The New Whiskey Rebellion

It’s a steamy Saturday afternoon at the Clinton Street headquarters of Nashville, Tenn.’s Corsair Distillery and the tasting rooms are hopping. In one, drinkers jockey for position at a small bar serving big beers like the 8.4% Applewood Smoked Gratzer or 7.6% Smoked Salt Gose, all crafted in the brewery portion of the ‘brewstillery,’ while in a second, significantly larger room, a much greater crowd has gathered to partake of the distillery side’s wide range of spirits.

Sliding between the group of twenty-somethings beginning their stag party on a high note and a somewhat overly amorous couple apparently bent on enjoying their weekend to the hilt, I arrive at a sliver of bartop and behold the selection of bottles lining the shelves behind.

‘Triple Smoke’ reads one, which I assume—correctly, as it turns out—to be a whiskey made from malt smoked over a trio of different woods, while the next, ‘Quinoa Whiskey,’ gives me greater pause for reflection. Could it really be made from quinoa, I wonder, that supposedly oh-so-healthy grain my vegetarian sister-in-law keeps trying to convince me actually tastes good? I muse on that for all of five seconds before my eye lands on ‘Buck Yeah’ and ‘Oatrage,’ whiskeys respectively made from buckwheat and oats, and with that comes the realization that this is no ordinary distillery.

Colin Spoelman (left) and David Haskell of Kings County Distillery (Photo by Valery Rizzo)

Where No One Has Gone Before

Days later, while perusing the book Corsair owner Darek Bell wrote in 2013, Fire Water, I come across a declaration in the front that is both bold and boldface: “If it has been done before, we are not interested in doing it.”

It is, writes the author, one of the prime tenets that guides his distillery, but it could just as easily stand as the philosophical linchpin for a new generation of American rebel distillers. These iconoclastic whiskey makers, still small in number but of rapidly growing ranks, have little interest in following the path well-trodden, employing the classic bourbon blend of corn and malted barley and rye or wheat to make their spirits. Instead, they seek to place their distinctive thumbprints on the whiskeys they produce, using oddball grains, smoked malts, regionally-specific methods and ingredients, stylistic mash-ups, or, in some cases, all of the above, and other eye and palate-catching twists besides.

While a case could certainly be made for Bell as leader of this genre-bending movement, or at least co-chair with Chip Tate, late of Balcones and now of the new Tate & Company Distillery in Waco, Texas, the figurative father is almost certainly the same man credited with starting the craft beer renaissance some 45 years ago: Fritz Maytag.

When Maytag launched his Anchor Distilling Company in 1993, it was as much a revolutionary enterprise as was his revitalization of the Anchor Brewing Company more than two decades earlier. To begin with, while a common enough occurrence today, he was the first brewery owner in North America to add a distillery to his professional repertoire and, along with Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Ore., and St. George Spirits of Alameda, Calif., one of the first distilleries to open in the U.S. since the days immediately following the repeal of Prohibition.

While Clear Creek was obviously inspired by Scottish whisky and St. George placed its early focus upon fruit brandies, Maytag’s self-defined mandate was to do something completely different. So, donning his amateur historian cap, he set about to research and craft not just any old small-batch spirit, but as authentic as possible a recreation of what American rye whiskey most likely was back in the 18th century.

To describe Maytag’s efforts as extraordinary is to only begin to do them justice. Not only was he intent on distilling from 100 percent rye during a time when almost no one was drinking rye whiskey, but because his research had shown that toasted rather than charred barrels were the standard for whiskey storage in the 1700s, he was not even allowed to call his flagship spirit “straight rye,” since the uncharred barrels he was employing for aging ran contrary to the rules governing American whiskey nomenclature. Instead, the young Anchor Distillery produced two whiskeys, one a charred oak-aged Old Potrero Straight Rye and the other his 18th century-style spirit, called Old Potrero Single Malt. (Since Maytag’s retirement and the sale of the company in 2010, both whiskeys have come to be aged in charred oak.)

The lesson of Maytag’s early success in a market utterly unsuited to small distilling operations was clear: If you want to stand out, do something different. It was a lesson not lost on Chip Tate.

Chip Tate founded Balcones Distillery and has now taken his innovative spirit to Tate & Company.

Think Different

Although no longer with Waco, Texas’ Balcones Distilling, Tate was the guiding force behind such now-classic Balcones brands as Baby Blue, a whiskey made from roasted heirloom blue corn; Brimstone, made from that same blue corn smoked over Texas scrub oak; and the self-describing Texas Blue Corn Bourbon. As he takes that same innovative spirit to his new Tate & Company, he finds himself regularly approached by nascent and would-be distillers hoping to glean a word of wisdom from the man many view as an industry icon.

“I tell people, ‘So you’re new and you’re small; is there anything else to your operation?’” says Tate, “Craft distillers should place their focus on answering that question.”

Elaborating on this, Tate explains that, for him, the difference distillers make in their products can’t be simply a weird ingredient or quirky flavoring. “The most important aspect is that it’s artistically driven,” he stresses. “You’ve got to go beyond something faddish, sit down and look at [what you’re doing] the same way an artist or a writer would.”

For his part, in his early, developing days as a distiller, Tate says that he chose to look at his vocation in a rather unconventional fashion, making whiskeys that were less about the barrels in which they were aged and more about the ingredients that went into their creation. “I thought, rather than have the corn form a neutral backdrop, what would happen if you made it the main element?” he recalls. That change in perspective, of course, led to the Balcones line of blue corn whiskeys.

