The second annual Thirst Boston cocktail conference took place this past weekend, and one of the most interesting seminars I attended was called America’s Incredible Whiskey Innovators. Hosted by F. Paul Pacult from Spirit Journal and Sean Ludford of BevX.com, the seminar highlighted eight American whiskeys aged using uncommon techniques. You can expect a full write-up of the conference in the January issue of Cheers, but I wanted to highlight a couple of the techniques that were most fascinating and illustrated the great lengths distillers will go to produce the best whiskey.
The first pair of whiskeys we tasted came courtesy of Buffalo Trace and its Single Oak Project. The two were both Rye whiskeys aged in American oak barrels with an aggressive Level 4 char and an entry proof of 125. The only difference in the two whiskeys was the part of the tree from which the barrel’s staves were produced.
Whiskey 1 was aged in barrels created from wood cut from the lower half of an oak tree. Whiskey 2 was aged in barrels created from wood cut from the upper half of an oak tree. That may sound like something that couldn’t possibly make a difference, but I can confirm that the difference was significant.
Because there are more natural sugars in the bottom half of the tree, whiskeys aged in barrels featuring those are sweeter and carry a hint of vanilla. As such, Whiskey 1 was the smoother of the two with notes of caramel, while Whiskey 2 was more balanced with hints of black pepper.
Another whiskey aging technique of note was Hillrock Estate’s solera-aged bourbon. The first American distillery to use solera aging, the resulting product was a complex mix of brown sugar, cinnamon and dried fruit with some late heat.
The complexity is largely a byproduct of the unique aging process. Primarily used in Europe to age brandy and sherry, the solera method involves combining various ages of one expression and allowing them to mix together over time. Barrels are stacked in a pyramid with the oldest of the expression on the bottom and the youngest on top. As the final product is drained from the bottom barrels, the resulting space is filled with product from the next tier up, and the process repeats with brand new product ultimately being added only to the top barrel.
The solera method is a labor intensive, hands-on process, which rules out any meaningful large-scale production. But as craft distilling continues to thrive, don’t be surprised to see more solera-aged whiskey hitting the shelves soon.