Saturday, June 9th 2018. Mark this date in your memory, dear readers, as this was the singular most important date yet to have occurred in all of bourbon’s lengthy and compelling history!
Well at least for me and Tony. Yes, the same Tony our crabby Scotsman likes to refer to as his bourbon dealer. While this was to be the first time Tony and I would be meeting in person, a friendship had already been forming through Instagram over a studious discussion of “Optimal tip-to-tip efficiency” and other such highbrow intellectual discourse as one might expect to overhear amongst the casual tête-à-tête of dignified gentlemen/gentlewomen.
The occasion that brought us together outside of our comfortable, socially-isolating interwebz bubble was the 2018 Kentucky Bourbon Affair. It was morning and everyone had collected outside the hotel’s ballrooms where the doors had yet to open and invite us into our respective workshops for the day as part of the Higher Proof Expo. With time to kill we made awkward attempts at conversation, avoiding eye contact whenever possible, being the socially challenged weirdos that we are. Quickly into our strained and self-conscious chat Tony mentioned a Wilderness Trail distillery that had, up until recently, been producing a generally well-received rum. He continued to tell me that the distillery just released their first bourbon and a fellow whiskey enthusiast of his was due to arrive soon with a bottle of this debut release in tow for Tony to enjoy. I nodded my head more or less politely and impatiently looked at the time.
As fate would have it one of the workshops I had enrolled in for the day was over the microbiology and biochemistry of bourbon production hosted by none other than one of the co-founders of Wilderness Trail, Dr. Pat Heist.
At the risk of being called a lazy bastard (a moniker I’m actually rather proud of), I will defer to my brief description of Pat from an excerpt in Malt’s Review of 2018. “The face of Wilderness Trail is co-founder Dr. Pat Heist, who often sports a long, wispy, two-pronged beard and Larry the Cable Guy accent (forgive me Pat). But don’t underestimate the man because let me tell you, he is smart as Hell. His all too apparent fluency in microbiology and biochemistry coupled with he and his partner’s decades-long experience in the industry via their other company Ferm Solutions (whose clientele includes hundreds of distilleries around the world) are tell-tale signs that on the topic of yeast and fermentation, they are uniquely qualified. In fact, they are the first Kentucky distiller to openly employ the sweet mash process.
Looking back, I will say I think this description is unfair in its exclusion of Pat’s other half — business partner, not lover — Shane Baker. (Tony affectionately refers to the duo as the “Yeastie Boys” which is strangely appropriate considering Shane and Pat were in a rock band in the 90s). However, Shane was not present at the KBA workshop so my introduction to Wilderness Trail was through Pat’s excellent presentation.
Pat’s workshop was a mind-boggling and thoroughly engaging look at, as the workshop’s title suggests, the microbiology and biochemistry of bourbon production with a special emphasis on yeast and the fermentation process. The event could have only been elevated by the presence of Jesse Pinkman as Pat’s hype man in the background shouting “SCIENCE BITCH!” at intervals throughout the presentation.
Now I think it is time for Wilderness Trail’s master distiller, Shane Baker, to shine on Malt. Haley Perros of Wilderness Trail was kind enough to send Shane my questions, which he graciously answered.
Malt: Firstly, congrats on becoming part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail! It was much deserved.
Shane: Thank you.
Malt: May we have a brief background on Ferm-Solutions and how your experiences running that company lended well to opening a distillery and producing your own whiskey?
Shane: Pat and I were in a rock band together in the early 90’s, our friendship and lack of success in our band led us to actually considering using our science educations and backgrounds to start a business. In 2005, after realizing we didn’t have the capital to tackle a full blown distillery, we decided to form a company that supported the alcohol industry, learn more and build a budget over time. That plan was more powerful than we originally thought because it ultimately gave us unrivaled experience from working with hundreds of producers around the world and learning from the best. We were able to gain a unique knowledge set of problem solving and optimization by the amount of work we did over the years. That led us to being one of the top support companies in the industry as well as finally a budget in 2012 and a lot more knowledge to build a distillery and brands we wanted to create.
Malt: Why do you think most American distilleries have chosen to use the sour mash process for so long? Do you think there is still merit to utilizing the sour mash technique? And what is the reason behind Wilderness Trail’s decision to employ sweet mash instead?
Shane: One thing you will learn about distilleries, once they start doing something, they are afraid to change anything as it might change their product. So when you go back in time, most of the distilleries were making sour mash for a couple of different reasons and it just stuck. One was reducing the waste stillage (backset) to get rid of, so sour mash uses some of that waste by-product back into a new cook, hence reducing the volume to dispose of. Another more mythical thought was that by lowering the pH with the backset in sour mash, it would help buffer the new mash and run less risk of contamination from bacteria. We know from modern science that bacteria thrive in all pH ranges and the real advantage is more about reducing disposal as it isn’t required to make whiskey. We recognized at the same time that a sweet mash whiskey could be made with the right clean distillery and history as well as science told us that sweet mash whiskey could be an improvement in quality and consistency over marketing has told us for years about sour mash. We wanted our whiskeys to stand out in the market or in a flight of other whiskies and we felt the flavor variance in sweet mash was our opportunity.
