Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A very special whiskey podcast

Some very exciting news!  Monday, May 2nd at 8PM EST, Final Gravity Podcast will be doing another whiskey special.  This time we'll be joined live in-studio by Simon Brooking, the ambassador for Laphroaig USA!

We will be tasting the Laphroaig range of whiskies - 10yr, cask strength, Quarter Cask - as well as some you may not be familiar with.

It promises to be a great show, so come by, bring your questions, or just listen and taste along at home with us.  Click here to visit our UStream live video feed.  You can also join us on Skype - user finalgravitypodcast - or call into the studio line at  765-537-8657.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A great day at Tuthilltown Spirits in New York (picture heavy post)

My wife and I spent the weekend in New York's Hudson Valley, with the goal of seeing some old friends and visiting a few wineries in the area.  We visited Robibero Vinyeards, then Whitecliff Vineyard.  We had a lot of fun, and tasted and bought a lot of wine.

At Whitecliff the conversation turned to whiskey.  That's when we learned we were only a few minutes' drive from Tuthilltown Spirits!  I had never toured a distillery before, so we saddled up and headed out.

We pulled into the driveway and were greeted by a nondescript building, the stainless tank and hand-painted sign the only things giving it away as part of the distillery.

The urge to climb on the tank was almost irresistible, but somehow I managed to control myself.  The sightglass on the side of the tank was a familiar sight from homebrewing.

The first thing we saw when we went inside were mountains of little barrels.  It turns out their main office doubles as the aging room.  These are "baby" barrels, which is where their Baby Bourbon gets its name.  You can also purchase used barrels from them, since by law bourbon may only be called bourbon if it is matured in first-use casks. 

They use the baby barrels because the whiskey matures faster in them - more surface area in contact with the spirit.  I believe our guide mentioned 3 months per gallon.

They also have 1- and 2-liter casks for sale, similar to the ones I already have.

In addition to the various whiskies, bottles, t-shirts and whatnot, they had a neat old copper still on one of the tables.

By now we were chomping at the bit to take the tour!  I thought the tour guide was a little unusual, but maybe they do things differently up there.  We signed up for the tour and tasting, then headed outside to see the distillery, which lives in the barn across the driveway.

Our guide started with a history of the distillery, explaining that they are the first distillery in NY since Prohibition.  That's why their bottles are shaped like apothecary's medicine bottles - during Prohibition, distillers would market their product as medicine, which was legal for sale.

He went on to explain the various bits of equipment they're using, and how much of it was re-purposed from things they found on the farm when they got there.  This is the malt mill they use to grind the grist (grain).

After grinding, the grist is fed into this vessel, which I would call a "mash tun".  It's where the grist is mixed with hot water to convert the starches into sugars that the yeast can eat.  There's all sorts of enzymatic magic going on in there.

He explained the "iodine test" to us, which they use to ensure that the conversion is complete.

Then that liquid and the grain are moved for cooling with this grain pump.  I'm not sure if the liquid is called "wash" at this point or after fermentation.  I found it interesting that the grain is included, and not lautered (separated) as we do in beer making.  Our guide explained that as such a small batch producer, they don't have to worry about burning the grain during distillation like a big producer might.  They also like the flavor profile.

The liquid and grain are moved into this vessel, a re-purposed milk cooler!  Here the mixture cools down to the proper temperature to pitch the yeast.

After that the mixture is pumped into the fermentation room.

The smell of 8 open tanks of fermenting corn mash is delicious and hard to describe.  Our guide explained how the tank on the right is still actively fermenting, with the CO2 being produced by the yeast pushing the corn to the top to make the dark "cap" you can see.

The tank on the left is done fermenting, so the corn has settled to the bottom.

We were invited up onto the step stool to get our noses right up into the tank.  My friend Dan described the smell as if you made corn bread with yeast.

We could see the CO2 "boiling" up out of solution.  It looked like a coarse porridge.

Then it was time to see where distilling really breaks off from brewing.  We headed up the wooden stairs to the stills.  Rounding a corner, their shiny new still loomed large.

Our guide explained that due to demand they just had to install a still twice the size of their old ones.  It required building the extension to the roof you can see in the picture and was just completed a week before we arrived.

This is the view looking towards the old stills.  I really love how such beautiful, elegant equipment is still so utilitarian and almost humble, boiling and condensing liquids and gases.

Our guide explained the entire distillation process, much of which I've already forgotten, of course.  He was very entertaining and took the time to answer all of our questions.

He explained how the whiskey is distilled twice, first in this still and second in the still behind him.

The distiller uses a hydrometer and his palate to determine when the whiskey is ready for the various steps it goes through.

This doodad with all the portholes is used to cause the different alcohols that boil at different temperatures to condense so they can be separated from one another.

He explained how the first alcohols that come out are the "heads".  It's basically wood alcohol, or acetone.  They do not use that at all.

Next come the "hearts".  That's the good ethanol they want for their whiskey.  This is taken off into stainless drums to later be put into oak casks.

The last are the "tails".  The tails are not used in the final distillation, but are saved in the wicker-covered demijohns in the last picture.  They then add some of the tails to the next batch, which helps flavor the batch and extracts some more of the good alcohols left.

Speaking of good alcohols, he opened a drum of recently-distilled spirit for us to smell.  The alcohol odor was overwhelming, but when I smelled with an open mouth I could taste the whiskey.  It was a really cool experience.

One more shot of the new still setup.  Shiny!

Then finally it was time to taste!  The tour comes with a tasting of any 3 of their offerings - which include a rum and two vodkas!

As I have already had their Manhattan Rye, I opted to taste the two bourbons - Baby Bourbon and 4-Grain Bourbon - and the single malt.  The 4-grain is made from 51% corn, with the rest being barley, wheat and rye.

As you can see, the selections were delicious, and more than one followed me home.  They also had a bourbon-cask-aged maple syrup, which was out of this world and found its way into my bag.

I will be aging the clear corn whiskey in one of my barrels.  I haven't decided if it'll go into the rye or barley yet.

With Tuthilltown less than two hours' drive from my home, I see more visits in my future.  We had a great time and I would even do the tour again.  I look forward to seeing the changes in the distillery as they grow, which they are doing fast!