I’m returning to Nashville’s Corsair Distillery today with what will be a first for this site: a review of hand sanitizer.
As you may have seen in the news, craft distillers from coast to coast have done their part to help stem the COVID-19 epidemic by converting their spirits production facilities to the manufacture of hand sanitizer, given the short supply and desperate need. Corsair has joined the fight and, serendipitously, I came into possession of a small bottle of their antibacterial product.
My last Corsair review, from the before times, was the astoundingly flavorful Oatrage Single Barrel. In that review, I gave the distillery high praise for their process and product, as well as a bit of gentle ribbing for their aggressive brand aesthetic. This prompted Corsair’s regional sales manager Nick Elliott to reach out to the Malt team.
Nick mentioned that Corsair had undertaken a recent packaging redesign, dropping some of the confrontational words and imagery in favor of a more subdued approach. The starkly monochromatic labels have been enlivened by a few splashes of color. The distillery is also focusing on four core expressions (the three reviewed here plus a Barreled Gin), eschewing the Quinoa and other oddities that made Corsair a darling of experimental whiskey enthusiasts.
To learn more about the current state of play at Corsair, I caught up with Lorna Conrad, head distiller. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Tell me about how you got your start?
Lorna: It was kind of random. I was mostly home brewing and working at a friend’s brewery, pretty much working for free: hauling grains, doing grunt work. My friend had gotten an email from Corsair and they were just saying, “Hey, we’re selling barrels if you want to barrel age your beer. P.S. We’re looking for an assistant brewer.” He forwarded it to me and was like, “I can’t pay you but maybe these guys can, and you’ll be pretty much doing the same thing.”
We still do produce some small-batch beers here [at Corsair], and I was under the impression that was what the job position was. “Brewer’s assistant, OK, making beer, cool, I know how to do that.” Got in, they were like, “Well, yeah, you’re going to make beer, but then we’re going to distill it.” I was like, “OK, I don’t know how to distill. I’m totally happy to learn.” I guess they liked my attitude and they brought me on. I was so nervous because I was going into a field where I thought I knew everything, of course, feeling a little cocky, and then I’m like “No, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Pretty much just came in with the attitude of “I’ll do whatever, whatever task, and I’ll learn and throw myself into this job.” Apparently Colton [Weinstein] really liked that – my boss, who has now left the company – and so they promoted me back in February to head distiller. It’s been a wild ride ever since then. I was making Corsair whiskey for about a month and then they were like, “Nope, we’re switching gears.” A little stressful.
Malt: What drove Colton’s decision to depart Corsair?
Lorna: Colton actually still does some consulting work for us on the side. He’s been talking about this for a while; not saying he was ready to leave, but “one day, I want to travel the world and make different spirits in different parts of the world.” Gypsy distilling, as he termed it. He just started meeting some people. We had an intern work for us back in 2017; he has a brandy distillery in Austria, so that was [Colton’s] first stop. He decided, “I’m going to take off, go to Austria, make a gin” – something that wouldn’t have to age – and kind of got the ball rolling. And then, of course, Coronavirus happened, and now he’s back in the U.S. [laughs]
He’s still there. If I have any questions, he is a quick phone call away. It’s been really good for me, just having a resource to reach out to. He’ll always be a part of our Corsair family, but he just had some other ideas of what he wants to do.
Malt: What is most unique, to you, about Corsair?
Lorna: A huge part of it is that they gave me a chance. I was up against other people that had more experience than me. They took a chance on me; especially as a woman, it’s huge. We had a female head brewer on the beer brewing side who was replaced by another woman, and then myself taking over as head distiller. For me, that’s huge. You go to beer festivals and whiskey festivals and we’re outnumbered. That number is growing. They’re big on equality and everybody just being given an opportunity in an industry that can be dominated by men.
Apart from that, [Corsair has] been known for a long time as the people that have pushed the limit as far as whiskeys that are made. They’ve never told me “You can’t make that, you can’t try that, do that.” They’ve always been very experimental. You don’t get to be as crazy these days, but there’s still always room for something new and different. That whole idea and that whole drive behind it is pretty cool. It definitely makes me feel like there’s no wrong ideas, there’s nothing too crazy.
It’s a fun place to work. Just being surrounded by good people, as well, that have that same mentality and drive.
Malt: I noticed the new focus on the four expressions, and you mentioned a little less experimentation. What drove those decisions?
Lorna: It was just kind of a turning point for us with the craft spirits industry growing so rapidly. We still do very well in competitions. We definitely have our cult following as well, as far as what we’ve done in the past with quinoa whiskey and experimenting with smokes.
I’ve worked at the ACSA spirits competition before, for a couple of years, and I’ve attended ACSA, and you can definitely tell the competition’s getting a little tighter. People are starting to up their chops, get a little bit better with the products they’re putting out.
