Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thoughts on WhiskeyFest 2011.

WhiskeyFest Chicago, presented by Malt Advocate Magazine, was last Friday night at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Chicago.

I didn’t feel quite myself Thursday and Friday as I attended WhiskeyFest and related events. I was tired and achy most of the time. Everywhere I went it was too warm inside and too cold outside. The weather has been and still is miserable here. By the time I headed home Friday evening I was exhausted and my feet and legs were killing me.

Am I getting too old, and too fat, for my debauched lifestyle?

I mention all this not just to kvetch, but because in spite of it I had a great time. Then on Saturday I saw an excellent production of “Bleacher Bums” at NEIU’s Stage Center Theatre and on Sunday spent a pleasant afternoon at Toyota Park, despite the Fire’s disappointing performance. So even though I felt under the weather, it was a fun few days.

Back to WhiskeyFest and Whiskey Week. For me these are mostly social events, a chance to chat with old friends I rarely see, and a chance to meet new ones. I wear a press badge so people will know it’s me and if they know me from here or somewhere else, they can introduce themselves and we can meet in person.

I always hope they’re not too disappointed.

I saw Scott Bush, president of Templeton Rye. We chatted amiably. He wants credit for the film he posted showing Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), the distillery where Templeton Rye is actually made. I'll grant that it's a good video glimpse inside a secretive and thus little-known distillery. The video contains some very good information and is well worth watching.

Bush confirmed that they are now aging Templeton Rye in Templeton, Iowa, some of it coming to them from LDI in barrels as young as new make. He said they still hope to move all production to Templeton but admits that is a long way off. He mentioned 25 years.

Scott Bush is a young man so he can talk about 25-year horizons.

He also said they intend to remain a single-product company and if they move distilling to Iowa they won’t be able to do it with their current facility.

I talked to Bush and several other people about the precarious state of LDI. Several small (Templeton, Redemption, Harrison, Big Bottom, High West) and not-so-small (Diageo) outfits rely on LDI for some or all of their products. Templeton and perhaps others have product in the pipeline, but all are holding their breath as they await news of LDI’s fate.

At least half a dozen times after we talked, Bush swooped in on conversations I was having with someone else to greet the other person. It happened too many times to be coincidence. What's that about?

I had a nice conversation with John Hall of Forty Creek Canadian Whiskey. We talked about how he modified his pot still by adding a short column to it just below the helmet. He confirmed that he does distill his corn whiskey out to a high, nearly-neutral proof in the Canadian style. (I’ve had some conversations with other people who questioned this.)

We also talked a lot about wood. He recently got some barrels of 100 percent Canadian-grown white oak. It sounded comparable to the Minnesota white oak terroir, which is characterized by slow growth due to the short growing season. (Short relative to the Ozarks, where most oak for whiskey barrels is produced.) He agreed that one characteristic of northern oak is a big butterscotch flavor.

It also occurs to me as I think about that conversation that northern oak seems to give up more flavor in less time. I have noticed this in whiskey aged in smaller barrels. Hall doesn’t believe size makes a difference and he strictly uses standard 53 gallon barrels but he has observed this too.

Hall also said he had his Canadian-grown wood air-seasoned for 2 ½ years. That’s more than twice what most people do.

A tip for craft distillers: if you want your whiskey to mature quickly, invest in barrels that have had longer open-air seasoning, as the partial decomposition that occurs during natural seasoning makes flavors more available.

Hall drew an analogy to strawberries. He said Nova Scotia strawberries are very small but flavorful, whereas strawberries grown in California or Mexico are often large but mealy and flavorless. He believes most people don't realize how much of a whiskey's flavor comes from the wood.

Speaking of Canadians, I tried some Crown Royal Cask No. 16. I wanted to be more impressed with it than I was. Brown-Forman was pouring their new Canadian, Collingwood. I like the theme: “whiskey should be enjoyed, not endured.” Canadian whiskey can be bland but it’s rarely offensive.

Jim Beam’s Fred Noe, talking about the new Jim Beam Devil’s Cut bourbon, was asked if the process they’re using to extract more ‘soakage whiskey’ from their barrels had made those barrels less desirable to the scotch distillers who usually buy them. “We don’t care,” answered Noe, although he said it more colorfully, which drew a big laugh.

Also on barrels, Jim Rutledge was asked which Scottish distillery gets Four Roses barrels when he’s through with them. Turns out they don’t go to Scotland, they all go to Diageo’s distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, where Crown Royal and other Diageo Canadians are made. That was part of the deal Diageo made when they sold the distillery to Kirin more than a decade ago.

I’m sure there was more. If I recall anything else I’ll make a subsequent post.


Mat Garretson said...

Sorry to have missed you. I was there, too...got in promptly at 5:30pm, and was out the door by 7pm. Visited with many old friends, and checked out a few new (and new to me) producers. All in all, a nice event, but one that's an easy 'miss' in the future.

Matt Lange said...

Great info and summary Chuck. Glad to hear the good news about northern oak; I'm working on a business plan for a new whiskey distillery in Wisconsin, and had planned on using exclusively Minnesota oak to get that upper-Midwest terrior. Glad to hear it may age a bit more quickly as well, I hadn't heard that before. Barrel Mill and Black Swan should get a quote for their marketing materials!

Oscar said...

Your mention of "Bleacher Bums" brought back memories.
I saw it at the Attic Theatre in Detroit in the very early 1980's.
I was listening to a Tiger game and the late great Ernie Harwell mentioned it so my wife and I went to see it the following weekend.
Thanks Chuck for jogging a good memory.

Patrick Skvoretz said...

Chuck, I had the good fortune to arrange a personal facility tour with Noel Sweeney at Cooley Distillery in Ireland in June 2009, and their entire barreling facility was filled with barrels from Four Roses. Upon questioning, Noel indicated the majority of barrels were sourced from Four Roses.