I’ll just pop over to the distillery.
How many of us could have said this a decade ago? Aside from those readers living in the north of Scotland or Kentucky, probably not many. As I’ve noted in this space on repeated occasions, the boom in American craft distilling has left us spoiled for choice on this side of the Atlantic. This refers not just to the selection on the store shelf but also to the proximity of working stills we can visit firsthand. Within a two-hour drive of my house in Chicago I can easily think of half a dozen true craft distilleries to visit.
Ever since my first review on this site, I had been meaning to check out FEW in the flesh. Its proximity was, paradoxically, part of what took me so long. Being close enough that I could drop by anytime meant that I felt no urgency. After an embarrassing amount of time, I finally started feeling guilty each time I passed one of FEW’s distinctive bottles at a shop (which is often, given the brand’s success and wide distribution).
So, just before Christmas, I headed up to Chicago’s northern suburb Evanston to see where the magic happens. Joined by Matt Rehwoldt (a.k.a. Wrestling with Whiskey), I met up with Kelli (a.k.a. Whiskied Wanderlust) who sorted the planning and logistics for this sojourn.
On this chilly December afternoon, we trudged down an unassuming alley until the FEW logo peeked out at us from behind a layer of accumulated soot and grime on a brick wall. A sandwich board outside the entrance carried the ominous but tongue-in-cheek presentiment: “FAMILY IS COMING DON’T WORRY WE HAVE WHISKEY.” Forewarned like Dante but similarly determined, we sidestepped a weathered barrel and entered the distillery.
The first thing I noticed was the distillery’s contrast to the brand’s presentation out in the world. FEW’s labels carry images from the Columbian Exposition, the grand 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. Whereas those Beaux Arts images conjure a rarified white city of elegant neoclassical edifices, the distillery is housed in a converted auto mechanic’s shop. A partition of corrugated metal and reclaimed wood separates the small tasting bar and shop from the rest of the space, the majority of which is given over to the actual production of whiskey.
Our tour was guided by a cheerful young lady who was able to fill us in on some of the technical details of what goes on at FEW. The distillery runs three shifts a day, seven days a week, which explains the mismatch between the modest size of the operation and the relative ubiquity of FEW products, which can now be found in 48 states and 35 countries.
The bourbon mash bill is 70% corn (from Millstone Mills), 20% rye (from Brant Flour Mills in Canada) and 10% barley (from Briess of Wisconsin); the rye whiskey mash bill is 70/20/10, with the corn and rye reversed. After a three-day fermentation, distillation to 120 proof (60% ABV) occurs in a 30-foot stainless steel column still from Vendome Copper & Brass Works, for which a special hole had to be carved in the ceiling. This is followed by a second distillation in a hybrid doubler from Kothe, where the heart cut of 100-140 gallons emerges at 140 proof (70% ABV). This is filled into 53 gallon Minnesota white oak barrels with a #3 char from The Barrel Mill at an entry proof of 120. The move to 53 gallon barrels only occurred a year ago; prior, mostly 30 and 15 gallon barrels were being used. Age has increased as well; the 15 and 30 gallon barrels were being aged for 3.5 years, while the 53 gallon barrels will mature for 4 years before bottling.
After a brief stroll around the distillery floor, we posted up in the tasting room to sample some of the whiskey and gin. Given my audience, I’ll say nothing about the latter. On the former, my notes are limited. The straight bourbon whiskey (93 proof/46.5% ABV; $45 in the shop or $40 across the street at Binny’s) showed some appealing aromas of lemon pound cake, cedar, and caramel, but had a mouthfeel that was hot, woody, and a little bitter. The rye whiskey (also 93 proof/46.5% ABV; also $45/$40) had fruity aromas of lime and a touch of marzipan, with a peppery mouthfeel and a slightly sweet accent. The American Whiskey (again 93 proof/46.5% ABV; $45/$40) is a blend of 47% bourbon, 47% rye, and 7% cherrywood smoked malt whiskey. It had some interesting aromas of corny grits, burning corn stalks, and buttermilk, feeling texturally more similar to the bourbon.
