Friday, November 21, 2014

Rittenhouse Rye Whisky

They say rye is going to get harder to find. Demand is up, and since it takes years to age it properly, no one knew that demand was coming years ago. It's still get-able, but depending on the brand you desire some are not as easy to find. Rittenhouse Rye is one of those, at least here in Minnesota anyways. I finally managed to get some, and sorry, my secret will remain kept.

Anyways, Rittenhouse is a Pennsylvania-style rye, a throwback to when rye was America's dominant whiskey and the Northeastern states were the main producers, especially Pennsylvania. Also called Monongahela Ryes after the river that fed production during the boon, this traditional spirit is carried on through Heaven Hill Distillery, which makes the rye according to the old style, though in their Kentucky distillery.



Label Lowdown
Cost - $24 for 750ml bottle
Content - 50% ABV (BIB)
Age - At least 2 years
Interesting Bottle Fact - The front label uses the less-common-in-America "whisky", while the description on the back uses to usual American spelling "whiskey".

Notes
-Smooth and soft on the beginning
-Long spicy hot finish at the tail end
-Dry in the cheeks too
-Excellent in a Manhattan

Verdict: Sip It
I think I may have found a new favorite rye. The flavor is deeper, there's more backbone and a distinctly different taste than a lot of other ryes (namely the MGP-produced variants). Rittenhouse Rye is a nice step up mixer from my standby Old Overholt, and it's bottled-in-bond too. That required extra BIB proof helps it stand up to the ice presence in classic whiskey cocktails. I do still enjoy Old Overholt, especially it's entry level price and ease of locating. But, Rittenhouse has earned a spot on the shelf, when I can find it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon

I remember my grandfather drinking the black label Evan Williams Bourbon. Jokingly, I referred to it as "Old Number 6", because to me it had always looked like a Jack Daniels rip off. (And that was a riff off Mad Jack's mule in Grizzly Adams.) But, I was not into whiskey at that time and now I know better. I think.

From their website, the "First Distiller in Kentucky" has their standard bourbons in green, black, and white bottled at 80, 86, and 100 proof respectively. And their specialty offerings include a 1783 Small Batch Bourbon (named for the year Evan Williams started the first distillery in Kentucky), as well as the Single Barrel Bourbon which is released with a new vintage of barrels each year. The bourbon is bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, but distilled by Heaven Hill Distillery in Louisville. Incidentally, the (from what I hear) impressive new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, complete with giant bourbon waterfall, is now open in Louisville as well. Heaven Hill, and Master Distiller's Parker and Craig Beam, have a lot of products, including the Evan Williams lineup natch, Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock, Henry McKenna, and Rittenhouse Rye to name a few. So, let's just say they know what they're doing.



Label Lowdown
Cost - $13 for 1L
Content - 43% ABV
Age - At least 4 years
Interesting Bottle Fact - Kentucky's 1st Distillery

Notes
-A decent bourbon, actually
-Good mixer
-Works as a sipper in a pinch

Verdict: Mix It
Evan Williams Black Label is a solid bourbon. The flavor profile is good, if not that deep. For that reason, if you add a cube, don't let too much melt or it thins out the taste. This aspect has me looking forward to trying the white label. The black label is what it is - an affordable bourbon most likely to end up mixed with something. And that's perfectly okay, 'cuz I'd buy this over Jim Beam any day of the week.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Still Life: Old Sugar Distillery

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. We travel to Madison, Wisconsin to hear from Old Sugar Distillery.

Old Sugar Distillery
Location: Madison, WI
Website: MadisonDistillery.com
Distiller: Nathan Greenawalt
Current Products: Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey, Americanaki Ouzo, Cane & Abe Rum and Brandy Barrel Aged Rum, Honey Liqueur, Brandy Station Brandy, Marc Brandy, and Wisconsin Grappa.
Upcoming Products: Whiskey Collaboration, maybe?

Background
Old Sugar Distillery is a craft spirit maker dedicated to high quality hooch. The brainchild of head distiller Nathan Greenawalt, it began humbly in 2010 and has been growing ever since. It's operated by three, yes only three, friends who make everything on-site. And all their spirits, except the brandies and grappas, start from a fermentation of sugar in one form or another, hence the name of the distillery. Time to learn more.

