Dominic Roskrow catches up with an old friend at Makers Mark, and asks the question: “What is sour mash?”.
Dominic Roskrow catches up with an old friend at Makers Mark, and asks the question: “What is sour mash?”.
While Mr Roskrow was in the US he went to the Woodford Reserve distillery and asked them… ‘How exactly do you make bourbon?’
If you have a love of bourbon like I do, listen up. American whiskey is on the move again – and we could well be the ones to benefit.
We’ve heard a lot in recent months about the excellent performance of Scotch worldwide, and of how Irish whiskey is once more resurgent. There have been articles about the growth in world whisky, and even Canada is on the comeback trail.
But one major whisky market which hasn’t been bathing in the spotlight is American whiskey. My feeling, though, is that is set to change.
If we’re honest, few of us really know very much about American whiskey. We have a vague understanding of bourbon but would struggle to name three bourbon brands – and almost certainly we’d include Jack Daniels even though it isn’t a bourbon at all. If we do know it, it’s as an ingredient for cocktails or for mixing with coke. And it’s because of Jack Daniels’ dominance of the American whiskey market in territories such as the United Kingdom, perhaps coupled with the shadow of the giant that is Scotch just up the road, that may well account for America’s half-hearted attempts to make inroads in this part of the world.
That’s a pity, because if you’re a whisky lover then there are a fair few world class bourbons that you owe yourself to try.
The good news, though, is that we may well be back on America’s radar, and over the next couple of years the USA will watch it up a gear.
Why do I think this? On Monday I was invited to address about 40 people employed by Jack Daniels in the United Kingdom and to talk to them about world whisky trends and where American whiskey fitted in. I can’t reveal any details of their internal musings but listening to them speak it became clear that they are once again viewing the UK as a lucrative market to pursue – and this from the company which already does so well here.
But their thinking didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago I travelled through Tennessee and Kentucky and was surprised and delighted by what I found. And the JD meeting this week confirmed what I have been thinking for some time: that some time soon we’re going to have an American spirits revolution – but it may be unrecognisable to all that has gone before.
Like the rest of the whisky world, America is gearing up production to take advantage of the demand for whisky from emerging markets. Unlike Europe, though, spirits makers are not bound by rules that limit what they can and can’t do under the American whiskey moniker. For this reason they’re innovating and pushing out the boundaries. There are three distinct strands for them to pursue, and
In tomorrow’s second part of this blog I’ll outline what they are. Suffice to say, though, we’re in for exciting times ahead….
Signed, sealed, delivered…
This weekend marks a big moment for me – completing the new issue of Whiskeria AND having my new book published.
Whiskeria will be in store in a couple of weeks but we finished working on it this week – and it’s a cracker.
It includes a feature on my trip to Islay with international photographer Colin Prior; an interview with the singer of Sweden’s top heavy metal band who loves malt whisky and enjoys a quiet dram to relax after screaming the house down; ten industry figureheads passing on their fathers’ advice to mark next month’s Fathers’ Day; a whisky-fuelled guide to things you can do to avoid The Olympics; and a review of the new whisky-themed Cannes- shortlisted film the Angel’s Share.
And while you wait for that, why not pop along to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of my new 1001 Whiskies To Taste Before You Die, a 960 page glossy blockbuster covering…er…1001 whiskies (go on, count ‘em I dare yer!’) which I tasted in 90 days between October and Christmas.
Actually that’s a lie. In fact I used 25 writers from across the world, a mix of industry heavyweights and up and coming new talent. I’m immensely proud of it because it’s a varied, informative and weighty collection of nearly a third of a million words, and I even got the great Jim Murray to write the foreword – an honour he has never bestowed on anyone before.
Should keep you busy in the two weeks before Whiskeria appears…
Bourbon gets the Disneyland treatment
If you’ve been following my postings here in recent weeks you’ll know that I adore American whiskey – so I am absolutely delighted to have witnessed Kentucky in such ebullient form when I visited.
And the last news I got before I left proved to me that the rehabilitation of the category in America is complete. In the 12 years I’ve been going there I’ve witnessed it go from an embarrassing blue collar bottom shelf drink to the jewel in the Kentucky crown, up there with the State’s world famous horse racing industry.
And best of all it’s about to get its own all singing, all dancing whiskey theme park.Kentucky distillers Heaven Hill is set to take advantage of the growing interest worldwide for Bourbon by opening a new multi-million dollar tourist facility in the centre of main city Louisville.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will combine a craft distillery, inter-active tourist facility and large bourbon retail facility in a celebration of the distillery’s legendary whiskey maker and the brand of bourbon which is now the world’s second largest. The company already owns and operates one of the most modern and largest visitor facility a few miles an hour away at bourbon’s ‘capital’, Bardstown.
