Archive for the ‘Distillery Tours’ Category

Craft whiskey in the mountains: Berkshire and Catskill

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonI got a chance to visit two craft distillers in the Northeast last week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers and Catskill Distilling. I took a day off and drove up to Boston for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Boston Beer Company (the brewers of Samuel Adams), and realized I could easily stop in to see some whiskey being made on my way back. It was a gorgeous day, and after I’d cleared the Boston traffic, a great drive west out the Mass Pike, past lakes, marshes, and forests, then into the rolling folds of the Berkshires. I got off the Pike, headed south, and watched as the roads my mapping app directed me onto got smaller and smaller, until finally the arrow pointed down a long gravel driveway through a meadow.

Bucolic setting of Berkshire Mountain

Bucolic setting of Berkshire Mountain

Nice work, mapping app: that’s where I found Berkshire Mountain Distillers and founder Chris Weld. Things were, as he put it, “a tad crazy,” as they prepared to move to a new building in nearby Sheffield, Mass. The grassy area around the barn where the distillery has been for seven years was littered with tanks, “totes” (the heavy plastic, roughly 1,000 liter container cubes this industry seems to run on), and a malfunctioning auger, all waiting to be moved or salvaged. It was also crazy because while they were mashing in for a run of bourbon, they were eagerly anticipating the first run of their new bottled gin-and-tonic product, due to be done at the new plant in mid-August. (I got a chilled sip: deliciously refreshing and dangerously drinkable at 26 proof!)

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Berkshire’s still; columns are up to the right.

Berkshire runs on a pot still salvaged from Brown-Forman, an odd, capsule-shaped device with internal copper. The new make ages in a variety of barrel sizes; like many craft distillers, Weld is moving away from tiny 10-gallon barrels to larger ones. Too woody, too fast in the smaller ones, he acknowledged. That’s some of the reason they’re moving: more room for barrels. Another reason is that long gravel driveway and the barn. It’s hard for trucks to get back here, and once they’re here…Weld told me a hair-raising story about a parked truck starting to slide, wheels locked, down the snow-covered driveway toward his cottage. They managed to get it stopped, but started looking for another location.

Berkshire has done some interesting collaborations with brewers. I’d actually tasted one the night before at the Samuel Adams event; a whiskey made by distilling Samuel Adams Boston Lager and aging it in bourbon barrels. It was at barrel proof, and only two years old, but with a bit of water it opened right up and gave the floral, spicy hop nose the Lager is known for, without the bitterness in the mouth. It’s still young, and hot; in a couple years, it might be an interesting whiskey indeed. They did another one with Samuel Adams Cinder Bock, a smoked beer, which was aged in barrels that had held Samuel Adams Utopias. I tasted that at the distillery, and didn’t really get much of the smoke; the rich vinous wood of the barrel was more evident.

They’ve also done a series of small bottlings of their bourbon, finished in barrels used by other brewers to age their beers. I review the Samuel Adams Utopias edition in the upcoming Fall issue; Chris gave me a sample bottle of the Terrapin Brewing project at the distillery; there will be ten bottlings altogether. I found the Utopias bottling to be a richer, rounder version of the standard Berkshire Mountain bourbon bottling, and look forward to trying the Terrapin.

Chris had to run at this point, so I thanked him, and headed back down that gravel driveway and west toward the Hudson River. I crossed at Poughkeepsie, had lunch at a brewpub in New Paltz, and headed into another incredibly scenic drive, up over the Shawangunk escarpment and into the Catskills. After 50 minutes of roller coaster-like thrill driving on more two-lane roads, I found myself stuck in a solid mile of backed-up traffic…a mile from Catskill Distilling! What the heck was going on, a run on the tasting room?

My single-mindedness had betrayed me. I didn’t know that Catskill Distilling was just a couple hundred yards up the road from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performing space on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival…and Jimmy Buffett was playing there that night. Don’t mess with the Parrotheads! I did finally get to turn off at the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distilling Company, where I was quickly greeted by the gregarious and friendly Monte Sachs, DVM.

Hardware at Catskill

Hardware at Catskill

That’s right; the owner is a large animal veterinarian. He made his money caring for racehorses in the Hudson Valley and at the track at Monticello, just down the road. I asked him how he got hooked on distilling, and he told me a great story about an Italian girlfriend who took him back to the family vineyard, where he decided to learn winemaking to impress the parents. “But after six months, I learned that winemaking is a lot of work!” he laughed. “What I really liked and wanted to do was make grappa.” The distillation of this Italian spirit fascinated him, and he decided he would make grappa. Someday.

Eventually the opportunity came along when New York passed a farm distillery law in 2008. Sachs jumped on it. He put in a Carl still setup, and got some valuable consulting help from industry legend Lincoln Henderson. (I first heard of Monte and Catskill from Lincoln, who told me that, among other things, he’d told Monte to “keep the place clean and open a gift shop; people want to buy things.” I can report that Monte definitely took that advice; the place was spotless, and there was plenty of merchandise.) Henderson advised him on his aging building, a former horse stable behind the distillery.

This little barrel house is heavily insulated, without windows, and when Monte opened the door for me, I could see it was stuffed with barrels. It was also eye-stingingly heavy with boozy aromas; the angels have to fight for their share of this whiskey! There was a concrete slab beside the building; another aging house is going in soon, and should be up by October.

Monte needs that barrel house, and new tanks, and more barrels (he says he’s got good barrel supply, but has to order in large lots to get it). Not only is the current barrel house chockfull, he’s ramping up production. Through a chance meeting at a spirits expo, he connected with a high-powered consultant with years of experience in major spirits companies who had just retired and was looking for interesting products to work with. Monte sent him his product line and, just as I did in this summer’s Rye Issue, he picked out the Buckwheat whiskey as the most interesting, the most different. There are plans to make the Buckwheat the forefront of the portfolio, and there may be a lot more investment coming in to make it happen.

He’s also doing a collaboration with a brewery, by the way. He connected with Brewery Ommegang, over in Cooperstown, N.Y., and they made a batch of ale for him that’s been distilled and is aging in the barrel house now, with the rampant Ommegang lion stenciled on the barrel head. Exciting times in the Catskills.

And the grappa? He’s still making it. “You see those bottles? They’re all hand-blown, which means they’re all a different size, so I have to measure the spirit going in at precisely 375 ml, and I have to use a tapered cork because all the necks are different, and then I have to wax the corks to keep them in. And it’s not a big seller.” He shrugged, and grinned. “I’m still going to make it! I really love the stuff.”

I don’t like grappa. I’ve tried it, repeatedly, and I don’t like it, or the similar slivovitz or pisco (though I do like marc; go figure). But I told Monte I’d try his, because he’d been so friendly, and because that Buckwheat was so interesting. You know? I liked the grappa (words I’ve never said before, or ever thought I would). It had much more to it than just hot rocket fuel character; it was subtle, intriguing, delicate. It was an interesting insight into how distilling is done here; each product clearly shows its origin grains or grapes, packed with flavor before it comes anywhere near wood.

