About a month ago my employer organized a tasting for us with the owner of Caledonia Spirits, a local craft distiller. The main focus was on their Barr Hill Vodka, Barr Hill Gin and Elderberry Cordial. But as luck would have it, he also brought along a pre-release sample of the new Early Riser corn whiskey.
The distillery was established in 2008 in Hardwick Vermont by Todd Hardie, a lifelong beekeeper. He started off with vodka made 100% from mead (honey wine) and a few years later added a gin to the lineup. The gin is made from a corn based mash and hand-crushed, whole juniper berries which are locally sourced. Raw honey is added to the gin after distillation (we were told that it is 5% of the total composition, but I’m not sure if that’s by weight or volume).
I’m no connoisseur of vodka or gin, but both products seemed quite good to me. The gin has a unique flavor profile, with the honey adding a sweet, floral aspect. The vodka was more flavorful than most, and had a rich, creamy mouthfeel. I usually scoff at expensive vodkas (which this is at $55), assuming that the fancy bottle is worth more than the liquid inside. At least in this case the price can be justified by the costly base ingredient. The gin is less pricey at $38, which stands to reason since it uses a lot less honey than the vodka.
Caledonia Spirits’ foray into whiskey is still in its early stages. The sample that I tasted was from a small, early release of 200ml bottles, which have already sold out. Todd mentioned that the whiskey had been aged in new, lightly charred oak. I was pretty sure that would classify it as bourbon and that he likely misspoke. But a work related tasting wasn’t really the time or place to press with too many technical questions, so I followed up by email a few days later and Todd put me in touch with his head distiller who clarified some details for me.
Since corn whiskey is kind of an oddball when it comes to American whiskey definitions, I’ll give a brief overview of the regulations, which can be found here if anyone cares to read them in full.
Whiskey is defined as being made from a fermented mash of grain, distilled to less than 190 proof, stored in oak containers (corn whiskey is exempt from this one), and bottled at 80 proof or more.
To be designated as one of the specific types of whiskey (bourbon, rye, wheat, etc.), the mash bill must be composed of at least 51% of that type’s associated grain (corn in the case of bourbon), distilled at no more than 160 proof, aged in new charred oak containers, and entered into those containers at no more than 125 proof.
Corn whiskey is a little different. It must be composed of at least 80% corn and distilled at no more than 160 proof. Barrel aging is optional, but if it is employed the barrel entry proof can be no more than 125 and the barrels have to be either used or uncharred new oak (I believe toasted oak falls under the definition of uncharred).
Anything that fits the above definitions of specific whiskey types (including corn whiskey) and has been aged for at least two years can add the word “straight” to the label.
Also, if a whiskey fits the above definitions (not counting corn whiskey), except that it is aged in used oak, it is known as “whiskey distilled from bourbon (rye, wheat, etc.) mash”. If a whiskey fits the definition of corn whiskey, it must be labelled as such.
Because of the way the regulations are written, a lot of people think that once the mashbill goes over 80% corn, the product can no longer be called bourbon. This is not true, bourbon can be made from a mash of up to (and including) 100% corn. For 80% corn or greater, new charred oak vs. used or new uncharred oak will determine if it is defined as “bourbon” or “corn whiskey”. For less than 80% corn (and down to 51%), new charred oak vs used oak will determine if it is defined as “bourbon” or “whiskey distilled from bourbon mash”.
Now, back to the whiskey at hand. Early Riser corn whiskey has a mash bill that is 82% corn and the remaining 18% is rye and barley, but I didn’t ask about their relative percentages. I think it’s safe to assume that the barley is malted, though I haven’t confirmed that. Early Riser is named after the corn variety that is used to make it. The corn is grown organically at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont.
The bottle states that the whiskey was aged less than one year, and we were told that this batch was aged for 9 ½ months. The distillery is currently producing bourbon as well, and I believe the two share the same mashbill. The bourbon is first entered into new charred (#3 char) 10 gallon oak barrels. After a short time, the bourbon is transferred to 30 gallon barrels for longer term aging. The lightly used 10 gallon barrels are then used to age the corn whiskey.
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with corn whiskey. The only two I recall tasting are Georgia Moon, which is pretty awful, and the recently reviewed Balcones Brimstone, which is fairly iconoclastic. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts:
The nose is young and fresh, but not sharp or hot. It’s highlighted by grain and soft oak.
On the palate, it is slightly floral up front with oak notes adding depth. It comes across youthful, but is still impressive for its young age.
The finish is grain-forward with decent length, and it has a pleasant warming quality at the end.
It has distinctive corn whiskey qualities, but it’s in a whole other league compared to the minimally aged Georgia Moon.
I don’t have a price listed above because I think they may have been charging a bit of a premium for the limited early release at about $26 for a 200ml bottle. I was told that when this becomes a regularly available product in the fall, they will be offering it in 750ml and 375ml bottles and prices are still to be determined. Barr Hill also makes a barrel aged version of their gin, called Tom Cat. That is priced at $46 (750ml), and I’m guessing that the corn whiskey will be in the same neighborhood.
With all of the deceptive whiskey industry practices that I wrote about in my last three posts, it was very refreshing to see the unequivocal statement “mashed, fermented & distilled in house” on the label of this bottle. I’m really interested in trying their bourbon when it becomes available. I like the idea of transferring it from one barrel size to another; at least in the case of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the practice seems to build great complexity.