Wine Enthusiast Podcast: The Craftsmanship of Whiskey Distilling

Illustration by Paige Stampatori

In this episode, the last of a four-part series featuring interviews with tastemakers honored in our annual 40 Under 40 list, our focus is on the spirited side of the beverage world—specifically, whiskey.

Associate Managing Editor Layla Schlack explores what words like “craft,” “artisan,” and “small-batch” mean in the world of distilling, and how much drinkers care about them.

Joining Layla are Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve, and Samara B. Davis, CEO and Founder of Black Bourbon Society, to talk about what goes into whiskey-distilling and what, if any, the practical differences are when it comes to batch sizes, ingredient sourcing and more.

Tim Wiggins, Co-Owner and Beverage Director of several St. Louis hotspots, also weighs in with what questions people have and what information they want when they’re looking to try a new whiskey. We get the full scoop on whether bigger is better, or craft is where it’s at.

Read more about all of our 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020 here, or in the October 2020 issue. You can also learn about how women shaped whiskey history, check out 10 of the best American whiskeys for under $40 or consider these 8 easy steps to blend your own whiskey.

 

 

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Layla Schlack, Elizabeth McCall, Samara Davis, Tim Wiggins

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, the last of our four part series featuring interviews with tastemakers honored in our annual 40 Under 40 list, we’re talking about whiskey. Associate Managing Editor Layla Schlack explores what words like craft artisan and small batch mean in the world of distilling and how much drinkers actually care about them. Joining Layla are Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve, and Samara B. Davis, CEO and founder of Black Bourbon Society, to talk about what goes into whiskey distilling and what if any, the practical differences are when it comes to batch sizes, ingredient sourcing and more. Tim Wiggins, coowner and beverage director of several St. Louis hotspots, weighs in with what questions people have and what information they want when they’re looking to try a new whiskey. We’ll get the full scoop on whether bigger is better, or craft is where it’s at.

Layla Schlack 1:01
Hi, this is Layla Schlack. I’m the associate managing editor of the print at Wine Enthusiast, and I’m here with Elizabeth McCall and Samara Davis. And we’re going to talk a little bit about what craft means when it comes to whiskey. So, Elizabeth, do you mind introducing yourself real quick?

Elizabeth McCall 1:37
Yes. Hi, everyone. I’m Elizabeth McCall. I’m the assistant master distiller for Woodford Reserve.

Layla Schlack 1:43
Congrats, and Samara.

Samara Davis 1:46
I’m Samara Davis, the CEO and founder of Black Bourbon Society, and now the founding executive director of Diversity Distilled.

Layla Schlack 1:56
I just want to start out by talking a little bit about how whiskey is made. Whoever wants to jump in and explain that process a little bit for our listeners who don’t know.

Elizabeth McCall 2:05
Okay, do you want me to take this one, Samarra?

Samara Davis 2:10
Of course you’re you’re the expert.

Elizabeth McCall 2:16
So how whiskey is made. Well, first of all, whiskey basically has a global definition it follows four very basic rules to be a whiskey. That is that it has to be made from cereal grains. It cannot be distilled over 190 proof because when you go above that, you basically have vodka. It must be matured in an oak container. And it cannot be bottled at less than 80 proof and the only place that you’ll really find whiskey at less than 80 proof is in Australia, where the taxes are really high, so we actually bottle sometimes less than that there for that reason.

Layla Schlack 2:57
And then what makes a whiskey Bourbon?

Elizabeth McCall 3:00
Okay, so all Bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is Bourbon. And you take those four rules and you further expand on them. So we identify that Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn, you’ve got to be dominant in corn. It must be distilled at no greater than 160 proof, so we want to retain the character from which it was distilled—those beautiful grain notes you’ll find in there. It must be matured in a new charred oak container, so an oak barrel, and it must be new and charred. The entry proof—so we define what proof point does that whiskey go into the barrel and it cannot go into the barrel at anything greater than 125 proof. It cannot be bottled at anything less than 80 proof. You can only add water to it. You cannot add add any coloring or any kind of flavoring to it. It’s all natural, just water. And, of course, last but not least, it is a product of the United States of America. So you cannot make Bourbon anywhere else in the world and call it Bourbon.

Layla Schlack 4:15
So you mentioned that for Bourbon, you can’t add any sort of color and you can only add water. For other types of whiskey, is it okay to add coloring? Is that something other producers do?

