Bourbon Heritage: The Whiskey Rebellion

rebellionIt may seem a little unusual now but until the passage of the federal income tax via the 16th amendment in 1913 the federal government received almost three quarters of their revenue from alcohol taxes.

After the end of the revolutionary war the federal government had racked up something in the order of $54 million in war debt.  By 1789 the debt had become a problem and by 1791 the government had found a solution in the form of excise taxes on distilled spirits.

This was the first time the government had imposed a tax on domestically produced goods.  This was especially hard on farming communities in the “western” part of the country.  Whiskey was used to convert excess grain into a cash crop which given the lack of a national currency was a common medium of exchange.

The rebellion started in 1791 with the tarring and feathering of a tax collector.  Followed by the murder of a process server, delivering papers to the tax collector’s murderers.  Tax offices were burned and the federal response was the brutal suppression of the dissenters.

The entire affair can and does occupy several books of history but the end result is that the rebellion failed and many of the people involved left Pennsylvania moving westward and south into what would eventually become Kentucky, Tennessee and the rest of the bourbon belt.

All your favorite brands in one way or another owe their existence to those Pennsylvania Rye makers who fought hard to keep their moonshine.

What is the difference between Whiskey, Rye, Scotch and Bourbon?

6156035_origI had an opportunity to work in a distillery retail store, which is much like a standard liquor store only with a limited selection.  People of all types came along with questions like “do you sell scotch?”  At first I was befuddled, that people could be so ignorant of what they were drinking.  After a couple of weeks I stopped wondering and started pulling out the details so I could really answer people’s questions.  One of the most prominent was “What is Bourbon?”

This is actually a much deeper question than it first appears because it comes right on the heels of the more important question, “What is whisk(e)y?”

The term whiskey simply means any grain spirit distilled to less than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and aged in an oak barrel.

Bourbon, Rye and Single Malt whiskeys are all sub-types of whiskey that specify a specific grain type that predominates.  So you could make whiskey with 20% each of corn, rye, barley, quinoa and wheat but you could never call the resulting franken-whiskey anything other than just whiskey.  If you have at least 51% of rye you can call it a rye whiskey but anything less and you’re stuck with the general label.  Please keep in mind that much of what I’m going to discuss here is based on American regulations or American trade deals with other countries.  Some things could be different outside the US and I’m also not a lawyer or an expert on TTB regulations.

Aging and the White Dog

The aging stipulation is actually a funny bit.  The rules say you have to age it, but not how long.  Another loophole is that predominantly corn whiskey can be sold unaged.  This is where moonshine comes from.  Moonshine or White Dog is a kind of unaged whiskey where the product spends as little time as possible in a barrel.  In some cases this is simply the time it takes to pump the liquor into and out of the barrel.  Some distilleries like House Spirits let their White Dog rest for as long as 3 days.  Because there is no regulation on the term white dog anyone can use it to mean any number of things.  So if a label says white dog but not whiskey then chances are it doesn’t contain the right amount of corn or that they age it in something other than oak, if at all.  Moonshine is also an unregulated term so it could just as easily refer to a sugar based spirit as shown in Pink Panty Dropper Watermelon Moonshine.

If the whiskey has been aged for at least 2 years and contains no other flavoring or coloring additives it may also be labeled as Straight Whiskey.  This can be applied to any type from Straight Rye to Straight Bourbon.  If a whiskey is over two years it gets the option to be called straight, it’s not a requirement but if you see straight on the label you can infer something about the age.

Beyond that the rules regarding age are rather complicated.  That is a link to the TTB regulations on Age, whiskey occupies a full 6 pages of this 16 page document.  The big take away is that if the spirit is less than 4 years old then an age statement is required.

Bourbon

Bourbon is actually a sub-type of corn whiskey, where corn whiskey requires at least 80% corn in the initial mash bourbon is less stringent and requires only 51% or greater.

All bourbons are aged in new charred american oak barrels, this statement requires some parsing.  New means unused previously, only fresh barrels are used for each batch.  This means that some of the flavors and mellowing involved in the contact between alcohol and wood never gets to carry over from batch to batch.  Additionally it means that there are quite a few used bourbon barrels on the market as the distillery can’t reuse old barrels for bourbon.  These get snapped up by beer brewers, rum makers and scotch distillers for use in their own less stringent aging processes.

