A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

copperfox.biz

Cupping Coffee with Intelligentsia

Intelligencia Coffee
There is no scent warmer and more inviting than that of coffee beans roasting. The moment we stepped through Intelligentsia’s front door, all traffic woes were forgotten in favor of a good mood. We knew the afternoon would only get better. We walked past huge bags of newly roasted coffee beans and paused a moment before an enormous roasting machine with its large paddles for stirring the beans as they roast.

Large roaster machineHave you ever experienced cupping coffee? During our visit to Intelligentsia Coffee’s San Francisco facility, we learned how to perform this delightful ritual used by coffee roasters to determine the quality of their newly roasted coffee beans. There are elements each bean is rated upon with regards to types of aromas and initial flavor profiles. We discovered that each roaster has their own proprietary checklist they work from.

Cupping coffee — a tasting system that involves a significant amount of protocol — isn’t quick and there’s a specific way to sip the coffee from the spoon. Loud slurp noises are acceptable! However, it is worth the time because fine beverages meant to be savored — including coffee.

For cupping, the first thing you do is lean over the cup to take in the aromas. You can use your hand to wave the scents toward your face. Aromas range from floral to leguminous; the goal is to identify additional scents, such as botanicals, floral, or citrus.

Next you sip the coffee and determine the following factors:

  • Taste – There are sixteen types of taste descriptors, ranging from acrid to delicate; then from soft to creosol. Elements like saltiness and bitterness levels are notated on a checklist.
  • Sweetness – How prevalent or how missing sweet notes are present in the brew. The type of sweetness can vary as well; honey-like or sugary or syrupy if overdone.
  • Acidity – Varying types of acidity can enhance a coffee’s flavor or add to bitterness. Acidity ranges from lactic to acerbic with the harshest being kerosene like.
  • Complexity – Complexity involves the balance of the flavors present in a cup and whether elements in the flavor profile complement one another or compete, creating odd or negative tastes.
  • Aftertaste – This is typically used to describe negative tastes at the end of a beverage. While it is often a sign of something wrong with the bean or during the roasting, it can be a pleasant association as well.

A Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel put out by the Specialty Coffee Association shows all the common elements to look for.

Our host, Mark Cunningham explained how any coffee is at its finest during the cupping and that it will never be better than at that moment. He told us that a good coffee will still taste good after it’s gone cold, but lesser quality coffees get bitter and harsh.

Our cupping completed, we came back to our coffee after touring the roasting floor to discover the truth in his statement. The cups of varying roasts tasted just as amazing as when we first sipped from the spoon. The big chain coffees’ burnt-tasting dark roasts are no longer palpable. Strong doesn’t need to be bitter or charred; in fact, it is much better when it isn’t.

Cupping RitualIntelligentsia also offers a variety of artisan teas called tisanes. We sampled two of them at the cupping. Both were wonderful blends of tea, spices, and botanicals such as cardamom, rose hips, and turmeric. They are expanding in the tea area by continuing to produce new blends.

Just how does Intelligentsia obtain their high quality coffees? By working with small, family owned coffee bean farmers around the world. Their buyers are very hands-on in their search for the best beans to purchase, taking the time necessary to visit the farms and sample the raw product. With the climate and soil compositions determining the flavors of the coffee after roasting, this is an important step. It makes sense when you realize that beans mature at different times of the year, depending upon where in the world the plants are growing. One thing Intelligentsia insists on are beans properly matured on the plant before harvesting. We liken that to the taste difference between garden grown tomatoes and those picked early and expected to ripen on the way to the grocery store. Most fruits and vegetables stop ripening once harvested so their flavors aren’t robust as those garden grown. Coffee beans wouldn’t be any different.

Just recently opened to the public (previously their clients were bars and restaurants), Intelligentsia has red coffee trucks which make appearances around town in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Follow them on Twitter to find out where you can catch them. They also recently opened a monthly coffee subscription service. Additionally, Intelligentsia offers classes on brewing for barista training.

