Bringing together whisky and good friends

Yippee-ki-yay!! American Whiskey in SA

My whisky journey over the past few years has taken me to some interesting places, but I would have never have guessed that it would lead me to this…

US Ambassador Invitation

At first I thought it was a hoax, but then I verified the email address, confirmed the particulars of Messrs. Gaspard and Pickerell and then came across this article on the DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) website confirming that the “Great American Whiskey Experience” was indeed happening!

Of course, it would be remiss of me to turn up to the event without a gift for our hosts, so I dug through my collection and came up with an interesting selection of American whiskey miniatures spanning from the 1930s to 1970s (liquid history!) as can be seen below.

American whiskey miniatures from 1930s-1970s

I ran my selection past my luminary whiskey friend in the States – Joshua Feldman (of The Coopered Tot fame) – noted American whiskey historian and here was his feedback:

What an extraordinary flight you are bringing – with many unicorns and extremely historic bourbons. The Old Fitz (60s) and Weller Special Reserve (50s) are among the finest Bourbons ever made. Ditto with the 50s Old Kentucky Tavern. (Fred Minnick has said a 50s OKT was his top pour of Bourbon ever).

The 70s Old Grand Dad is about the finest era for that legendary National Distillers dusty. The Dillinger rye is rare from the Repeal era. I assume late 30s. That vanished PA style. I.W. Harper (40s-50s) was rich before they changed it in the 70s to be “light”.

Green River is historic and survived Repeal (that one looks 40s) but didn’t survive long. I’ve never tasted it. Glenmore (which made Old Kentucky Tavern) made Mint Springs briefly in the Repeal Era. The bottle is popular with mini collectors. I’ve never encountered a full one and have never tasted it. It was one of the brands introduced to sell younger whiskey in the era they didn’t have aged stocks. Some of these brands survived WWII (when aged stocks were scarce because all alcohol production was diverted to the war).

Jim Beam of the 70s was tasty. It’s the only one with a clear lineage to today’s product and, indeed, has changed the least. A fascinating and top quality group. It’s a flight of American whiskey as fine as could be assembled. Period.

With such insightful and detailed notes (thank you Josh), I felt suitably equipped to meet the Americans!

But I was still missing something… Someone to share the experience with. I don’t know anyone who enjoys an adventure and a dram more than The Whisky Pigs, so I enlisted Theo to join me as we stormed the US Ambassador’s house.

US Ambassadors home in South Africa

A round of whiskey-infused cocktails awaited us on our arrival on a hot autumn afternoon, but my eyes and heart was set on the row of whiskeys and other American spirits (gin, vodka and rum) that awaited us.

American spirits - bourbon, rye, gin and rum lined up for the tasting

The nearest stand, manned by William Burke from Philidelphia Distilling, had Bluecoat American Dry Gin and it’s companion, the Bluecoat Barrel Reserve Gin.

Bluecoat American Dry Gin and Barrel Reserve

Five times distilled, with just four botanicals present – organic juniper berry, coriander seed, citrus peel and Angelica root – Bluecoat is a very respectable gin with a lovely citrus note that comes to the fore.

And then we moved onto the Barrel Reserve… Wow!! What a treat! Take the aforementioned gin, and then age it in a toasted virgin American oak barrel for three to five months and what do you get? A kind of gin/whiskey hybrid that tastes fantastic! All of a sudden you are getting the familiar bourbon flavours – toffee, vanilla and caramel harmoniously integrated with the juniper and spices of the gin.

Theo and I both started placing an order straight away before we were told that it was not in available in SA… yet. The whole purpose of the visit from the DISCUS members is to engage with importers, buyers and retailers and promote trade agreements between the two countries. I truly hope that the target audience was paying attention, because we need this juice in SA.

Next up was a bevvy of whiskeys from KOVAL Distillery who operate out of Chicago, Illinois. In fact, they opened their doors in 2008 and are Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s. Vice President, Mark DeSimone, led us through the tasting.

