Whisky Advocate

Four Kings Collaboration Whiskey

April 23rd, 2014

Collaboration beers are common in craft brewing. Brewers come and play in each other’s house, and make something they maybe both wanted to try but haven’t, or add some house specialty from one brewery to the house specialty of another. You don’t see a lot of it in spirits, though. Whether it’s the long lead time, or the hefty tax load, or just…well, that they’ve never done it before, it’s a rare spirit that sees more than one maker.

Author - Lew BrysonFour Midwest distillers have stepped up to get the ball rolling. Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, Journeyman Distilling in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Mississippi River Distilling in LeClaire, Iowa each contributed 30 gallons of whiskey that was blended into what is being called Four Kings Bourbon, for the four distillers, and the four grains that went into the whiskey.

“It was a crazy idea we had over drinks last spring in Chicago,” said Bill Welter, owner/distiller at Journeyman.  “As craft distillers, we spend a lot of time at the same events and get to know each other.” It was just an idea until Burchett mentioned it to Brett Pontoni, the spirits buyer at Binny’s of Chicago. Pontoni loved the idea, and got on the phone to get the four distillers’ wholesalers to agree to work together on the deal. They went for it, and Binny’s wound up as the sole off-premise retailer for the run of 600 bottles.

Four Kings

Four Kings

It’s not just four different distillers. “We all threw in bourbon except Corsair,” noted Mississippi River’s Ryan Burchett. “They brought fifteen gallons of bourbon and fifteen gallons of smoked wheat whiskey.” You’d expect nothing less from Corsair, but why wheat whiskey?

“We tasted through a lot of whiskies looking for something that might add a unique twist to the product,” said Andrew Webber, president and distiller at Corsair. “Wheat is so light and sweet, but the smoke gives it another dimension. In the blend, it gives the whiskey a sweet kiss of light smoke on the finish that I think people are really going to like.”

“We were able to sample the blend before it went back into barrels for finishing,” said Few Spirits owner and distiller Paul Hletko. “The really striking thing to me was just how clean and smooth it was. We have four great distilleries doing it right.”

The whiskey is being released during Whisky Week in Chicago, this Thursday, the 24th. You can buy it at Binny’s, and it will be pouring at Delilah’s on the night of the launch. Other than that…you’ll have to ask the Four Kings.

28 Responses to “Four Kings Collaboration Whiskey”

  1. I didn’t know a smoked whiskey could be part of bourbon… But then again, I never read anything about it being prohibited either…

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Well…the TTB reads and enforces the standards — not always perfectly, of course — and they approved a label that called it bourbon. I also don’t believe the standards of identity disallow adding flavor — smoke — to the grain before mashing. And that’s all I have to say about it.

  2. sam k says:

    Federal Standards of Identity require that:

    “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

    Smoke is not the issue, but since wheat whiskey is not of the “same type” as bourbon, it would appear that this is another of the TTB’s unintentional mistakes, for which Chuck Cowdery recently called them to task: (http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2014/04/ttb-fails-are-becoming-all-too-frequent.html)

  3. Tadas A says:

    There is a big discussion going on SB forum (http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?22064-Four-Kings-Whiskey/page9). Looks lke Corsair Distillery, Few Spirits, Journeyman Distilling and Mississippi River Distilling improperly labeled it as bourbon and do not want to admit it.

    • Jim W says:

      Yeah, and most of those guys hate the very idea of the four small distilleries and their collaboration project so much that they seized upon this one little mistake to very loudly whine “I won’t drink this and I won’t drink anything they do ever again!”

      Not exactly the best place for a discussion or the best resource for information.

      • Ben McNeil says:

        It’s sort of the opposite – most of the people who posted want to like a microdistillery. These microdistillers were on the high end of the list, given a lot of respect from the people on that forum. Then they lied.

        However, nobody cares what the people at SB.com think. The thread is informative because it points out, verbatim, the TTB rules that these guys violated. There isn’t any debate: once you’ve clearly violated the rules, you’re a liar. The TTB cannot seem to regulate their own rules anymore, but that’s not a legit excuse. Successfully cheating on your taxes doesn’t mean that what you did is right.

        • Jim W. says:

          Thanks for bringing some of that SB spirit over here for show.

          We’re talking about a small mistake that may or may not have been a simple screw up. Most reasonable people who are aware of his mistake say it should be “blended bourbon” or something along that line. Furthermore, there is no proof — NONE — as to whether it was deliberate or an accident or as to who made it. And it’s for a small project with only 600 bottles on the market.

          Yet you throw words like “liar” around and compare this to cheating on your taxes. Some people are set on turning a minor labeling issue into a huge transparency scandal, as if there were a criminal conspiracy.

          Treating every little hiccup like it’s Templeton Rye all over again is ridiculous. If these four guys are among the best, as is so often said, that means they should have earned some credit and get the benefit of the doubt for a small misstep. You guys wouldn’t even know about the smoked wheat whiskey part if they hadn’t told you in their clarification statement, and you want to crucify them because they were more open?

          So yes, I can safely say your little group of trolls over on SB aren’t looking to inform anyone. They just want another witch to burn.

  4. My thoughts on the addition of Wheat Whiskey is that if they followed all the rules, apart from the corn percentage, you could blend it back up to bourbon.

