Over a Barrel

How home barreling of spirits changes everything

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It all started earlier this summer when I read a blog posting from my friend, Al Milukas. Al publishes a blog called Live the Live and I follow it avidly. It’s a great source of information on all matters of food and drink. This story, in particular, called Aging Spirits in Oak Barrels at Home, caught my eye and interest.

The next thing I know, I am the proud owner of a one-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and spent the next few months experimenting and aging liquor. But first, let’s talk a bit about barreling and aging spirits.

Wood, Time and Magic

Among the websites I visited about the effects of barrel aging included this with an article on the Science of Barrel Aging. As they simply put it, “Aging softens the ‘burn’ of the ethanol while smoothing out flavours and adding even more pleasant ones. The question is: what exactly is happening inside that barrel?”

They go on to talk about the effects of time, air, temperature, the role of different types of barrels (especially oak), barrel char, and humidity.

To be totally candid, I know very little about the science of barreling. Hey, I barely got through high school chemistry, so if you want to know more, I suggest you either look it up or talk to someone who knows. All I care about is the impact on my favorite libations.

Meet Red Head Oak Barrels

red-head-logo-sign

Following the advice of my friend Al Milukas, I ordered a 1-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and went to work.

The company is owned by Steve Mayes who was born in Baton Rouge, LA and now lives and works in the Dallas area. After playing around with the barrel and doing some experimenting (more about that in a moment), I gave Steve a call to learn more about him and his company. He started the company in 2013, is a Navy veteran, has a background in Internet marketing, and knows a good idea when he sees one. He’s also a very nice guy and could teach most major companies about customer service.

Here’s an example. In addition to my nonscientific knowledge, I’m also world renowned in my lack of mechanical and manual dexterity skills. (Just ask my wife who often calls the building’s handymen to change a light bulb.) Anyhow, I had some difficulty  assembling the barrel (putting in the spigot) and contacted Read Head Oak Barrels for some help. The problem was solved immediately. I was struck by how they handled and resolved my minor issue.

When I talked to Steve we spoke about his customer service philosophy and he told me they believe in “lagniappe,” an expression in Louisiana that means “a little extra.” It’s his way of saying that they specialize in over delivering and delighting their customers. There are many companies out there selling barrels, and in fact, some are resellers using Red Head’s barrels. But, I doubt if any have Steve Mayes’ attitude and business practice.

I had the barrel I bought engraved with the Booze Business logo (of course). It arrived shortly after I ordered it with very detailed instructions and appropriate paraphernalia.

The idea behind home barrel aging is pretty clear. Distilleries usually use large 53-gallon oak barrels to age their products because they need the large volume to satisfy their customers. But for home use, you need much smaller sizes. In fact, home barrels come in 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 or 20 liters and age the product inside much faster. That’s because of the ratio of wood to liquid is greater in a smaller barrel so it takes less time. That also means the taste and flavor is enhanced more quickly.

2-liter KY Bourbon kit
2-liter KY Bourbon kit

And now, the results of my experiments

I started simply and poured some mid-price rye whiskey into the barrel, waited two weeks and it was the smoothest, most flavorable rye I’ve had in a long time. Hmm, what would happen if I used an inexpensive rye? So, Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey went in next for about ten days and I could have made a fortune betting my friends what they were tasting was 10-year-old rye.

Gin followed and I ended up with batch after batch of outstanding barrel aged gin whose taste, color and smoothness was unbelievable. In effect, I had a barrel with complex flavors of rye, gin, and even rum.

But the coup de grace was a gin cocktail – my new favorite – the Negroni.

Last year my wife and I spent a long weekend in Santa Barbara and had dinner at the Stonehouse restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch. We ordered Negronis before dinner and were asked if we would like a barrel-aged version. It was unbelievable.

That idea became my favorite experiment. I mixed a liter’s worth of Negroni (with Koval gin, a decent vermouth and Campari, of course), aged it for a little more than a week, removed it from the barrel into a bottle (to stop the aging) and it was great. I’ve since played with the recipe, brand of vermouth, and time in the barrel. It gets better and better.

My do-it-yourself barreled gin
My do-it-yourself barreled gin

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I could end this post with any number of clichés about barrels. But I won’t. After all, I covered the subject lock, stock and barrel.

Please stop groaning.

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Koval Distillery: Black Sheep of Booze

Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s

 

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The word Koval means “blacksmith” in many Eastern European languages. In Yiddish, the word also refers to a “black sheep” or someone “who forges ahead”…or, someone who does things that are out of the ordinary.

I can’t think of a better description of the company founded in 2008 by the husband and wife team of Robert and Sonat Birnecker. Both came to Chicago from Washington DC and gave up successful careers to start a family owned business that paid homage to their grandfathers. One was considered a black sheep of his family for leaving Austria to become a Chicago businessman and the other was a distiller whose last name was Schmidt which is German for Smith, as in blacksmith.

