Nestled in a cut of Ohio far north of Bourbon's Kentucky kingdom, the Tom's Foolery distillery sits on private property, next to a residency and wouldn't be the kind of place you'd expect to see the resurrection of old school whiskey. Its owners, the Herbrucks, believe in a style of whiskey making seemingly forgotten, lost in the industrial age and ignored in the digital age - pot still distillation.
Pot still whiskeys, especially Bourbons, are an American rarity. Distillers have chosen the path of column still distillation, trading in the pot for more consistent and computer-automated column stills. Even the majority of the smaller distillers are using so-called hybrid stills - part column, part pot - making true pot still distillation an obsolete art form in the United States.
While pot stills are used in Scotland and Ireland, American distillers fell in love with the column for reasons of volume and profits. But there's a small trend of American distilleries using pot stills to produce Bourbon. Hillrock, Kings County, Dry Run, Town Branch, Ky-Mar Farm, Woodstone and Tom's Foolery Distilleries, to name a few, have been leading the charge for 100 per cent pot still distillation.
In southern Ohio, is arguably the best pot still whiskey distillery in this country, but receives zero attention because the owner prefers to keep his methods secret. For this reason, Don Outterson doesn't even show me his 238 gallon pot still, which he personally manufactured and is fire heated, but he swears by its ability to greatly offer grain character over the column stills. If Outterson wanted the attention, his Woodstone Creek Distillery, founded in the 1990s, could be the contemporary poster child for pot still Bourbons with products in the 8 Years Old and 9 Years Old ranges made of five grains. His Bourbons are unique, quite good, and rare - a trifecta for the modern Bourbon public.
But there are plenty of brands eager and willing to stand in Outterson's place for pot still glory. Most notably, Willett sells a product in a pot still bottle, but it's made in a column still. Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve touts its triple pot still distillation on tours. But as the company notes, the Distiller's Select product is not 100 per cent produced at Woodford's Versailles distillery. The triple distilled pot still whiskey is mingled with column still whiskey from its Louisville distillery.
Not far from Woodford, however, in Lexington, Kentucky, is a distillery that boasts significant pot still capacity. Town Branch Distillery uses a 5,000 litre wash still and 3,200 litre spirit still to make Bourbon, rye and single malts. Distiller Mark Coffman says the set up yields the equivalent capacity of a 12 column inch column still. "When you talk about (pot still) efficiency, this is about the biggest you can get and stay efficient. Once you get beyond this size, you are more efficient on column stills," Coffman says.
With that said, the pot still narrative isn't necessarily all about volume. "It's a stylistic perspective," says Kings County distiller Nicole Austin, whose Forsyth pot stills are a thing of beauty. "It's important that you do something different to have your own mark and your own style and your own voice in the world. That's part of the appeal," Austin says. "It's not saying that pot stills are better, but certainly different."
Austin believes her pot stills have the backbone to stand up to the ageing in five gallon casks. "The richer spirit really helps the spirit to handle the intensity of small casks for a over a year, so that's really important to me for King County," she says.
To that point, Coffman says the pot still helps the distiller keep desired congeners, the minor chemicals that give liquor its flavour characteristics. Simply put, the higher the mash is heated and distilled, the fewer congeners survive distillation. That's why vodka comes off the still at around 190 proof and carries the definition of 'odourless' and 'tasteless' - the spirit is purified. The pot still allows you to come off at lower proofs, Coffman says. "Your advantage on continuous column stills is you can constantly feed it, unlike a pot where it's a batch operation. With a pot, you get more nuanced and quality. These are not designed to distill out the characteristics," Coffman says.
But there is a warning for pot still use, according to Coffman, "The wash still is a beer stripper. You have to be careful how much heat you put to it, because there are some solids in the wash. It doesn't take much to overcook it, and you're never going to get that burn flavour removed."
Perhaps that's why pot still whiskeys are so intriguing, there's a great deal of attention to detail in the process. Not that there isn't with column still production, but Cognac outlawed column stills for a reason and computers inevitably are attached to the process. Pot stills offer a romance that one man or woman fired up the still, hand poured, hand cleaned and hand dumped every ounce. As we've learned in whiskey, these romantic notions are often nonsense, but as I taste the whiskey inside Tom's Foolery warehouse, made from a steam-heated 106 gallon Portuguese pot still and feel the complexities of a straight from the barrel corn whiskey against my tongue, I realise there's more than just marketing spin to American pot still whiskey. Its future is as bright as the finish on this whiskey - long.
5 grains, single barrel No. 5, 8 Years Old
Colour: Deep amber
Nose: Floral, fruity, roasted almonds and hints of roasted corn and fresh baked bread.
Palate: The taste is nuanced with beautiful notes of the grains, malty and roasted corn, meeting sweet tones of caramel and vanilla with hints of fruit and red pepper.
Finish: Extremely long with a pepper spice.
Single Barrel Bourbon Affair Selection, 5 Years Old
Nose: Fruity, caramel, oak, vanilla and ginger.
Palate: The palate immediately offers a bite of sweet corn followed by caramel, cinnamon and a lovely vanilla.
Finish: Medium with hints of grilled corn.
Chagrin Falls, Ohio
Batch 2015-01, 2.5 Years Old
Nose: Vibrant red fruits, watermelon, floral, caramel and hints of coffee and honey.
Palate: Notes of spice, vanilla cake, watermelon and hints of cornbread and smoke.
Finish: Medium with a hint of cinnamon.