A Journey Down The Bourbon Trail

The surging popularity of Bourbon and Rye in the past decade is partly due to the increasing numbers of people that visit Kentucky each year.  These visitors gain a newfound appreciation of the history and dedication behind these spirits.  The Bourbon Trail can please both the novice bourbon drinker and the bourbon expert alike with different tailored experiences at each distillery.  Just recently I led the 9 Maple Bourbon Trail Tour with a group of 12 guests.  For many of them it was their first experience and I am sure not their last.

Rickhouse at Willett Distillery

Our group was based in downtown Louisville for 4 nights at the Embassy Suites which is in a very good location with access to everything.

Day 1

The group arrived on Wednesday throughout the day.  Our first group get-together was not until the evening and this gave myself and a couple of others time to check out the new Angel’s Envy distillery and do a tour.  This is a must stop in Louisville for anyone on the Bourbon Trail and for my future tours, this will definitely be included.  It is a beautiful distillery and visitor experience.  All $27 million can be seen here, with its shiny Angel-shaped spirit safe to the fancy tasting bar.  The tour itself was great and will be covered in a future blog post.

The spirit safe
The tasting

Our 9 Maple Bourbon Trail group tour started off with a welcome dram of Angel’s Envy Rye at the hotel before heading to our first group dinner at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse, a classic southern joint with a great selection of BBQ items and cocktails.  Just what the group needed before venturing over to the Haymarket Whiskey Bar…

Welcome dram of Angel’s Envy Rye
Group dinner at Doc Crow’s

Day 2

The southern part of the Bourbon Trail was on the itinerary for our first full day, Thursday, with stops at Maker’s Mark, Willett, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam.  Here is a brief description of each experience:

  • Maker’s Mark – a beautiful location just south of Bardstown; a very nice overall tour; large groups; you get to see all of the different parts of the distillery including the new warehouse built into the side of the mountain used for aging the Maker’s 46; great spot on location for lunch with a bar making bourbon slushies (good timing); a nice gift shop where you can wax your own bottles which is a fun experience; great overall first stop on any tour – exceeded expectations!

The group at Maker’s Mark with bourbon slushies in hand
  • Willett Distillery – another beautiful spot just outside of Bardstown; surrounded by tall white warehouses filled with aging spirit; this tour happened to be one of the group’s favorite tours; family-run, working distillery; just felt right; nice tasting opportunity at the end of the tour; decent gift shop with some fun swag and bottles to bring home – really looking forward to getting back to Willett.
One guest chillin’ out at Willett
On the Willett Tour
The Willett rickhouses
  • Heaven Hill – after two tours already for the day, our group did the Connoisseur Tasting at Heaven Hill which was about an hour-long tasting that included the following whiskies: Henry McKenna 10 Year Old, Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old, Heaven Hill Bad Bourbon Aged 25 Years (this was a sample bottle of something aged too long – tasted really bad to me, but some people didn’t mind it), William Heavenhill 14 Year Old, and the Pikesville Straight Rye – overall a relaxing tasting and great to try some of the brands that you can only get at the distillery
The tasting
  • Jim Beam – to finish off the southern trail, we made a stop at Jim Beam for their Cocktail Experience; you get a token from the gift shop and climb the hill to get your cocktail; a nice selection of cocktails and well-made; a good way to end the day
The gang at Jim Beam

Our group had a night off in Louisville and some of us went to Harvest, a superb restaurant run by Chef Patrick Roney.  Chef Roney prepared a special tasting menu for our table of 8.  It was a fantastic way to end our first full day on the Bourbon Trail.

Meal at Harvest

Day 3

On our next full day, Friday, we got up early since we had four distilleries to visit and a cooperage.  The Brown Forman Cooperage, Peerless Distilling, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace were on the agenda for the day.  Here is a brief description of each experience:

  • Brown Forman Cooperage – to see the coopers work up close is a fantastic experience; most of the barrels being made were for Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve; a nice intro presentation to start the tour; safety goggles on and closed-toed shoes are a must; great photo opportunities; this will be a must do stop on any future tour

A cooper at work
Charring up the barrels
  • Peerless Distilling – a newer ‘craft’ distillery which released their 2-year old rye the day after our visit; very interesting to have a newer craft distillery in the middle of our tour of more familiar brands; a lot of pride in their process and history; a very nice visit – just wish we could have sampled the rye (which you can now) – a couple of guests on our tour went back the following day to pick up four new bottles so we did eventually get to try it…
Filling the barrels with new rye

  • Woodford Reserve – another beautiful location among the rolling hills of horse country; a very polished tour where you are able to see where some of the spirit is made; as a group you are bused down from the visitor’s center to the distillery; great to see the barrels being moved on the tracks; nice tasting at the end with some chocolate; gift shop was ok
A Woodford washback
The Woodford spirit still
Barrels are rolling
  • Wild Turkey – after two distillery tours and a cooperage tour, we were ready for a tasting; held at the newer Wild Turkey Visitor’s Center; beautiful spot overlooking a river valley; the tasting could have been better as we were grouped with some people that just came off the tour and had a different experience, the tasting included the normal range of Wild Turkey
We got to meet Jimmy Russell!
  • Buffalo Trace – our last stop on the eastern trail was at Buffalo Trace where we did a tour; highlights included our guide who had quite the sense of humor and being able to visit some warehouses and the bottling line; next time would like to do a more in-depth tour; the tasting was ok on the top floor of the Visitor’s Center but the shop lacked any special bourbon for purchase which was a disappointment – with all of their brands there should have been something special…

The Blanton’s bottling line
A couple of Saratoga bartenders

That evening we returned to Louisville for our second group dinner, this time at Bourbon’s Bistro.  We had some nice cocktails and great meal to round out another full day on the trail.  Bourbon’s Bistro is not in downtown Louisville, but a great area of Crescent Hill with lots of fun spots.

Group dinner at Bourbon’s Bistro

Day 4

On our final full day in Kentucky, Saturday, we decided to make it a “horse” day.  Our group started the day back near Lexington where we visited the famous Claiborne Farm which is home to some past Kentucky Derby winners and is where Secretariat is buried.  We were able to pet Orb, the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner, and to see many other horses and areas of the farm that are used for stud purposes.  It was a great way to spend the morning and a get a good sense of the significance of horses and history in Kentucky.