The next part of the statement is charred, this means that the barrel will be imparting both color and flavor to the spirit as the charcoal filters the spirit over time.  Uncharred barrels will generally do this to some degree but never to the same extent that even a lightly charred barrel will.  Charring is not an on or off process.  Barrels can be charred or toasted to any number of degrees which allows the distiller to control how quickly and to what extent flavors will be imparted over the aging process.

Lastly we come to American Oak, this is important because there are actually many species of white oak from American to French and even an Oregon specific variety.  Each has a slightly different character due to climate, soil and species that can impart drastically different flavors to the finished product.  For a prime example I suggest tasting the Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon alongside its 4 year counterpart and compare the differences.  Requiring a specific species limits the range of flavors that the wood can vary from and also gives a healthy kick to the American Cooperage industry.

Bourbon has some other finicky bits about barrel strength, bottle strength and such but most of these don’t impact the differences between other whiskey.

Tennessee Whiskey

As bourbon is a sub-type of corn whiskey, so too is Tennessee Whiskey a sub-type of bourbon.  Only recently defined by Tennessee state law they have defined Tennessee Whiskey as a bourbon that undergoes the Lincoln County Process.

This means that first off the producers in Tennessee have to adhere to all of the normal restrictions for bourbon with regard to content, age, and process.  The Lincoln County Process refers to a process where the raw unaged bourbon is filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to being cut and barreled.  This is not an exact process as different distilleries will either soak or trickle the whiskey through the charcoal and will do so at differing proofs and temperatures.

Funny Story, none of the distilleries that use the Lincoln county process are actually IN Lincoln county.  Jack Daniels, George Dickel and several others are located in next door Moore County and have been for most of their existence.  A little digging shows that Moore county was created out of parts of Lincoln county sometime in the 1850’s which means it’s not a new change.

Additionally, the only distillery actually in Lincoln county is Prichard’s.  Through an amazing example of targeted lobbying Prichard’s managed to get an exception to the Tennessee law added which exempts them from the requirement to use charcoal filtering on the basis that they have never used it before.  The law was originally sponsored by Jack Daniels and so I don’t really see much wrong with other distillers getting their digs in against a law which promotes exactly the process JD has been using for over a hundred years.  What makes it funny is that Prichard’s has only been around since 1997 and was able to have enough sway to get something like this done.

Rye Whiskey

Legally a Rye Whiskey is one in which the grain content has at least 51% rye.  As explained above bourbon is primarily corn with the remainder being composed of things like rye and wheat.  It is therefore possible to have a rye and a bourbon in which the difference in the content is a 2% change from rye to corn.

I can’t actually name any whiskey that meets this definition as most companies do not publish their grain bill but under the rules it is possible.

Rye tends to have a spicier flavor as compared to the mellow notes of wheat.  Rye also has a fairly distinctive aroma.  Rye is aged in oak like most other whiskey but unlike bourbon does not have the same level of restrictions on how it is produced and under what circumstances.

This leads to a lot more variance in how rye is composed and a lot less consistency across various brands.  Many major brands offer a Rye from Bulleit‘s rather traditional offering to the Ri-One craziness from beam-suntory.

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

First off all scotch is made in Scotland.  If it’s made outside of Scotland the definition gets a bit more murky but some alternative names include American Single Malt, Single Malt, Malt Whisky, and of course he catch all Whisky (no e).  The second big requirement for all of the types in this category is that they use predominantly barley or malted barley in their grain bill.  Third Scotch is aged for three years in oak casks.

When they say made in Scotland they get really picky, it must be processed, converted, fermented, distilled, aged, bottled and labeled IN Scotland.

Their naming guidelines are equally odd.  You cannot use the name of a distillery on the bottle unless the product actually came from there.  This is in contrast to the US where we are presently having our own growing pains with non-distilling producers.

Single Malt Whisky is actually three terms and not one.  The Single portion means how many distilleries were involved in the process.  Single means it all happens in one shop, Blended means more than one distillery’s product was combined into the results.  Malt means that the contents are 100% malted barley, if instead it said grain it would mean that other cereal grains were used in the grain bill.

More interesting still is that the laws in Scotland actually prohibit the production of non-scotch whisky.  So you will likely never see a Scottish bourbon, or a good Scottish rye.  It would take forever to list out the more salient details of the various kinds of scotch and I’m nothing like an expert on any of them but suffice to say they are many, manifold and delicious.

