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Thursday, April 03, 2008
Two Artisan Distillers
If you know me, you know I have a taste for whisky. My palate is slowly (ever so slowly and with much repetitive training) being refined and, more and more, I'm learning what I like and what I don't like. I have an affinity for Scotch, particularly two distilleries from the lowlands (Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan) and a few Highland and Speyside gems. I haven't, however, quite found my love for American whiskey...yet. But times, they are a-changing (I think there could be flirtatious tendencies buried deep down).
Before I get into that though, I think it's important to make sure we are all on the same page. Whisky or whiskey, however you choose to spell it, includes Scotch, bourbon, rye, and Irish whiskey. It can be made with all kinds of grains, from barley to corn to rye, and aged under a whole variety of different circumstances, but always in wood.
Anything labeled Scotch has to be distilled in Scotland and aged a minimum of 3 years in oak casks. Most single malts are aged 8 to 10 years, which means that you have to guess what the market is going to be doing, and what people are going to be into, 10 years before it actually happens.
Bourbon, rye, and corn whiskey are all American whiskeys. They each have different regulations. Bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51% corn and aged in new American charred oak barrels; rye must be at least 51% rye; and corn whiskey must be made with at least 80% corn mash. As far as I can tell there are no aging regulations, which means that American producers can do some really interesting things, and have a lot more freedom to react to the market. Add that to the fact that there is a less rigid expectation of what American whiskey is anyway, and people here are more open to trying different things (in my Scottish husband's opinion anyway).
Last weekend I had the opportunity to sample the wares of two new artisan distillers: Tuthilltown, based in upstate New York and High West, which is based in up-and-coming Park City, Utah.
Tuthilltown's variety of spirits and beautifully packaged bottles (which look like apothecary bottles that are sealed with a big dollop of wax) beg you to pull one off the shelf. Founded in 2003 by Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, the artisan distillery is the first in New York since prohibition.
Their Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey is basically what I would consider moonshine, an unaged bourbon made with 100% corn. The difference is that this has been distilled for flavor rather than strength. This ain't no firewater, it's smooth as a baby's butt, crystal clear and clean with a distinctive corny flavor.
This same corn whiskey is the foundation for Hudson Baby Bourbon which is matured for 4 months in small, charred new American oak barrels (perhaps quarter casks?). The smaller the barrel the more the whiskey comes in contact with the wood, giving it the character of the barrel. This tasted woody, smoky, had more of an edge. Surprisingly, it was not nearly as smooth as the raw whiskey, and had a very deep color, like burnt amber.
My favorite had to be the Hudson Four Grain Bourbon. This one, made with corn, rye, wheat and malted barley, had more depth and character than the Baby Bourbon. It was sweet and smooth.
Ok, yum. I think rye whiskey, and perhaps even more specifically, High West's rye whiskey could be my turning point to actually liking something other than Scotch.
High West is brand-spankin-new. They have one whiskey, the rye, and one vodka. The distillery was started by a Californian named David Perkins, who is actually a chemist by training. The distillery, along with a tasting saloon, is based in historic buildings right on the main street of Park City. So if you're in the chair lift line and the line gets backed up into town, you end up standing right in front of the windows and watching the distillery operate.
Their Rendezvous Rye Whiskey is non-chill filtered, and it's really smooth with a bit of spice and honey. I highly recommend it.
Currently, it's really hard to get either of these brands unless you are in their state of origin. But the folks at Tuthilltown promised that we'd be able to find their gorgeous little bottles at The Jug Shop in San Francisco by mid-summer. And apparently K&L Wine Merchants just picked up High West and will be carrying their wares soon. I'm keeping my eyes out for both of them.
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