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Bourbon Out of Bounds

by Jordan Mackay
October 2, 2015

Christopher Williams, Coppersea’s distillery manager, floor malting grain with a rake fashioned by a local metalsmith.

A common misconception about Bourbon prevails in this country. To be called Bourbon, people say, America’s most famous spirit must be made in Kentucky. Not only is this untrue, but the pervasiveness of the idea reflects the homogeneity of the product as it stands. The good news is that one boon of the o en overhyped craft spirits movement is a new flowering of Bourbon culture.

The misbelief is understandable: Kentucky may be Bourbon’s spiritual home and the source of an estimated 95 percent of its production. The problem for those of us who enjoy Bourbon is that the lofty percentage is produced by only eight companies in some 13 distilleries.

Given the dizzying variety of Bourbon brands on store shelves, this is almost hard to believe. But indeed, these few distilleries are the sources for hundreds of brands. Consider Cabin Still (brand established in 1849, today in a plastic bottle) and Larceny (fl ashy bottle, brand created in 2012), just two of some 40 Bourbons produced by Heaven Hill. Barton 1792, a distillery owned by Sazerac, is the root of another estimated 45 or so brands (the distilleries don’t offer this information, but some whiskey lovers obsessively track it down). These companies deftly use different mashbills (mixes of grains) and sophisticated aging regimens to produce a wide variety of products. Though the quality of the better distillates is world-class, the process is nevertheless industrial and high volume—different brands might be composed of very similar or even the same whiskey.

It wasn’t always this way, points out Reid Mitenbuler in Bourbon Empire, a new book about the Bourbon industry and its long history. “The few large companies that dominate America’s whiskey scene make good products, but two centuries of consolidation have made their handful of winning formulas narrow examples of whiskey styles that used to be more diverse,” writes Mitenbuler. “What was once a sprawling road trip down America’s highways and byways—and through the occasional grimy alley—became a short jaunt through a couple of counties in Kentucky before hopping over the border into Tennessee.”

Most Kentucky Bourbon uses a high corn mashbill for its sweet character, but craft distillers are exploring all avenues.

The craft spirits movement in the US has the potential to once again make a Bourbon road trip compelling not just in bluegrass territory, but in every corner of country. While the federal regulations stipulate some details of Bourbon production (it must be made with at least 51 percent corn; age in new charred oak barrels; be barreled down at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof), there are no geographical limitations. Most Kentucky Bourbon uses a high corn mashbill for its sweet character, but craft distillers are exploring all avenues. Some employ different shapes and styles of stills; varied water sources, yeasts, aging conditions and myriad other factors can also affect the results.

Take FEW Bourbon, for example. “We don’t want our product to taste like ones from Kentucky,” says Paul Hletko, who launched his distillery in Evanston, Illinois, in 2011. For his Bourbon, Hletko emphasizes northern rye, which has a spicy, savory profile, and his barrels age in the harsh extremes of Evanston’s climate. The result is different than what typically comes from Kentucky: It’s dry and savory with a refreshingly cutting edge.

Al Laws started Laws Whiskey House of Denver around the same time as Hletko launched FEW. He uses an unorthodox blend of 60 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, and 10 percent each rye and barley for his Four Grain Bourbon, with the malt coming in exceedingly fresh from a small, family-owned facility in Alamosa, Colorado. Laws takes pride in the meticulousness of his fermentation process: He believes that different grains require different temperatures to bring out their best during fermentation, so he adjusts the heat with every addition, starting with the corn at 200˚F. He keeps the aging at a continuous temperature all year long, relying instead, he says, on the huge pressure swings Denver gets from the mountains to move the whiskey in and out of the wood. After just three years in barrel, it’s already a delicious drink, with a burnished, toffee richness. “We think we’re taking Bourbon—an American whiskey—that has a Colorado terroir,” Laws says. “Eventually, we expect to see regionality in whiskey all over America, not unlike what you see with Scotch.”

Through Bourbon Empire I learned of Coppersea Distilling in West Park, New York, on the Hudson. Just getting off the ground, Coppersea looks to the past for its distilling cues, resurrecting practices such as green malting, in which the malt isn’t dried before it’s ground—a technique that hasn’t been popular in some 200 years. All the ingredients, including the barrels, come from within the state. “My goal is to capture the unique flavors of this region,” chief distiller Christopher Briar Williams says. “Oak is
said to be responsible for seventy-five percent of the flavor of whiskey, and if the oak is raised in Missouri or Minnesota, how New York could it possibly be?”

Williams released Coppersea’s first Bourbon, called Excelsior, this summer, after aging it about a year in New York oak. Punchy and bright, it’s compelling, with a distinctive combination of richness and steeliness. I’d like to see how it tastes after even more time in barrel. Yet Williams and other craft distillers will say, if you’re looking for the flavors of Kentucky in their whiskeys, stop trying. They’re creating a new vocabulary. If craft Bourbons lack some of the depth and richness of Kentucky Bourbon, it’s often because they haven’t had enough time to age. Greater character comes with longer aging—usually around a decade before the whiskey gets too oaky. But richness comes in many ways. Given time, Bourbon lovers have a lot to look forward to, be it in Illinois, Colorado, New York, Maryland or Texas. Even Kentucky is getting in on the act: In the last few years, almost a dozen small distilleries have opened, perhaps creating spirits that will redefine how we think of Bourbon.

A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon:
Laws Whiskey House, Denver, CO;
47.5% alc., $70
Excelsior Bourbon:
Coppersea Distilling, West Park, NY;
48% alc., $120
FEW Bourbon:
FEW Spirits, Evanston, IL;
46.5% alc., $50

photo by Scott Bleicher

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2015.
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