|To Dream, The Impossible Dream...|
America: land of dreams and opportunity. Visiting is always a joy (despite ever increasing security checks at Heathrow- yawn) and it highlights one of the great things about being UK based- our closeness to the US and to Europe. We really do occupy a funny middle ground between our friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and those just across the Channel.
Having recently returned from another trip to the States, it is easy to draw on the similarities (language, popular culture, most foods, sense of humour, etc) to feel very much at home, but to look at the 'differences' (currency, costs, weather, architecture, style, accent, a lack of social responsibility to look after the poor and sick...) to realise you are elsewhere.
And these differences do not stop at currency, politics and tastes, for America also makes whisky, but an entirely different style of whisky that we make here in the UK and these differences, along with some striking similarities, were highlighted to me on a recent trip to Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky.
Heaven Hill is composed of two main sites, both huge in scale; the result is a company whose fingerprints are seen across the whole whisky category, in Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky bottles because most of ex-Heaven Hill barrels end up being used to mature spirit from producers in these countries. To put it simply, the ripples of distilling here spread far and wide, on a truly global scale and all this under the influence of the owners, the Shaprio family.
It is unusual to find a place with such influence, such standing and such fame that is still ‘family owned’ and it is in this fact where we see, in all the differences between Scotch and American whisky production, another small similarity, another mirror of authenticity, as Scotland is home to William Grant & Sons, producers of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Grants blended Scotch, and also still family-owned and operated. In both you see a friendship and a working relationship between the two dynasties, with much of the William Grant Scotch distillate matured in ex-Heaven Hill casks.
As is the way with Kentucky bourbon production, one distillery can accommodate the production of many brands, and the Heaven Hill distillery is no exception. Spread over two sites, one for spirit production (the Bernheim distillery in Louisville), and one now specifically for the maturation of spirit (just on the edge of Bardstown, Kentucky), the former contains column stills producing various base spirits with differing mash bills, which will go on to mature, at their second site, into individual, unique expressions such as Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock, and Parkers.
At this juncture, we could get bogged down in the differing spirit profiles and make-up, looking at Heaven Hill’s portfolio and drawing comparisons between their different brands. But seeing as this task could encompass a blog in its own right (and not just a blog post), I want to look at something more fundamental: maturation.
The one thing we can be sure of is that prohobition had a huge impact upon spirit production in the USA. Not only did it create a vacuum of quality spirit (often filled by Scotch smuggled into the country), it provided a fertile ground for the cocktail to thrive and stuck the nail in the coffin of several distilleries around the world, as well as in the States itself. But for all the negatives, what it did do was create almost a clean slate for the distillers of America to embrace new technology.
As a regular visitor to Scotland and someone who writes a lot about Scotch, there are certain touchstones which can nearly always be relied on: ancient distilleries, copper pot stills, small dunnage warehouses, pagoda roofs... these are the 'shortbread tin' stereotypes which don't just nod in the direction of heritage and history, but positively support it. But let’s not forget that the original distillers who first came to the newly discovered land of America would have been Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish and European distillers, arriving to farm the land which would have included running the occasional still, as they would have done back home.
However, prohibition served to wipe these small pot still artisans from the landscape and, once the Great Experiment ended, it was time to rebuild the distilling business to quench the thirst of a nation.
Now, if you’re starting a new business today, you don’t head out to buy a typewriter, headed note paper and stamps. You go and purchase a laptop, register a domain and set up an email address. In the same way, the distillers of America didn’t opt for pot stills (yesterday’s technology) but for the new, efficient column still. They didn’t build small dunnage warehouses, only three barrels high because that is the height a man can lift a cask to. Nope, they built enormous cathedrals of casks, because items like forklift trucks existed, to lift barrels into place. And thus the slow drift from the similarities of the Celtic settlers and their relatives in Scotland, and the modern distilling and maturation techniques seen in the bourbon business today, commenced.
Column stills can also be found in Scotland and it is the production of grain which keeps the industry alive through blends (and now a growing category in its own right thanks to single grain whisky from the likes of Girvan), and of course there are huge technical differences in the base production of bourbon and Scottish grain whisky (the basic grain make up, sour mashing, etc) but it is the maturation which really is striking.
As with all Kentucky bourbon whiskey, brand new American oak casks are used, imparting a strong, robust and sweet flavour to the maturing spirit inside. But unlike those hobbit-esque warehouses to be found on the distillery doorstep in Scotland, the warehouses at Heaven Hill are, quite frankly, enormous. Seeing their sheer size put me in mind of the first time I saw an Airbus A380 descending over London for its arrival at Heathrow. Massive and a little bit scary.
Entering one of these huge, white spaces (which look they might have been designed by someone with a fetish for Soviet-era prisons) you are simply hit with a staircase, leading to a series of floors and doors: The Maturation Zone in the Crystal Maze, perhaps. Perfectly constructed, each level (of which there were thirteen!) houses an intricate system of barrels, all holding a different style of spirit, designed to mature for different lengths of time, becoming different brands of bourbon.
There was no musty smell of earth and bung cloth as there would be in Scotland. But a sweet aroma of spirit, oak and freshly cut pine. The temperature was warmer than outside (something you don’t get in Scotland) and the barrels, all uniform, were organised by row. Walking around them, up and down between the floors, was like flying around in the 3D grid system in Blade Runner. Sadly, without an iconic glass of whisky in my hand, as these casks were very much sealed.
Climbing the stairs to the very top and peering down thirteen floors to the ground level, taking in the scale of maturation, surrounded by other enormous warehouses, this couldn’t have been anywhere else but America. This was maturation, supersized.
Back inside the safety of Heaven Hill’s visitor centre, I was finally able to experience some of the magic of a single barrel bourbon when I was handed a glass of whiskey, and one which represents some of the best value for money of any bourbon on the market today:
Evan Williams Single Barrel - 2003/2013 - 43.3% abv - 75cl
Nose: Rich vanilla, red summer berry compot, a big splash of new oak, builders tea with about 15 sugars and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Rich with a big attitude, but not over-oaked.
Palate: This is where this badboy really delivers. The palate is seriously easy going, yet there is a foundation of big flavour with more vanilla, aprcot jam, some smoky BBQ sauce (without this being smoky, oddly) and rasberry travel sweets.
Finish: Robust, rounded and very well balanced with more vanilla and a hint of oak spice.
Overall: If you want a great example of a single cask bourbon, at ten years of age, this is a real corker. I paid about $25 for this bottle (well under £20) and I'm note sure I could have spent $25 better, really. An absolute corker of a dram which is still only about £35 over here in the UK.
I had the chance to pop into the new Evan Williams experience in Lousville and the plans there are fantastic. They’ve just built a small pot still operation which fills a barrel a day (when it is running) to bring a craft, pot still element to Evan Williams, so look out for stocks from that in the future. This scaled down visitor experience, in a former shop in the heart of Louisville is, quite simply, one of the best whiskey-based attractions I have ever visited, so if you find yourself out there, make sure you go.
In visiting Kentucky to discover the joys of bourbon, you get to see the legacy of The Great Experiment and how it has forever changed the landscape of distilling in America. With the craft distilling revolution bringing back the pot still, and the stalwarts of the business such as Heaven Hill offering seriously good liquid at such great value, the future for American whiskey looks incredibly positive.