I think for us it was really a moment of like, “OK, we need to have a little bit of a re-brand, maybe start to rein it in a little bit.” It doesn’t mean we’re never going to make something crazy again. I think it’s more so, just: we’ve got to focus on our main product lineup at this point in time, and then we can do a small batch quinoa here, or we’re definitely going to bring back a single malt at some point.
Of course, this year everything has been thrown off track a little bit. It’s mostly for us to just kind of tighten it up a little bit and rein it in. I don’t like to say “trim the fat” because there’s a lot of products I’m missing right now that I wish I could still make. But, I think, just kind of sticking with the competition… friendly competition!
Malt: Is that partly a commercial consideration? How do you manage the tension between wanting to experiment as a distiller and the business strategy?
Lorna: Yeah, for sure. You’re going to the liquor store, we’re next to Jack Daniel’s and all this other stuff. We want to be able to stand up on the shelf and have people pick up the bottle and be willing to try something different, but there’s also tons of other craft spirits coming up on the shelves, too. We want to have a clear, concise image. It’s hard to sell quinoa whiskey in the liquor store if you haven’t tasted it. To pick it up and buy it is also another thing. It is mostly us just reining it in a little bit. Hopefully, in time, we can start doing some interesting crazy stuff again.
Malt: I noticed you use the term “small batch.” How many barrels go into a small batch?
Lorna: At a given time, we’re probably producing 15 to 20 barrels per set of brews that we’re doing. We’re still relatively small scale compared to a lot of places. Annually, maybe doing like 15,000 to 20,000 cases. That number’s always creeping up but we’re not on a massive scale by any means. No continuous distillation; I’m still back there tasting for the cuts. Everyone is having a hand in picking up the grain, filling the tote, doing everything from start to finish. Small batch and craft kind of go together. Most times I’m pumping out 20 barrels a week, and they’re 15-gallon barrels, and that’s a highly productive week.
Malt: You mentioned cuts; is there any house philosophy, or style, or emphasis on heads or tails?
Lorna: I did not get to officially make cuts for over a year and a half. It’s something we take really seriously as far as who’s running the still, who’s making the cuts, and making sure it’s still fitting in with how I was taught and how Colton was taught. Aiming for the consistency is a huge thing because that’s very hard in the craft world. Having that hardcore training, leading up to the point… and even then, it’s still like, “OK, you make the cuts,” but I still have to get Colton’s approval before then, for a long time. We’re pretty strict on that end. We’re always aiming for the consistency but there’s still going to be that variation there between batches.
At the same time, I love being able to teach our bartenders and everyone coming back, and giving them a full idea of how the process works. If I’m giving a tour, I love having that information because it makes my tours better and I can educate the customer better. That’s a big thing with me: being able to educate people when I can, and share the experience with people, but still being cautious on who’s making those cuts.
Malt: Tell me about your approach to maturation?
Lorna: That, too, comes from our cuts. Starting with the cuts: we’re trying to think ahead. If it’s going to be a short time in a barrel, you really have to be careful with what the overall flavor of those hearts is going to be. We are barrel aging a little bit lower proof, mostly just because that 15-gallon barrel – especially in the Tennessee summers and the Tennessee heat – is going to age very rapidly. We’re careful with our tails cuts; tails is hard to age out no matter what but, in our case, it’s extremely difficult. If you let it run too long, if you let it get way too low in proof off the still, that is going to be extremely difficult to age out in time [barrel entry proof is typically 119-120, per Lorna].
The good part is we have two facilities. I have to kind of bounce between both. But we have Adrian [Thompson], our barrel room manager, he is keeping a close eye on everything. One of the best parts of the job is getting to taste quite frequently. He’ll be keeping a close eye just because he knows, “OK, if it’s mostly had cold months, this one might take a little bit longer.”
We’ve actually started to see more barrels creeping up to almost a year, 13 months, which for us is kind of surprising. We’ve had a slightly longer cold months, which has been slightly weird this year; I don’t know why I’m not sweating already, and it’s almost June! The weather will be unpredictable for us; that hot, hot summer is going to quickly age [the whiskey]. We do have to be very, very careful and really keep an eye on everything that’s even remotely close to coming up because you just don’t know. I mean, you do, but you don’t. You get surprised by a lot of stuff. It can be a little tricky at times.
Thankfully for us, that shorter age time does help. We’re able to keep stuff on the shelves. We never have to source or do anything like that. It’s an interesting little game. On my end: I’m aiming to keep a consistent batch going and monitoring when I make my cuts and making sure I’m not getting any weird, off flavors and, if I do, just marking it and keeping that as a note to keep an eye on this barrel and see how it ages.
