Friday 18 July 2014

US whiskey: it's the little things that count

DBS gets stuck in
The groundswell of “craft” distilling continues to accelerate (only today I discovered a new distillery just five miles from my house). Over here in Britain it tends to take the form of new gins, and sometimes vodkas. (There are some interesting new whisky products—Welsh whisky, English whisky—but these take so long to mature that the start-up companies tend to put out vodka and gin too, to help pay the bills while they wait.) Meanwhile in the US the number of new whiskey producers is skyrocketing too; while 99% of all the whiskey made still comes from just 13 large producers, the total number of distilleries now numbers in the hundreds, with several being the first in their state since Prohibition—it’s as if the whole industry went to sleep with the Volstead Act and is only now waking up. Some focus on very local production, buying only local grain and executing every stage of the process “from grain to glass” on their premises, yet I’m pleased to say that many of these very locally-minded products are making their way over here to the UK. Last week I was invited to a Boutique American Whiskey Tasting of eight products from four distilleries, organised by the crew behind the Boutique Bar Show and held at “classic Americana” bar and restaurant Steam and Rye.

Michael from Maverick talks us through FEW
First up was the FEW distillery, offering its bourbon and rye whiskey products. The distillery is located in Evanstown, north of Chicago: building a distillery here was a particularly bloody-minded gesture, as in the years before Prohibition Evanstown was the stronghold of the Temperance Movement. In fact it was founded as a dry community and remaining so up until the 1990s. The distillery’s name comes from the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard, head of the forces of Temperance at the time. As another nod to the history of the period, the bottle and label design evokes the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The FEW bourbon is a three-grain blend, mixing southern tradition with the spiciness of the rye more typical of the north—it is 70% corn (from a co-op in Indiana), 20% malted barley and 10% rye (from Wisconsin), aged in charred oak barrels. The nose hits me with wood first, plus cooked apples and oranges, and something like oatmeal. The palate has woody vanilla and meal again, with a hint of eucalyptus. It’s pretty smooth for a youngish whiskey (though there is no age statement) at 46.5%. The rye whiskey shifts the balance to 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malt. Michael from Maverick Drinks, who handle the range in the UK, explains that rye is expensive and low yield and tricky to ferment. One new trick applied to this product was the yeast—it is a strain usually found in red wine making, specifically Syrah gown in the Loire valley. The nose has that meal quality that I’m beginning to associate with the brand, while the palate is sharp and spicy with cooked apple and caramel. And I’m convinced I’m getting a red wine angle too, with cherry and stone fruit.

An Old Forester julep
Old Forester is not actually new at all: in fact it dates back to 1870, in Louisville, Kentucky. In those days whisky wasn’t usually bottled at all but shipped in barrels and poured into decanters at the bar: there was nothing to control how much an establishment might water it down. One George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman, noticed that quality was often poor and hit upon the idea of selling a bourbon in sealed bottles, each one signed by him to guarantee its quality. The result was “American’s First Bottled Whiskey” (technically the first exclusively bottled whiskey). In those days whiskey was frequently prescribed as a medicine (for pretty much everything), and the name Old Forester comes from that of a respected local physician who may or may not have endorsed it. Incidentally, this medicinal use of alcohol was one of the exceptions to Prohibition—yes, a doctor could prescribe you a bottle of whiskey—making Old Forester the only bourbon continuously distilled and marketed by the founding family before during and after Prohibition.* Tom from Brown-Forman tells us that Old Forester has never gone away, and in the area where it is made you see a lot of people drinking it. But as a brand it has been in the background in the Brown-Forman portfolio for a long while.

Old Forester is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, fermented using a “jug yeast” (i.e. nurtured, not chemically engineered) in open steel vats for seven days, double the time for most bourbons. Only 15 barrels are made at a time, and the barrels are made by the distillery themselves from white oak with a high toast and low char. Again there is no aged statement, but I think Tom said it was aged for about 7¼ years. We taste two bottlings, an 86 proof (43%) and a 100 proof (50%) “Signature” edition. The nose of the 86 is spicy and aromatic and for me carries a whiff of mint, which is carried over on to the palate, which is sweeter that the FEW samples. (Although this talk of sweetness and mint sounds as if I’m just imagining a julep…) The 100 proof is spicy but distinctly elegant on the nose, with a hint of citrus, and again smooth and polished on the palate.

