What’s in a bottle.

July 24, 2013 by your friendly neighborhood distillers

It’s often worse than useless to try and describe how something tastes. General comparisons and tasting notes, sure. But the only way to experience a taste is, well, by tasting it. A taste can be roughly explained, but not fully communicated.

People very frequently ask us what makes our product different from others. For us, on a basic level, it goes back to the idea of taste; not only in a literal sense, in that what we make tastes different from what others make, but in a more figurative sense: our tastes reflect in what we produce, how we produce it, and the materials we use in the process. Sure, we like the flavor of what we make. Just as importantly, though, we like the impact that our business decisions make; that is, we have a very specific taste in business practices. In this sense, our tastes tend toward transparency and education (this blog, for instance), supporting other local and small businesses, community involvement, and so on. So what, then, are the actual results of these tastes?

bottles

Frist, in a very literal sense: the contents of a bottle. Spirits, obviously. Before that, though, we need to perform a little alchemy. For the whiskey, each bottle represents about four pounds of grain. The grain shows up here from small farms throughout New York State: it is grown by actual human farmers. We can call them, talk to them about their crops, thank them for their hard work, and tell them what great whiskey their grains make. Often, the grain is organic. It is never from huge agribusiness farms out west somewhere, spraying billions of gallons of pesticides on genetically modified crops. We order by the ton, not by the trainload; we aren’t just going out and finding the cheapest grain available on the commodities market. The grain is of exceptional quality, and it’s grown by humans who care about the land and their connection to it. Likewise, our malt (which originates in New York) goes to a little malt house called Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts, and then crosses back over state lines. The business was conceived and built around the idea of building a  sustainable connection between local farmers and brewers. On top of that, it’s a nice drive and a lovely little facility; Andrea does a fantastic job, taking great care and pride in transforming grains into malt, batch by small batch.

So the ingredients we use in our whiskey are from close by. Conversely, there aren’t any sugar plantations in New York State (but we’re crossing our fingers! Come on, climate change!). Since we’re forced to import it, we compensate by literally purchasing the best molasses money can buy: fancy grade from the Caribbean. This is a fairly accurate representation of what the original colonists would have been using, and we’re fond of the rum (which comes in at just under a pint of molasses per bottle) and love its connection to Albany’s history. And, significantly, it isn’t as though we’re cutting New York State sugar cane farmers out of the deal. Because they don’t exist (…yet).

Once we source the raw materials, we transform them. In the case of molasses, it’s a simple matter of adding hot water and mixing. With the whiskey, however, it’s a bit more complicated. First, we need to mill the grains down from whole to nearly a powder. The grains themselves are full of starch, and the yeast wants to eat sugar. To provide this, the mashed grains must be converted from starch to sugar (saccharified); it simply requires some knowledge and attention to detail. We do it naturally: no artificial enzymes or additives; just heat, water, malt, and time. It takes some patience, but it works perfectly. The yeast is happy and we are happy. But after several days of happiness, the party is over. Our yeast friends go for a ride in the still (sacrificed).

We use a process called batch distillation. Very briefly, this means that each run has a beginning (heads), middle (hearts), and end (tails). There is an earlier post that explores this in more detail. Batch distillation is less efficient than continuous distillation, which has a constant input and a constant output; however, when done properly (we do it properly), it also makes a cleaner, more purified spirit. This is evident in our new make whiskies and unaged rum: what we make is drinkable right off the still. Since this is the case, the barrels (which provide a variety of effects) are used more for flavor than for purification. We love how the char tastes, but we don’t rely on it as a filtering agent. We love how oxidation effects the spirit, but we don’t need it to break down any aldehydes or other contaminants to make the spirit drinkable. In short, as mentioned in another earlier post, we use barrels almost exclusively as a means to transform the flavor, rather than relying on them to smooth out our rough edges. Our edges are smooth to begin with.

As such, we can be very picky and specific about the barrels we use. We don’t have to worry about a minimum time spent in wood; we don’t necessarily need any. This gives us a broad range of options, and this freedom can be intimidating. Fortunately, like the situation with our farmers and our maltster, we can pick up the phone and call our cooper (not to be confused with our Cooper). The barrels are custom tailored to our needs: based upon what we want the result to be, we decide the size, the level of char, and the surface of the barrels’ interior. We can ask questions about the different effects of the above, and feel confident that the fourth-generation cooper on the other end of the phone can give us a well-informed, accurate, and learned response.
Once it goes in a barrel, we wait. And wait, and wait. As we wait, it evaporates. How much evaporates depends on how long we wait, but a safe assumption is that the longer we wait, the more evaporation occurs. As a corollary, the longer we wait, the more the flavor is transfomed. In short: the more aged a spirit is, the less of it we have to bottle.

[One last thing to mention: although at this point it's already served its function, we don't simply dump the spent mash down the drain. There are still plenty of calories and nutrients left in it, so a pig farmer collects it from us and puts it to work making bacon.]

These are the things that have a direct, physical effect on the spirits we produce: source, process, and aging.
There are also a number of things that we do which don’t affect the contents of the bottle but that we think are important.

A few quick examples, then. We fill the bottles two at a time with a little filling machine. We pound the tops on with a mallet to make sure they’re in firmly, and seal them one by one with plastic capsules and a glorified hairdryer. We put the labels on by hand, and handwrite the batch, number, and date on each label. This list goes on forever.

Then, when people want to know what goes into a bottle, we explain this all to them. You can literally pick up your phone, dial the shop, and ask us every detail about the bottle you’re holding, and why it tastes the way it does. There are only two sets of hands (and one set of paws) doing all of this; whoever answers the phone knows the whole process front to back and will be happy to answer your questions.

Try that in Kentucky.