In closing, we learned that Two Sisters Bar and Books in San Francisco created a couple of cocktails featuring Intelligentsia coffee. They were kind enough to share those recipes with us. We made them with the Intelligentsia coffees and found them both to be amazing cocktails. Give them a try and let us know what you think.

The Bluegrass BuzzThe Bluegrass Buzz
created by Mikha Diaz for Two Sisters Bar and Books
3 oz. Intelligensia Cold Brew from cold brew concentrate (diluted at a 6:1 ratio)
1 1/2 oz. Old Forester 86 bourbon
1/2 oz. brown sugar simple syrup (equal parts brown sugar, gently packed, and boiling water; stir to combine)
lightly whipped heavy cream

Combine cold brew, bourbon and brown sugar simple syrup in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with 2-3 tablespoons of lightly whipped cream.

The Sharp Shooter
created by Kathryn Kulczyk for Two Sisters Bar and Books
1 1/2 oz. Cold Brew Cognac (4 oz. El Diablo blend, ground for cone drip filter, infused into 750 ml. Maison Rouge 100 proof cognac)
3/4 oz. Ancho Reyes liqueur
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica vermouth
3 hard dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters

Combine cognac, liqueur, and vermouth in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with three whole coffee beans.

intelligentsiacoffee.com

A Visit to Casa Herradura

Casa Herradura

The region of Jalisco, Mexico (near Guadalajara) has been, and still is, responsible for the entirety of the Earth’s tequila for over 400 years, though the history of tequila dates back several thousand additional years. Everything in this region is designed to contribute to fine tequila. Beautiful warm weather, natural underground soft water, perfect terroir of red volcanic soil, and the variation of agave plants that produce the most natural sugars are the building blocks of a tequila meant to be sipped and savored. Toss out your salt and lime, and join me in a visit to Casa Herradura — the maker of Mexico’s most popular tequila, produced the same way for generations.

Jimador cutting the pinaHerradura has been instrumental in developing some of today’s key tequila standards, and they continue striving to improve them. They were the first to introduce Reposado tequila to the world in 1974 and Extra Anejo tequila in 1994 — after twenty years spent perfecting it. The excellent quality of their tequila proves that sometimes the old ways are best.

Natural is the way to describe what’s best about Herradura (which means “horseshoe” in Spanish). While there are tequila industry standards, Herradura prides themselves, and rightly so, for exceeding those across the board. Others may harvest their blue agave plants at four or five years; Herradura lets theirs mature a full seven years or more. Herradura enjoys access to their own underground water resources and have their own cooperage through owners Brown-Forman. Even though the fermentation process is quicker in tequila than other spirits (due to the warm weather year-round), Herradura also ferments at each stage of the tequila production process for longer, nearly double what other tequila distillers do. How do you top all that? By cutting the heads and tails, which are unhealthy alcohols that come out at the beginning and end of distillation, not once but twice.

Tequila aging barrelsSeveral interesting things about agave and tequila were brought to our attention during our visit to Casa Herradura. The agave is roasted and then the sugars are pressed out, leaving behind fibers from the agave plant. Those fibers are then rinsed with water to obtain as much agave nectar as possible. This is where the importance of soft water plays in. The liquid is pumped into fermentation tanks, where fermentation begins within a day or two and lasts for 92 hours. No yeast is added, no heat applied, and the mixture foams and bubbles as the sugars are converted into alcohol. The agave nectar you can buy at the store as a sweetener is this same agave liquid used in making tequila. The difference is, in order to turn it into something with a shelf life and no natural fermentation, it must be immediately pasteurized in the same way milk is.

