From the Distiller...An American Whiskey Story
It all began that fateful day, back in August of 2014………… The first 1500 lbs of corn were loaded into the cooker. The following day, another 1500 lbs were cooked, and another 1500 lbs on the third day. This gave rise to three 600-gallon fermenters churning away for the next week. This fermentation was followed in subsequent weeks with some rye, and then some wheat also going into the cooker. Each of these were carefully distilled and then placed in oak barrels, where the real magic of whiskey happens! These first barrels sat and watched as barrel after barrel of other whiskeys were filled and added to the collection every day, every week, for two years. Fast forward to the present and some of the whiskey that has been aging just cannot be restrained any longer and has been deemed ready to bottle!
Last month we brought in Nancy Fraley, an international nosing expert ("nosing" is the evaluation of spirits, by their smell) to help us evaluate every single barrel we have filled and helped us understand what we are doing right, and what we are doing wrong. Fortunately for us, the news was mostly good, and this was a big relief to me. I have been happy with the way the whiskeys were tasting coming off the still and it was very nice to have that confirmed by an expert!
I had recently written that I was aware that every single barrel of whiskey tastes different—even if the same whiskey is in the barrel—each individual barrel has a unique impact upon what is maturing inside it. Well, Nancy helped us to better calibrate our taste buds, and now we realize just how much difference there really is between barrels. Besides "nosing" the samples we pulled, she (and several of us) actually did taste every sample as well. We all quickly learned to follow suit and got used to spitting out the samples. (At barrel strength—usually 120 – 125 proof--one would not last long if one were to swallow that many samples--although a few were just too good to not swallow!) We now have a clearer idea of how every barrel is progressing and have some idea of which barrels are destined for blending, and which of them are extra special and perhaps might warrant a small batch bottling. We were cautioned, though, to be flexible-- Nancy said the aging process often behaves like waves, with flavors being expressed forcefully and then being muted, with peaks and troughs depending on the age. A barrel that we might have thought was a blender, may in fact be something special, and that our little snapshot of a taste at one moment in time might not tell the whole story. The only way to combat missing the barrel’s whole picture is through regular barrel sampling and tasting. Bummer.
We next turned our attention to blending. A couple of the barrels were deemed sufficiently aged that they were ready to be used to create a whiskey – an American whiskey. Since we are blending whiskeys made from different grains, and each grain whiskey has been aged separately, we are technically not allowed to call the product a “bourbon”, even though this first blend will be over 51% corn whiskey. (To legally call this a bourbon, all the grains must be fermented, distilled and aged together.) We chose to ferment all our grains separately in order to give us far more options when it comes time to blend the whiskeys together, allowing us to make the best blend by tweaking the percentages a little bit here and there. Fortunately, there is a catch-all category for whiskeys that don’t conform to the standard rules, hence our American Whiskey moniker. This is what we created with the help of Nancy. Several combinations were tested before it was decided that the best combination was a mix from two specific barrels of corn whiskey, one of wheat, and just a tiny bit of rye. The final blend we decided on is approximately 65 corn: 34 wheat: 0.75 rye. It is amazing what just a touch of rye did for the blend. The barrels have been emptied, and now all three whiskeys are slowly mixing together in one of our blending tanks. And although I said “final blend” this proportion may change a little over the course of the next several weeks as I slowly add water to bring the proof down to just the right level, and possibly adding a little bit more of the whiskeys to get the flavor just right. The target date for the release of this whiskey is the 23rd of November – a nice birthday present for me!