I didn’t get to spend enough time with any of these to give them a proper score, but I will note that I didn’t bring any bottles home with me, nor did any of my companions. For what it’s worth, I should also note that we paid our own way for the tour, which I believe was $10 or so.
A short while later, I was able to catch up with FEW’s founder and master distiller Paul Hletko. We had a wide-ranging chat over a cup of coffee (he paid; thanks Paul) encompassing not only FEW’s philosophy but the craft distilling industry more generally. It is reproduced in its entirety below, edited for clarity.
Malt: I love the rawness of the FEW distillery.
Paul: We are what we are. We actually make whiskey, which is obviously a rarity in the whiskey business. That’s where we put all of our money; making whiskey is extremely expensive. I don’t really invest in things like desks, chairs, nice paint. We put everything into the whiskey. The person drinking the whiskey doesn’t really care if I have a comfortable office. The person drinking the whiskey cares how the whiskey tastes. Literally 100% of our focus is the whiskey in the bottle. We don’t have heat, we don’t have air conditioning, we don’t have a lot of creature comforts. What we do have is whiskey.
Malt: You’ve previously been president of the American Craft Spirits Association; how do you think about the divergent models with regards to sourcing or not?
Paul: A lot of this is a made-up controversy. I have zero problem with people sourcing whiskey. I do have a problem with people lying about it. I find that to be a real problem because the person drinking the whiskey deserves to get what they’re paying for. Whiskey ain’t cheap. If the person drinking it thinks that it’s some handcrafted product and instead it came out of MGP, I think that’s a problem because they’re not getting what they paid for.
Sourcing whiskey is by far the better business. You make a lot more money, it’s a lot less work. From the business side, it’s not even a close call. It’s materially better to source. That’s just not who I am, that’s not what we’re about. I’m not going to throw stones at someone that does it that way. I may be a little jealous. But that’s not who we are.
The only problem I ever have is people lying about it. It really makes me flip a fuckin’ lid when you see Canadian whiskey being sold as if it’s from Vermont, you see Canadian whiskey being sold as if it’s from California. I got no problem with people telling the truth. At the end of the day, MGP makes really fuckin’ good whiskey, Alberta Distillers makes really fuckin’ good whiskey. Sorry, I don’t mean to curse.
Malt: When the source of the whiskey is being disclosed in tiny print on the back label, while the front says “Craft” in large type, is that truly transparency though?
Paul: I think there’s an awful lot of smoke and mirrors in the business. For the most part, operators don’t have a problem with being open and honest. It’s really only a minority of people that have this problem being open and honest. There’s also some that just truly don’t know the rules, but that’s a pretty small number of folks out there, especially at this point.
Yeah, you’re right, I think it’s kind of crappy that it’s on the back of the label. And yes, it may say “Lawrenceburg, Indiana” but all it has to say is “Indiana.” Pretend you’ve got a – quote – “distillery” that is in Indiana. That’s totally hidden, then. There’s an awful lot of problems you can solve, and there’s problems you can’t solve. A lot of that comes out of the noble history of bourbon. This has always been an issue. It’s not just an issue in the last, say, ten years. This has been the structure of the whiskey business since it began, quite frankly.
To me it’s really just being open and honest and, at the very least, labeling it properly and, to some extent, making it clear. I don’t really worry about what other people do. I worry about what we do. We’re proud of what we do, and we brag about it: we make our own whiskey. When people accuse me of sourcing, I lose my fuckin’ shit. That was a major reason why I started the distillery was to make whiskey. I’d make a lot more money if I sourced it.
There are many people out there that try to pretend they are what I am and it’s kind of bogus. I’ve had people directly tell me that it takes more art to source whiskey than to actually make it because some asshole told them that at one point. People understanding that, for the most part, sourcing whiskey is not climbing around the rickhouses at MGP trying to taste a barrel of whiskey to pick out your barrel. It’s looking at a spreadsheet and saying, “OK, I need 500 barrels that are this old and 1,000 barrels that are this old,” and buying them that way. I don’t believe that looking at a spreadsheet and ordering 500 barrels is the same as what I do. If you do have somebody that MGP gives access to their rickhouses and they can go through and pick it: OK, great. There is a zero chance of that happening; nobody gets to do that. All they’re going to do is just sell you barrels. You don’t investigate it; it is what it is.