At Claiborne Farm
A horse staredown

For lunch we tasted beer at the West Sixth Brewery and had food at Smithtown Seafood in Lexington.

West Sixth Brewing

Back in Louisville it was time to head to Churchill Downs to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum and spend the rest of the afternoon at the track.  It happened to be the same day that the Preakness Race was running in Baltimore, so we were able to watch the live stream feed on the main screen at Churchill Downs.  It gave us a sense of what it might be like at the Derby, but without all of the people!  Some day…

At Churchill Downs

Our last evening was spent dining at Butchertown Grocery, a great newer restaurant in Butchertown area of Louisville.  It was a nice way to end our tour as a group.

At Butchertown Grocery

Final Thoughts

Wow, it was a fantastic trip and a great group!  I learned a lot of things about each distillery and Louisville.  We had an aggressive schedule but the breaks between each visit helped.  There were a few things that I would change or add, but overall it was the perfect balance of tours, tastings and fun.  I look forward to the next tour.  Please let me know if you are interested in joining.  All of the whisky tours can be found at: Whiskey Tours

Distilleries Visited:

Angel’s Envy – 500 E Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202

Maker’s Mark – 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, KY 40037

Willett Distillery – 1869 Loretto Road, Bardstown, KY 40004

Heaven Hill – 1064 Loretto Road, Bardstown, KY 40004

Jim Beam – 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, KY 40110

Peerless Distilling – 120 N 10th Street, Louisville, KY 40202

Woodford Reserve – 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY 40383

Wild Turkey – 1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342

Buffalo Trace – 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601

 

Restaurants:

Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse – 127 W Main St, Louisville, KY 40207

Harvest – 624 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40202

Bourbon’s Bistro – 2255 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

Butchertown Grocery – 1076 E Washington St, Louisville, KY 40206

 

Bars:

Haymarket Whiskey Bar – 331 E Market St, Louisville, KY 40202

Old Seelbach Bar – 500 S 4th St, Louisville, KY 40202

Brown Hotel Lobby Bar – 335 W Broadway, Louisville, KY 40202

META – 425 W Chestnut St, Louisville, KY 40202

The Silver Dollar – 1761 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

Hilltop Tavern – 1800 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

The Hub – 2235 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY 40206

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Teeling Whiskey Distillery

Visit #29, September 24, 2016

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The last stop on our week-long Ireland distillery adventure was to The Liberties area of Dublin to visit the Teeling Whiskey Distillery.  Dublin was once home to over 30 distilleries, but the last one closed in the mid-70s. Teeling opened just recently in 2015 and is the first new distillery to open in Dublin in the last century.  Similar to some Tullamore D.E.W. branding, Teeling Whiskey uses a phoenix on its labels to represent the return of Irish whiskey to Dublin and to the Teeling family.

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Our tour started with the history of whiskey in Dublin and in Ireland, its rise and fall and now resurgence across the country.  A video described the roller-coaster ride of Irish whiskey history and the construction of the new Teeling Distillery.  They sure did not hold back on the building of this modern distillery with a very nice gift shop, bar, tasting area and semi-museum of artifacts and timelines.  And the inner workings of the distillery were just as impressive.

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Here are some notes from our tour of the “working” area of the distillery:

  • they use a wet mill – the water reduces the risk of explosion
  • 15,000 liter lauter tun used, holds 30 tons of grist at 60 degrees
  • 6 fermentation tanks – 2 wood (for looks) and 4 metal – 30,000 liters each
  • fermentation takes between 3 to 5 days
  • each of their stills has a name
    • Alison is the Wash Still – 15,000 liters – temp at 90 degrees
    • Natalie is the Intermediate Still – 10,000 liters – temp at 84 degrees
    • Rebecca is the Spirit Still – 9,000 liters – temp 78.2 degrees
  • stills come from Siena, Italy – each are 5 tons and valued over $1 million
  • aging is done outside of the city in Louth – too dangerous to mature whiskey in the city due to fire concerns
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Lauter Tun

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Wooden washbacks in front of metal ones
Wooden washbacks in front of metal ones
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Natalie, the Intermediate Still
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Rebecca, the Spirit Still
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Alison, the Wash Still

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Description of the barrels and aging

Our tour ended with a premier tasting of the following:

  • Teeling Single Malt
  • Teeling Single Cask
  • and a distillery only Single Malt finished in Cabernet casks
The tasting
The tasting

Overall it was a good tour.  Unfortunately it was on a Saturday and the distilling floor was non-operational.  It’s always nice to be able to see the whiskey being made.  It was a very different experience from our other 5 distillery tours in Ireland earlier in the week.  Just being in Dublin made it more crowded and busy.  The tour was on a strict schedule and there was not much time to linger.  We also rushed through the tasting at the end which was less than ideal.  But this is part of being in a big city on a weekend too.  Teeling is becoming a very popular destination and I am glad we were able to see it now in its early stages.

Charles’ Notes:  I had very high expectations for this visit.  It was our last distillery visit during our week in Ireland which included Kilbeggan, Tullamore D.E.W., Jameson Midleton, Dingle, Walsh and Teeling.  But there was something off about the visit.  Our reservation was lost, even though it was guaranteed in advance with a credit card.  The tour felt rushed and the tasting too.  I had read so many great reviews about distillery visits here so maybe my expectations were too high.  Or it’s possible my earlier distillery visits during the week were competing with each other.  But whatever the reason, it seemed off.  I do think they have a good thing going there with lots of potential and I will definitely be back to make another visit on another Ireland distillery tour.  The bar was a very nice touch and the space was well planned out.  I am still a big Teeling fan!  It’s great to witness the new Irish whiskey renaissance.

