Report #2 on ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference
Lew Bryson continues his report on the happenings at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference and more! Read his first guest post here.
Meanwhile, back at the conference…Sorry I didn’t live-blog as planned. I had computer problems, and when I finally got that fixed, the WiFi was problematic; the only good connection I got was at a coffeeshop in Bardstown. We’ll get caught up.
I was down in Bardstown for other reasons, working on a story for the next issue. Everyone else was on buses, touring distilleries. I got my story, did some e-mail, then went back to my room and worked on editing (and writing the previous blogpost) till things got on toward dinner time. Then I headed over to the Brown Hotel to check things out.
It was all about drinking! We had bourbon from the Big Boys: the big Kentucky bourbon distillers dropped in and served at a conviviality session. That was followed by dinner (cash bar, which I don’t think I’ll be able to expense) and an auction to raise money for the ADI’s intern scholarship program. It wasn’t your usual auction; typical items included a heat gun (for sealing shrink-wrap bottle capsules), sacks of malt, and a 55 gallon drum of grain neutral spirits (you had to have a valid DSP to bid on that one).
These were not the kinds of thing your usual writer type hankers for, so before long I lost interest — there was nothing else going on with the conference after dinner — and wandered across the street to Bluegrass Brewing with Truman Cox. We met up with some friends, watched the UK/Kansas game, and that was about that. For stuff I’m going to share in a public forum.
Tuesday was when we got down to business. For me, that meant breakfast with Corsair Artisan Distillery founder Darek Bell. If you’re not familiar with Corsair, believe me: you will be. He’s the Dogfish Head to the Stone Brewing of Balcones Distilling founder Chip Tate. Tate is brash and outspoken, and cranks the flavors in his whiskey up to 11, where Bell will try just about anything. “Creativity,” he says, “is free.”
“Anything” includes a lot of things that would look familiar to a homebrewer, which Bell was for quite a while. He also made biodiesel, which led indirectly to distilling when a friend noted that making it smelled “nasty; why don’t we make whiskey instead?” A planted seed…
But he took a hard look at things first, and wasn’t impressed. “I was disappointed in the creativity of the industry,” he told me. “Craft brewers were trying everything, and there were so many different grains to experiment with: spelt, millet, buckwheat, different roasts of malt! But you go on distillery tours and it’s all two-row pale malt and corn. Distillers will be making gin, vodka, and a bourbon. Wow. I don’t know why people aren’t taking more advantage of what’s out there.”
Bell is. I asked him about the grains, and he told me about his 12 Grain Bourbon: corn, blue corn, millet, buckwheat, hard red wheat, oats,sorghum, spelt, quinoa, malt…we both lost track at this point, counting on our fingers, and got diverted on laughing as he noted that “some of the grains are real pain in the ass to work with, but they all have their different personalities.”
Corsair has two distilleries, the first one in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the other in Nashville (Bell wanted to distill in Tennessee, but Repeal-era law kept him from doing that, so they started over the border first). “I live in the shadow of Jack Daniel’s,” he said. “I love the history of American whiskey, but if it’s been done, I don’t want to do it.”
That’s part of the reason for the massive experimentation he and his distillers have been doing. Another is what Bell called building an arsenal of flavors to blend with. “This is Corsair 1.0. Blending is going to be Corsair 2.0. When I first started, I was anti-blend. Compass Box changed all that; I love that stuff.”
We talked about his book, Alt Whiskeys. It’s a book of recipes. “It’s the book I wish I’d had when I started,” Bell said, “and I hope it opens some eyes. Because you know, it’s amazing how easy it is to make an alternative whiskey, because it’s all so similar!”
After wrapping up with a discussion of how craft distilling doesn’t have the deep benchstrength of homebrewers that craft brewing had (and still does) — “If you get caught distilling at home, it’s five years and $10,000, it’s life-destroying!” — Darek gave me a ride over to the conference, half an hour away at Huber’s Orchard Winery in Starlight, Indiana. We got there in time for the 10 AM opening of the vendor area — lots of bottle sellers — and the first round of seminars. More on that soon, including two great presentations on small barrels and “Maturation of Different Oak Species” from Dr. Jim Swan.