Visit Twelve: Black Star Farms
Black Star Farms is a winery that also produces a full line of brandies, grappas, eau-de-vie, and similar spirits. We had the chance to sample two styles of grappa-first from a red and then a white grape-well as a pear brandy and peach eau-de-vie. Where vodka gets the majority of the press, it's a revelation to taste the balance and delicate flavors offered in grappa and eau-de-vie. Even better, Don Coe patiently explained the subtle differences in production and taste between each of these fruit-based spirits over a long conversation with us that was probably repeated time and again over the course of the evening to other participants. Yet another facet of American distilling on the rise.
Visit Thirteen: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers is a company that prides itself in small batch, "boutique" bourbons. They were showcasing their entire line of bourbons and we had the opportunity to try the Rowan's Creek, the Noah's Mill, and the Kentucky Vintage bourbons. Once again, in a night of impressive whiskeys all around, the Rowan's Creek and the Kentucky Vintage were both fantastic, full-bodied, beautifully balanced bourbons.
Visit Fourteen: Unknown Distributor
We're not sure what was being showcased at this table because, as we approached, we started taking fire from the guy at the table (no introduction) about the perceived worth (and lack thereof) of numeric scores awarded to spirits by supposed pros. His contention was that palates were different, times of day were different, context is different, and these so-called professionals should model ourselves on the "British model" of text-only ratings and leave the numbers behind. Obviously, we disagree as we've been at pains to refine and make useful these same numerals. This article is certainly not the place to resolve that kind of dispute... but we will note that we offer a broad array of ratings rather than a single snapshot in time replete with user ratings as well. This should bring any numeral into appropriate context. We were never sure quite what happened but something sure got under this guy's skin. Whatever spirits he had went un-tasted by us.
Visit Fifteen: Mockingbird Distillery
Mockingbird is better known as Tito's Handmade Vodka, an iconic brand in the craft-distilling world and one of the first to achieve national level distribution. We were told it went from nowhere to a current capacity of 4 million cases a year. And yet, the owner "still tastes each and every batch for quality control." They described themselves as the, "Navy Seals of the vodka business."
Visit Sixteen: Great Lakes Distillery
This was the moment when we ran into some old friends. We had met and written about the Great Lakes Distillery in 2009 and had already had an opportunity to try their excellent Rehorst Gin,, Rehorst Vodka, and most especially their Citrus and Honey Vodka. This day, we had the signal privilege of trying their rouge and verte absinthes. The green was good... but the red-the "Rouge" colored with natural hibiscus-was absolutely stunning. One of the best spirits of the night. We also tried their one-of-a-kind pumpkin spirit distilled from their neighbor microbrewery.
Visit Seventeen: Templeton Rye Spirits
Templeton Rye Spirits makes the single but highly regarded Templeton Rye Whiskey, which claims descent from Prohibition-era recipes. The rye comes in at 80 proof and we found it smoother and less formidable-which can occasionally make a rye whiskey a bit intimidating. They claim heritage as the outlawed Templeton whiskey that was said to be Al Capone's favorite and was "imported" to Chicago by the truckload.
Visit Eighteen: Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses had a great (and popular!) table decorated with four red roses sprouting from different (empty) whiskey bottles. They had tasting guides for their proprietary five different strains of yeast that provide tasting notes for their different whiskeys. Of their whiskeys, we tried two: the "Yellow Label" introductory bourbon that is their smoothest and lightest whiskey recommended for a Manhattan and the "Small Batch" 90 proof whiskey that we found rich and fruity and another of our personal favorite. We had a pleasant discussion with Brand Ambassador Al Young who discussed their yeast strains kept safe and secure for their distillation. "You're the only outfit that talks about their yeast strains," we asked, swaying slightly at the late hour of the celebration. "What do the other guy's do for yeast?" He regarded us quietly for a moment and then said solemnly, "I don't know. You'll have to ask them." Touche, good sir. At some point, interviewing skills clearly diminish.
Visit Eighteen: Bulleit Distilling Company
On the home stretch of our visit we ran into the Bulleit Bourbon folks, who were handing out rocks glasses adorned with the Bulleit logo along with tastes of their whiskey (thank you!). The bourbon was one we found to have rich and spicy notes (though our tasting notes were verging towards illegible at this point). The Bulleit representatives were quick to point out that the business is family-run even though now owned by Big Liquor Company Diageo. But they regard it as a partnership: their craft distilling with the marketing power of Big Money behind it. They clearly still consider themselves a small company in spirit.
Visit Twenty: Madison Spirits (soon to be "Old Sugar Factory")
Nathan Greenawalt's distillery is so new that he had literally bottled the samples he brought with him to the affair that very same week. And we are very glad that he did. His is an 80 proof honey liqueur: a spirit distilled from sugar beets and flavored with Wisconsin honey and aged in American oak. It was a gorgeous, full-bodied, and only lightly sweet spirit showing up with true honey-colored hues in the bottle. After well over 50 tastes of different spirits, it's remarkable that this spirit stood out as one of the best of the evening.
Visit 21: Yahara Bay Distillers
Yaraha Bay was another old friend of ours that we wrote about in 2009. They have continued their strong importing and distilling to include a full-range of products that will soon include a whiskey and a rum, along with the tremendous success in their partnership with Death's Door Spirits. The whiskey that we got to taste was a four-grain blend aged for 2 years with a mash bill of wheat, barley, corn, and rye.
Visit Twenty-Two: Death's Door Spirits
Appropriately next door to Yahara Bay was Death's Door, who are enjoying success with their specific gin and whiskey recipes made from a distillation partnership with Yahara Bay. We tried both their whiskey-which is recommended for a Manhattan due to the essential character of the grain shining through, and their excellent gin, which had refreshing juniper and bold citrus notes.
Visit Twenty-Three: North Shore Distillery
We finished the evening with some very special friends of ours at the North Shore Distillery. We're familiar with all of their products and we have a particular affection for their No. 11 Gin. So what better way to end the evening than to have a taste of that truly spectacular gin.
Then the place closed down. Thanks to Adam Casey of the Madison Malt Society for a wonderful time. But it wasn't over. What do distillers do when they've been "working" so hard? Many went straight for the hotel bar and had a drink. Hard to believe but true. Not to be outdone, we finished the night in their company with a glass of 10yr Jura scotch... why not give the Euros a try after some of the very, very best that Americans have to offer? It was a good scotch... but after this night with the stuff we had, it was like a modern-day American Idol cover of a true classic.