Archive for the ‘Microdistilleries’ Category

From the Land of Fire and Ice

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

author-eric-strandIf you want to know what makes a whiskey a bourbon, you can look it up. Scotch? Look it up. Canadian? Look that up.

What about Icelandic whisky? Well, if you’re Egill and Hali Thorkelsson, two brothers from Iceland, you have to make it up. Being the first producer of whisky in Iceland gives them the crare opportunity to define a whole new category of national whisky. Founded in 2009, the Eimverk Distillery has set out to do just that.

Being first offers many advantages, but it also brings with it some specific challenges. Iceland has no malting facilities, no proven yeast strains, no native mash bills. While understandably tight-lipped about their yeast sourcing, they are eager to talk about their mash bill. One of their main goals was to produce a traditional-ingredient spirit, and they use 100% Icelandic-grown barley. A hardy, dense grain, the cold climate concentrates the nutrients and flavors into a smaller package than warmer climate varieties. Another major challenge is that Iceland is, according to Egill, a vodka and schnapps nation. Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city and capitol, has just one whisky bar.

Hali and Egill Thorkelsson

Hali and Egill Thorkelsson

A tour of the distillery shows that this is definitely a labor of love. From the repurposed milk chillers to the custom-made still (named Elizabeth, after their grandmother), the whole operation takes place in a space the size of a large garage. They store their barrels off-site in the Icelandic countryside. They currently run at about 30,000 liters per year with the capacity to double that. Every third week the process is shifted to make a batch of gin, again using only locally grown ingredients. When asked how they learned to make whisky, they both laugh, “YouTube!”

They do, however, have years of experience home brewing their own beer, and just as importantly, they have the Icelandic spirit of adventure. It is appropriate that their single malt expression will bear the name of one of the island’s first explorers, Hrafna-Flóki (Floki of the Ravens); Flóki to his friends.



At this point, it might be tempting to wonder about their ability to be a serious entrant into the whisky marketplace. It might be instructive to note that their gin, Vor (Icelandic for spring), recently won “Double Gold” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year. It’s more tempting to think they may be on to something, Iceland being perhaps the best place for such a micro-distillery. “How many micros in the US can have a bottle in every store in the nation?” Egill asks.

Careful not to rely too much on the instructive merits of YouTube, their niece, Eva, is finalizing professional training in Scotland. Formal training can only get you so far, however. The rest comes from a lot of trial and error, or as Egill calls it, “playing.” Experimenting with over 160 recipes, the process was to “taste a lot of whisky, get a lot of opinions, and make a lot of mistakes.”

So sometime in 2017, the first bottle of Icelandic single malt whisky, “Flóki,” will hit the shelves. Their standard expression will be a 3 year old aged in bourbon barrels that is “not complex, with a few key ingredients to make it very drinkable.” It will also be organic and eco-friendly. All their power is geothermal, and the only pesticide used is a little thing they like to call “winter.”

Sara at the Dillon Whiskey Bar with a cask of Floki

Sara at the Dillon Whiskey Bar with a cask of Flóki

But what about the defining of a unique, Icelandic expression? “I like smoked,” Egill admits, and Iceland has plenty of native peat. He notes that traditional Icelandic methods of smoking usually are, er…dung-related. This might be one area where he’s willing to deviate from traditional practices, but he rules nothing out. The normally straightforward master distiller becomes ambiguous when pressed for more details, but hints that something might be bottled before the single malt is introduced.

For the curious, adventurous, or just plain impatient world traveler, you can try some slighty-aged Flóki (1-12 months in virgin oak, medium plus char) from their pre-release 4.5 liter mini-casks at Dillon Whiskey Bar in Reykjavik.

Gin Meets Whisky (in a barrel)

Monday, January 27th, 2014

We welcome Geoff Kleinman, editor of the DrinkSpirits website, as a guest blogger on the subject of aged gin…which can be tantalizingly close to whisky.

Author_Geoff KleinmanAged Gin isn’t a new spirit category, but it’s a category that has been getting an increasing amount of attention. Craft distillers have embraced aged gin as another vehicle for creative expression and as an aged product that can be sold during the long waiting game that’s required for aged whisky. The problem with the category is that, at times, it tends to blur the lines between gin and whiskey, with one product, Pow-Wow Botanical Rye, completely obliterating the lines.

