Bottle Babies: Idaho Start-Ups Catching Whiskey Wave
I’m an unlikely candidate to write an article on whiskey. I’m not a whiskey drinker, let alone a connoisseur. I’m even confused by the spelling. Is it whiskey or whisky? But it seems like everywhere I turn, someone is talking about this trendy brown booze, and I wanted to know why.
Tackling the spelling question first, apparently producers from the United States and Ireland tend to prefer the “whiskey” spelling, while those from Scotland, Japan and Canada go for “whisky.” An easy way to remember is countries with an “e” in their name include it in their “whiskey” and those that don’t, don’t. No matter how it’s spelled, whiskey is the name for a category of alcohol distilled from fermented grain mash. Common grains include rye, barley, corn and wheat and all must be aged in new wooden casks—often white oak—except corn whiskey or, as it’s sometimes called, moonshine.
Wikipedia tells me the first written account of whiskey comes from 1405 in Ireland. But the drink’s recent revival is what caught my interest. According to the Idaho State Liquor Division, Crown Royal has long been the best-selling premium whiskey in the state. But over the last two years, demand has risen. And there’s been a big spike in the last six months, especially for the allocated small-batch products. This often includes barrels that have been long lost in warehouses and distilleries, and are now being rediscovered, bottled and released. These limited quantities are driving big demand for whiskey lovers searching for the next cool thing and the bragging rights of getting one of the 240 bottles that come from what might be the only barrel.
As a state with a taste for handcrafted beers and local wines, it’s not surprising that Idaho distillers are throwing their shot glasses into the ring. Because moonshine isn’t aged, or at least not very long, it’s the first one making it to the market from Idaho distilleries, including Grand Teton, Idaho Bourbon Distillers and 8 Feathers Distillery.
To find out more, I toured 8 Feathers Distillery, a company formed in February 2013 by five friends: Marjie and Greg Lowe, Sandee and Larry Price and Rick McKinney. By December they had the equipment they needed, grains sourced from Idaho and the state’s approval to start distilling. In June 2014 their moonshine was available and the tasting room opened shortly thereafter. The latter might have been viewed as one of their biggest hurdles, as liquors hadn’t been previously allowed to be sampled in Idaho. But the intense lobbying efforts of Marjie and Sandee changed that. While the moonshine they age 45 to 60 days is ready now, look for a smoked whiskey in 2015 and a bourbon the year after.
The only Idaho-labeled whiskey available now is Seven Devils from Koenig Winery and Distillery. Koenig collaborates with a Kentucky distillery, bringing over-proofed bourbon and blending it with Idaho water. It’s then aged a minimum of four years before it’s filtered and bottled.
Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery is fermenting a rye whiskey between batches of rum and ginger rum at their Boise location. By definition it must age at least two years but you’ll probably have to wait longer than that to get your hands on a bottle as they are in no rush. It’s all about giving their whiskey the time it needs.
All this talk of whiskey makes me thirsty so I head to the Whiskey Bar. I meet with Mark Allen, general manager and partner of this new hot spot in Boise that opened in May. If you want to get your whiskey on, this sure seems like the place to do it with a growing collection that includes over 230 varieties from all over the world.
“Whiskey has such a wide spectrum. There’s something for everyone,” Allen says, assuring me there’s even something for my vodka-drinking palate. I look over the menu filled with carefully crafted drinks tailored to the season, made with fresh juices and an apothecary of bitters and tinctures. I want a drink that still tastes like whiskey but has some training wheels too.
Allen suggests an Old Fashioned with Elijah Craig 12-year small-batch whiskey and house-made simple syrup from Demerara sugar muddled with a slice of orange, two types of bitters and the darkest, most delicious anti-Maraschino cherry ever. The drink is smooth and floral with hints of caramel. My first tentative sip turns into another, and another.
It seems as if I might be a whiskey drinker after all.
Whiskey Bar, 509 Main St., Boise
8 Feathers Distillery
272 N. Maple Grove Rd., Boise
Interested in doing your own distilling? Navigating what it takes to open a distillery is even more mind-numbing than the moonshine itself, but the founders of 8 Feathers share their wealth of knowledge with both introductory and master classes.
Courtesy of Mark Allen, Whiskey Bar
Makes 1 drink
¼ ounce honey syrup (see recipe below)
1 generous pinch ground cinnamon
2 ounces Koenig Seven Devils Bourbon
1½ ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
Grapefruit wedge and cinnamon stick for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all ingredients except for the garnish. Shake vigorously for 30, seconds until well chilled. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice, garnish with grapefruit wedge and cinnamon stick and serve.
Dissolve 4 parts honey in 1 part warm water. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator. If storing, add ¼ shot of high-proof rum (recommended: Lemon Hart 151 Demerara Rum) for every 8 ounces of syrup, to keep the mixture from fermenting.