I’ve got to hand it to Cedar Ridge.
You’ll recall that, in my prior consideration of five of their whiskeys, I bemoaned the comparatively low proof. In September of last year, the distillery announced that their Bourbon, Single Malt and Wheat Whiskeys would be increased in bottling strength from 80 proof (40% ABV) to 86 proof (43% ABV). While I wouldn’t claim any credit for this change, I applaud the distillery for listening to their customers more generally.
You’ll also recall that I mostly scored these around the middle of the range, which I’m continually obliged to remind folks is not bad in terms of the Malt scoring bands. However, with a whiskey industry accustomed to coddling by reviewers (in exchange for free samples), such treatment might have gotten me struck off the Christmas card lists of other distilleries.
Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when Cedar Ridge’s marketing manager, Anna Servey, got in touch to let me know that they were planning a new release. She offered a sample which I have accepted, though per Malt policy (and in keeping with my prior reviews) this will not influence my judgment.
So, today we’ll be considering “The QuintEssential” Single Malt American Whiskey from Cedar Ridge. Before we do, though, a bit of context about this type of whiskey generally, and Cedar Ridge’s approach particularly, is in order:
The malt whiskey category within the broader American whiskey landscape is growing rapidly at the moment. Perhaps the best-known of the malt-focused craft distillers is Westland; Balcones also takes time away from its distillation of funky corn varietals to provide us with single malt whiskey. One of Corsair’s core products is the Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey. Among the Kentucky distilleries, Woodford Reserve treated us to a “straight malt whiskey,” though I feel like they snuck in on a technicality given the mash bill was only 51% malted barley.
In addition, there’s further confusion about the term “single malt,” which does not have clear legal delineation stateside in the way that it does in Scotland. Thus, High West was able to release its High Country American Single Malt despite the fact that the distillate came from two pot stills separated by 20 miles of geographic distance. The country’s fledgling craft malt whiskey scene is plagued by the type of uncertainty that afflicted craft distilling more generally a few years back (see: the Templeton affair).
Fortunately, we’ve got a high level of detail on this whiskey; credit once again to Cedar Ridge for the transparency. They’ve even provided a diagram of the production and maturation process on the bottle’s neck tag (reproduced below). To summarize: two separate distillations (100% peated malt and 100% two-row barley) are distilled to 148 proof, then cut to 120 proof. The peated malt is aged in whiskey barrels for 4-5 years; the 2-row barley is aged in whiskey barrels for 2-3 years and then finished in “a variety of aging barrels” (the tag specifies “rum, wood, various fruits and wines”) for an additional 1-2 years. These two malts are then married in a solera “motherbatch,” of which a portion is removed for bottling and the rest refilled.
To fill in the few gaps left by this description, I connected with Jeff Quint, Cedar Ridge’s founder and master distiller. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Where did this expression come from?
Jeff: I’m working on that project with my son Murphy. I carry the title here of “Master Distiller.” I’m also the founder and the CEO. My son Murphy is our Head Distiller. He’s, today, in charge of what goes in that bottle. The process hasn’t changed; it probably never will change since we started messing with single malt in probably 2006 or 2007. We got licensed in 2005; we were the first licensed distillery in Iowa since Prohibition.
Just to go back a little ways: my last name is Quint. My great-grandfather moved here to Iowa in 1881 from Wintrich, Germany, which is on the heart of the Moselle river in the middle of Moselle wine country. If you go to Wintrich today, which is one of the ferry stops along the Moselle, the prominent winery there is still Weingut Quint. We can trace Quint family involvement in wine and spirits clear back as far as we can go, which is the late 1600’s. So, there’s some family history in the wine and spirits business.
What I did in 2007 is, I went to Scotland – alone – and I was touring maybe three or four distilleries a day for quite a number of days, just trying to get a feel for what we wanted to do with our single malt. Balvenie and Glenfiddich are right next to each other. Balvenie has been having a lot of success with their DoubleWood. When it comes to Glenfiddich, I’ve always liked that Glenfiddich 15, which is their solera. 100% of the Glenfiddich 15 in the world travels through their big single solera tank there.
I used all that information when I came back to Iowa. We set up a system where every bit of our single malt goes through two different barrel treatments before it gets married in the solera. So, it’s kind of a combo of what we thought was the best of Balvenie and the best of Glenfiddich.
To go back to the beginning: we get our malt from Prairie Malt in Saskatchewan. Murphy and I have been up there and met Chad Dobson, the farmer that grows it for us. Prairie Malt then malts it and ships it down to us in truckloads. We double distill it, and then it goes into a bourbon cask. Some of it ends up maybe in rye casks but the bulk of it ends up in bourbon casks.
Malt: Is that former Cedar Ridge bourbon casks?