Pinas waiting to be processedBack to the tequila. There are five types of tequila produced by Herradura. They all come from the very same blue agave and are initially processed the same way. So, what’s the difference between Blanco (Silver), Reposado, Añejo, Ultra, and the Seleccion Suprema Extra Añejo? It’s all in how long the tequila is aged. All of it begins life as Blanco tequila. After 45 days in the fermentation kettles, the clear Blanco is either bottled or put into American White Oak casks to age. If a cask has previously been used, the insides are scraped out before being charred all over again. The next tequila is Reposado, which has a light golden color from the oak. The industry standard is aging for two months, but Herradura ages its Reposado for eleven months. For the Añejo, the aging time lengthens to 24 months. Again, the industry standard is only 12 months. The Ultra starts as the base Blanco but goes through a second distillation process, emerging as a very floral tequila. Seleccion Suprema, the Extra Anejo, ages for a full 45 months, at which point 40% of the original liquid will have evaporated. That “angel’s share” is comparable to a 12-year-old whiskey.

Train viewBecause all tequilas begin as Blanco, you can really tell the overall quality of a distillery by the quality of the Blanco. It makes sense; if you can’t sip the Blanco and have to mask it with salt and lime to get it down, then you’ll likely have a similarly bad experience with the aged ones. Any cocktail created with a good quality tequila tastes significantly better.

Visiting Casa Herradura begins in Guadalajara, where you hop onto the Herradura Express — a train opening to the public on April 29. Riding this lush train, while sipping on a margarita or Paloma, is just the thing to set your visit off to the right start. As you ride along, the train passes by fields of blue agave in various stages of growth. You also see the rustic lifestyles of many people living in this area of Mexico. Wood and barbed wire fences surround the fields, while bright frescos decorate the sides of some buildings.

Agave greetersOnce you disembark from the train, it’s a short bus ride to the Casa. The first thing that greets you upon stepping through the stone gates are pathways lined with blue agave. The lush grasses and native plant life give the place a feeling of being a tequila oasis in the desert. The staff are friendly and greeted our tour group with the house margarita — a tamarind version in a glass rimmed with a chile powder mixture. It tasted wonderfully spicy and tangy.

When you embark on the tour, be sure you are wearing good walking shoes. Casa Herradura is a big place, and you will want to see it all. First up is seeing an agave piña (the center) being stripped of its long, bladed leaves and the green portions sliced away. This is because those green skins will make the tequila bitter if left on. Then, the piña is cut in half and taken to the ovens to be roasted.

Herradura uses the oven baking method for roasting agave piñas. There are other distilleries that use an autoclave to speed up the process, but they sacrifice taste as a result. Our host explained it to us as the difference between cooking meat on the grill as opposed to in a microwave oven. Once roasted, the agave has turned a dark pink-brown color and is ready for removing the syrup from the fibers.

Agave roasting in the ovenThe syrup is pumped into large, open fermentation vats. The reason for the open tops is to allow the natural yeasts from the plantation’s trees and other plants to permeate the syrup as it naturally ferments. On our tour, we sampled the syrup in five stages, all straight from the vats. It is interesting how, in each stage of fermentation for only a few days, the taste of the syrup changes. Some of the sweetness is lost as it converts into alcohol; then flavors of banana and florals begin taking shape.

At this stage, the tequila is pumped into large copper kettles and distilled. Afterward, water is added to the Blanco to bring its alcohol content down before bottling. The remaining tequila is sealed into oak barrels to age.

Antique agave crushing wheelHerradura is a charming place, filled with enchanting beauty and history. We drank tequila from barrels carried on the back of a donkey and toured the old factory. Rumors are that the old areas are haunted by the souls of those who died there: workers, priests hiding from persecution, and people seeking refuge from revolutionists. There are underground tunnels where Herradura actively helped smuggle many people to safety in generations past. Those tunnels are now filled with water. Here we also learned that tequila was originally sold solely at barrel-strength and only to men. Times have indeed changed.

The tequila donkeyIn Mexico, people seldom drink tequila cocktails. They prefer sipping it neat or mix it with Squirt or Coke. Drink good tequila from champagne flutes or brandy snifters, as those were recommended as the best glasses to bring the scents and tastes to your experience.

