Archive for the Bourbon and Rye Category

New McKenna @ Ledger’s

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on June 23, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Just a quick follow up to my posting about selecting barrels of bourbon with the East Bay Study Group back in March. The bottled bourbon has arrived at Ledger’s at last. The group’s first place selection is available as Barrel #8. As the barrel was a relatively low fill you can expect this one to sell out pretty quickly. The second place selection is available as Barrel #9. There’s a lot more of this as the barrel had a surprisingly high fill. (We had expected both to be on the low side.) Both bottles are very reasonably priced at about $25 each.

One thing worth pointing out is that technically these are NOT McKenna bourbons in as much as the barrels we selected don’t necessarily conform to Heaven Hill’s own profile for that product. Heaven Hill has chosen to make the McKenna label available for this particular barrel purchase program (a huge expedience) but was willing to provide a relatively wide range of samples to us try. This is worth keeping in mind whenever you are evaluating a privately purchased and bottled barrel of whiskey. Not all programs are equally flexible (i.e. some programs only offer barrel samples which are more or less “on profile” for the label) but in the case of Heaven Hill and McKenna, we are afforded a great opportunity.

Vermouth in the Balance

Posted in Amari, Bourbon and Rye, Cocktails, Manhattans, Musings with tags , , , , on April 21, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Part one of an investigation into achieving balance in spirits-driven cocktails.

A few days ago I had the occasion to revisit an old original cocktail called The Criollo. I created it back in 2009 when I first fell in love with amari (singular amaro), the class of Italian digestive bitters that many bartenders were experimenting with at the time, most notoriously in the so-called “Black Manhattan.” In that cocktail some or most of the vermouth is replaced by an amaro. My particular goal was to bring chocolate flavors into a manhattan-style cocktail that would appeal to adult drinkers—i.e. not be creamy or too sweet. I had found that Mozart (the people who make the Austrian chocolates) had a liqueur (Mozart Black) that claims to contain 87% cacao mass. It wasn’t creamy but still pretty sweet with plenty of chocolate flavor. My thinking was to balance the sweetness of the Mozart Black against the bitterness of the amaro. Here’s what I came up with:

The Criollo (No. 2, AKA The Mozart Black Manhattan)

2 oz. rye
3/4 oz. Amer Boudreau (or Ramazzotti)
1/4 oz. Mozart Black chocolate liqueur
1 barspoon Grand Marnier
1 short dash Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
1 short dash Angostura orange bitters (optional if you used Amer Boudreau)
Long thin orange peel, for garnish

I liked it well enough when I first formulated it but when I remade it I was struck right away by how sweet it was. Not sickly, but pretty out there. I don’t know why it didn’t strike me so at the time. However, the reason for its sweetness is certainly no mystery to me now: it was the amaro. While we experience them as bitter, most amari contain a lot of sugar. I am guessing anywhere 20 to 30% by volume, possibly higher. Add that to the sugar in the Mozart Black liqueur and then my barspoon of Grand Marnier, and well, my recipe starts to look pretty lopsided. Think of it in terms of major flavoring components:

rye: congeners+wood flavorings
amaro: sugar+bitters/herbs
liqueur: sugar+cacao
liqueur: sugar+orange
aromatic bitters: bitters/herbs

If this were a glass of wine I was tasting, I might apply the adjective “angular,” meaning to me that the flavor is dominated by a couple of notes (in this case sweet and bitter) that don’t particularly harmonize. Nothing much links them together (though the chocolate and orange do help). In my mind, when I picture the flavors of this cocktail, this is what I see:

What this cocktail needed was a major rethink!