KOVAL Single Barrel Bourbon and Rye

First sip of the bourbon… Another “Wow!” moment (there were many of them in the afternoon). The KOVAL bourbon had a delicate, sweet profile unlike the other bourbons we’re used to here in SA. Quizzing Mark led us to the answer: millet! As per all Straight bourbons, the mash bill consists of at least 51% corn, but instead of the usual rye and barley, the KOVAL guys have opted to use millet grain instead. It results in a very fruity flavoured (bananas and oranges) and sweet bourbon unlike anything I’ve tasted before. Very different, in a GOOD way. As an added bonus: these guys are organic from grain to glass and all their products have been certified as Kosher.

The KOVAL 100% Rye was more in line with other rye whiskeys I’ve tried before and would work really well in a cocktail. Out of the two, I’d pick the Bourbon – such a curiously good option.

Before moving on down the table, our hosts had a few words to say. Ambassador Gaspard welcomed the guests and then shared a bit of America’s history with whiskey, telling us about the country’s very first president – George Washington – and the distillery he had on his farm where all the labour was done by his six slaves. It was good to see that there is no glossing over of the past, instead it is presented warts and all. Dave Pickerell was up next, enlightening us about the growth of American spirits over the years, partly driven by the rise of the mixology culture. Dave said there are only 4 cocktails that are traditionally made with Scotch whisky and countless more that use bourbon and rye as their backbone. Christine LoCascio, senior VP of International Issues and Trade at DISCUS then spoke of the mission out to SA and the focus on getting more US spirits into SA.

Christine LoCascio, Ambassador Gaspard and Dave Pickerell

Formalities over and back to the tasting table we went! It was Traverse City Whisky Co.‘s turn to impress. Upon arriving at their stand, Theo’s finger shot out, pointing straight at one of the four whiskeys they had on offer – the Traverse City Whisky Co. Port Barrel Finish. (He’s a sucker for Port-finished anything!)

Traverse City Whiskey Co. Line-up

Tucked away in the top-left corner of the state of Michigan, the guys of Traverse City Whiskey Co. are fairly new in the market, with construction of their own distillery in downtown Traverse City being completed in early 2015. Their bourbon and barrel proof releases were contact-manufactured in 2011 according to a recipe they built in conjunction with an industry veteran/consultant (reading between the lines I would hazard a guess that it is non other than Mr Pickerell himself, but this hasn’t been confirmed).

Contract distilling is a fairly common practice utilised by both small and large distilleries in the States for a variety of reasons. You hand over your recipe and a distiller, like MGP of Indiana, produces your whisky for you and then you tweak and release it under your own brand. As long as it’s transparent to the consumer as to where his/her hooch was produced then no harm, no foul in my mind. But this is a topic one could have many a debate (or court case) about… Anyways, I digress!

I didn’t get to taste all four of the Traverse bottlings on offer (oh how I wanted to though!), but the Port Barrel Finish was really good. I’ve tasted a few port-finished Scotch whiskies and have found them a bit hit-and-miss. Sometimes the influence of the port casks overwhelms the spirit, but with the Travese City whiskey, the interplay between the port casks and their whiskey has worked out really well. Definitely one of my top three whiskeys of the event!

Whistlepig, James E. Pepper 1776 Bourbon and Michter's Straight Rye

And then we moved down the table and worked our way through the whiskeys seen above: WhistlePig (loved it), James E. Pepper 1776 Bourbon (not bad) and Michter’s Straight Rye (need to taste this one again – showed a lot of promise). I wish I had more detailed notes of these, but as you know, tasting events like these are great for trying new whiskeys, but you can’t do a proper sit down review of them. I’ll do my best though to get my hands on some of them and report back to you all soon!

Remember my minis? Well after having lugged them around around with me for the better part of 2 hours, my patience was finally rewarded! Ambassador Gaspard approached me and asked “So are we going to see these minis then?” After lining up these beauties on a nearby table the Ambassador asked for a rundown on the selection. As luck would have it, Dave Pickerell was a couple of feet away so he was roped in give us a quick American whiskey history lesson.

Dave and the Ambassador, engrossed with some of my miniatures

And a lesson it was! Dave had no problem at all diving briefly into the backstory of each miniature – sharing some anecdotes and experiences on the way. This man has pretty much seen and done it all – including re-opening the first US President’s (George Washington) distillery Mount Vernon. Dave figured out the recipe with a great deal of digging through old records and distilling manuals and the process used to make the whiskey is entirely manual – replicating exactly the way it was done back then. He was also master distiller at Maker’s Mark for 14 years and his chemical engineering expertise took them from 75,000 cases when he started consulting there in 1989 up to 1.3 million cases today. Simply astounding.