Elizabeth McCall 4:25
Yes. So if you were to make a blended whiskey, for instance, you can add different flavorings to it and you can add color to enhance it. So that’s why sometimes you’ll see whiskies—and they’re really beautiful whiskies, it’s not not knocking on that at all—and they’ll be an opaque bottles. That is to protect the color from UV light because the caramel coloring fades significantly in UV light. So you’ll see it an opaque bottle sometimes.

Samara Davis 4:57
I had no idea.

Elizabeth McCall 4:59
Really?

Layla Schlack 5:00
Yeah, I didn’t know about caramel color.

Samara Davis 5:03
I’ve always judged bottles—especially like Scotch, Japanese whiskey come in opaque bottles or they come in that green glass—so you can’t really see the color like you can with Bourbon right in the bottle when you’re purchasing it in the store. But I had no idea it was because of fading.

Elizabeth McCall 5:26
Yeah, it may not be the only reason. I think a lot of it is the style and the look of it. We’ve done extensive research at Brown Forman on UV light and how it affects different colors because we have stuff that’s kind of red and blue, like some of the Jack Daniels Country Cocktails. So we’ve done extensive research to understand how it’s impacted by UV light.

Layla Schlack 5:56
Which is kind of a nice segue into the term craft, the term artisan, the term small batch. Do you see a lot of whiskies labeled with those terms anymore? Or [are they] less likely to have caramel coloring in them? Is there any correlation there?

Elizabeth McCall 6:11
That’s a really good question. And Samara, please jump in. But I think about craft, and [with] craft, I think what people think of is this touched by the maker? Samara, I don’t know what your thoughts are on that.

Samara Davis 6:29
Well, I think some of these words like craft and artisan, they kind of go hand in hand. They actually pretty much mean the same thing. But it’s just all, at the end of the day from the consumer perspective, it sounds fancy, but they really don’t mean much. Because all Bourbon is touched by, you know, typically, the master distiller’s hand. It’s a handcrafted process. So much goes into Bourbon and whiskey, it can’t be any other way. You know, everything is hand crafted or hand picked from all the brands. They go through a strenuous process in making sure they have the best grains, they have an amazing yeast strain, that they have a great water source, that their barrels are from certain trees and have certain wood that either is seasoned or charred at a certain level. So every single step in the whiskey making process is truly a craft and it’s artisanal, you know?

Elizabeth McCall 7:32
I agree. I think that those are buzzwords that marketing likes to use and kind of throw out there. But to your point, when you talk about Bourbon whiskey, it’s so well crafted across the board. And it really does take human beings touching it, doing quality assurance checks, doing all those things to make sure it is artisinal, it is craft and is being touched by them. Now, when you put coloring in there, I wouldn’t say that that takes away from it, I think it’s just one of those things where it could be a choice and it’s the type of whiskey. Now if it’s Bourbon, you’re not doing that. But if you’re making a blended whiskey and you’re following a different set of rules, and you’re allowed to put coloring in there, if it follows the rules, it follows the rules. You’re having to look and determine what, what level of color you’re putting in there and why you’re doing that and all those things and that’s all human interaction. So if you think about craft or artisinal under that hands-on mentality, then it identifies for me.

Layla Schlack 8:41
And Samara, this might be a question for you. If anyone can use words craft and artisanal, and if all Bourbon whiskey is made with this kind of care and hands on process and attention, what are some of the reasons why some producers don’t choose to label like that? Why wouldn’t they? Is everyone just calling their spirit craft if we know that that’s something consumers respond to?

Samara Davis 9:05
I don’t know if it’s something that consumers necessarily respond to. I think some of the younger brands put that on there to make themselves seem more worthy of the price tag that they sell the bottles for. But it’s not a buzzword that really gets consumers—it doesn’t feel any more special to us…to say artisanal or craft on it. You know, small batch is another one of those words that you mentioned earlier. It doesn’t really have a meaning, it’s just a smaller batch than your largest produced batch. That determines on the brand and their capabilities to produce and batch whiskey. I think in the beginning, if you’re a person who is in the beginning of their Bourbon journey, those words may capture your eye, but as you become a Bourbon aficionado and a connoisseur of Bourbon like me, those words really don’t mean anything. You can actually kind of see through it. Like you can say, oh, this must be a younger brand, or a brand that’s really trying to pull out a certain segment, certain demographic, but it really doesn’t have any weight on how the actual whiskey will taste or the production that goes into it.