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Walsh Whiskey Distillery

Visit #28, September 22, 2016

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On a rare “blue-sky” day towards the end of September in County Carlow, Ireland, we visited the newly-opened Walsh Whiskey Distillery.  Set on a beautiful estate, home to a mansion that dates back to 1755, Walsh Whiskey Distillery is a prime example of the “new” Irish whiskey producers that are quickly popping up across the country during this Irish whiskey renaissance.  Only opened in June, 2016, to the public, the distillery is the latest installment by the Walsh family that started to produce The Irishman back in 2007 through the Irish Distillers.walsh-ii

Located near the River Barrow, the distillery is set in the barley basket of Ireland on a property with 200-year old oak trees.  With an natural aquifer 70 meters underground, the distillery sources many of the ingredients necessary to make whiskey locally.  This farm concept is important the Walsh family where the owner in the introductory tour video states that the purpose of the distillery is to “get back to what it is about.”walsh-xvii

Our high-spirited tour guide for the day was Woody Kane.  He met us in the tasting room and guided us through the distillery, step by step.  Here are some notes from our tour about the “manual” distillery and its process of making whiskey:

  • After the intro video we started with a refresher on the grains that are used by the Walsh Distillery including maize from France
  • Grain stored in 60 ton silos / 30 tons a week are used
  • Hammer mill and roller mill used to grind the grain
  • Mashing is a 3-hour process – 140 degrees for 40 minutes, the heat is released and dropped down to 64-65 degrees for another 40 minutes
  • 3 tons per mash, 10,500 liters of water
  • They have a cooker that can do 4-5 mashes (this was unfamiliar to me)
  • 72 hour fermentation process in 14 washbacks in total producing an 8% ABV wash
  • They have a continuous column still which is 22 meters high which runs close to 24 hours a day, the spirit has a very high ABV of new make and the spirit is taken up around 75% high off the still
  • The pot stills include a 15,000 liter wash still, a 7,500 liter intermediate still and a 10,000 liter spirit still
  • The pot ale tank water is given to the farmers for pig meal
  • Barrels used for aging include Bourbon, Sherry & Marsala
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One of the sample bags of grain near the entrance to the working distillery

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Woody Kane

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The continuous still
The continuous still
Our group
Our group

Overall, we had a great tour and Woody answered all of our questions.  It was great to be able to go through all of the different working stages of the distillery.  The workers on site were also very kind with answering questions.  Being so new I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it seemed like they had planned out the visitor experience very well.

Our guide for the day, Woody Kane
Woody starting the tasting

Our tour ended with a tasting back at the tasting bar near the entrance.  We tasted the following whiskies:

  • The Founder’s Reserve – 70% single malt & 30% pot still
  • Writer’s Tears – Redhead – no age statement, sherry-barreled, single malt
  • The Irishman 17 year old – first-filled sherry butt, single cask, single malt

We ended up purchasing a Writer’s Tears and Irishman 17 to be used at a future Saratoga Whiskey Club tasting back in the States.  Woody was a great host in the limited time that we had and we appreciated the tour and visit.walsh-xiv

Charles’ Notes: We had just spent the entire previous day doing a Whiskey Experience Day at the Dingle Distillery on the Dingle Peninsula.  This included hands-on activities and a full day of whiskey knowledge.  So I wasn’t sure how excited the group would be to go to another distillery the day after such an experience.  But it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise where we learned a lot about another distillery vision with a unique, different story.  It was quite amazing to see the scale of the Walsh Distillery.  Still shiny new, the distillery was obviously built for a lot of growth with a long-term plan.  I remember Woody mentioning that they had a 200-year plan.  It was nice to see year One of the distillery being opened.  We were also very pleased with the product during the tasting.  In fact, the Irishman 17 that we brought back home with us was a very solid whiskey at the tasting that we held with our club.  I do look forward to returning to the Walsh Whiskey Distillery at some point in the near to future to check in with them and see what’s next.

Matt, pretending it is 1755
Matt, pretending it is 1755

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Visit #22, May 17, 2016

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Just 58 miles south of Washington, D.C. resides the A. Smith Bowman Distillery.  It was an overcast Spring day that I made the trip to Fredericksburg, VA, the town located at the midpoint of the opposing capitals of the Civil War.  Most people come to visit the Civil War battlefields, but my purpose was bourbon.  In fact, they had just released another limited edition whiskey the day before, one that had sold out quickly in 8 hours, unfortunately for me.  But with that news behind me, I decided to enjoy the tour of the distillery as if the limited edition didn’t exist!Bowman - XXXV

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The A. Smith Bowman distillery just celebrated its 80th anniversary.  Licensed in 1935 by A. Smith Bowman, the distillery was originally located at the Sunset Hills Farm in Fairfax county outside of Washington, D.C.  In 1958, Robert E. Simon purchased most of the farm/distillery and in 1988, the distillery was moved to its current location in Fredericksburg, VA.  He moved it here because of the rising costs in the D.C. market.  The site was originally a cellophane factory that was used to wrap up cigars and cigarettes.  They were large when they moved, but in 2003 they were sold to another family and operates on a smaller basis now.

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The tour guide for the afternoon was Erin, one of only 13 people that work at the distillery.  Erin explained the history of the distillery and its move to its current location.  She also went over all of the different spirits that they produce.  Here are some notes from the tour of the distillery:

  • two stills used for production, George and Mary
  • George – Vendome still #1965, started using this in January, 2015, pot/column still, mash used for George is 500 gallons
  • Mary – 25 year old passive still – temperature not controlled, double reflux, triple distilled (first two distillations done at Buffalo Trace), only used in the Fall and the Spring seasons, was the original still for the Fredericksburg location
  • they chill filter their bourbon at 28 degrees for aesthetic reasons, the Abraham limited release is the only non-chill-filtered bourbon
  • barrels are stored upright (they don’t need to be rotated when standing upright), they use 53-gallon barrels from the Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, KY – American Oak from the Ozarks, char level of 3.5, bung holes are found on the ends of the barrels
  • close to 10,000 barrels are stored on site
  • distilling and operations happen from 7:30am to 3:30pm Monday-Friday
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Erin starting off the tour
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Explaining the barrels and char process

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George, the Vendome
George, the Vendome

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Mary, the passive still
Mary, the passive still

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The Mash Tank
The Mash Tank

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Chill-Filtration Tank
Chill-Filtration Tank

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Bung at the end of barrel
Bung at the end of barrel
Spirit from barrel entered into moat
Spirit from barrel entered into moat

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Anniversary Barrel
Barrel warehouse
Barrel warehouse

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Bottling Line
Bottling Line

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Erin was a great tour guide and gave a nice, comprehensive overview of the distillery and the process of making its whiskey.  It was nice to be able to go into all of the different rooms and see their style of production.  They definitely combine the old with the new.  I was amazed to see how many barrels they stored on site.  And the fact that they were stacked upright!

