“We had no desire to produce another Kentucky bourbon. They’re already doing that; they’ve been doing it for a long time, and they’re good at it.”
More craft distillers would do well to heed these words from Bill Wofford of Five Points Distilling. Located in Forney, Texas, Five Points is an up-and-comer in the world of craft distilling. On paper, at least, they’re ticking all the boxes on my checklist: distilling their own whiskey from locally sourced grains, with long fermentations, disciplined cuts, and sufficiently long maturations in (starting last year) full-sized barrels. Above all else, they’re committed to producing whiskey that is unlike what’s coming out of Kentucky and elsewhere.
We discussed previously how “it tastes just like Four Roses and it’s only 20 bucks more” is, in the words of one craft distiller, the “world’s worst sales pitch.” In an increasingly crowded landscape (more than 2,000 craft distilleries in America, per the American Craft Distiller’s Association) and with the novelty appeal fading as consumers become more savvy (read: jaded), small-scale distillers will require more than a fancy label and a backstory if they’re going to survive. True differentiation requires that a craft distillery give us whiskey we can’t get from the larger producers, whether that be driven by grain, fermentation, or maturation.
To get more information on Five Points and these Lone Elm whiskeys, I sat down for a phone chat with Bill. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: How did you get into making whiskey?
Bill: Me and my college buds used to do the Bourbon Trail all the time, in Kentucky. We’d go out there every year, find some great whiskeys, and we’d take that back. Labor Day at the lake, we usually have this gathering at the lake, some birthdays and everything. In 2011 we went out to Kentucky and did our tours, hit the upscale tasting rooms, and we came back with… not much. It was a disappointment. There was hardly anything you could get your hands on anymore.
So, we came back and were kind of disappointed with what we found. We were sitting around the campfire and I said, “I can make better whiskey than this.” One of my college roommates slapped a check on the table! It was about midnight, I think, and he said, “Let’s see it!” That’s how we formed Five Points; it’s me and four of my college buds. That’s where it started.
Malt: Did you have any prior brewing or distillation experience?
Bill: I’m from the Ozarks; there’s a lot of moonshining going on up there. Most of my training came from my doctorate in physical chemistry – which is kinetics, thermodynamics, distillations, all that – from Texas A&M. I had some formal training in those things; not necessarily to whiskey, but definitely the same concepts, just different materials.
Malt: How was the process of getting started up?
Bill: That was Labor Day 2011. Everybody decided to pitch in and came back to Texas. I found a spot to put the distillery out in the country where they grow a lot of wheat and hay and raise cows. I bought a place out there and started construction on the facility. We built the facilities, we did all the tooling, we did everything ourselves. We’re hands-on kind of guys, we enjoy that part of it. We installed everything, we built everything.
We got a good jump start on what to do and how to do it from the get-go from Vendome in Louisville. Rob Sherman, those guys are great guys. They really helped us through figuring out where we want to start from the equipment side. So we facilitized the boilers, and all the equipment, and put it all together, built the plant. We produced our first whiskey in 2013.
Malt: Did you know you wanted to make wheat whiskey from the start?
Bill: I was a big wheated bourbon fan; the more wheat the better. I was a big Weller fan; William Larue, 107, all those Weller recipes. I knew I wanted a lot of wheat. But then we got to the area, I found out it was all wheat! This is not a corn place, this is a wheat place. We don’t have enough water for corn in my area. It’s hay country, it’s wheat country. Mostly we grow wheat to feed the cows. They have a lot of beef cattle with the hay there, too. Wheat became the obvious choice because we have local guys grow the wheat right there next door, on the Trinity river. If we’ve got this huge local wheat source, why use corn? It makes no sense.
We’re really into that local ecosystem. Our wheat comes from there. Our malted barley comes locally. Everything comes locally. Our rye comes locally. We run the grain through the process, we feed those back to the cows. Everything is our ecosystem. Our rainwater is collected for dilution water. We have a pretty good little family farm ranch thing going there.
We did some recipes. We decided for a wheat base right then and there, because it was cost-effective, and I love a wheat. We started right there with the wheat. I did all the R&D recipes; adding a little corn, or barley, or rye, or whatever. I came up with what I thought was our first product, which is the Straight Wheat Whiskey, which is almost all wheat, with a little bit of malted barley.