I left Catskill Distilling, cut back half a mile to elude the Parrotheads, and two-laned it home, managing to make it a hat trick of pretty little mountain chains by driving through the Poconos during a gorgeous sunset. There aren’t any craft distillers in the Poconos yet, but who knows what might happen in a few years?

(Do you like the video? Do you want to see more? Or is it just annoying?)

Finger Lakes Whiskey Ramble

Friday, March 28th, 2014

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I’ve been a fan of New York’s Finger Lakes region for years. The unique views afforded by these long lakes and the bluffs above their shores, the startling white deer in the woods of the Seneca Army Depot, the wineries that cling to the frost-free microclimate of the lakeside hills…it’s a great place to spend an afternoon, a weekend, a whole vacation.Author - Lew Bryson

Recently it’s become an area for whiskey distilling as well. As New York loosened regulations on distilling, including the creation of a “farm distillery” license, the agricultural bounty of the area and the hordes of tourists that travel the wine trails around the lakes proved to be a draw to people who saw an opportunity. I visited two of them recently—Myer Farm and Finger Lakes—and a micromaltings that is helping to supply locally-grown malts to sustain these new distillers.

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

Farmhouse Malt is in Newark Valley, N.Y., south of Ithaca. Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo got a farm brewing license, which the state first made available in spring of 2013. Most brewers using such a license just grow their own grain and hops; very few malt. Marty’s been malting since 2008, when he was getting serious about his homebrewing. He asked other homebrewers about it, and they were perplexed. “They said, ‘You can buy malt so cheap; why bother?’” Marty told me. He went ahead anyway, to learn more about how beer was made.

Fast-forward to 2012, when he and Natalie were getting serious about the brewery. They saw the farm brewery license coming, and decided they would malt grain as part of their operation. Once again, other brewers said, ‘Why bother?’ They were right, to some extent; malting doesn’t make sense for a brewery on the small scale the Mattrazzos were planning. But they realized that they could malt for other small brewers and distillers who were growing their own grain, and that did make sense.

They had to learn the difference between distillers malt and brewers malt (“Distillers malt is just converted and then dried, not roasted,” Marty said), and find customers, but once the word got out, customers found them. The size adds a personal touch that appeals to distillers (they were steeping a batch of malt for Five and 20 Spirits when I stopped by); “After a week of turning over a bed of malt by hand,” Marty said, “I know each grain by name!” They can also do custom malting of non-barley grains like rye, corn, wheat, and triticale in small batches. (They’re pretty good brewers too; I liked the samples they had, and they’ll have a tasting room open in nearby Owego soon…right on the route to the Finger Lakes.)

John and Joe Myer

John and Joe Myer

Myer Farm Distillers is located in Ovid, N.Y. (pronounced “Oh-vid”),  where the Myer family have been farming the land since 1868. “We’re small grain and bean farmers,” said John Myer, who said he’d bought a book on distilling 30 years ago to look into the possibilities.

But it was just a thought until he and his brother Joe went to conferences on fermentation and distillation in 2010. “We saw the craft distilling wave and got going,” Joe said. When they started in June of 2012, there was only one other farm distillery in New York. John knew the land he farmed, knew where the different grains grew best, and said that he now saves the best grain for the distillery.

The Myers make spirits—whiskey, vodka and flavored vodka, gin—using corn, rye, wheat, and barley, all grown organically on their farm. They don’t malt on the farm, so they convert with enzymes, ferment, and then distill on grains in a Christian Karl hybrid pot still.

The distillery sits right on State Rt. 89, which runs along the west shore of Cayuga Lake, a road dotted with wineries (as is the east shore of Seneca Lake, across the neck to the west). “Being on the wine trail gives us a flow of visitors,” Joe said. “Visitors doubled in the fall of 2013 from the fall of 2012. The wine trail’s growing, and the locavore movement feeds into it.” They do about 85% of their sales right there in the distillery. (I didn’t taste the whiskeys on this trip, but there are reviews in this issue’s Buying Guide.)

I cut west across the neck and coasted down the eastern shore of Seneca to Burdett, where Finger Lakes Distilling sits above the road, an impressively tall building with a smaller barrelhouse below. I was met by Thomas McKenzie, the distiller, who took me in to show me what he knew I wanted to see: their 12-inch Vendome column still.

Thomas McKenzie and the 12" column

Thomas McKenzie and the 12″ column

He was just starting a run, and getting it dialed in: by hand, there’s no automation on this one. Thomas controls the proof — he wants it coming off around 50%! —by hand-regulating the flow of the steam coming in at the bottom and the amount of cool wash coming in at the top. “I’m distilling,” he said. “You put those PLC  [programmable logic controller] probes in there, and they’re doing the distilling. I think the only big distiller doing it this way anymore is Dickel.” I told him how Jimmy Russell had told me about distilling by sound and touch, with a foot against the column and a hand on each valve; Thomas said that gave more control.

He has a lot of ideas about distilling the old way; the column still, for instance. Finger Lakes got a pot still first, and still uses it for brandy, but Thomas wanted a column still, because that’s how bourbon’s been made for over a century. He had Vendome build it, then had them come out and fix it till it ran right (not Vendome’s fault; they’d never made a column this small, and some things just didn’t work the same). He’s very pleased with the spirit coming off it, much more so than the pot still, he said.

We sampled some spirit—clean, but still flavorful—and some 3 year old bourbon that was some of the best young whiskey I’ve had. “Low entry proof,” he said, and grinned. He’s constantly tinkering with his whiskey to find the old ways that he feels many of today’s distillers have abandoned; his office overflows with bottles of bourbon and rye from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, his own collection that he uses to help find that character in his own whiskey.

As we walked down the hill to the barrelhouse (where we smelled some of his dark ‘funky’ rum he’s making for blending), he turned and grinned, and said something that crystallized what he’s doing here. Waving his arm around to indicate the lake and the hills behind him, he said, “It’s all Appalachians, don’t matter what state it’s in. You got guys making whiskey in the woods!”

I made a couple more stops along the lakes—had a few beers at a brewpub, bought some farmhouse cheese for the ride home—and reflected on how distilling (and malting, and brewing) with a farm license, which allows on-premise sales, sales at farm markets, and the on-premise sales of other farm license spirits, beers, and wines, is transforming and expanding this area, which is sadly marked by abandoned barns. The farm license gives these farms a chance to add value to their crops and get them to new markets, just like whiskey did 200 years ago. You can find a guide to many of them here; you’ll find interesting stops and beautiful scenery, just like I did.