Distiller Profile: Nathan Greenawalt
WD: How did Old Sugar Distillery come about? What made you say, "Yeah, let's start making booze"?
OSD: Nathan Greenawalt worked at the local homebrew supply store for a number of years. During that time he noticed the drastic increase in both demand and supply of local micro brewed beer. As an avid homebrewer, he was initially tempted to enter the industry himself. But, at the same time he was pondering this, he was beginning to experiment with distilling. It quickly became apparent he was more passionate about spirits and the barrel aging process than brewing. So, he decided to open a distillery
instead.

WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?
OSD: Old Sugar Distillery makes all of its products from scratch at the distillery. In the wake of Eric Felten's July article in The Daily Beast titled “Your 'Craft' Rye Whiskey is Probably from a Factory Distillery in Indiana”, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the origin of craft spirits. We've made it clear, from the beginning that everything produced under the Old Sugar brand is made from scratch by our three full time employees here at the distillery in Madison, Wisconsin.



WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
OSD: There needs to be more clarity. It's not an inherently wrong practice to bottle and sell someone else's product, but it should be clear what is happening. For some distilleries this is the only way they can work into eventually offering their own aged spirits. But, for others it appears an opportunity to obfuscate. There are companies out there whose bottles claim the spirit is bottled and at a particular location. However, if you dig around on their website, you'll find it's actually distilled elsewhere. This feels misleading. It would be nice to find some middle ground that didn't make starting a craft whiskey distillery cost prohibitive, yet didn't allow brands to bottle and sell 'craft' spirits without even needing to own a still.

WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Old Sugar appears to source all its ingredients from Wisconsin. Can you tell us about that?
OSD: We believe strongly in the movement toward local sustenance & sourcing. Unfortunately, a lot of local production infrastructure has broken down/ been demolished/ not been updated to meet with current demands and this is not always possible at the present. We do source everything we can as locally as possible. However, we don't always have that option. Take our rum, for instance. By federal law rum must come from “... the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products ...”. There is no local sugar cane production, so there is no local way to source our rum. All of our sugar cane comes from Hawaii. Though it isn't local it is still domestic and it is the furthest from the distillery we source anything.

Aside from that there are a series of tightening concentric circles from which we source. In the regional circle, we get beet sugar from the Dakotas, Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The beet spirit made from these becomes the base for our Americanaki Ouzo and our Honey Liqueur. Also inside this circle is the Missouri source for all of our glass bottles. Inside the next circle, you'll find our barrels. They are made of midwestern white oak and coopered and charred in Minnesota. Moving even closer our sorghum producer is just 102 miles away in Elkhart Lake, WI. And, since we're talking about supporting local businesses, it's relevant to note we're helping keep him afloat by purchasing more than half his sorghum crop every year. Closer yet, you'll find the source for all the honey in our Honey Liqueur.

But, arguably our most local sourcing happens to correspond with our quintessentially Wisconsin product: brandy. Only 15 miles south of the distillery is Mitchell Vineyard, the source not only of our double-barrel aged brandy but for our grappa and marc brandy as well. And, again, we buy more than half that farmer's annual crop, helping to keep him in business as well. This is what the local movement is about, right? Local businesses supporting local businesses, cycling and recycling dollars locally and slowly building adaptive, resilient, and unique local economies that are an expression of place and of craft more than of accumulation and consumption. It is this philosophy that underlies what we do at Old Sugar Distillery.



WD: While there are others who use them, your use of smaller barrels for aging is less common in the industry. Will you take us through the thought process behind that choice? Do you use larger standard-sized barrels as well?
OSD: The larger, industry standard, barrels are cheaper by volume. However, since aging time is a product of the volume to surface area ratio, to properly age spirits in large barrels, we would have to wait the better part of a decade before releasing anything that meets with our quality expectations. Very few, if any, microdistilleries are well enough capitalized at the outset to be able to do this. We simply couldn't afford to wait that long. While smaller barrels cost more, the amount of inventory on hand and the amount of storage space required are both greatly reduced, making it a better overall economic choice for an operation starting on a shoestring budget, as we did.

We started with 5 gallon barrels. Nearly everything is now in 10's. And, by the end of next year, much of our product will be in 15's. As we grow, we can slowly afford increase barrel size, bringing costs down as production increases. However, not all our products will continue to move to larger barrels. We really like the way our award winning Cane & Abe rum ages in the smaller barrels. It probably will never go into anything larger than 15 gallons. That said, there is one caveat to this rum rule. Years ago, we filled two large barrels with rum. The barrels are hanging out in the corner where they will likely stay for another decade or more before we bottle it as a highly aged limited release rum.



