Craft Whiskey Comes of Age

Style diversity is a key characteristic of American craft whiskey, but most have one thing in common: youth. They are generally young compared to what the legacy producers deliver, lacking the years in a barrel that lead to mature-tasting whisky. No one has solved the aging puzzle either. Young whiskeys taste young.

Unlike most other countries, there is no minimum wood aging duration for American whiskey. Any amount of wood contact will suffice. One type of whiskey, corn whiskey, doesn’t need to be aged at all.

American whiskey making tradition has deep roots. Fifty years ago, when bourbon sales slumped, several large producers petitioned federal regulators to change certain whiskey labeling rules. One proposal, in imitation of foreign practice, would have imposed a minimum age requirement.

The regulators demurred, stating that, “No need was established for a minimum age requirement for current domestic types of whisky.” The ruling further observed that, “there are no appreciable amounts of immature whiskies currently being sold. Although some whisky is being offered at less than two years of age, this is, in the main, corn whisky. In any event, the present regulations protect the consumer by requiring all whiskies less than four years old to bear a true age statement.”

Why 4 years? Because that is the age at which American straight whiskey, aged in new charred oak, is traditionally considered ‘fully mature.’ That assumption underlies both the age statement rule and the specifications for bottled in bond whiskey.

Craft distillers play by their own rules, as they should. The last thing we need is a bunch of small, new distilleries trying to imitate the big, established ones. That would be boring. Many also make the argument that ‘age’ and ‘maturity’ are not the same thing. Fair enough.

So let us stipulate that 4 years is an arbitrary milestone, but not a meaningless one.

Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel Distillery offers several whiskeys over 4 years old.

Aiming for Age

Of the hundreds of small distilleries that have started up over the last decade or so, only about 20 have house-made whiskey that is at least 4 years old, either on the market now or launching this year. For many it is (or will be) a tiny release, available only at the distillery.

Most of the distilleries that have reached this threshold set it as a goal in the beginning. “We are finally transitioning into our flagship products,” says Orlin Sorensen of Woodinville Whiskey Co. in Washington, which was bought by Moët Hennessy in July 2017. The latest releases of their bourbon and rye are 5 years old. They use standard 53-gallon barrels and the oak was seasoned for 18 months.

“These two products have been our goal since Brett [Carlile] and I started the distillery in 2010,” says Sorensen. “We always felt that if we could produce a truly handcrafted, quality product from grain to bottle, of a mature age, and offer it at a reasonable price, the rest would take care of itself.”

He sees age as a competitive advantage. “The craft whiskey market is getting real crowded,” says Sorensen. “A $50-plus bottle of 6 month old whiskey is going to have a tough time against a 5 to 6 year old craft bourbon or rye at $40.”

Woodinville’s whiskeys are widely distributed in Washington State, but nowhere else. “Our goal is for our brand to have roots and be a significant factor in the American whiskey category in our region before we move outside,” says Sorensen. They have enjoyed considerable success. In Washington, their bourbon sells about as well as Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve, a major brand.

Another Washington outfit, Dry Fly Distilling, has six house-made whiskeys in general distribution that are at least 4 years old. They are Danagher’s Hibernian (Irish-style whiskey), two triticale whiskeys, and three different wheat whiskeys. By late 2017 or early 2018, Dry Fly will have at least one 10 year old whiskey on the market.

“We continue to be 100 percent locally-grown raw materials (within 30 miles), and all 53-gallon American new oak, with the exception of finish barrels,” says Dry Fly’s Don Poffenroth. “We age-declare every single bottle of whiskey we do.”

Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel Distillery is known primarily for its vodka, but they too have had a long-term plan to bring fully aged whiskey to market. “Our plan the past few years was to slowly release in an effort to increase the age of the releases to 4 years,” says founder and owner Paul Werni. “We recently achieved our goal.” The products are Border Bourbon, New Richmond Rye, and W Wheat Whiskey. They are available in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Paul Wenri, founder and owner of 45th Parallel, believes patience will pay off.