Back to Basics

I started by considering my point of origin, the Manhattan and flavors lent to it by the ingredient I had chosen to replace, the sweet vermouth. To be honest, it’s not an ingredient I had given my deepest thoughts to before. I knew which brands I liked but had otherwise taken it more or less for granted. Now however l had reason to really engage with it. Why does sweet vermouth create a balanced cocktail while the combination of amaro and liqueur (a pretty complex set of flavors) fails to do so? For starters, the vermouth is far less sugary. But what else is going on in there? I decided that it would be worthwhile tasting though a number of different sweet vermouths* and cataloging aromas and flavors. Here’s my aggregated list:

vanilla, orange peel, white pepper, wine, licorice, sun dried tomato, cedar, mint, dust, brown sugar, nuts, vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, menthol, baby powder (flowers), anise, cherry, plum, chalk, band-aid, bitter

If I then reduce this list to classes of aromas and flavors, I get this more canonical list:

Acid
Sugar
Herbal/Bitter
Oxidized Flavors
Fruit
Minerals
Savory

Looking at this list, two things occurred to me in quick succession:

First, this single ingredient is capable of providing a very wide spectrum of flavors. It has what I believe flavor chemists call high amplitude, where “amplitude” is defined as the total effect of flavor and aroma in a food. The higher the flavor amplitude, the more broadly it stimulates our taste buds. (Ketchup is the classic example of a food which has high amplitude.) So including vermouth in a cocktail provides a big flavor bang for the buck. Depending on the brand of vermouth used, it tickles pretty much every major flavor receptor in some degree.

Second, neither of the ingredients I used in place of the sweet vermouth provided any significant amount of acid. If you think about all the different sorts of ingredients one uses in spirits-driven cocktails, you can see that while it’s easy to get sugar into the drink, its much harder to get acid to balance things out—that’s the brilliance of citrus in a sour. Vermouth, being based on wine, brings acid along with all of its other flavors. In addition to balance, that acid also helps heighten our experience of all the other flavors as well.

It seems pretty obvious that when we replace vermouth in a spirits-driven cocktail, we’ve got a pretty tough act to follow. It’s kind of a super-ingredient: complex flavors and acid. In The Criollo cocktail, I had found a way to bring complex flavors together (there’s plenty going on in there) but I had lost any acid that might balance against the additional sugar in those ingredients. Obviously I could try adding back some vermouth to fix The Criollo and re-balance it. That seemed like going backward. What I really wanted to know is what other options I might have for bringing acid into a spirit-driven cocktail. It was time to do some serious science!

Next: Putting Ingredients to the Acid Test

[*] - Vermouths evaluated were: Carpano Antica, Dolin rouge, Noilly-Pratt rouge, Vya sweet, and Cocchi Barolo Chinatto. Technically the latter isn’t a vermouth but it can certainly be used as one and I happen to have an open bottle.

McKenna Barrels On Their Way

Posted in Bourbon and Rye with tags on April 17, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

A little update for those of you who might be following the story of the East Bay Study Group’s recent tasting of barrel samples from Heaven Hill.

First off, Ed agreed with the group’s appraisal of the samples and also agreed that purchasing two barrels made a lot of sense (especially given how fast the last barrel sold out).

Second, the group has been informed by Heaven Hill that the selected barrels have been dumped and bottled. Product is making its way west from Kentucky as I write this. It should arrive within the next few weeks and show up on the shelves @ Ledger’s sometime thereafter. Below is a photo of one of the barrels as it was dumped.

Hmmm, whiskey!

Choosing a Barrel of Whiskey: At Work with the East Bay Study Group

Posted in Bourbon and Rye on March 22, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

If you count yourself as a serious whisk(e)y drinker living in the greater San Francisco Bay area, it is likely that at some point or another you’ve made your way to Ledger’s Liquors on University Avenue in Berkeley. Unlike J. Walker or Cask, this old-school looking store (one of the oldest in California, actually) serves the needs of a highly varied clientele. At the register you’re just as likely to find people buying expensive single malts as someone from the neighborhood picking up smokes, a six-pack, and some lottery tickets. And yes, the inventory is that varied.

