It was not the rain that bothered us but the gushing winds that would certainly get hold of our glasses. So, seven whisky bottles and seven men are on their way back up the long staircase leading up to the whisky tasting room.
We kick off with a double filtered Tennessee whiskey: a Jack Daniels Gentleman Jack. I had never been one of those Jack maniacs, because I’d never thought much of it. Moreover, it took me years to buy the first bottle of this Tennessee heavy weight and world icon. Why this u-turn ? The reason is to be found in my visit to the Jack Daniel Distillery in ‘dry Moore County’ in Lynchburg, Tennessee this summer. The highlight being most definitely the way our guide and ambassador Dusty hosted our VIP tour.
Lincoln County Process
Mellow is the magic word that vibrates throughout the entire JD distillery. Percolating through a ten foot layer of charcoal is the average treatment for every Jack Daniel. Being a bit of a special dude, our Gentleman Jack was filtered twice. ‘Double mellowed’ is written on the bottle several times. It is part of the Lincoln County Process that all whiskeys that are eager to be labeled ‘Tennessee whiskey’ go through this sugar maple filtering process one way or the other. So does George Dickel Whisky (no ‘e’ here) from Cascade Hollow in neighboring Tullahoma. Strangely enough only 15 miles south west of Lynchburg, distiller Benjamin Pritchard from Kelso was exempted from this Lincoln County Process agreement, but his whiskey is still called Tennessee whiskey. Anyway, who cares ? We enjoy the fixed JD mash bill of 80% corn, 12% rye and 8% malted barley.
In the maze.
From Moore County Tennessee to the heart of bourbon USA, Kentucky. Compared to the whisky scenery in Scotland, the American whiskey landscape is like a maze. Imagine the fact that our second dram is a bourbon from Buffalo Trace. Distillery owner Sazerac manages to divide its beauties in four categories: 1. rye mash, 2. wheated mash (Pappy van Winkle), 3. mash bill #1: 10% lower rye (Stagg, Buffalo Trace, White Dog, Old Charter, etc), 4. mash bill #2: 10 to 15% higher rye (Blanton). Twelve of their most prominent whiskeys make up Buffalo’s whiskey tree. About five years ago David Haskell and Colin Spoelman came up with The Bourbon Family Tree chart in their very readable ‘The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining’. Man, was I glad they unraveled this alcoholic labyrinth for me.
An equine whiskey
The ‘Blanton horse and jockey’ is world famous. Being a state of horse breeders and horse pursuits the Kentuckians at Blanton‘s designed eight fitting stoppers, each for one specific moment in a horse race. Underneath the ‘S’ stopper I find a whisky that really surprised me. The word ‘victory’ is linked to Blanton’s last letter: the winning of the race. This 93 Proof (46.5 % ABV) is smooth, layered and gives me some spicy hints; a real winner.
The sound of whiskey
I pour our next dram, the Willett Pot Still. The sound of pouring this bourbon is amazing. Apart from the color, the taste and the finish, this is the extra dimension that makes this pot still shaped bottle a rare beauty. Never before, neither from Scotland, nor from any other part of the whisky world I had heard this ridiculous soothing sound before. This Willet bottle is like an instrument. Irish author James Joyce must have known this when he wrote ‘The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude’
I know for sure that all whiskey tastings are about telling stories and not merely about drinking. At that very moment the whiskeys themselves are not the focus of our attention, but merely stepping stones for the bigger picture that is being told. This is exactly what happened when I was introduced to FEW for the very first time, an artisan whiskey with a story. FEW Spirits is a craft distillery at the north side of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. The suburb is famous for its Northwestern University. The Methodist founders of this university supported the ideas of the Temperance Movement. This Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a movement that was mainly focused on the abstinence of alcohol. Now here it is. Evanston had been familiar with prohibition even before January 1920 for about 60 years.
A Four Mile Limit League
It was after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) that something weird happened. Although the state of Illinois had already abandoned the idea of an alcohol free state, Evanston wanted to stay dry by all means. In the end it was up to every individual city and county to decide whether to stay dry or go wet. It was Francis Elizabeth Willard (initials F.E.W.) who managed to win a 3 to 1 vote that favored her Four Mile Limit League. This WCTU party had won the battle for a dry suburb, called ‘Heavenston’. In 1972 the Willard’s movement had to pack up and a period of 117 years of abstinence came to an end. The statue on the FEW whiskey label is a link to the glorious past of the Chicago World Fair of 1892. Is it Big Mary smiling at us or do I see the image of Francis Willard grinding her teeth in frustration? My tasting group tastes 20% Northwestern rye, 70% corn and 10% 2-row malt. And if you want to do this at home, make sure you pour this whiskey well before you sip, because it really needs some air and some landing-time.
Never before have I poured a bottled-in-bond whiskey. Why is that ? To me they sounded like relics from the past, leftovers from old wooden warehouses on the verge of collapsing (Oops, why did I say that ?). Reading the blogs it is far from this. Bonded whiskey is on the way up, it’s hot and it’s very 2018 to have this whiskey on your top shelf. It’s not a hype from the late 1800s when The Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed. In those days it was to protect the consumers from fake whiskeys and other faux booze. Four conditions were laid down by law: the alcohol/whiskey should be made at a single distillery, produced within a single distilling season, aged for a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 Proof (50% ABV). Some varieties are listed by Dillon Mafit: Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond 10 yr Bourbon, Old Fitzgerald 100 proof bourbon (Heaven Hill), Mellow Corn Straight Corn Whiskey (Heaven Hill), Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon, Old Grandad Bonded Bourbon (Jim Beam) and Old Overholt Bonded Straight Rye (Jim Beam).
It’s closing time and the last dram is poured: a JD Single Barrel Rye, the only JD expression with a different mash bill of 70% rye, 18% corn and 12% malted barley. A delicious glass of rye whiskey. And all this with a bite but still very mellow.