As to American Single Malts there have been a number of them arising over the years and several of them have outperformed ancient named Scottish brands in tasting competitions.

Irish Whiskey

Previously one of the most popular types of whiskey, Irish Whiskey has taken a pretty hard fall over the years.  Generally similar to scotch, there are considerably fewer restrictions on how it is produced.  For one thing most Irish whiskey is distilled three times compared to two for scotch.  It is also aged for three years.  Beyond that, it simply has to have the character of the component grains to qualify.

For such a famous spirit it is very strange that there are only a bare dozen distilling operations in the entire country.  The most famous of which are the distilleries producing Jameson and Bushmills.

What is Malting?

You might only hear the term Malt when talking about scotch but the process itself is used in a number of areas.  Essentially what happens is that grains are exposed to water and then allowed to sprout, this begins the process of converting the stored starch in the grain into sugar.  The grains are then very rapidly dried and the process stopped creating a product with a lot of accessible sugar and a high content of the enzyme which breaks down starches already active and ready to go.  Any grain can be malted but it is not necessary to put this fact on the label, so if you see malted *grain* on your whiskey it was the distiller’s choice to put that there.

In general this provides for a more rapid fermentation than using unmalted product.  Additionally, barley contains a much higher concentration of the enzyme than other grains which makes malted barley an excellent product for kickstarting the fermentation process in other grains which might take much longer to begin fermenting on their own.

It is also how you begin the process of fermenting things like potatoes which do not normally contain enzymes of their own and would otherwise not ferment.

More recently synthetic enzymes have come on the market allowing distillers to produce similar results without the addition of barley to their products.

What is Sour Mash?

Sour Mash is another optional label component.  The process is a bit like keeping a bit of sourdough starter to begin your next batch.  Some of the fermented mash from a previous batch is added to new washes to allow some of the original yeast strains to carry over.  This has a big impact on flavor and most of the best whiskey is sour mashed whether they say so on the label or not.

A list of terms that don’t actually mean anything

Handcrafted
Small Batch
Barrel Aged
Cask Strength
Moonshine
Single Barrel

Ty Wolfe Whiskey

ty wolfe whiskeyThis bottle presented something of a conundrum to me when I first acquired it from a co-worker.  This bottling comes from the tasting room at Skiprock Distillery in Snohomish WA and is only sold there.  I inquired of the distiller about it because the label is a little odd and they were thankfully able to clear up some of my confusion.

I am told that Ty Wolfe was originally a label owned by Mac Donald Distillery which was bottled by Skiprock and that Skiprock has since bought the brand.  As with any change in company there are bound to be changes in marketing and it can be costly to relabel products already on the shelf.

This should be the same product as the Ty Wolfe Aged Bourbon currently on offer from Skiprock.  This is a wheated bourbon, meaning their grain bill is at least 51% corn with the remainder being primarily wheat instead of rye.  As rye tends towards a more spicy character this is a much smoother more mellow whiskey than say the Bullit Rye.

After letting my sample breathe for a bit I was able to get some very nice caramel notes in the nose.  The flavor isn’t flashy and while it does have a little burn up front it isn’t a serious burner.

This is not a very soft selection, it is aged only about 18 months which means it’s not a straight whiskey.  A year and a half gives it some oak but means it lacks a lot of the stronger flavors that oak imparts such as vanilla, leather or coffee.

It blends sweetly, a little water can smooth out some of the rough spots.  It does like a little air to let some of the higher fumes burn off.  Mixed into a cocktail it works as well as any other bourbon and doesn’t mess about with odd flavors.  I wish I could speak to price comparison but I could not find a store that stocked it anywhere in range so I think this will likely remain a regional flavor for a while yet.

 

Brown Sugar Syrup in Practice – What can Brown Do for you?

Another followup to my post on basic syrupsIMG_0485

Brown sugar is to regular sugar as premium is to regular gasoline.  There isn’t a lot of kick to it, but you’re getting a better quality product.

Brown sugar is really just white sugar with the molasses added back in.  This means that you’re getting a lot of the flavors that sugar cane has put back into your product.

I haven’t really played with the differences in light and dark brown sugar but light brown gives some very rich character to the syrup.

 

 

For the test drink I wanted to make something that would pull on that richness but be fairly classic.  I call it “What Can Brown Do for You?”