WD: You've got a great stable of spirits available. Congrats! I'd love to know how they're made... (what they're distilled from, etc.)
OSD: This is the basic process for the following five products. We start by heating about 150 gallons of water in the still until it reaches 200 degrees. We then add 1000 lbs of sugar and stir until it's dissolved. The resulting syrup is then pumped into one of our fermentation tanks, where filtered water is added to bring the sugar to water ratio down to a level at which yeast can thrive. We then add champagne yeast. Our fermenters are temperature controlled so the fermentation typically takes 2 – 2.5 weeks and allows us to get up to about 14% ABV. After fermentation we pump the 'sugar wine' back into the still and slowly turn up the heat. Over the course of hundreds of distillations, we've developed a formula for each of our products so we know exactly when to make our heads and hearts cuts. The hearts we collect are pumped into 10 gallon barrels where they age for about 10 months. At the end of the 10 months the barrels are blended together and then bottled and labelled by the 3 man team here at the distillery.


  • Cane & Abe Small-Barrel Rum – This is made with dark brown sugar cane. It is aged in 75% new, heavily charred American oak barrels and 25% re-used barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey – This is made from Wisconsin sorghum syrup. It is aged in 100% new, heavily charred American oak. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur – This is made from beet sugar. It is aged in 50% new, heavily charred American oak and 50% re-used barrels. After blending the barrels, prior to bottling, we add honey to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, putting it on the dry end of dry liqueurs. It is then cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water and bottled.
  • Americanaki Ouzo – This is made from beet sugar. The initial distillation is as mentioned above. At that point, however, the process changes drastically. We infuse the distilled spirit with star and seed anise for nearly a month before straining it and re-distilling. During re-distillation, we pack part of the head of the still with star anise. The first two gallons of the second distillation are captured and infused a second time. They are then added back to the rest, along with enough sugar to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, making for a much smoother ouzo than most on the market. It is released as an un-aged spirit. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 90 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Cane & Abe Brandy Barrel Aged Rum – This is made in exactly the same manner as the Cane & Abe Small-Barrel rum mentioned above. However, the difference is in the aging. Instead of going into a mix of new & used heavily charred barrels, this rum goes into 100% lightly toasted, used brandy barrels. It makes for a much lighter rum with a lot more vanilla character and a slightly younger taste. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Brandy Station Brandy – Our brandy is made from 100% Wisconsin grapes. We harvest and crush in the vineyard before hauling the mobile totes of 'wine' back to the distillery for fermentation. After some time on the skins, the 'wine' is transferred to our fermentation tanks. Once it is ready it is then distilled in exactly the same way our other spirits are. After distillation, the brandy first goes into lightly toasted American oak barrels. This adds a lot of vanilla character to the spirit. After about 10 months, we transfer it to used rum barrels to pick up the caramel & butterscotch notes. It spends the next 2 months finishing in these barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Wisconsin Grappa – We buy about half the crop from Mitchell Vineyard each year. From that we make our Brandy. The other half of the crop is harvested by home winemakers. For white wines & blushes, they press the juice and take it home for fermentation, leaving behind the stems, seeds & skins. These are all collected and brought to the distillery once the season's harvest is finished. We press, ferment and distill them in a manner very similar to what is done with the brandy. The resulting product is distilled, cut to 80 proof with reverse osmosis water and bottled un-aged.
  • Marc Brandy – Each year, we age one barrel's worth of grappa in the exact same way we age our brandy. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.

WD: I've been to the distillery, a while back, and really enjoyed the experience. You guys have a great tasting room and open feel. Other states, like say Minnesota for instance, only very recently changed the laws to allow tastings at the distillery. How much has the tasting room and cocktail offerings helped the distillery as a business versus say if you had to rely solely on bottle sales in liquor stores?
OSD: We opened in a very small warehouse space on Madison's far east side a short time before the law changed to allow tasting rooms. Immediately after the law changed, Nathan saw the tasting room as having a huge amount of potential, moved the distillery to its current location and opened to the public. The tasting room is a big part of what we do. It gives us much better margins on our bottle sales and cocktails. It allows for a sort of marketing you can't get from focusing on wholesale. And, it gives us a venue for hosting events, as well as a space to rent for parties, weddings, etc.



WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? I must say as a whiskey fan who enjoyed Queen Jennie, I'd love to see your take on other styles of whiskey...
OSD: Currently, we're working on scaling up the availability of our current products. Expanding wholesale and breaking into new markets has been the bulk of our focus. However, this fall we are bottling some varietal specific spirits. You can look for Prairie Star, Concord & La Crescent grappas to be released this winter.

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
OSD: Though nothing is in stone, the initial stages of a collaborative whiskey project have been set in motion. If things work out we'll be releasing a number of different styles of whiskey distilled from mashes brewed by a number of different local breweries. It's still possible that things could fall through. But, if they don't this is the kind of project whiskey lovers will not want to miss.

Whiskey Detectives would like to thank Old Sugar Distillery for taking the time to answer our questions, especially Chad Chriestenson. And as always, check back as we'll be working to keep these posts up-to-date with any new distillery or spirits news.


(Images from Old Sugar Distillery facebook page)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Still Life: Millers and Saints Distillery

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. Up this time, it's Millers and Saints Distillery, a Midwest family spirit maker.



Millers and Saints Distillery 
Location: St. Louis Park, MN
Website: MillersandSaints.com
Distiller: Joe Muggli
Current Products: Millers and Saints Vodka
Upcoming Products: whiskey and bourbon

Background
Millers and Saints is a local Twin Cities distillery with a big family feel. Joe Muggli grew up in a family of 11 that always had a hand in making things themselves, even to this day. From a 4 acre farm to bee keeping to grapevines. His father-in-law, Ron Olney, was a career military officer who traveled the world experiencing many flavors and tastes, including being given his first taste of whiskey by a Georgia moonshiner as a young lad. That lifetime has given him the palate and the passion to make great spirits.

The family connections don't stop there. Those two found they had a willing partner, and spirit helping hand in Joe's brother-in-law, Jason Schoneman. It just so happens that Jason had started an alcohol business of his own a while back - Steel Toe Brewing. With all the pieces falling into place, Millers and Saints Distillery was on its way to producing craft spirits. Let's find out more.


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Distiller Profile: Joe Muggli and Ron Olney
WD: How did Millers and Saints Distillery come about? What made you say, "Yeah, let's start making booze?"
M&S: Ron explains it this way: "After years of contemplating world peace over shots of alcohol in bars and camps around the world, I realized I wanted to make niche spirits that I would like. I had tasted alcohols made in old backyard-style pot stills using wood fires and was struck by the freshness of the aromas and tastes. Not at all "industrial". Moving to Minnesota in 2011, I continued this conversation with my son-in-laws Joe Muggli and Jason Schoneman, and discovered they shared the vision. We developed a plan, researched the industry, attended distillery schooling, enlisted mentors and struck out to create pre-prohibition spirits. 

WD: You have a little help from Steel Toe Brewing, but you distill all your own spirits, correct?
M&S: Correct. Steel Toe Brewing makes the wash for our spirits to our specifications, and then it is pumped to our still which is literally a few feet from the fermentor. Jason, Ron and I came up with the recipe for the vodka wash after many test batches. We wanted to make sure we had the right taste and flavor profile, a spirit that we liked and were proud to produce. We wanted to expand the idea of what a vodka is, vodkas are not flavorless and tasteless. Do a taste comparison and you will see. Millers and Saints has a role in defining craft vodka in Minnesota (eventually whiskey, and other spirits), and we hope our customers enjoy what we are producing. It sure has been a lot of work to get to where we are at. All distilling is done with Millers and Saints equipment and by its owners. We do not purchase industrial neutral grain spirits and call it craft.



WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
M&S: It's true that the definition of small batch and craft have been muddied by bulk sales and transfer of ethanol between companies for further processing and bottling. From my experience, the informed public expects small batch craft spirits to be locally produced from grain, one complete wash at a time and distilled one run at a time. This produces slightly different results with each run, and highlights the craftsmanship of the producers. However, if it doesn't say "distilled and bottled by", all of the craft is not occurring at the distillery. We are proud to have "Distilled and Bottled by: Millers & Saints Distillery, LLC" on all of our bottles.

WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Millers and Saints also touts it's American-Made and Minnesota connections throughout its distilling process. Can you tell us about that?
M&S: As most craft movements go, Millers and Saints is staying as local and American as possible. Our grain is from the Midwest, our wash is made locally by one of the finest breweries, Steel Toe Brewing, in the state, our barrels are made in Avon, MN, by the Barrel Mill, our still is made in America, by Global Stainless Systems, our boxes are made in Golden Valley, by Liberty Carton, our distributor, Bell Boy, is based in Golden Valley, our T-shirts are printed by Chux Design and Print in St. Louis Park and our label design was completed by our next door neighbors, Six Speed. We strive to be as local as possible with everything we do. When Millers and Saints does well, our community does well.



WD: You've already released one product: Millers and Saints Vodka. Congrats! I'd love to know how it's made... (what it's distilled from, etc.)
M&S: We have found that a wheat based wash using a specific yeast provides the character we wanted in capturing our pre-prohibition vodka. We tested many grain and yeast combinations to arrive at our desired flavor profile. We first complete a modified stripping run (we take heads and tails cuts), and then a finishing run, again taking heads and tails cuts. If I were a marketer I would tell you it was distilled 30 times (14 plate column plus the pot = 15 x 2 runs = 30). There obviously is much more that goes into making the spirit (i.e. how fast we are running the still, the reflux rate, temperatures, and the list goes on), but after we collect our final spirit we cut it with water with a specific profile. The end result is Millers and Saints Vodka, which has a hint of character, vanilla and caramel, a smooth mouth feel and little burn, and we believe this showcases the craft of craft distilling. For our other unreleased spirits, our recipes are wonderful, and so far, well-guarded. 

WD: Millers and Saints is a true family affair all around. What are everyone's roles and how has the experience of working together shaped the distillery?
M&S: The relationship between Millers and Saints and Steel Toe is like family. That's what we are. Jason and I are brothers-in-law and Ron is our father-in-law. When Jason started the brewery, Ron and I were there to help, and we all pitched in together to get the distillery going. In reality though, it is our beautiful brides that allow Millers and Saints and Steel Toe to succeed. They make it possible for Jason to brew world class beer, and Ron and I to follow in his foot steeps with spirits.

WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? What's going into them? When to expect them? I must say as whiskey fans, we're excited at the two you have coming down the line...
M&S: I like to describe our Vodka as a spirit for beer and whiskey drinkers, so as a whiskey fan please give Millers and Saints a try. We currently do have whiskey in barrels. The oldest being about six months old. Our grain profile is a mixture of barley, rye and wheat (in no particular order other than alphabetical). As mentioned earlier, our whiskey is stored into oak barrels made by the Barrel Mill. These are 30-gallon barrels which allows greater [contact] between the wood and spirit than a more commonly used 53-gallon barrel. As far as when to expect the whiskey, I can only say please be patient. We taste the barrels every few months and when we think it is ready we'll bottle, but we are likely 6 months to years away.


Whiskey put in the barrel Sept 8th, 2014

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
M&S: We've been busy with the vodka and whiskey so far, but we are constantly thinking about what is next. One of the hindrances is that Minnesota does not allow bottle sales at the distillery. If we were allowed to sell bottles at the distillery we can envision releasing really small batches of spirits. Breweries and wineries all ready have this ability, and surrounding states allow distilleries to sell bottles on-site. First, we need all craft spirit drinkers to tell their legislator that we want this. I believe this would really allow Minnesota craft distilleries to show our craft.

Whiskey Detectives would like to thank Millers and Saints for participating in our Still Life series. We look forward to tasting their spirits now and in the future. As always with these posts, we will try to keep them updated with any new information as it becomes available.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Still Life: Vikre Distillery

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. This time around we stop on the shore of Lake Superior to take a look at Duluth's Vikre Distillery.

Vikre Distillery
Location: Duluth, MN
Website: http://vikredistillery.com/
Distiller: Joel Vikre
Current Products: Ovrevann Aquavit, Boreal Juniper Gin, Boreal Spruce Gin, Boreal Cedar Gin
Upcoming Products: Single Malt Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye

Background
The Vikre Distillery journey began in Boston. Wait, wait, I thought you said this distillery is in Duluth, Minnesota? It is. But, it was when Joel and Emily Vikre (pronounced veek-ruh) were living in Boston that the plan for a distillery took shape. A visit home to Duluth, some spirited conversation, and a seed was planted that grew into a plan. Now, that plan is a reality and Vikre's spirits are on the shelves.



