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The third stop on the trip was to Buffalo Trace, producer of several of my favorite bourbons. We called in advance and were set up with a pretty great private tour of the inner workings of the distillery. It happened to be a Sunday and no one was actually working, which turned out to be fortunate for us in terms of what we could see.

Buffalo Trace has been operating continuously since 1786, Originally opened by Colonel E. H. Taylor as O.F.C. Distillery (Old Fire Copper) and the Carlysle Distillery. George T. Stagg lent Taylor money, and eventually foreclosed on the distillery for non-payment. Taylor opened a second distillery down the road, which was eventually bought out by Beam, Inc., the name of E. H. Taylor along with it. Later, Buffalo Trace was bought out by Sazerac, and in 1992 they traded a vodka brand to Beam to recover the license to use the name E. H. Taylor, the original founder of their distillery.

Through the whole story, I was most surprised to find that George T. Stagg, a big name in whiskey, was never a distiller himself, but a money lender that ended up with a distillery of his own through foreclosure.

Buffalo Trace weathered prohibition by producing medicinal alcohol. 6 million prescriptions for 100-proof whiskey were filled at the distillery in a state with a population of 1.4 million at the time. The prescription allowed for 1 pint of whiskey every 10 days, but were often written for every member of the family, so a fan of the drink could bring his 6 children and wife, and leave with 8 pints to carry him through the next week and a half. The prescriptions were handed out for just about anything that was difficult to define concretely, like the weed card of its day. During this time, George Dickel also ducked shutdown during prohibition by relocating its distillery to the Buffalo Trace property.

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Former site of the Dickel distillery during prohibition

First stop along the path to whiskey is the weigh station for the grain deliveries, which arrive 5-7 times every day. The corn is checked regularly to ensure quality and lack of GMO product, then the grain is sent up to the grinding mill, dumped into the hoppers, and finally dumped into the cookers. The grains are cooked individually, and then mixed together for the mash. Following the first stage of the distilling process, the spent grain is then piped into large roasters to remove the moisture and condense it into a feed that tastes surprisingly like Grape Nuts. To prevent wasted trips, the trucks delivering the grain are then filled with the roasted spent grain, and sent back to the farm to be used as feed.

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Roasted spent corn on the left, Rye on the right. It actually tasted pretty good.

Buffalo Trace only produces 3 mashbills for all its products: 2 corn and one rye. The mash is then combined with the yeast, a single strain that has been propagated for 129 years, and is maintained on 6 continents to ensure its safety in the event of disaster. Just like everyone else, they ferment the mash and pipe it to the still with some of the last batch to be distilled into whiskey. The process of adding the previous batch to the current is called “Sour Mash,” and is used to ensure continuity of flavor.

The most interesting part of the Buffalo Trace distillery (for me, at least) is that there is a microdistillery right in the middle of everything. One self-contained room with cookers, fermenters, and a little 250 gallon pot still that Buffalo Trace’s master distiller uses to experiment on his quest to find the “perfect” whiskey. It’s here that the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and Single Oak Projects are made, and any future bottlings that haven’t yet come to be.

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Finally, the ricks. Interestingly, Buffalo Trace’s 13 rickhouses are brick buildings, unlike the wood-and-tin structures at Heaven Hill and Willett. They currently have 400,000 barrels on the property, and like Willett, they do not rotate. All the Blanton’s Bourbon comes from the Blanton rickhouse and the high-rye mashbill #2, etc. The incredibly specific tradition of it all is endlessly interesting to me.

At the end of the tour, our guide clarified the one hazy portion of the definition of “bourbon” for us. We’d been hearing it had to be matured for 2 years, 4 years, and “as long as it passes through a charred barrel.” It turns out, it’s all 3. Bourbon whiskey only needs to pass through a charred white american oak barrel. “Straight” bourbon whiskey must spend a minimum of 2 years maturing in the barrel, but must list the number of months it spent there right up until 4 years. So basically: “Bourbon Whiskey” could be any age at all. If the label reads “Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” and has no age listed, you know it is at least 4 years old.

I can’t recommend the “hard hat” tour enough, we got to see a great deal of the distillery that we might not have known about otherwise. And if you happen to get David for a tour guide, you’re in for a treat. The guy knows his stuff.