Elizabeth McCall 10:23
Yeah, Samara, I appreciate you saying that because I do think it’s a buzzword that can catch certain people if you’re not very familiar with the category. You’ll be enticed by that. But no, we don’t use that on our label with Woodford Reserve and we have been considered a small batch product. What’s interesting about that identifier is that there is no legal definition of what makes something small batch. So for us, you know, we’re around a 200 barrel batch, which is a lot of barrels if you think about it, but then there are other brands out there that identify themselves as small batch and they’re 500 barrels or more. That doesn’t really hold any weight as to what it means. And personally, I think, like Woodford is a growing brand, and we still do a lot to make sure that it is very much hands on. So just because the word isn’t there [on the label], it doesn’t mean that we aren’t craft, and that myself and Chris Morris don’t sit down and and think about all the little details of upcoming Masters Collections and experimenting and playing with different grain recipes and finishes and all the things. And we don’t put craft on our label, but it certainly is very crafty to me and it’s something that’s very personal to me. So yeah, I appreciate, Samara, your comment on that.

Layla Schlack 11:44
Do you think there’s almost like a backlash to that sort of language, that people are getting kind of tired of seeing it and know that it doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot?

Samara Davis 11:52
It depends. It depends on who it’s coming from.

Elizabeth McCall 11:55
Yeah, I think that people are just getting smarter and smarter. We have the craft Bourbon distillery tour in Kentucky and so those are the smaller distilleries. So I think that there’s a way that it identifies, like Samara was saying, it’s the early, younger brands or products that are in the beginning stages that are smaller. So I think it’s a way of identifying that, but I don’t know if it rings quality, necessarily, that it’s better than something else. It’s just a smaller thing, maybe in its early stages.

Layla Schlack 12:32
And then I want to talk a little bit about those words when it comes to where and how you’re sourcing, what grains you’re using. Is there sort of another level within that? And mash from these farmers, and they’ve been doing it this way for 200 years, or is that a little bit more opaque?

Elizabeth McCall 12:49
I’ll just speak from Woodford Reserve’s perspective and just understanding sourcing of grains and the complexity of it. You know, when you’re making a lot, when your volume is very high, you have to be smart about how you’re sourcing it. What we source, all of our corn, comes from Kentucky. It all comes from the county, basically, next to us or within Woodford County. And that’s a choice from just [that] they have enough corn to supply our distillery. If we were to keep growing and we had to further resource to make sure that we could support the demand, we would do that but we would make sure that we are looking for the best quality, the quality that meets our standard. So it comes down to what’s your quality specification, I think. But then, if you’re a small, small production, you can do everything really locally. It’s a much easier thing because your volume isn’t as great, the need isn’t as great. So that really plays into it, as how much volume do you need. But I think that as long as but just because you’re sourcing it locally doesn’t mean it’s the best or it’s the most high quality corn. We’re still experimenting and learning how does rye grow? Can we grow that in Kentucky? And we’ve done that on a very small scale and made very small batches with that, which is a fun experiment, but we’re not to a level where it can support our entire production. So we still have to source that from the regular standard sources, which is northern regions or even parts of Europe. So just because you’re sourcing it locally, doesn’t mean it’s the best quality. So for me, it’s always about the quality.

Layla Schlack 14:37
What about you, Samara, like if you see on the label that you know, all the grain is local or all the grain comes from somewhere very special, is that something that speaks to you? I’m just thinking of our listeners who are wine drinkers where terroir is so important. I’m kind of wondering how that translates in the whiskey world.

Samara Davis 14:53
Absolutely. And it totally does. I think, the most times when I do hear the word artisan or artesanal or craft has to do with the grains and where it comes from, if it’s non-GMO, if it’s organic, if it’s red winter wheat or some sort of, you know, heirloom corn. Those are when the real descriptions start to come out to kind of make the whiskey stand out against other whiskies, especially in the mashbill and in the grain to us in the mashbill. Our whiskies that are coming out of Texas, they always talk about some use blue corn, some use red corn. So all of those different sources that they’re using for the grains is where they really come out and express their uniqueness in the industry, so to speak. So those often go hand in hand with the word craft and artisan.