Blending is super important and I’m not criticizing anybody, but what we do is we make whiskey. We’re really proud of it. We blend our own whiskey. We are what people think they’re buying. I don’t like it when I see people buying stuff that is different than what they think they’re buying.
Again, whiskey is expensive. People are ready, willing, and able to pay for whatever “craft” whiskey is – I’ll put the word “craft” in quotes. People will pay for that and it’s not fair to charge them craft whiskey prices for something that was purchased from MGP or Alberta or fill-in-the-blank, whatever distillery they were able to source it from. Doesn’t mean it’s not good whiskey; in fact, in many ways it can be better whiskey. It’s fantastic stuff. But that is not what the customer thinks they’re buying and I believe the customer is entitled to get what they purchase. At the end of the day: most people don’t care. The general public neither knows nor cares.
Malt: That’s interesting, because we’ve seen this huge explosion of craft distilling and yet it’s a niche product. What’s your estimate for the total addressable market of craft whiskey in America?
Paul: That’s kind of a difficult question to answer because there’s so many ways you can cut that up. Every whiskey consumer can be a craft whiskey consumer. Can “craft whiskey” attain the same market share as, say, craft beer? I don’t think there’s any reason why it can’t… I think it’s fundamentally different between whiskey and so I think it’s a dangerous comparison to make. There are just many differences in the businesses that make that an inapt comparison.
Malt: For example?
Paul: The cash flow cycle, for one. The other big one is that the large spirit producers make really good stuff. For 30 years, craft beer was able to look a drinker in the eye and say, “What are you going to do: drink Bud Light?” and the craft beer drinker would go “No, I’m not going to drink Bud Light.” Whereas, like me, I can’t look you in the eye and say “What are you going to do: drink Beam White?” Because the answer is, “Yeah, you will drink Beam White, because it’s a really good product.” Odds are really strong that that whiskey is going to be really good. I cannot slam the quality of my competitors.
Malt: Given that FEW is relatively well-established, do you worry that craft whiskey drinkers move on to something new every time they go to the store, in the way that craft beer drinkers do?
Paul: There’s always a risk. Consumers can be a little bit challenging because they do have flighty tastes. Again, the beer and whiskey businesses are different. Whiskey consumers will frequently have five, ten, fifteen bottles at home, whereas the beer consumer is unlikely to have fifteen different beers at home at any one time. Yes, there’s a challenge there.
Whiskey consumers are going to go toward quality and confirmed names. There’s a fundamental difference in the cash flow cycle, so whiskey can’t do what beer can, for example, in some respects. Whiskey can do other stuff that beer can’t. There remain real problems. It is a challenge; I look at my friends in the beer business, and it’s very hard to build a brand in the beer business these days because you effectively have no route to market. No matter how good your product is, there’s somebody out there that has that quality. No matter how good your product sells once it hits a shelf, it largely doesn’t matter because the account won’t bring it back in no matter what.
I hear horror stories of bars bringing a beer in, putting it on tap, the keg will sell in a day or two days, and the buyer just laughs at the brewery, saying “Of course we’re not bringing that product back in, what do you have that’s next?” You can say, “Well, it sold in two days, your customers liked this.” “Yeeeah, but what do you have that’s new?” That’s really destructive of beer quality and beer brands. The customer always gets what they want because they’re the ones spending the money, but I think a lot of times the unintended consequences of this floating back and forth between this double IPA and that double IPA isn’t really getting the customer what they really want.
I think the customer really wants really good beer that is differentiated, and different brands taste different, but the behavior of “Oh, let me try this beer, let me try that beer, just so I can put it into my Untappd account,” I’m not sure that really helps beer consumers get what they want. The same is true for whiskey, but the whiskey consumer drinks whiskey differently, and they have for many years, whereas that’s less true for beer in my uneducated opinion.
Malt: Is there a bubble coming in craft whiskey?
