Wine Enthusiast Podcast: American Spirits

From U.S. Army veterans on a mission to make Bourbon, to kombucha-distilled vodka and the rise of non-Scotch single-malts, we talk to the people reshaping America's spirits industry.
Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

Craft distilleries are on the rise in the United States. This week, we’ll raise a glass to the Americans behind those small-batch stills: Like the whiskey master whose wizardry is changing the face and taste of American single malts. Plus, we’ll meet the team behind a brand new artisanal vodka with a twist. And we’ll hear from U.S. Army veterans on a mission: to make world-class Bourbon.

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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Read the full transcript of “American Spirits”:

Susan Kostrzewa: From Wine Enthusiast Magazine, this is the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m Executive Editor, Susan Kostrzewa. Coming up, American spirits. Craft distillers are on the rise in the United States. This week we’ll raise a glass to the Americans behind those small batch stills. Like the whiskey master who’s wizardry is changing the face and taste of American single malts.

Dave Pickerell: There’s very few people that are actually trying to be American scotch, but we’re one of those handful that’s deliberately trying to be a good Speyside.

SK: Plus, we’ll meet the team behind a brand new artisanal vodka, with a twist.

Jeff Weaber: Vodka from Kombucha, what? It certainly raises some eyebrows, but then the flavor itself, it can stand alone just on flavor, without the stories.

SK: And, we’ll hear from US Army veterans on a mission to make world-class Bourbon.

Steve Gagner: On a national scale we’re representing the military, and we’re gonna make a product that they are going to be proud of, and we’re gonna put our heart and soul into everything we do here.

SK: It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Mark Twain once said, too much of anything is bad. But too much good whiskey is barely enough. Nowadays it’s getting easier and easier to find good whiskey. And we’re talking single malt craft whiskey, made right here in the United States. The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission was formed just two years ago, and already it includes more than 70 distillers. One of the biggest movers and shakers in the American single malt industry is a master distiller who’s been called a whiskey luminary, Mr. Whiskey, and even the Johnny Appleseed of whiskey. His name is Dave Pickerell and he spent years as a renowned consultant for the American craft distilling movement. Thanks to Dave’s whiskey wizardry in New York’s Hudson Valley, Wine Enthusiast named Hillrock Estate Distillery’s American Single Malt the best ever. Spirit’s editor Karen Newman recently Caught up with Dave Pickerell while he was out on the road, distillery hopping.

As Dave explains, going into the whiskey business wasn’t originally his plan.

Dave Pickerell of Hillrock Estate Distillery
Dave Pickerell of Hillrock Estate Distillery

Dave Pickerell: I was just gonna go be a chemical engineer. While I was getting my masters in chemical engineering my mentor discovered that I’m an idiot savant at distilling. He decided that the beverage alcohol industry needed me, and so when I got done with my military service, and I was just ready to be a chemical engineer, he insisted that I join a small consulting firm in Louisville that he said needed me, so for about five years I just traveled around the world building distilleries and parts of distilleries and got to work in China, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, the Dominican Republic, all over the US and one of my clients was Maker’s Mark.

One day Bill Samuels walked out of his office and asked if I wanted to be his master distiller, literally, I didn’t even apply, he just offered it to me. Of course I said yes, and I think the only time I’ve ever stuttered, It took me like, 60 seconds to get yes out. Then I got to sit at the feet of Bill Samuels for 14 years learning about growing brands. But then the bug for craft spirits got me and about 10 years ago I left Maker’s Mark to start my own company called Oak View Spirits with the goal of helping other people get started in the craft spirit movement.

Kara Newman: And, tell us how you came to Hillrock and how you started your journey making American single malt.

DP: One of the things that I did early on was, I wanted to do a little writing and actually wrote a piece for what was then called Malt Advocate Magazine, not Whiskey Advocate, and it was kind of a look forward of what I thought was gonna happen in the craft spirit world and one of the things that I talked about rather extensively was the possibility of terroir whiskey. An American whiskey. And up to that time, pretty much all American whiskey was made in the same geographical area, so there was no real discussion about terroir, but with the advent of distilleries in New York and Florida and Seattle Washington, of all places, there would begin to be a discussion about terroir.

