Without further ado, here are the highlights from the last day of the conference - a very interesting day indeed.
Whiskey Distillers Panel
We left the Seelbach bright and early to head to the Huber Winery campus. Our sessions for the day were held in their lovely conference area. After the welcomes and administrivia, we kicked off the conference sessions with a panel of craft whiskey distillers.
The panel included Jess Graber from Stranahan's in Colorado, Ralph Erenzo from Tuthilltown in New York, Don Poffenroth from Dry Fly in Washington, and Rick Wasmund from Copper Fox in Virginia. Here are a few highlights of the panel:
- Pretty universally, the distillers reported that they get about a 10% ratio of whiskey to wash, so 3000 gallons of wash yields 300 gallons of whiskey
- Some of the distillers do their own fermentation, while others have a local brewery create the mash. Reasons varied - some met with reluctance from the breweries, while others outgrew the capability of their local brewery; and one really wanted to control the entire process from the beginning (he even malts his own barley)
- Relative to the "small batch" brands made by larger companies, their production levels are very small. However, they vary within their group - ranging from 1-2 barrels per month to 6 barrels per week being put away. Those who've been making whiskey longer, or have larger aspirations, are producing at higher levels.
- If they had it to do over, they all wished they had allocated more money for marketing. "Getting bottles to leave the store is the key," as Rick Wasmund rightly pointed out.
I had the pleasure of leading a panel talking about working with partners in the distribution process. Our aim was to set realistic expectations among the new distillers (and those aspiring to be distillers) about how the process works, who the players are, and what you can expect. Since I was on the panel, I didn't get any photos of that one!
Tasting Panel with Jim Murray
Toward the end of the day, we were split into two groups for a structured tasting. I went for the blind whiskey tasting led by whiskey expert/critic Jim Murray. Jim's approach to tasting (and education) was very interesting. Some parts of it were in conflict with other advice I've been given over the years, but I went with it. Here were the steps:
- Nose the spirit - at room temperature, before any alterations
- Warm it up - place your hand under the bottom of the glass, and your other hand over the top. Hold the glass to your chest (unfortunately we ended up doing this for at least 10 minutes, so it got a bit uncomfortable, but people who cheated were called out on it)
- Remove your hand from the top and let the alcohol vapors escape
- Nose it again - one nostril at a time, which allows you to detect the aroma more clearly and allows more air to pass through
- Taste the spirit - put some in your mouth, and then open and close your mouth with your lips pursed (kinda like making a fish face); too bad I didn't get a photo of a room full of people doing this
- Swallow or spit
- Penderyn Welsh Whiskey
- Sazerac Rye Whiskey
- Buffalo Trace Bourbon
- Clear Creek Single Malt
- And the most interest one, Amrut Cask Strength 3 year old whiskey from India
Topinambur and Other Tastes
After the formal conference ended for the day, we had an informal tasting of products. Most of them are either on the market or works in progress. Lots of interesting stuff to taste, most of which I can't get in Chicago. The most interesting thing I tried, which has never been on the market here as far as I know, is a Topinambur made by one of the finest distillers in the US.
What is Topinambur, you ask? Its Jerusalem artichoke brandy, quite popular in a small part of Europe. The Jerusalem artichoke is also known as the sunchoke, and apparently has more sugar (fructose) in it than beets. I think this tops the white asparagus brandy that Derek tasted in Germany a few years ago, but maybe not.
Dinner, and then Art & Whiskey
We had a fantastic fried chicken dinner at Huber, and then we headed back to the hotel. As you might expect, some of us went out afterward. It was kind of late by the time we headed out, though, and being a weeknight there weren't that many options. So we ended up in the touristy 4th Street Live area. Not much to say for the drinks (pretty much bourbon or beer), but it was fun. There is some great public art in Louisville - here are a few favorites.