We gathered around the tasting table for the last part of the tour.  The first three spirits below were what we tasted, but listed after are the other products that they make:

  • John J. Bowman – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Single Barrel, 100 proof
  • Bowman Brothers – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Small Batch, 90 proof, comes from 8 barrels that are blended
  • Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Creme Liqueur – made with bourbon, probably excellent over ice cream
  • Abraham Bowman – Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey – two releases a year, this latest release sold out in 8 hours!  Wheat Bourbon
  • George Bowman – Colonial Era Dark Caribbean Rum – 1750s recipe, colonial style from Guyana, aged 3 years in bourbon barrels
  • Deep Run – Virginia Vodka – distilled 7 times, corn based
  • Sunset Hills – Viginia Gin – citrus

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Limited Edition!
Limited Edition!
Tasting table
Tasting table

Thank you to Erin for the great tour.  It was also nice chatting with the head distiller, Brian Prewitt, who started at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in 2013.  It seems like he has found a great place here at this distillery and based on the demand for the Abraham Bowman, he is making some great whiskey.

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Brian

Charles’ Notes: It’s been a while since I visited a distillery that had close to 10,000 barrels on site.  Most of my time the last few months was spent visiting newer craft distillers in the Northeast, so it was refreshing to be back among the masses of American Oak.  The smell, the age, etc.  Obviously I was disappointed with not being able to get a bottle of the new Abraham Bowman, but in this day and age of bourbon mania, it’s best to get there on time.  Brian was great to talk to and learn about his history both at UC Davis in California and his time brewing in Colorado.  The A. Smith Bowman distillery is in good hands with his skills.  I look forward to getting back through Fredericksburg to see what is new in the future and will definitely time my visit better to arrive on the release date, not the day after.

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WhistlePig Distillery

Visit #21, April 27, 2016WHISTLE I

Nestled in the rolling hills just west of the Green Mountains in Vermont sits the WhistlePig Farm.  Purchased in 2007 by Raj Bhakta, WhistlePig Farm started aging rye whiskey stocks in 2008 and by 2010, they launched their first 10-year old rye whiskey.  With the help of the Master Distiller David Pickerell, the WhistlePig distillery is now averages 400 cases a day of bottle production.  The site itself is located in a picturesque area of Vermont and it is evident that WhistlePig has been successful in its business plan of expansion with a relatively new still house built in an early 1900’s barn.WHISTLE IV

WhistlePig Farm is not open to visitors currently, but we were lucky to make a visit as a member of the writing community that focuses on whiskey.  Our tour leader for the afternoon was Connor Burleigh, the operations manager of the distillery.  Connor started with an internship in 2014 and quickly moved from sales to operations a year ago.  He provided us with a great tour of the facility and tasting.

Our guide, Connor
Our guide, Connor

The WhistlePig business plan is interesting.  Since they source whiskey from different distilleries in Canada and the United States, they plan to stick to this source for the whiskies that have already become popular.  They believe that if they start to use the rye whiskey that they produced in-house, it would change the flavor profile and it would be a problem for consumers that are already accustomed to a certain taste.  They do want to create their own product in-house eventually, but it will not replace what they currently age from these different sources.  Most newer distilleries that we have visited in the U.S. have an end goal of just producing their own whiskey.  This is not the case with WhistlePig.  A different approach.

Here are some notes from our tour of the property and still house:

  • 1200 acres of farm land: 700 arable acres, 330 acres used for rye production, the rest rented out, grain stored off site
  • 30,000 barrels overall stored in various locations
  • rye whiskey sourced from 3-4 different distilleries both in Canada and the United States, Old World sourced from MGP in Indiana
  • 1% of hard wood in Vermont is white oak, we saw a variety of barrels including Madeira barrels, some with #4 char and toast
  • Old World is chill filtered in a milk tank
  • 1 week of production held in bottling tank
  • 600 bottles an hour / 400 cases a day, hand-labeled
  • California is the biggest market
  • WhistlePig rye found in 7 countries
  • new distillery opened in November 2015 in a barn built in the early 1900’s
  • 2-year legal battle to get barn ready for distilling
  • 750 gallon Vendome pot hybrid still
  • 1400 lbs of grain in the mash tank
  • 5 900 gallon fermentation tanks, 3-5 days of fermentation
  • 5-7 hours of run time for the still: 4-5 hours for the heart run, they do keep some heads, they keep the still running 18 hours a day, 5 days a week
Barrel House
Barrel House

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Oloroso Sherry Cask
Oloroso Sherry Cask
Bottling Area
Bottling Area
A new bottle
A new bottle

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Milk Tank
Milk Tank

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Mortimer, the still
One of the distillers
One of the distillers

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Mash and fermentation
Mash and fermentation
Fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks

Connor provided us with a great tour of the facility.  It was a busy place with barrels being moved around and the still house in production.  Since the still has only been running since last November, they were experimenting with different runs, including some bourbon runs.  It will be interesting if they go this path at some point.  The restored barn that was converted into the new still house was incredible.  They had a huge open entrance perfect for hosting large groups and explaining the history of WhistlePig.  Upstairs they also had a large loft area that was perfectly set up for large parties or gatherings.