So a guy named Jeff Baker, the owner of Hillrock, saw that article and said that’s what I want to do. He basically said, I want to partner up with you and we want to express terroir in whiskey and I want two things: I want internationally award winning whiskeys, and eventually I want a big smoke bomb scotch style whiskey. And other than that you’re gonna have to have binoculars to see from one goal line to another, have fun.

And with something like that I couldn’t help but to join on, and so we started with the Solera-aged Bourbon then we did a double cast rye, and finally we tackled the daddy of them all, the single malt.

Our goal was to essentially be the American Speyside scotch.

Hillrock's Solera Aged Bourbon
Hillrock’s Solera-aged Bourbon

Kind of my view on the world of single malts is, when craft beer started, the big guys were making water and white water. And there was a hole as big as all outdoors for the craft beer guys to jump in and make APA’s and IPA’s and whipped beers and on and on and on.

In the craft sprits space that wasn’t true. Cause the big guys were already playing in every market, and making really good products in every market, except American single malt. And there were no big guys in that arena. And so the craft guys started flocking into that space.

There’s very few people that are actually trying to be American scotch if you’ll pardon the expression. They’re just trying to be different. But we’re one of those handful that’s deliberately trying to be a good Speyside. And literally we do everything the way they do in Scotland except for three things:

We’re not in Scotland, we can’t fix that.

By American law the whiskey has to go into a new barrel first, so it does, but in our case, as soon as it’s practical we get it out of the new barrel and put it in a used barrel, cause that’s where it belongs.

And the third is, we don’t add any caramel coloring to our whiskey because we’re kind of happy with the color already.

But other than that we literally do everything the way they do it in Scotland, including malting our own grain and using peat from Speyside that we got imported. And then to top it all off, once we’re done with everything, it first goes into a Pedro Ximénez barrel and then an Oloroso barrel just to give it a little cherry influence just so that we can be in there slugging away with the rest of the guys from Scotland.

KN: So you said something I’d like to back up to. You were talking about the concept of terroir in whiskey, and I love that. You know we’re a wine publication and we talk all the time about how certain regions have their own terroir. I mean you can talk about Sauvignon Blanc and how it’s made in France versus New Zealand versus Washington State and it tastes a little different no matter where you are, and I love that you’re trying to do that with whiskey too, I mean, do you really think that whiskey can actually have terroir?

DP: Oh heavens yes, and especially single malt. It was a concept more than anything until we started distilling. And literally the, when we turned on the still the first batch in the distillate you could taste cinnamon and clove. And that’s what our fields give us and that’s how our fields speak their terroir is in cinnamon and clove. It’s in everything we do, and it’s not a matter of fighting it, it’s a matter of hugging it, because that’s one of the main terroir elements for our products.

We’re actually, I’ll spill the beans to you, I haven’t told anyone this yet, but for years we’ve been harvesting our barley field by field, and making whiskey on a field by field basis, and some of that will start coming of age within the next year or so. My hope is that we can identify terroir down to the field level.

KN: Now that’s exciting, I mean that’s not just single estate, that’s single field. I haven’t really heard of that before.

DP: You know it’s one of those things. Somebody’s got to do it. We’ll see very soon whether it’s worth our while or not. I really hope that there is a distinguishable terroir, cause that can be a game changer.

KN: What do you say to people who contend that you just couldn’t make an American single malt that could ever compare to scotch?

DP: Basically I would challenge people. Taste it. Taste the Hillrock single malt, taste the Westland single malt, taste the Balconies. There are some great American single malts out there right now

KN: So what do you think is next for the world of American single malt?

