They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Though, increasingly, they do. Phil had a fascinating chat with a guy replicating a medieval concoction from notes dating to the 14th century. Whyte & Mackay were able to recreate the blended whisky that Shackleton took on his ill-fated Arctic sojourn. I’ve recently become acquainted with a gent using the traditional methods of rural Andeans to make distilled spirits.
I love whiskey, and I love history, but I mostly hate the combination of the two. Reason being, the whiskey industry plays fast-and-loose with history at the best of times. This runs the gamut from the industrial scale distilleries claiming namesakes with little or no connection to the current enterprise, all the way down to “craft” “distillers” ginning up tales of Grandpa’s secret recipe while slapping their names on mass-produced bulk whiskey sourced from MGP. History isn’t respected; it’s used and used sloppily at that.
Thus, when I come across a whiskey made with some reference to – and reverence for – proper history, my heart skips in my chest. These are usually evident from their results, which tend not to fit neat templates and instead may be classified as niche curiosities. Often, the finished products are as weird and wonderful as the stories behind them, making them so much more exciting than just another straight bourbon whiskey with a fresh marketing spiel and some sepia-toned photographs.
I felt this sense of excitement as I started to research San Francisco’s Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey, the subject of today’s review. As I tasted the whiskey along the course of my investigation, I became yet more intrigued. To fill in some details, I was able to chat with Bruce Joseph, Master Distiller and an Anchor employee since 1980.
The Old Potrero story starts, for our purposes, with Fritz Maytag. American beer drinkers will be familiar with his Anchor Brewing company, whose Anchor Steam beer was part of the first wave of the craft brewing renaissance.
In 1993 Fritz established the Anchor Distilling Company to make pot distilled whiskey from a mash bill of 100% malted rye. This was decided based on study of historical artisanal whiskey making in colonial America, when rye was a preferred crop for subsistence farmers due to its hearty and resilient qualities.
The yeast was (and is) identical to the brewer’s ale yeast used by the brewery, which is utilized in a four day sweet mash fermentation. Distillation occurs in an old-fashioned pot still. Both new and used barrels are utilized for maturation. The resultant products are labeled “Old Potrero,” named for the location of the distillery on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill.
Upon his retirement in 2010, Mr. Maytag sold the company to a consortium including London’s Berry Bros. & Rudd, which expanded the business to include importing of other spirits. The sale of the Anchor Brewing Company in 2017 took with it the “Anchor” trademark, at which point the distilling company was renamed “Hotaling & Co.”
What, I found myself asking, is a “Hotaling?” Turns out it’s not “what,” it’s “who,” and that “who” is Anson Parsons “A.P.” Hotaling of San Francisco (the pronunciation is roughly “HO-tuh-LING”).
Born in upstate New York 1826, Hotaling was an up-by-the-bootstraps story of the type which finds plentiful representation in the history of whiskey. Showing entrepreneurial pluck early on, young Anson sailed for California in 1852, seeking fortune in the California Gold Rush. Hotaling seems to have found the pen preferable to the pickaxe; he soon returned to the city and found occupation as a clerk in a liquor wholesale business.
Earning an equity stake in the business via commercial aptitude, A.P. bought out his employer and constructed his own Jackson Street warehouse in 1867. The later survival of this building through the earthquake of 1906 and the resultant fires was taken as a Divine rebuke to the teetotalers and prohibitionists. Though I’m no theologist, it’s hard to argue about the intentions of an Almighty who would allow churches to burn while saving thousands of barrels of whiskey.
Those barrels represented only a small part of Hotaling’s inventory, which by then had grown to support the largest wholesale business in the west. The “Old Kirk” brand was Hotaling’s flagship product. For 33 years, Hotaling amassed a fortune reputed to be in the “several millions” of dollars at the time of his death, implying a mid-to-high-8-figure estate in today’s money.
This money was put to good use, if Hotaling’s 1900 obituary is anything to go by. His funeral was “crowded to the doors… by innumerable poor people, who testified in their presence to the grief they felt in the loss of one who had always proved himself a warm-hearted friend, whose ear was ever opened to the tales of distress which his purse was ever ready to relieve.”
Hotaling’s business went on for several years after his death, though the family’s fortunes turned south when Prohibition was enacted in 1919. The business shuttered and Hotaling’s name, in the commercial sense, was lost for the better part of a century.
As the hundredth anniversary of the great earthquake hit, Mssrs. Maytag and Joseph decided to release a whiskey to commemorate the event. They fixed upon an experiment comprising whiskey aged for a long period in used casks and decided to name it Hotaling’s in honor. While not directly connected to this whiskey, the close geographic ties and the historical nature of Old Potrero’s ingredients and production methods present an argument for the association.
This, like the other Old Potrero whiskeys is distilled from a mash bill of 100% malted rye. It was aged in once-used charred ex-bourbon barrels for 11 years. The label indicates this is Bottled in Bond at the statutory strength of 50%. This is bottle #610 of 798. Retail price for this is $120; I was able to snag this bottle for $80 in an end of bin sale.
Old Potrero Single Malt Hotaling’s Whiskey – Review
Color: Golden maize
On the nose: Heady and grain driven. This has a sweet, youthful smelling maltiness belying its more than a decade of maturation. There are some fruity nuances here: peaches and cream, underripe apricot. There’s also a roasted scent to this which, paired with the above, hints at a particularly fruit or flower-driven espresso bean. Mocha and fudge notes round out the nose which is at once novel and uncanny. The only drawback is an intense woodiness overarching this which, despite more than a decade in the barrel, still has a juvenile quality to it.
In the mouth: This enters with some of the sickly sweetness of malt. At midpalate, this turns aggressively woody, again with a flavor more similar to whiskey aged in new oak for a few years rather than one in a refill barrel for 11 years. Transitioning to the back of the mouth, a different sticky-sweet-smoky note of campfire roasted marshmallows emerges. This lingers with a yeasty note of raw bread dough and an off-bitter flavor of sumo orange peel as the whiskey moves down the throat.
Huh. I’m not quite sure what to think of this. It’s loaded with character, and none of the flavors are themselves particularly bad, save when the wood takes on an astringent, green quality. That said, this doesn’t really knit together in a way that makes it pleasurable to drink. I feel like I am being confronted with one intense sensation after another, with no real progression or flow when considered as a totality. I was patient with this, but several weeks of re-tasting yielded no improvement, resulting in a score below the middle of the range.
While I wouldn’t recommend the purchase of an entire bottle of this whiskey at the $120 retail price (or, indeed, even at the discount price I paid), curious tasters would do well to avail themselves of a nip if they find one available. It’s a unique whiskey and bears consideration as a historical curiosity, if nothing else. For my part: so long as intrepid distillers continue to dig deep into history in order to conjure flavors from the remote past, I’ll keep supporting their endeavors without prejudice.