Friday, March 13, 2015

Spirits: Weird Whiskey

This time I don't have to argue about my spelling of whiskey. These are strictly American products, but they are funky samples of the lot. Or maybe they're just showing the range of the term; after all, "whiskey" can be made of just about any grain that can be fermented and distilled. Most of the big categories have some definition about what grain that can be. Scotch, for instance, is (primarily) malted barley; bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Others have strict requirements around how the spirit can be aged (bourbon, again, must be aged in fresh charred oak barrels). But just because something falls outside those boundaries doesn't make it bad, just different.

There are a lot of good craft distilleries popping up, and many are taking advantage of the room for experimentation when working on a smaller scale. This means more products popping up that skirt the boundaries of traditionally defined spirits. I like this maverick approach, because I think it's laudable to support small businesses, I have some pretty esoteric preferences, and sometimes those distillers hit on a real winner. Like the oddities below.

Koval Oat Whiskey

About: Koval Distillery gets bragging rights as the first distiller operating in Chicago in over a hundred years, though there are more recent others whose products I also quite enjoy. They're all about small-batch, single-barrel, hand-produced stuff, which to me defines the term "craft" and which I can solidly get behind. They also seem to like trying out new stuff, hence this whiskey produced from 100% oats. There might be a couple other oat whiskeys out there, but I can't recall seeing any of them on shelves. (That's not even the weirdest product Koval makes; they also produce a whiskey made from millet, a grain which I used to feed to my parakeets, and an eau-de-vie made from sunchokes, which... I mean, what the fuck?)

Tasting Notes: This is different from classic bourbon in the same sense as rye whiskey, only... well, oats. Okay, that's simplistic, but it's also true. There is a hard-to-define robustness about this one which puts me in mind of good, slow-cooked oatmeal, the real deal made from steel-cut oats. It's a little bit musty and off-putting on the nose, but the palate picks up with that oat character, some rich caramel notes, and a little vanilla. The vanilla hangs around and builds up a marshmallow-ish character that reminds me of maraschino liqueur, which carries on into the spicy, lingering finish. I can't wait to try this in an old-fashioned with a touch of maple syrup (and maybe a coffee bitters).

Temperance Trader Chinato Barrel Aged Bourbon

About: Temperance Trader hails from the Bull Run Distillery in Portland, Oregon; or it mostly does, anyway. The base whiskey itself is a fairly high-rye bourbon that's actually distilled in Indiana, but it's aged, bottled, and cut down to proof by Bull Run using the same water that supplies the city of Portland. This particular curiosity (which is experimental enough to not even be listed on Bull Run's website) additionally gets aged in barrels supplied by a local winemaker after being used to age their chinato. This is the Italian term for what I'd normally call a "quina", a fortified wine flavored with cinchona bark, modeled after the well-renowned Barolo Chinato. As soon as I saw that, I didn't care that it was a tiny bottle, I just had to have it.

Tasting Notes: The nose on this is shockingly like smelling a really robust vermouth; rich, herbal, full of caramel. At the end, there's a nice burn and bourbon smokiness to remind you that this is a spirit, after all. On the palate, there's a curious inversion; it tastes initially like a fairly straightforward bourbon, maybe a little sweet for me, stuffed with vanilla and sweet dried fruits, notably dates. But then it starts to pick up the spicy notes of the rye, and with that comes faint tannin and sweet spices from the chinato aging. The finish is a hybrid, smoky and lingering like good bourbon but also strangely flowery (I think of rosehips for some reason). Weird stuff. I'm not sure how much I'd like the base bourbon on its own, but the chinato finishing really puts a unique spin on it.

Dry Fly Straight Triticale Whiskey

About: Dry Fly is a true, small-scale craft distillery based in Spokane, Washington, with a big focus on local sourcing of their ingredients. All the grain, for example, comes from regional farms (which explains their heavy reliance on wheat) and their tasty gin is flavored with local botanicals too. Their products don't typically go too far off the deep end, but this is one of the more interesting, made from a hybrid of wheat and rye. Not a blend of rye and wheat whiskeys, mind you; this is made from 100% triticale, an unusual grain developed in Scotland by crossing wheat and rye strains. Most definitely a unique product! What's more, these guys seem really focused on spreading the gospel of craft distilling; they're the only distiller I've run across that actually offers an in-depth course on starting up a distilling operation. Kudos, gentlemen.

Tasting Notes: A lot like a bourbon on the nose, really; I'd guess they use the same aging process as their classic bourbon and wheat whiskey products. There's a note of intense gingerbread there that I really like. The palate is a funky hybrid (shocking, I know) which starts off with a soft, yeasty bread character, backed up quickly by peppery rye, complemented by notes of dried apple, orange zest, and ginger. The oak comes out as it sits on your palate, but that rye spice carries on into a drawn-out finish, slightly bitter and backed up by the wheat roundness to produce a sort of pumpernickel flavor. My only complaint is that finish is a bit hot and mouth-drying, but that's no surprise given that this only spends about two years in oak. I hope they've got some on reserve, because it would be really cool to see what happens to this after several years in the barrel.

Honestly, kids, this isn't even the beginning; it's weird whiskeys all the way down. Why, not even a day ago we covered a whole series of unusual whiskeys I sampled at Rathskeller. Elsewhere on this blog we've seen Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, which is a solid, readily available bourbon substitute. Most whiskey nerds will already know about Angel's Envy Bourbon, which is finished in port barrels; to be honest, I didn't care for it, but their less common rum-finished rye is fucking incredible. I'll gladly recommend Panther Distillery's Pike Street Bourbon as a great local option, and it doesn't stop there. Weird whiskeys everywhere, and so many good ones to try!

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