1.5 oz Bourbon
0.5 oz Lemon Juice
0.5 oz Brown Sugar Syrup

Shake over ice, strain into glass.

It’s not really an old fashioned but it’s pretty good all on it’s own.

 

brown

Make Your Own: Whiskey

Sorry for the dodge on this one.  I’m not actually going to show you how to make whiskey.  Owning a still without the proper licenses is more than my simple blog is worth.

But that is not to say that you can’t do it anyway.  The Mississippi River Distilling company is offering up their equipment and expertise to allow you to make your own blend.  You get full control of the grains, barrels, age, proof and even the yeast.  They do all the work and deliver to you the finished product of approximately 160 bottles of whiskey + the barrel they used to age it.

Their My Whiskey program looks amazing and really brings home the idea of what craft distilling is all about.  It’s not about having a huge piece of copper bubbling away in your garage it’s about the finished product.

Now if only I had a spare 6k lying around so I could do this.

Another interesting thing they do there is you can adopt a barrel.  By law Bourbon has to be aged in NEW white oak barrels.  Which means that for each batch they have to buy new barrels and find something to do with the old ones.  This isn’t always a problem as there are always Rum makers, scotch makers, brandy makers, cognac makers, etc who need casks and enjoy the flavors that the used bourbon casks impart.

Mississippi River Distilling apparently will let you adopt a barrel for $400, which entitles you to help bottle the whiskey from that barrel, take home 6 bottles and the barrel itself.

Sadly I’m nowhere near Iowa and don’t know what I’d do with a 30 gallon barrel once I had it but it sounds like a neat idea.

Distillery Crawl Portland

Ed Note (This info is obviously a little out of date,

This is my own personal route that I travel on my birthday week every year with a select group of friends.

I usually buy the Distillery Row Passport which for $20 covers all the tastings I would normally have to buy as well as some nice around town coupons.

I go on a saturday starting at around 11am.  Depending on the crew and how well we’ve eaten we might start the tour with a stop at the Beaverton Farmers market which is almost right off of 217 and has a fantastic BBQ guy who does a wonderful burnt ends plate.

Stop 1 is Clear Creek Distillery , 2389 NW Wilson St., Portland, OR

A great place to begin any tour, it’s almost all alone on the west side so we hit it first and get it out of the way.  The tastings here are also free so it’s a nice place to stop just about any day they’re open.  Clear creek runs a wide variety of Fruit Liqueurs, grappa, eau de vie and brandy in both pear and apple.  They also release a small batch whiskey called McCarthy’s which usually sells out in about a month after they release it in march.  The part I like is that while you only get 5 samples if you bring friends you can pass them around a bit and get a little of everything.

Stop 2 New Deal Distillery 900 SE Salmon

We cross the river and head to the first of our east bank locations.  New deal makes some good stuff too.  I like their #1 gin, Hot Monkey pepper vodka and ginger Liqueur.  They’re also always doing something new so it’s worth a visit any time.  I pick up my passport here more often than not.  The last time I was there you got a free shot glass as part of your tasting which brought my count of them up to 3.  They’ve moved since the last time I was there, can’t wait to see their new location.

Stop 3 Vinn Distillery 833 SE Main St. Ste 125

Practically right across the street from New deal this tiny hole in the wall is a tasting room for a distillery in wilsonville.  They make a traditional rice Baijiu and rice vodkas.  They weren’t really to my taste, I may stop in again this year to see if they have anything new but I doubt i’ll linger.  Give them a shot, the rice vodka is a nice change for the gluten free crowd.

Stop 4: Bunk Bar 1028 SE Water Ave

A bit of a divergence from the straight line but this is the point in the tour where the drink starts to catch up with breakfast.  Bunk bar is a wonderful little spot where you can get a pork belly cubano, Roasted Poblano Torta or even a PB & J, side of debris fries and even order a decent cocktail.  Their shelves are pretty well stocked, lots of local stuff and even a few things like Maraschino liqueur that you don’t often see.  Their menu drinks are often Beer+ which doesn’t help me much but they all sound interesting at the least.  Grab a sandwich and go or sit and let the last 3 places settle before heading out again.