Paul: I don’t think the bubble’s coming, I think we’re probably halfway through it. There’s a large number of distilleries that are going out of business and have been for 18 months. I disagree that the bubble’s coming because we’re well into it.
Malt: Why does a distillery typically close?
Paul: It’s always financial. It can probably take a couple different forms running from too much debt to simply not enough sales. There’s been a number of hucksters running around the industry basically, in my mind, committing fraud. I would never accuse anybody of that because that’s a big statement, but there’s been some people running around the industry with false promises of “All you got to do is throw up a still and you’re going to make a million bucks,” and that’s just simply not true. There’s a lot of people running around saying, “Just look at craft beer’s experience, it’s the same,” and that’s also not true.
Beer and spirits are very different. I think it’s very dangerous to fall into that trap, but an awful lot of people do it. What causes it? Primarily just lack of preparation. Don’t understand the channel, don’t understand the quality, don’t understand branding, CPG, manufacturing, cash flow, marketing, management. It’s fundamentally different and it’s very difficult.
FEW had it relatively easy because we were early. We weren’t the earliest, we didn’t invent this game or anything like that. There were certainly plenty of people that came before me, carved my way, but we were still early. There were a couple hundred craft distilleries in the country when we started up. There were maybe 30-40 people in the country making their own whiskey… maybe that many. Whereas today we’ve got over 2,000 distilleries and 600 people doing this, it’s very challenging to have a route to market and be able to grow it. This is a really hard business; not a lot of people really, fully grasp how fucking hard it is.
The more financing you have behind you, the more money you can lose. What I see is there’s an awful lot of say, for example, financial guys, that made a lot of money trading at the [Chicago Board] Options Exchange or the [Chicago] Merc[antile Exchange] and aren’t really afraid to go drop $15, $20 million on a distillery. At one point about two years ago I think there were nine distillery projects in the country, each of which had a budget for build out north of $100 million. There is a zero chance that you get an ROI on a $100 million project. I shouldn’t say zero chance, but pretty damn close to zero.
Especially in markets like Chicago, “cash rules everything around me.” FEW has never been a participant in the pay for play, whereas other people who have much more well-heeled backers than, say for example I am, have gone around and sell cases of vodka for less than the cost of the excise tax on it. You’ll see an awful lot of their placements around town because the bar gets their vodka for effectively free. I’ve heard people tell of paying less than $10 for a case of vodka which is going to represent $2,000 in revenue to a bar. That can be very hard to compete against.
That said, no matter how rich you are, you do pretty quickly end up being tired of losing millions a year by giving away all your product. There are a lot of people in this business for different reasons. Some of them are in it for ego. Some of them are in it for money. We at FEW are in it for the craft and the art and we do our best to live up to that.
Malt: When people ask you for advice on starting their own distillery, what do you tell them?
Paul: I’ll just say, “Do you want the real advice, or do you want the advice you want to hear?” They’ll say “I want your real advice,” and I say, “Don’t.” Then they get upset because I gave them my real advice. If I were starting today I could not build FEW, flat out. I was only able to build FEW because of when we started. Starting today, there’s no chance I would do it.
Malt: This preponderance of craft distilleries can’t be sustainable. How does this movie end?
Paul: I think the movie ends with winners and losers. You could look at a bunch of different ways of cutting the financial pie, but there are winners and there are losers. There always are in every business; whiskey is certainly no different than anything else. On the one hand you could look at historical sales trends. Even sitting here in 2020, we have yet to hit the highwater mark of volume. And that’s after 10 years of pretty substantial whiskey sales growth.
Malt: When was that high water mark?
Paul: 1970, I think? Vodka took over and destroyed whiskey. On the one hand, we’ve got 50 years of population growth and we still haven’t hit the highwater mark for volume in our product. That number alone implies an awful lot of room to grow. Just if you could get the volume back to a population of 50 years ago, I don’t think that’s a hard-to-believe number.
Malt: What was going on, per capita, then? Were people just pounding whiskey constantly?
