The MALT list of Midwestern craft whiskey reviews grows one longer today, with Oppidan’s Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I’ve previously had a crack at offerings from Chicago Distilling, FEW, J. Henry & Sons, Journeyman, and Quincy Street, while Jason has tackled Koval here.
Like Alexandra, I’ve developed a sort of mental checklist over the course of my survey of craft distilling. This is a series of boxes to tick before I have even opened the bottle, or in many cases even purchased the bottle. It’s table stakes as a prerequisite for serious consideration, or (to further torture an already unfortunate poker metaphor) looking for a “tell” that indicates an “opportunistic” (read: indifferent or incompetent) approach to whiskey making.
Some of my checklist items are practical, related to the production of the whiskey itself. The first: is this whiskey actually distilled by the people bottling it? There’s a bit of bait-and-switchery going on in craft distilling. While I’ll stop short of accusing anyone of willful misrepresentation, let’s just say that one could easily make a mistake in an inattentive moment. At least CH Distillery is upfront (aggressively so) about the fact that they don’t distill their own Indiana Bourbon. However, there are plenty of other “distilleries” that are less forthcoming about the fact that they’re distilling only vodka and gin, with someone else (probably MGPI) taking care of the whiskey. Blaum Bros. tried to go creative with the “Knotter Bourbon” (like, “knotter,” as in, “not our.” “Knotter” – you get it?) Widow Jane attempted to localize its sourced Kentucky Bourbon through the addition of indigenous water, with Alexandra setting the record straight on that dubious practice in an excellent piece here.
Once it’s been established that the whiskey is in fact distilled locally, I look for indications of quality. This starts with transparency: not just in terms of providing the raw factual material for analysis, but as its own virtue. A distiller with the confidence to offer more details (especially publicly) about the finer points of whiskey making – mash bill, fermentation time, distillation method, cask types and length of maturation – demonstrates that they care about the production process and that they respect their potential customers enough to suppose that we’ll care, too. (We do!)
While age isn’t everything, I’m less interested than others in trying new make, or “white whiskey” as it’s called. The U.S. regulations for the production of Straight Bourbon Whiskey (as well as Straight Rye Whiskey) stipulate at least 2 years of maturation, while all Bourbon whiskey is required to state an age if any of the components are less than four years old. Typically, I find the 2 year mark is a good minimum to look for, as it theoretically permits enough subtractive maturation to take place. Cutting this shorter can result in all sorts of funky weirdness, as was the case with the regrettable Blind Tiger Bourbon and several of Journeyman’s off-kilter offerings.
The remainder of my checklist bullets are stylistic; they’re mostly just me being highfalutin and snarky. Do you have a tag line for me to make fun of? Do you reference prohibition and speakeasies despite their association with foul, health-impairing spirits of dubious quality? Is the majority of your website devoted to cocktail recipes or hammy yarns about how you’re honoring your great-great-great Grandfather’s heirloom whiskey recipe (“corn, yeast, and water,” I’ll wager)? In short: do you come across like a guy or gal who is personally proud of the small quantities of whiskey you’re making? Or, are you trying to do a second-rate impression of the big brands snowballing consumers with their kajillion-dollar marketing budgets?
Using this persnickety, cynical framework, today we’ll consider Oppidan. Located in Wheeling, IL (45 minutes Northwest of Chicago), Oppidan seems to walk the tightrope between the criteria above. The definition of Oppidan is “townsman,” from the Latin oppidum for “town.” They have an opaque tag line (“FOR THE MODERN TOWNSMAN”) which – like all the Sphinxian koans of contemporaneous marketing gibberish – raises more questions than it answers.
Their labels are stylish; their public-facing website is slick, if a little unsubstantial. Cocktail recipes warrant their own section. They produce mostly whiskey, with a little gin in the mix. Mash bills and bottling strength is disclosed on the product pages, but little else. If I had to place my wager based solely on the first impressions generated by a little interwebs perusing, I’d guess that more time was spent on marketing than distillation.
However, the bottle label points me to a secret page full of batch information that goes into pornographic detail about the individual mash bills of barrels, with their sizes, chars, and fill dates. They specify that they don’t chill filter, in a short paragraph so refreshingly un-fussy that I need to reproduce it here:
“None of our whiskies are chilled filtered to maximize the flavor from the barrel to your bottle. This means that there may be some sediment from time to time in your bottle. Give it a shake to re-incorporate and enjoy.”
I love this! “A little gunk in your bottle? Just shake ‘er, son!” It’s got an effortless non-pretension about it, in contrast to the artsy black-and-white photography and philosophical musings that characterize the public part of their web presence.
To resolve these seeming contradictions, I rang up founder Jeff Walsh, who kindly shared his time with me. From a career making markets in Chicago’s legendary equity option pits, Jeff decided that his second act would be craft distilling. Jeff described himself as “driven crazy” by the fake stories ginned up to add a bit of historical flair to distilleries and decided to make a clean break with the past through an emphasis on the present, as exemplified by the “Oppidan” moniker. Eschewing the advice of business partners to source and bottle someone else’s whiskey, Jeff himself started distilling in earnest; he remains the distiller to this day.
Oppidan started in 2013 with a 60-gallon pot still and column setup, working through a series of upgrades to the 2,000 liter onion still and Scotch-style lyne arm kit that currently outfits the distillery. The grain comes from Clarkson Grain of Cerro Gordo, IL, with wheat and rye from another mill in Eppingham, and malt from Minnesota. 6 hours of mash time (for Bourbon) and 3-4 days of fermentation using a Champagne yeast produce the wash. The new make comes off the stills at 146 proof, with an emphasis toward deeper cuts into the tails, which Jeff describes as the “house style.”
Per the meticulously-detailed description on Oppidan’s shadow site: the mash bill for the Four Grain is 68% corn, 14% wheat, 9% rye, and 9% malt. This is Batch #001, bottled at 50%, on May 9th, 2018. This is a blend of three barrels, each 53 gallon Kelvin Cooperage #3 char, which were filled between November 2015 and January 2016, making this 2 years old (the label specifies the same). True story: you can find out the mash bills and fill dates of the respective barrels if you’re curious. I have encouraged Jeff to make this more directly available via the main site, in concert with my aforementioned thoughts on transparency.
I picked up 750 ml of this for $40, which compares favorably with other local four grain whiskies from Koval ($50) and Journeyman ($45).
Oppidan Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey – review
On the nose: Packed full of red fruit- ripe Bing cherries, blood orange, and floral aromas of violet. This seems almost sickly-sweet, before the counterbalances of pungent vegetal notes of pine needles and freshly-mown lawn, green chili peppers, buttered rye toast, mulling spice, Cinnabon, nutmeg, and molasses kick in.
In the mouth: By comparison, the palate is fairly restrained. This starts with another burst of tart red fruit, subsequently becoming austerely woody at midpalate. There’s a corny sweetness, balanced by more stern wheat and rye flavors that emerge with a peppery bite on the medium finish, which lingers with a unctuous medicinal note of Robitussin.
Young but not totally uncouth; full of promise. There’s a depth of flavor here that indicates Jeff knows what he’s doing at the stills. I’d be keen to track the evolution of Oppidan, as more aged stock becomes available and the distillery delineates its intrinsic character. On the basis of this whisky, I put Oppidan toward the upper end of the Midwestern craft distilling league table, and will certainly revisit other offerings across their range.