Distiller Profile: Joel and Emily Vikre
WD: How did Vikre Distilling come about? You guys decided to start a distillery, which is no easy feat, what made you decide to take that plunge?
Vikre: Let's just say Joel is a very entrepreneurial spirit and is willing to take plunges (before all this he had already helped start an Aids and Water Sanitation nonprofit and a hospital in rural Kenya) while I am a little more of a buttoned up, ummm, let's call it troubleshooter. We were living in Boston - I was finishing my PhD in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition and Joel was working at a large global health non-profit - but, we were in Duluth to celebrate New Year's and visit my parents. This was back in 2011. 


We were in the basement of the Kitchi Gammi Club, an old social club built in the turn of the last century, having dinner and drinks and a very spirited conversation that, as luck would have it, turned to spirits. My parents had just been at a whisky tasting where they had tried a Swedish whisky. None of us had heard of Swedish whisky before, but my parents had learned the background of it, that being that a group of Swedish guys had been on a fishing trip in Scotland, enjoying themselves and drinking Scotch, and they got a little sick of the Scots bragging about how good their grains, and water, and peat were for making whisky when these Swedes felt they had just as good of resources in Sweden. So, they went home and started a whisky distillery and make lovely whisky. 

Now, my parents were telling us this and we all kind of looked at each other and said, 'wait a minute, if anyone has great grains and water it's Minnesota. And there are even peat bogs just north of here. Why isn't anyone making a Minnesota whiskey???' That idea stuck with us when we went back to Boston. So - as the troubleshooter - I made sure we looked into the viability of craft spirits as a business, and Joel did an apprenticeship at a rum distillery to learn a little about the equipment, and then we talked about it and talked about it, and decided, 'oh what the heck! We want to move home to Duluth, we want to work with our hands. We want to actually make something and play with flavors. Let's just do it!' I was convinced because we had a back up plan of just getting jobs at Starbucks if it totally didn't work out. :) So, in early fall of 2012, we up and moved to Duluth, wrote a business plan, and started raising the funds to start the distillery.

WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?
Vikre: Yes.

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WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
Vikre: We definitely support transparency and honesty. We have absolutely nothing against people who blend or people who use bulk spirits to make their product. It's a legit business model, if that's what they want to make. But they shouldn't obfuscate and make it seem like they are making those spirits by hand or that they are true craft. We call the distilleries who try to cover up the fact that they're actually not making their own spirits "crafty distilleries" instead of craft. So, basically, there's nothing inherently wrong with the way they're making their spirits, or necessarily anything inherently wrong with being big or anything like that, but there is something wrong about misrepresenting what you're doing. Does that make sense?

WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Can you take us through the Vikre experience with the craft process?
Vikre: We start with malted barley, but we don't do the fermentation at our distillery. In order to save money on start up costs, we decided not to buy fermentation equipment and instead to partner with our friends at Bent Paddle Brewing to have them ferment a distiller's beer to our specifications. And a fantastic job they do of it! Then, we pump it into tanks that are on the back of our old pick up truck and we make the short drive to the distillery where we pump the distiller's beer into the bigger of two stills we have, which is called a stripping still. 

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That still is kind of like a ginormo moonshining still, it's very simple, and it allows us to do a big run where we try to get rid of a lot of the water from the distiller's beer, taking it from 8% alcohol to about 30%. (Distillation, of course, is the separation of compounds by their boiling points). The result of that run is called low-wines and we transfer these to a smaller still where we do a series of more careful distillations to more and more perfectly separate out any unwanted compounds (your methanol, acetone, fusile oils) and keep just very clean ethanol. 

After three distillations we have a base that is clean enough for using in our clear spirits - our gins and aquavit. On the fourth distillation we divert the ethanol vapors through something called a gin basket, which is kind of like a big tea strainer packed with herbs and spices. The vapor picks up these flavors and is re-condensed, and that is how we turn it into gin or aquavit. Whiskies go through fewer distillations because you want more of the wonky compounds and grain character to come through to give the whiskey complexity. Then, we add cleaned, filtered Lake Superior water to bring the spirits to proof, and we use our little bottling machine to fill four bottles at a time, stick the caps and everything on by hand, stick them in boxes, and ship 'em out!

