Over the last few weeks I’ve devoted a fair amount of time and thought to writing about craft whiskeys, most recently with a step-back look at the recent Lost Spirits discussion. There are times where I feel like I must come across as carrying water for large distilleries, and the fact is, I’m not and I couldn’t care less who makes my whiskey, as long as it’s good.
It occurred to me that what separates the good distillers from the less interesting and successful ones is a command of the fundamentals of their craft. It’s not enough to fill a barrel every week or so and call yourself a “craft distiller” because you’ve got low volume. That just means you’re a small distiller. Totally cool.
Craft, while generally having implications of small scale, also carries with it a connotation of some degree of skill and aptitude with the work being done. In a sense this is kind of another extension of the “master distiller/blender” title in the slightly more honorific sense that marks its use in Scotland. You can say Charbay and Balcones have exhibited a clear focus on the craft of their whiskey making, but you could also easily apply this to Glendronach, Glengoyne, and Balvenie. The whisky is just so incredibly good that clearly care went into it, not just production targets.
The problem I have (and I’m sure others do too) is using it as a self-applied stamp of legitimacy. We’re led to respect those who use artisan and craft methods, but the loose and more euphemistic application of these terms by the market in general have devalued them. It makes it difficult to seek out and find the true artisans, and the people who truly have focused on developing their craft.
This weekend in my practice studio I was cleaning up and setting up mics on my drums again after not having had them set up for a couple months. Through trial and error I’ve learned a method for setting up microphones that results in great sound quality, though the actual act of setting up microphones and the recorded output is almost the point of the least effort.
Most microphone sets targeted at beginners have too many microphones and they encourage a really faulty belief that you need one or more microphones per sound source. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that drums are a stupidly difficult instrument to keep sounding good as you add more microphones. Without getting stuck in the weeds of the science, the basic problem is that the microphones getting sounds at slightly different times can lead to the recorded result sounding really mushy, distant and weak.
If you look at old recordings, say Blue Note photos or Memphis soul sessions, you’ll see only a handful of microphones – and those recordings sounded insanely great. Why? A focus on the fundamentals and everything ahead of time. The room sounds good. The instruments have been tuned and treated so that you can put a really sensitive microphone inches from them and you won’t hear strange buzzes, rattles, rings, or other unwelcome sounds. And most importantly, the person who is playing the instrument understands how the microphones “hear” their instrument (which can mean playing the instrument differently than the “natural” way).
As I set up the mics, I started with a single overhead and found the spot where it had a good coverage. I adjusted the gain and opened up the pickup pattern so that I got a little more open and airy sound. Playing while hearing the output, I was pleased – I could pretty much have usable results with a single microphone. However, I had some specific goals and needed a little more snap on the snare drum, presence and low end on the kick drum, and a better spread. I added the second overhead and tilted it so I had a wide stereo field available. Once I was happy with the results, I added the kick drum. The bass drum had a bit of a floppy sound coming from the front head so I retuned it a bit and adjusted the position a little more. Bam – perfect. Finally, the snare drum. Taking an utterly unglamorous workhorse microphone, I spent about five minutes finding the absolute sweet spot that gave me some body and punch, but also accentuated the snap of the stick hitting the drumhead.
Without having spent time trying to understand how and why each thing worked in the process of learning to use these microphones, I’d just be setting things up willy-nilly and hoping for the best result. Odds are, the result would be an unusable mess with tons of leakage, phase cancellation, and probably very poor tone as a result of inferior placement.
The fundamentals aren’t the fun things to work on. It’s far more fun to have everything set up and start playing… but the fundamentals are, as the name suggests, the building blocks that all flourishes must be built upon. They’re the foundation for everything that follows in terms of learning a craft. I had a teacher remind me many times that if I couldn’t play something slowly, I truly didn’t have command over it (… but playing fast is so much more fun!). Taking the time to stop and pay attention to every little detail that goes into the final product, no matter how slow and unenjoyable the process is the first few hundred times, is what lets you cruise more smoothly through those details in the future with mastery and confidence.
Certainly there’s science and mechanics to be learned in the craft of distillation. However, there are certain things that need to be in place before you can bottle a young whiskey that’s either peated to the Nth degree or finished in some questionable wine cask. As Jason Pyle mentioned on Sour Mash Manifesto, Jim Rutledge – master distiller at Four Roses – is fanatical about the quality of the corn that goes into his bourbon. So what? It’s just corn, you’re just making a distiller’s beer, it can’t be that important, can it? Maybe not, but the fanaticism that surrounds Four Roses (I include myself in this cadre) is because of the quality of the final product, not the image it portrays or its market segment.
It’s been said that one challenge that faces small distillers is the learning curve. Some are likely facing the cold realities of a high burn rate and their business model dictates that they must start seeing ROI as soon as possible. I would argue that ROI doesn’t mean you should barrel or bottle the very first thing you distill.