Next up: Four Roses

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Next up, and just down the road from Heaven Hill was one I’d been really looking forward to: Willett Distillery. Occupying a strange middle ground between craft microdistillery and large producer, Willett places their emphasis on very specific small-scale methods that can only really be this closely controlled when making a more manageable amount of product.

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The first step in the distillation process is to essentially make some beer. The large fermenter tanks combine yeast and water with the grain mashbill, and spend several days fermenting into a mash, which is then fed into the still. Once it is cooked down, only 10% of the original liquid will remain, which is how something starting as a beer can be concentrated into a much higher-proof distillate.

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Willett runs a large copper pot still, similar to the ones used to make Irish whiskey and Scotch, rather than the large column stills used by the vast majority of american whiskey producers. They cook 5 unique bourbon mashbills and 2 rye mashbills that are then blended together in specific recipes depending on the whiskey they are making, always barreled with a #4 char. Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill are both blends of the same 3 mashbills, but one is aged at the cooler lower floor of the rickhouse, while the other is aged in the heat, just below the roof.

Speaking of the ricks, they have 8 of them, each capable of holding 6,000 barrels. By comparison, Heaven hill has about 50 rickhouses, each containing somewhere around 30,000, so you could just about fit every barrel Willett has into just one of Heaven Hill’s buildings.

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Another interesting part of Willett’s production is the handling of the raw distillate. The best raw whiskey is right in the middle at a very specific temperature, so the first white dog to come off the still (the head) at a lower temperature is downright bad. Same can be said for the last (or the tail) when the still becomes too hot. The really large-volume producers never really turn off the stills, so they just dump the heads and tails back in for a second try. Since Willett is cooking one batch at a time, they discard the heads and tails and only keep the good center distillate (or the heart). The distiller pumps the whiskey through the tanks above and tastes until he’s happy with it, then switches it over to the second, or the Heart Tank. He’ll continue to taste, and when it drops below his standards, he switches it back to the first.

The heart tank is then pumped over to an adjacent room for barreling. Once full, a poplar bung is hammered into the hole (the soft wood will swell and keep a tighter seal in the white oak), and the barrel is rolled down a ramp to the rickhouse, or a waiting truck, should that rick be full. There, it will sit for however many years, undisturbed, until it’s time to be bottled.

Finally, it’s ready to drink, which we most certainly did. The nice thing (for me, at least) about Willett is that they don’t make any low-quality, bargain whiskey, just Willett Pot Still, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and the Family Estate Rye & Bourbon (bottled unblended, unfiltered, and at barrel proof). I’m a little partial already, but the spectrum of taste of the Family Estates are pretty amazing. They can range from a 4 year all the way up to a 23, all bottled with the same label. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to sample the 23 year Family Estate Rye. Lots of great burn, but not nearly as much as you’d expect on something north of 130 proof.

Overall, Willett is a great distillery to check out if you’re in the area because you can see the whole self-contained process and really get a feel for how your whiskey is made. A lot of the other distilleries produce off-site, or purchase the white dog from another distiller. It’s rare to be able to actually follow the pipes and see the exact path from grain to bottle. Not to mention that you can get a tour from the actual distiller and not a tour guide.

Next up: Buffalo Trace

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Our first stop was the Heaven Hill Distillery. The largest family-owned, and second-largest holder of barreled bourbon in the world, clocking in at 1.5 Million 53-gallon barrels. According to Heaven Hill, bourbon came about when Elijah Craig had a barn fire that charred the inside of his barrels. After deciding to use the barrels anyway for his corn whiskey, the long trail south to where the whiskey was being delivered had mellowed the whiskey and turned it a nice caramel color. Drinkers began asking for the whiskey from Bourbon County, eventually shortened to Bourbon.*

After a massive fire in 1996 that consumed 90,000 barrels of bourbon, Heaven Hill built a new distillery at a different site, but the aging still happens at the rickhouses on the original site. They lost so much product in the fire that all the major area distilleries donated one full day of production to Heaven Hill to help them get back on their feet.

Heaven Hill uses a 70% corn mashbill and a #2 char on their barrels. The number designates the amount of time the barrel is charred, and thus the amount of char it receives. We were fairly surprised to learn on the trip that most of the distilleries make a surprisingly small range of raw distillate. Very little of the character of the bourbon (20%-40%, depending on who you ask) comes from the whiskey itself, the vast majority of the flavor coming from the barrel, location, heat and time.

