It's rare that an idea hatched amid a liquor-soaked conversation is worth pursuing later when full sobriety sets in. Yet in 2013, when four American craft distillers proposed (after a few drams) a collaborative effort to marry their whiskeys and bottle them as one, they believed the idea was solid gold.
It would work like this: The first collaboration whisky would see each distillery (Few Spirits, Journeyman Distillery, Mississippi River Distilling Co. and Corsair Distillery) contribute 30 gallons of whiskey for the marriage. Once combined the net result would be divided back into the barrels in which they came, rested several months more and bottled. The whiskey would demonstrate innovation in American craft spirits and give its fans a never before-seen sipper.
The distillers toasted each other for their brilliant idea, wondered aloud why no one had ever attempted such a delicious idea, and named their product Four Kings, a nod to themselves as some of America's top craft distillers. When their enthusiasm for the venture remained not only the following day, but for many days to come, they promised to make it happen.
Yet when then the real workstarted, the mirth of that 'Aha!' moment evaporated like mist. The foursome quickly realised how government regulations on shipping non-bottled whiskey across state lines would create difficulties. Their maturates had to be taxed accordingly, and once bottled, labelled according to regulators' persnickety specs. Another delicate issue was deciding how the bottled product would be sold since each distillery had its own exclusive contracts with distributors.
According to Paul Hletko, Master Distiller at Few Spirits, the initial struggle took the shape of "lots of long conference calls and piles of boring paperwork… It's what happens when you start moving heavily regulated liquid from three places to one."
Yet the distillers pushed on, realising with each step that what they dreamed was truly possible - albeit tedious.
"We decided that we were going to come together to illustrate the best of what craft whiskey can be," Hletko said. "For us, whiskey is about creation, about friendship and coming together to do something great. That was our motivation."
With a 600 bottle release, it wouldn't be much of a money maker, said Bill Welter, Owner and Distiller at Journeyman Distilling in Three Oaks, Michigan. But that was fine with the foursome. "After you add up the time and energy we all put into this thing, getting a share of 150 bottles per distillery doesn't account for much," Welter said. "It's about the collaboration, and that it's worked so well says a lot about craft distillers."
Welter credited Ryan Burchett, Master Distiller at Le Claire, Iowa's, Mississippi River Distilling Co., with making the yeomen's effort required to move the process along. He not only received, combined and re-barreled his peers' Bourbon, he managed the regulatory process. Burchett admitted the work was time consuming, but he called it 'a blast' because of the chance to work with the other distillers.
"When we look at the current evolution of American whiskey, people know that it's the place where (drinkers) are coming to have a lot of fun because of all the innovation," Burchett said. "Doing Four Kings puts us right there in that excitement; none of us knows what it'll taste like until it's done, and what we make can't ever be replicated."
The first Four Kings combined 30 gallons of Bourbon from Few, Journeyman and Mississippi, and half-and-half mix of Bourbon and smoked wheat whisky from Corsair. The twist didn't surprise the other three distillers, said Welter, since Nashville based Corsair is known for its experimental edge.
"I think everyone looks at Corsair as the industry leader for innovation, so we almost expected it," he said.
Bottled by hand in 2014, the bulk of the 600 unit allotment of Four Kings Bourbon was moved to Chicago based Binny's Beverage Depot, where it was snapped up quickly at $50 each. Other bottles were sold to Chicago craft cocktail bars.
As much as the distillers loved the product, they regretted bottling it at 80 proof. Hletko said they believed higher proof could have provided better "backbone, structure and power… It was a little too easy-drinking."
A year later they released a rye at 101.4 proof (the .4 is an homage to the four distillers) that also garnered solid reviews and generated rapid sales at $50 per bottle. Yet before the rye was bottled, they'd already set out to marry four single malts that rested in barrels an additional one and a half years. Bottled at 80 proof and sold at $69, it, too, disappeared rapidly from Binny's shelves.
While conducting interviews for this story, discussions for the fourth collaboration were underway, but according to Clay Smith, Senior Head Distiller at Corsair, "I don't think we're supposed to tell what we decide on. But since at this point we've done a Bourbon rye and malt, I think the fourth iteration of Four Kings should be another kind of whiskey."
Burchett said that the pain of learning to produce the first collaboration made efforts two and three a comparative breeze. Yet he said that when other craft distillers ask the men behind Four Kings about how to do their own married spirits, just explaining the headaches turns them off.
"That nobody has done it four years later should tell you it's really hard," Hletko said. Asked whether he thinks large distillers might collaborate on a whiskey, he quickly said no. "The scale involved would be a huge problem, and let's just say they're really competitive with each other."
Smith insisted craft distillers also are competitive, and that "everyone involved in Four Kings is a headstrong distiller who cares about their juice." Yet he said everyone has checked his ego at the door and focused on the finished product. "Everyone has been able to keep it low key; there's been no drama between the distilleries. It's been a fun project."
Economically speaking, Hletko said the Four Kings whiskeys are counterintuitive. All require distillers to choose from already limited aged inventory to contribute to the marriage, and that those whiskeys could be sold more profitably under each distillery's brand name. But in this case, craft takes precedent over cost.
"We'd all make more money if we didn't do this," Hletko said. "But for us, doing this collaboration and being innovative strikes to the heart of what we think the whisky business is about. And the second you lose track of that ideal, you lose the story."