Elizabeth McCall 15:47
Yeah, and I would like to say to build on that like we, we made a red corn whiskey and we’ve done blue corn whiskey, so we’ve done that and it’s going to be something that will be one of our smaller releases that you could put under that would really, I guess, fall under that craft or artisinal category, if we’re going to use that label. But it would be for a Masters Collection or one of our Distillery Series. So it is something that’s a little more elevated when we start getting into these specialty grains because they are harder to for the farmers to grow and also to source.

Samara Davis 16:24
Now Elizabeth, honestly, do the red corn and the blue corn make a difference from the heirloom corn?

Elizabeth McCall 16:34
I would say that we haven’t done extensive sensory testing on it to know how significantly different they are. But I will say that from the tasting that I’ve done just going into the warehouse and pulling samples out of the barrel, the red corn does have a little bit more of a baking spice character to it. It did the last time I tasted it, which I found to be very interesting because I was surprised by it. I am one of those people who’s like, for the longest time I thought, oh, come on single barrel is such a marketing thing. There’s no way that they actually taste different. Then I proved myself wrong because now I’m like, oh my gosh, every barrel is so unique and beautiful. So I’m the first person to be like, there’s no way! And there is a little bit of a difference. The other fun thing that we did with that, speaking of terroir, is that we grew this red corn and the blue corn on the farm that’s next door to Woodford Reserve. So it’s the same terroir, same watershed. So that was a part of the experiment as well. Now the blue corn was so young, we just distilled that last fall. So what the last time was able to actually drink and sample it was so young still, I couldn’t really determine if it was very different or not. So when I get back, I will be tasting that to see. It should be about a year old by the time I’m back at the distillery tasting. So, yeah, I’ll let you know, Samara, on the blue corn. But yeah, there’s a little difference. It’s pretty, pretty interesting.

Samara Davis 18:08
I guess that makes sense. You know, I’m thinking about it from the wood perspective. We definitely know Bourbon is made using American—well, not American, but it’s using oak, right?

Elizabeth McCall 18:18
Yeah, yeah.

Samara Davis 18:19
But there is totally a difference in using American oak versus French oak.

Elizabeth McCall 18:24
Oh, yeah.

Samara Davis 18:25
And then, I’ve had some whiskey that was in, what’s it, manza—I don’t want to get it wrong—like Manzalena or Manzaluna wood.

Elizabeth McCall 18:38
Yeah, I don’t even know.

Layla Schlack 18:39
Yeah, I don’t know that one. I’ll have to look.

Elizabeth McCall 18:41
You’re a whole other ballgame right now.

Layla Schlack 18:42
Yeah.

Samara Davis 18:44
I’ve been dipping over into the Scotch world a lot more. I like it. I remember going to Woodford Reserve, this was years ago when I was doing Camp Runamuck, and we were tasting a barrel that Chris Morris had that was in a pecan wood. Oh my goodness, that was delicious. It was amazing.

Elizabeth McCall 19:10
That’s something we do at Woodford. Chris was just texting me the other day about like, well, we got our we got these specialty barrels in and we’re going to be filling them soon. And he’s like, man, I can’t wait for you to get back, and I’m like, I can’t wait either. So exciting. We’re always experimenting and trying different things out, and stuff like the pecan barrel that was trying to figure out… This was kind of before my strong involvement with the brand but just trying out pecan and maple wood and chestnut, just different sorts of wood to see what does the whiskey do. A lot of them, they just don’t hold whiskey well, and so you could probably do a finish, but as far as fully maturing, it’s just not feasible or else you’ll lose most of your liquid. I mean, oak is so perfect for maturing whiskey and holding liquid because it has that lignin in it and it can really hold liquid well. But, it’s always fun to experiment.

Samara Davis 20:11
Okay, I want to correct myself because I’d hate to sound silly on the Wine Enthusiast podcast: Manzanilla wood.

Layla Schlack 20:22
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that’s been [aged in that]. I’m going to have to hunt something down.

Elizabeth McCall 20:29
I’m writing that down because I’m gonna check it out. I’m sure Chris Morris knows.

Layla Schlack 20:35
So we’ve talked about some of the perceived advantages to a smaller batch or craft or artisanal whiskey. But are there any advantages perceived or otherwise to being a larger producer, to doing larger batches? What’s the flip side of all this craft and artisan business?

Elizabeth McCall 20:55
For me, I look at the more you scale up your batches and the larger the are, the more consistent they get. So your consumer, your customer, they’re going to see that when they pull a bottle off the shelf, they’re going to get the same thing every single time. Your quality should become more standardized and everything gets a little smoothed out. Whereas if you’re smaller, you don’t have as much volume to work with to really smooth out all those differences. But that’s part of what makes something that’s really small, special, and then also what makes something that’s large, a beautiful thing too. They both have their advantages.