Staying Local in Eastern Iowa

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Author - Sam KomlenicFor more than 150 years, Le Claire, Iowa had been known primarily for one reason. The picturesque Mississippi River town was the birthplace of Buffalo Bill Cody, and there’s a street named after him…a road, actually: Cody Road. More recently, Le Claire, located just north of Davenport, has become more widely known as the home base for the History Channel’s popular American Pickers series. In just the last couple of years though, another business has become a must-visit destination in this charming small town: Mississippi River Distilling (MRD).

Perched above the river at the eastern edge of town, MRD has made a pretty sizeable splash in the craft distilling scene of late. Their gin, vodka, and aged whiskeys have gained distribution across the Midwest and into the mid-Atlantic in the three short years they’ve been up and running. The founding Burchett brothers, Ryan and Garrett, are justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished in that time. They consider their distillery a “grain to glass” operation, with every kernel of their corn, wheat, rye, and barley being sourced from family farms within 25 miles of Le Claire, in Iowa and across the river in Illinois.

The brothers come from pretty non-traditional backgrounds for a run at the whiskey business. Their family owns a long-standing road construction company headquartered in Iowa. Garrett had been a transportation planner in Dallas prior to moving back, and Ryan was a television meteorologist in Iowa’s Quad Cities and other markets. But they’re also a couple of guys who love whiskey, and they sensed a potentially profitable business opportunity. They were the first to enter the distilling business after the legalization of tastings and retail sales of spirits at Iowa distilleries in 2010, and now they mash, distill, greet customers, and hit the road as the sales team for MRD.

Rose and her two columns.

Rose and her two columns.

Along with a small staff, they run the mash through a beautiful 1,000 liter handmade Koethe pot still they’ve named Rose. The Burchetts and Rose produce two whiskeys, a bourbon and a rye, neither of which is sold as white dog. The brothers prefer to age the distillate in 30-gallon barrels for at least a year before bottling. The bourbon is 70 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, and 10 percent unmalted barley, while the rye is 100 percent rye grain. Because of their quest to use all local grains, and the lack of any locally kilned malts, enzymes are used to enable fermentation. The cuts off the still are very tight, allowing the grain to shine through. Both whiskeys carry the name Cody Road in honor of Le Claire’s favorite son and the street that passes in front of the distillery.

Aging takes place in a smallish room on the lower level of the building that holds about 300 tightly-packed barrels. The operation is already running out of space, and plans are underway to expand in partnership with a local craft brewer on the current site in 2014. Great River Brewing of Davenport uses MRD whiskey barrels in their barrel aging program, and the prospect of a joint venture in shared quarters presents a host of compelling possibilities. The new facilities will include an event room and a bigger barrel warehousing area for MRD, and a specialty brewery and pub for Great River.

In the mainstream distilling business, tradition is an accessible commodity and tends to be something most brands hang their hat on. Craft distillers have to rely on innovation and creativity to stand out, and the Mississippi River crew has been doing a fair amount of both recently. Last summer they brought in a half-ton of bananas and soaked them in their aged rye whiskey to produce the first batch of the “Still Crazy” series, an ongoing project that will eventually feature other variants. This “Mono Loco” (crazy monkey in Spanish) version produced just over 1,000 375 ml bottles; a pound of bananas for every bottle! Mono Loco debuted during VIP Hour at WhiskyFest Chicago to crowd acclaim, and I was fortunate to be able to taste it at the distillery even though it had been a quick sellout. Wonderful stuff, and more whiskey weirdness will follow.

Ryan Burchett

Ryan Burchett

Another direction they’re heading in is the intriguing “My Whiskey” program, where the customer has the ability to have the team distill a single 30-gallon barrel of a standard or custom mashbill fermented with their choice of three yeasts, then whatever entry proof, level of barrel char, aging regimen, and bottling proof they choose. Custom labeling is part of this personalized package, and you get to keep the barrel. They’re also offering a hands-on Whiskey School in early 2014 and have an ongoing Adopt-A-Barrel program available to keep their customers engaged.

If it sounds like they’re having fun, trust me, they are. The place was buzzing with tourists the day I was there, and the team was doing their best to keep them entertained and informed. The tasting room, which offers a great view of the Mississippi out one window and of the distillery (and Rose) through another, was filled with guests asking questions, sampling the wares, and enjoying the scenery, all while barrels were being filled and jokes tossed around on the other side of the wall.

Creativity is indeed the buzzword in the world of craft brewing and distilling, and the brothers Burchett seem more than ready to take it to the next level. I expect they’ll continue to mess around with grain and wood (and fruit!) to help shape the next generation of American whiskey.

Part Two: Lost in Alberta. And Windsor.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin, David, and Lew get into the nuts and bolts of Canadian whisky, as described by Lew.

After our day at Black Velvet, we left Lethbridge the next morning, headed north toward Calgary, and stopped along the way at the Highwood Distillery in High River, Alberta. These guys do things their own way: they don’t have a mill. Only distillery I’ve ever been to that doesn’t have a mill! They put the whole grain—wheat is what they’re currently running—in a big pressure cooker, step it up through three temperature/pressure stays, and then, at 120 psi, they open the valve and the wheat blows into a vessel where it slams into a bell-shaped metal plate. Any starches that haven’t already burst from the pressure blow open at that point! They’ve been doing it that way since they opened in 1974. They use a column still, and a pot still for rectification, doing a series of redistillations.

The guys at Highwood confirmed what we’d been starting to suspect: barrels are used, re-used, and re-used some more in Canada. “We like to get as much use out of a barrel as we can,” we were told. “A barrel is spent when it starts to leak.” There must have been some leakers in there, because Highwood’s warehouse was the most alcohol-filled I’ve ever been in; my eyes were burning! When we were treated to a sample from a 33 year old cask (which was lovely, sweet, and gentle enough to hold on the tongue, even at 79%, which is just crazy), the whisky reek in the air was so strong that I couldn’t discern a difference between the air in the glass and the air outside the glass! We had to open a door. By the time we got to the lab to taste whiskies, we were all a bit jolly from just breathing…

We tasted White Owl, Highwood’s carbon-filtered 5 year old white whisky (and their best-selling product). It was sweet, fruity, touched with vanilla, and a flip of a bitter finish; definitely not vodka, despite its appearance. We tasted several more whiskies, some—like the 20 year old Ninety (named for the proof)—quite good indeed, and then wrapped up with a bottle Dave and I had noticed: The Volstead Project. It was a 5 month old barreled Manhattan, and it was quite tasty; putting a handful of cracked ice in it made it even better. But…we begged to be dropped off at a restaurant for lunch; we were woozy! We ate a big lunch, and walked about a mile back to the distillery, and felt much better. Back to Calgary, and we’d leave early in the morning for a day of travel that ended in Windsor. (We’ve since learned that Highwood had 2 feet of water running through it on 6/20 due to flash floods; best of luck to them, hope they’re okay and didn’t lose much stock.)CC-Heritage-Centre-June-14,-2013

Windsor was a pretty nice little town, all things considered—being a mile from Detroit these days can be unnerving—and after a great dinner at a place called the City Grill and a couple beers in some downtown pubs, we got some rest before the final day of distillery visits: Canadian Club and the Hiram Walker distillery.