The story of Hudson Whiskey is just as rich in strange incident. The Tuthilltown Gristmill, 40 minutes north of Manhattan in Gardiner, was purchased in 2001 by Ralph Erenzo as a site for a climbing centre. However, planning permission was refused, allegedly because neighbours didn’t fancy the idea of strangers trooping into town. The site had a working windmill, and one day a chap asked if he could mill some grain; they got talking and decided to go into the whiskey business, setting up the first distillery in New York since Prohibition. (Note that since then there are now 290 distilleries in the state, which gives an idea of just how much craft/artisan distilling has taken off.) It’s another grain-to-glass enterprise, aiming to “capture local flavour and ambience using the agricultural resources of local farmers while leaving a smaller footprint on the environment”.** They have also pioneered some interesting techniques: after someone suggested they could enhance the wood-ageing process by agitating the barrels every day, they hit upon the idea of playing bass-heavy music in the warehouse. (No one would comment, but I’m sure I’ve heard that it is, naturally, New York hip hop.)

I rather like the squat Hudson bottles
The Hudson Four-Grain Bourbon balances the richness of corn with the smoothness of wheat, the pepperiness of rye and the sweetness of malted barley. The make-up is 70% corn with 10% or each of the others. The aroma has a dusty sweet-dry quality that reminds me of halva (a Middle Eastern confection made from sweetened sesame seed paste) along with smoke and a hint of sandalwood. The palate is strong but smooth, with mint, caramel, orange and rye spice. We also try a 100% rye whiskey. This was not an easy course to take for a new distillery: as mentioned above, rye is tough to ferment, and their first eight or nine batches just turned to wallpaper paste. However, it was worth it, with the end result having a complex nose of apples, meal, toffee, caramel, prunes, kumquats, a blue smoky note and a hint of varnish. The palate is surprisingly subtle with elements of cooked apples, mint, sharp spice and cinnamon.

Finally we are introduced to Balcones, a tiny distillery built under a flyover, using handmade stills, that set out to create an entirely new tradition: Texas whisky (spelled without the “e”). Baby Blue and True Blue are the regular (46%) and cask strength (61.8% ish) version of their groundbreaking whiskey made from roasted atole blue corn meal. (Apparently all batches start out the same and any could go either the True Blue or Baby Blue route, until the master distiller decides, after which it can be shaped through the precise charring of the barrel, etc.) This is completely different from the other samples we’ve had, with a nose of maple syrup, pancakes, caramel, candyfloss and varnished wood. (Apparently the distillery is very hot, and they use small barrels, so there is a lot of interaction with the wood.) It is very soft on the tongue, with the same sugary flavours, plenty of wood and a hint of apples.

Our whiskey ambassadors at Steam and Rye
The Balcones team’s quest to push the envelope doesn’t stop there. They also produce Brimstone, made from corn smoked over a Texas scrub oak fire (the world’s first wood-smoked whisky, apparently), Rumble, made from honey, sugar and figs, and our last sample of the day, their Texas Single Malt Whisky. If I expected it to taste like single malt Scotch I was in for a surprise: the nose has more in common with the blue corn whisky, with strong meal elements, but also fruit and something strangely vinous. The palate is unexpectedly soft but with tropical fruit notes and an odd toasted aftertaste.

The lesson from all of this is that there is a hell of a lot going on in the US whiskey world at the moment. Age statements tend to be out of fashion, and you have some interesting techniques (such as the Tuthilltown bass frequency angle) to speed up the ageing process, while distilleries like Balcones are really opening up the possibilities of what you can make spirit from. The weight of tradition is much less of a marketing trope (in fact in this batch Old Forester really stands out for being so old), and instead brands identify themselves by the struggle, determination and ingenuity of the story behind the start-ups. The pioneering spirit—what could be more American than that?

* I think that there were four brands that had medicinal licences to carry on through Prohibition, of which I know Four Roses was one.

** I never thought of distilling as particularly wasteful of the earth’s resources, but this idea of “green distilling” is another trend. The Adnams distillery in Southwold has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the sustainability of their operation.
Our gang at the tasting in the strange environs of Steam and Rye (I'm in the middle at the back)


  1. A little bit old, a little bit new. It's an exciting time for whisk(e)y everywhere, despite the hiccups.

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