What would a distillery visit be without a tasting!  We had the privilege of tasting many of the different cask finishes that make up their products and the new 15-year old before release.  Quite amazing.  Here is a list of the 11 different tastes that we had, including a cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels:

  • 10-year old original rye, ABV 50%
  • Madeira finish – 4-6 weeks for most finishing – 12-year old
  • Sauternes finish
  • Port finish – double gold in SF spirits competition
  • Old World – 63% Madeira, 30% Sauternes, 7% Port finishes
  • Muscat finish – 4 months of finishing
  • Oloroso Sherry finish – over a year finished
  • Tokaji finish – Hungarian sweet wine – 2 months of finishing
  • Pedro Ximenez finish – 1 year of finishing
  • Pierre Ferrand XO cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels for 1 year
  • new release 15-year old, aged 6 months in Vermont oak, received a 97 in Wine Enthusiast magazine

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What a great experience to try all of these different finishes.  I do have to say that it became difficult after 5 or 6 of them to have a clean palate to taste, but we did our best.  This was the first time we have experienced what it takes to create a blend of rye whiskey.  It was sure a fascinating treat.  Thanks to Connor and the entire WhistlePig group for inviting us to visit with them and share with us their business plan and production.WHISTLE III

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Charles’ Notes:  This was an exciting visit for me.  I had just returned from a food tour in Miami where I saw WhistlePig in almost every bar and I was intrigued with how such a young distillery could be so popular across the U.S.  And it was fun to be invited to a place that is not yet open to the public.  The business plan of WhistlePig really made me think about what do distilleries want from their model.  Do they want to be real craft distillers where they make small in-house products that take years to develop?  Or do they want to find a business model that will sustain them for the future and allow them to experiment?  The fact that WhistlePig will continue to source never occurred to me until this visit.  But they want to maintain expectations.  Do other distilleries follow this plan?  It is an interesting direction.  They were gracious hosts and we enjoyed our visit to their farm.  I look forward to revisiting with them in the future.WHISTLE IX

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Mad River Distillers

Visit #20, April 9, 2016MAD XVI

The road recently thawed on this mid-Spring day in Vermont.  The night before there was some snow which probably made the skiers over at Sugarbush happy.  On top of Cold Springs Farm Road just south of Waitsfield, VT, sits Mad River Distillers, a five-year old distillery making rum, whiskey and rye.  Cold Springs Farm dates back to the mid-19th century and became a horse farm later in its life.  The horse barn on the farm became what is now the distillery in 2011 and began to produce spirits in 2013.MAD XVII

Vermont is a very picturesque state and the location of this farm, now distillery, is amazing with the mountains in the background.  Our group consisted of some members of the Saratoga Whisk(e)y Club, and we were all very excited to get inside to check out what they were producing.  Saratoga Whiskey Club

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Distiller and guide Zack

Our host, one of two distillers at Mad River Distillers, was Zack Fuller.  Zack studied distilling in Scotland and is now distilling and experimenting in this beautiful spot in Northern Vermont.  He provided our group with an excellent overview of their process and equipment.  Here are some notes from our tour:

  • distilling takes place 7 days a week
  • pre-milled grains come from a 300-mile radius (Vermont, New York and Massachusetts)
  • fair trade sugars from Malawi used for rum
  • Vermont apples are used for brandy
  • 250 gallon mash tank
  • 4 500 gallon fermentation tanks for whiskey and rye, this fermentation lasts 4-5 days
  • 2 separate 1000 gallon fermentation tanks used for rum and brandy, this fermentation lasts between 2-3 weeks
  • Zack used a great quote: “farts CO2 and pisses alcohol” – never heard that one before
  • Mueller pot still from Germany
  • 53 gallons of mash pumped from fermenter into still – run times for the still: heads – 15 minutes, hearts – 1 – 1 1/2 hours yielding 4-5 gallons, tails – less than 15 minutes
  • Cold Spring water is hard water
  • various sized barrels used including 15, 25, 30 and 53-gallon barrels with some Spanish sherry butts
  • they started aging the bourbon and rye in 25 gallon barrels for one year
  • 53 gallon barrels are from Kentucky and Minnesota
  • some 25 gallon barrels used to age rum come from Canada
  • in 2015, they produced 2,000 cases of spirits
  • the goal for 2016 is 3,000 cases
  • distribution currently in Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island
Zack at the Mueller still
Zack at the Mueller still

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The tour itself was perfect and to have one of the main distillers explain everything made it even more special.  Zack was extremely knowledgeable and was able to answer all of our questions and give us some insight as to where they want to head as a company.  Future collaborations with Lawson’s craft beer company really perked our ears.

We finished our tour with a tasting of 7 of their spirits.  Here is what we tasted:

  • Vanilla Rum – infused with vanilla beans for 6-8 months, 40% ABV
  • First Run Rum – aged 4 months in lightly charred oak barrels, 48% ABV
  • Maple Rum – best seller, aged 6-8 months after syrup is made, 48% ABV
  • Corn Whiskey – 85% corn, 5% rye, 5% wheat, 2-3 months in a lightly toasted barrel, 48% ABV
  • Bourbon – mash bill: 70% corn, 10% wheat, 10% oat, 10% barley – aged for 1 year in a 25 gallon barrel, 48% ABV
  • Malvados – 100% Vermont mixed apples, Malvados means “wicked” in Portuguese, 50% ABV
  • Revolution Rye – 100% rye, 3 varieties – chocolate, cracked malt and toasted, 48% ABV
  • We also got to try a small sample of a single malt that they are doing with Lawson’s brewery and their Hopscotch, very tasty!

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Overall it was a great tour and tasting.  Wine Enthusiast just rated the Revolution Rye with 92 points and it definitely is a good rye to pick up, if you can find it.  We were happy to be able to purchase a variety of their spirits.

Charles’ Notes: This visit worked out great.  We didn’t really know much about Mad River Distillers other than what was on their website.  You still can’t get their product in New York State.  It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend.  Zack was super friendly and helpful with our questions and it turned out to be a great time spent.  It is always such a nice experience when you have unknown expectations and walk out with new appreciation of a craft.  They are craft distillers that care about their product and put the love into it that is needed to get noticed and grow.   I look forward to returning to Mad River Distillers in the future and trying some more of their single malt products.

Also, they are located near Waterbury, VT, which is a great place to stay.  It almost feels like the craft beer mecca of the United States.  Lawson’s and the Alchemist breweries are located here and produce phenomenal beers.  We spent Saturday night in town and definitely recommend The Prohibition Pig for BBQ and the local taverns for some great draft pours.  Cheers!MAD XI

 

Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery

Visit #19, March 19, 2016TUT-XIX

The Hudson Baby Bourbon first made me aware of the craft distiller movement in the Hudson Valley and New York State region.  I purchased a bottle for my father-in-law many years ago as a gift and we definitely enjoyed sampling it.  How they called it “bourbon” surprised me and made me do some research online.  The myth of bourbon only being made in Kentucky turned out to be… a myth!!  Since Tuthilltown Spirits was one of the pioneers of distilling in the Northeast, it was high on my list of distilleries to visit.  It made for a great day trip.