If you’re something of a regular at Ledger’s then you’ve undoubtedly also made the acquaintance of Mr. Ledger, AKA Ed, who’s almost always on hand. It’s Ed’s passion for spirits and craft beers which keep the store shelves literally overflowing with treasures, some you won’t find elsewhere. Mention the name of a vermouth or a gin Ed’s not heard of and he’ll more than likely write it down on one of his “lists” and bring it into the store. And if the subject of bourbon or rye is brought up (easy enough to do) and, if your timing is just right, Ed’s very likely to steer you toward one of his private single barrel bottlings.

About buying a barrel…

While barrel purchases have now become somewhat common place, Ed and others like him started doing this when many distilleries had stocks of older whiskeys just “laying about” and which they were more than happy to sell off to anyone showing some interest. Several legendary bottlings emerged from that period, most notably the very old ryes purchased from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and sold variously as Black Maple Hill, Vintage, LeNell’s Red Hook, and Willet. Those days are for the most part behind us. Old rye stocks are more or less gone and old bourbons, when you can find them, have become expensive rarities.

Today, it’s more typical for bars and liquor stores to be offered the chance to buy a barrel of regular product (e.g. Sazerac rye) which may or may not represent anything out of the ordinary. It can, depending on the distillery, be more or less just a marketing gimmick. Even when you are offered several barrel samples from which to choose (and sometimes you are not—demand being what it is for some products, it can be a “take it or leave it” deal), none of them may be particularly more (or less) exciting than the standard bottling. This is in part a function of flavor profiling, meaning the distillery may not want to release any product that varies too far from a brand’s established taste. (And note that blending and/or carefully selecting barrels as they mature is one way this is accomplished.) I suspect it may also be a function of what I will call laziness: the distillery may prepare all of the barrel samples from the same easy to get to spots in the warehouse. Barrels which have spent their lives aging next to each other (AKA “sister barrels”) are very likely to be similar in taste.

Still, it is possible to obtain an extraordinary product through a barrel program. For starters, it helps if you are working with a smaller distillery (though not all have sufficient inventory to offer barrel purchases) or with a distillery willing to offer off-profile barrels. Second, it helps if you have contacts who work at the distillery with whom you can communicate directly. (Are you on a first name basis with Parker Beam or Harlan Wheatly? You’re ahead of the game!) Finally, it helps if you are perseverant, patient, and willing to taste through as wide a variety of samples as you can obtain, not just from the first set you are given.

Enter the East Bay Study Group

Coming back now to Ledger’s: if you have been fortunate enough to purchase any of Ed’s recent bourbon barrel selections (three from Four Roses, one from Henry McKenna), you probably noticed a secondary label affixed to the bottle that looks something like this:

Selected for Ledger’s Liquors by the East Bay Study Group. Whom, you may then ask, is this mysterious (and generic sounding) East Bay Study Group? Over the course of about a year, in various conversations with Ed, I learned bits and pieces about the group. There are about half a dozen to eight people in the group, including Ed. Most but not all live in the east bay. There is no regular meeting time. Some of the members have worked “in the business” but most are just amateurs who’ve given themselves a serious education in distilling, warehousing, and blending of barrel aged spirits. There are members who have committed to memory the detailed history of all the major distilleries in Kentucky or who have tracked down vintage bottles of bourbon from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s so they can compare them to modern product. Another member can identify where a whiskey was distilled and aged by reading the Distilled Sprits Producer (DSP) numbers off the end of the barrel. Other have great palate memories. Yes, the East Bay Study Group are whiskey geeks of the highest order. And they do like to drink.

A few months ago Ed introduced me to one of the group members who had come by the store to pick up bottles from a recent barrel purchase. After chatting him up for a while and exchanging some emails, I was asked if I’d like to participate in some upcoming tastings. I didn’t need to be asked twice! A few weeks later I got to take part in the evaluation of barrel samples from Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna brand bourbon. Ed and the group had already purchased one barrel, all of which promptly sold out. The group was now looking to buy a second barrel, ideally a “sister” of the first which had come from a secondary warehouse some miles from the main Heaven Hill facility.