Inside the rickhouses, an interesting feature is the X-beam running through the center of the building. Because of the sheer weight of all those barrels, the buildings need to be able to shift slightly, and the barrels need to be removed evenly to prevent a large shift in weight that could damage the building itself.

Beams to deal with the shifting of all that weight

But the one thing that really sticks when you walk away from the rickhouses is how amazing they smell. You might think all those decades of aging whiskey would fill the building with an astringent alcohol smell, but that isn’t it at all. They smell like sweet wood and vanilla, and if they had a way to make my house smell like that, I’d pay an awful lot of money for it.

Following the tour of the ricks, we had a tasting of a few of their bourbons. Their standards are solid, if a little sweet and mellow for my tastes. I also picked up a bottle of their newest limited release, William Heavenhill, an 11 year old bourbon that was one of my personal favorites of the trip. Big and flavorful and delicious. If you somehow manage to come across it, I’d definitely recommend shelling out for a bottle.

Next up: Willett Distillery

 

* A lot of the history and majesty surrounding the bourbon industry is a little magical and hazy, so you learn pretty quickly to take what you hear about the origin stories with a grain of salt. Everything has a charming and fortuitous story tracing everything back to one man whose name you’ll see on bottles today. With a little research, I’m sure you’d find all the claims to be exaggerated at best, but for our purposes, I’m just repeating what the distiller told me. The same goes for the “largest,” “biggest” and “most” statistics. They’re not incorrect, just bent to sound a little more triumphant. Just about every distillery you go to has a (rightful) claim on being the biggest producer of X or first producer of Y.  

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A couple of weeks ago, Whiskey Club took a trip to Kentucky with the singular purpose of enjoying some great bourbon and rye. While we achieved that, we also managed to learn a ton of stuff about where my favorite spirit is made. There’s a veritable mountain of history and tradition that differs from distillery to distillery, and each little difference at the outset becomes a BIG difference 4, 10 or 20 years down the road.

Bourbon trail tours are big business down there, so we tried to choose where we went carefully. In the end, we settled on four: Heaven Hill, Willett, Buffalo Trace and Four Roses. Jen took a ton of great photos, so I’ll be giving each of them their own post. The overall gist: I’d recommend doing this for anyone really into the stuff. Just head down, rent a house, and taste all the bourbon. There are a lot of great bars and restaurants, too.

First up: Heaven Hill.

A Preview of Bank & Bourbon

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Yesterday, I had a chance to check out the newest in the recent string of whiskey-centric bars opening in Philadelphia. Bank & Bourbon (infuriatingly similar in name to the also-new Bourbon & Branch in Northern Liberties, sure to confuse me more than it should for the foreseeable future) is located at 1200 Market Street, attached to the lobby of the Lowes Hotel in the PSFS building, and is a lot more centrally located than most of its whiskey bar peers. Whether that will work for or against them is yet to be seen.

What they hope will help them to stand apart from those peers is their aging program. In a small room off the main dining room, accessible through an (admittedly cool) false-bookcase door, is a tasting room built for 10-12 people and a wall full of 10-gallon American white oak barrels. These barrels will be used to experiment with aging their own white dog, as well as cocktails, and anything else that might grab the interest of bourbon master Brian Bevilacqua. In addition, there are several 5-liter barrels for smaller-batch aged cocktails behind the bar.

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A third set – 3-liter barrels – sit in lockers on either side of the bar and are available for 12-month customer lease as part of Bank & Bourbon’s  barrel aging program. Under the guidance of the bourbon master, you’ll fill the barrel and have access to it as it matures. If you’re so inclined, you can have the bartenders make you a cocktail out of your own aged whiskey. All-in-all, it seems like an interesting program. The biggest drawback is that we are still in Pennsylvania, and all the draconic liquor laws that entails. Anything added to the barrels must come from a bottle of alcohol purchased in PA. Sadly, this rules out high-proof distillate sourced from your favorite smaller craft distiller. On the bright side, most whiskey producers have jumped on the white dog band-wagon, and for the first time I can fathom purchasing a bottle of un-aged whiskey. I’m still a bit unclear as to the difference between the Silver, Gold and Platinum levels, but Brian stressed repeatedly the flexibility of the program, and its experimental nature. After all, that’s how the distillers you all know and love had to approach their product in the beginning, too. You’re never going to create the next great American whiskey in a 3 liter barrel with 80-proof distillate, but you do get to taste it as it progresses until you’re happy, then sit down and drink something wholly unique to you.