“Early American gin (up through the 1860s) was made in the flavored-whiskey style, and it was often barrel aged. Later, once (neutral-spirit based) English styles took root, that, too, was often aged, but much more lightly,” explains David Wondrich, spirits historian and author of Imbibe!.

One of the first contemporary entries in the aged gin space came from Ransom Spirits, in Sheridan, Oregon. With Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, distiller Tad Seestedt helped resurrect a “lost” style of gin and in the process helped kick off a new wave of the aged gin category. “The idea was initially to replicate the short amount of time that the gin would have historically spent in barrel during transport over land or sea to its final destination. We also realized afterwards that the barrel aging had an obviously pleasant effect on the gin,” says Tad Seestedt.

agedginRansom’s Old Tom Gin soon became a darling of the craft spirit world, and it opened the door for more craft spirit companies to follow in the aged gin space. “One of the most challenging aspects of “craft distilling” is that the big boys make outstanding products – aging gin allows me a chance to not only be creative but create products that the big boys fhave to play catch up, like with Beefeater’s Burroughs Reserve,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits.

Many craft distillers don’t have the ability to truly rectify spirits and scoff at using neutral grain spirits for their products. The result can be a malty botanical spirit with similar characteristics to a young whiskey. “The primary difference, besides the addition of the botanicals to the spirit, is the distillation proof of the base spirit. As you know, whiskey is distilled to a much lower proof off the still, so there are fusels and other congeners in the whiskey distillate that aren’t there in the base of the gin distillate,” remarks John Little, head distiller of Smooth Ambler Spirits.

Seeing this intersection between aged gin and aged whiskey, Amir Peay, CEO and founder at Georgetown Trading Co., created Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. “We took a fine, mature whiskey and then infused it with whole botanicals over an extended period of time. My idea of a good whiskey is one that is complex and balanced, and I wanted to see if we could take a great whiskey and add new layers of botanical complexity that worked in concert with the existing flavors.”

The dividing line between a botanical flavored whiskey and an aged gin may be murky, but it’s there. “Aged London dry style gin, or any gin that’s based on neutral spirits, is not aged whiskey, it’s aged vodka. If you make your gin with an unrectified grain spirit that’s been distilled to a relatively low proof, as the Dutch do with their moutwijn, then it’s a flavored whiskey,” explains David Wondrich.

While aged gin is predominantly seen among craft distillers, this year Pernod Ricard got into the space with their limited Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve “Barrel Finished Gin.”

“Aged or rested gin opens up another drinking occasion for gin. Most people wouldn’t think to sit and enjoy a glass of neat gin with a cheese plate after dinner, but with Burrough’s Reserve on the market now we can,” says Nick van Tiel, Pernod Ricard’s English gins brand ambassador.

Whether or not whiskey drinkers will embrace the aged gin category remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a category that deserves exploration. Paul Hletko best sums it up: “It is a wide open place, and much of what we do is education on what ‘brown gin’ is and why it’s brown.  But the opportunity to be creative is worth it.”

Finnish whisky (not a whisky finish)

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOne of the very great pleasures associated with this ‘job’ of mine is finding new whiskies—good ones—in some very unexpected places, made by interesting and engaging people. But I would never have expected to find an exciting new distillery in a small provincial town in the east of Finland. As it turned out, “new” was a misnomer because the fine folk at Teerenpeli have been making their whisky since 2003. Only now they are ready to share it with us.

With a logo that looks suspiciously like a grouse, production that they freely admit was inspired by Highland Park, stills built by Forsyths, and the plant commissioned with the help of William Meikle (formerly manager at Glen Ord) you might expect to find Teerenpeli in a Scottish glen somewhere.

But no, it’s in the basement of a restaurant on the main street of Lahti, a quiet city of around 100,000 some 60 miles north-east of Helsinki. A pleasant train ride of about an hour will get you there from Finland’s capital, and it’s well worth making the trip.

