Friday, February 5, 2016

There Are Many Different Ways to be Craft

Chattanooga Whiskey Co distiller Grant McCracken
After many years of talking about it, 2015 will be remembered as the year new American whiskey distilleries began to matter in volume terms. More new distilleries producing between 500,000 and 2 million proof gallons per year will come on line in 2016. There are now about ten new distilleries in that size range, mostly in Kentucky, who have started to produce in the last two years or will this year. Collectively, they amount to the addition of another Jim Beam in terms of industry-wide production capacity.

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.
Since its inception a few years ago, Chattanooga has been a non-distiller producer (NDP), selling whiskey distilled by MGP in Indiana. It also has evolved into a popular tourist attraction in Tennessee's fourth largest city, welcoming 15,000 visitors in 2015.

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.

McCracken continues:

"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.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff Chuck. Now you're reaching out in the industry, and that will translate to new enthusiasts for both good whiskey, and good writing.

Unknown said...

For now I think of Chatanooga Cask as a bargain for MGP cask strength bourbon. Nearly as good as Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten, higher proof & $20 less. Good deal. Will look forward to seeing what they put out on there own, but will enjoy now.

Erik Fish said...

"...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."

THAT is really the key. Craft distillers need to do what the majors don't do. When I can get a bottle of ET Lee SB for $33, I'm not paying $50 for a bottle of immature two- or three-year-old bourbon just because it was made by some bearded guys in flannel shirts who babble about passion and hand-made. But I have half a dozen whiskeys on my shelf from local and regional micro-distilleries with really creative mash bills and other quirks that I simply can't get from Heaven Hill or Buffalo Trace. Sounds like this could be another one.