Overall, it’s an interesting project. I’m curious to see how it turns out. Judging by the attendees of the preview, the vast majority of the patrons will think of all the barrels  as part of the decor, but if they can keep the place afloat while the few that are interested have a chance to play around, it could turn out to be pretty neat.

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Bank & Bourbon is located at 1200 Market Street, Philadelphia. It opens to the public tonight, Wednesday, April 9th. 

 

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On our honeymoon, we stumbled across what is apparently the only whisky distillery in New Zealand by sheer dumb luck. The distillery itself hasn’t been up and running for quite a few years, but all the stock was bought by another company and is still being packaged and sold. This means everything they have is very old, and very limited. I brought back a bottle of the 21 year old single malt for Whiskey Club, and decided to run with the theme by getting one single malt from 4 different places around the globe.

After finally finding SOMETHING made in the US (PA has a sad lack of American malted whisky available in stores), the four we settled on were:

1) South Island Single Malt 21 Year – New Zealand
2) Yamazaki 12 – Japan
3) The Dalmore 12 – Scotland
4) Hudson Single Malt – USA

We were a bit surprised by the results. The South Island Single Malt was good, but very mild with very little memorable character. Everyone agreed that they enjoyed it, but it was forgettable. The term “Sessionable Single Malt” was thrown around only half-jokingly.

The Dalmore wasn’t very well received. I’d never had it before, but more than one person opted to not finish their glass. It was astringent, and stronger than it should have been at such a low proof. Not one person stepped up to defend it. Universally panned. Granted, this is in the context of single malts. I wouldn’t hesitate to drink it over something like Johnny Walker.

The Yamazaki was the crowd favorite. More “Scotch” than the Scotch, It had a great flavor, nice burn and was just pleasant to drink. Everyone making a stink about Suntory buying Beam would really do well to try a glass of this. I’m willing to bet it would change their mind. It may not be a 1:1 comparison, but you can tell these are people that care about making a good whisky.

Surprisingly, I found the Hudson the most interesting of the lot. I didn’t like the first sip, but warmed to it quickly. It smelled and tasted briny, almost like oysters, and of cinnamon. It wasn’t as harsh as I expected it to be after just 4 years in the barrel, but admittedly it didn’t taste exactly like a single malt. For all it’s odd flavors, it was almost a bridge between malted whisky and rye, with a boldness and sweetness not really common in the Scotch family. I may not always love what Hudson is making, but for a young producer, I really do like that they are erring on the side of interesting and bold and not trying to play the “micro-batch aging because we have science” card at every turn, opting for innovation over actual substance. I’m looking forward to seeing how the whiskeys evolve over time.

All in all, another successful meeting. I never cease to be amazed at what surprises me in the side-by-side tests. My favorite is almost never what I thought it would be.

In other news, Jen has a surplus of frozen smoothie fruit, which means it’s time for me to make some syrup. Hopefully I’ll have a cocktail experiment to post soon, especially if we’re going to get snowed in again. No better time to drink than when you’re trapped in your house.

SHORT VERSION: South Island Single Malt: smooth, drinkable, forgettable; The Dalmore: not fantastic; Yamazaki: predictably great; Hudson Single Malt: surprisingly interesting.

Housekeeping and Site News

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Hey everyone! Happy holidays!

It’s been a hell of a year. Jen and I got married in November, after which we spent 3 weeks drinking our way around New Zealand. As soon as we got back, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of our (if I do say so myself) super fun Whiskey Club with a great party put together by Denise at Twisted Tail in Philadelphia. Before all that, most of our time was spent doing the absolute mountain of work associated with throwing a wedding.

But, 2014 is a new year, and if I’m going to make one resolution, it’s to stop neglecting HomeSpeakeasy. We haven’t been doing quite so much cocktail experimentation lately, but Jen has been getting really into learning about wine, and I’ve been dedicating a lot of time finding and trying interesting whisk(e)y. So in the coming year, you can expect a wider array of alcohol-related things. Rather than just mixology, we’re going to be posting more about what we are drinking, even if it only happens to have one ingredient. There may even be a trip to New Orleans or the Bourbon Trail in a few months.

