One of the fun things to happen since I started writing here is the high level of engagement with whisk(e)y lovers of all stripes. To be completely honest, I seem a bit of a hermit compared with my social butterfly colleagues. Thus, I was grateful when an enterprising reader reached out and recommended the subject of today’s review. It’s from the state just north of mine, but I had never heard tell of it until this kind stranger pointed it out.
In my recent review of a FEW Single Cask Rye, I bemoaned the lack of detail provided, specifically on the grain side. The American Midwest is known for farming and boasts some of the most productive farmland in the world. Some of our local farms have become veritable brand names in recent years; fancy restaurants here in Chicago have started specifying on their menus that they are serving Gunthorp Farms pork, or the succulent rabbit from Slagel Farm. Yet, while several whiskey producers speak of using “locally sourced” grains, one too infrequently reads about single-farm grain in the production of our indigenous spirits.
All that changes today! Most of us down here in the civilized territories think of Wisconsin as the home of cheese and the second-to-last-place team in the NFC North. However, there’s a vibrant community of farmers and – as it turns out – some serious grain production and craft distilling going on up there in the hinterlands. The Bourbon in question today is produced in just such a manner.
The Henry farm is located in Dane, Wisconsin, a bit north of the main Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. Matriarch Liz Henry generously spared her time to tell me their story. The Henry family has been farming corn, rye, and wheat since 1946, and are principally a producer of seed corn. Faced with tough times in the 1980’s, Joe Henry decided to branch out into whiskey making in a last-ditch effort to save the family farm. They started producing an heirloom red corn (W335A) which was developed at nearby UW back in 1939, and which has subsequently become the core of their Bourbon mash bill.
A word about grain, as it’s been the source of a lot of digital back-and-forth recently. The Henrys are strong believers in grain, specifically corn, based on their heritage as seed corn farmers. The corn they plant yields less than a third of the common commodity #2 Yellow Corn. The grains are “babied” in their handling, another legacy of the high specifications demanded in the seed corn business. The grain is not cracked before distilling, and drying is done on-site in a slow process, again to the precise tolerances of seed corn production. The remaining 30-odd percent of the four grain mash bill is either grown at the Henry farm (in the case of wheat and Spooner rye) or sourced from local producers (Briess barley, in upstate Chilton).
The distilling is done off-site by the folks at 45th Parallel, to the Henry family’s specifications. Joe and Liz have debated the addition of a still but will leave that decision (and the associated financial responsibility) to the next generation. In this case, that is the titular “& Sons,” two young men whose surname is literally on every bottle.
Back to the whiskey: all the Bourbon is matured on the farm for a minimum of five years, in charred and toasted Quercus alba (white oak) barrels. These are stored in a barn-cum-rickhouse that is not temperature controlled. Those of you from Albion’s comparatively temperate clime night not fully appreciate the volatility of Midwestern weather, particularly our stark winters. Within the year, temperatures frequently swing in a 100 degree Fahrenheit (38 degree Celsius) range. J. Henry & Sons’ maturing whisky is fully exposed to all this variation, for better or worse.
This bourbon is currently only available in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. My Chicagoland hooch megamart of choice stocks four variations; I have chosen to go with their entry-level 5 year old Bourbon as my introduction to this distillery.
This is a 5 year old Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Batch #39 bottle #973, bottled at 46%. It retails for $60.
J. Henry & Sons 5 Year Old Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Whiskey
On the nose: Sweetly and bitterly grainy nose to start, with a faintly rich note of vanilla-frosted sugar cookies. Some ripe red berries, as well as the caramelized fatty scent of fried hickory-smoked bacon. Swirling smells of baking spice.
In the mouth: This starts with another serious grainy note. There’s the tart accent of freshly-squeezed lime juice at midpalate. The finish tastes more classically Bourbon-esque, with some woody notes of vanilla extract balanced against a lingering spritz of lemon juice. There’s also some unique notes: the perfumed flavor of rosewater, the fruity sweetness of macerated cherries, and piquant red pepper that persists around the back of the throat.
This is really different, in a surprising and excellent way. There are a few flavors here that I seldom find in other Bourbon whiskey, speaking to some special characteristics of the red corn. The wood is held in balance by the persistence of the distillate, and the many richly fruity notes contained therein. For lack of a better word, it is yummy. I look forward to trying the several other available expressions from this distiller. In the meantime: long live grain, and the folks that cultivate and care for it!