[The ESBG at work, faces obfuscated to protect their identities.]

The first tasting I attended was held in early February, shortly after the distillery sent a set of samples out to Ed. When I arrived I discovered that there were some other whiskeys to be sampled first: six different 70’s vintage Old Taylor and Old Grand Dad bourbons of various proofs. Several hadn’t ever been opened and had intact tax seals. I learned you could roughly date spirits like this by looking at the bottom of the bottles on which the year of their manufacture was impressed. There were also subtle differences in the labels and, as brands were bought and sold over the years, changes in the DSP numbers and city of origin. Some of the bottles had been purchased on eBay but most were “finds” from liquor stores in small California towns where they had stood on some back shelf, gathering dust for the better part of 30 years. (I suspect there’s a central valley road trip in my future.)

After tasting through this “warm up” flight, we moved on to the main event: six barrel samples of Henry McKenna. These samples had been assigned numbers by our host, #10 – #15, which continued the series the group had evaluated when selecting the first barrel. Since the final product would be delivered at 100-proof, our host had also kindly diluted some of each sample with water, ready to taste.

Looking back over my notes, I see that these samples varied quite a bit in terms of nose and flavor, though tea and caramel notes seemed to predominate. Several also exhibited significant tannins—from the wood of course—but not a lot else to back them up. Discussion was lively but it became clear there was no consensus at the table. Each of us was given the opportunity to “defend” our top choices but in the end, no one was convinced by anything we’d tasted. Everyone felt there had to be a better barrel out there waiting to be discovered. And no one wanted to settle, especially after finding such a great barrel last time.

Heaven Hill: A Great Working Partner

It was at this point that I also started to learn a bit more about the specific provenance of the barrels we were sampling. For starters, while the program that the group was working under was for single barrels of Henry McKenna it sounds as if Heaven Hill was willing to offer barrels from a wide variety sources within the warehouse, meaning they were more likely to be off-profile. (Note: some distilleries earmark barrels for their different brands relatively early in their lives and mange them as such throughout the aging process.) In point of fact, the group made it very clear to me that they are extremely pleased with the relationship they’ve forged with Heaven Hill. The distillery has shown a deep commitment to matching buyers with barrels they really want, not just what they feel they can sell. This hasn’t meant that the distillery hits the bull’s eye right away, but it does mean the group can be confident that they will eventually find something distinctive and worth buying.

To this end, the group had been sent samples from two separate warehouses: one in Bardstown at Heaven Hill corporate headquarters, and one in Deatsville, about 8 miles northwest, at the old T.W. Samuel’s distillery. Apparently the barrel which the group had selected last time came from the Deatsville warehouse and had been pulled for them at the recommendation of Parker Beam, Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, who was consulted after the group gave feedback on the earliest samples sent to them. I had also learned that the barrel which Ed finally purchased had been part of a run of whiskey distilled by Brown-Forman under contract to Heaven Hill (using the Heaven Hill “recipe”) to offset production capability lost in a fire in 1996. This was something discovered after the barrel was delivered and the DSP numbers on the end decoded. (Yes, you may keep your barrel after it’s dumped and bottled for you. Shipping included in the price.)

Though the group had given notes to Heaven Hill requesting samples that matched the profile of the barrel they had previously bought, the distillery wound up sending ones which, while interesting enough, were not on the mark. (One member has characterized them as more like Evan William Single Barrel than McKenna.) It’s hard to know why. I might guess that possibly the notes didn’t get through to the right people or because it was simpler to send samples that had already been pulled. The group would now ask Heaven Hill to send additional samples, please, but might they specifically come from the same section in the Deatsville warehouse where Parker Beam had told them to look last time?