An interesting note: when creating your own tasting, line the glasses up in order — Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, etc. Take in the scent of each after swirling it in the glass to observe the color before tasting. Once you’ve tasted them all, go back to the Blanco and Reposado. Taste one and then the other without any water in between. Then, sip the Blanco again. The change in flavor is immediate and wonderful. Do the same for the Añejo, bouncing among all three. When you do this, the more elusive flavors come forth for you to enjoy. It is a bit of a ritual and a perfect way to enjoy Herradura at your next dinner party.

A Visit to Napa Valley Distillery

Like many small distilleries, Napa Valley Distillery — the first distilling operation since Prohibition to open its doors in a town that’s synonymous with wine — has a two-pronged approach to making product. It distills some spirits on its own (vodka and brandy, mainly, distilled from sauvignon blanc grapes) using a couple of neat, small stills, and it sources everything else. The focus with its sourced products is heavily on barrel finishing, and the company often makes use of local wine barrels to give rum, whiskey, and a variety of liqueurs a Napa-style spin.

Recently I took a tour of NVD as part of the Flavor! Napa Valley event, which included a quick tour of the small facility, followed by a cocktail tasting and food pairing in the reception hall situated upstairs from the distillery and warehouse. Owner Arthur Hartunian explained that his focus is really on hospitality foremost, and the speakeasy-like environment up here is designed as a bit of a nostalgic oasis for wine-soaked tourists looking for something a little different after a day of sipping chardonnay.

NVD plans to expand its distilling operations this summer, partnering with local breweries to make whiskey out of beer. Meanwhile, you can drop by the operation (note that reservations are required), take a quick spin and pay your respects to Walter White, and head upstairs for bespoke cocktails made exclusively from ingredients Napa Valley produces, including its own syrups and shrubs. If you can get an Aviation (made with its own clear creme de violette) or a Sazerac, I highly recommend both.

napadistillery.com

Understanding the Wines of France

To an average wine imbiber, a trek through the new world wine section of their store of choice is a painless ordeal; a California Cabernet has “Cabernet Sauvignon” written right there on the label. Same with an Oregon Pinot Noir, an Australian Syrah, and just about any other “New World” wine. Blends might be trickier, but oftentimes they’ll have a breakdown of which varietals they’re made of somewhere on the label.

This is not so for the labels from most wine-producing countries in Europe, which to the uninitiated can seem maddeningly confusing and needlessly opaque. How can someone tell what is in a bottle of Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, for instance? The answer is that, while French wine labels might be vague, France’s wineries are dominated by the governmental body Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC (with France’s entry into the EU, technically the term is now AOP, but many wineries still use the designation AOC). The AOC’s laws are very, very strict about what grapes can be grown in what region of the country, in order to maintain the terroir, or the individual taste of a wine region, and so by knowing how these grapes and regions match up, you’ll always have at least a basic idea of what to expect in any bottle of French wine. Join us today to take a whirlwind tour through four of France’s top wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux is the most famous of France’s wine regions — perhaps of all of the world’s wine regions — and is the region that most people think of when they think of French wine. Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on France’s southwest side, split in two by the Gironde estuary, some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Bordeaux, including the several-thousand-dollar Château Cheval Blanc, which featured heavily in the movie Sideways. The grapes most regularly used in red Bordeaux wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carbernet Franc, but of course it can’t be so simple as to just say that and call it a day. The split in the region caused by the Gironde also causes a split in the varietals of grapes used in the wines: on the left bank of the river, including areas like Médoc and Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the wines, whereas on the right bank, typified by areas like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are heavily Merlot-based wines. White Bordeaux blends are typically made between the two rivers that form the estuary, and are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Thanks to Bordeaux blending processes, a good Bordeaux can be endlessly complex, with fruit notes subordinate to tastes and scents like pencil lead, flat stone, loam, and others, depending on which grapes are used. They can be intimidating for new wine drinkers, but a Bordeaux blend has incredible aging potential and can continue to surprise you with new flavors and aromas hours after it’s been opened.