The Word is Bond

Many craft 4 year olds are labeled ‘bottled in bond.’ A federal government designation created more than a century ago as an official guarantee of whiskey authenticity, bonded whiskey must be at least 4 years old, bottled at 100 proof, and made at one distillery, by the same distiller, during one distilling season (January-June or July-December). In the modern era, most major whiskey producers have abandoned the bottled in bond designation, deeming it no longer meaningful to consumers. Now crafts are picking it up as an easy way to distinguish their fully mature offerings from their younger products.

Examples come from Kings County Distillery, Laws Whiskey House, Mountain Laurel Spirits, FEW Spirits, and Tom’s Foolery.

Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery, founded in 2010, released its first bottled in bond bourbon last year. It should be in national distribution by the end of 2017. “This bottled in bond whiskey will most definitely be a pipeline product for us,” says Ryan Ciuchta, Kings County’s head blender and production manager. “Currently a little less than half of our inventory of 2,600-plus barrels is 15-gallon barrels slated for this 4 year old offering.”

The slogan of Denver’s Laws Whiskey House is “Craft over commodity. Quality over quantity. Whiskey above all.” Although they also have a bonded rye, the big news from Laws is their bonded four grain bourbon that uses both rye and wheat along with corn and malt in the mash. Most of it sells at the distillery, but they have limited outside distribution in Colorado and a few other states.

Pennsylvania’s Mountain Laurel Spirits is known for its Dad’s Hat Rye, which is now available in a bonded expression. It is a very small release, available only at the distillery. FEW Spirits, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, has recently added bonded bourbon, rye, and single malt whiskey to its line. Tom’s Foolery, near Cleveland, has bonded bourbon as well as rye and applejack.

“Bonded bourbon is a great part of American history,” says Foolery’s Tom Herbruck. “I want to proudly participate in that tradition, and do my part to bring authenticity to the center stage.”

Dry Fly Distilling matures in full-sized barrels and distills from local ingredients.

Veteran Benefits

Like Tom’s Foolery, Woodstone Creek is a very small, family-run distillery, located at the other end of Ohio in Cincinnati. There, the Outtersons have been crafting whiskey and other spirits for almost 20 years, making them one of the country’s oldest craft distillers. All their whiskey products are bonded and then some. They include Five Grain Bourbon (10 year old), Murray Cask Peated Single Malt (10 year old), and Distiller’s Reserve Sherry Cask Single Malt (13 year old).

If you want to try them, plan on visiting the Queen City; Woodstone Creek is stubbornly tiny, referring to itself as a ‘nano distillery.’ “Nanos don’t have distributors,” says Linda Outterson. “Their footprint confines sales to their own premises and the surrounding neighborhood. Nanos are labors of love and operate with friends, family, and spouses. A nano can be the beginning of a factory or simply remain the culmination of a dream.”

Another craft distilling veteran is California’s St. George Spirits. Lance Winters has been making malt whiskey there since 1996. Their single malt is an annual release and the 2016 edition, Lot 16, is a mixture of 4 to 10 year old whiskeys.

Stein Spirits in Portland, Oregon is another West Coast craft, primarily distributed in Oregon and Washington. They have had 5 year old, age-stated straight bourbon and straight rye in their portfolio since early 2015. Austin and Heather Stein are working on an 8 year old and have plans for a 10 year old, maybe a 12 year old, down the road. The 5 year old bourbon and rye are pipeline products set to increase in volume with each annual release.

Like many crafts, Stein Spirits is farm-based. They grow their own rye, wheat, and barley. Their corn comes from a cousin’s farm nearby.

Also on the market since 2015 is an unusual example of a farm-based whiskey, Wisconsin’s J. Henry & Sons Bourbon, which is aged for a minimum of 5 years. What is unusual is the collaborative nature of the product. The Henry family grows all the grain and has a proprietary bourbon recipe, but the distilling is done by Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel. New make spirit returns to the Henry farm for aging, then goes to another Wisconsin craft distillery, Yahara Bay, for bottling. Nancy Fraley, a highly regarded ‘nose,’ works with them on the flavor profile.