It took another month for Heaven Hill to deliver the new samples. I imagined some marketing person in Bardstown making a call to the manager at the T.W. Samuels warehouse in Deatsville. The instructions would be pretty precise: go to the 5th or 6th floor in such and such a section of the rickhouse. Pull three samples and drive them back here. The manager gathers up the tools for the job: some empty bottles, a funnel, a cordless drill (for putting a hole in the barrel head—faster than popping the bung), a mallet, and some spiles (thin tapered wooden pegs for sealing the hole back up when done). Oh, and a clipboard for recording the location and number of each barrel. There was no telling what the group was going to get. They were hoping for a “honey barrel.”

The next tasting was held on the evening of the 19th March, structured more or less like the first, though fewer group members were present. We “warmed up” by sampling two newly released whiskeys and comparing them to some other comparable releases from the same distillery (both were from Buffalo Trace). One of these, an Abraham Bowman barrel-strength rye from Virginia, was deemed “a winner” by several of us. It was practically explosive, with spicy orange peel notes and a distinctive viscous mouth feel. It’s also worth mentioning one of the comparison whiskeys: a rare bottling of the “baby” Sazerac rye, which is normally 6 years of age. This bottle, which was purchased as a barrel by Sam’s in Chicago before it closed, held 10 year old product. It was distinctly more refined than the regular bottling. I’d have been happy to drink it along with the Abraham Bowman all night long. However, the group some other more pressing work on its plate.

So how about those new McKenna samples?

There were three new barrel samples to try, all from the T.W. Samuels warehouse as requested. Once again we poured tastes from bottles holding 100-proof dilutions. We also poured tastes of the previously purchased barrel so we had a point of reference. We got right down to serious nosing and tasting.

The previous samples, most all of which came from the Bardstown warehouse, had seemed kind of short and ultimately disappointing, especially compared to the barrel that had been purchased a few months back. In stark contrast, the new samples all seemed bold, rich, and easy to love. The first two were notably perfumed and practically floral in the nose. As good as these were, the third sample just blew them away. It was rich and spicy with an array of fruit cake notes: candied fruit/peel and a clean grain aroma. You just wanted to keep smelling it. In the mouth it was concentrated and powerful with a long tail finish, a sign of good acidity.

The group held opinions back for a few minutes more and then someone finally spoke up: “You know, I’m really loving these whiskeys. What do you all think?” Everyone’s response was the same: “Delicious! I would buy any one of these three barrels!” It was clear the group’s persistence had paid off. There were now three candidates for purchase sitting before the group. The question then became: how to pick one?

Someone asks the obvious question at this point: “How would you all rank these?” We go around the table and, incredibly, everyone ranks them same! The third sample (our designation #18, since it was actually the 18th McKenna sample received by the group) was everyone’s favorite. The first sample (#16) was everyone’s second place. The group now knew exactly which barrel they’d be recommending Ed buy, though the final decision would be his after he got a chance to try them on his own. And then I decided to make a bold suggestion: perhaps they should buy both #18 and #16? If, as some group members suspected, these were low fill barrels (as the previous barrel had been), then they’d not be getting much whiskey from them. Rather than risking another fast sell out at the store and another round sampling, having found suitable candidates, why not just purchase two of them now? There was a nodding of heads. The group would be recommending this option to Ed as well.

And speaking of Ed: he won’t be sampling these whiskeys until next week some time. We’ll all be curious to know what he thinks and whether he abides by the opinion of the group. I’ll post a follow up to let you all know. I’ll also be sure to let you know when the new whiskey arrives and goes on sale at Ledger’s so you can try it too.

PLEASE TAKE NOTE: It will be at least a couple of months from time the barrel is selected till the day it arrives at the store. Please don’t be pestering Ed for bottles now. Ed does however have some bottles of his previous Four Roses barrels available for purchase while supplies last.

Field Trip to Anchor Brewing and Old Potrero Distillery

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Musings on March 15, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

It’s been a while, once again. Sometimes I think I get too hung up on making each post some sort of magnum opus. Let me resolve to post more often (cause that’s a good thing, right?) and not worry about breaking new ground each time I do so.

