|Chattanooga Whiskey Co distiller Grant McCracken|
Watch for my story about this phenomenon in an upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate.
Significant increases in production capacity are a big deal for American whiskey, but they aren't the only exciting development, or even perhaps the most exciting one. All across America, people are setting up small stills (let's say fewer than 500 gallons) and doing interesting things with them. Case in point: Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
|The current NDP range.|
A year or so ago they hired Grant McCracken, former head brewer and researcher at Sam Adams Boston Beer Company as their distiller. They gave him a tiny (100 gallon) still to play with. Here is what he has been doing with it.
"One thing our guests are surprised to find out when they tour the Stillhouse, our research and development micro-distillery, is that nearly every one of these barrels holds a different whiskey recipe. Why not make the same thing every day? Well, it’s not as much fun for us…or you."
Those guests also may not realize that all of the flavor in a whiskey distillate is created during fermentation, the part of the process that is very similar to brewing beer. The still concentrates good flavors and takes out some of the bad ones, but it doesn't add any. The barrel adds flavor, of course, but that comes later.
"Eventually we’ll release many different whiskies from the micro distillery - all with different ingredients and profiles. So far, we’ve experimented with around 5 different varieties of corn, 40 different malted grains, 15 strains of yeast and a few different mashing and distillation techniques. Most of the recipes we’ve made are in fact bourbon, yet all of these different ingredients and techniques give our whiskies a wide range of profiles. Sometimes the difference is slight, other times it’s overt. In any case, it makes the process of tasting, selecting and blending extremely challenging, a little confusing and…exhilarating."
The oldest whiskeys from Grant's still aren't even a year old yet, so we're a few years away from tasting them in their final form, but it's good to see this kind of imagination and creativity at work. This is what the craft distilling movement should be about and not just standard bourbon and rye production on a slightly smaller scale.
"Every time you sample a barrel, it’s kind of like getting a post card; the barrel tells you where it's been since it last said 'hello.' Sometimes where they’re at is predictable, other times it appears they’ve taken a detour.
"What you begin to realize though, is that when you send whiskey into the barrel, it’s traveling alone. While a distiller can control much of the flavor up front in the process, there are many aspects of the barrel aging that is out of our hands. So, while we’re still a little ways off from the process of selecting or blending for an actual release, we’ll have to wait and see where the barrels go. Until then, it seems like they're having fun on the road to becoming Chattanooga Whiskey. Here’s to a great new year."
With so many new distilleries and distillers out there, you can't follow all of them and it can be hard to know which ones bear watching. People like Grant McCracken, who really seem to get it, are the ones on my watch list.