From the Distiller...Behind the Scenes of Whiskey Blending
The new Big Spring American Whiskey has now been released and I thought it might be interesting to fill folks in on what was involved in the final stages of getting the whiskey ready for bottling. It was an exciting month-long process, from dumping the barrels to bottling the final product. This is what a distiller really looks forward to. The day in, day out job can be a bit tedious and involves lots of cleaning and other tasks that are not, shall we say, the most exciting. However, what went on over the past month makes all the less exciting tasks totally worth it.
We decided that our goal was to make this first whiskey of ours very cocktail-friendly, as opposed to something to enjoy neat (we will have something for the neat freaks later!). When the two barrels of 25 mo. old corn whiskey, and one barrel of 19 mo. old wheat whiskey, plus about 1 gallon of 24 mo. old rye was first pumped into our blending tank, the whiskey was at 124.6 proof. It tasted pretty good for such a high alcohol content but was just a wee bit strong. So over the course of several weeks, a little bit of water was added each day to gradually bring the proof down until we found the sweet spot, so to speak. (Of course, that meant it had to be tasted each day as well.) This was a pretty eye-opening experience, as each day the blend tasted slightly different. One day it was a little smoky, and then the next day it was less so. Then it was woody, and then it was not. Every day we noticed varying flavors coming to the forefront or receding, just from adding a little water that brought the proof down roughly 0.8 proof per day. When we got to a proof that I thought was getting close to where we might like to finish, we got really serious about evaluating the whiskey. By “really serious”, I mean we started testing it in cocktails. Our cocktails of choice were the Manhattan, and the Old Fashioned (and we always tried it neat, of course). In advance of these experiments, I would pull some additional samples from the blend and dilute them just a little bit, such that I had the proof that was in the tank plus two lower proof samples. These were allowed to sit for a few days to mellow, as when water is added to the blend it takes a couple of days to come together at the new proof, and we wanted to make the test fair. Our first round of cocktails were made and then all the staff helped evaluate them. It was quite reassuring that the votes were almost unanimous. Unfortunately, the top voted proof for the Manhattan was different from that of the Old Fashioned but we did manage to rule out some other proofs though, so that was good.
Now it was time for round two, where only two proofs were evaluated, but we added a new wrinkle: increasing the amount of rye in the blend. The whiskey was originally at 0.75% rye – less than 1%!--which we were all surprised made a big difference at such a small amount. These new samples upped the level of rye to 1.0%. It was amazing that everyone could tell the difference between 0.75% and 1.0% just by the smell. (This was consistent though with our previous experiments with rye. We find the extreme levels of rye are the best—it has to almost be all or nothing. Rye used at moderate levels seems to fight with the other flavors, presenting an imbalance--it sticks out too much). More cocktails were made and tested. In the end, we decided we liked 0.75% better than 1.0%, and so it came down to the two proofs. At the lower proof, when tasted it neat, there was a nice sweetness that we really liked, but at the higher proof, the cocktails had a complexity that we really liked. Ultimately complexity won out and we settled on 107.7 proof. If you like your whiskey neat*, add just a few drops of water to get to that sweet spot at just over 100 proof.
*A tip for those who usually drink their whiskeys neat, even at high proof: Take your sip (not a gulp!) and hold it in your mouth and gently swirl it around so you can fully experience all the flavors and textures of the whiskey, and then swallow it to experience the finish. The more you swirl, the less it will burn when you swallow it. (I learned this from tasting the whiskey so often at high proof.)