There’s plenty of debate about what defines a “craft” distillery. Production volume tends to be the most common measure, but plenty of “craft” distilleries argue the purity and proximity to their ingredients, the farm-to-glass element, is an important distinction, as well. Plus, there’s how you distill, with less automation often equating to a more handcrafted product. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Spirit Lab Distilling meets all potential definitions of a “craft” distillery. Owner and distiller Ivar Aass began distilling in his tiny New York City apartment, on a pot still so small that he kept it stored (some might say hidden) in the oven. Now operating out of a larger industrial space in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, Ivar’s still has gotten significantly bigger, and he’s expanded from homemade jugs of whiskey into periodic batch releases of single malt, as well an occasional Old Tom Gin and other spirits. He is also one of the most passionate craft distillers I’ve encountered. On a recent visit, he happily shared all aspects of his process with me in the same way a kid might show off his new train set.
We received a sample of Spirit Lab’s Single Malt Whiskey. Dubbed “the Daeodon,” it is copper pot distilled from 100% Virginia-grown and malted barley that is first fermented using a wild yeast strain for 6-7 days. The whiskey is then aged in a solera style system using a variety of barrels of different sizes (ex-bourbon, Virginia port, new American oak). To keep some of the barrels from drying, Ivar even applied his own wine floor with Sherry that he made himself from a kit. Like I said, if this isn’t craft, I don’t know what is.
The nose on this whiskey is mature for a single malt this young. There’s a grassy earthiness, almost pine straw, but none of the typical raw grain aromas. I uncover fragrant, nutty notes of sweet sherry, alongside mandarin orange, cinnamon stick, and a little star anise. It would honestly be difficult to pick this one out of a lineup of unpeated Scotches. The palate is somewhat more classic young single malt with chewy, toasted grain notes and a savory edge. There’s lots of oak here which makes for a drier spirit that fades a little too quickly, but the flavors are remarkable while they last, including cinnamon sugar, strawberry candies, Andes mints, fig jam, and sugared almonds. The wood notes, while somewhat domineering, are less old floorboards and more sandalwood and pipe tobacco. There’s even a bit of baking chocolate coming through. Ivar tells me the oldest component in the bottle is pushing three years, but the youngest is only one year old. It’s an impressive single malt already, but a little more time in the barrel could do wonders.
B+ / $89 / spiritlabdistilling.com