Distillery Focus

Distilling revolution

Liza Weisstuch looks at some of the new wave of craft distillers who have started to grab the headlines and glasses of whisky lovers.
By Liza Weisstuch
You could call it evolutionary. As the American whiskey market grows, new styles have emerged that could be explained with the taxonomic language and logic Charles Darwin employed to describe the plant and animal kingdoms.Throughout the country, American distillers are handcrafting small batches of whiskies that show traits of their forbearers, yet each product has characteristics distinct unto itself, a result, in part, of adaptation to regional conditions and resources. Where once American whiskey was narrowly defined, the players in the fast rising sub-categories do not necessarily adhere to the rules that define bourbon or rye, offering even the whisky aficionado flavour profiles that resemble nothing ever tasted. Some will judge this as sacrilege, others call it thrilling.Regardless, it’s easy to wonder is there a regionalism by which these new world whiskies can be organised? The short answer: not so fast.With whiskey production taking hold all over the world – from Japan and India to Australia, New Zealand and Sweden – it’s little surprise that Americans would hitch their wagons to the stars of innovation, especially in light of the culinary boom that’s evolved exponentially in recent decades.New gastronomic experiences and fresh flavours have become de rigueur. Fritz Maytag is often credited as the godfather of American microbrewing. Owner of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco since 1969, his brewery became the first to operate an inhouse distillery in 1993. The debut release was a single malt that launched a thousand sips. Defying the contemporary norm, he made his pot-distilled Old Potrero whiskey entirely with rye grain and aged it in lightly toasted new and used oak. There are three Old Potrero whiskies produced today.Just one word of warning: don’t approach this new breed of whiskies thinking they’re bourbon’s brothers. Think of them more like a distant cousin. “When you do get one of these newer whiskies, it tends to be so esoteric and uncommon that it already carries a level of interest from the staff at a bar or a store,” says Ethan Kelley, spirits sommelier at the venerable Brandy Library in Manhattan.“A new single malt is either financially unattainable or too middle of the road. When we get a craft distiller who comes in, he always comes with a story, and whiskey drinkers tend to be wildly interested.” Kelley deems most spirits from American micro distilleries “fantastic” and applauds the effort of these trendsetters as much as the product. “The way they’re innovating and doing new and fun things that go against the norm has to be looked at as big. Regardless of how much goes on or as experimental as some Scotch or bourbon distillers get playing with new finishes or releasing experimental batches, it’s still all right there.They’re not reinventing the process, they’re fiddling around on the fringe. We love that and it’s always exciting, but here’s a group of guys who aren’t even interested in redefining.They’re defining a new category in accordance with their own desires, taste and capacities.” STRANAHAN’S FOR FRONTIERSMEN AND URBAN COWBOYS Jess Graber calls his brand new digs “the catacombs.” In May, Graber packed up all the equipment from Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey distillery, a half mile north of downtown Denver, and relocated to an abandoned brewery a half-mile south of downtown. All that is just to say that the high altitude at which he distills his whiskey hasn’t changed a bit. But the long-awaited potential for growth has, now that he has a facility equipped with concrete rooms and 40,000 square feet of storage. He’d been producing about six barrels a week, but with same equipment running 24/7 at the new distillery, he guesses he’ll crank out about 18 barrels a week.Colorado’s storied past is populated with frontiersmen. A full flask was as essential as a horse to negotiate the rugged conditions.Stranahan’s is, in a sense, a tribute to that heritage. “I thought Colorado needed a whiskey, it seemed odd to me that it didn’t have one already,” says Graber, Stranahan’s managing member and majority owner.“There were miners and cowboys here for long time and it just seemed there should be a whiskey for those guys to have that’s made here.” Not only does the label tell you it’s made in Colorado, you also get an intimate snapshot of the setting. Bottles are dated by hand and scribbled with comments, like “Listening to Arlo Guthrie.” In the 1990s, Graber was a volunteer fireman. One day he responded to a call to put out a fire at barn belonging to George Stranahan, founder of the craft beer Flying Dog. Graber told him of his interest in distilling, which he’d been indulging through practical experiments since 1972, Stranahan offered him a space in a horse shed. Thus, a new age Rocky Mountain legend took root.Graber’s original intention was to make bourbon, given its fixed status in Americana lore, but when he stumbled upon a few kegs of Flying Dog beer remaining after a party, he ran it through the stills. The hops gave the wash a distinction and since he first began distilling in 2004, there was no turning back.