Layla Schlack 21:34
So for a small batch, it’s almost not necessarily a vintage like we have in wine, but it’s almost like each bottle is kind of a limited edition. That’s kind of what I’m getting at. It’ll be reflective of when and where it was produced and how.

Elizabeth McCall 21:48
Yeah, especially with more the small craft distilleries, or the smaller distilleries, who are making things on a much smaller scale. Their volumes are really little. You just see more variability in that because they may not have things to a really good steady state yet where the fermentation’s running really well, distillation’s running well. I mean, every time we do something that’s a new grain recipe, we kind of have to work through figuring out, is this the steady state? Because we just don’t know how production is going to run always. So that’s a challenge to overcome. And so yeah, you might see more variability. That’s why like with Woodford Reserve we have personal selections, which is a two barrel batch and people buy those because it’s going to be something unique every time. It doesn’t taste like Woodford Reserve as you know it in our standard bottle. So that’s the beauty of the smaller batches.

Layla Schlack 22:44
So since you both have access to drink, basically, whatever whiskey you want, it sounds like, what are some of the qualities that you know when you’re looking for a bottle and you’re in a really nice shop and you know, everything there is good. What are some of the qualities that you’re looking for in a bottle of whiskey to decide if this is one that you want to try.

Samara Davis 23:04
Well, as a consumer, I’m definitely reading the label. I’m always looking at if it’s finished in anything. Finishings are really big and trendy nowadays. I’m definitely looking to see if it’s a limited release and some bottles will say they’re one out of 250 or one out of 500. Limited releases always catch my eye. Finishes always catch my eye and then the proof always catches my eye, just to see you know, it’s just a high proof, barrel proof, that always gets my attention in really seeing how this is different. But there’s there’s a bunch on the market now that are really eye catching. I try not to go for the pretty looking labels. Sometimes the prettiest, most flashy labels don’t have the best whiskey in it. But I’m definitely reading it and finding out more about the juice. The color, again going back to the bottle and how the whiskey is presented in the bottle, that always captures my attention. Is it a lighter whiskey? Is it a reddish whiskey? Is it super dark? I have all these expectations already, just by the way that the the whiskey itself looks too.

Elizabeth McCall 24:28
I agree with that. The first thing I thought of was reading labels. Like, reading the front of the label to see what exactly is this whiskey? Is it a Bourbon? Is it a whiskey with a finish? How did they produce it, like what’s the process they went through? Because I want to think about things that I’ve done in the distillery or with our whiskies and see, oh, this person is doing something similar, I want to taste to compare. And then also looking at proof point is always interesting because that’s such a trend right now is the higher proof. I love to taste a higher proof whiskey, and then actually trying to kind of water it down a bit. Whenever we do sensory testing, we always cut our whiskey down to 40 proof, or 20%, because the more water you add, the more it lets all the good and the bad out. So you can really judge based on that. So I think that’s a fun thing to do. And then also looking at the back label, just where was it made? Who made it? That is a good identifier for me too. I love to go in a liquor store and just look at the labels and see what distilleries are these whiskies coming out of. Then you can also do like, if it’s all coming from one distillery, doing a taste comparison with those whiskies and that’s a fun sensory experiment to do. I like to nerd out on things like that, so sitting down and tasting and doing a sorting and seeing what similarities they have and what they where they differ and then looking at the label is fun.

Samara Davis 26:12
You’re so right on that, Elizabeth, looking at the back of the bottle. And typically it may be at the bottom underneath the Surgeon General’s warning. But knowing where the whiskey actually comes from, it’s so important. Because you’ll often find within some distilleries that call themselves craft may actually be sourcing. So they’re actually coming from Indiana while they’re saying oh, this was produced in or distributed out of Kentucky or your state, so the truth is always on the label.

Elizabeth McCall 26:49
Exactly. And you know, it’s funny because you can get away with what does produced mean? If you say it was produced in Kentucky was it the process of you taking whiskey and then putting it in your barrel and ageing it in Kentucky makes it produced in Kentucky? The fact that you bottled it in Kentucky, does that make it produced in Kentucky? There’s just so many layers and loopholes in that whole thing, so it is good to read the back of your labels.