Paul: I think you’ve got multiple cocktail lunches coming out of the 50’s and 60’s. Vodka didn’t really exist, per se. Yes, it did, but not like it does today, after the explosion of vodka in the 70’s and 80’s. I think that’s kind of where we are; that pendulum has swung back over to whiskey from vodka. Yes, everybody talks about tequila, rum, gin, but just the three of those categories don’t add up to half of whiskey. Whiskey remains a third of the market and growing rapidly, whereas tequila, rum, and gin are all relatively small and, yes, they’re growing very rapidly as well. But vodka is shrinking with the exception of one brand.
Malt: FEW is relatively disciplined in terms of the focus of the portfolio.
Paul: We could use more discipline, but yeah.
Malt: How do you balance the creative tension between wanting to experiment but keeping a tight core?
Paul: It’s really challenging to do that. We’re at a craft distillery because we want to craft stuff, and we want to play, and we want to have fun, and that’s why we do it. None of us at the distillery do this to make money. We’d all make a lot more money working somewhere else. We do this because we love it. It’s always a delicate balance between the finances of owning and operating and running a business that can keep the lights on and doing stuff that keeps us excited.
You also need to have something that, every time you talk to a consumer, a retailer, a bar, or a journalist, the question is always “OK, that’s really good, what are you working on now?” We try to run that line. Bourbon and rye are our business. That’s what we do is bourbon and rye. Those two products together probably account for 90% of our sales. That said, we’re always trying to make sure that we are experimenting and we do limited editions and we try to be strategic about how big we do them, what size they are, how innovative they are and we also sit and watch those sales. There’s stuff that we do, that we get super excited about, and maybe it doesn’t capture the imagination of the industry as much as we think it will.
Malt: For example?
Paul: Probably our coffee-flavored gin that we did. We were super excited about that. It didn’t quite capture the attention of the industry as well. Other stuff that we do, we think it’s kind of cool, but all of the sudden the general public loses their damn mind over it and we listen to that too. Such as the cold cut coffee bourbon: people are losing their damn minds over that product. We think it’s really cool.
It’s a question of trying to monitor and watch and make sure that you are giving everybody what they need, ranging from the creative passion of us at the distillery to the financial discipline of our CFO, to our marketing team, to our sales team, to our distribution network. What can we put through a distribution network? How can we P.R. it, what can we do to get press on it? How do we market it, how do we sell it? Where does it go? There’s a lot of stuff that’s gotten harder and harder as we’ve grown. Other stuff has gotten easier. There’s no free lunch; something’s harder, something’s easier.
Malt: What does your investor base look like?
Paul: I have a financial interest in FEW, as well as our partners. We’re part of a family of brands with a company called Samson and Surrey. That helps us defray a lot of the costs as far as sales team, marketing team, finance. It gives us a much bigger voice with our distributors.
Malt: When did they get involved?
Paul: Three years ago.
Malt: Do you want to stay involved forever?
Paul: I don’t really worry too much about being at FEW. I worry about the quality of the company. I worry about the quality of the whiskey. I worry about making sure all of our people are happy and excited. It really is not about me, it’s about the whiskey in the bottle. So long as I am helpful at making that whiskey in the bottle as well as getting people excited about it and exposed to it, then I’ll be there. It’s what we’re about, is the whiskey.
Malt: How have things changed over time in terms of the whiskey?
Paul: There’s always been a nebulous concept of FEW-ness to everything we do. I think you can really taste the FEW in all of our products. I’ve actually heard that comment from neutral outside observers, so I tend to believe it. There is a certain FEW-ness to everything we do.
Malt: What does FEW-ness mean to you?
Paul: I can’t actually describe it. I did a six-month project trying to describe this and it was a total failure because we were never able to identify it. Everybody we talked to was like, “Yep, that tastes like FEW.” Well, what does that mean to you? “I have no idea.” It’s not even about which flavor it is. There’s just a FEW-ness to our products that I can’t describe or name, but I do believe it exists.
As far as our barrel transition, the quality of our whiskey just keeps on getting better and better. I think we’ve always put out some of the best whiskey on the market but I do believe it gets better and better every day. Barrel size is always a controversial topic in the whiskey community for what I consider to be horseshit reasons but, that being what it is, bigger barrels are much less expensive than smaller barrels. Running a business that’s based on whiskey, we need to be using bigger and bigger barrels, because we can’t afford to keep on using small ones.