Owner Anssi Pyysing began by brewing beer in a micro-brewery in 1995 but has long been interested in whisky. First he imported casks of it from Scotland, which were finished in Finland and then bottled. Demand and interest grew and in 2002 he took the first steps to creating the distillery, one of the very first micro plants constructed by Forsyths of Rothes.

052038_MG_4672On a trip to Scotland he had met William Meikle, who encouraged him to believe that distilling was not only possible but could be done well. By 2003, Teerenpeli was in production. But they didn’t tell anyone except a few locals, and the very small quantities of whisky they sold and bottled were in effect test products, only available in Pyysing’s restaurants and a bar he owns in Lahti. So, outside of a very small group, no one knew.

The plant is relatively straightforward. A mash tun of 350 kilos capacity feeds a single pair of stills with the wash still holding 1,500 liters and the spirit still a modest 900 liters per charge. At full capacity, Teerenpeli could theoretically produce around 15,000 liters of spirit annually. Fortunately for the distillery, Lahti is a major center for malting and from the start the distillery has used locally-sourced Finnish malt, currently peated to a modest 7 ppm of phenols.

Early output was modest and, as befits a patient and painstaking self-made man, Pyysing was in no hurry to release the spirit before he was entirely happy that it was ready. After all, as he says, though they “needed something warming in the winter” his goal was to produce a whisky that was “inspired by Highland Park but with a taste of its own: truly Finnish whisky.”

2013 saw the release of Kaski, a 6 year old expression which has been exclusively matured in specially-coopered small sherry casks. There are also plans to experiment with some more heavily peated malt to achieve smokier notes in the whisky. Limited quantities of a delicious 8 year old are also available.

I’m told that Teerenpeli means “flirtation” or “dalliance” in English. Well, there is nothing flirtatious about this whisky: it is serious, well-made, and an inspiration to other craft distillers.063070_MG_4517

In fact, significant expansion is now underway. Pyysing’s brewery business continues to prosper and the brewery is being enlarged. That will make available space to install a new still room within the brewing complex, increasing spirit production tenfold to around 150,000 liters annually. The original distillery in the restaurant will continue to produce and the new stills at the brewery will be modeled as exact copies of the originals. The order for equipment has been placed and, before long, the stills will start to take shape at Forsyths.

The expansion means that Teerenpeli will start to look at expanding its international marketing efforts over the new few years, looking for distributors in Russia, a number of European markets, and possibly the U.S. A U.S. launch might even begin in Upper Michigan, where a good number of inhabitants can trace Finnish ancestry; plans remain to be decided. It will always be a premium, niche product but, because of Pyysing’s patience and long-term view, I feel sure that the quality will be maintained.

Highland Park may have been the inspiration but this pioneering Nordic spirit is rapidly making its own way and, once better known, seems set fair to occupy a distinguished place in world distilling. Enthusiasts will have to make room for another distilling country, but one which can hold its head up in distinguished company.

Whisky Returns to London

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Author - Dave Broom

It’s hard to know precisely what a distillery looks like these days, but I’m not expecting one that shares a building with a boxing gym, an Islamic Arts Centre, a cinema, and a bar. The blue neon sign declaring “The London Distillery” looks like some post-modern irony rather than a working plant. Outside, the muddy coffee waters of the Thames flow under Albert Bridge. Not, as I said, the location you think of when talking whisky.

In the tiled, high-ceilinged main room is a highly burnished, 650 liter copper pot called Matilda, built to the firm’s specifications by Christian Carl. At the other end of the room is the mash tun and stainless steel fermenters. Most excitingly, there’s clear spirit running into the large receiving vessel.

Although in the 18th and 19th ceThe London Distillery Companyntury the Thames and its tributaries were home to many substantial distilleries, the last dedicated whisky plant, Lea Valley, closed at the start of the 20th century. The notion of English whisky laid dormant for over a century, that of London whisky even longer. This is a significant event: whisky making returning to London after 100 years.

This is a chance for CEO Darren Rook and distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith to start creating a London style. It also indicates a relaxing of the attitude of the UK Excise, who had to have their own regulations quoted back at them in order for Rook and his team to be granted their license to distil spirits (rather than the license to rectify granted to gin distillers). Distilling whisky in the capital is a symbolic moment in the development of a national English whisky industry.