When Joe Henry decided to make bourbon, he chose an heirloom red corn developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1930s. His father raised it for nearly 40 years as cattle feed. It is a beautiful, natural red color with large kernels. The Henrys raise and use Spooner Rye too, which also originated at the University of Wisconsin. Aging is done in a non-electrified dairy barn. It has no heat, no lights, just Wisconsin weather.

Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachusetts collaborates with Boston Beer Company for their Two Lanterns American Whiskey, distilled from Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

The name is a reference to the two lanterns hung in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church in 1775 to warn local patriots that British troops were coming by sea. Two Lanterns American Whiskey is available in Massachusetts and five other East Coast states. Ironically, for a product so linked to American history, it is made in the European style. Two Lanterns is triple distilled from a malted barley mash and aged in used bourbon barrels for at least 4 years.

Rhode Island’s Newport Distilling crafts a similarly European inspired whiskey called Sea Fog American Whiskey. “Sea Fog is an exceptional blend of Scottish and American traditions,” says head distiller Brent Ryan. “We combine the Scottish method of distilling ‘beer’ from the malt with the American tradition of more aggressive oak aging in the continental climate of Rhode Island.” Made from 100 percent malted barley, both pale and peated, it is aged in used bourbon barrels for at least 8 years and is available in most East Coast states, from Massachusetts to Florida.

MB Roland Distillery’s co-founder and head distiller Paul Tomaszewski gets hands-on moving barrels and shoveling the smokehouse.

The Beauty of Youth

Long aging is not for everyone. “While we have some special releases that go over 5 years, they are not part of the main line,” says Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, president of Chicago’s Koval Distillery. “We are going for a bright, clean flavor more in line with some Japanese whiskies, like Beam Suntory’s Chita whisky, than traditional American whiskeys that are aged longer…. For us it is about having a signature style, which is achieved through our use of single grains or unique grains, single barrels, and only the heart cut of the distillate. Over-aging in a 30-gallon barrel would disturb the bright balance we want to convey.”

Similarly, Corsair, with distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee, has a large portfolio but only one product, Nashville Bourbon, is more than 4 years old. It is a limited release sold only at the distillery in Nashville.

Cedar Ridge, in Iowa, offers Cedar Ridge Reserve Bourbon, also a very small release, while Garrison Brothers, in Texas, emphasizes straight bourbon (which must be at least 2 years old). Dan Garrison’s only products that are more than 4 years old are the 2015 and 2017 vintages of his top-of-the-line Cowboy Bourbon.

The Single Barrel Bourbon offered by Kentucky’s MB Roland Distillery is at least 4 years old and barrel proof. It comes from a barrel co-founder and head distiller Paul Tomaszewski filled early in the distillery’s history. When this batch is gone, it may be a while before they have anything else that old.

Several distilleries in the craft segment built their reputations on sourced whiskey. Most started out saying this was only temporary, until their house-made products were fully aged. Smooth Ambler, in West Virginia, is unique in having actually done it. The sourced whiskey—sold under the Old Scout sub-brand—will continue, but they now sell a house-made wheated bourbon that is 5 to 6 years old.

For many craft distilleries, cost is the obstacle to longer aging. Time is money, after all, and although older whiskey should appreciate in value, an enormous amount of the company’s capital is tied up in that stock. “I wish we had had the money to have really been able to lay down a lot of 53-gallon barrels back in 2011 when we first started distilling,” says Bill Welter of Journeyman Distillery in Michigan. “We did as many as we could afford.” The retail price for a 750 ml bottle of fully mature craft whiskey starts around $40 and can go above $100.

How do they taste? Like many 4 to 5 year old whiskeys, some better than others. Most have unique house characteristics, something that makes them stand out. They aren’t legacy clones.

Craft distilleries are a diverse lot; that is their nature. As a group, they have struggled to push their aged products over the 4 year threshold. Although the number with whiskey older than 4 years is small, it is bound to grow. Today, even though America’s craft whiskey movement has come of age, it is far from fully mature.

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