In the meantime, we’ll start trying to update the Liquor Cabinet section, and posting more frequent updates about all things alcoholic. We’re looking forward to it!

-Jon & Jen

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Two weeks after initially bottling up the first step of our bitters, it was time to move on to step 2.

For this phase, we need to separate the solids from the alcohol by placing a cheesecloth-lined funnel over a new, clean jar. Strain out all the solids and squeeze the cheesecloth bundle to get everything out before transferring the solids to a saucepan. stir in a cup of water and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, and then pour the whole thing back into the original jar. Let it cool to room temperature, seal it up, and let it sit for another week, shaking daily.

At this point, you’ve got 2 jars for each batch of bitters you’re making. If you happen to be making four at once like we are, make sure you label the jars clearly so you know which alcohol corresponds to which jar of botanicals.

Some of them are starting to smell REALLY good, so I’m pretty excited to see what we come up with this time. If the smell is any indication, I’m going to have to re-name the “Cherry Cola Bitters,” because they smell nothing like cherry cola and smell very much like the forrest. We’ll find out for sure in a couple of weeks!

Check out the original post for Step 1.

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South of the Border, West of the Sun
1.5 oz Monte Alban mescal
1 oz grapefruit juice
1 oz bell pepper syrup (see below)
0.5 oz Benedictine
2 dashes Aztec chocolate bitters

Shake well with ice and strain into a coupe. Garnish with a wedge of grapefruit.

NOTES: This one was a bit of a shot in the dark. Inspired by Cantina’s Tequila Club meeting, I wanted to play with mescal, and I wanted to try working more savory flavors into drinks. While the pepper is sweet in comparison to other vegetables, in the context of a cocktail it added a pretty interesting complexity. The drink was overall surprisingly drinkable. Lightly smoky and herbaceous, a little tangy, spicy and just a touch bitter. It was a nice change from the norm for me, and while I wouldn’t want every drink to taste like this, it was a welcome difference. Might be well suited for a breakfast drink with some alterations, as well. It’s nice to screw around with something unusual and have it end up better than you might expect.

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Whiskey Society write-ups are guest authored by the host of that month’s meeting. This month we were hosted by Sean Mellody of Mellody Brewing, and his well-behaved dog Barley. 

After joining this new group of friends and whiskey drinkers last month, I was excited to host the group at my place in Queen Village. I was equally happy to share with them a special bottle of whiskey that I procureed during a work trip to India. Mind you, hosting is no small task. You need proper glassware, proper ice options (I had some issues making the large ice balls) and of course some food to make sure we aren’t all crawling home on a Tuesday night or too hung over the following Wednesday (mental note – need to eat more food next time.)

Once everyone arrived and was properly greeted by my dog, Barley, we took pour orders and opened the Amrut Fusion. I got the bottle of Amrut when I was in India in January, and it was brought to me by a coworker from the city of Bengaluru – where the whiskey is distilled. It’s a 50/50 blend of Indian Malt, grown at the foot hills of the Himalayas, and Scotish malt.  We were able to track our tasting notes this meeting as Jon designed and printed out some nice note cards for us to do so. It tracks on a sliding scale of 1-5 things like the whiskey’s balance, burn, smokiness, floral and other attributes, and the cards have come in handy in writing this review of the night. The Amrut poured with a beautifully balanced nose of oak and peat, with hints of flowers and what I can only call sugar. It smelled sweet. Upon tasting, it has a nice subdued smoke, which for me is good as I’m not a peat fan overall, but struck a good balance of sweetness and oak and smoke. The consensus was this was a good pour – thankfully I bought two bottles while in India so I can enjoy it again.

After putting some music on the turntable and lighting us a proper fire we opened our second bottle – The Glenlivet 18. I consulted with Jon on this bottle as we tried to find a good follow up to a whiskey we’d never had. The Glenlivet 18, in my world, is a classic scotch. It’s a single malt that poured quite bold with aroma of fruit, “maybe cherries,” I wrote and oak. No smoke here, which was refreshing for me. It was a smooth scotch, with little burn and a nice long dry finish with just a hint of oak aftertaste.  All in all, a nice way to finish the tasting. Some of us went on to try some Dad’s Hat Single Barrel I had, and some homebrew I’ve kegged with rye. Let’s just say – I’m probably not the only one who needed some help the following morning at work.

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