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Alt Whiskey Goes Mainstream

Posted by on in January 2014 Editions
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American Distillers Large & Small Are Fueling a Whiskey Revolution

By Jack Robertiello

Behind the bar at The Square One Brewery and Distillery restaurant in St. Louis, pride of place is given to the beers and spirits that are made on-site. Among the spirits, there’s an expected array of new distiller wares—gins, rums, vodka and the like—as well as whiskies that put a twist in the tail of the traditional styles consumers expect. Here, customers can order tasting flights that include J.J. Neukomm Whiskey (made with cherry wood smoked malt and aged in Missouri-made oak barrels) and Hopskey (the house’s hop-infused whiskey, grainy with a pleasant aromatic hoppiness).

Like many other spirits recently entering the market in the American whiskey category, these and others like them are not your father’s whiskies—in fact, they are made with techniques
that probably have never been used to craft anybody’s whiskey.

An incredible range of alternative American whiskies have burst onto the market in the past few years, driven by the growth of numerous micro-distilleries hitting their creative stride with the urge to tinker, toy and completely ignore the old rules of this country’s whiskey heritage. The trend has lately helped encourage even tradition-bound Kentuckians and Tennesseans to come up with things previously unknown.

Consider Filibuster Bourbon and Rye, aged initially in virgin American oak casks, then finished in French oak previously used to mature wine. Witness Van Brunt Stillhouse American Whiskey, made from malted barley, wheat, corn and rye; and 287 Whiskey, a collaboration of Still the One Distillery and Captain Lawrence Brewery—distilled from the brewery’s pale ale (and named for the Westchester County, NY highway that connects the two operations). Tincup, founded by Colorado distilling veteran Jess Graber and bottled in Denver, is an 84-proof new American whiskey made using a blend of rye, corn and malt; cut with pure Rocky Mountain water; and whose functional screwcap recalls the old cups the miners would drink from.

Examples like these, admittedly, are a tiny part of the booming whiskey business, but the value of the enthusiasm and attention these new spirits have generated can’t be overstated. Distillers’ confidence in releasing “experimental” whiskies is built on the success, albeit small-scaled, of the adventurous new kids on the block who have deliberately jiggered American whiskey traditions.

Says Corsair Distillery owner Darek Bell, author of Alt Whiskey: “When we started, we said, ‘If it’s been done before, we don’t want to do it, because imitation is suicide for a small distiller like us. Instead, we need to figure out what we are and do it.’” While other new distillers could establish their business as the first or only local spirit producer, Tennessee-based Corsair was working in the shadow of one of the world’s biggest whiskey brands. So Corsair started experimenting—and hasn’t stopped. The distillery is currently making up to 150 new recipes a year, with the best 20 or so entered into competitions to gauge the response. This method has yielded, among many other spirits, a triticale whiskey, an oak-smoked wheat whiskey and the popular Triple Smoke, made with barley smoked in cherry, peat or beech.

“You’re seeing a lot of the really alternative whiskies coming from the micro-distillers and that has definitely increased the awareness of those things,” says Larry Kass, director of corporate communications at Heaven Hill. But such tinkering is not necessarily novel. He points out that the major distillers had long been experimenting with grain ratios, variations among traditional grains, aging protocols, barrel selection, char levels, finishing methods and other variations, though few of these whiskies get very far. And the experimental whiskies that do make it into the market from major suppliers, more often than ever, are scooped up swiftly by fans. You can count Evan Williams Bernheim Wheat Whiskey (originally distilled back in 2000) and Buffalo Trace Single Oak Bourbon in this category.

Red, White & Brown

Perhaps a subtle adjustment in recent years is the more conscious effort by craft—and larger—distillers to redefine “American whiskey,” and remind people it’s not just about straight bourbon and rye. They have also done a pretty good collective job of tapping American whiskey drinkers’ patriotism. Perhaps no single firm has done a better job of waving the American flag than Michter’s, a Kentucky-made brand revived in the 1990s, but based on America’s very first distillery, founded in Pennsylvania in 1753. Their latest release—Michter’s US*1 Unblended American Whiskey—has no neutral grain spirits blended in, plus Master Distiller Willie Pratt aged this whiskey in bourbon-soaked barrels, adding richness, smoothness and a fresh point of distinction.

On the experimental side of traditional brands, Woodford Reserve’s 2013 Master’s Collection twin offerings, The Double Malt Selections—Straight Malt Whiskey and Classic Malt—are said to be the first fully matured whiskies crafted from malt in Kentucky since Prohibition. The Straight Malt is matured in new barrels and Classic Malt is matured in used barrels, a rare opportunity for a side-by-side comparison of Old World versus New World styles.

Wild Turkey’s Forgiven is a mix of high-proof rye and mature bourbon that is said to have resulted from an accident turned into an opportunity, a 91-proof, small-batch bourbon and rye whiskey. Made from 78% 6-year-old bourbon and 22% 4-year-old rye, the new Wild Turkey extension was released in fall 2013.

Another tangent developing recently and quickly in the American brown goods arena is flavored whiskey. Here, it was the big-brand experimentation (Beam’s Red Stag line; honeyed examples by Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams; Sazerac’s red-hot Fireball) that have really fueled the trend. Notable smaller entrants include Western Spirits’ Bird Dog (blackberry, peach) and caramel-flavored Whitetail. And Wild Flame is pushing the flavor envelope even farther (peach, coconut, cinnamon, cherry blueberry).