Around the same time, Corsair’s Darek Bell was likewise deciding to adopt a somewhat different approach to distilling, one rooted in his background as a homebrewer. “There was a lot of excitement about experimentation (in beer) during [the] early 2000s when I was brewing,” recalls Bell. “Whiskey was weird to me because it was just so conservative.”

Furthering Bell’s creative streak was his situation in Nashville. “If you’re the first craft distillery in a place like Vermont, where they don’t have a lot of distilling traditions, you get some instant novelty appeal just from opening,” says Bell. “That doesn’t happen when you’re in Jack Daniel’s backyard.”

For Bell and partner Andrew Webber, experimentation meant investigating what the duo describes as “alternative grains”—buckwheat, oats, and quinoa, among others—and various ways of smoking malt. While both directions presented themselves around the same time, Bell says that the alternative grain angle was the first they perused simply because of its relative practicality.

“We could go to Whole Foods and buy a bunch of quinoa,” he notes with a grin, “But we couldn’t go anywhere to buy some black walnut-smoked malt.”

The first avenue they investigated was a direct spin-off from their brewing background. “One of my favorite beers is an oatmeal stout, which is rich and creamy because of the grains,” Bell says, “So I wondered why there was no history of oats being used in whiskey. When we did distill an oatmeal stout, I was amazed at how much of the beer came through in the whiskey.”

After oats came other grains, some, such as the aforementioned quinoa, more successful than others. Then followed smoked malts, which the partners made for themselves using repurposed equipment including old shipping containers. Perhaps not surprisingly, while they might have been the first to smoke their own malts, they weren’t alone in traveling the smoked whiskey road.

Kings County Distillery is making peated bourbon—a true first. (Photo by Valery Rizzo)

Colin Spoelman, the Kentucky-born co-owner of the six year old Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y., recalls when he first got hit by the smoked malt bug.

“In addition to making bourbon, we were also distilling a Scottish-style single malt (which has yet to be released), so we were bringing in a lot of peated malt,” recalls Spoelman, “One day we found that we had run out of our regular distiller’s malt (while mashing for a bourbon run), so rather than shut down the distillery because we had forgotten to get our malt order in, one of our distillers, Rob Easter, put in some peated malt. When we tasted it after some aging, we really liked it and so started making more.”

Thus was born the distillery’s multi-award-winning Peated Bourbon, which is described on the Kings County website as tasting like what would happen “if Scotch and bourbon had a baby.” For a business that got its start producing unaged corn whiskey, albeit one made from N.Y. State-grown corn, it provided an immediate point of differentiation.

“It’s not that we’re trying to replicate what’s being done in Kentucky,” says Spoelman, who adds that as a native of the Bluegrass State, he was drawn into distilling because he couldn’t answer all the whiskey and moonshine questions his fellow New Yorkers threw at him, “We would just rather do things that are different and expand what people expect from American whiskey.”

What’s Old is New Again

Such is also the focus at Pittsburgh, Pa.’s Wigle Whiskey, except that rather than looking forward toward innovation, their gaze, at least where their whiskeys are concerned, is cast firmly into the past. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers, the family-owned business operates with a keen awareness of the distilling history that surrounds that last waterway.

“For a period of time, Monongahela rye was what you were drinking if you were a classy person,” says Wigle head distiller Alex Grelli, “We’re steeped in this region, so we feel a need to revive that Monongahela heritage.”

Alex Grelli of Wigle Distillery in Pittsburgh strives to return Monongahela rye to its roots.

Describing the Monongahela style as being particularly spicy and oily in character, Grelli says that it can come as a surprise to even experienced devotees of conventional straight rye whiskey. For their interpretation, Grelli uses only organic, locally-sourced rye, but he’s not simply claiming that local rye is the best grain for the job, he’s also setting out to prove it.

Wigle has underway several single-source rye projects to determine the effect of provenance on the flavor of a whiskey. Among the different organic grains they have tried and presently have aging are ryes from New York, Vermont, Ohio, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

“A big victory for us would be to be able to show that [where the rye is grown] does make a difference,” says Grelli. “Right now most rye is made with a commodity grain, but we’re trying to produce a rye whiskey that has a definite sense of place.”

To Grelli and the rest of his family, who collectively own and operate Wigle, such projects are more than just a way to differentiate themselves from the rest of the marketplace. “For us, making these different products, exploring the grains, and reviving the Monongahela heritage is our reason for being,” he says. “Some people might prefer a rye made from grain grown in a different region, but we like our rye and we want to show that there is a difference.”

While it is overwhelmingly tempting to draw parallels between the efforts of Grelli, Tate, Bell, and others like them, and the craft brewing movement that has been underway in the U.S. for close to 40 years now, one very important distinction must be respected when so doing. The American beer renaissance was based upon a revolt against a market overwhelmingly dominated by bland and boring products, whereas not even the most cynical of whiskey aficionados would claim the same to be true of the craft distilling phenomenon, and so experimentation on the part of new distillers is less a luxury than it is a necessity.

Indeed, a quick look around the liquor store will reveal that bulk of the most successful small-scale whiskey distillers in the land, including those named above and others such as High West, Stranahan’s, Koval, and Charbay are uniformly traveling unusual paths toward the production of their American whiskeys, expanding, and even, in some cases, redefining what the spirit is today. And when you consider that most of these operations have existed for less than a decade, it becomes apparent that before long, staring at a shelf of oddball spirits in a distillery’s tasting room will likely become the norm rather than the exception.

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