Malt: Do you project that more distilleries will begin to adopt the sweet mash process going forward?
Shane: Ironically a lot of small distilleries employ the sweet mash process and might not even know it. If you start with fresh ingredients each time and do not reuse portions of the prior stillage, then you are making sweet mash. When any major sour mash whiskey producer shuts down for a period of time, they start back up with a sweet mash whiskey because they don’t have any stillage laying around to reuse at startup. We do believe there is a difference in a sour mash whiskey and a sweet mash whiskey, you can taste ours and see that. So I do believe we will see more distilleries promote the technique in order to help highlight that taste profile compared to a more acidic sour mash whiskey.
Malt: Without giving away all your secrets, what do you think are some other common, age-old mistakes many distilleries continue to make when there is science to prove otherwise?
Shane: The true secret to any great product comes from cooking and fermentation. Too many people are so focused on distillation and their stills when really all that distillation does is remove what you made in fermentation. So its garbage in and garbage out if you aren’t focused on cooking properly and fermenting properly. Cook techniques are one of the areas that I shake my head at sometimes.. you don’t have to boil the grains, as a matter of fact you don’t want to boil them, you only want to reach the temp of gelatinization which is far less than boiling and you want to keep those amino acids in branched chains and no degradation of the quality of the grains in the process. If you burn cornbread in a frying pan for example, you will end up with a burnt cornbread taste throughout even if you cut off the bottom burnt section, so you have to cook like a fine chef would prepare a meal and softly break down the grains and flavor.
Malt: What is generally the length of time you guys ferment? How critical do you think length of fermentation time is to the eventual result of the whiskey?
Shane: The goal in fermentation is to turn sugars into alcohol, that can be successfully accomplished from 24 hours to 96 hours, it just depends on what type of spirit you are making and how much sugar you started with. For a typical whiskey mash, you are looking at roughly 72 hours. Fermentation time is critical as you want to pull the fermenter when it is just finishing, not finished and sitting around for days as that can allow for some reverse reactions and and not unfinished with lots of sugar left to ferment as that can cause other issues.
Malt: I once had an owner of a local distillery tell me, “Yeast has no effect on the flavor of whiskey. So it doesn’t matter what yeast you use.” Have you found this attitude to be common, especially among newer, small craft distilleries?
Shane: Yeast definitely contributes to the flavor, we know this with 100% certainty from running GC on distillate samples made from different yeast as well as organoleptically you can taste and smell the variances. We use different yeast for a reason and I can tell you that people with experience in making quality spirits also are focused on the yeast strain they use. Inexperience and lack of knowledge is where that thought process comes from and we hear it from time to time with newer craft folks that are new to the process, “you don’t know what you don’t know”.
Malt: Can you tell us a little about your stills (pot, column, hybrid)? I also heard some neat things about your chemical-free steam cleaning process, would you like to explain the thought process behind this?
Shane: We started distilling on a hybrid Pot still with rectifying columns, that allowed us to make multiple spirits like Rum, Vodka, and Whiskey. We quickly transitioned however to making all of our whiskies on the column stills. All of our systems are made from Vendome Copper and Brass works in Louisville, they simply are the best craftsman and best designers out there. We have an 18” column and 250 gal doubler and a 36” column and 500 gal doubler to go with our 250 gal Hybrid Pot still. We make around 200+ barrels per day from those. When you consider that cooking and distillation in a column still utilizes direct steam injection, you quickly realize that part of the “water” in the final product is actually steam condensation. Kentucky has extremely hard water, which comes from our limestone rich aquifers that makes Kentucky whiskey so special. But common practice for dealing with hard water is having to use boiler descaling chemicals in the boilers, otherwise they would fill up full of mineral scale and stop working. Now while boiler chemicals are safe to use, food grade, parts of the chemicals vaporize off with steam and end up in a final product. We wanted to change that and we decided to go with Chemical-Free boilers from Sellers Engineering, located right here in Danville, KY. Their boilers allow for successful use without any chemicals, therefore our steam is 100% pure and we believe that pure quality taste helps shape our whiskey and makes it different, for sure without chemicals.
Malt: What are your thoughts on the importance or unimportance of grains and terroir in producing great whiskey?
Shane: Major importance and we strongly believe in terroir of our grains and the impact on the flavor of our whiskeys. We can say this because again of tons of research as well as results we have experienced ourselves. We partnered with a seed farm to grow our grains, that means that we chose the varietals of our grains and we specifically grow those same genetically identical grains for flavor consistency. We also grow those in the same area of our rich soil and it brings forth a flavor only found here, just as in other locations that grow grain. Others might discount this some as they might pull all of their grains from a local elevator where multiple farmers bring the different grains they grow there to sell. We don’t do that, we use the same farmer, same silos, same ground per say. We can also train someone to make out whiskey and they go off and make that same whiskey, same techniques but their whiskey will taste different than ours, in part due to the terroir of our grains. This is another one of our secrets..