Samara Davis 27:15
The last one that I forgot that totally is a big thing nowadays is the age. Woodford and Brown Forman don’t put any age statements on their bottles. But for some of the special more rare releases for some of the other brands, they are starting to put the age on there. So folks are really looking out for those 10 years, 17 years, Orphan Barrel did a whole project with a 20, 21, all the way through 25 year series. But those tend to become big attention grabbers in the liquor store. Like, the older the whiskey, they’ve got to have it and you want to try it. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s amazing. It just, that’s a different story. Looking at the age is a big deal as far as consumers really trying to find a quality product.

Elizabeth McCall 28:16
That’s one of the things that that scotch has carried over into American whiskey is that age. In Scotland, you have to age for a very long time to really pull out the flavors of the barrels that they’re being matured in. Think about the climate in Scotland, it does not get very hot there. When it does, it’s like a few weeks and then it’s cold and damp. And their warehouses are the dunnage warehouse where the barrels are not stacked high, it’s a dirt floor. It’s just not a conducive for maturation similar to how it is in Kentucky or even in Texas and other parts of the US where it gets really hot. Age is such a funny thing people get so hung up on. It’s just something that we don’t really pay attention to with the Brown Forman whiskies, we look at flavor and what we’re going for with it.

Layla Schlack 29:15
All right, well, I think that’s about it. I so appreciate both of you coming to talk to me and I learned a lot. I’m going to be a much more discerning whiskey consumer going forward.

Samara Davis 29:24
Call us next time you’re in the liquor store and we’ll help you out.

Layla Schlack 29:27
Thank you, I appreciate that. I need it.

Hi, this is Layla Schlack, associate managing editor for print for Wine Enthusiast. I’m here with Tim Wiggins, one of our 40 Under 40 honorees. Tim, do you want to say hi and introduce yourself real quick?

Tim Wiggins 30:25
Hi. Yeah, I’m Tim Wiggins, coowner of Retreat Gastropub, Yellowbelly and soon-to-open Lazy Tiger.

Layla Schlack 30:35
And do you want to tell us a little bit about how you got into bartending?

Tim Wiggins 30:39
Yeah, I kind of stumbled upon it and was even kind of reluctant to bartend for the first little bit. I was working at a restaurant downtown and was serving and had a pretty carefree schedule. And the managers there asked me to bartend and I didn’t really have interest, but out of necessity and they thought it would work well, so I started doing it. It was more on like the beer side of bartending at that point with very minimal cocktails. I just really fell in love with it, honestly. I really fell in love with the the human interaction, the creativity, the structure, the routine of getting things set up and making people really happy. So it was very serendipitous that I got into it, and then I got asked to move to manage a vegetarian whiskey bar here in St. Louis. That’s when I think I really dove in and read, you know, 30 books in two months and was working 70 hours a week for very, very, very little money, but I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was conquer the bar and open my own place. So, my goal was to do that by 23, 24 and I did it. So now I’m trying to keep it going.

Layla Schlack 32:16
So when people come into a vegetarian whiskey bar, can you talk a little bit about what they’re looking for? What they’re looking for in vegetarian food, what they’re looking for in whiskey—are there any generalizations you can make about what you’re seeing?

Tim Wiggins 32:31
Yeah, it was very interesting. There really was this like power alley of people who were ready for you to pair these whiskies. It was primarily American whiskey, but we did have some whiskies. It really became a challenge to pair some things [that were] high proof and pretty tannic with something light and fresh and vegetal. So at first it was kind of, how do you do this? And when people say what pairs well with my green beans or like simple vegetable sides, it became a lot of tasting, a lot of nuance in the whiskies, a lot of tasting notes, a lot of blind tasting with the staff to try to be pulling out things that weren’t your typical vanilla, brown sugar, like your typical things that you’d say will go with a steak, this will go with your pork chop. But to say, hey, with your vegetarian carbonara, you can go this direction to pull out some of the smoke to kind of replace the meat with the whiskey instead of trying to pair with the vegetables was kind of my approach.

Layla Schlack 33:50
That’s interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And did you? Was this something that kind of made immediate sense to your patrons? What were some of the preconceptions and their ideas about how whiskey would pair with vegetarian meals as they were coming in?