Stop 5: House Spirits 2025 SE 7th Ave

A bit further out than the next stop would suggest but I have a reason.  House carries a wide array of spirits, everything from gin to aquavit to a white dog whiskey.  Their tasting tends to be a little more varied than some of the other places which specialize a bit more in one kind of spirit or another.  Additionally this is the point where heat, botanicals and liquor start to cause burn out.  Go light here, taste what looks good but don’t get carried away there are still a couple more places ahead.

Stop 6: Eastside Distilling 1512 SE 7th Avenue (at Hawthorne)

Best for last (so to speak).  Eastside has continued to impress me every time I go.  Over the holidays they had egg nog, holiday spice liqueur, and peppermint bark, On top of their line of already very drinkable rums, bourbon and vodka.  Try everything, you won’t be disappointed.  I’m a big fan of their double barrel bourbon and their burnside bourbon as well as the rums.

Stop 7 Pacific Pie Company 1520 SE 7th Ave (Last Stop)

Literally next door to Eastside Distilling is a pie shop.  It’s probably 5-5:30 by now, you’re toasted lightly from the heat, sauced and full of lord knows how many herbs, botanicals and crazy concoctions.  The best thing for you is Pie.  Their menu changes regularly but they offer a majestic line of both sweet and savory pies and pasties.  If you can get it I recommend the strawberry margarita pie or the chocolate bourbon hazelnut.  In addition their bar offers a lovely line of cocktails featuring the best of everything i’ve listed so far.  For $8 you can get anything from a Tom Collins with Aviation Gin to a Bondi using Hot Monkey Vodka.

Alternates for this coming year:  I’ve still got a few months planning to do so i’ve been poking around to see how I might change things up.  The following are options that i’ve seen around town.

Breakfast: Leave much earlier and stop at the Oven and Shaker 1134 NW EVERETT.  They have a brunch menu which starts at 11:30.  Not ideal time wise but a ham plate, gravlax or pizza with duck eggs sounds delightful.  And they have some cocktails there like the French 75 that would make for a nice opener.

Westside additions: Bull Run Distilling 2259 NW Quimby Street

Only about 6 blocks from Clear creek I found out about these guys at a friend’s birthday when someone presented him with a bottle of their Temperance Trader Bourbon

Rogue Distillery 1339 NW Flanders St,

One of the bigger names in the local brewing scene they still make rum, whiskey and gin which might make them worth a try.

Review: Burnside Bourbon

burnsidebottle_glass2

One of the most surprising products to come out of any of the local distilleries has been Burnside Bourbon.  There are a number of whiskeys both aged and unaged.  Everything from pendleton to hogshead to white dog has made an appearance.  Many of them are new and still finding their feet, several are well on their way even if you can’t find a bottle to save your soul.

Burnside Bourbon comes from Eastside Distilling, in my opinion the one with the best location in town.  They are right next door to the pacific pie company which means good booze and good pie within stumbling distance of each other.

Aside from a bevy of fine rums Eastside has also produced some of the best holiday liqueurs and the Bourbon which I present to you tonight.  There are actually two Bourbons here, the normal Burnside and the Burnside Double Barrel.

Burnside on its own is a fantastic product, and I say that as someone who is not a huge fan of whiskey in general.  As noted in my drink review of the manhattan this stuff is smooth and complex enough to obviate the need for a lot of complicated mixers.  A quality product needs no footmen to bring it around but an excellent product can sing with the choir and not outshine the rest of the group.   This, I think, is Burnside’s real strength.  Having mixed it into a few other cocktails it seems to shine on every occasion bringing smoky notes and complex flavor to the event and never trying to bury the rest of the drink.  What makes this particularly amazing is that Burnside is a slightly higher proof than some others on the market so even with the extra alcohol the product isn’t a kick in the teeth.

I picked up a bottle of Burnside at the pathetic liquor store up the street from my house which means it should be kicking around almost anywhere else in portland.  About $30 should see you into a bottle.  Not cheap but not on the high end either.

Now about that Double Barrel.  If you have the money to drop for it I strongly advise it.  It’s a small batch spirit which means you won’t find it in any of the other stores in town.  You have to visit the tasting room to get some but it is worth the trip and the money.  At much closer to $55 a bottle the extra 60 days in the Oregon white oak puts a spit and polish on this spirit like you won’t believe.  I’m getting another bottle as soon as I can but it’s going into the back of the cabinet away from prying eyes and grubby mitts.