The point that drove this home for me was in tasting New Holland’s Brewers Whiskeys recently. They are clearly the result of a distiller who is paying attention to quality of the raw material. New Holland, for those who don’t know, is a Michigan craft brewer who has been doing small runs of spirits as well. I had long been dubious about trying them – craft distillers have not been kind to me, and the malt whiskey proudly stated it was aged for six months in oak. Great – that dark color means that we’re dealing with undersized casks and it’s going to be a splintery, bitter, astringent mess.
The nose on the New Holland Malt House malt whiskey confirmed my initial fear – there were light new-make hints under a fairly hefty wood presence. There was a little white pepper and some more raw alcohol notes. Disappointed again.
The palate was initially sweet, with a moderated presence of the more pure white dog sugary sweetness and a more straightforward malt sweetness. After a second I noticed a presence that seemed like a light hoppiness – more oily, dry and earthy than the big floral notes. This was in the background and as textural as it was a taste, but it added some intrigue. Behind that was wood.
The finish led with the hop character and was almost chewy. There was a malty sweetness that almost seemed beery as well as a little wood. For six months, this had a lot going on and considerably more nuance on the palate than most ultra-young, small-barrel craft whiskeys. I could be imagining the hop presence on this one but it seemed to be there, and with the later sweetness, it had a certain beery quality to it that was a little more in check than other whiskeys. Honestly, this presents at least one compelling alternative to bourbon as a style that could become uniquely American – at least given the love here on the west coast for heavily hopped beers. I’d welcome it. The standard-bearers for the style remain the Charbay first and second releases, but this has a pleasing element to it.
The other whisky being tasted was the New Holland Walleye Rye. Younger ryes aren’t at all uncommon with all of the LDI rye being bottled fairly young, and rye seems to carry itself fairly well at a young age, assuming it had some decent aging on it – the floral and spicy characteristics of the rye seem to be able to act almost like a less-intense crutch sort of like peat does in other whiskeys.
The nose was, as expected, young – sharp and piney at first, with some wood and a Pine-Sol like cleaner/solvent note. Not exactly pleasant, but the Malt House didn’t have a great nose either.
The palate led with some bitterness and was fairly oily. There was some more young rye, a little light pepper. It was slightly bready and had a light malty sweetness, as well as a dimensionless and flat wood presence.
The finish had a little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, and a curious presence of the oily hop note that I caught on the Malt House. There was also some light wood. All in all, it wasn’t bad, despite the sharpness of the nose. The finish was pretty enjoyable in fact.
What intrigues me about both of these whiskies is that there’s clearly some work here to develop a profile. I haven’t had more of New Holland’s whiskey, but this is more than the usual questionable white dog that’s overoaked at a young age and reeking of vegetal notes. While this is clearly young and the product of small barrels, the oily hop character really speaks to some deliberate efforts in the distilling process. In fact, this is one of the more interesting craft efforts I’ve seen in a while. While it’s not quite ready for the mass market, I think more adventurous palates will find this to their liking. Certainly these didn’t merit a bottle dump or an uneasy use in hot toddies or other mixed drinks to try and kill their flavor.
I’ve said this for other craft whiskies, but in this case I’m actively searching for their next effort. This stuff doesn’t really make it out to California and it’s a shame, because it’s definitely better than a lot of the craft offerings on the shelf right now.
At a Glance:
New Holland Malt House Brewer’s Whiskey (6mo), Batch 1 45% ABV
Nose: Light new-makey hints under a pretty hefty wood presence. A bit thin. A little white pepper and some raw alcohol notes.
Palate: Sweet upfront, kind of a mix between a pure white dog sugary sweetness and a bit of a more developed malty flavor. There’s a light hoppiness to this as well – kind of the oily, dry earthy hop character. (In light measure.) Some wood underlies it.
Finish: The hop character continues and has a little chewiness to it. Some malty, almost beery sweetness. A little wood.
Comment: It’s only been aged 6 months and the nose could use some work, but I actually kind of enjoy this. The hop influence is so subtle I could be imagining it but it’s got a distinctly beery heritage to my tastebuds.
New Holland Walleye Rye Brewer’s Whiskey Batch 1, 45% ABV
Nose: Young rye, fairly sharp and piney at first. A bit of wood and a little cleaner (like pine sol)
Palate: A bit bitter initially, fairly oily. A little youthful rye presence, a little light pepper. Slightly bready, and a lightly malty sweetness. A little flat-tasting wood presence.
Finish: A little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, a bit of the sort of oily hop-like presence found in the Malt House. Some light wood.
Comment: The whisky’s not bad; the nose is a bit sharp. The finish is fairly enjoyable.
For the recording nerds: 2x AKG 414 B-XLS stereo pair in XY configuration; Shure Beta 52 on kick; old faithful Shure SM57 on snare.