Malt: Where does the controversy arise with regards to barrel size?
Paul: I think controversy arises because there’s a number of people who lack the blending or aging ability to use them effectively. I think there is a lot of entrenched interest in the whiskey industry that “This is what you do,” and a reticence to change away from it. You know, “Kentucky uses these barrels, therefore that’s what you have to use.” I don’t think I buy that.
Small barrels are not going to produce a whiskey that tastes like Kentucky whiskey aged in 53-gallon barrels. They’re not going to. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it’s going to be different. Anybody that tries to compete with Kentucky as far as quality is just going to lose, because you’re not going to produce a better-quality bourbon than Kentucky. You can make a bourbon that tastes different, but you can’t make a better bourbon than they do, because they do it really well, and they do it at a hell of a price point.
Malt: Why would someone bother buying craft whiskey from Chicago if they wanted Kentucky bourbon?
Paul: Right, which is why it doesn’t make sense. We make our whiskey for a reason, and that’s one of the big ones. Why would you buy mine if it tastes the same as theirs? The world’s worst sales pitch is, “It tastes just like Four Roses and it’s only 20 bucks more.” I love Four Roses, I’m not slamming Four Roses, but how am I going to compete by charging more money for something that tastes the same?
Malt: Who were your influences when you started FEW and thought about mash bills and barrel-entry proof and all these decisions?
Paul: You look at everything. I always tell the story about when we were trying to come up with a bourbon mash bill, I went out and bought every bottle of bourbon I could find. My wife came home, and I had 50 bottles of bourbon laid out on the dining room table. As a Pro Tip: don’t let your wife come home to find 50 bottles of bourbon on the dining room table. It doesn’t go well.
It was a lot of that, of “Here are my tasting notes on this product and on that product; here’s what I like about this one, here’s what I don’t like about this one.” At the end it always has to be, “What can I do that’s different?” That’s really where we ended up: trying to learn the rules so that I could break them. You can’t win by following the rules; you have to break the rules.
Malt: Where’s your biggest divergence from the rulebook?
Paul: There’s a lot of them. Our bourbon tends to be really spicy and our rye tends to be really fruity. Right off the bat: bourbon in Kentucky tends to be relatively sweet. Yes, there are spicier ones. I understand the idiocy of making a broad statement like that but, traditionally, most Kentucky bourbons tend to the sweeter and most Kentucky ryes also tend to the sweeter, whereas your Canadian ryes tend to the spicier. We do something that’s different.
We have a different mash bill, although our bourbon mash bill is pretty traditional, but we use different yeasts, different fermentation types, we ferment differently. We distill differently. We bring it off at a different proof. We put it in different barrels that are wood from different places, aged differently. We do everything our way based on what we are trying to accomplish which, again, is the whiskey in the bottle.
Malt: Any emphasis on fermentation time or yeast that you played with to dial in that flavor profile?
Paul: Absolutely. We played around a lot with yeast, we played with fermentation temperature. Not so much with fermentation time, but pitch levels, proof off the still, proof into barrel, bottling proof. Everything gets played with and that’s all stuff that ends up being hidden to the general public but, again: you don’t just throw up a still, make whiskey, and think people are going to buy it. We experimented. First off, we set our mash bill up, because you have to start somewhere. Even just the fact that we control our fermentation temperature is a massive break from Kentucky. They don’t control their fermentation temperature, for the most part.
Malt: What drove the decision making about the stills?
Paul: The column stills are one of the most efficient ways you can distill something. It’s a fantastic thing. It’s really not that different than a lot of other setups with a thumper or a doubler, or whatever you want to call it. It’s fundamentally the same. The column still gives you an awful lot of efficiency, as well as creative control, because you can bring that spirit off that strip a whole bunch of different ways. It gives you that flexibility to really shape a spirit in other places as well. For us, we continue to use the pot still for finishing; we love it that way. The whiskey in the bottle controls everything, not to be a broken record.
Malt: You’ve had some fun with collaborations with The Flaming Lips, Alice in Chains… how do those come about?