WD: You've released four products so far: Ovrevann Aquavit and your trio of Boreal Gins: Juniper, Spruce, and Cedar. Congrats! I'd love love to know how their made... (what their distilled from, what botanicals are used, etc.)
Vikre: All of those spirits start with 100% malted barley that comes from Minnesota and Wisconsin. The differences in them come from the botanical blends we use in them, and if I told you what those were I'd have to kill you... Just kidding. Each of the gins has traditional gin botanicals like coriander, cardamom, and angelica root in them to give them that quintessential gin backbone and make them recognizably gin. And of course they all have juniper berries, otherwise they wouldn't be gin. 

From there they each veer off in a different direction, inspired by the northwoods and the flavors and smells and sensations that I love here. Juniper is in the style of a London dry gin, pretty juniper dominant, but, inspired by the abundance of Midwestern gardens it's made floral and a little spicy with the addition of rhubarb (from our backyard and from friends!) and pink peppercorn. 

The Spruce Gin actually does have spruce buds - those bright green tips the trees get in the spring - that we hand pick from in town and up the shore. Spruce buds are tart and piney and citrusy. We complement these with dusky piney herbs like rosemary, lavender, and sage. It's like being in a very sunny glen hidden in a deep, dark forest. 

The Cedar Gin is more reminiscent of stepping into the forest on a foggy fall day and catching a whiff of a tiny tendril of campfire smoke. We start Cedar with a sumac tea, and we add some interesting botanicals like black currants, grapefruit peel, cinnamon, and ginger. After it's been distilled, we infuse it with charred cedar wood for 24 hours. 

The aquavit is inspired by the stories of Scandinavian immigrants to this area, and the flavors and traditions they brought with them. And, it's inspired by my own Norwegian upbringing and the flavors of aquavit and Norwegian baked goods. The aquavit has caraway as its central note, but it builds on that with cardamom, orange peel, fennel, and peppercorns. It's lighter than many aquavits, wonderful for sipping and in cocktails.


WD: Follow up to that: What's the difference between aquavit and other clear distilled spirits, like say gin? Is it just the Scandinavian Gin?
Vikre: It's sort of the Scandinavian gin, except like gin has to have juniper berries, aquavit has to have caraway (or dill).

WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? What's going into them? When to expect them? I must say as Whiskey fans, we're excited at the three you have slated...
Vikre: Yup, yup, we're definitely working on the whiskey and we are super excited about them. We're working on a Scotch-inspired peaty single malt that will likely age another 8-10 years before we release the first barrels (sorry!). We're making a bourbon that will be finished in port casks to give it this beautiful rosy cherry-berry roundness in the finish, and then we're also working on a rye. We're still trying to figure out the exact blend of grains and what percent rye we want to use in there, but we're going for a fairly spicy rye character with a medium amount of oak flavor to balance that out. For both the bourbon and the rye we're looking at aging our first batches for about three years. We're planning on basing when we release them on when they taste ready to us though, not by a calendar date.

We also currently have some of our aquavit hanging out in cognac barrels to make an aged aquavit that I think is going to be completely amazing. Kind of like a spiced brandy. I can't wait! That will be ready more quickly than the whiskey, probably around 9 months of aging.

DSC01336

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
Vikre: Ooohoohoo, we do indeed have some super secret experiments that we are working on. But, they really are mostly secret right now because we don't want to raise false expectations about any particular product before we've determined whether or not it will work/be worth drinking. What I can say is that we are doing some experimental shorter-aged whiskies that are a little more genre-bending, not bourbons or single malts, but something totally different, playing with different grain bills, methods of aging, smoking, and types of wood finishes. When we have determined which tastes best, then everyone will get to know more about it!

And of course, now that Minnesota has made it legal for distilleries to sell cocktails made with their spirits, we are working on a cocktail room that will focus on making awesome cocktails with everything made from scratch in-house. So, it won't just be our spirits, it will be liqueurs, and sodas, and syrups, and shrubs, and bitters, and other cool stuff we make all ourselves going into these cocktails (my cupboards and fridge currently look like a crazy science laboratory of syrup and bitters experiments).


Stay tuned to Whiskey Detectives and this blog post for any future updates we have on Vikre Distillery. We'd like to thank Vikre and Emily especially for taking the time to generously answer our questions. Skal!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch Whisky

The Single Malt that Started it All. Or so their bottle and marketing say. Last holiday season I found a few boxed samplers of Scotch whiskies and decided it was a good time to give them a try. As our regular readers know, we are not big Scotch drinkers. That's not to say we can't or don't enjoy Scotch, we just have spent far less time in the company of the island's finest whisky. So, for myself at least, I decided to slowly work toward rectifying that by dipping my toes into the Scotch pool. Which brings us to the Glenlivet 12 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky.