Across the country from Bordeaux, nearing the central east of France, is the region of Burgundy. The regional names you’ll see on the label for Burgundy include Chablis, Macon, and Beaujolais, but unlike Bordeaux, things are simpler here: With one exception, all red Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir grapes, and with no exceptions, all white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes. So why not just slap the grape name on the bottle? Because terroir is still strongly in effect within Burgundy, and white Burgundies made in different regions, for instance, can taste completely different. A white Burgundy from Chablis, for instance, usually tastes very dry, with a white stone minerality, not at all like a Chardonnay someone used to California butter bombs like Rombauer would expect, whereas white Burgundies from Pouilly-Fuisse tend to be more woody and creamy. The one exception to the Pinor Noir-based red Burgundies are the wines from Beaujolais. As you may know if you join in the tradition of opening a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau around Thanksgiving, Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, which is more fruit-forward and immediately ready to drink than a drier, earthier Burgundy made from Pinot Noir.

North of Burgundy, in the upper northeast of the country, right on the border with Germany, lies the region of Alsace. In the history of the two countries, Alsace has always been a point of contention, and it has changed hands between the two countless times; this gives the region a strong German influence that is shared with their wines. Alsatian wines are made almost exclusively with white grapes, especially Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They’re made in a more dry, mineral-forward style than someone used to United States Riesling and Gewurz might expect, but like an Italian Pinot Grigio, they’re very refreshing and go great with food. Alsatian Rieslings especially also have excellent aging potential among white wines due to their acidity, and in good conditions can continue to age well for decades.

Too cold up in Alsace? Head south, starting in the Swiss Alps and ending at France’s beautiful eastern Mediterranean coast, near Italy, where you’ll find the wine-growing region of the Rhône Valley. For someone used to a more fruit-forward style of red wine like those found in California or Australia, the wines from the Rhône area might be a good jumping-off point into the world of French wines. The primary grapes used in Rhône blends include red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier, though AOC allows additional varietals to be blended into the wines in more prestigious regions. Starting up in the north of the Rhône, around the Swiss Alps, you’ll find regions like Crozes-Hermitage that make spicy, savory Syrah that will age wonderfully for years. Further south you’ll find more of an influence of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wines, from inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône, to pricier, more complex Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to gorgeous, sumptuous blends from around the former Papal enclave of Avignon, called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the northern Syrahs tend to be savory and meaty, the climate of southern Rhône produces rich blends with a perfect balance of berries and the natural terroir that French wine strives for.

This is of course only very a basic overview of France’s four best-known wine regions. Whole books have been written about each of these, and there are many more lesser-known regions within the country, like the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon. Hopefully this overview will help you try a new French wine or two, and discover the wonders that the country has in store for a curious drinker.

A Visit to Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, located in the heart of Nashville, is a young distillery but it has an incredibly old story. When we visited, brothers Charles and Andy Nelson took us back to their great, great, great grandfather, (also named) Charles Nelson, who was making whiskey in this part of Tennessee back in the 1860s. He built his distillery up to become one of the largest in the country, but when Prohibition hit — and it hit in Tennessee some ten years before the rest of the U.S. — the distillery was shuttered for good.

In 1909, Green Brier Distillery faded away, and even the history of the distillery fell into obscurity in the Nelson’s family. Tales of an ancestor making whiskey became apocrypha, and by the early 2000s, Andy and Charles — both philosophy graduates working outside the booze biz — had largely forgotten it.

Things changed in 2006 when the original Green Brier facility was discovered, added to a historical landmark registry by a local who’d uncovered the still-standing but overgrown warehouse. The Nelson brothers actually saw the landmark sign on the side of the road, and inspiration struck on the spot: The stories were true, and maybe they should launch Green Brier once again.

And so they did.