The way they are approaching it is hearteningly forensic. That trickle of clearic in the vat is the first runnings, not an end product. The next few months will be a period of assessment of the options open to them, “to find what excites us,” as Rook says.

Darren Rook and Matilda

Darren Rook and Matilda

Barley strains (brought in as grist) will be looked at as will yeast strains. “The idea is to use yeasts which have historically been used by London brewers,” says Rook. “At the moment we are trialing Young’s and an old Whitbread one. We’re working through the decades to discover which strain works best for which style.”

Matilda is equally flexible. The vapor can be run through a condenser, or diverted to a copper rectifying column should they wish to distil in a single pass. The plates in the column can also be removed, effectively extending the length of the lyne arm. At the moment, though, double distillation is being used, with the heads being returned to the next batch of wash and the tails into the second distillation.

Each distillation, handily enough, will give sufficient spirit for one standard cask; there’s no sign of quick-fix, small cask maturation being used. “It will be ready when we think it’s ready,” says Rook. “If that’s 25 years, then so be it!” He then floats the idea that chestnut casks might be trialed along with new oak, should they make a rye and corn-based whisky. Options open.

Consultant distiller John McDougall smiles. “Anyone can build a distillery,” he says, “it’s making it different that’s the tricky bit.”

Whisky Advocate Award: Craft Whiskey of the Year

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Few Spirits Rye, 46.5%, $60

Reviewing craft-distilled American whiskeys is still a matter of degrees, especially when the craft distillers venture into the stylistic territory Few Ryestaked out so strongly by the established traditional distillers. The benchmarks of bourbon and rye are well-known, and to openly declare your competition with them is to invite direct comparison. I call it the “Evan Williams Test”: is this craft whiskey good enough that I’d buy a bottle of it instead of yet another $14 bottle of the reliably well-made Evan Williams Black? Only the very best craft whiskeys can stand up to that.

By that test, Few Spirits Rye is clearly in the top tier of current craft whiskeys.

Although it’s young, the whiskey is well-made and clean in character, not funky and flawed, which still counts for a lot these days. As I said in my review (an 89 score), “Straightforward rye crisps out of the glass in no-nonsense style; dry grain, sweet grass, and light but insistent anise almost wholly drown out the barrel character.” It’s backed up on the palate, where you’ll get more rye, some tarragon and dry mint spice, and then some oak in the warming finish.

That light barrel character is hardly surprising in a young rye, and we’re not going to see much but young whiskey out of craft distillers for a while yet. So high marks to Few Spirits for making a very good young rye, one I’ve been using as a benchmark ever since I tasted it. — Lew Bryson

Tomorrow, the American Whiskey of the Year will be announced.

The Laird of Fintry has Landed

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

author-beaumontIt’s been a good year for Canada’s Okanagan Spirits. To begin with, a break on the standard retail mark-up in the provincially-owned liquor stores for distillers using locally-grown ingredients – which this fruit belt operation does exclusively – was rather unexpectedly announced in the early spring by the government of the company’s home province of British Columbia.  Then came word from the World Spirits Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, where Okanagan Spirits was awarded not only World Class Distillery certification, but also the titles of Distillery of the Year 2013 and Spirit of the Year 2013, the latter for their Blackcurrant Liqueur.

Now a six-year project has finally come to completion with the arrival of Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky, distilled from 100% British Columbia-grown barley and aged in French and American oak. Although no doubt better known for their fruit-based eaux de vie lof.bottleshotand Taboo Absinthe, the Laird of Fintry is in many ways a landmark release for Okanagan Spirits, representing in production and aging almost a full two-thirds of the distillery’s existence.

“At the time, we weren’t sure we could even make a whisky, so it was more of an experiment than anything else,” explains Rodney Goodchild, marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits. “We had a brewery make the wash for us and were able to distill just a single barrel out of it. Then, as time went on, we kept tasting it and tasting it until at about eighteen months we realized that it was evolving into something quite nice.”