The new facility will be in Main Street, in the heart of what used to be known as Whiskey Row and where the likes of whiskey legends Pappy Van Winkle, the Weller family, who created the Weller range of bourbons and Bill Samuels, founder of Maker’s Mark, all had offices. It will be situated in the old Evan Williams offices. Evan Williams himself started distilling in 1783 and had offices just a few metres across the road from the new facility.
Work is set to begin later this year and the plan is to complete it in time for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September of next year.The new facility reflects the growing confidence of Kentucky’s bourbon industry, which is expanding rapidly and is already planning launches of new brands as far ahead as 2019.
The announcement will give yet another major boost to an already buoyant city. This was reflected in the fact that the announcement of the new plans was made not just by Heaven Hill but also Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
The highlight of The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will be a fully functioning, artisanal pot still distillery, viewable to visitors and capable of producing a range of American whiskey types and styles. The gleaming copper pot stills are a modern version of the same type of equipment Evan Williams himself set up in his distillery along the Ohio River over 200 years ago.
The signature feature of The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will be the façade of the building, which will feature a five story high Evan Williams Bourbon bottle. The pouring bottle will be reproduced as window graphics in the top three floors, but becomes three dimensional in the two lower floors as the neck of the bottle and a large glass in the lobby form a flowing “Bourbon fountain.”
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will offer guests guided, interactive tours where they are brought back in time to see Evan Williams’ original distillery, Louisville wharf scenes and high definition video renderings of turn-of-the-century Whiskey Row. A video wall display allows guests to see how Heaven Hill’s modern Bernheim Distillery operates and how it is different from those in Evan Williams’ era. Then visitors will get to see a combination of the two—a state-of-the-art modern distillery using the same types of pot stills used in early Bourbon-making days.
Displays on warehouses and aging will also be included, and guests of legal drinking age will have the opportunity to enjoy a tutored tasting of premium Bourbons in two different themed tasting rooms. One of these tasting rooms will be modeled after the interior of the Philip Hollenbach Co. Whiskey Distributor that occupied the building prior to Heaven Hill’s acquisition over 70 years ago.
In addition, a large retail area will offer a range of Evan Williams branded merchandise, specialty food products, and a number of Heaven Hill’s premium Bourbons and American Whiskeys for sale to the public. Finally, a “speakeasy” themed event space in the lower level will be available for corporate use, as well as public rental for special functions.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is expected to attract more than 100,000 visitors annually, and will generate a significant amount of state and local tax revenue, as well as creating 14 new full time and nine part time jobs at the attraction. I’ve already put my name down to be on the press trip for the grand opening in September 2013.
More great Laings
Still they keep coming. there have been some fantastic Douglas Laing bottlings recently – you can see what the whisky Shop’s Darren Leitch and I think of them in the new Whiskeria but I’ve also started receiving samples from independent bottlers for some work I’m doing for the 2013 Malt Yearbook.
And blow me if the company hasn’t done it again. I received four samples – a Provenance Bowmore 10 year old and Linkwood 12 year old, and an old Malt Cask Longmorn 21 year old and Aberlour 21 year old – and they are all excellent.
Irish pot still whiskey
One of the great success stories in recent years is the resurgence in Irish pot still whiskey. When I started at Whisky Magazine I specialised in Irish and American whiskey because I had the best writers to cover elsewhere. I’ve taken a great deal of interest in the country’s whiskeys and am delighted by the comeback, particularly add I have Irish blood.
And next week I travel to Canada to hold a tasting seminar on the country’s recent success at the Spirit of Toronto Festival. Obviously it’s important that I know exactly what I’m talking about so I’ve been ‘re-familiarising’ myself with the pot still whiskeys I’ll be tasting at my class.
If you haven’t yet mastered the wonder of Irish pot still whiskey then I suggest you try Redbreast 12 year old. The standard version is an affordable treat, the cask strength version if you can get it is the best Irish whiskey I’ve ever tasted. And if you want to try something premium and special, Powers John’s Lane is another corker.
Lil Ol’ Morley St Botolph, Norfolk, England
Great whisky memories are made by people, not places. And if I had to describe what I do, I’d say it’s not tasting – Murray and Broom do that better than I ever will – it’s bringing whisky alive by introducing the people I meet in the industry back home to a whisky tasting group.