If you’ve never been to Windsor—or Walkerville, as it was originally called, when it was Hiram Walker’s company town—you’ve never seen the Canadian Club Brand Center. Hiram Walker—the Hiram Walker, the man—built it in 1891 to celebrate the success of the global whisky brand he’d built. It’s modeled on the Pandolfini palace in Florence, and frankly, it’s stunning. Hiram may have been a grocer from Massachusetts, but he had or developed excellent taste, and the art and architecture in the building is beautiful. The offices look over the Detroit River, over to where Hiram lived (he never became a Canadian citizen, and commuted home every day by way of a tunnel and a cart pulled by his beloved donkey, Hector). We had time for a quick sample; I picked the CC 20 year old, and found it delicious, with a firmly oaky nose, but gracefully youthful notes of grass, mint, and pepper.

Canadian Club is made under contract at the Hiram Walker distillery. The distillery also makes the Corby brands, including Wiser’s, Pike Creek, and Lot No. 40. We got our tour from Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender, who is very savvy, and very keen to experiment with places Canadian whisky hadn’t yet gone. He talked several times about “keeping the pipeline full of innovation,” staying ahead of the demands of marketing.IMG_0281

This was where we came face-to-face with the tail-end of Canadian whisky, the waste, the DDG: distiller’s dried grains. Due to their use of enzymes and scarily clean fermentation, Canadian distillers get an almost complete use of sugars in fermentation, and as a result the material coming out of their dryhouse is almost all protein. Unlike the burnt chicken feather smell of most dryhouses, the Walker dryhouse smelled like toasted cereal, almost good enough to eat. When something’s wrong with fermentation, Dr. Don said, you’ll smell it here, and you’ll know. This high-protein product is a profit item for them; “It’s not a by-product,” he said, “it’s a co-product.”

Hiram Walker is huge. They use 218,000 liter (57,000 gallon) fermenters that use 60 metric tonnes of corn in every batch, and they have 39 of them. The fermenters are cooled by huge amounts of water piped in directly from the Detroit River: brute force cooling. Their column still is the size of a Titan missile and puts out spirit at 240 gallons a minute. It is the largest beverage alcohol plant in North America. It reminds you that while we may not think much about Canadian whisky—and that’s likely to change—one hell of a lot of it gets bought in a year.IMAG0738

We tasted 40 samples, everything from straight-up new make base whisky pulled off at 94.8% and their Polar Vodka, done at 96%— they were surprisingly different—to all the different flavoring variants of corn, rye, barley, malt, and wheat, run off the beer still in single pass or second-distilled in their pot still (referred to in-house as “Star” and “Star Special” variants) at various ages, spirit aged in used oak and new wood, and in used wood with red oak stave inserts…Dr. Don is an experimenting fool! “They’re all tools in the box for a master blender,” he said.

We tasted finished whiskies, too; the full Wiser’s range, Pike Creek, Lot No. 40, and a new J.P.Wiser that’s intended for the U.S., blended with more rye, and whiskies aged in new wood, bourbon barrels, and used Canadian whisky barrels. It was spicy, sweet, bold, and had some vinous notes to it. Then he pulled out a surprise. Davin had mentioned a 15 year old whisky from the defunct Gooderham & Worts distillery as a “dram before you die;” Dr. Don had the stock from the distillery and the formula, and he made up a small batch. We tasted it, and Davin was right; an exceptional whisky indeed.

A barrel of Dr. Don's Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

A barrel of Dr. Don’s Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

You’d think it was downhill from there, but we drove out to the Wiser’s warehouses (beside the real Pike Creek, and sampled Dr. Don’s Ph.D. project, three small runs of whisky done in new oak. It was roaringly bold, and we were loath to toss them, but there were others to try… We were off the clock, and having fun, but still noticed that they had begun barcoding barrels and tracking use and flavor. Wood management is coming to Canada.

After a fine Italian dinner on Windsor’s Via Italia, and a couple more drinks in a street fair on a fine moonlit night…our trip was finally done. We’d learned a lot about Canadian whisky, its history, and its homeland. There’s a lot to be said for learning, that’s for sure.

Part One: Lost in Alberta

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin De Kergommeaux, Dave Broom and Lew Bryson hit the prairies in search of real Canadian whisky. Lew brings you along for the ride.

Our Canadian whisky reviewer, Davin de Kergommeaux, contacted Dave Broom and I a couple months ago about a trip to visit Canadian whisky distilleries, sponsored by the Association of Canadian Distillers. We were eager to learn more about the Canadian whisky tradition—especially after reading Davin’s excellent book, Canadian Whisky—so the second week of June saw the three of us, and the Association’s president, Jan Westcott, converging on Calgary.

I landed first…and realized Davin and I had made no plans on how to meet. My emergency plan worked: sitting in an armchair beside the baggage carousels till Davin walked by. We picked up the rental car and drove to our motel in downtown Calgary, where we ran into a colorful demonstration against the government. The Ethiopian government. Didn’t make sense to me, either, but Davin waded right into it—they politely held the door for him, it is Canada—we dropped our luggage in the rooms, and headed to a well-recommended spot, Beer Revolution, to meet friends of mine for pints and pizza. Or at least, I did, and Davin headed back to the airport to get Dave. They got lost on the way back; it was a precursor.

The next morning we met up with Jan, who was going to lead us to Alberta Distillers Ltd., our first stop. We saw some nice neighborhoods, the Bow River, one really nice neighborhood under construction — we were lost. After some quick discussion, we were off again, and found the place, off in an industrial area, surrounded by magpies. We learned about enzyme creation and the difficulties of 100% rye distillation, and tasted Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old, two wonderful limited release whiskies that are vanished from the shelves, and Dark Horse, a 45% NAS kicker that was just stuffed with flavor, a very lively whisky indeed. (More to come on Canadian distilling in an upcoming issue of the magazine; we’re just having some fun here).

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

After lunch, we headed south across the prairie, the Rockies in the distance to our right, rye fields all around us. We stopped at one, Tom Riehs’s farm—I’d asked Davin to see a rye field, and he delivered!—and Tom was good enough to take us out to see the field, stand in it, see what rye looks like and how it grows. He told us that it was just young at this point, up to our knees, but when it was ready for harvest, it would be almost head-high. He also told us that fewer farmers are growing rye—a variety of reasons; his son’s probably not going to grow rye when he takes over because he doesn’t want to raise cattle, and pasturing them in the rye is part of the process—which doesn’t bode well for whisky.