Grist mill
Grist mill

Located directly on the Wallkill River in Gardiner, NY, the history of the property of Tuthilltown Spirits goes back to the 18th century.  One of the buildings that is currently used as the on-site restaurant was once a grist mill that started in 1788.  The grist mill lasted over 200 years and it was only in 2002 that it stopped production.  The property was purchased in 2001 by Ralph Erenzo with the intention of creating a rock-climbing ranch since the site is located not far from the famous rock-climbing cliffs called the Gunks.  What started out to be a rock-climbing camp changed directions and became the 1st distillery in New York State built since Prohibition using the newly created farm distillers license.  Brian Lee, Ralph’s partner at Tuthilltown, came from Connecticut with technical expertise.  For 10 1/2 years now, Tuthilltown Spirits has been distilling gins, vodkas and whiskies.

The distillery
The distillery

Our tour for the afternoon was led by Lyon, an enthusiastic guide who was very good and knowledgeable on all things Tuthilltown.  Here are some notes from our tour:

  • started with a 150 gallon still from Germany
  • started producing vodka in 2005 and Baby Bourbon in 2006
  • first batch of Baby Bourbon ever was 128 bottles and they used 3 gallon barrels that aged the whiskey for only 3 months, the whiskey was sold using medicinal bottles
  • since William Grant & Sons acquired the Hudson Whiskey brand in 2010, its production has increased to 1 million bottles of the Hudson Baby Bourbon made in 2015
  • now 10 to 60 gallon barrels are used for the Baby Bourbon and the whiskey is aged from 2 to 4 years
  • 90% of the grain is sourced within New York state with the exception of malted barley that comes from Montreal
  • corn, wheat and rye are all sourced 45 minutes west in Cochecton, NY
  • apples sourced from Tantillo’s Farm in Gardiner, NY
  • 1600 lbs of grain (or 32 bags) are used in each mash
  • a 1930’s roller mill is used to mill grain, found on eBay
  • a 900 gallon pasta sauce cooker is the cook tank
  • 1000 gallons of mash is mashed for 1 hour and a heat-exchanger cooling system takes only 5 minutes to cool mash
  • they started with one 500 gallon fermentation tank, now they have eight 2500 gallon wine fermentation tanks from California
  • fermentation takes between 3 to 4 days
  • Pot to column stills, three stills 330 / 650 / 850 gallons
  • 90 gallons of liquid produced from the stills, only 40 gallons is considered the “hearts” or the spirit that is kept and aged, the “heads” are only 3% and the “tails” is the rest
  • 4% of the total mash ends up in the “hearts”
  • for vodka, a 21 column fractional still is used, comes off at 160 proof
  • water used comes from a deep well on the property that is triple-distilled
  • production times are Monday to Friday in shifts
  • they use a couple of cooperages for barrels – the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky and the Black Swan Cooperage in Minnesota
  • cotton micro filters are used when dumping barrels for bottling
  • their new bottling line has tripled the speed of their bottling process
  • all bottle are hand-waxed
  • 2500 bottles a day are produced as a minimum (3 pallets)
Lyon starting the tour
Lyon starting the tour
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Grain storage and milling
Fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks
Cooling device
Heat-exchange cooling system
Lyon explaining the still room
Lyon explaining the still room

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The bottling center
The bottling center
Lyon, our guide
Lyon, our guide

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In the bottling room
In the bottling room

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Overall it was a very informative tour and a beautiful property.  They have obviously grown tremendously over the last 10 years and with William Grant & Sons they will continue to gain both domestic and international recognition and distribution.  They seem to be the first distillery that I visited in the Northeast that had merged with a larger entity and you could tell that the scaling is an ongoing process.  Lyon was a great guide!

Grain storage
Grain storage

The tour ended and it was time for our tasting.  We were able to choose four of the following spirits:

  • Half Moon Orchard Gin (92 proof) – NY State wheat and apples distilled with eight botanicals
  • Hudson New York Corn Whiskey (92 proof) – a blend of locally grown corn, unaged whiskey
  • Hudson Baby Bourbon (92 proof) – aged New York Corn Whiskey in a first-use charred American Oak barrel
  • Hudson Four Grain Bourbon (92 proof) – corn, rye, wheat and malted barley make up this small batch whiskey
  • Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey (92 proof)
  • Hudson Maple Cask Rye Whiskey (92 proof) – Hudson Whiskey barrels sent to Woods Syrup, a maple syrup producer in Vermont that ages syrup in the barrels, barrels are then used to age a small batch of rye
The tasting bar
The tasting bar

The tasting was a nice way to end the tour before having lunch at the restaurant on site called the Tuthill House at the Mill.  The restaurant was a great place to unwind after the tour and they had a number of great craft beers on tap at the bar and the food was very good.  There was a wedding party being set up in the upstairs part of the restaurant which contained some of the old grist mill pieces.  What a great venue for a party!

The bar at the Tut Hill Restaurant
The bar at the Tuthill House Restaurant
Chorizo burger
Chorizo burger
Old grist mill machines
Old grist mill machines

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Charles’ Notes:  This was an interesting visit.  I wasn’t sure what to expect in size and modernity.  It turned out to be a combination of the old and the new.  I had always thought that the bourbon was good, but it was hard for me to buy much of it at the price that was asked for a 375 ml bottle.  But it seems like the Hudson whiskey line is now coming more into range with a lot of the other craft products that are available these days.  They even have larger bottles now which are at a good price point.  The tour experience was excellent.  We got to see the whole production area and were able to take photos.  Lyon was very good and took his time explaining to the group how everything was distilled.  It was fun seeing some of the older equipment that they kept on site as a reminder of where they started.  This is very important to have this perspective.  The tasting was good and it was nice to have a choice of what to taste.  They also had a lot of swag in the gift shop and other products that make for some good gifts.  The restaurant was a great way to end the day.  Overall, it was a very fun day trip.  Highly recommended.