Like many distilleries, Green Brier started with contract whiskey from MGP, but the Nelson brothers go to great pains to finish much of it in wine and other spirit barrels to distinguish it from any number of other MGP-sourced bottlings. Naturally, they’re getting their own distillery off the ground here, too, and white dog distilled using the same recipe the original Green Brier used (turns out it was published in a newspaper at the time), has been coming out of the small pot/column combo still here for 2 1/2 years now. With some 1000 barrels of whiskey they’ve produced now aging on site, the company is aiming for a limited release of a two year old Tennessee whiskey by the end of this year, with a full release of a four year old whiskey in 2019.

After the informative tour (the distillery is open to the public), the Nelsons walked us through the full lineup of products (and hinted at some upcoming ones, like a whiskey that is now aging in 75 year old Spanish brandy casks), some of which are only sold on site. Thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Nelson’s White Whiskey – The white dog, produced on site, is sold only at the distillery. Notes of popcorn, lots of banana, and bubble gum complement chewy grains. Surprisingly pleasant and easygoing. 91 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon – The “classic” bottling. This is straight MGP bourbon, unfinished. Lightly oaky, with classic butterscotch and toffee notes and some caramel corn on the back end, with a touch of red fruit. Hard not to like. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Sherry Cask Finished – Finished in oloroso sherry casks. Some hospital notes emerge here, but also cherry, tea leaf, and cola notes. Fruit is stronger on the body, with chocolate and gentle oak notes emerging on the finish. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Single Barrel – A cask strength version of the classic bottling, this one features bold nougat and toffee notes, and flavors of vanilla cookies. Lingering Mexican chocolate notes hang on the finish. A gem. 122.3 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Cognac Cask Finished – Lush and sweet, with notes of strawberry, chocolate, caramel, and nougat notes galore. Quite fruity on the finish. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Madeira Cask Finished – Slightly winey as expected, though there’s ample fresh fruit here. A little corny, but the rye notes are heavier as the finish emerges. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Schatzi Vodka – Andy Nelson made this on site for his wedding; it’s only sold here at the distillery. It’s a surprisingly good vodka, made from the same mash as the white whiskey, easygoing with sweet and light corn notes and a buttery finish. 80 proof.

greenbrierdistillery.com

A Visit to Jack Daniel’s Distillery

With sales of nearly 12 million cases per year, Jack Daniel’s is far and away the biggest whiskey brand in the world. No one else even comes remotely close. And if you spend any amount of time at the home of Old No. 7 in Lynchburg, Tennessee, you’ll be told in no uncertain terms who you can thank for that: Frank Sinatra, who discovered the brand in the 1960s and singlehandedly rescued it from obscurity.

It’s easy to dismiss JD as a factory whiskey, a boring brand well past its prime that may as well be made by robots. But take a tour of Jack Daniel’s mammoth operation and you’ll see that Old Blue Eyes might have been on to something. While the distillery is huge and complex – with over 500 people working here – every facet of production remains under the control of the distillery or parent company Brown-Forman.

In a private tour given by Assistant Master Distiller Chris Fletcher, son of JD’s fifth Master Distiller Frank Bobo, we walked through every step of the process. The front end of that looks a lot like you’d see in any bourbon house: JD trucks in corn, rye, and barley (the proportions are 80/8/12, respectively), then puts it through one of 64 fermenters before it heads through the 40-foot-tall copper column stills for distillation.

Before it hits the barrel, of course, the whiskey must be filtered through maple charcoal – part of the law that separates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon – in what is known as the Lincoln County Process. It’s important to note that this filtration happens before aging. Whiskey goes into the charcoal as white dog and it comes out as white dog, though it tastes completely different. (More on that later.)