DP: Well I think a number of things. The first thing to know is, there’s a lot of learning going on, and the products continue to get better and better and better and better, As time goes along we’ll see that certainly happen with the proliferation of really good tasting malt whiskies made in the United States. It’s a great time to be in the craft spirit world. The fun thing is, you know, if you’re a big guy your barrier to innovation is maybe 50,000 cases and your one, If you’re a craft guy the barrier to innovation is like, three cases. I actually know of a distiller who just in order to try something and get it in the hands of the judges would make three cases worth of a product just to see, is this good enough to stand up. And that means that we can play a lot more, and we can find a lot more cool stuff.

Susan Kostrzewa: Is there an American single malt that you’d single out as exceptional? If so, we want to hear about it. Send an email to podcast@winemag.com and tell us where you found it, and why it’s not to be missed. Again, our address is podcast@winemag.com.

And you can read about other trailblazers in the American single malt movement in the March edition of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Kara Newman spoke with producers from Seattle to Brooklyn. You can learn what makes them tick at winemag.com.

When Dave Pickerell isn’t on the road consulting, he’s the master distiller at Whistle Pig, the legendary rye whiskey distillery in Vermont. Whistle Pig’s tasting room is one of the stops on the Middlebury tasting trail. Within a ten mile radius in the heart of the Champlain Valley, you’ll find more than a half a dozen independent producers of craft beer, wine, cider and spirits. And if you follow the trail about a mile north from Whistle Pigs tasting room, you’ll reach Appalachian Gap Distillery. In an unassuming industrial park outside downtown Middlebury, Appalachian Gap crafts a number of spirits including whiskey, gin, coffee liqueur, and most recently, vodka. But not just any vodka. 300 yards from the distilleries front door is Aqua ViTea Kombucha, a popular purveyor of the naturally fermented tea drink.

The neighboring businesses recently joined forces to make Aqua Vodka, an artisanal vodka that uses the excess alcohol produced when you ferment kombucha.

Podcast producer Rebecca Sheir recently sat down with Appalachian Gap Distillery’s Lars Hubbard and Aqua ViTea Kombucha’s Jeff Weber.

Jeff began by explaining how he got into the kombucha business.

Jeff Weaber and Lars Hubbard of Appalachian Gap Distillery
Jeff Weaber and Lars Hubbard of Appalachian Gap Distillery

Jeff Weaber: My wife relocated us out to Portland, Oregon to study naturopathic medicine. And while we were out there I took a job brewing beer. I was drinking beer at six in the morning. Sometimes I was still drinking beer at two in the morning. And she was studying for tests all the time and we started to split apart a little bit. And I realized we needed to find a way to synchronize our lifestyles and she started educating me about the important roll of nutrition and we started this journey together and found a beverage that fit both categories. So we started brewing kombucha using some of the brewing equipment that was available to us in the brewery. Our plan was to move back to Vermont where we had started our journey together, and use kombucha as sort of a platform to help build her practice. Now her practice is helping to support our business.

Rebecca Sheir: When did you realize there might be a problem, or an issue in terms of the alcohol content in the kombucha that you were brewing?

JW: We got a knock on the door from the department of liquor control and the tax and trade bureau and the TTB which is more commonly known as the ATF. And they spent the next four or five hours with me digging through our process, taking samples, and they were kind of cryptic, but I pulled out of them that they had been studying product on the market, had been testing it and found elevated alcohol levels and were now going to see if those levels were happening right from the brewery, or if they were happening in the field, kind of, secondary fermentation happening in the bottles.

So it was a very nerve wracking afternoon. So after they left, I took all the duplicate samples that they had just taken from our brewery and sent them to a state lab. We got results back in maybe three weeks and saw that, yes indeed there was elevated levels.

A non-alcoholic product needs to be under .5 percent and we saw things as high as two and a half percent.

RS: So what did you do?