When the places are as pretty as George Dickel, Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark, though, the job just got all that much easier.
A few years back at the Tom Moore distillery on the edge of Bardstown, Kentucky, I met a guy named Greg Davis, a young, happy and enthusiastic new master distiller with a product due on the market soon called Ridgemont Reserve 1792.
It was hot and Greg showed myself and Gordon Dundas, then sales manager at Whisky Magazine but now a brand ambassador for Bowmore, a tour of the site. American warehouses can be seven stories high, are made of metal, and if you want to understand bourbon you need to visit one in summer. At the bottom the temperature is about 30 degrees in summer, but at the top, it can hit 50. So we ran up the stairs, drank cask strength Barton bourbon straight from the barrel then came back down, tripping from the heat and the alcohol, and we lay on the grass in the warmth of the sun, laughing until we were choking. Greg and I have been friends ever since and one of my proudest possessions is a signed bottle with the words “you were here before the brand was even the market place and you are always welcome in my distillery.”
So meeting up with Greg on my last day was always a hope. He’s now master distiller at Maker’s Mark, anither pretty distillery only this time at Loretto, Kentucky, a Catholic community where statues of Our Lady decorate the gardens and picket fences keep the thoroughbred horses penned. And where the statues often sits in bath tubs – though my fellow journalists are cynical about my explanation why.
But it’s true because Maker’s figurehead Bill Samuels told me and he would never make stuff up or exaggerate.
The sun is shining – as it must here – and sure enough, Greg joins our party. For me, that’s job done and the trip’s complete – and time’s running out anyway.
Just time for a quick visit to Beam and a chance to say hello to Fred Noe. With several new products on the way and the distillery being expanded significantly to accommodate a full visitor experience, nowhere epitomises what’s happening in Kentucky more than this site. Much as I love visiting the State, until a couple of years back little changed here and pickings for a journalist were slim.
Not any more – with the world of whisky opening up new territories by the week the distillers here are on the move and Kentucky is as vibrant and dynamic as anywhere else. It’s a building site and it’s producing great new whiskeys, though the downside is we’re not going to see them in Europe any time soon.
I have to leave mid tour, along with my four new Israeli friends, and the one downer on the trip that they don’t make it airside to share one last beer. Turns out their Newark flight is too delayed for them to leave Louisville so they return to the trip. I love going home but sitting in a soulless airport in Louisville or on Islay when I don’t know when I’ll be back is always a tough gig for me. Hard leaving a part of your heart anywhere.
Great group, great whiskey, great times.
I’m outta here…
Coming next: No more smoke and mirrors! So much for the sentimental stuff, now read my problem with American whiskey and the people who try to define it. I guess I ought to do something objective!!
Read it here this afternoon…
Lexington, Kentucky, Monday April 23
Nobody does racing quite like Kentucky, and with two weeks to go until the world-famous Derby, you can sense the excitement.
Our journey up from Tennessee lasts about four hours and we head to Keeneland, one of America’s prettiest race tracks. We are guests of the club so we wear formal clothing – ties and jackets for the men, dresses for the women – lunch in the club room and get to join the horses in the parade paddock and view one race from trackside in the winners’ enclosure before having our photograph taken with the winning jockey. It’s an amazing experience and to cap it all I win $50. An altogether amazing Kentucky experience.
Our drive to Wild Turkey takes us through some of America’s wealthiest regions, as wealthy as Beverley Hills. We pass the property where the former ambassador to London lives and where the Queen stays when visiting her race horses. The properties are vast, with beautiful galloping on perfectly kept meadows. These are the breeding grounds for the world’s best horses, their bones strengthened by grass enriched by the very same nutrients that make for great bourbon.
To reach the new Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceberg you cross a unique S-shaped bridge which crosses the Kentucky River. Down to the right is the old Wild Turkey distillery, looking old and tired. Up to the left, only half a mile away, is the new distillery, and we’re met in the driveway by the legendary Jimmy Russell, who takes us on a tour, leads us through a tasting and joins us for dinner in the evening.
The new plant is capable of doubling the capacity of Wild Turkey to close to 50 million litres a year. Twenty huge fermenters are the main difference between the old and new properties, and Russell says he has settled well in to the new environment. and the biggest change product-wise is the successful launch of Wild Turkey 81, a 40.5% abv version of the famous Wild Turkey 101, introduced because many bars in America won’t stock the stronger whiskey.