Paul: They all come about from friends. This business – like virtually every other business – is a business of relationships. You make friends and you keep those friends. They kind of come around by, “Hey, let’s do something fun.” There are certainly more collaborations that we’ve said “no” to than there are that we’ve said “yes” to. Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you’re going to work together but obviously we’re really not going to work with somebody that we’re not friends with. Certainly, my musical taste gets to be a little bit controlling, I guess. If I don’t like ‘em… we’ve turned down a couple of relatively major talents that just didn’t feel right because it wasn’t my jam. We’ve also said “no” to musical talents that are my jam, but you have to have the right collaboration at the right time to make it work.
Malt: Is there something on the horizon that you’re excited about trying or experimenting with? What does FEW look like in another decade?
Paul: Is there something that we’re dying to try? The short answer is “no,” because if there is, we’re going to try it. There’s always concerns, but’s that’s really a question of scope more than anything else. We have certainly tried some things that we’re continuing to evaluate, “did it work?” We have some whiskeys that have been in the barrel now for some time.
We’re still trying to figure out: do we want to do it again? Stuff that we think is really fun and we think is really cool, but if you’re going to be able to try to launch a product, commercial concerns are going to start coming into play. Are we going to try to sell 500 cases of something, are we going to try to sell 5,000 cases of it, are we going to try to sell 100,000 cases of it? Not everything that we try is going to be 100,000 cases. Doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do it, but you do have to monitor and be very careful on it, because you don’t want to produce 100,000 cases of something that’s realistically only going to sell 500.
Malt: What’s the oldest whiskey that you have in a barrel?
Paul: I don’t even know; it’s certainly relatively old. We’ve been selling since 2011 – August 3rd, 2011, to be exact – but we were producing whiskey before that.
Malt: What does that taste like at nearly a decade old?
Paul: I think it starts to taste pretty good. Certainly the older it gets, the more the barrel dominates, I think it tastes less and less like FEW. Not in a bad way; it’s good whiskey, but it’s… different. Especially some of the older casks we’ve done where we’ve put down [whiskey] with some relatively different distillation techniques, so the liquid that’s in it is just fundamentally different.
Malt: Not a reflection of what’s coming off the stills today?
Paul: Right. The stuff that we put down off the still ten years ago is fundamentally different than the stuff coming off the still now as we’ve gotten better and better. When we started it would take a week and a half to two weeks to fill a 53-gallon barrel. Now we fill eight a day. We look to make the best whiskey we can every day, and every day we try to figure out a way we can improve it. Ten years ago it was relatively easy for us to improve the whiskey we made. Our ability to improve our whiskey continues to get smaller and smaller. No, we’re not getting 10% improvements. We used to.
Malt: What’s the sweet spot that you’ve narrowed in on in terms of age?
Paul: I don’t think there is a sweet spot for age. It’s just really based on the blend, it’s based on the barrel size, it’s based on everything else. I think that we’re really trying to keep that FEW-ness. There’s a reason we don’t put an age statement on it. I don’t think an age statement is relevant to the taste of a whiskey in the slightest. I’ve never seen a whiskey drinker lick the label to see what that age statement tastes like.
You cannot pretend that age in a barrel doesn’t matter to a whiskey, because it certainly does, but age is not an indicator of quality. Especially when you look at somebody like FEW that makes our whiskey dramatically different than they make their whiskey in Kentucky – or Scotland, for that matter – age is just not relevant. It just doesn’t matter. We use different yeast, we have different fermentation techniques. All this stuff is different and the longer it sits in a barrel the more it just tastes like licking the inside of a barrel. I don’t like old whiskey.
Malt: The consumer has been programmed to think of age as a proxy for quality. How do you as a producer break that association?
Paul: I don’t think you can. That’s a 50-year cycle. It took Scotch 50 years to train people this way. It would be hubris to think you could train people otherwise in less than 50 years. A number is very quick and easy to convey. I could spin you a story about yeast strains and this and that, or I could tell you that this is a 10 and that one’s a 12. Age statements became shorthand for quality for a reason; it’s because they’re easy. People like easy. The general public doesn’t care. The whiskey aficionado is going to learn stuff, but the general public is just going to go “Uh, well that’s a bigger number. That must be better.”