The whisky is titled with the nickname given to an early 20th century settler, James Cameron Dun Waters, who named what is now the Fintry Estate provincial park for his Scottish hometown. The distillery has been producing about a dozen barrels of whisky per year, says Goodchild. So while that initial run has resulted in rather meagre release – leading to a lottery-style sale that had 1,527 people vying for an opportunity to buy the a mere 210 bottles of the whisky – there will be more available next year and in the years to come. One key to Okanagan generating more whisky for sale will definitely be a change in what can only in the loosest of terms be called “warehousing.”

“The distillery has no real warehouse,” says Goodchild, noting that the only other significantly aged product is an 18 month old apple brandy, “So we’re currently storing the barrels in the retail area. The problem is, with the changes in temperature and the dryness of our winters, we estimate that we’re losing about 12% of the spirit per year.” Okanagan Spirits aims to reduce that overly generous angel’s share with the construction of a glass walled barrel room adjacent to their current retail space and tasting bar.


Distiller Peter von Hahn

As for the whisky itself, its nose is possessed of a surprising maturity for a spirit so relatively young, with aromas of plum, cooked pear, and stewed and spiced raisins accompanying the expected notes of vanilla and toffee. On the palate, however, its youthfulness shines, with ample but integrated oakiness and effusive, sweet notes of both fresh and baked pear, apple and yellow plum, caramel and baking spice, all leading to a still fruity, vanilla-accented finish.

Although it is obviously a grain-based spirit, the Laird of Fintry seems to channel the character of many of its stablemates in the Okanagan Spirits portfolio, specifically the fruit eaux de vie for which the distillery is becoming quite famous. As an operation committed to the use of local ingredients, that is not at all a bad thing.

True, in this batch and at this age, the whisky is not likely to excite anyone approaching it in search of Speyside or Highland complexities, or even the simpler charms of a pot-distilled Irish whiskey. But in terms of speaking to its terroir in the one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Canada, it can only be considered a success, and a harbinger of greater things to come from western Canada’s original and arguably greatest and most successful craft distillery.

Some whisky highlights from WhiskyFest San Francisco

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

WhiskyFest San Francisco was this past Friday. I had a chance to try some new whiskies while I was there and would like to share my thoughts. Some of these are so new, they haven’t even been formally released yet. I was just offered pre-release samples to taste.

One of my favorite whiskies of the evening was a Samaroli Glenlivet 1977 Vintage. It was elegant, well-rounded, and subtly complex. Very nice!

The U.S. finally has Japanese whisky besides Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu. Nikka is making its formal debut at WhiskyFest New York in two weeks, but the importer was also pouring Taketsuru 12 year old “Pure Malt” and Yoichi 15 year old single malt at the San Francisco event. The 12 year old, a blend of malts, was nicely rounded and easy to drink, while the 15 year old was very distinctive. My feeling on Japanese whisky is: the more the merrier!

Angel’s Envy has two new whiskeys coming out. The first one is a barrel-proof version of their flagship Angel’s Share bourbon that’s finished in port pipes. The other one is a high-rye whiskey that is currently being finished off in a Caribbean rum cask. I tasted both. Both were very interesting. The high rye/rum finish combination was unique.

Wild Turkey is finally coming out with a new whiskey that’s not 81 proof! (Thank goodness!) There’s a new Russell’s Reserve Small Batch being released soon that’s 110 proof, with no age statement.

I was able to taste the next Evan Williams Single Barrel vintage release (a 2003 vintage). It was very smooth, easy-going, and dangerously drinkable.

There’s a new Michter’s 20 year old single barrel about to be released. I was concerned that it was going to taste too woody, dry and tannic. Not a chance! I was so impressed with this whiskey, that I kept taking people I knew over to the Michter’s booth to taste it before it disappeared. (Well, it wasn’t officially there in the first place, but I did my best to spread the word.) I know this was a single barrel, but I sure hope they all taste like this!

Gable Erenzo had a unmarked bottle of a Hudson Bourbon he wanted me to try. It was a six year old Hudson bourbon matured in a standard 53 gallon barrel (not a small barrel!) and it was the best Hudson whiskey I have tasted to date. Thanks for the tease, Gable…

One of the most pleasant experience of the evening wasn’t even a whisky. It was a beer! At the Anchor booth, they were pouring Anchor Steam that was bottled just five hours earlier. Damn that beer was fresh. It was the best Anchor Steam beer I ever had outside of the brewery. So, if you saw me walking around with a glass of Anchor Steam, now you know why!