“What the new distillery does is give us the chance to put Wild Turkey back at the front of bourbon,” Russell says later. “We’ve got the support which we’ve wanted for a long time.”
Dinner is at the Holly Hill Inn, one of Kentucky’s most exclusive restaurants. Here we’re joined by 12 craft distillers who set up stands so we can sample their whiskeys and then they join us for dinner. I dine with Jimmy Russell and his delightful wife.
And the new whiskeys? Many of them are too young and are works in progress but there is some fine rye and my favourite of the evening is a whisky with grain dried by peat, beech and cherry wood so that it has a fragrant incense-like smokiness. Exciting time.
It’s another long day but a good one.
I admit that before yesterday Tennessee was, for me, no more than a curtain raiser for the real business up in Kentucky. But wow, what a first day!
Tennessee is stunning. Forestry imposes itself on you like no other place I know, the tall trees lining the roads with an intensity that is almost overwhelming, every hill and valley packed tight with foliage. Rivers cut through the landscape, their banks lined with fishermen, the waters flowing in to lakes so that you feel you are lost in the heart of Southern America. Everywhere you look nature is in control, and man exists in its grasp, little wooden shacks hugging nature so that even the pick up trucks are dwarfed by the enormity of the woodland. It’s breath taking.
And in the middle of it all is the George Dickel distillery, arguably whisky’s best kept secret. In fact it’s criminal that Diageo hasn’t done more with this brand.
It’s a small distillery – or relatively anyway – and it makes Tennessee whiskey, which is distinct to bourbon, the difference being that the new spirit is dribbled through ten feet of maplewood charcoal, taking seven days to pass though before being collected. And it’s every bit as pretty here as Maker’s or Woodford Reserve is in Kentucky.
Our lunch is superb – deep fried chicken, corn on the cob, green beans. Traditional Southern food served in an ideal Tennessee setting while wild turkeys strut around the estate.
The whole distillery tour’s a treat but the highlight comes when we discuss security of the maturation warehouses high up on the hill.
“We have 24 hour security but anyway you wouldn’t want to go up there off the path once it gets warm,” explains master distiller John Lunn. “We have a real issue with rattlesnakes.”
I’ve been to Jack Daniel’s three times now but this is the first time I’ve been when it’s producing and it’s the first time I’ve had the delightfully named Chambliss Fewell as a guide. Mr Jack would have been proud. Chambliss and the distillery puts on a metaphorical firestorm for us, and the afternoon and evening turn out to be up there with my best American whiskey experiences.
The tour starts conventionally enough but Chambliss turns out to be in playful mood and boy does he deliver a tour. At Jack they spray the maplewood they burn to make the charcoal for filtering with 140 proof new make Jack ‘white dog’ – so Chambliss takes the cylinder containing the spirit and sprays it on our hands so we can taste it. We’re in money can’t buy territory.
More than 250 bags of charcoal fill each 10 feet deep container and the new spirit is dribbled drop by drop on to it. It’s an incredibly slow drip process and while there may be more than 70 containers doing the job, it defies belief that 100 million litres pass through charcoal this way each year.
And if you want statistics here’s one for you – Jack can produce 120 gallons of spirit a minute. That’s 540 litres. More than 30,000 litres an hour. Which means that in three hours – the time of an average American Football match – Jack produces more than Edradour does in a year.
If that appals you then it shouldn’t. American whiskey has even more exacting standards than Scotland does, and Jack is produced to the exact standards that everyone else in Tennessee and Kentucky does. The fact that they manage to produce, cask and mature 100 million litres a year of spirit should be admired and respected.
Chambliss is as good a tour guide as you’ll find anywhere, but master distiller Jeff Arnett raises the game again with a superb dissection of his distillery’s whiskeys. Single Barrel Jack is great whiskey, by anyone’s standards. The surprise of the night, though, is the new Jack honey liqueur – not my cup of tea at all, but a beautifully crafted product bursting with honey, pecan and hazelnut and not over-cloying at all.
Our evening ends with a meal of catfish and pulled pork and music by the excellent Kacey Smith. Years ago I used to watch acts in Northern working men’s clubs and was constantly astounded by the standard there, often unrecognised. Kacey Smith reminded me of those places. I don’t know how she fits in to the Nashville country picture but she sings like an angel, has her own CD and, accompanied by just one very talented musician who plays guitar and mandolin, performed with aplomb in the most difficult of circumstances. Listening to her while drinking Single Barrel after a totally satisfying day is as good as it gets. Check out her website or her Android app.