One of the original stills
One of the original stills

Litchfield Distillery

Visit #18, February 27, 2016LITCHFIELD XXVIII

Daffodils.  Farms.  Colonial buildings with white paint and black shutters. These are the memories I have of Litchfield, CT, when visiting here a few times with my mother on Mother’s Day to shop for plants at White Flower Farm. But bourbon?  Aged whiskey?  It turns out that Litchfield is now home to a new operation of distilling and aging some increasingly popular spirits!  As Connecticut’s distillery boom begins, the Litchfield Distillery is leading the way  by embracing a well-followed script of blending the old with the new and giving the public a nice tour and taste in the process.

Started by the Baker brothers in 2013, the Litchfield Distillery is using the knowledge and business savvy that the brothers acquired from owning a century-old water company, Crystal Rock.  This third-generation business has helped the Baker brothers take the natural leap into the distilling world.  Added to the mix is the head distiller James McCoy whose background includes time at Harpoon Brewery and a distilling degree from Scotland.

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Our tour was led by David Baker.  He provided the large group on the tour with a great experience filled with lots of information and explanation.  Here are some notes from the tour:

  • Distillation happens 4 days a week, they have been distilling for 14 months and have been in the building for 2 years
  • 95% of grain is from Connecticut, 800 lbs of grain a day of corn and rye
  • Hammer mill is used for grinding grain to be sent to mash tun
  • Mashing takes 1 hour before wash is placed in 5 fermentation tanks, each holding up to 2,000 liters, heated with steam jackets
  • 12 hours for the yeast to become active, 5-7 days of fermentation
  • City water is used for cooling, bottled water from Crystal Rock is used for distilling
  • Hybrid pot to column still made by Mueller in Germany, 500 liters
  • Still runs: 1/2 hour heads, 1 hour 45 minutes hearts, tails the rest
  • For bourbon distilling, 3 plates closed in column still
  • 100 gallon gin still made by Trident Stills in Maine
  • For gin distilling, all 7 plates closed in column still and 24 hours to extract flavors of ingredients
  • Current aged bourbon is a little over a year old
  • Barrels made in Kentucky, Minnesota and Long Island
  • Different char levels used, #4 (alligator char) and #3
  • 4 barrels/week are filled, 1 for shorter-term use and 3 for longer-term use
  • 600-800 bottles/batch, done once a week, bottler takes 30 seconds per fill
  • Bottles are made in the USA

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Mash bill of bourbon and gin

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Mash Tank

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Fermentation Tanks
Fermentation Tanks

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Different char levels
Different char levels

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The tour experience was very well done as the entire process was explained.  It was followed by a tasting provided in a beautifully-decorated tasting area which also serves as a gift shop and tiny museum.  Here is what we tasted:

  • Bourbon Whiskey – charred in #4 barrels, mash bill is 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% barley, 1 year-old, 43% ABV
  • Double Barreled Bourbon Whiskey – 250 barrels of 6-year old bourbon was purchased from a Kentucky distillery, now at 8 years of age, it is re-barreled with 3-year old bourbon, 44% ABV
  • Gin – this was a nice gin that could be used for cocktails, 43% ABV
  • We also got to try a new cask-finished bourbon that will be coming out soon, but we agreed not to mention what type of cask or process, but it was very nice at 100 proof

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Charles’ Notes:  It was nice traveling to Litchfield and seeing how well this distillery is doing.  Both the brothers David and Jack were extremely accommodating and it always says something when the owners are there presenting to guests and showing their passion for what they do.  The tour was well executed and it was obvious that the group enjoyed themselves.  I do look forward to making another visit in the next year or so to see what is next available.  They are very progressive in their thinking of cask-finishes and this could be a great benefit for their bourbons.  As Connecticut distilleries continue to ramp up, I am sure Litchfield will be leading the way.LITCHFIELD XXVI

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Aberlour Distillery

Visit #9, September 24, 2016

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In the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland surrounded by burns or streams and the River Spey is the town of Aberlour.  Some people know Aberlour from the famous Walkers shortbread which is made here.  Others make the pilgrimage to fish or enjoy the beautiful countryside.  Our group came to Aberlour for its whisky and what a great place to base oneself to visit the many distilleries in the area.  Of course, when you stay in Aberlour, the highlight has to be the Aberlour Distillery, and it was better than shortbread, a fine treat indeed.

The Aberlour Distillery was built in 1879 by James Fleming, the son of a local farmer.  He wanted to create a distillery that would represent what a true distillery should look like.  Unlike most distilleries, it was powered by a waterwheel until the 1960s using the rushing stream nearby.  He was a community man and did many important things for the town and people as well.  A town hall is now named after him, Fleming Hall.  But he was also very proud of the spirit that came out of the distillery and had a famous family motto of “Let the Deed Show,” telling people that the spirit itself was the true testament of his whisky-making and expertise.

Upon Fleming’s death in 1895, the distillery went through a number of hands and eventually was acquired by Pernod Ricard in 1975 which then joined Chivas Brothers in 2001.  Aberlour is the best selling Scotch in France with over a million bottles a year being sold there.ABERLOUR II

Our Aberlour Experience tour started at 10am and was led by Susan.  After telling us about the history of the Aberlour Distillery and James Fleming, we visited the different areas of production of the spirit, and here are some notes from our tour:

  • Water source comes from springs on the Ben Rinnes mountain and Linn Falls – pH of 7 (neutral)
  • 320 liters of liquid yeast used in each production
  • 1962 – the year malting was out-sourced, Balvenie still malts 10% of the barley for Aberlour – no peat used for their malt
  • 25 tons of malted barley delivered at a time, 12 tons used with each production
  • The Porteus mill is over 60 years old
  • In 1898 the distillery was completely destroyed by an explosion in the mill
  • 48,000 liters of water go through the Mash Tun – mash water temps are 65 degrees / 80 degrees / 95 degrees to produce the wort (about 60,000 liters)
  • 6 washbacks – stainless steel painted white – fermentation takes between 48-50 hours
  • 4 swan-shaped stills – 2 wash and 2 spirit stills (15,000 liters)
  • Heads: 15 minutes / Hearts: 1 hour (5,000 liters) / Tails: 2 hours
  • Ex-Oloroso sherry butts and Ex-Bourbon casks are used
  • 2 large racked warehouses (stacked 8 high) on site (15,000 barrels), some whisky stored off site but within 15 miles of the distillery
  • 7 team managers on site