Back in the car, and as we approached the turnoff for Lethbridge at Fort MacLeod, Jan said he had to stop to stretch his legs, and started going on about a great hamburger he’d had in the bus depot in Fort MacLeod. He went looking for it. We didn’t find it—it had closed about five years earlier, and to be honest, it looked like a lot of the rest of the town was waiting to join it—but we did stop and tour the recreation of Fort MacLeod, home of the North West Mounted Patrol, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: the Mounties. It was a great tour, with Mountie memorabilia, photos, and a gift shop…where Jan found that one of the women who worked there used to be a waitress at the bus depot. He was overjoyed.

We drove on to Lethbridge, and I took over the directions: we rolled straight to our motel, where we discovered a tiki-type bar in their central courtyard, which was full of tikisemi-tropical plants, water, a piano, and cast-iron alligators. We had to have a drink! I got a rummy-pineapple concoction (with umbrella; Dave insisted on getting a picture: “For evidence.”), Davin had a beer, and Dave got a daiquiri (Waitress with permanent smile: “What flavor would you like?” Dave, wary: “Daiquiri flavor.”). After a long walk for a nice dinner (and a continuing enjoyment of Calgary-brewed Big Rock Traditional ale), we called it a night.

We set out across town for Black Velvet the next morning. After our misadventures with directions, I was prepared with a mapped-out route to the distillery. It was great, until we hit a roadblock and detour on the main road that dumped us onto the road out of town, in the wrong direction. We were cursed! Davin found a quick route back through a nature preserve, and we took side streets to Black Velvet.

They really rolled out the red carpet—all the distillers did—and opened every door, answered every question, even the sticky ones. For instance, why do they feed the heads of the distillation process back into the fermenters? The compounds in the heads induce the shutdown of certain metabolic paths in the yeast, which keeps them focused on alcohol production; they’re getting 14-15% ABV in fermentation. We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).

Then we got to taste the Danfield’s 10 and 21 Year Old, at which Jan protested in mock fury: “No, they can’t taste them, and they can’t have them outside of Canada!” We’d already discovered that Canada does indeed keep “the good stuff,” and we were intrigued. The Danfield’s whiskies intensified that, full of fresh-sawn oak and cedar notes, vanilla, and sweet warm cereal, delicious without the cloying sweetness of some younger, export Canadians. We wanted them, and Jan wasn’t letting go!

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

We had overstayed in our curiosity, and the rest of the day would be a rush. We grabbed a quick but delicious lunch at a local taphouse, then went to Fort Whoop-Up, an old “whisky fort” where sharp traders swapped diluted grain alcohol-based “whisky” to the natives for furs; it was another thing the Mounties were formed to monitor.

Then we zoomed across the prairie to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site where native peoples without effective weapons had craftily stampeded buffalo over a cliff for food and materiel for millennia; the last such hunt took place only 120 years ago. Our guide, Edwin, was a Blackfoot, and even though we got there just before closing, took us up to the cliff site, showed us the herbs the hunters used to disguise their scent, and—really—beat a drum and sang a Blackfoot song for us. It was a fierce moment, and a great experience, with a tremendous view of the vast Alberta prairies.

The next day we would see a third Alberta distillery, then head east…to Windsor.

Independence, Liberty, and a Distillation of History

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Sam KomlenicOur copy editor, Sam Komlenic, loves old American distilleries, open or long-closed. He recently had a unique chance to visit one that covers both those bases.

I love distillery history. I’ve been researching it for years. So when a friend suggested we visit a place I’d never heard of, a historic distillery like no other, he said…how could I refuse? We soon found ourselves in the rural countryside of western Ohio.

In 1818, experienced distiller and millwright Elias Staley erected a commercial three-stone, water-powered gristmill on Indian Creek in Miami County for farmer John Rench. Once the mill was complete, Staley purchased the 160-acre property and started an agricultural/industrial enterprise that would include a water-powered reciprocating sawmill and a prosperous distilling business.

Staley built his Indian Creek distillery in 1820 and began making rye whiskey in two handmade copper pot stills of about a hundred630 gallons each. Daily output was between 30 and 35 gallons, and eventually the demand for Staley whiskey would require distilling around the clock.

But while Elias was an ambitious man, he also harbored an intensely independent spirit. When the federal government enacted a whiskey tax to help offset the costs of the Civil War, Staley was indignant. Over the course of his long life he had never paid a tax, and would not submit to one now. In protest, he shuttered his distillery.

After Elias’s death in 1866, son Andrew resumed production and eventually expanded the operation to include a separate mash house and a small bonded warehouse that could age 100 barrels of Ohio rye. The Indian Creek distillery made Staley rye until Prohibition, when those original stills were carefully removed and stored on the second floor of the warehouse, away from the prying eyes of the authorities. While the family continued farming, the original distillery building eventually fell into ruin, and only the foundation is evident today.

648In 1997, sixth-generation Staley descendant Missy Duer and her husband Joe liberated the old stills to use as display pieces on the historic farmstead. Their visible presence got the Duers thinking about resurrecting the family distilling tradition, and by 2011 they had constructed a new building to serve as a home to those ancient pot stills, which needed little more than a good cleaning to get them back to working condition.

Six generations of Staleys have been dutiful caretakers of their collective legacy. The family’s genealogical and business records have been extraordinarily well-kept and chronicled, including every minute detail of the distilling business. Diagrams of the original distillery, process records, sales ledgers, old photos, receipts of purchases and equipment upgrades: all had been painstakingly retained and were referenced for accuracy in this project. A number of these are on display in the distillery’s tasting room.

The nearly 200 year-old stills were bricked into furnaces identical to the originals, though now gas-fired, and were heated up in650 December 2011 for the first time in almost a hundred years. The recipe the Duers use is Elias’s own. Grist is ground on an 1880 mill once powered by a hit-and-miss engine, now converted to electricity. His mashbill calls for rye, corn, and malted barley, plus a “tea” made from hops, which once acted to inhibit bacteria in wooden fermenters. After some research, they chose East Kent Goldings, a hop variety that would have been available back in Elias’s day.

Also necessary for historic accuracy is the addition of a handful of salt and wood ash in the spirit still, which provides clarity to the new make. Neither distills over into the whiskey itself. Four charges of the beer still produce enough low wines for a single charge of the spirit still. Right now, the stills make one run per week, four charges to one. The system includes an early nod to energy efficiency, as the output of the beer still pre-heats water to be used in the next mashing before moving on to the condenser.

The original condensers discharge a white rye of unusual character and smoothness, and bottles are available for purchase at the distillery, open Thursday through Saturday for tastings, with tours on Saturday only. Whiskey lightly aged in quarter barrels was just recently added to the lineup.

For anyone with a penchant for history, this is a place unlike any other; a trip back in time on a multi-generation family farm that still has nearly every original building intact. The gristmill, now the oldest standing in Ohio, has been silent since the early 1900s. It contains all the original wooden gearing and those three great millstones, imported from France in 1818 for a princely sum, around $200,000 in today’s currency. The old sawmill has the last log it cut still sitting on the carriage, another nod to the preservationist nature of the Staley family.

