Whiskey fans can try hand at custom libations
In this age of digital-directness and cyber-certainty, it is remarkably retro to find out making an aged whiskey is all a matter of taste.
In this case, taste means “judgment” as well as simply savoring a flavor.
As a whiskey fan, I was tempted by Wigle Whiskey's sale of small oak barrels in which the distillers say a novice could create an aged whiskey in a month. I found out the short time works. I also found out I might be able to make a better product in the future.
As Mark Meyer, the chief distiller and one of the owners of the Strip District firm, says: “It all question of color, smell and taste.”
I can handle that.
Even Lincoln Henderson, a master distiller from Kentucky, says the judgment of a whiskey hinges on one thing: “Taste.” Not measurement of alcohol content. Not testing for tannins and vanillins.
Henderson is a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and for 40 years worked for Brown-Forman Corp., where he developed and helped to make classics, such as Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and Woodford Reserve. He also is the creator of Angel's Envy, a bourbon on the market only about a year. If he says it is simply a matter of taste, it must be so.
The process is fairly simple. Fill a 1-liter barrel with unaged whiskey, let it sit for a month or so and, whammo, you have an nicely colored whiskey with a taste from the charred wood inside.
The wait is so much shorter than a distillery's because the keg is smaller. The Meyers are aging their rye and wheat whiskeys in the traditional 53-gallon barrels. It takes two years to create the desired flavor in the big keg. Cut that amount down to a liter, and the time is sliced to a month.
Mark and his son, Eric, say the process is fun to watch, so they advise weekly tastings. The first week, my rye had a distinctly woody, borderline unpleasant taste. But by the second week, the negative side was gone. The Meyers and son-in-law Alex Grelli say that change is because of the interaction between the liquid and the wood. That constantly changing mix becomes crucial around four weeks in.
At that point, they suggest, taste more regularly to make sure there is not too much woodiness. It is then the “taste” becomes a matter of judgment. Is this what you want? Is this acceptable?
For me, the four-week tasting was. The color was nice. The taste was flavorful, if a little mild. That part is where the judgment came in: Did I want to let it go another day or two and risk something that could be harsh?
I decided for the first time, this would be fine. It is, too. But, on second thought, I believe I could have waited a few more days to get an even-better rye.
But that's OK. The Meyers say it is possible to use the kegs about five times, so the creation of a better rye is down the road.
Besides, I wanted to go on to my next project: using a corn-based whiskey to create my favorite, a bourbon. I tried the rye first out of deference to history. Rye and wheat whiskeys were the Western Pennsylvania liquors that led to the Whiskey Rebellion.
But I am eager for this rye-influenced bourbon.
The production of whiskey is as inefficient as it is inexact. Because the kegs are not air-tight, evaporation takes about 15 to 20 percent of the liquid, known as the “angel's share.”
The oxidation process is so varied, it begs all sorts of experiments. Henderson says when he was at Brown-Forman, they tried various-sized kegs to see if the aging process could be satisfactorily altered.
He says they were satisfied with the results of 30-gallon kegs aged for about a year, but not much otherwise.
At Wigle, the staff is aging some rye in 10-gallon barrels they hope will produce a worthwhile whiskey by November.
They have experimented with the one-month process. The most intriguing test is to fill a two-liter keg with only one liter of rye. Tasters have been pleased by the “rounder” taste and darker color, Grelli says.
The Wigle crew also has been adding other pieces of wood — cherry, birch, and hard and soft maple — to the big barrels it is aging to see if it produces a good taste.
Taste always is the key. Lincoln Henderson is not convinced this one-month thing ever will produce a top-notch whiskey. But he is sure of one thing.
“That little barrel is going to get better and better,” he says about the taste that will settle into the wood.
Wigle's $98 small kit contains a 1-liter keg, a bottle of rye or wheat whiskey and two snifter glasses. The $145 large kit has a two-liter barrel, two bottles of whiskey and two snifter glasses. Details: 412-224-2827 or www.wiglewhiskey.com
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.