We’re back in the Midwest today with a wheat whiskey from Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel distillery.
I temporarily burned myself out on American craft whiskey last year following a sprint through reviews of eight craft distilleries in half as many months. A strong start with J. Henry & Sons quickly gave way to some truly lousy whiskey from my hometown that made me despair of the category entirely.
Now rejuvenated—and also feeling a bit guilty about not covering my “beat”—I resolved to rectify my inattention with a fresh exploration of some indigenous producers. To assemble the raw materials, I popped into Binny’s to peruse their massive selection of craft whiskey. When I say I “popped in,” I mean I was drawn in to the mammoth store by a force stronger than gravity, or love, or Magnús Vér Magnússon. This place calls me like the sea calls Moana. Why yes, I have a 3-year-old daughter; how did you know?
Luckily for me it was “end of bin clearance” season, meaning I was able to inflict slightly less punishment on the wallet than usual. Top on my list to review has been Wisconsin’s 45thParallel distillery, which I first became aware of because they do the contract distilling for the Henry family.
45th Parallel started in 2007. At that time, the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. was around 50, while today’s count is closer to 159 million bajiliion kazillion. The distillery is located in New Richmond, Wisconsin, near the Minnesota border. It is named for the town’s proximity to the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. So far, distribution is limited to Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota.
The distillery produces a four-year-old bourbon called “Border,” a four-year-old rye called “New Richmond,” and this wheat whiskey. If you hate whiskey but are inexplicably reading this site, they also produce vodka, gin, aquavit, and limoncello. As noted above, 45th Parallel also provides contract distilling services, if you’re thinking about launching your own whiskey (please don’t).
Paul Werni, one of the distillery founders, spared a bit of his time to chat with me about the distillery’s history, philosophy, and production methods.
45th Parallel has abundant local grain sources, given the predominance of farming in the western Wisconsin area. The wheat from which this whiskey was produced is a German varietal, which is expensive but preferable for both baking and distillation. All the distilling is done in pot stills with swollen necks, rather than the more industrial and efficient column stills used by other distillers.
The 53-gallon casks come from McGinnis of Missouri, with an exclusive reliance on air-dried (rather than kiln-dried) staves. First-mover advantage and a long-standing relationship, according to Paul, ensures supply of better-quality barrels than would be available to a startup craft distiller. The preferred level is a #3 medium char, and all the whiskey is matured at ambient temperatures.
One of the things that sets 45th Parallel apart from other craft distillers is that they have a stream of cash flows (from contract distilling) separate from their own whiskey sales. This allows the distillery to take their time with maturation, as compared to others who need to rush product to market.
On to the spirit/liquor* itself: this is a wheat whiskey, with that grain having come in for some harsh treatment here at MALT. Adam detailed its shortcomings in this piece, particularly the younger expressions of wheat whiskey. For my part, I was underwhelmed by the Weller Special Reserve bourbon, which is notable for its wheated mash bill and not a great deal else. Thus I’m tasting this with a bit of caution, balanced by the hope of discovering something new and special.
This is bottled at 99.89 proof (49.95% ABV) and aged 4 years. It is a 2011 release from a 12-barrel batch; current batches are in the 25-50 barrel range. Retail price is $50, but I was able to snap up this bottle for $35.
45th Parallel “W” Wisconsin Wheat Whiskey – Review
Color: Golden brown
On the nose: Wheaty. Seriously so. Whole grain bread, hot chocolate fudge sundae topping, chocolate-covered cherries, a metallic note of rusted iron, damp dirt, freshly-mown grass clippings, banana nut bread.
In the mouth: Starts with a tight, pert note of tangerine. More fudgy chocolaty notes at midpalate. Finishes with a tart and sticky-sweet note of kirsch and more lingering metallic notes of damp copper pipes, as well as the slightly bitter aftertaste of dark 80% cacao chocolate. Throughout, this has a tension between the ripe fruit and the more stern flavors that energize the mouthfeel.
Tasted blind, I would have never pegged this for a wheater. It’s got a lot of the plump fruitiness that I love in craft whiskey, similar to that of J. Henry & Sons. There’s none of the dreaded “smoothness,” though. This has body and structure in equal measure and strikes me as a whiskey with something to say for itself, rather than an unobtrusive wallflower. A rough edge here and there, but the raw material is sufficiently strong to argue for longer maturation.