Let's get this out of the way.
We do things differently. Not differently like just using locally sourced grains and making small batches. We do things differently through our whole process in order to further our pursuit of flavor.
We will also say this... Big distilleries make really great products. Some of our favorites are mass produced and some of our good friends are working right there in big distilleries. We are not proclaiming that our way is better, but our way is certainly different. We believe that there are many beautiful whiskeys and rums in the world that are produced and aged the traditional way. We have chosen to take a different path.
Let's just discuss our mainline bourbon for now. We use 19% rye, 19% malted barley and 62% corn. We have taken the malted barley from merely an engine for the starch conversion and moved it more in the territory of a flavor grain. That starts to add more flavors like smoke and tobacco notes to our bourbon. We get a lot of comparisons to having something with a scotch type flavor combined with a more traditional bourbon profile.
Most bourbon mashbills land somewhere in the 5-7% range of malted barley. By pushing ours to 19% it is in the range of a flavor grain, thus we are getting notes in our final product from the malted barley.
Most bourbon is distilled at or just below 160 proof. Legal distillation limit for bourbons and whiskeys is 160 proof. At that level, you are only 40 proof from pure alcohol and 30 proof from being able to call it vodka. Eighty percent alcohol is what you have. Which means you only have 20 percent left for any flavor. Legal barrel entry for bourbon is 125 proof. If you are distilling at or just below 160 proof, what ever you have just distilled (thus what ever flavor profile), is cut before it gets into the barrel.
Again, we like a lot of the bourbons that are produced in this manner. There are some amazing bourbons in the world that started their existence just like this. We have chosen to do it differently in our hope of retaining more flavor.
We treat our distillation a lot more like brandy. Our stills are column reflux batch stills, so we shoot for an overall proof of somewhere between 115-120 proof. We distill a bit further down into the proof ranges, which brings up some oil from the grain with the distillate. This is what gives our bourbon a very full mouthfeel that lasts and lasts.
Everything we distill goes directly into our barrels. All of the flavor from all of the grains that we work so hard to move around isn't cut before we hit that barrel. More than anything, we want the grains that we are using to be represented in the final flavor profile. If we change the mashbill a few percentage points or substitute malted rye for traditional rye, we want to be able to taste that change. This goal is achieved by not distilling to such a high proof which strips the flavor out of the distillate.
We currently age in 6.3 gallon barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. These are all American White Oak and char #4. That first bit is required by law. Our mainline bourbon ages between 5-6 months, all depending on the barrel. Some barrels take a bit longer to hit their peak.
We taste our barrels starting around 4 months. This gives us a great look at the progression of the flavor profile. This means we end up tasting a lot of bourbon. Tough job. What it does is allow us to hone in on the flavor profile we are trying to achieve.
Each barrel is different. This isn't unique to our distillery or small barrels. Taste through barrel samples at big distilleries and you will see the same. As controlled as we keep everything throughout the distillation process, we leave the final stage up to nature. We, as an industry, leave the final development of our beloved product up to what the wood will do to the spirit we put inside them.
The last step on the journey to the bottle is blending. Using small barrels can sometimes mean the flavor profile of that barrel is pretty skewed. Some barrels can really have lots of caramel and a smooth finish, but nothing else. Some barrels can taste perfect, but not a good mouthfeel. It is up to us to blend these barrels together to match our intended profile. Each batch usually has 9+ barrels in it.
Once we have tasted and all agree on the blend, we get to bottling.