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The tour was very well done and and we were able to visit all of the areas of production.  The Aberlour Experience tour includes a nice tasting as well.  The following different expressions were tasted:

  • The New Make Spirit – straight off the still (un-aged), 63.5% ABV
  • Bourbon-Cask Matured 15 year old, 53.7% ABV
  • Sherry-Cask Matured 16 year old, 56.5% ABV
  • 10 year old – #1 selling whisky in France, 40% ABV, bourbon and sherry cask fill
  • 16 year old – first-fill bourbon cask, re-fill sherry cask, 40% ABV
  • A’Bunadh – Batch 51, cask strength 60.8% ABV

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Let’s just say that it was good that we were able to walk to the distillery from our hotel up the hill!  It was a great way to end a very nice tour and experience.

The Dowans Hotel
The Dowans Hotel

Charles’ Notes: Aberlour was one of the distilleries that I was most interested in visiting due to its popularity abroad and the fact that we were staying right next to it at The Dowans Hotel for 4 nights.  By the way, The Dowans Hotel made for a perfect base to explore the Speyside region’s offerings and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.  Great food and whisky bar!  The distillery had a smaller feel than what I expected from a Chivas/Pernod Ricard owned maker, but this was a good thing.  It made me think of the late 19th century when the distillery was being run by Mr. Fleming.  It is set on a nice piece of property right along the stream.  It really is a perfect spot for someone to visit, especially if they are staying in town like we did.  I did regret not picking up the bourbon-cask matured 15 year old.  This was my favorite taste.  At home, the A’Bunadh has become one of my favorites as well (Batch 50).  I guess I will just need to make another visit!  Cheers.

Charles and Father In Law
Charles and Father In Law

New York Distilling Company

Visit #17, February 21, 2016NYD-I

Brooklyn is still hopping.  It was an unseasonably warm Sunday morning in February.  We made our way under the East River for brunch and spirit making.  There were lines at the restaurants as the weather made it too easy for people to eat.  But that didn’t deter us from getting to visit a distillery that was high on our list of NY state distilleries.  New York Distilling Company is located near McCarren Park in North Williamsburg.  It is an early adopter to the distillery scene in New York state along with Tuthilltown Spirits and a couple of others.  At just over 4 years old, it is the third oldest distillery in New York City.

You enter through their bar, the Shanty, a well-decorated spot with a large window overlooking the operations of the distillery.  Here we were welcomed by Selma, a whiskey connoisseur, who provided us a sample of their Ragtime Rye which had recently sold out.  There was time to wait due to a private tour being led by Allen Katz, co-owner of the distillery with his partner Tom Potter.  A sample of rye and a nice cold beer put us in a good frame of mind for our tour which was led by Max, the new bar manager of the Shanty.

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The tour started with an overview of the distillery and its products, gin and rye.  They only do gin and rye since these are true to New York history, with the creation of the cocktail in New York City.  Here are some of the notes from the tour as well as information that was collected through an e-mail exchange with Allen Katz:

  • Mash bill of rye – 72% rye, 16% corn & 12% malted barley
  • Ingredients sourced from the Pederson Farms near the Finger Lakes area of NY state
  • Whiskey production is seasonal – rye harvest is in June and July, and depending on the weather, corn harvest is usually in September
  • Rye is distilled in Brooklyn and at their second distillery in Upstate NY which is a facility that is co-owned with Black Dirt Distillery
  • Mash tank is heated using a steam jacket and is 3,000 liters
  • Two fermentation tanks also 3,000 liters each, fermentation takes between 3-5 days
  • The kettle still is 1,000 liters and comes from Germany, manufactured by Christian Carl
  • Average still run time: heads – minutes; hearts – depends on what they are distilling and can be several hours (gin can be 6-7 hours); tails – whatever is discarded at the end of the hearts run
  • Their goal is to fill 1,000 barrels of rye this year
  • Most of the barrels come from an independent stave company in Missouri and they also source some barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky
  • Barrels are stored both on site and at a second facility in Upstate NY – this gives them capacity to grow
    Still from Stuttgart
    Still from Stuttgart

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Max’s expertise, being the bar manager, was describing each product we tasted at the end of the tour.  Here is what we tasted:

  • Dorothy Parker American Gin – notes of hibiscus and elderberry
  • Perry’s Tot Gin – 57% ABV, the historical proof at which gunpowder could still be fired if soaked in spirit, ‘tot’ refers to the British measurement of alcohol
  • Chief Gowanus – New Netherland Gin – an old recipe from 1809 of American genievre, unaged rye whiskey distilled with juniper and hops, and then run though a third distillation, 3-6 months aged in an oak barrels
  • Rock & Rye – a marriage of young rye whiskey and rock sugar candy, aged 6 months to a yearNYD-XIIINYD-XV

What makes NY Distilling Company different as well is that it is situated right next door to Engine 229, Tower Ladder 146.  So throughout the tour it felt like we were part of the fire station as fire trucks were continually called out for service.  Not to mention the large flag hanging above the rafters, it was unmistakably New York City…   Overall, it was a great tour and experience.  Max and Selma made it for a great afternoon.  And, thanks to Selma for letting us sip some of the Ragtime Rye and the secret still of spirit located behind the bar.

Charles’ Notes: I was very much looking forward to getting to Brooklyn.  Coming down from Upstate NY and staying in Manhattan is always a tidal wave of energy that hits you when exiting Penn Station.  So it was nice to get over to Brooklyn and have a great brunch at the Brazilian restaurant down the street from the distillery, Beco.  I highly recommend this little spot.  Brought me right back to Brazil.  At the distillery, the Shanty was great and the tour was open and informative.  It was also nice to be able to communicate with Allen via e-mail afterwards to ask some questions.  I look forward to watching their growth and tasting more of their spirits in the future.NYD-XVI