Jeff: Yes, 100%. It sits there for two to three years at least. That ex-bourbon cask is always a first use. Obviously, it’s bourbon, it’s been used once. What I mean is: we don’t use them twice for single malt. We just use them once. We always get rid of our barrels after single uses.
After that initial two-to-three-year period in whiskey cask, then we dump that, and we put it in a second cask treatment. That’s where it gets a little more complicated because some of it goes to what we call “fruit barrels,” which is generally going to be like an ex-brandy. Some of it goes into ex-rum; we make both brandy and rum here. A lot of it goes into ex-wine casks. That might either be a red wine or a port cask; we make port wine here as well. Always, when we empty port casks, we end up putting single malt in them. We get sherry casks direct out of Jerez, Spain; they come to us still wet. A portion of the single malt then gets stored in sherry.
The last portion kind of follows a separate route, and that is the peated portion. It doesn’t get the two treatments because it’s just peated. About one out of eight barrels that we put in the solera tank are peated. When I say they’re peated, it means 50% peat malt and 50% unpeated. When we get peat malt in here, we cut it in half.
Malt: Does the peated malt come from Saskatchewan also?
Jeff: No, the peat malt comes from Scotland, but we can buy it through the same supplier. So, it’s one eighth peated but really the peat that goes in is half strength, and there’s varying strengths of peat. I hope you pick up the peat in the background. We’re trying not to overdo the peat but, man, we sure want to make sure it’s a noticeable component. We have to be careful here because, if it was up to us, we’d throw more peat in there. You get jaded, you know, like you would when you’re drinking the stuff every day, peated is no big deal. But to some people, they’re sensitive to the peat level.
Lastly, to finish up, on the solera: we fill the solera tank, which is an 1,100 gallon tank, and then we bottle halfway down, never more than halfway down. Then we fill it back up, bottle halfway down, and then we fill it back up. So we never turn over more than half of what’s in the solera.
Malt: So a batch size is half the solera?
Jeff: There’s actually two solera tanks. The one we bottle out of: we fill it up, we let it rest, and then we bottle half of it. So, we bottle 550 gallons tops; let’s just say it’s 500 gallons. It would never be more than that. So, you get about 400 six-bottle cases out of a bottling. That’s what we bottle at a time. Then, we take out of the second solera, and we re-cap the bottling solera. We’re just really going for consistency. The second solera, that’s where we dump the barrels into. It rests in the second solera, and then the second solera is used to re-fill the first solera after we bottle out of it.
The reason we do it that way is a second level of defense about us getting a barrel into that mix that we didn’t want in there. Rather than going straight into the solera tank that we’re going to bottle out of, we have a second one that we dump into, and we just always make sure that we like that second one. Let’s say you got 1,000 gallons in that second tank and you’re not getting the richness that you want. We’d work through some port and sherry-finished casks and then toss another 60 or 80 gallons out of those richer sherry or port-finished casks to try to get the richness back to where we want it. We don’t experiment in the final solera; we do our experimentation in the second solera and that’s what we use to fill the first solera back up with.
Malt: Do you think about this whiskey in the context of American malt whiskey, or Scotch, or world malt whiskey?
Jeff: That’s a good question. First of all, also, it’s 92 proof. You’re not seeing a lot of that out of Scotland. You know, all the core products out of Scotland are usually 80, maybe sometimes 86 [proof]. So, this is a whiskey we believe is better enjoyed at a little bit higher proof. A lot of Scotch you can’t do that with. You get kind of a nasty, heads-y sharp blow on the nose if you go too high proof with it. So, the fact that we’re able to bottle it at a higher proof, I think is a testament to the quality and the readiness of the liquid.
What would I judge it against? We want to judge it against the finest Scotches. We put it in a package that clearly says, “this belongs in the Scotch section,” if you will. There’s all these American single malts out there. A lot of them, you go into a retail store, they don’t know where to put them. “This is some American single malt whiskey; where do I put this?” We want to be in the Scotch section, because: it is Scotch, except it wasn’t made in Scotland, so we can’t call it “Scotch.” Otherwise, it is. So, our new packaging is designed to say, “Hey, this is in the Scotch section, but pay attention. American single malt is here, and it’s here in a very big way.”
We’re incredibly bullish on the future of American single malt. We think, when that run really heats up, that it could go for decades, because there’s so many things you can do with single malt. You know with bourbon, it’s kind of like vodka. It’s got to taste like bourbon, it’s got to follow a very, very regimented production. But with single malt, there’s a lot more flexibility, a lot more finish you can play around with.
So, we think that the America single malt run, when it develops, is going to be a long one and it should be a good one. What a lot of people don’t realize is Cedar Ridge has been releasing single malt whiskey longer than most of the craft distilleries that are producing it today have even been licensed. We have been at it a while, and I think we’ve finally decided it’s time to release this product. We’re in a situation where we can release thousands of cases annually, now. That’s why we reformatted it, repackaged it, and we’re going to launch it slowly, but on more of a national scale this time, certainly with online retailing the way it’s become.