JW: We immediately reached out to Cornell, food science, and got connected to a laboratory over there. We started doing a lot of biological work. Understanding how to manipulate, I guess you’d say, the fermentation to keep the alcohol down. Kombucha is a complex fermentation. Its really made from simple ingredients. But the fermentation is difficult because there are so many different micro-organisms, where as a beer, a wine… a lot of these things are controlled with a single organism and you know, for thousands of years people have learned to control a single yeast to make beer with, and here’s kombucha, and it’s got two yeasts, and it’s got multiple strands of bacteria and all these other things that when you DNA test them have never been identified before, and we thought, oh, let’s just break this down, and we’ll pull it apart, we’ll fix the organisms and we’ll put it back together and make kombucha and it will be perfect.

That was very difficult for us. We found a machine that was being used by Free. We discovered Free Wine. They had purchased a machine that could remove alcohol from wine, and so we started looking at that, investigating it, and it was perfect, except for the price tag. It was a two million dollar machine and so it was completely unobtainable for us, so we had to figure out a way to make our product biologically and when we got to the point where we couldn’t scale with that anymore, that machine became our only option. So we dedicated everything we could to finding a way to purchase one of those machines.

RS: So you have this machine that sort of uses pressure to separate the alcohol from the base liquid. And when you began using this machine did you ever think you’d be on your way to entering the spirits business?

JW: Well I realized early on that when we dedicated ourselves to this solution, that we were gonna have a bi-product of alcohol, and that was gonna become the next challenge. What do we do with all of this excess alcohol that we have.

RS: Tell us then how your two companies came together. Can you give us a play by play of how this partnership came to be?

Lars Hubbard: Play by play? I don’t think we have one of those. (laughter) We actually were doing a tasting in town, here in Middlebury, of our spirits, and Jordan Benjamin, who is the CFO officially of Aqua ViTea, started talking to my business partner about what we could do and the problem that they were having. And so then Jeff came over and we sat down and talked about what we could do. They tasted the spirits we had made. We talked a little bit about the process and we decided to do a test batch and see how it worked out.

RS: Can you explain how the extracted alcohol from the kombucha actually makes it’s way into the vodka?

LH: Basically we distill that extracted alcohol, they ship it over to us at about sixty percent alcohol and we redistill it. And then we get about forty percent of the total alcohol they sent to us. It’s good clean ethanol, and so that’s what becomes Aqua Vodka. One of the things to understand about a small distillery like ours is that we’re able to tease out a lot of flavors, in the distilling business they’re called congeners, they’re things that modify the flavor of the alcohol, and because we’re a small distillery, we’re sort of hands on, we can tease out the really sort of sweet flavors that we want to get and everything.

Kombucha by virtue of the fact that it has all those micro-organisms making alcohol has what are called higher alcohols, methanols, wood alcohol. Stuff that is pretty vicious in flavor and dangerous. So either we’re gonna process to basically strip all that out and get to the really sweet, gorgeous spirit that we’ve managed to make. So that was actually the hardest part, was figuring out how to distill it so it would give us the flavor that we wanted.

RS: Can you describe how Aqua Vodka tastes? What notes we sense in there?

LH: Well have you ever tasted kombucha?

RS: Yes!

LH: OK, so there’s sort of a fruitiness but also an earthiness. There’s a slight bitterness to it and it’s just got incredibly complex flavors. And what we found when we made the vodka is that we’re able to pull almost all those flavors through. These are the congeners we’re able to pull through. So it tastes like super purified kombucha to me. It’s got sort of a stronger, fruity note to it.

RS: Do you feel like this is all going to be a hard sell … kombucha vodka?

JW: I think, you know, the vodka category is very crowded, and a lot of people question me. Why did we start with vodka?

It’s kind of because it is a crowded category, This product is so unique that it will rise above, and that’s the feedback we’ve gotten as we’ve sold it into restaurants. A lot of restaurants are whiskey is really hot right now, and they’re kind of scaling back on their vodka selections, and being very thoughtful about what they’ll put in for vodka, and this one rises above a lot that’s on the market right now. It’s an easy story for the servers to tell, you know. Vodka from kombucha? What? It certainly raises some eyebrows but then the flavor itself, it could stand alone just on flavor without the story so it’s, to me it’s an easy sell. Especially if people already understand what kombucha is. The vodka is a great example of how, you know, you can take a difficult solution and find opportunity in it.

