Posts Tagged ‘Sam Komlenic’

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.

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.