Tim Wiggins 34:04
There was definitely a lot of skepticism and a lot of confusion of, you know, it makes so much sense to have meat and whiskey. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to think. That’s what concepts exist doing and making money. Most people came in saying, you better show me something that is better than what I think this is going to be because it sounds kind of wacky. So that was definitely most of the people, but with that the trust was the thing to me that I had to build. I was young, I had a staff that didn’t want to work for a 22 year old kid who was in charge of them. No one else on staff was under 25 at the time. There were all these hurdles for me. I think more than half the staff quit in the first month because they didn’t think it was going in a good direction. But I was determined to have the right people who believed in it who are ready to change people’s minds instead of just buy into that this is difficult to sell people on. So I think that of all the hurdles, there were many to get through, but there still was, eventually, this trust of, I know what you’re going to recommend and what you have behind the bar is good. What you’re serving me on a plate tastes good. Take me somewhere unexpected. And so I think that we had our whiskies we knew people hadn’t really heard of and hadn’t really had before. But especially with young rye whiskies and domestic-made whiskies that aren’t in Kentucky, you can get a lot of like banana bread and some interesting spice components that people were really excited about. And did pair really well with the vegetarian cuisine. So it really came down to having having the weapons in your pocket to be the expert, so that people bought what we were doing instead of thinking, what’s this hipster nonsense?

Layla Schlack 36:15
Can you talk a bit about? Just in general your experience when people come into a bar looking to drink whiskey, do you find that most whiskey drinkers have their preferred brand or style or they’re looking to explore and try new things?

Tim Wiggins 36:29
I like to think that over the last six years have seen people drink whiskey, definitely here in the Midwest and St. Louis, people have started to expand a bit. To me, it’s more about like, Maker’s—people who drink Makers, drink Maker’s. They’re going to come in and they’re going to order it. But if you say, no, but I do have wheated Bourbons around the same proof they’re ready to say, okay, I’ll try it. If you can say, I know what you’re looking for, I know how that whiskey is made and I know what can actually be a substitute or kind of a close comparison, I find that whiskey drinkers especially if it’s from Kentucky, they’re pretty much down to try it. I think that the misconception that especially Bourbon not made in Kentucky is not good, is definitely a wall to break down. And even just younger whiskies are less than, I think I find is a bigger hurdle for whiskey drinkers. There definitely is the brand loyalty but I really think that especially over the last two to three years, there’s less of that because there’s just more options that tastes good. Really, even five, six years ago was working at the whiskey bar, we didn’t have a ton of American whiskey made outside of Kentucky that was that good.

Layla Schlack 38:11
And there’s obviously Tennessee right next door making very good whiskey.

Tim Wiggins 38:15
Tennessee is making awesome whiskey which is totally underrated. And even you have High West, you have Utah, you have Oregon, you have these places like Colorado putting out good whiskies and good Bourbon-style whiskies. If you put side by side, the whiskey drinker who only drinks Kentucky whiskey or only drinks Maker’s or Four Roses would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Which I think is kind of the fun thing about whiskey. We used to always play a game called Find the Drum. There’s a whiskey called Johnny Drum that’s like a neutral, kind of hot Bourbon and we would put four Kentucky Bourbons in a row and if you tasted them all and could tell which one was Johnny Drum, you got a free bottle of it. I think we played this game easily 100 times and no one ever won. It’s kind of this testament to that within 5% of proof, Kentucky Bourbon tastes very similar.

Layla Schlack 39:22
What are some of the questions? When people are trying something new with you, what are some of the questions that they’re asking you about? Are they interested in how it’s made? Are they asking about cocktails?

Tim Wiggins 39:35
A lot of them want it in an old fashioned or Manhattan. In my experience, that’s kind of the most common way they’re coming in and saying, I know I like this. I know I like mixers. I know I’ve had this before, but I want to try it in an old fashioned, whiskey sour, Manhattan. What do you recommend for that? Which I do think is kind of the best way for guests to ask, because they’re giving us more information. I’m rarely going to put an 80 proof whiskey in an old fashioned, but I might in a shaken cocktail, because we’re leaning more towards soft citrus. So I think that kind of know-how is also something that’s really evolved over the last number of years. I know I like this and this is how I like it—what can you show me that’s similar to that or improve upon that? I think that was a big hurdle years ago, because even just the old fashioned cocktail, you had just horrible versions of it all over. And the whiskey sour, people thought, this is a sweet, terrible cocktail. Why would I ever put nice Bourbon in an old fashioned or in a whiskey sour? Now you have people saying, show me a nice whiskey and put it in a cocktail because I trust you’re not going to ruin it with a bunch of fake ingredients.