The Duers are planting rye on the property once again, bringing the operation a step closer to its agrarian roots, and re-establishing terroir into the process. Missy and Joe run the place and are assisted by an independent-minded young woman in her own right, the appropriately-named Liberty Watson. She helps carry on the legacy of self-sufficiency established here by Elias Staley almost two centuries past.

Elias would be proud that liberty continues to be a part of his family’s legacy, both literally and figuratively, and that his rye whiskey is flowing again thanks to the ambition, determination, and independent nature of the sixth generation of the Ohio branch of the Staley clan. The deepest roots of American whiskey making are now anchored firmly in the rolling terrain of New Carlisle, Ohio. The Staleys and their long distilling legacy endure.

http://www.staleymillfarmanddistillery.com

Talisker: Home By the Sea

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Jonny McCormickTalisker has unveiled a new million pound upgrade to its distillery visitor facilities. Jonny McCormick traveled to the Isle of Skye to take a look.

There are precious few signs that spring has arrived on Skye.  The fabric of the mountainside is a muted patchwork of exhausted greensand intense purples from the quiescent winter grass and last summer’s heather. A severe storm is grinding itself out on the Hebrides, with dense, savage rainclouds enveloping the summits of the Cuillins on the Minginish peninsula. Rain and snowmelt have swollen the many burns and streams which cascade down steep slopes into the lochs; the unpredictable routes of the brilliant white torrents reminiscent of the legs running down your whisky glass. I approach Talisker distillery after a five hour coast-to-coast drive, the car whipped by rain every single minute of the journey. Talisker: give me shelter from the storm.

Talisker DFW in better weather 2012

Talisker welcomed 60,000 visitors last year, the highest footfall of any Diageo-owned distillery in Scotland. This is a growing brand that continues to receive attention with smart updated packaging, premium limited editions, and new no-age-statement line extensions including Talisker Storm and the new Talisker Port Ruighe.  These are soon to be joined by Talisker Dark Storm, a new Travel Retail expression matured in heavily charred casks.

Talisker waves in the reception areaNo wonder the parent company has invested seriously in how the distillery in Carbost presents itself to the world. It’s styled by the tagline “Made By The Sea,” and as I enter, they are not kidding around. Carved waves surge out of the floorboards, lapping at information stations that encapsulate materials central to whisky making here: copper for the stills, the wood of the wormtubs, and the curious U-bend in the lyne arms with the skinny re-entrant pipe that loops condensed spirit back down into Talisker’s wash stills. Hand in hand are the rugged elements representing the strong winds driving the waves onto the rocks in Loch Harport, yachting sails, and rigging marking the maritime positioning fitting the distillery’s exposed setting.Talisker Wash Still #2 with U bend lyne arm

The stories are rich from the distillery’s origins in 1830 with Hugh MacAskill who orchestrated the Clearances on Skye, the dependency on old Clyde puffers to bring in raw materials and take away casks to the mainland, and the night of the major stillhouse fire in 1960. The new ground floor reception area is a triumph of contemporary design and a breath of fresh (salty) air compared with the former upstairs lounge area where expectant visitors used to sip a dram in the past, while tour numbers grew to a critical mass. The new space has come at the expense of part of the sea-facing Duty Free Warehouse #4, but the tour still offers a view into this working warehouse where the oldest casks on site are maturing (currently two casks filled in 1979).

Talisker offer a basic tour at £7 (around $10-11) and an in-depth tasting tour for Talisker slogans£25 ($38) that takes around two hours and includes a tasting of five different expressions plus an opportunity to try Talisker new make. This year, they are introducing something new with a ‘tasting without a tour’ session for repeat visitors and whisky enthusiasts who have seen it all before and just want to get their nose into the new products. The new tasting room has a colorful border of jumbled texts and fonts like a wood type block, each singing out a distinctive flavor descriptor; honeycombs, smoky bacon, wooden fish boxes….

This room will host the tasting tours and visiting media representatives like today, when a party of French journalists are attending a press launch for Talisker Port Ruighe. The space where the tours conclude is my favorite part of the redesign; a versatile room that can be partitioned by a blue swing panel covered in slogans of the key messages. The areas are bounded by vertical wooden planks, each laser cut with the names and flavors of a different expression of Talisker single malt whisky.

It’s the clever little touches that impress, such as the mirrors beside the narrow dunnage warehouse windows to increase the natural light and the sail ropes that hoist the vertical planks upwards like storm covers hiding cannon muzzles on a man-of-war. When the visitor season hits full swing later this summer, the tour guides will be conducting 30-35 tours per day with tour groups coming into this area for tastings every 15 minutes.

Talisker exterior in better weather 2012 2LRI’ve been visiting Skye since I was a boy and it still takes me a second to remember to use the Skye bridge and not pull off the road at Kyle of Lochalsh down to wait for the roll-on-roll-off ferry to make the short crossing to Kyleakin. Despite today’s cataclysmic downpour, I can reassure you that the Isle of Skye looks glorious in the summertime if you are planning a trip. The impressive new million pound facilities at Talisker Distillery will handsomely reward your efforts for making the journey. This display will leave you with a deeper understanding of the necessary characteristics embodied in the spirit of the Islanders: resilient, inventive, humorous, tough, self-sufficient, waterproof, patient, lucky.

Photographs by Jonny McCormick

Scotland: a Quick Trip

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Whisky Advocate’s managing editor, Lew Bryson, reports on his recent trip to Scotland.

I was invited to join a press trip to Highland Park distillery recently. I accepted, and added on two days of my own to visit other distilleries in the Highlands. The trip was last week, and after a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the cask ale bars of Edinburgh, we flew up to Kirkwall on Orkney on a brisk Monday morning, dropped our bags at the Lynnfield Hotel, and went to the distillery. We stood in the courtyard, smelling the peat burning in the maltings, looking at tubs filled with tiny daffodils, and feeling the sleet fall lightly on our heads and shoulders. That’s Orkney for you.

Highland Park does floor malting of about 20% of its malt, and smokes it all with Orkney peat to between 35 and 50 ppm of phenols. IMG_0098The local peat is unique, and densely layered with heather. We went out to the peat cuttings the following day, and could see heather roots right down to the 5,000 year level. The other 80% of the malt is unpeated and is bought in. The 80/20 blend is the same in all mashing, and yields the familiarly gentle peat character of Highland Park, with a phenol level of about 2 ppm in the spirit.

Highland Park’s whisky is all aged in oloroso sherry-seasoned casks; some made from American oak, some from Spanish oak (about 50/50), but all sherry (which made for an amusing “Ah HA!” moment when we spotted a small number of port pipes; they were experimental, and may never make it to a bottling). They vary the ratios of American/ Spanish and first-fill/refill to get different character for the different bottlings. The 30 Year Old, for instance, has no first-fill casks; the 25 Year Old is 50% first-fill casks.

