Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spirits: Koval Distillery Whiskeys

In August, the wife and I took a trip to Chicago for our anniversary. I had every intention of writing up the entire trip, I swear, but somehow life intervened and that post simply never happened. But, I did manage to bring a couple souvenirs home from our final stop just before skipping town: the distillery and sampling room at Koval Distillery.

I've talked about a couple of Koval's unusual products before, but the visit was a real education in just how odd their stuff is. The distillery was founded by a wife-husband duo who hail from Austrian families with a history of distilling brandy, which in Europe generally means trying to capture the nuances of a specific fruit in their distillate. I love such unaged European brandies, and it's really interesting to see how the approach translates to distilling whiskey from grain.

Practically, what this means is that Koval uses only 60% of the total output of their still to make each batch of whiskey, using what's known as the "heart". (It's probably worth noting that their main still is much bigger than the display model seen to the left.) The 10% toxic "heads" which come out first get used to clean the floors, and the 30% largely flavorless "tails" that come last get collected and re-distilled into vodka. Thrifty! Their barrels are smaller than the 55 gallon model used by most domestic bourbon distillers. Instead Koval ages for about 2 years in smaller 30 gallon barrels (made in Minnesota) with a variety of finishes.

And that finish, I'd say, is one of the things that makes Koval's product so interesting. They distill using a variety of interesting grains, all of them carefully sources and certified organic, but in the tasting room you get to try differently-aged samples: the same whiskey, from the same grain, in three totally different expressions.

This color difference gives you a preview of what's to come. The white whiskey on the left is aged for a single day (apparently legally required to label it "whiskey") and no more; the other two are aged for about two years. In the middle is a "toasted" barrel expression, with no char on the inside of the barrel; on the right a bourbon barrel with a classically charred interior. This makes for a shocking difference in the finished product.

Now, these are also distilled from different grains, but having sampled practically every combination available at the tasting room (at the encouragement of my long-suffering wife) I can tell you that the finish makes just as much difference than the source grain. Let's not belabor this with the format that I've kept to in other spirit reviews, because the different styles that these represent are as interesting as the specific whiskies I brought home.

First, the white whiskey. I'm usually suspicious of white whiskeys, since they have a reputation for roughness thanks to the infamous poor quality of moonshine. In truth, there are a surprising and growing number of quality minimally-aged whiskies out there (High West calls them "silver whiskey" in a superb branding move) and Koval's are easily the best I've ever tried. These are essentially fresh off the still, having been aged only in barrel for a single day, which is apparently legally required in order to label them with the term "whiskey". Essentially, they're the pure stuff, as close to a straight expression of the grain as it's possible to get.

The Oat version that I brought home is sweeter on the nose than other new-make whiskies, bordering on the round sweetness of a classic eau-de-vie, only... tropical, somehow. The body is beautifully smooth and creamy, without a hint of burn; the grain is a predominant flavor, providing a persistent sweet quality reminiscent of oatmeal (duh). As it sits on your palate there are little pops of maple, vanilla, apple pie, guava, and a growing spicy character (think allspice and white pepper) that lingers into an extended finish. From what I recall of the other white whiskies, they differ mostly in the details; the rye is unsurprisingly spicier, for example, but shares the same impeccably smooth, silky-sweet palate. Every single one is amazingly smooth and delicate for such fresh spirit, a great testament to Koval's distilling practices.

Second, we've got Koval's Toasted Barrel expressions, which were the most exciting find for me. This whiskey is distilled just like the others, then decanted and aged in barrels whose oak staves are briefly heated to "open up" the wood grain without developing the char characteristic of bourbon barrels. It's instructive because even though it's produced in the same fashion and aged for the same length of time, the result is totally different from the other styles. That's easily seen in the pale gold color, which resembles scotch or a delicate Irish whiskey more than it does most caramel-brown American whiskey.

Out of the available options, I chose the Spelt to take home (made from a subspecies of wheat) because it was the most unique of the available grains and also because it edged most into complex, delicate scotch whiskey territory. As with all of Koval's products, it's a little sweet and grainy on the nose, but also carries a pleasantly sawdusty aroma like fresh-cut wood. That's reflected on the palate, which is delicately sweet at first with notes of nougat like a good Irish whiskey, touched up with a vaguely floral note, like a very subtle chamomile. A spicy presence grows and grows, with intensely peppery notes and the drying presence of the wood tannins, all against a backdrop of honey, wheat, and a bitter-herbal character that puts me in mind of absinthe. It's one of the sweeter toasted barrel versions, less spicy than the rye, less floral than the millet, and I can't think of a single other whiskey I've tried made from spelt, so it gets points for uniqueness too. The only problem is that it's a very limited release, quite possibly sold only at the Koval distillery, and I've been unable to find it anywhere locally.

Finally, though by no means last, are the more traditionally styled whiskies aged in charred oak barrels, in the same fashion as bourbon (in fact, bourbon is included among them, but distinguishes itself by using millet in the mash). Again, these are aged in small barrels for a shorter amount of time than larger producers. The size of the barrel, and the resulting increase in surface contact, is partly what produces the classic rich caramel color despite only about two years in oak. But don't worry - the flavor is still distinctively Koval.

My selection of these was the Four Grains whiskey, made from a combined mash of oat, barley, rye, and wheat (what proportion of each isn't specified). This strikes an intriguing balance between the qualities of all those constituent grains. It's spicy and fruity on the nose from the rye, with big hints of orange peel and malt. Sweetness is immediately evident on the palate, in a fruity/floral combination that reminds me a lot of maraschino liqueur with some honeyish acidity. It grows increasingly grainy in a breakfast-cereal sort of way, with the airy quality that I always associate with wheated whiskies, and a light undercurrent of char. Eventually it turns to cinnamon and nutmeg, and winds up in an intensely peppery and lingering finish with a hint of licorice. It's one hell of a whiskey with a lot going on, though it maintains the sweet fruitiness consistent with Koval's other expressions. This bottling, fortunately, is one of the easier versions to find, and well worth hunting down!

All three of these (and the expressions that they represent) are excellent products, and Koval a very welcoming distillery. I highly recommend visiting! You can taste to your heart's content, view the workings of a true craft distillery, and pick up products that can't be found anywhere else. For us, it was the perfect endcap to our vacation.

No comments:

Post a Comment