Finally, I couldn’t resist sitting in on one of the seminars: a flight of Bowmore whiskies paired with a variety of West Coast oysters that were flown in that day and shucked right in front of us.  Delicious!

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.

Small barrels vs. large barrels: some perspective

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Well, I was going to write about all the new whiskeys I’ve been tasting while I was on vacation, but I’ve been inspired to write about barrel size today instead. I’ll offer my thoughts, and then I would like to hear what you think.

On Wednesday, Buffalo Trace put out a press release announcing that the small barrel experiments they conducted were failures. From their press release:

Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a  warehouse for six years.

The results were less than stellar.  Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time.  Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned.

The same day, Whisky Advocate contributor Chuck Cowdery also wrote a post which he titled “Small barrels still produce lousy whisky,” where he discusses the BT experiment and even got to taste some of them while at the distillery about a year ago.

Coincidentally, also on Wednesday, New York Times published a story entitled “Rolling out smaller barrels sooner.” Have a look. (I was quoted in it.) Still, on the very same day, In With Bacchus posted about the Buffalo Trace experiment, (and Chuck’s reference to it), criticizing it.

Wow, Wednesday was quite the day for barrel size discussion, wasn’t it?

Take a few moments. Follow my links. Read everyone’s viewpoint on this. And while you’re at it, read my initial, unscientific thoughts about this topic in my post way back in June, 2011, entitled “Do smaller whiskey barrels mature whisky faster?”

Now I’ll offer my current thoughts on all of this, and then you can tell me what you think.

My feeling is that craft distillers and the larger, established bourbon distillers (like Buffalo Trace) are approaching barrel size and aging from two different perspectives. Some people are viewing the BT press release as a dig against small craft distillers, many who use small barrels in their maturation process on a regular basis. Others, in support of craft distilling, think that the experiment was ridiculous from the get go, only monitoring the whiskeys on an annual basis (stretching out to six years) when most craft distillers monitor their small barrel maturation much more frequently and often bottle their whisky within a year or two, long before the whiskey gets woody due to the large surface area to volume ratio.

What I think Buffalo Trace was attempting to say in their press release was this: aging their whiskey in smaller barrels will not produce “traditional-tasting” bourbon more quickly. That was also the gist of my comment in my original blog post back in Jume 2011, and also my quote in the New York Times piece. In this regard, you can’t cheat time. If you could, then every damn distiller throughout the world would be using smaller barrels, because the could save billions of dollars. Time is money, after all.  I don’t think that BT was taking a jab at craft distillers.

Now to the craft distiller perspective. What I think craft distillers are doing is very cool and everyone here at Whisky Advocate completely embraces them. It’s nothing short of changing the way the world (not just the U.S.) will view whiskey from here on. I draw an analogy to craft brewing. American brewers took traditional brewing techniques that originated in other countries and put their own signature on it. They experimented, pushed boundaries, produced (and still are producing) some amazing beers. And they often don’t taste anything like the original beer style they used as a springboard.

That’s what I feel is happening in craft distilling right now. We are seeing craft distillers learn from traditional distilling methods and then add their own signature to it. That includes using smaller barrels, unusual grains, and improvised distilling techniques, different types of barrels, etc. You name it, I am sure someone will be trying it.

With experimentation comes success as well as failure. Smart craft distillers who have their shit together know how to age whiskey in a small barrel for a short time period and have it taste good. Sometimes really good! Does it taste like traditional bourbon? No, but American whiskey doesn’t have to taste like straight bourbon or straight rye to be good. (We will save the debate of whether they are as good as older, more traditional bourbons, for another time.)

On the flip side, I have also tasted craft distilled whiskey aged in small barrels that were failures. They were whiskeys that looked mature in color, and inherited the dry woody (tannin) notes from the barrel, but not much more. No balance, no depth of flavor.

So, reiterating my main point here. It’s all about perspective. Success (and failure) means different things to different people–and to different different distillers.