Established in 1824, the distillery was founded by George Smith in the remote and wild Glenlivet, which gave the whisky its name. Glenlivet single malts are distilled, matured, and bottled in Banffshire, in Scotland of course. Being a single malt, it can only be made from malt whisky produced by the Glenlivet distillery. And being labeled a 12 year, the whiskies used must have aged a minimum of 12 years to be included. Now that we know a little about The Glenlivet, let's get to the fun part: the taste.

Label Lowdown
Cost - $30 for 750ml bottle
Content - 40% ABV
Origin - Scotland
Interesting Bottle Fact - Through this timeless, primeval valley run the icy waters of the River Livet. Its name, "smooth flowing one" in Gaelic, reflects the Glenlivet's beautifully rich and elegant flavours.


Notes
DP
-Fruit on the nose, not alcohol-y
-Apples, pears
-Smooth, with rich presence on the tongue
-Some peat hiding behind the rich fruitiness
-Not too earthy or smoky


Verdict: Sip It
The 12 year Glenlivet is definitely sippable. It's a pretty smooth operator, with a silky mouthfeel and plenty of flavor. In fact, as someone who is not a peat fan, this was a great easing into the shallow end of earthy peat flavor. It's there, but it's not as overpowering as others I've imbibed. Glenlivet's richness also reminds me of the thick, luscious Midleton pot still Irish whiskeys, which is a good thing indeed. Overall, my first taste had me skeptical, but as I kept returning to the bottle over the course of a month or so this dram won me over. Another added bonus, it's popular enough in the States that when I'm looking for something to sip in a bar not known for whisky, Glenlivet will be a viable option.


(Images from DP's iphone)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon

In the lineup of Beam, nay, Beam/Suntory bourbon products, Knob Creek sits on the upper shelf. It's a mid-level bourbon whiskey aimed at those that want something a little more refined than regular old Jim Beam KSB. Whiskey Detectives have tried plain 'ol Knob Creek, and in fact it became my, Draper Pryce's, gateway into the bourbon world. So, when the local Merwin Liquors brought their hand-picked barrel (#275) of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve to the store at a fantastic price ($26), I jumped at the chance to give it a try.

As most bourbon fans know, single barrels are whiskey from just that, a single barrel. Rather than your standard bourbons which are a blending together of multiple barrels to achieve a desired flavor profile. (Though that does not make them blended whiskey, which is a lesson for another day). Single barrels can be great, but sometimes they can also be less than stellar. Fortunately, that's not the case with the Knob Creek Single Barrel, a Double Gold winner at 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Let's take a closer look.



Label Lowdown
Cost - $35 for 750ml bottle
Content - 60% ABV
Age - 9 years
Interesting Bottle Fact - Merwin Liquor barrel #275 with Fred Noe stamp on the silver metal strip means they went to the distillery to hand select a barrel

Notes
-Nose is heavy alcohol, not much else
Neat
-Mouth is dry neat, with a long finish to some syrupy sweetness
-Neat gives a strong lingering burn from tongue to gums to throat, with lots of heat
One Cube
-Single cube left until it's almost all melted is perfection - a little water and coolness to dissipate the heat, letting the flavors come through
-Get a more syrupy mouth feel earlier, bringing with it the oak-y sweet vanilla notes



Verdict: Sip It
So far, I've been impressed with the Knob Creek offerings. Both the standard and single barrel have great flavor profiles. The single barrel is a deeper amber in color and way stronger on the nose, it's a lofty 120 proof. That's a spicy a meat-a-ball! It makes for a heady Manhattan, very booze forward if that's even possible for the already hooch heavy Manhattan. I enjoyed the bottle, but at 60% the single barrel is an effort to handle as a go to bottle. Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable. But, the ultimate answer for Whiskey Detectives comes back to the "buy again factor". And I probably wouldn't buy it again, instead opting for the standard expression of Knob Creek. To my palate, even though the depth of flavor is a little less than the single barrel, it's also not nearly as overpowering being "only" 50% abv. There you have it. Recommended as a solid bourbon, especially if you're looking for something new to try more so than a daily drinker.


(Images from DPs iphone)