Yesterday I attended a product showcase courtesy of Preiss Imports and the Northern California chapter of the USBG held at the Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco. Believe it or not this was my first ever time inside the place. I had the chance to sample many great spirits as well as getting me some more education on single malt whiskies, this time as done by BenRiach, Glendronach, and Springbank (to name just a few of the luminous brands available for sampling).

I will confess, however, that my heart made the most flip-flops when I trundled downstairs and visited the distillery portion of the premises. Yes, here was the humble copper wellspring from which the lovely lovely Old Potrero rye doth flow. I got to see a bubbling pot of mash as well as a chance to sample the low wine (first distillation) straight off the worm.

Two Quick Infusions to Start the New Year

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Exotic Citrus, Home Made Ingredients on February 1, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I apologize for the long silence. I’m going to attribute that, on one hand, to some fatigue after spending all of summer and fall 2010 promoting the book and basic human laziness, on the other. It’s winter, right, and it’s supposed to be OK to hibernate. So I did.

To get back into the swing of things I made a couple of quick infusions both of which I’d been planing for some months. Both can be done in a couple of days or even less.

The first required obtaining a supply of locally foraged candy cap mushrooms (any one of several Lactarius species though most commonly L. rubidus or L. fragilus) which, when dried, smell intensely of maple syrup and butterscotch. They are most commonly used to make cookies to which they lend their distinctive scent. About year or so ago I heard about Neyah White’s experiments with infusing these into rye so that’s what I set out to recreate.

Rather than ordering the mushrooms on-line I resolved to find a local source. After asking about I was finally put into contact with friends of a friend who were active and avid mushroom collectors. More importantly, they had a pretty large supply of already dried fungi, foraged last year, which they were willing to trade for some of the finished rye infusion. I soon found myself the proud owner of 3 ounces of incredibly pungent mushrooms.

To make the infusion I measured out an ounce of the dried candy caps, put them in the bottom of one of my “infusing jars” and added a full bottle (750 ml) of Rittenhouse rye. Given how incredibly pungent the mushrooms were, I figured that it wouldn’t take terribly long to impart that scent and flavor to the rye. I was quite right. After about four hours I deemed that the two ingredients had spent enough time together and passed the rye though a coffee filter and bottled it.

The result is, unsurprisingly, redolent of maple syrup and butterscotch, both of which complement the spice of the rye. More intriguingly, at least to me, is that it also exhibits a distinct earthy-mushroomy taste. All these notes, the sweet, the earthy, and the spicy, carry on into the finish which is very long. I have to say I am on the fence about this one. It’s a bit much. I suspect that had I used less of the mushrooms and/or left the infusion to sit for less time that I’d have not captured so much of the mushrooms themselves, certainly not so intensely. Still, there is something very alluring about it and it seems to be better after you’ve been drinking it for a while.

Candy Cap-infused Rye

1/2 oz. dried candy cap mushrooms
1 bottle (750 ml) Rittenhouse 100-proof rye
A large wide-mouth jar
Strainer
Coffee filter (like a Melitta #4)

Put the mushrooms and the rye into the jar and seal well.
Let stand for 2 to 4 hours, testing frequently after the first 2 hours.
Strain out the mushrooms and then pass the liquid though a coffee filter.
Bottle the resulting infusion.

The second infusion I made using chinotto citrus from my potted dwarf tree. It set a sizable crop this year and, more importantly, I knew not to wait until they were completely orange to start using them. Chinotto (AKA Myrtle Leaf orange, Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia) is a small, bitter, but very aromatic citrus variety, commonly grown in southern Italy where it may be used as a flavoring element in certain amari and, it is said, Campari. It’s also consumed on it’s own in the form of an eponymous soda made most famously by San Pellegrino though other brands exist. My concept for this infusion was to follow the template for a Rock ‘n’ Rye but to omit the horehound and instead rely entirely on the chinotto to provide both the citrus and the bitter flavoring element.