Malt: Have you always used 15-gallon barrels?
Lorna: We have slowly bumped up to 30-gallon barrels. We also started playing with Kelvin Cooperage. From the beginning we always used Barrel Mill from Minnesota. They have 15- and 30-gallon barrels. Kelvin Cooperage has 25-gallon barrels, which we’ve also been using. It’s not quite the same flavor profile, so we haven’t really invested too much in that. We will finish some things in 53-gallon barrels, the cognac, and the port, and all that. As far as full-sized barrels, we have not quite dipped our toe into that. That was actually the discussion this year and, of course, I keep saying it, but of course it has thrown a wrench in the works for everything. I was getting very excited about laying down some big barrels. It is happening, just not yet.
Malt: Anything else about Corsair that our readers should know?
Lorna: We’ve had a lot of big changes. I’ve been really, really excited about these new bottles coming out. It’s going to just clean up our image a little bit. Just because we’ve reined it in a little bit and we don’t have quite so many crazy products does not mean, by any means, that we are going to stop doing fun experimental things.
I’m really looking forward to playing with the big barrel size in the future and really seeing how our spirit matures. The 15 gallons are great; they have served a purpose. It’s going to be really fun to see how we develop over the next few years. I’m of course nervous; I’ve had to totally shift gears. We’re making hand sanitizer and it’s been a wild ride. I’ve had an amazing team behind me just helping. We had to bring some of our front-of-house managers on, and they’ve been super cooperative. We’ve got a good team, we’re all really passionate. We’re hoping we’ll have our bar open soon. If anyone’s in Nashville, we’ve got amazing cocktails in time, safely, as long as you wear a mask [laughs].
Sincere thanks to Lorna for her time and the frank discussion. On to the whiskey!
First, we’ve got the Triple Smoke. This is comprised of three malted barleys smoked with different fuels: cherrywood from Wisconsin, beechwood from Germany, and peat from Scotland. Bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV), this is bottle #203/252 from batch #319. Per the label, it was aged 8 months. A 750 ml bottle of this is $30 near me, though this bottle was a freebie (thanks, Nick).
Corsair Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-pale golden orange.
On the nose: Sweetly smoky immediately, this has the meaty aroma of pit BBQ-cooked pork ribs. The smoky smells encompass many similar elements: charcoal, firewood, embers, ash. The barley presents faintly but is detectable with some concentrated sniffing.
In the mouth: Quiet on the entry, this begins to perk up with some woody notes at the middle of the tongue. With a textural high point (relatively speaking) toward the top of the mouth, this has a youthful graininess to it. Thinning out into the finish, I’m left with only the faintest flavor of tired wood and watery black coffee. Despite an expressive nose, this is surprisingly soft spoken overall.
The multiple smoked barleys are most convincing on the nose, where this shows a variegated range of aromas. However, this mostly underwhelms in the mouth, where the interesting notes appear in watered-down form due to the dilution. I’m not sure that this can be blamed on a short maturation; the flavors are all there, but they’re trying (unsuccessfully) to shout through a waterfall. In total, this is a bit of a disappointment relative to its potential, though overall this is fairly priced and reasonably pleasant, hence an average score.
Moving on, we have the expression formerly known as “Ryemageddon,” now rechristened “Dark Rye.” It is also aged 8 months, per the bottle. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that this is bottled at 86 proof (42.5% ABV), down from 92 proof (46% ABV) for Ryemageddon.
I asked Lorna about this and she replied as follows:
Malt: Tell me about the change in proof for the Dark Rye relative to Ryemageddon?
Lorna: 92 proof whiskey lovers don’t really mind the proof, in my opinion. Proof doesn’t really scare anyone. If you’re just getting into whiskey, you’ve never tried it, 92 is a little intimidating. It can also be a little trickier to use in a cocktail when it’s at that higher proof.
For me, personally, I really did love it at 92. For me it was a little bit of an adjustment period. That’s my favorite product. We have been working with a mash filter for the rye, since rye is incredibly sticky and can become dough if you’re not careful. We were experimenting with a mash filter and seeing how that changes the product. This could become a totally different product if we stick with what we were doing at one location versus the new one.
That was a big part of changing that image with Ryemageddon. I think lowering the proof… bartenders are our best ally when we’re trying to sell spirits and I think they wanted to get something a little bit lower in proof to try to include more of our customer base and maybe not be so intimidated by that higher proof; 85 seemed more approachable.
This is from a mash bill of 61% Malted rye, 4% malted chocolate rye, and 35% malted barley. The distillery points out that this is both a rye whiskey and a malt whiskey, as it contains no corn in the mash bill. 750 ml of the precursor expression will set you back $40 at my local.
