Whisky Exchange Show Part 4: American Micro-distilleries and Nic’s Mini-class.
After sampling what is considered by some as the best American whisky in the world (see Buffalo Trace previous post), it seemed only fitting to try some of the most recent from some of the smaller American distilleries. There’s something afoot in America at the moment when it comes to distilling. At a push you can trace it’s roots back to the development of the California wine indsutry, the growth of farmers markets and more recently the rise of the American craft brewing movement. It’s an emphasis on independence, using local ingredients, the small scale, micro, boutique. It’s about innovation and experimentation.
Over the last few years, a lot of tiny micro-distilleries have sprung up. Maybe this is harking back to the American heritage of Moonshiners, a rejection of mass consumerism and a return to DIY(ism) – the alienable right of those early frontiersmen to make and consume your own liquor. Whatever, some come from a wine and fruit background – making wine or ciders then eaux-de-vie then the short step to whiskey. Others from the craft brewing industry. Well, you’ve made your beer so it’s logical to take the next step to simply distil it . And also a small group who come from the have-a-go hobbyists. Just a fascination with the spirits and the desire to try it themselves. No matter what your background, it is apparent that there is a growing movement under way.
The American Distillers Institute (A.D.I.), headed by Bill Ownes, registers and catalogues craft and micro distilleries. Michael Kinstlick in an A.D.I. White Paper, states that in 2000 there were just 24 craft distillers. In 2011 that figure stood at 234. That sounds like an explosion to me and it is believed that if trends continue then in the next ten years there will be over 1000 distilleries! (Reference ADI White Paper – this makes amazing reading – do have a look at it).
Not all of these distilleries are making whiskey, however. But those that are, are, in the main, ignoring the strict laws and regulations that govern the manufacture of Bourbon and instead opting to explore the, until recently, neglected areas of the less regulated single malt and alternative grain whiskies. Indeed, one of the seminal texts is Alt-Whiskey by Dereck Bell of Corsair, which is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of making whisky from all manner of grains from the more obvious wheat to the less obvious spelt. The idea may be summarised as: why try to compete with the bigger distillers in Kentucky, mass producing Bourbon, when they can use innovation and new techniques to push the boundaries of what is normally considered whiskey. For example, a quick look at the Corsair website reveals a host of experimental styles from Quinoa whiskey to Cherrywood Smoked to Oatmeal Stout.
Nic Vaughan, the American spirits specialist from Speciality Drinks, was manning the stall at the Whisky Exchange Show. Distilleries being represented were from one of our favourites, Balcones from Waco, Texas and also Corsair from Nashville, Tennessee and Bowling Green in Kentucky (they have two distillery locations – dudes!). Anyway, Nic started to take us through a couple of bottles before we realised that he would soon be starting his mini-class on these American craft whiskies and so it would just be better to attend that.
Nic presented four whiskies in his class. The first up was from Corsair, called Rasputin, and is a hopped whiskey. Bottled at 43%. Whoa! A hopped whiskey. Yep pretty crazy. Essentially what Corsair do is first off create an Imperial Russia Stout beer using 3 different malts (hence calling it Rasputin). Then, when it comes to the second distillation they nick a technique off the gin makers by using a carter-head (a kind of copper basket that sits in the still) filled with hops (Libery and East Kent) that allows the whisky vapours to pass through and pick up the aromas and flavours of those hops. Afterwards they mature the whole lot in tiny 5 gallon American Oak casks that have been heavily charred (Char 4) from anywhere between 3 to 8 months.
Obviously this is stretching the very concept of what is whiskey. On the nose it smells just like a strong IPA ale. The hops are there and also a good chunk of spice to boot. Indian spice and cardamon. Perhaps some hickory too. Definitely chocolate (which will come from the stout) and also a lot of ginger. The aromas follow on to the flavours. It’s drier and lighter than I was expecting. Flavours of Jamaican Ginger Cake and Christmas spices (like from mulled wine). With a drop of water it brings out the spice and also a certain waxiness to it. As an experimental whiskey it certainly isn’t like anything I’ve ever tasted before and with production being around 40-60 cases (240 – 360 bottles) there won’t be much of it around.
Next up a single malt from Balcones. Having tried True Blue, the corn whiskey that uses local Texan variety of Blue Hopi Corn, and Brimstone, where Texan Scrub Oak is burnt and then infused into the spirit, we were keen to sample the new release Single Malt. And it didn’t disappoint. Matured for 6 months and released at 53% it shows all the Balcones hallmarks that have won this distillery many accolades, awards and converts. The nose is brimming with lovely toffee brittle notes that segues into fairground candy floss. It’s complex with a malt creaminess to it. It also shows touches of peach and apple crumble too. On the palate it’s bolder. Sweet to start but with almost meaty flavours of roast chicken and herbs like tarragon. Slight oils on the finish which dampen down to a lovely tingly spice. There’s lots of twists and turns with this whiskey and a lot of overlapping flavour profiles which will take time to unravel. One of the best whiskies at the show.
Whiskey number three was Redemption Rye. Starting with a very high 95% rye mashbill, it’s distilled at Lawrenceberg Distillers in Indiana (LDI) and then aged for 2 years (making it “straight”) in newly charred American Oak and bottled at 46% abv. Sadly that’s about as much information as I have. It’s very clean on the nose with a minty, menthol, Fox’s Glacier mint kind of vibe. On the palate it’s soft but with a good weight of spice. There’s also a hint of sweet and sour about it too.
Finally it was back to Corsair to sample their rye, aptly named Ryemaggeddon. To make it interesting this is a 100% malted rye. Without going into the more technical aspects, you need to malt a grain in order for it to have sugars that can be converted to alcohol. It’s very easy to do this with barley but it’s a lot trickier to do it with rye. To help do so you have to use an enzyme to help kick off the whole process. Essentially it’s hard work but it shows the kind of thing that Corsair like to do. Not only that but a third of the rye is roasted to create a chocolate rye. It then spends 5-6 months in a small, heavily charred 5 gallon American oak cask. The nose is youthful, showing lots of lovely bbq aromas, a touch of smoke but more like charcoal. The palate is a little more interesting, starting sweet and with roasted nut and bbq crisps. There are chocolate flavours too and then sweet peanut – almost like a Reece’s. At the finish the spice comes through towards the end. After sampling it for the second time at Nic’s mini-class I have to say I preferred it the second time around. Unusual but one that you certainly have to try.
Overall some very interesting and out-there whiskey. This stuff is really pushing at the limits of what you think can be defined as whiskey, the Corsair bottles especially. Balcones goes from strength to strength and was a clear winner on the day. It is no wonder that Dominic Roskrow named his World Wizard of Whisky Distiller of the Year. Many thanks to Nic who presented a great class, showing some amazing drinks with plenty of knowledge and information. Top work.
Next: John Glaser and Compass Box.