Malt: I’ve been noticing some bottles labeled “Family Reserve”. Can you tell us what that means and if it distinguishes itself from other Wilderness Trail releases somehow?
Shane: Family Reserve is our private barrel selection program in which you can select from multiple barrels and choose the one that is your favorite. One of the big differences in those are they are Cask or Barrel strength. Both of our Bourbons are Bottled in Bond or 100 proof, that is the only offering for those, so if you want a higher proof, you have to find one of our Family Reserve picks and those are always the pick of the liter for certain..
Malt: Any other differentiators regarding Wilderness Trail you’d like to point out that I didn’t ask about?
Shane: Our whiskies with grain grown in Kentucky.. for example our Rye Whiskey is one of the first Rye Whiskeys made in Kentucky from 100% KY Proud Grown Rye, and we believe the flavor shows. We never released a whiskey until it was over 4 years old and we have never sourced anyone else’s whiskey for use as our own and lastly we are proudly family owned and operated.
Malt: How did other distilleries that are also clients of Ferm-Solutions react to the creation of Wilderness Trail? Have they been generally supportive?
Shane: Great question.. we pondered that ourselves and when we announced we were starting a distillery the support was overwhelming positive. We started learning more about our clients than ever before because it seemed we were now “part of the them’ and not just a supplier, we could share true experiences and knowledge more freely. We had major distilleries willing to help us with barrel shortages, grains or anything we needed along the way. It was like we graduated and they were all happy for us.
Malt: Are you aware that some people refer to Shane and Pat as the “Yeastie Boys” or the “Bill Nye of Bourbon”? Can we expect Shane and Pat to revisit their rock bank past under either of those band names and release a rock ballad about alpha and beta-amylase?
Shane: Lol, I was not aware of that. Music is still close to our hearts, I just pick around on the guitar a little now and work occupys my time more and more, however Pat was our singer and a singer can sing anywhere.. karaoke to another band.. he still plays with another band, they sing some of our old originals and I just like to watch now and sip on some Bourbon while they work hard up on stage..lol but you never know we might have a come back..
Malt: I hear you guys even have some clients at Ferm-Solutions that produce probiotics. It is my strong suspicion that our editor, @whisky_rover, suffers from chronic gut and flatulence issues, hence his cantankerous nature. Which strains would you recommend that he take?
Shane: I think visiting Bourbon distilleries daily and dipping your finger into the mash for a taste will get him moving in the right direction.. there are hundreds of millions of active cells in a little taste for example. Most of the friendly bugs we culture from mashes are in fact probiotics and very good for you. We do market some of those bugs into probiotics but I just cant tell you which product. For years we have cultured and stored these contaminating bugs only to find out that they all held a higher purpose. Pat is the microbiologist, so he could rattle off some long words, I am the engineer..
The following is a review of 2 Wilderness Trail offerings. Tony will be reviewing 2 additional Wilderness Trail releases in a part 2 article.
Wilderness Trail Barrel Proof Single Barrel Rye – Review
Color: Jjf;aidsj :ORIEj%()*^UNPOCIU$#jh69df;aosedf
On the nose: Yummy leather, pecans, tobacco, and salted caramel with sweet corn and a faint presence of oak. A bit of ethanol.
In the mouth: Bright and vibrant upon first sip! The first sip was to my palate what tea tree is for my olfactory senses. But don’t mistake that description as meaning simply alcohol burn or dry, oaky astringency. It still has more meat on its bones than the whiskey reviewed below. Salted caramel and white pepper. Mint, lemongrass, rye spice, and very mild oaky dryness on the finish.
More, please! The mashbill consists of 56% rye, 33% corn, and 11% malted barley. 56.5% ABV.
Wilderness Trail Barrel Proof Single Barrel Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon – Review
Color: Beep Boop Beep. Does Not Compute.
On the nose: A punch in the nose of rich butteryness and ice cream parlor smells. Orange creamsicle, crème brûlée, and rainbow sherbet. Sweet, buttery, and citrus laden with a faint presence of wild flowers. And of course, VANILLA and caramel. Much maltier on the nose than the above whiskey.
In the mouth: True to the nose on the orange creamsicle, citrus, and malt with a bit of buttered popcorn. Delicious but a quick, short finish.
A very enjoyable sip although less impressive than the rye. None of the metallic grassiness that can be found in many wheated bourbons. This is a pleasant, everyday sipper. The mashbill consists of 64% corn, 24% wheat, and 12% malted barley.
There is a reason why I cited Wilderness Trail as my standout distillery in 2018 and I still stand by my suggestion to “utilize any shameless begging or thieving of Wilderness Trail-having-friends necessary to weasel a sample of any of their small-batch releases.”
If you are new to Wilderness Trail and happen to come upon an opportunity to purchase any of their small batch or single barrel bourbons, strongly consider purchasing one. If you come across their rye specifically, I DEMAND you buy it! Trust me. I’m just looking out for you here.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.