I’m reviewing yet another Midwestern craft whiskey today, this one from Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. of Galena, IL.
The list of Midwestern distillers covered at MALT – by myself and others – has grown so long that I’m ceasing to reproduce it here. I recently reflected that within a short drive of Chicago, one could visit at least a dozen distilleries. To put this in context, Islay has eight working distilleries and rising.
In case you hadn’t heard: we live in a moment when enthusiasm for craft production of everything (and especially whiskey) is booming. This is a cause for both celebration and concern. For all the disproportionate attention garnered by the beverage giants, the mom-and-pops seem to be benefitting from this groundswell of local support. Hurray for small business!
However, to quote the Oracle of Omaha, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Channeling the Book of Revelations, I have recently been pondering what the end times might look like:
The biggest threat, in my opinion, is changing tastes. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine a time when the whisk(e)y is not the subject of unbridled universal enthusiasm, particularly if the spirit has been in vogue for most of your drinking life. I’m not even that old – comparatively – but I have seen a cycle or two. Some of the young whippersnappers reading this piece might not have been of drinking age in the early 2000’s. Vodka was all the rage as Yuppies swilled Cosmopolitans with abandon; new brands of “premium” and “luxury” spirits came into existence on a seemingly daily basis. As surely as day turns into night, whisk(e)y will cede its Prom Queen crown to gin (1:4), rum (five’ll-get-you-ten), mezcal (3:1), absinthe (long shot), or something else entirely.
As a new distilled spirits fad impairs demand, one need also look at the supply side of the equation: there’s too much whiskey being produced. As a rising tide lifts all boats, craft distillers both competent and opportunistic have been able to make a go of it. A little of the whiskey produced is excellent; some is very good; there are a handful of promising works-in-progress, and the rest is best diluted with a generous helping of cocktail ingredients. Quality seems to matter little at the current moment (except to us here at MALT), as bottles of craft bourbon and rye are nearly all priced in the $40-60 range whether they’re any good at all.
In leaner times, it’s unreasonable to expect that all these startups will be able to survive. While I’d like to take a Darwinian view that the strong will endure and the weak will be culled, the truth is probably more complex.
Distilleries are businesses, first and foremost. The quality of the product being bottled is only one part of the equation. Being able to produce economically and having access to wide distribution are other pieces of the puzzle. Some of these entrepreneurs have probably piled on a load of debt; these liabilities may prove fatal when profits no longer cover interest payments. I’m hardly clairvoyant in making this call; it’s already happened at least once.
Dispensing with that dispiriting (pun fully intended) preamble, I’ve posed myself a question: what’s a whiskey enthusiast to do? We can only vote with our dollars, pounds, yen, and cryptocurrencies. At the moment I can find more new whiskey than I can afford, and I am hesitant to acquire a bottle from a distillery I have already tried when a shiny new label beckons. This will need to change when the hard rain falls; I’ll be duty-bound to direct my custom to support the select few who have proven themselves.
Until that dreary day, we press onward, here to Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. The eponymous brothers, Mike and Matt Blaum, started the distillery in 2013. It is located in Galena, IL, a town on the Mississippi river 165 miles northwest of Chicago.
Occasionally, I’ll come across something written so succinctly or wittily that I feel compelled to reproduce it verbatim. This footnote from Blaum Bros.’ website is just such a golden nugget:
“Disclaimer: The brothers’ Grandfather did not distill moonshine for Al Capone, they don’t have a secret family recipe, and they were not the first distillery since prohibition to do this or that.”
Hallelujah! Though they’re proud to point out the dissimilarities to other craft distilleries’ marketing hokum, there’s an important point of overlap to note: the brothers started as some other craft distillers have, sourcing whiskey to establish a brand and provide cash flow while the distillation and maturation of their own whiskey commenced. Unlike others, the Blaums were more or less transparent about this, labeling the product as “Knotter Bourbon” (as in “not our”).
In July of 2018, the company was finally able to release its inaugural straight bourbon whiskey. This is now sold alongside the Knotter Bourbon, albeit at a $5 higher price point, and is the subject of our attention today.
I contacted the distillery for more information and got connected with their distiller, Chris Ritenour, who generously shared his time with me.
From a mash bill of 72% corn, 23% rye, (both sourced from a local farmer) and 5% barley (from Briess), a sweet mash and a 3-5 day fermentation is undertaken. This goes into a hybrid distillation process comprised of a 2,000 L pot still and then a single-column, 2-plate rectifier.
After a single distillation wide cuts are made, with an emphasis on “funkier, heavier, dirtier” tail cuts. I’ve come across this approach before, for better and worse. At this point, I guess it is so prevalent that it could be called a style? In any case, that’s what’s going on before these are matured in 53-gallon oak barrels with a #4 char.
This is Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged “at least three years,” (Chris indicates it’s closer to four), non-chill filtered and bottled at 50%. I paid $50 for 750 ml.
Blaum Bros Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Burnt orange
On the nose: Raw, corn-driven top note. Some milky vanilla aromas, an estery scent, and a lingering faintly yeasty smell. Damp pennies and a hint of wet newsprint.
In the mouth: The tartness of underripe orange quickly gives way to a metallic coppery flavor. The autumnal flavor of damp, leaf-strewn earth persists into a finish that once again evinces some ferric notes before fading into a long aftertaste of metal and moistened dirt.
Smells and tastes like so many of the lesser Midwestern craft bourbons, with a cut drifting into the tails releasing some muddy earthy notes that underpin a spirit that is otherwise dominated by abrasive metallic flavors. It’s thin-bodied and shrill, with little of the generous warmth or ample fruitiness of other bourbons.
I’m flummoxed. While I’m not a fan of the strategy of using sourced whiskey to get a name out there and buy some time, I at least understand the necessity of it. But once a distillery has gone down that road, why not take the time to make its own Bourbon, like… you know… good?
If they want to fart out a weak, muddy-tasting mess to dump into cocktails, they can do so with the help of 15-gallon barrels and 6 months’ time. Why waste three years watching the stuff mature, when the finished product isn’t much of an improvement over the same junk being churned out elsewhere?
It sucks to give out a paltry mark to people who are making an earnest go of it, but honestly, I’m not a fan of the puddle water school of craft distilling.