Out back, stacks of maple staves, dried on site, are burnt to charcoal by trained firefighters. JD is proud of its charcoal filtering and boasts that bourbon is only used in one place: As a fire-starter to get those maple staves blazing. The coals go into one of 72 vats packed 10 feet high, into which the white whiskey is slowly dripped. It takes three days to make its way to the bottom, at a rate of less than 2 gallons per minute. When it does make it through, it is finally put into barrels and stored on site in one of Jack’s 88 warehouses. (All barrels come from Brown-Forman’s own cooperage, which also supplies Woodford Reserve and Old Forester; in a unique twist, these are well toasted before charring to an equivalent of a #4 char.)

Old No. 7 has no age statement, but is typically 4 to 5 years old, as is Gentleman Jack. The Single Barrel releases tend to run toward 7 to 8 years of age. Also worth noting: All the water used for the mash and for proofing comes from the distillery’s on-site spring, which is why JD is located here, out in the middle of nowhere, about a 90-minute drive from Nashville. Jack doesn’t even leave its yeast or bacteria strains to chance. They are all cultured on site and delivered to each fermentation run as they’re needed.

Of course, every good distillery tour must end with a tasting, though up until a few years ago it was illegal to taste the whiskey they make here, until Tennessee changed the law regarding tastings in a dry county like Moore County. JD now has a swanky tasting area built into one of its small warehouses; we moved on to a private tasting in one of the offices to sample the bourbon line (leaving the flavored whiskeys to sample on another day).

A lot of these whiskies will surely be familiar to many of you, but it was nice to taste them comparatively and in the backyard in which they were made. Some thoughts follow (in the order tasted).

Jack Daniel’s Unmatured – Before Charcoal Mellowing – Here’s the white dog, straight off the still. Corn-heavy, slightly bitter… it could be any old white lightning. (Tasted at 80 proof.)

Jack Daniel’s Unmatured – After Charcoal Mellowing – Quite a different experience, as the grain notes are stripped down and replaced with floral elements and lots of fruit – banana and apple, especially. Eye-opening, and perhaps the clearest argument of why Tennessee whiskey ought to be classified separately from bourbon. (Tasted at 80 proof.)

Gentleman Jack – Invented in 1988 to compete with the white spirits craze, Gentleman Jack is basically Old No. 7 that goes through 3 extra feet of charcoal filtration after it is aged. This results in a lighter (literally, it’s a much paler color) whiskey that shows more fruit while finishing clean. On that front, it succeeds, and the whiskey is an easy sipper that also mixes nicely. 80 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – The Single Barrel program began in 1997 to give connoisseurs a more fully-aged, higher proof version of JD. Old No. 7 dropped from 90 to 86 proof in the 1980s, and again to today’s 80 proof in 2002. (Imagine the outcry if that happened today!) If that didn’t get you there, well, JD could tell you to try Single Barrel. These are honey barrels from upper floors of the JD warehouses, and you can feel the lushness that comes with a few extra years of age. Bold and butterscotch-heavy, with big dessert-like sweetness, caramel, cloves, and ample barrel char, this is the way JD really ought to be consumed. 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 – It is tough to go from Single Barrel back to the mainline product, as it pales in comparison to the Single Barrel. Here it comes across as a bit thin, green with vegetal notes, and more barrel forward, though cloves do hit the nostrils, and are evident on the finish. 80 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Rye Single Barrel – JD’s rye program has been years in the making, and its single barrel offering is now for sale in limited quantities. A batched, standard-edition release is likely to finally hit the market later this year. It’s got a bit of a medicinal note, with black pepper and dill following, while the finish picks up the pace with toffee and spice character. This is drinking quite well today and merits sampling. 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof – This is a selection from the private barrel selection program (of which we’ve reviewed a few), which is effectively a Single Barrel selection bottled at full strength. This one showcases menthol, more visible caramel corn notes, dense and dark spices. Let it linger in the glass and more of that butterscotch makes it to the fore. 132.5 proof (bottles vary widely).

Of course, no visit to Lynchburg would be complete without a proper southern lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, which is just up the road and which has served this community since 1913. Served family style and hosted by one of Lynchburg’s locals, it’s the only way to complete a long day of touring and tasting.

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