It was broadly hinted to us that the Edrington Group would like to reserve as much Highland Park as possible for single malt bottling (they’ve already cut back on the amount of barrels being released to independent bottlers). With the same kind of demand driving things at The Macallan, you wonder what the future is for Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark.

IMAG0616After a fascinating second day getting the Orkney experience—standing stones, cliffs, more sleet, a Neolithic chamber tomb, the peat bogs, Scapa Flow, and fish and chips in a harborside pub—we left Kirkwall Wednesday morning, and I rented a car to drive to Speyside. My first stop was The Macallan, where my guide, Ian Duncan, told me that they’re now running 24/7 every day of the year, except for three weeks of maintenance in July. Yes, every day of the year, even Christmas and New Year’s, which is how they’re putting out 9.2 million liters a year (even given their “curiously small stills”).

The visitor center has an excellent display on wood, which shows the structure of oak, explaining how oak is watertight, but also, very slowly, breathes. The oak they’re largely looking at, of course, is Spanish and American oak used in sherry casks, which now cost The Macallan about £650 each, compared to £500 only two years ago. Do yourself a favor: drink more sherry!

Unfortunately, since I was traveling solo, I wasn’t able to taste anything, so I pushed on to The Glenlivet, where I was met by international brand ambassador Ian Logan. It was a bit late in the afternoon, so we had the place largely to ourselves, and we paused for a moment in the new distillation hall, a soaring place with a grand view across the valley. The stills are oil-fired, but natural gas is coming: I’d been held up by the construction along the way. The new stills are in addition to the old ones and give the distillery a capacity of 10.5 million liters a year, trying to keep up with a booming demand that had increased sales of Glenlivet from 2,500 cases a year in the 1970s to 250,000 cases in 2001, and an amazing 825,000 cases in 2012.

I asked Ian about the still geometry; why are the stills at Glenlivet shaped the way they are? He called over brewer Richard Clark, who cocked his head and said, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But really, that’s what it is. Whatever the reason they were built the way they were, keep doing it the same way, because that’s how your spirit is.”

That led us into a discussion of quality vs. consistency. The distillation here is highly consistent because of automation. That’s not necessarily higher quality every time, Ian noted, but it makes for a regularly higher level overall, and it’s always the same. Automation may make a smaller workforce possible—there are ten people making the whisky here—but it’s still the people who make the whisky, he said.

Then we had a chat about limits. The last downturn in the industry was in the 1980s, Ian said, but Chivas kept making whisky, and Glenlivet is set for older whiskies because of that. “It will turn down again,” he said. “It always does. Everything does. Everything is cyclical.” There are other limits on growth; everyone I talked to on this trip had water on their mind, a limiting factor even here in rainy Scotland as production expands in response to demand.

I drove on up past Inverness, and spent the night at The Anderson in Fortrose, owned by an old acquaintance from Philly, Jim IMG_0160Anderson (and he has a great whisky bar). It was a short drive to Tain the next morning, where Annette MacKenzie took me around a quiet Glenmorangie that was slowly coming back to life after annual maintenance. They did a total refurbishment three years ago, and are looking at 6 million liters production this year.

It was quiet at the distillery, but things were stirring. Malt was being delivered, and steam was slowly being turned back on. “Good to hear the noise!” Annette called to the stillman. Then she told me that because the sounds of the steam and the bubbles and the gushes of the stillhouse are so important, and the stillman leans to listen to every little nuance, “You can’t sneak up on a stillman.”

I drove back southeast, backtracking to The Dalmore, where Shauna Jennens took me around. We saw the two sets of stills—the “little rascals” and the “big bastards”—with the odd flat tops of the wash stills and the unique cooling water jackets of the spirit stills.

“It’s an unbalanced distilling system,” explained stillman Mark Hallas. “The spirit’s different coming off the different stills, but over 24 hours it balances. It’s all manually controlled, they call it ‘dynamic distillation.’” He grinned. “Automate it all you want, the most important part is the meat in the machine.” He grinned again, and tapped the side of his head.

The meat in the machine at Dalmore that everyone knows best is Richard Paterson’s nose, of course, and though he wasn’t there that morning, his presence was palpable: in videos, in pictures, and in the complicated blending that’s done with six different casks and finishes for the single malts. Even a simple nose like mine noticed that the smell in these dunnage warehouses, right beside the Cromarty Firth, is unique: malt, wood, stemmy grape, and salt.

And here I did finally give in and have a small drink of Matusalem oloroso sherry; “good stuff,” as Shauna pronounced it, and it was rich, fruity, and delicious. We followed it with a bare quarter-ounce of King Alexander III, and the relation was clear. It was a very good moment, looking out the window, across the sun-beaten firth, ready to push on.

IMG_0171Push on I did, with one more stop before heading back to the Edinburgh airport to fly home. I drove east to Elgin, and then up the Spey to Rothes, where I met Fiona Toovey for a tour of Forsyths, the still manufacturers. Once kitted out with reflective vest and steel-toed shoes, we walked the yard, full of coppersmiths banging away with hammers of differing sizes, saw the large pits for the mechanical hammers, and the shop where Forsyths rides out the cyclical whisky industry with work on specialized steel welding and shaping for the gas and oil drilling industry.

They were gearing up for the summer maintenance period here as well. A warehouse was filling with new and refurbished stills and condensers, and a small army of fitters would swarm on them to get them into quiet distilleries during the short summer break. Things are good at Forsyths, and only getting better as more major distillery expansions are announced.

That was the end of my trip, but for the intensely scenic drive down to Edinburgh (and a quick stop to take a few pictures at Tullibardine for my sister). The Scotch whisky industry is successful and expanding, and looking challenges straight in the eye. Where will the water come from to make the whisky? Where will the wood come from for sherry aging? Where will the money come from to build more warehouses than current sales need (but future sales depend on)? Time will tell. For now, all is well in the glens and on the islands.

Two craft distillers’ takes on old mountain techniques

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Lew Bryson, Whisky Advocate managing editor, recently toured two craft distillers. Today he shares their histories and their approaches to distilling.

“Cooking the mash in the still is the ‘Black Pot System,’” Jimmy Simpson told me. “We don’t do that, we run just the wash.” I was standing by the outdoor still at Short Mountain Distillery, outside of Woodbury, Tennessee, about 50 miles southeast of Nashville. Jimmy was sitting by the still, watching the clear alcohol run off into a large Mason jar. The still looked like a moonshiner’s cobbled-together operation, hand-hammered and partly wood…and that’s because it is a former moonshiner’s still, decades old, just as Simpson is a former moonshiner, decades old. The still’s been reformed, all the lead-based solder replaced, and Jimmy’s reformed too; he’s all legal now, working with two other former ‘wildcatters,’ Ricky Estes and Ronald Lawson, making Shine, Short Mountain’s main product.