Malt: You mentioned the flexibility around regulation; does there need to be more regulation of the American single malt category?
Jeff: The answer to that would be: “yes,” on certain things and “no” on others. We don’t want the federal government to regulate what kind of finishes we can put on a single malt. Scotland can throw it in a sherry cask or an ex-cognac cask; we want to have all those options as well. We’re clearly advocating at Cedar Ridge – also in participation with the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission – that we don’t want to have to barrel treat our single malt in new oak. Barley prefers a longer rest in a more conditioned cask. It’s a more delicate product than corn whiskey. Bourbon likes new charred oak, smack me in the face with it, whereas single malt seems to prefer a longer duration in a more conditioned cask, and it ends up with a little bit more delicate flavors that you can pull off of it if you treat it that way.
There’s certain things that we want improved and certain things we’d be against. We don’t want it to get so convoluted that you can put anything in a bottle and call it “single malt.” The example I think of is, if you go to Germany or Austria, schnapps is a delicacy for after dinner; you toil over what kind of schnapps you’re going to have. Here in the U.S., schnapps is sugared-up, artificially flavored garbage. We don’t want anything like that to be able to happen to American Single Malt, but we do want to be able to compete in a big way with Scotland for that buyer.
Malt: Anything else you want our readers to be aware of regarding The QuintEssential?
Jeff: The two words we’re going for are “rich” and “complex.” We get the complexity out of the variety of finishes, those finishing casks, and the exact ratio of those finishing casks that we blend into the solera. The richness, in our minds, is going to come from the portion of the finished casks that are generally either coming from the sherry or the ex-port casks. I hope you see a richness in that whiskey and I hope you can certainly pull the complexity out of it. We’re sure happy with the way it came out.
With that in mind, let’s dive mouth-first into this (hopefully) rich, complex American single malt whiskey. MSRP is $59.99; this bottle was provided to me free of charge by the distillery, as noted above. This bottle is from batch #001.
Cedar Ridge The QuintEssential American Single Malt Whiskey – review
Color: Medium-light maize.
On the nose: Gorgeously fruity to start, this leaps out of the glass with ample scents of ripe green apples, pears, fresh mint leaves, cinnamon sticks, and eucalyptus. I’m getting more sticky or medicinal cherry notes like kirschwasser or cough syrup as I sniff this longer. All throughout, the nose on this has a roasty and smoky counterpoint of barley that speaks to the emphasis on the raw materials, particularly the peated malt component.
In the mouth: Starts with a tart note of black tea with lemon juice squeezed into it. This progresses with baked pastry flavors before some vaguely woody notes emerge at midpalate, where the mouthfeel thins out. Texturally, I find this at its best toward the back of the mouth, where there’s a rich roasted note balanced against some more astringently woody flavors and a little more of the citric kick. Through the finish this lingers long but softly, with a gentle mix of malt and wood accented by faint flavors of milk chocolate and espresso. The nose’s cherry note also re-emerges as this resonates through the mouth with a gently tart and sweet flavor.
This is a fair deal more interesting than the Single Malt Whiskey I had previously tried from Cedar Ridge. The palate, in particular, is a marked improvement in terms of flavor and texture. Overall: this has got some very pleasant notes, no overt flaws, and generally good balance throughout.
Given the comparative narrowness of this category, I am struggling to determine how to score this. Am I evaluating it against American malt whiskey, comparably priced single malt Scotch, Japanese single malt whiskey, or the entire global spectrum of single malt whisky? According to Jeff’s comments above, he wants this to be considered alongside all the competing malt whisky options.
Looking at what roughly $60 buys me at my local liquor superstore: Ardbeg An Oa, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood, Dalmore 12 Year Old, Glenfiddich XX, Glenfiddich 15 Year Old, Glendronach 12 Year Old Original, Glenrothes 12 Year Old, Highland Park 12 Year Old, Laphroaig Triple Wood, Talisker Storm, and others of the like. These are expressions perhaps one step above the entry level and, depending on price, they’ve garnered a range of reviews here on Malt. There’s also a lot of fake Japanese malt whisky and some craft American malt whiskey.
Therefore, with mostly Scottish competition in the low-mid teens age range, how would I score this? Given the dire state of official bottlings from many of the aforementioned distilleries, I’d be more likely to plump for another bottle of The QuintEssential than to try my luck with some of the suspects listed above. In terms of craft malt whisky: like this as much as what (little) whisky I’ve tasted from Daftmill, which carries a much higher price tag (albeit with a higher age and a different production process). Where does that leave us? On net, I’m happily giving this a solidly positive score.