Clear Options

Typically, new American whiskey makers credit two main impulses as catalyst for this range of inventive spirits: their desire to craft something new and their need to pay the bills. Many opted for selling unaged white whiskey while waiting for more traditional styles to mature. As American consumers rediscovered the quality and value in U.S.-produced whiskies, consumers and bartenders tended to focus on unaged spirits as the next
new thing.

“I understand why new distilleries are offering white dogs,” says Jeff Arnett, distiller at Jack Daniel’s. “It’s the same reason we used to offer something less aged under the Lem Motlow name—everybody needs to keep lights on.” And this whiskey sub-genre’s now-legit popularity also explains why Jack Daniel’s in late 2012 released its own white spirit, Unaged Rye, featuring the distillery’s first new mashbill in over a century. Ditto the motivation behind Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost, which is the same basic recipe as Jim Beam White Label Bourbon, but aged one year in oak and then filtered to appear nearly clear. George Dickel #1 Foundation is the latest big-name white whiskey to enter the arena.

But white whiskey was not the only way out of the cash-flow problem, according to David Perkins, owner of High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah. He, like some others, turned to buying whiskey in bulk and bottling it under their brand name. “We needed to make payroll and to start the company off as selling whiskey, and selling someone else’s sourced product without doing anything to it didn’t really make any sense to me,” he says. “Mainly what we’re in the business for is to create something new
and interesting.”

Early on, High West garnered attention for its combinations of whiskies sourced from various American distillers. Rather than hide these products’ origins behind a fog of marketing, at High West Perkins makes clear where the components of his sought-after spirits come from. For example, their first product, Rendezvous Rye, was a blend of two ryes (one from the Barton Distillery and the other from the old Lawrenceburg Distillery in Indiana now owned by MGP Ingredients) that had been aged for different lengths of time, an idea Perkins adopted from the blending approach used in Cognac, where distillations from many different years are merged.

Creating something that’s greater than the sum of the parts was the goal; similarly, High West’s Bourye is a blend of Four Roses Bourbon and 16 year old rye made at Barton. In this case, the Scots provided the concept. “We didn’t want to just sell Four Roses on its own, so we followed the example of the Scots who when making a blended whisky would mix a fruity whisky with a smoky one and a sherried one,” he says.

New York Benchmarks

While small distillers are blossoming in many states, innovative whiskies have often taken back seat to white dog, rum, eau de vie and gin. States like New York are large and lucky enough to have both white and brown goods cultures thriving: for example, within a hundred miles or so of each other in upstate New York there’s pioneer Tuthilltown, widely seen as breaking the price resistance barrier with its Hudson line of whiskeys—Baby Bourbon, Four Grain Bourbon and Single Malt, notably—and now backed by William Grant and Sons.

Then there’s Hillrock Estate Distillery, a field-to-glass facility that now offers a Double Cask Rye Whiskey along with the Solera Aged Bourbon, Estate Single Malt and George Washington’s Rye Whiskey, Estate Edition. Few manage to take on all the tasks like Hillrock—growing grain organically, floor malting, pot distilling, aging and bottling on the estate. But other novice producers are taking note and tweaking their whiskey formulas. Other Empire State whiskey producers of note: Breuckelen Distilling (one wheat whiskey, one made from corn and rye); New York Distilling Company (aiming to release a rye in 2014); Long Island Spirits (maker of Rough Rider Bourbon and Rye and Pine Barrens single malt). Two that have gone the white whiskey route: White Pike White Whiskey and Dutch’s Spirits Sugar Wash Moonshine.

Different Strokes for Different Distillers

Christian Krogstad, founder of Portland, Oregon’s House Spirits Distillery, recently released Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey, aged three years and made entirely from pot still whiskey in the Irish style. As a small step into alt whiskey world, he produced only 13 new barrels worth the first year, followed by 48 in 2012 and 200 in 2013. Made from Oregon barley, it’s one producer’s locally oriented take on international whiskey.

“I think the people interested in whiskey—American whiskey drinkers—are very typically interested in trying the whole range of whiskies made,” he explains, suggesting that while emerging whiskey drinkers are more likely to try spirits like Westward, the aficionado has shown interest as well.

Being able to make these sorts of unusual whiskies in small batches, hoping some will work, is at the heart of the flexibility of the small distillers, says Bell
from Corsair.

“There’s been a lot of demand because for so long whiskey has been pretty similar,” Bell adds. Major distilleries, buffeted by the shrinking of the brown goods business from the 1960s until the last decade, became more conservative and self-similar. “When you make an aged product, it makes you more conservative and reluctant to try something different. So many brands of the same type coming from the same handful of distillers, it was like a monoculture.”

So alternative or locally-sourced grains align with many trends—locavorism and environmental issues as well as the search for the new and unique—that can benefit whiskey overall. “To us, if we can pull people into whiskey, that’s huge. And these experiments are pulling from different crowds, including beer drinkers,” Bell says.

And more can be expected; as Perkins notes, inventories that High West and others have been developing as they sold other whiskies are getting more mature every month, and they’ll have a developed
market to appeal to now that tasting different is so much more acceptable. “The majority of people don’t care where the whiskey comes from,” he says, “as long as they enjoy the taste.”


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