Layla Schlack 41:09
Since you also work with beer, I want to ask, is there the same, on the customer side, the same notion of craft whiskey that there is of craft beer? Craft beer drinkers want a craft beer, does that exist among whiskey drinkers to the same extent?

Tim Wiggins 41:27
I think it’s pretty different to be honest with you. I think that if I was to generalize craft beer, you can usually say, craft beer is going to be better than mass produced beer. I think that that’s a mostly true statement. But craft spirits are not generally better than mass produced spirits. I think it’s a struggle because of time and because of size and because of equipment. You can homebrew beer in 50 gallons and make something pretty awesome. But to put out spirits that that have the right age, that are that are made specifically, it costs way more money and it’s just a little bit more intricate. So I think that the craft beer market is, as we’ve seen, whatever your local craft beer is, I’m excited about it. For us, the local element of that is we have a couple local distilleries in St. Louis, but are they producing spirits that are on the [same] level as 95% of what we carry from Kentucky? No, not really. I think that that’s kind of the the difference between those two and it’s almost kind of a bit of an opposite play. I do think that the local spirits and craft spirits is getting stronger every year by far.

Layla Schlack 43:05
All right. Well, I think that’s about it in terms of my questions, unless you have more that you’d like to tell people about how to drink whiskey. Do you have any current favorites that you’d like to tell our listeners about?

Tim Wiggins 43:16
When I thought about the topic of what are misconceptions, or what insight would I like to give people is just that definitely the idea that smaller is better as far as craft spirits. Oh, well, this is this tiny, tiny distillery, and it’s small batch and there are these words to make it sound like it’s being made on such a small scale. I think that as someone who loves whiskey, especially American whiskey, I think that can be a misleading idea. That something very, very small is always going to be better. I think that looking at what, even just on a scale of what Appleton Rum’s doing, what Four Roses is doing, Wild Turkey, you can put out unbelievable product at a large scale. But that also, like I think about Copper and Kings in Kentucky is putting out unbelievable brandy that is shocking that when whiskey drinkers drink it, they are they’re blown away that it’s not whiskey, that it’s made from fruit. My petition to a lot of whiskey drinkers, especially people looking for craft spirits, is to maybe distance outside of just whiskey. Maybe try looking at the unadulterated rums from Foursquare that are coming out that are half the price as a 12 to 14 year old Bourbon and are unbelievable. To me, what St. George does, what Journeyman Distillery in Michigan does, I think that there are really, really, really good products coming out of these tiny little distilleries, but I do think it’s harder to find than beer especially.

Layla Schlack 45:32
This brings up another question and you might not be able to answer it, you might not want to answer it, but do you think that price generally correlates to qualit or is that a lot to do with branding and marketing?

Tim Wiggins 45:44
I think that whiskey suffers from the price issue because you have brands that that really can charge certain prices. I think that if you were to go to the liquor store and say, I’m going to buy the most expensive, or the top two most expensive styles of these spirits, are you going to get the best of those? Most likely not. And I think that that definitely plays into the marketing. When I think of gin and rum, I think that that definitely is the case that you’re gonna see things that are really really hyped up because they’re in a pretty bottle and because they have words on it, they don’t really mean anything. But I think there is that element. But I more think of it as there are like cheaper options that you’re going to ignore because they’re a couple dollars less than the other bottle that looks prettier and so therefore you’re going towards that. And so I think it’s definitely a thing. But I don’t think that’s the most misleading thing to the average person buying a bottle to be honest with you.

Layla Schlack 47:13
All right. Well, thank you so much. It was really nice talking to you and I will let you get back to your banana syrup.

Tim Wiggins 47:21
It was great talking to you. Thank you so much.

Lauren Buzzeo 47:26
If we learned anything today, it’s that the best whiskey is the one that you like. Don’t you wish that were true of everything in life? Big distillers often have the resources to do premium or experimental bottlings, while many small producers are punching well above their weight class in terms of quality. No matter which way you slice it, there are beautiful pours for every glass and passionate knowledgeable people making and serving them. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your reeview and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine and whiskey loving friends to check us out too? You can also drop us a line at podcast@winemag.com. For more reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. You can also read more about all of our 40 under 40 Tastemakers of 2020 online, or by picking up a copy of the October issue out now. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers!

Published on October 14, 2020
Topics: Podcast