Malt: What’s the mash bill for the Small Batch and the Single Barrel?
Bill: They’re 90% wheat, 10% malted barley, both of them. They’re the same recipe. Malted barley is more expensive, so we minimized that, although there are some interesting flavors there. But we needed the high diastolic power to convert. Of all the recipes we tried, we liked that best. That was our decision, both like and financially, to go with mostly wheat.
It was really differentiating us from Kentucky. We had no desire to produce another Kentucky bourbon. They’re already doing that; they’ve been doing it for a long time, and they’re good at it. Made no sense to us to make a bourbon.
Malt: What are your fermentation times? Tell me about your yeast?
Bill: I use a blend of yeasts, and that’s proprietary; I keep that to myself. We’re on a seven-day fermentation. One of the things we do is temperature-control the mash very carefully for those seven days. If you go too fast, you get a lot of off flavors; if you go too slow, you don’t get a lot of conversion. So, we both cool the fermenters and control the room. We spend a good long time, even in the summer – you know, distilleries without temperature control, it goes three days in the summer and six days in the winter – we spend a very significant amount of energy to keep that fermentation very precise.
Malt: Is that a sweet or a sour mash?
Bill: We backset for the pH. We don’t have any infection problems; we have acid cleaning and it’s stainless steel fermenters. Everything is stainless steel. We find we get a better conversion and control that better with s ome backset. So we put some backset in there to control the pH.
Malt: Tell me about your still setup?
Bill: We are a 500 gallon batch to make one barrel a day. We’re super small; we’re super craft. We’re grain in, do the mash, do the fermentation, all the way through the distill. We’ve got a standard Vendome 500 gallon pot still with German copper, got an onion for extra copper surface area, and then we’ve got four trays, then a dephlegmator or a reflux condenser – whatever you want to call it to make sure we get that reflux started well – and then a condenser. The max that still will do is 180 proof; of course, we don’t run it at 180 proof, but what we can do is very fine separation.
We do one single 12-hour long distillation, making those heads and tails cuts exactly where we want it to get that nice, smooth whiskey. We’re not running a huge production where we stream strip and then double, which kinds of puts you wherever you’re going to be. There’s no play there. So, we’re into this controlling the still. Your ingredients are some of the magic, your yeast is some of the magic, your fermentation temperature is some of the magic, and where you make those heads and tails cuts is a lot of magic… or science, however you want to look at it. That’s where the handcrafting is in there. It’s not a super economic way to do it, but it makes great whiskey.
Malt: Do you lean more toward heads or tails in the cuts?
Bill: We’re watching those cuts very selectively. Both are critical. You need to get the methanol out, but you want some lighter esters. You want to get as long of sweet ethanol as you can; you don’t want too much grass at the end. You don’t want too much butanol, isobutanol, isopropanol. But, if you don’t have some of heavier congeners, you don’t get some of those great ester flavors you get when the oxidation in the barrel occurs. It’s all about the cuts, really, in that still, making those cuts. The finer you control that, the more control you have over the final product.
Malt: What is the proof off the stills?
Bill: We do straight whiskey but it’s 160. But that’s average. We don’t come off at 160, we average 160. That’s a very unique distinction with our whiskey, right? You see things coming off at 80, doubled, they’re 160. They’re coming off continuously the whole time. Ours is coming off higher, then it goes lower all the way. The average is 160, not the instantaneous. Because we’re doing a much finer separation, so it comes off at different proof the whole time.
Malt: What is barrel-entry proof?
Bill: We like 120. Two reasons: you can go to 125, that’s a little high. Lower, you get a better extraction of the wood, but the cost effectiveness becomes problematic. For us, 118, 120 is kind of a sweet point for us, because barrels are expensive. Since it ages so fast in Texas, we can get it too oaky. We can actually get too much oak in our whiskey. 18 small barrels in Texas, in a hot barn, you can get temperatures of 130. For every ten degrees hotter, that reaction rate doubles, so the whiskey ages twice as fast. Our aging here is very, very fast. It’s totally different than, say Scotland, where it’s cold. And then, of course, you’re getting more alcohol coming off when the humidity is high, and when the humidity is low the water’s coming off. We find that, too low, we get too much oak… what I think is too much oak. Some people would like that; it depends on the people. For me, it’s too oaky below 110 or so.