Susan Kostrzewa: As of now you can find Aqua Vodka in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and California where you can taste it in a signature cocktail at Levi’s Stadium.

You can find the recipe for the Aqua Scooter on our website winemag.com/podcast.

Time for a break. But when we get back…

US Army veterans join forces to create a brand new distillery.

The Aqua Scooter Recipe

Ingredients

• 2 ounces Aqua Vodka
• Splash St-Germain
• Splash Lillet Blanc
• Lemon twist, for garnish

Directions

Add all ingredients except garnish to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously until chilled and strain into martini glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

Steve Gagner: In between troop leading procedures and patrolling and defending a patrol base we started saying, alright, what are we gonna do when we get out of the Army?

SK: It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Welcome back to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m Susan Kostrzewa. This week we’re highlighting pioneers of the American craft distilling movement, with a show we’re calling American Spirits.

But the next people we’ll meet are American heroes.

Left to right: Zac Fike, Matt Kahaya and Steve Gagner of Danger Close Craft Distilling
Left to right: Zac Fike, Matt Kahaya and Steve Gagner of Danger Close Craft Distilling

Steve Gagner: So we’re opening the valve from the spirit tank to the pump, positioning the nozzle over the barrel, and then we fill for thirty three gallons.

SK: We’re in an industrial garage in St. Albans, Vermont where Steve Gagner is filling one of the very first barrels of Bourbon from Danger Close Craft Distilling.

SG: Danger close in the military, when you’re calling for artillery, if it’s close enough to your position, you tell the folks firing the artillery that these rounds are danger close, meaning those are gonna impact close to our position because the enemy’s gotten in so close et cetera.

SK: As a veteran of the US Army, Steve knows the meaning of danger close firsthand, as does his business partner and fellow veteran, Zac Fike.

Zac Fike: You know, if you ever find yourself in that position, which some of us have, that potentially is the last second of your life. And you’re relying on someone that you can’t see from a far distance to take their time, to really understand the firing mission, and to put those rounds down range and save your life, and we put the same level of detail in our products.

SK: The products Zac’s referring to don’t just include Bourbon. Danger Close is an offshoot of another venture these guys have in the fourteenth state, Fourteen Star Brewing Company.

Steve says he and his long-time buddy, fellow veteran Matt Kahaya got hooked on home brewing after returning from the Iraq War. A few years later, the two Army officers were deployed to Afghanistan.

SG: Matt and I and then very occasionally Zac, we were stationed in a small patrol base in the mountains in Eastern Afghanistan. No power, no running water, no internet. In between troop leading procedures and patrolling and defending a patrol base, meeting with local elders we had some downtime, and to fill a lot of that downtime and keep ourselves kind of, mentally sharp, we started saying, alright, what are we gonna do when we get out of the Army?

We each have about a half dozen years left when we get home but let’s start thinking about it now. So in the back of one of my notebooks, with no access to information, we just started sketching out the business plan for a small craft brewery.

SK: Fast forward to today. In a twenty thousand square foot space that once housed a bowling alley, Fourteen Star Brewing Company brews six thousand gallons of beer a week.

Their signature brews include Follow Me American IPA, Tribute Double IPA, and Valor Ale.

Proceeds from each batch go to various non-profits, including the Josh Pallotta Fund.

SG: Josh deployed with us to Afghanistan with our brigade, and when we came home he succumbed to TBI and PTSD and took his own life. So his mother now runs the Josh Pallotta Fund is to raise awareness of PTSD and reduce veteran suicide, in addition to creating Josh’s House, which is a place for veterans to disconnect from the stress of their life to seek the help that they need. Connect with other veterans and get better in that way,

SK: Steve Gagne says that after running Fourteenth Star for a few years, founding a distillery was a logical next move.