Last year I tried to use the chinotto as the basis for a digestive bitters but feel I waited too long to harvest the fruit, leaving them on the tree long after they were fully orange. There’s not a lot of juice in the fruit to begin with and leaving them to ‘hang’ for a long time seemed to have left them even drier. I processed that crop two different ways. First, by maceration with sugar which left me with a small amount of decent syrup. Second, by extracting favor in high-proof GNS (Everclear) which made a very bitter extract (most likely because of the peel) for which I haven’t yet found a good use.*

To make this year’s infusion, I sliced six chinotto oranges to which I added a bottle of Wild Turkey rye. I allow the fruit to steep for just 48 hours and then removed it. I then added about 4 tablespoons of rock sugar (procured from a chinese grocery) and let it sit until dissolved. That’s it.

Chinotto Rock ‘n’ Rye

6 chinotto oranges, washed and sliced.
1 bottle (750 ML) Wilde Turkey 101-proof rye
4 tablespoons rock sugar
A large wide mouthed jar

Put the chinotto slices and the rye into the jar and seal well.
Let stand for 48 hours.
Remove the orange slices with a slotted spoon and discard.
Add the rock sugar and leave until dissolved.
Strain and bottle the resulting infusion.

The finished product smells deeply of orange and captures both the citrus and the bitter flavoring elements of the chinotto. I will say that much as I like this stuff, it’s not as delicious as a classic Rock ‘n’ Rye. In part because it’s missing the slightly minty edge you get from the horehound.

So I’d make a couple of adjustments to the next batch, possibly adding a single regular Valencia orange (bring to add some sweet citrus) and use caramelized sugar in place of the rock candy. I think both “tweaks” will make for a more layered product.

* – I’ve actually now combined the syrup from the macerated fruit and the tincture to make a new base syrup. I then added about 50% by volume of a caramelized simple syrup to give it some balance and depth. The results are pretty amazing and flavorful. I am starting to work on some cocktails that incorporate it.

Lunch with Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller from Four Roses Distillery

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on October 6, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller from Four Roses at a luncheon arranged for the local press by Laura Baddish of The Baddish Group. Also present were representatives from Kentfield Marketing Group including Meryl Cawn and Kurt Charles. Kentfield does marketing and on-premise sales for Four Roses in the greater SF Bay area. We gathered at Zero Zero in San Francisco for the occasion.

About Jim…

Jim Rutledge has been in the spirits business for over 43 years. He started work with Seagram’s in 1966 when they owned the Four Roses brand. He held a variety of positions within the company but ultimately transferred to the Four Roses distillery in 1992. In 1995 he was named Master Distiller, a title he’s held ever since. Jim’s predecessors at Four Roses include Ova Hanye and Charlie Beam (who retired in 1994). Jim’s won an array of awards for his work including membership in the Bourbon Hall of Fame and Malt Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

A bit of (complex) history…

While Four Roses distillery has a history which dates back to well before prohibition, it’s not a brand which was well known among discerning drinkers in the United States until after 2002. Prior to that, Seagram’s, who owned the brand since 1913 (or 1941, or 1943, depending on who you ask), had chosen to sell only an inexpensive blended whiskey under that label here in the states. (For those those who may not know: a blended whiskey contains only a small proportion of barrel aged spirit. The bulk is grain alcohol which results in a much lighter simpler product.)

In 2001, a controlling interest in Seagram’s was purchased by Vivendi, who was after the company’s entertainment holdings. Vivendi then sold off its interest in the drink business, a part of which was acquired by Diageo. Diageo eventually divested itself of the Four Roses distillery which was then purchased by the Japanese beer brewing company Kirin. Kirin had been the distributor for Four Roses bourbon (not the blended whiskey) in Japan and wanted to continue selling it there. [*] Kirin also agreed it was time to re-launch the brand here in the United States. According to Jim Rutledge, shortly thereafter the distillery purchased all the remaining stocks of the blended product and had it destroyed. (Wow!) The single barrel bottling was then released in the US as a way of building the brand back up.