    It’s not distilled as bourbon but if the final product contains at least 51% corn mash, wouldn’t that be okay?

    Interesting stuff, this!

    • Ben McNeil says:

      Please read the sb.com thread for quotes from the TTB. No, it is not okay. It’s now a blend.

      • JeremyE says:

        Reading the sb.com thread, I believe there are other deep-rooted issues with the state of American whisky in general that have broken the surface and started to bear some fruits of discontent (what’s really made where, does “small batch” really mean anything, etc.) and Four Kings is taking a punch to the face for it. As far as I can tell the makers of Four Kings have been transparent about the whisky – they haven’t tried to hide anything. They have laid out their reasons for believing it fits the name Bourbon and regulators agreed with them. If a whisky maker honestly arrives at a conclusion about their product and they end up being wrong, is that really the battle you want to fight?

        When Compass Box first created Spice Tree, no one complained about the label. When regulators said they were wrong, everyone got upset with the regulators. With the opposite happening here, I have to think the reaction hints at larger issues.

        • sam k says:

          A voice of reason amidst all the punditry (Gasp!). Very nicely put, Jeremy!

          • Ben McNeil says:

            I don’t see the good reasoning here. The label “bourbon” refers to a specific manufacturing process – it’s supposed to be informative. If you allow it to refer to any old thing, it ceases to be useful as a reference.

            I think the SB.com folks are so upset because they didn’t expect this from these guys. Fake distillers like Templeton do their level best to manipulate the consumer, but these microdistillers have been open and enthusiastic about their products, without a trace of BS.

        • Tadas A says:

          TTB “Bourbon Whiskey” definition:
          “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers”.

          Fermented mash used by Corsair “smoked wheat whiskey” component does not meet “not less than 51 percent corn” definition.

          They are talking about fermented mash here, not the percentages of whiskey made from corn in the final blend. Thus “Four Kings” cannot be called bourbon whiskey.

          Since this whiskey slipped through TTB cracks, it is not an acceptable explanation. If a player deceived somebody and got away with it, does it make him an honest person?

          I love the idea of what these 4 distillers did here with the collaboration whiskey. I do not understand why do they want to ruin it with obfuscation of their labeling mistake? It is an issue of trust.

        • Jim W says:

          Excellent point with Compass Box and Spice Tree. That was nearly blinkered out of existence, but over in America Maker’s Mark could do basically the same thing to make Maker’s 46 with not even a murmur of disapproval from the authorities.

          The only thing that would make those SB whiners happy would be tyrannical regulation marching EXACTLY to their tune. It’s important to recognize such complaining for what it is — hot air — and treat it accordingly.

          • Ben McNeil says:

            If by “their tune”, you mean the rules already in place, set by the federal government, then yes.

            If you see the word “bourbon”, you know it’s made a specific way. If “bourbon” can be used for other types of spirit, it doesn’t mean anything anymore, and then what’s the point of the label?

      • Jim W. says:

        There is some more SB BS

  5. JeremyE says:

    On another note, to Mr. Bryson: I didn’t even know about this whisky until I read your article. I live in Chicago so I have no excuse. I procured a bottle yesterday afternoon and I plan on opening it on Memorial Day weekend. Thanks for the informative heads-up.

  6. DavidG says:

    Aside from definitionally what it is – how does is taste? Worth the price of entry ($50) for a young “bourbon”?
    How does it compare to each of their individual products?

  7. MarkW says:

    I tried the four kings and it was awesome. The smokiness gave the bourbon a nice creamy and ballooned body. It did nothing to take away the flavor from this fantastic whiskey.

  8. Sean C says:

    I also heard (but have been unable to confirm) that Journeyman distills out at 180, which would also disqualify this from being bourbon. Never mind though, it’s my general understanding that these are the good guys. Surely they know what they’re doing. Hail sb.com.

    • Jim W. says:

      Heard (probably on SB itself), but unable to confirm. Probably hasn’t actually asked Journeyman, will never do so, and doesn’t know anyone who would. Doesn’t know if the rumor applies to the bourbon or one of their other whiskeys. Repeats over and over again in hopes people will believe him.

      SB is sounding more and more like the FOX newsroom before the 2012 election.

  9. Sean C says:

    Heard on SB, yes. From someone who took a recent tour at Journeyman. Asked for repeated clarification, yes even from the company itself. Asked if the proof was correct, and if so was it for all of their products. Crickets on their end. Feel free to put your faith in all of these guys. More power to you. But they’ll have to regain my trust. And I’m sure they won’t lose any sleep over that.

  10. Phil Treon says:

    I’m surprised by a couple things in this thread. One that you, Lee, took such a laid back approach. And two, that you also let Jim W. continue to take potshots at the SB community, considering that the boss of this site is a member and contributor to SraightBourbon.com

  11. These issues need to be discussed and have been pretty well covered here. I just wish some people hadn’t made it so personal so quickly. The distillers didn’t deserve it, nor did most of their fellow commenters. I get it. I could be that volatile in my younger days, but when you go down that road you damage yourself more than you do the other person. Glass houses and all that. Remember, this hobby is supposed to be fun. If instead you’re angry all the time, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  12. Sean says:

    Nor does not questioning let alone even mentioning the situation.

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