Great, great day. Next stop, Kentucky. Yee, and verily ha!
Nashville Tennessee, Saturdsay April 21 8am
The first time I came to Nashville I was with a group of your bartenders most of whom had never been to America before and were very excited.
So imagine how they felt when they arrived in the Nashville arrivals hall and the first person they saw was the legendary Ron Jeremy.
If at this point you’re saying ‘Ron who?’ then may I suggest that you are female, gay, or a liar.
Ron Jeremy is the stocky and hairy porn star who has appeared in more hardcore sex films than just about anyone else in the world, becoming a superstar more because of, rather than despite, the fact he is nothing special to look at. The reason? Because through his actions millions of men – and it will be millions – got the idea that if he could pull a stunning leonine Amazon goddess with a figure to die for, there was nothing to stop them doing the same.
Anyway, I digress. Nashville is disappointingly quiet compared to that visit, but still a welcome relief after the soulless three hours I’ve just spent in the airport in Minneapolis St Paul’s. Big, dull and depressing, it’s the epitome of the modern international American airport. In fact it is one of life’s greatest ironies that American airports are lifeless impersonal places where you have to walk half a mile to grab a beer and the only food on offer is a burger or chicken wings with some chill sauce chucked in, or if you’re lucky an Asian bland out, and yet you can go to airports in Arabic and Muslim countries and they have amazing duty free shops, a great choice of restaurants and some kick-ass bars.
Although admittedly, no Ron Jeremy.
I’m here to write about American whiskey and to film the master distillers who make it for a series of short films to run on the The W Club site.
We’re in a very wet Nashville right now, six hours behind the United Kingdom, so it’s breakfast in the next hour and then we’re off to George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee today.
Over the next few days I’ll be visiting eight distilleries, a cooperage and the Oscar Getz Museum, where the history of bourbon is on display. I’ll be tweeting regularly and blogging here, hopefully on a daily basis, depending on internet connection.
And of course I’ll be reporting back on everything news worthy that happens. Although I’m not expecting any more porn stars.
What I liked this week
The next issue of Whiskeria
We’ve been working hard on a new issue of Whiskeria and it’ll be hitting the stores some time around mid May – and it’s shaping up to be a cracker.
There’s a feature on our trip to Islay with international photographer Colin Prior, an interview with the whisky-loving lead singer of Swedish heavy metal band In Flames, fatherly advice and whisky picks for Father’s Day and what to do in Britain if you’re not interested in The Olympics. There’s also a review of Ken Loach’s whisky-basd film The Angel’s Share.
The Angel’s Share
I was invited to a press screening of Ken Loach’s new film and attended with national journalists from the likes of Heat, Empire, The Telegraph. Reviews are embargoed at this point – it comes out in June – but suffice to say it will do the whisky industry no harm and it’s a delight seeing a whisky colleague in action – in this case Charlie MacLean. A review will appear here once a date is green-lighted.
New Glenkeir Treasures
One of the great aspects of The Whisky Shop offering is the opportunity to taste exclusive whiskies in store before purchasing and then buy samples in 10cl, 20cl or 50cl bottles, making quite rare whisky accessible to even the modest pocket.
The whiskies are specially selected for us and are filled in to casks in the shop, and they are uniformly excellent. The arrival of a new Treasure is always a special event and doesn’t happen that often.
The latest additions are an Isle of Jura 19 year old and a Highland Park 17 year old. The former is an oddball whisky,a subtle mix of rapier fresh and clean citrus flavours and a surprisingly subtle and sophisticated taste. The Highland Park is a treat but takes there malt in to new territory, dispensing with the balanced all rounder characteristics normally associated with the whisky and focusing on a gritty Highland taste with grape and gooseberry in the mix.
BenRiach continues to delight and amaze and the latest batch of samples are a mix of sherry casks offerings from the mid 70s and light bourbon fresh ones from the 80s. There are a couple of peaty ones there and one or two of the very oldest have a delicious rich menthol flavour …stunning.
I’m off to Tennessee and Kentucky for six days to interview the master distillers about American whiskey for a new video W Club series starting in May. The idea is to ask the people who make it to talk about one aspect of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. I’ll be visiting Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Maker’s Mark, seeing the new facilities at Beam and the new distillery at Wild Turkey, visiting George Dickel for the first time, and going to what is described as the Bulleit Distillery even though there isn’t one.
All will no doubt be revealed. I am flying on the day the great Southern musician Levon Helm of The Band has died. I was a big fan and his death will throw a dark cloud over the visit.
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