[*] — Following all of this? The history of Four Roses is nothing if not complicated. I have done my best to simplify it. A much more detailed, though perhaps no less confusing account, can be found here.

Mr. Rutledge holds forth…

I had already known that much of what makes the Four Roses product distinct involved two mash bills (including a high-rye of 35%) and the use of five distinct yeast strains. The results are 10 distinct bourbons out of which the various bottlings are then derived. These were details which Jim reiterated to the group. There is simply no other distillery working in this manner today making Four Roses a truly distinctive product.

News to me was the use of multiple single-story rack warehouses (AKA rick houses) in which the product is aged. These are unique in the Bourbon industry. There are 20 warehouse at the distillery; each is about 40,000 square feet in size (that’s close to one acre each) and holds over 24,000 barrels. The storage racks inside are six barrels high. According to Jim, there are two distinct advantages to all of this.

First, the single story design results in only a six degree difference in temperature between the racks at the top and bottom of the warehouse. This means all the barrels age more or less evenly regardless of where they are positioned. This more or less obviates the need to rotate barrels through the floors over time, a practice which Jim asserts no one follows any more anyway.[*] I also learned that in general warehouses are neither temperature nor humidity controlled. Thus the environment inside is dependent on outside conditions and under goes seasonal variations.

Second, it means that in the event of a fire (such things happen), not all of the stock will be threatened. In fact, each year’s ‘make’ is distributed between all of the warehouses so that a fire in one would not have the effect of ‘wiping out’ a given vintage.

[*] — In multi-story warehouses the temperature differential between the top and bottom floors can be quite extreme. Traditionally barrels were rotated between floors during aging to ‘average out’ the effects of temperature or to heighten the same in a set of barrels by choosing to not rotate them.

What about the whiskey?

While Jim was doing all this talking, we were encouraged to start tasting the five whiskeys which had been poured for us: three regular selections and two unaged (“white dog”) samples poured to show the effect of the different yeasts on the flavor.

The three regular selections were the Yellow (made from a blend of all 10 bourbon recipes), the small batch (a blend of two recipes), and the single barrel (a single recipe based on the high-rye mash bill, bottled at 100 proof). All were quite delicious. I was most impressed by the ‘yellow label’ which I hadn’t bothered to taste critically before. It had a nice roundness and a goodly dollop of sweetness. However, at 40% alcohol it seems likely to get lost in many cocktails. I only wish it were a higher proof product.

Two additional “white dog” samples were poured to show the effect of the yeast used. Both used the same mash bill (the high-rye) and were more or less the same proof, about 138, just as they came off the still. The difference in nose and flavor was frankly quite astonishing. Where one was restrained the other was effusive and floral, totally changing the sensation of ‘heat’ on the palate. Jim told us that it’s equally illuminating to taste new make whiskey using the same yeast but where the mash bill varies. I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to have that experience.

Finally…

Over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to meet Master Distillers from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and now Four Roses. In the heads of these men (and yes, for the moment, this seems to be pretty much a white male dominated game) resides the bulk of wisdom on the making of American barrel aged spirits. And while small production (AKA artisanal) craft spirits are becoming something of a hot product category, it feels like distillers at these much newer ventures will be playing catch up with their more senior counterparts for a while.

Certainly large established distilleries have a fiscal advantage that most small start up distilleries don’t share in the form of a pipeline of product that’s ready for market every year. But they also have something else: a long history of making reliable and consistent product and the domain expertise on how to do that passed from distiller to distiller. [*] The value of lineage and wisdom passed on between generations cannot be underestimated.

[*] – And in all fairness, the small distiller has the advantage of being able to experiment, bringing possibly novel products to market more quickly, and without risking an established brand.

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