“We realised that a craft brewery has the ability to make cleaner mash to distill from.It’s just like how they figured out how to make Cognac out of purified wine instead of just the grape skins. We do the same thing by running our wash through a craft beer system,” he says. “Our system is similar to that in that running it through the traditional brew house system, we remove impurities that others distill, so we get a very mature product at a young age.” Graber takes cues from custom. Like the Scots, he makes his mash bill with a medley of barley, all of which is sourced from the steps of the Rockies. Like his American brethren in the south, he uses a classic number four char. But like forward-thinking distillers all over, he’s tinkering with various wood finishes. A recent hit is a Hungarian wine barrel. The aging gives Stranahan’s what could be called its mark of regionalism: at such high altitude, the aging spirit is subject to dramatic swings in barometric pressure when high and low pressure systems come through. The spirit is indeed a product of its outlaw-haunted environment: it’s sweet and come-hither nose belies its spice, which packs a wallop and the lingering finish leaves its impression branded in your mind.“John Wayne didn’t walk into a bar in Colorado and order a mango-infused vodka,” smiles Graber. “We’re hooked onto the imagery.” CLEAR CREEK DISTILLERY THINK GLOBAL, MAKE LOCAL Just as Duke Ellington borrowed rhythms from Africa; exotic, meandering snake charmer-esque horn melodies from the Middle East; and sax licks and piano scales from early American blues, Steve McCarthy carefully selects distilling traditions and methods from the world over and fuses them together to create McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey.McCarthy founded Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon in 1985 and earned acclaim for the luscious eaux de vie he produced with seasonal Oregonian fruit using traditional European distilling techniques. He quickly grew interested in other spirits. A fascination with Irish and Scotch whiskies was jumpstarted in 1991 when he and a few friends were trapped in a fishing lodge in western Ireland. The property had a well stocked cellar that they worked their way through. The single malts he tried were exotic at the time in the US market, and he developed a fondness for the peaty samples. Returning to the States, he tried other small American distilleries’ whiskies. He began wondering about the potential of a peated American whiskey.Today he makes his single malt made from peat malted barley imported from Scotland and fermented and distilled in Portland. He tried different barrels at the outset before he encountered a young local cooper making vessels of native oak. “It’s not highly regarded and it’s coarse and oily, even if properly air dried for three years. It’s not good for wine, but put some of whisky in it, and it’s a good match. For the last 12 years of so, I evolved away from sherry butts and old cognac barrels, so it’s aged almost entirely in Oregon oak, some of which is older,” says McCarthy. “What we try to do now is put the whiskey out of the still into older Oregon wood for two out of three years aging time and move it to new barrels for the last year to pick up more color and oak. It needs to sit in less aggressive barrels for some of that time because otherwise way too oaky.” McCarthy has a hunch that the cold, damp industrial building that serves as an aging warehouse has similar conditions to those on Scotland’s coast. Good guess.The late Michael Jackson called McCarthy’s one of America’s 10 best whiskies and it constantly garners comparison to Lagavulin. He’s doubled production every year for the past eight years and still cannot keep up with demand.CHARBAY KEEPING OLD WORLD CUSTOMS ALIVE You could say that spirits have been in Marko Karaksevic’s blood since he was a toddler, figuratively, of course. His father, Miles, is a twelfth generation distiller who left Serbia for California to export the custom to the new world. Sort of. The next in a chain of expert brandy, grappa and eaux de vie distillers in Eastern Europe, Marko disrupted the steady flow of tradition as early as his teenage years, when he fermented beer and flaunted a Jack Daniels wallet, he recalled on the phone from Napa Valley, California, home to Charbay Distillery, known by spirits connoisseurs for its wines and exotic flavored artisan vodkas.But Karaksevic’s curiosity leaned toward whiskey, which, of course, can be traced back to his teenage dalliances with brewing.“I’m a firm believer that the better your ingredients, the better your product.Distillation is the art of concentrating flavors, so whatever you distill, you’re concentrating it sometimes tenfold. If you’re distilling something that you’re not really wanting to drink in the first place, what the hell are you gonna do with it?” In 1999, he and Miles started with 20,000 gallons of pilsner from Benzinger, a Sonoma Valley microbrewery. It took father and son three and a half weeks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 500 gallons per eight-hour run, to distill 20,000 gallons of beer into 1,000 gallons of whiskey, preserving the delicate flavour of the hops and imparting a delicate floral tone to the spirit.The process required so much time because it was created in a still rarely found in the whiskey galaxy: a Charentais copper alembic, the same used to make Cognac. “With a copper alembic, we can capture nuances, super-delicate flavours and top notes, and not allow heads and tails into the hearts into the main batch of distillation.” It went into brand new Missouri white oak at char #3 in a dry aging warehouse.