

Does It Really Have To Be Oak?

Friday, July 24th, 2015

author-lew-brysonFirst 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).

Peter and the juniper barrels

Peter and the juniper barrels

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.



Destruction in Bourbon Country

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Whiskey Row 4

WaAuthor - Fred Minnickrlike 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!

Whiskey Row 6When 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.

Windstorms peeled a roof off Warehouse O at the Heaven HIll Brands' aging facilities in Bardstown, Ky., July 7, 2015.

Heaven Hill warehouse manager Larry Wimpsatt in Warehouse O…without a roof over his head.

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.

A Couple Whiskey Gadgets

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

author-lew-brysonAlong 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.

Down; up. Note internal threading.

Down; up. Note internal threading.

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.


Whiskey WedgeThe 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.

The Bowman Line

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

author-lew-brysonHey, 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.


The flexible, capable new still at Bowman: “George”

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.


Smoked Americans

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickKnown 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.”


Corn in the smoker at MB Roland

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.

Darek Bell  (photo by Jess Williams)

Darek Bell
(photo by Jess Williams)

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.

Emerson Lamb of Westland (photo by Jose Mandojana)

Emerson Lamb of Westland
(photo by Jose Mandojana)

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.

Buffalo Trace Continues to Lead

Friday, June 5th, 2015

author-lew-brysonI’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!

A small part of the new land; field is the new white corn crop.

A small part of the new land; field is the new white corn crop.

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.

Warehouse X garden: barley in front, rye in back, corn along the wall

Warehouse X garden: barley in front, rye in back, corn along the wall

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.)

3-BT Single Oak

The five winners; our top pick was the upper left, #80

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.

About That Barrel Shortage

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickLast 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.”

Dunaway Timber Company, Fordsville, Kentucky

Now that’s good white oak.

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.

Bourbon Security: making theft more difficult

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Author - Chuck CowderyWhen 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.

Stolen whiskey

Brazenly stolen: how to stop it?

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.

Tragedy in Kentucky

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

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.


The 10 Highest-Rated Whiskies of the Summer Issue

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Today we present the ten highest-rated reviews from the summer issue of Whisky Advocate magazine. This issue’s Buying Guide is Redbreast Mano a Lamhbrimming 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

TLD_48YO_bottle_new[1]The Last Drop 1965 Blend 48 year old, 48.6%, $4,000

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

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91Forty Creek Double_Barrel_750_bottle_clip

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

141031_OrphanBarrel_Bottle_forged_oak_KW01Forged Oak 15 year old, 45.25%, $65

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, Douglas Laing Extra Old Part Mortlach 2257.1%, £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

SANKT CLAUS 2014-10-14Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus, 53.2%, 975 SEK

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 Canadian Club 1960's Whisky 750mL-1in-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: 93Forty Creek Confederation_Oak_750_rt_bottle_clip

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 expressiveMidleton box with bottle 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