“We got the three of them together to talk about recipes,” David Kaufman told me. “They were all Cannon County moonshiners, and we figured they’d have their own way of doing things. They agreed on a recipe the first day; that’s how it’s made in Cannon County.” Kaufman, along with brothers Ben and Billy, founded the farm distillery here on Short Mountain, and Ben is raising the corn (soon to be certified organic) that goes into the still.

That recipe is fairly simple: 70% cane sugar (“Sacks of Domino sugar, can you get more American than that?” asked David), and 30% corn and wheat shorts (roughly-milled bits of wheat bran, germ, and flour). That’s fermented, the wash is drained out from under the fairly solid ‘cap’ of grains that forms — a cap that is important to the process, according to master distiller Josh Smotherman, keeping out bacteria and bugs — and sent to the still; the cap and slurry are used as sour mash in the next batch.

Smotherman runs the bigger Vendome still inside, where most of the production of Shine takes place, but the outdoor still is no fake; runs from both stills are blended to make the bottled product. The moonshiners’ product serves as a check on Smotherman’s makings; they should taste and feel the same. Shine isn’t whiskey, though the distinction is slim and it tastes quite close; this is a well-made product, with a solid history of over a hundred years of illicit distilling in the area.

I visited another, similar distillery the next day, up in Lebanon, Kentucky: Limestone Branch Distillery. There is also a solid history here, but it’s all about legal distilling. Limestone Branch is a project of Steve and Paul Beam; that’s right, two of those Beams. Their great-grandfather was Minor Case Beam, great-grandson of patriarch Jacob Beam and a master distiller; their great-great grandfather was Joseph Washington Dant, the J.W. Dant that gave his name to that once well-known brand of whiskey (now owned by Heaven Hill).

Steve Beam showed me around the place. The mash for their T.J. Pottinger Sugar Shine was very similar to Short Mountain’s: 70% cane sugar, and 30% milled corn. But, Steve revealed, it’s an uncooked mash, and the corn is not there for fermentables; it’s for bulk — that cap again — and flavor. They do the same sour mashing as Short Mountain, but the wash is distilled in a very simple (and very manual) copper alembic pot still. Steve was watching it closely the whole time I was there; he was right at the heart cut.

But Limestone Branch also makes corn whiskey (and is making bourbon…slowly), and their beer still was an eye-catcher. It’s made out of steel storage tanks, plumbed together as still and condenser; cheap, ugly, and effective. “The ADI tour came out here in April,” Steve told me, “and they took a lot of pictures and asked a lot of questions!” Nothing says a still has to be pretty, after all.

Two distilleries, two histories, two approaches that are similar and different, and two products that are actually quite tasty; clean, flavorful, pleasantly fruity, and appealingly American (and Appalachian) in their character. This is where craft distilling is at its best, combining innovation in methods and equipment, preservation of tradition, and showcasing the passion of distillers who just want to try something new. If it’s not strictly whiskey…it’s hardly brandy or vodka, and it is interesting.

A tour and tasting at High West distillery

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Sam Komlenic, Whisky Advocate copy editor, recaps his recent visit to High West distillery.

About a five-minute drive from the Salt Lake City airport, situated in a tan-all-over industrial park, hides a place where some of the most innovative recent experiments in whiskey blending have taken shape.  A few weeks ago I found myself at that park, inside the blending and bottling plant of High West distillery.  Whiskey wunderkind David Perkins has been executing quite a number of high-profile, innovative, and sometimes controversial American whiskey blending projects from this nondescript space for the last few years.  David’s broad interest in distilling, after a career as a biochemist, has helped him make friends across the mainstream end of the business, and those connections have enabled him to access some rare and stunning whiskeys with which to work.

It started with Rendezvous rye, a blend of 16 year old and 6 year old ryes, then progressed to Bourye, the first modern combination of straight bourbon and rye whiskeys.  Since then, he hasn’t let up, combining various sourced whiskeys, like a whiskey Dr. Frankenstein, into some intriguing combinations.  A recent effort is a blend of bourbon, rye, and a slightly smoky scotch called Campfire, and it has made even the scotch world sit up and take a bit of notice at what’s going on across the pond.

I had a short tour of the facility, where their whiskeys are entirely hand-bottled, then we moved to the lab/office area where I was able to participate in a group evaluation of three products.  We were tasting the most recent bottling and potential next bottling of Campfire, Son of Bourye (a younger version of its sibling), and their most recent mariage, American Prairie Reserve, a blend of 10 year old Four Roses high-rye bourbon with 6 year old bourbon from the MGP distillery in Indiana.  The staff at High West is actively involved in this process, and we’re all asked to nose, taste, and evaluate the product profiles while taking notes. Each version is then openly discussed among the group.  It was a fascinating look at the very democratic process utilized to assess the quality and consistency of these spirits.

Though well known for these aged whiskeys, High West is also distilling their own spirits at their self-proclaimed “gastro-distillery” in nearby Park City. Demand for their vodkas, rye and oat white whiskeys, and a short-aged oat whiskey called Valley Tan requires distilling seven days a week.  I got a tour of the Park City location the next morning courtesy of Brendan Coyle, their lead distiller.

Trained at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt Institute, and having worked in Scottish distilleries before his arrival in Park City, Brendan is effusive about his duties.  His enthusiasm and willingness to experiment are obvious as he discusses High West’s products and processes, and provides an overview of the operation of what is a surprisingly small setup for such a high profile enterprise.

Situated between what was once a two-story frame home and a livery stable, now a restaurant and saloon, the distillery has room for nothing but a stunning 250-gallon Arnold Holstein still and dual rectifying columns.  Everything else…the mash cooker, fermenters, mill, receiving tanks, and a 25-liter pilot still are housed below quarters, shoehorned into a clean, modern basement space.  Demand is such that Perkins is considering an expansion of the distillery sooner than later, using custom built stills that will replicate the only commercial pot stills known to have been installed in the U.S. after Prohibition, from a Pennsylvania distillery that closed in 1947.

David Perkins is a zealot when it comes to understanding how whiskey was distilled back in the day.  He references volumes of old distilling manuals, and, among other sources, used them to come to terms with the creation of his OMG Pure Rye whiskey, his interpretation of the unaged “Old Monongahela” style that would have been farm-distilled in western Pennsylvania around the time of the Whiskey Insurrection.  He’s passionate about doing things traditionally, but can’t resist including a twist or two to keep it all interesting, as evidenced in High West’s Silver Oat whiskey.

I’m willing to bet that this combination of tradition and innovation will continue for High West and their fans.  From what I saw going on behind the scenes at the foot of Utah’s beautiful Wasatch Range, they’re just getting started.