Malt: Where do you source barrels from?
Bill: Originally, we sourced the wood ourselves and had them built in Hot Springs National Cooperage. We couldn’t get in the barrel queue early; in 2013, we could not get in the queue. Nobody would give us barrels. There was a boom going on and we couldn’t get barrels. We bought wood from a buddy of mine who does hardwood flooring. We bought a whole truckload of wood. But now we’re in the ISC [Independent Stave Company] queue, from that cooperage up in Missouri, were getting some good Ozark hardwoods there. We do a number three or a little more char, and then we add back toasted stave. A lot of people will do charred barrels and toasted barrels, and then do a finish. We do it all in one stack where we have charred barrels and then some toasted staves inside the barrels. That gives us that mix we want.
Malt: What size barrels have you been using?
Bill: Everything you’re drinking is 15-gallon barrels. That’s brutal. It makes great whiskey, but that barrel costs the same as the 53-gallon barrel, and the angel’s share is higher in the smaller barrel. You get bigger, the angel’s share is less and the barrels are better constructed. You get less problems with the barrels also. The bands are also, made of bigger steel, it all tightens up better. We have more than 50% angel’s share in the 15’s. It hurts, but it really concentrates that vanilla and that oak.
Last year we moved to 53 [gallon barrels]. We’re trying to balance the supply to the aging we need on the 53s. We haven’t had a 53-gallon barrel ready yet. I think the first few I put back, I put back a few in 2017, and I’m still waiting on those to be ready. We’re just not into doing an under-aged whiskey; it’s just one thing we won’t do. You can’t get in this business thinking you’re going to go there quickly; this takes time and patience, so you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. There’s no way to just rush out, “I’m just going to put out some bad whiskey.” If you don’t have a reputation for good whiskey, what have you got in this business? Marketing, I guess. That’s not what we’re into.
Malt: What’s the philosophy on age?
Bill: Everything’s at least four years right now. I’m still putting back some 15s to keep that supply constant. I’m trying to find that crossover point where I’ll be well into 53s to supply. Anything less than four [years] is just not good enough. Of course, in a large barrel it’s going to have to be more than four. My first ones are 2017; I’ll soon be popping those to see how that’s going. I don’t know how that’s going to go, but it’s going to go slower. I would guess that we’ll have a pretty good whiskey in five or six [years], with the heat in Texas.
Malt: What’s your distribution like currently?
Bill: We’re in California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas so far. We’re really small, we have a small distributor. We would like to get it out everywhere, but we’re a small group, so we’re working it slowly but surely.
Malt: What is Lone Elm?
Bill: Lone Elm is the original name for the place we’re on. They changed the name later to Forney; there was a woman and her four sons from Arkansas who settled that place. To get the railroad to come through there they had to rename the town after the railroad guy.
Malt: What’s the Texas craft distilling community like?
Bill: It’s a pretty small community. You how Kentucky is, where everybody knows everybody, and everybody is doing something together or helping each other? I would say it’s even more so in Texas. There are no big producers in Texas yet, really. We all formed that Texas whiskey trail; we’re a founding member. Everybody who actually makes whiskey themselves is a founding member. We do a lot of blends with other distilleries; each year we get together with two or three distilleries and do a special blend.
Everybody seems friendly and everybody’s helpful. I think we kind of learned that from Kentucky. We were kind of surprised how open and how friendly – to be in a competitive nature with everyone out there – that they were pretty open. I don’t know these days, some of it’s corporate; profit’s the bottom line. The guys actually doing it are pretty open with each other. They were very nice sharing with us. We were starting up, we went out there and met with a bunch of guys, the master distillers at all these places, and they were very open.
Malt: What else would you like our readership to know about Five Points?
Bill: It’s hands-on. It’s very much not a bunch of people we hired to do this; it’s a bunch of people who want to do this. It’s a small group of people who love whiskey. We enjoy it every day.
One of the things we do is I teach a class on two weekends where they come out and do their own mash bill. They do the whole thing; I don’t touch it. They do it all from grinding mash, pitching, wait and come back the next week and do their distillation and then they barrel it, watch it, taste it, and do the angel’s share. I think that’s some of the big fun I have out there is all these classes of people who come out and make their own barrel.