“I didn’t want to over-oak it, that’s what so much of modern whisky is these days. We used sherry and brandy barrels and were getting great nuances,” he adds. In 2001, when the whisky was two years old, he liked the 124.9 proof spirit he tasted, so it was bottled at cask strength.That batch was released in 2002 and a second hit the market last summer.ST GEORGE SPIRITS THE WISDOM OF BEER SAINTS After a term as a nuclear engineer in the U. S. Navy, Lance Winters heeded the brewer’s call, but soon realised that beer making was only a “half-way point.” To capture and uphold a brew’s fresh, ephemeral qualities, more work must be done. “For beer to be good, it has a relatively short half-life,” says Winters. “To really immortalise it is sort of the goal of the distillation process, to take aromas and flavours and lock them in time by distilling.A lot of things you love won’t change when something’s distilled. You’re taking a sort of photo of the way a thing smells or tastes, an aromatic record.” He set up a 25 gallon still in his garage and started experimenting, distilling various beers he’d brewed at the California brewpubs he worked. He tinkered with beers made of malts roasted at higher temperatures to find which yielded an optimal level of sweetness and nuttiness.Diligence paid off. When he showed up at St.George Spirits’ distillery in Alameda (near San Francisco) and presented a bottle of his homemade whiskey as his resume, the master distiller, Jorg Rolf, who’s widely credited as the father of artisan distillation, pretty much hired him on the spot, encouraging him not to lose his perspective as a craft brewer. St. George Single Malt was first bottled in 1999.Today Winters distills his whiskey from a smoky brown ale in an aircraft hangar constructed in 1942. His whiskey distilling philosophy borrows more heavily from the process of making eau de vie, unaged fruit brandy, than Scotch.It’s smooth straight off the still. The aging, then, is only to impart a bit of wood, and for that he uses bourbon barrels for their breathability and the wood’s sweetness. There’s also new French oak involved for its vanilla characters, and port barrels to accentuate the cocoa and coffee notes of the heavily roasted malts.Ensuring the raw ingredients’ key attributes are expressed is a cornerstone of California cuisine.“Our whiskey more culturally and philosophically informed by California sensibilities. There’s a connection to the way Chez Panisse does things,” he says, referring to Alice Waters’s iconic restaurant that focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. “We’re looking for the best possible raw materials and shepherding them through a number of processes so the best characteristics show up on a plate, or glass, at a table. Because we’re in California, the newest of the new world, we’re in a position where don’t need to be confined by any traditions. We can reinvent the wheel out here and it’s what people expect. Being different seems like the right thing to do.” TUTHILLTOWN IT’S UP TO YOU, NEW YORK Before the US government passed the Volstead Act in 1920 that outlawed to alcohol production, New York was dappled with more than 1,000 distilleries. Prohibition ended in 1933, but it wasn’t until 2001 when Tuthilltown Spirits opened in a colonial-era grist mill in Gardiner, a town in the Hudson Valley, that the state’s stills were first fired up again. The initial idea, says Grable Erenzo, distillery production manager whose father is one of the company’s owners, was to distill spirits from local harvests and support the agricultural community, which was suffering because of Chinese imports. They started making a vodka from local apples and unaged corn whiskey. From the outset, though, whiskey is what they wanted to focus on, Erenzo added. Today, 85 per cent of the grains they use are grown within a 109 mile radius. In addition to turning out rye and two bourbons, they distill a single malt using malted barley comes from Canada.Using two German-made pot stills with columns, one of them twice the size of the other, the mash is run through the bigger still, stripping the waste and yielding a spirit that weighs in at 120 proof. The next day, the liquid undergoes a rectification process in the smaller still and cuts are made. But perhaps it’s the aging that gives this whiskey its individuality. Like a bourbon, it’s aged in new charred-oak barrels, but they’re much smaller than anything found in Kentucky, holding as little as three gallons.“By using smaller barrels, the aging process is expedited exponentially because of the increased area of alcohol in contact with wood over time. You can get the full colour and flavour in three to four months. Then it migrates into bigger barrels,” says Erenzo.The end result is a whiskey with a mature profile and significant oak, but not enough to dominate, which can be somewhat confusing to a seasoned single malt drinker.“Once you get past the fact that it’s going to be different from a traditional single malt, you find it’s flavourful with a lot of oak and vanilla from the use of small barrels and the aging process,” says Erenzo. “We try and let people know that it’s not like anything they tried and that’s what we’re going for. We’re trying to pioneer a new direction.”