Corsair Dark Rye American Rye Malt Whiskey – Review
Color: Similar medium-pale golden orange.
On the nose: Exceedingly grain-driven, this presents an amply malty aromatic profile at first. The malted chocolate rye is used to good effect, creating the semi-sweet aroma of baking chocolate. Orange curaçao and more exotic notes of wood and jasmine incense start to emerge after some time in the glass.
In the mouth: This one begins where the Triple Smoke left off, with the faint bitterness of watery black coffee. This takes on a firmer texture toward midpalate, where the rye flavors of steel, stone, and spice emerge. Blooming at the back of the mouth, I again taste the subtle mocha notes from the malted chocolate rye. In contrast to the Triple Smoke’s fairly sedate finish, this lingers with the tart, almost fruity and roasted note of espresso beans.
I prefer this to the Triple Smoke, though it still falls short in places for me. There’s clearly superb raw material here, resulting in some genuine unique aromas and flavors. That said, the presentation suffers from the lower strength. I’d be a buyer of this at cask strength (with an appropriate price premium) all day long, as it offers some of the elusively delicious notes found in the Glenmorangie Signet at a fraction of the price. As it is, though, I’m left judging this as just a bit above average.
In another rarity, we’ll now be looking at a gin. Oft derided by the whiskey cognoscenti, gin is a craft distillery staple due to its quick turnaround time, being as it requires no maturation. Jason previously meditated on the phenomenon way back in 2016. Note that he didn’t actually review any gin at that time, making this the first gin review I am able to find on Malt. [Ed: the first is within a Golan Heights article]
Though I like a Negroni or a Pink Gin and Tonic on a hot summer day, I would classify myself as a complete gin novice. I am to gin as someone drinking Jack and Coke is to whiskey. With that caveat, I’m pouring some of this into my trusty Glencairn glass and giving it more or less serious consideration.
As I know precisely nothing about gin (something to do with botanicals, yeah?) I’ll let Corsair do the talking: “We craft our gin in small batches using a vapor basket system instead of boiling/maceration common in other gins. A vapor system allows a truer flavor to come through because the botanicals go through an extraction process rather than a cooking process. By using this we are able to impart a much lighter, more crisp botanical medley – resulting in a citrus forward, highly mixable gin.”
Yes. I’m going to adapt “highly mixable” for all manner of descriptions going forward. Onto the gin. The label indicates “juniper, citrus, cucumber, florals,” so I’ve got that going for me. This particular bottle is #270 of 342 from batch #257. It is bottled at 44% and retail price is $30. Once again, Nick sent through a bottle of this for review.
Corsair American Gin – Review
On the nose: Sickly-sweet aroma of putrefying flowers. I get some grainy notes, as well as damp pine needles rotting on the forest floor. Some French press coffee and cucumber smells make their way into this, but mostly I’m distracted by all the unpleasantly fecund smells.
In the mouth: This is entirely more crisp and clean tasting, thankfully. There’s a slightly dirty funkiness to this as it enters the mouth, though that dissipates quickly in favor of some underripe lime flavors. The gin blooms with a fresher floral bouquet as it crescendos in the back of the mouth. Finishing drily, lingers with the distinctive flavor of juniper.
A numerical score on a gin would be meaningless from me, given that I’ve never reviewed one before and I don’t foresee reviewing one again soon. Again, it’s not because I don’t like the stuff, but rather because I have a different muse. I’ll leave you with:
Finally, the main event. I’m not sure how to review a hand sanitizer; though prominent members of my country’s government have suggested otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t want to drink any of it. Per Corsair’s website, this is “80% ethanol hand sanitizer… registered with the FDA and labeled under its guidelines. Made from beverage alcohol – reprocessed gin and whiskey – the ethanol in our sanitizer has been denatured using denatonium benzoate, the world’s most bitter chemical. Per FDA ruling, we also use small amounts of peroxide and glycerine in our formulation.” Quite a bit of transparency there.
This is available for purchase, with a case of 9x 64 oz bottles running $290, the equivalent of $12.77 for a 750 ml bottle.
Corsair Hand Rub – Review
On the nose: Smells like new make grain alcohol, with a slightly bitter overlay. Oddly pleasant to nose, actually. I like that this smells more like an organic agricultural product than your average scented hand sanitizer.
In the hand: Less viscous and more fluid than normal hand sanitizer, this takes on a distinct aroma of cashews when it hits the flesh. It goes on clean and leaves little in the way of residue. I’ve no means by which to assess the antibacterial efficacy, but I’m happy to take Corsair’s word for it.
Does what it says on the bottle. Cheers to Corsair and all the other distilleries lending a hand in these challenging times.
Images kindly provided by Corsair.