Our rye will come out next month, just our R&D batches, will come out next month. We’re doing a complex rye – a wheated rye – which is pretty different, and it will come out next month. Beginning batches; it will be very limited supply. It will be two years until it’s in full production, but it’s exciting. It’s really spicy but we still have that same smooth wheat finish that’s kind of our brand.
Thanks to Bill for sparing the time for this frank conversation. Speaking of gratitude: these two bottles were generously sent to me by Tony W; sincerest of thanks to him as well.
First up, we have the Small Batch expression. This is Texas Straight Wheat Whiskey, from a mash bill of 90% wheat and 10% malted barley. It is aged for four years. Coming to us at 90 proof (45% ABV), 750 ml of this runs around $45 to $50.
Lone Elm Small Batch – Review
Color: Medium-dark cola with orange glints.
On the nose: Jumps out of the glass with ample aromas of sarsaparilla, molasses, and caramelized brown sugar. Some meaty aromas of barbecued brisket. As a warning, there’s the earthy-yeasty-woody note I have frequently perceived in craft whiskey with maturation in small barrels.
In the mouth: This is intensely tart on the tip of the tongue. Moving toward the middle of the mouth, the earthy-yeasty-woody flavor comes to the fore. This has a tannic woodiness at the top of the tongue before it disappears rapidly on the finish.
There’s a promising note for every off-putting one, but ultimately this whiskey comes across as not fulfilling the potential of the raw ingredients. This tastes like another craft whiskey with time in a barrel not large enough to allow subtractive maturation to alleviate the awkwardness. As a consequence, and despite some of the promising flavors, this is getting docked a point.
In addition, we have here a bottle of the Single Barrel. This is from barrel #488, filled in April of 2016. Coming in at 121.8 proof (60.9% ABV), 750 ml of this will set you back $65 to $70. Again, thanks to Tony W for the bottle.
Lone Elm Single Barrel – Review
Color: Even darker cola with orange glints.
On the nose: An umami aroma of soy sauce starts this out before a rapid transition to the minty, chalky chocolate note of Sno-Caps candy. The aforementioned foreboding earthy-yeasty-woody note is still here, however, it is more well-integrated and noticeable only with intense sniffing. I get a pleasantly yeasty and warmly comforting aroma of freshly baked wheat bread and a rich, sticky-sweet note of honey.
Adding some water to this reveals more of the wood dominance. There’s some chocolate fudge and a bit more stone fruit, but mostly I am getting a heightened sense of oak influence.
In the mouth: A big improvement over the prior bottle. A kiss of black licorice is evident as the whiskey passes the lips and quickly turns into a delicious sweet and tart cherry flavor. This blooms with a warming, mouth-coating heat of chili peppers as it moves toward the center of the tongue. Suddenly, there’s the tart, nearly fruity nip of bitter dark chocolate, of the type that is used to such good effect in Mexican cooking. The off-bitter cacao note intertwines with the tart fruit and takes on a mineral aspect as this lingers in the back of the mouth. There are some flavors reminiscent of dry colds of earth at the periphery as the only echo of the concerning aromatic tell attendant whiskey matured in small barrels.
With water, the fruity notes are less ample and the earthy and woody notes more pronounced. This is more obviously bitter and tannic as it reaches the center of the tongue, a sensation which continues through the finish.
This is a big improvement over the Small Batch in terms of not having that small barrel awkwardness, which I am now presuming is released (in the prior case) as a result of dilution down to bottling strength, some of which was evident here. By comparison, this Single Barrel showcases an array of appealing flavors, particularly some delightful spicy cocoa notes. I love that Five Points has been able to produce some unique, novel characteristics, of the type previously mentioned as the sine qua non of craft whiskey.
Based on this conversation and these examples, would I be a repeat customer of Five Points? In time, which is to say: I believe that the team is going about things the right way and is producing whiskey that, while it shows great potential, is limited by the logistical and economic concerns that forced the use of smaller-sized barrels. As the 53-gallon barrels come into their own, I’d expect the output of Five Points to be much improved. In light of the above, I’m putting Five Points on my “positive watch” list, with a mental note to revisit this distillery in a few years’ time.