That grandfather, by the way, was the person who taught Robert the art of distillation.

Kothe Still
Kothe Still

Koval Distillery is more than just a craft distiller. Much more.

What makes them special?

Let’s start with Robert Birnecker’s background. He’s a 4th generation distiller whose family still runs a distillery and winery in Austria. So, you can safely say that he combines traditional techniques with contemporary equipment.

This is a true craft distillery making grain to bottle products. The grain is certified organic and sourced from the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. The water is from Lake Michigan using a natural charcoal purification method. All the enzymes and yeast are also organic. To top it off, all their products are certified Kosher by the oldest and most trusted certification body.

But wait, there’s more.

Unlike some distillers who purchase or bottle premade spirits, Koval makes its organic spirits from scratch and using only the “heart” cut of the distillate for a cleaner whiskey taste. All of the whiskies are single barrel and aged in 30 gallon charred barrels. In fact, each of the bottles identifies the barrel number from which it came. They control every step of the production process.

The Products

Koval Whiskey products
Koval Whiskey products

So far I’ve tasted three of their whiskies – Bourbon, Four Grain and Rye. Sensational. The mashbill of the Four Grain is oat, malted barley, rye and wheat and it’s smooth as silk. The Bourbon is aged under four years and tasted smoother than products I’ve had that are twice as old. Most of all, I loved the Rye whiskey.

When I interviewed Sonat Birnecker, I told her how much I liked the rye and how different it tasted from most ryes I’ve had. She called my attention to the back label, which indicated that the product contained 100% rye. Many ryes on the market are 51% (which is the minimum amount necessary to be called rye whiskey) plus other ingredients (usually corn or malted barley).

In fact, what you see and read on their ‘transparent’ label is what you get. No coloring, no added ingredients, no neutral grain spirits, no nothing but what you are paying for.

By the way, their Rye Whiskey was awarded 1st place at “Best International Whisky” at Europe’s 2013 InterWhisky Competition. Who said I didn’t have good taste?

The Master Distiller

I have not as yet met Robert Birnecker but from what I’ve heard or read, he is a distiller’s distiller.

I found this about him on the Chicago Sun Times website:

The Birneckers are the stateside and English-speaking representatives of Kothe, the German still-maker responsible for the copper behemoth eating up their warehouse space. With that job, the couple’s workshops and their craft-distilling consulting business, Sonat estimates that the pair have advised one-third of the craft distillers that have opened in the U.S. and Canada in the past five years.

Yes, that’s right, in addition to running Koval, Robert and Sonat consult and teach distillation. Robert is also a key lecturer at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Among the distilleries he has helped set up stills are Journeyman Distillery in Michigan and Few Spirits in Illinois (see my earlier blog post on Few). These are top of the game craft distillers, I might add.

Other products

KOVAL_2014-Millet Web
Millet Whiskey

In addition to the three whiskies I mentioned earlier, Koval also makes Oat and White Rye products. Interestingly, they

Koval Gin
Koval Gin

produce a whiskey I’ve never heard of before – Millet Whiskey, described on their website as, Millet is a prized grain in Asia and Africa and popular base for spirits in Nepal, though this is the first whiskey to be made out of millet.”  Definitely on my ‘must try’ list.

There is also Koval Dry Gin, which my friends in Chicago think is the best on the planet. Here’s how Koval describes it…  Made with a unique variety of woodland spices… Juniper and wildflowers envelop the nose, while the taste is dry, yet vibrant – clean and nuanced by emerald grasses, golden citrus, and white pepper with a round, floral body.

Finally, there is a line of seven liqueurs ranging from the expected (coffee, ginger) to the exotic (orange blossom, rose hip, chrysanthemum and honey, caraway, jasmine).

Marketing

At the risk of offending my craft distiller friends and readers – most craft distillers are outstanding at production but very few seem to realize that there is a consumer at the other end of the bottle. Koval gets it.

Their labeling, or should I say award winning package design, speaks to the product and it’s craft/artisanal composition. As I mentioned, the label tells you which barrel it came from and what it’s distilled from.

The website is top notch, easy to navigate and easily lets you know where you can buy it locally or online.

They understand consumers and how to break out of the clutter with excellent PR and very highly praised distillery tours. They even have a barrel program in which you select the barrels and it’s customized to a store, bar, restaurant or even an individual. (Unfortunately, you have to buy the 25 to 30 cases that comprise the barrel. I’m saving up for it. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign?)

They are also available internationally in Europe and Japan.

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Koval Distillery is a company in the finest tradition of the spirits industry. A company where they care about what they produce and how they produce it… where tradition and heritage are embraced and built upon… where state-of-the-art is not marketing hype. Above all, this is a company that’s here for the long run and building for the future.

There aren’t many like them these days.

Koval Liqueurs
Koval Liqueurs
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