SG: The first step to making Bourbon or whiskey is to brew beer. It’s a different style of beer than you would normally drink, but it’s beer, and we already have a facility where we can brew world-class beer, and so we didn’t have to replicate that to create this place. So we brew the beer, technically the wort, which is unfermented beer, at the brewery. We truck it down here and it goes into our fermenter, ferment the wort, which turns it into alcohol, and then we can distill the alcohol from that.

SK: The day we visit Danger Close, the guys are filling their fifth barrel of what will eventually become Bourbon. And as Zac Fike points out, those Vermont white oak barrels are handcrafted by veterans who own a cooperage a few towns over.

Zac Fike at Danger Close
Zac Fike at Danger Close

ZF: We served in Afghanistan together and so we’re confident that the same love that we put into our product is the same love that they put into their barrels, so it’s great having them local, and we can collaborate.

SK: Zak says Danger Close plans to collaborate with many other veterans as time goes on, by training them to become entrepreneurs.

ZF: We’ve all deployed, we’ve all seen war, and when soldiers go off to war they come back a different person.

I was unfortunately wounded in two thousand ten, and I’m kind of the rookie to the group, and I’ve had some amazing leaders and friendship in Steve and Matt, and they’ve really taught me what the industry is about and the process behind it. And that’s actually been kind of my therapy lately. To be able to come here for twelve hours and distill some Bourbon in peace and quiet has allowed me to reflect on some of the time spent in war, and it’s really brought me some peace and clarity. And I think part of our business model going into the future is to be able to share that with other veterans. Having them come to our facility, whether it’s at the brewery or here at the distillery, learn a trade, give them the confidence to be brave enough to actually take that leap when it comes to business and starting their own business

SK: And adds Steve Gagner, that business could be anything. The way he sees it, veterans have an advantage when it comes to entrepreneurship.

SG: I think there’s three things.

First we’re used to building and working as a team. And I think our sense of risk is skewed. If the distillery or the brewery goes out of business tomorrow, no one’s gonna die, and the Army told us how to plan an operation from the decisive phase of the operation, to the supporting tasks, the sustainment. It literally translates beautifully into business planning. Right now we’re conducting the shaping operation of putting whiskey into barrels, or Bourbon into barrels, our decisive operation is going to be that initial launch. The Army literally trained us to do this, maybe not the Bourbon part, maybe a little bit.

SK: As for when that initial launch is gonna be, Steve says they’ll likely release their Bourbon at the one or two year mark. They also plan on distilling other spirits, including a rum type liquor made with vanilla beans and Vermont maple syrup. Though as Steve and Matt Kehaya point out, given that retirement from the military is still a few years away, all those plans are subject to change.

Matt Kehaya: We’re also all deployable so that kind of plays a factor into things.

SG: We might have to take a year break to do some other stuff.

SK: In the meantime though, these veterans and friends plan on living out the model they created for Danger Close Craft Distilling:

“Keep your friends close, and your whiskey Danger Close.”

You can see photos of Danger Close Craft Distilling on our website, winemag.com/podcast.

While you’re there you can learn more about the Josh Pallotta Fund and other non-profits supported by Fourteenth Star Brewing Company. Again it’s at winemag.com/podcast.

That’s it for today’s Wine Enthusiast Podcast. You heard from Kara Newman, Rebecca Shear and me, Susan Kostrzewa.

Don’t want to miss the latest about wine, food, beer, and spirits? Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And please, write us a review. We’d love to hear what you think. We’d also love to stay in touch. Follow Wine Enthusiast Magazine on Facebook and Twitter and use the hashtag #WEPodcast. Or visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Sheir and Shim, LLC. Our Executive Producer is Marina Vataj. I’m Susan Kostrzewa, see you next time!

Published on February 21, 2018
Topics: Podcast



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