Being schooled on American whiskey history by Dave Pickerell

One of the hardest, most heart-wrenching things Dave Pickerell has ever had to do was the shutdown of the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery back in the early 1990s. “I had people crying on my shoulder as we were closing the place down. I said that if I was ever asked to do another distillery shutdown, well then they could consider it my resignation.”

I roused Dave from his reverie with a question: “So which bottles do you want to take home with you Dave?”. He quickly and politely refused any of them. “They’re going to be opened and enjoyed by someone Dave, so please, take what you would like” I pressed. It should have come as no surprise as to what he pointed to on the table. “Ok, thank you, I’ll just take one. Can I have the 1960s W. L. Weller Special Reserve?” he asked. With the greatest of pleasure!

Then it was my turn to be surprised. “Would you like to open and share it with me here?” Dave asked of Theo and me. He was greeted with an enthusiastic “YES” in stereo. “Just a pity we have to drink it out of this plastic tot cups”, Dave lamented.

Well, Dave obviously doesn’t know just how prepared The Whisky Pigs are! Theo was back in a couple of minutes with a set of 6 Glencairn tasting glasses with travel with him wherever he goes. If you’re going to taste and enjoy whisky, do it right!

Drinking American Whiskey history out of Glencairn glasses

I must admit. Words fail me a bit here… The Weller is without a doubt the finest bourbon I have EVER tasted! Just so incredibly soft. And that nose!! And to be sharing it with a giant of a whiskey legend, on the lawns of the US Ambassador’s house… As I said, my whisky journey has taken me to some interesting places and I’ve met some great people as well as tasted some exceptional whiskies along the way.

Drinking 1960s W.L. Weller Special Reserve with Dave Pickerell

After a whiskey of that calibre, I was ready to wrap things up and head home. You can’t top that surely? Well, you can come close…

Dave asked us if we had tried the Hillrock yet and hearing that we hadn’t led us over to the tasting table where over 20 different bourbons, ryes and rums were vying for attention. You can’t miss the Hillrock’s distinct bottle though. And then I read the words “SOLERA AGED BOURBON WHISKEY”. WHAT??!! You’re kidding me! Of course we all know about Glenfiddich’s 15 year old Solera Reserve which goes through the multiple barrel aging process in Warehouse 8 at the distillery in Dufftown, but a solera bourbon? Awesome.

The level of mastery Dave brings to the party is readily apparent in the spirit when you consider he is taking young whiskey produced at the Hillrock Estate, marrying it with older sourced bourbon and then finishing it off in Oloroso sherry casks. All parts come together nicely, integrating well, leaving you with a full-bodied, fruity, creamy, spicy, butterscotch-infused delight of a whiskey. Dave can be proud of his creation – just look at that smile – he knows it’s good.

Dave Pickerell proudly sharing his Hillrock Distillery Solera Bourbon

I’ve had a few days now to reflect on the event. The thrill of rubbing shoulders with the US Ambassador, meeting a whiskey legend, tasting a variety of new – to South Africans at least – whiskeys, gins and rums has died down. And yet, the simple fact remains…

The Americans really know what they’re doing when it comes to making spirits. They are not afraid of innovation and experimentation. Drinkers around the world are looking for new and interesting options and these guys are delivering on that, big time!

I just hope that this DISCUS mission to South Africa has the desired effect: that local importers, distributors and retailers are as excited as I am about the products we tasted and that orders are placed and trade between our two countries commences.

Finally, a big thank you to Ambassador Gaspard for hosting us at his fine home, the DISCUS contingent for bringing across the distillers to talk about their products, as well as the great selection of whiskeys and other spirits that showcase what the US has to offer (and they are just the tip of the iceberg!). And thanks to the local organisers for putting it all together. When is the next one? πŸ™‚


1 Comment

  1. Neville Neville
    April 20, 2016    

    Being a “bourbon pig” myself this is encouraging news that we way down in the South corner of Africa may be getting some alternative bourbons to savour. It about time South Africa is added to the bourbon market as the American whiskys are really interesting and have a huge variety we rarely get to see, yet taste. Bring it on Guys!

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