Malt: Who is the FEW drinker?
Paul: We think FEW whiskey should be in the hands of everybody over 21 that is drinking and consuming responsibly and in moderation. What we see tend to happen in the public is that most of our drinkers end up being 25-to-28-ish, starting, and then moving up to 50’s. Any younger than that, the 21-to-25-year-old drinker, they may be a little more focused on other aspects of the whiskey drinking experience than on the flavor. Once you get a little bit older you’re a little bit more set in your ways and you’re less interested in experimentation. That’s kind of where we see most of our drinkers.
Demographically, it’s been really interesting that our split male-to-female is very different than whiskey norms. Females are much better represented in the FEW drinker than in whiskey as a whole. It’s not that we’re a woman’s whiskey or anything… which pisses me off, because I don’t believe that there’s any whiskey that’s a woman’s whiskey, other than all of them. Certainly, our drinkers tend to be relatively well educated with above-average incomes because our stuff isn’t cheap. On the other hand, it’s relatively affordable for good whiskey. A $45 on the shelf bottle of good whiskey is pretty solid.
Malt: What do you think when you see craft distilleries coming out with a bottle that’s $100?
Paul: I’m totally neutral on it. If you can pay $100 for that bottle, you can pay 45 bucks for mine. That’s on them. I don’t know why they charge a hundred bucks a bottle. I don’t question it. There’s a lot more consumers for a $45 bottle than there are for $100. We believe that we have some of the best whiskey on the market. I believe that our quality is on par with whatever brand you want to name, so long as it’s a good brand. [laughs] We’re very proud of the liquid we put in the bottle.
On that note, let’s consider some of the liquid in the bottle. Having had prior success with a store pick rye, I grabbed a store pick FEW bourbon from my local whiskey retailer of choice. Like the Knob Creek and Knappogue Castle picks I’ve previously reviewed from them, this is co-credited to the owner’s pizzeria and deli. The label indicates that this is barrel #15-1121; I was unable to get any additional details about barrel size or age. This was bottled at 101 proof (50.5% ABV); I paid a small premium ($50) for a 750 ml of this.
FEW Bourbon Whiskey GNS Store Pick – Review
Color: Sunny orange-gold
On the nose: Mint-accented woody notes immediately. Citrus fruitiness: lime, lemon, orange peel. Dried coconut slices, some wild clover honey. Underneath this all, there’s the sharp accent of oak; not creamy vanilla oak, but more like an astringent, juvenile woodiness. There’s a lot of treble on the nose but little midrange or bass.
In the mouth: Starts with a rounded nutty note. There’s the faintest hint of tangerine as this makes the transition to the middle of the mouth, where it takes on a luscious buttery texture. Suddenly we’re back under the influence of the wood, as this evolves a grainy, tannic feeling at the top of the tongue. The pitch finally shifts to a different key with a mocha-inflected but, again, woody note through the finish.
There’s a lot of wood influence throughout the nose and the mouth; it’s expressed in the form of specific aromas and flavors but is also textural, particularly in the mouth. As I’ve not been able to get information on the size of the cask, I would merely be speculating about the cause of this. It never turns acrid or bitter, mind you, but the overall feeling is slightly unbalanced toward the wood notes. Again, not off, just… woody.
In terms of putting my finger on FEW-ness (now that I’ve tried a range of whiskey from the distillery), I’d point to the lighter and fruitier flavors which I found throughout all the whiskeys I tried. Despite the relatively high percentage of rye in the mash bill, I didn’t find the bourbon overly spicy or dry. As noted above, I don’t believe the wood was as well integrated as it might be after a longer maturation in full-sized barrels, but there’s an undeniable quality to the underlying distillate. In total, and considering the price, I’m scoring this slightly above average.
Thanks again to Paul and the FEW staff for taking the time to answer my questions. I return to the sentiment I expressed at the beginning: it’s a privilege to have a working distillery nearby, and I wish FEW and their compatriots/competitors in the Midwestern craft distilling scene the best of luck. From the sound of things, they’ll need it.