Justify your existence?!?
This is the challenge to craft distillers in the year 2020. The novelty factor has faded. The world is taking a hard look at the craft distilling landscape, and the picture is not a pretty one. The field is crowded, the incumbent competition offers better value for money, and customers are becoming fatigued with paying more for less
I’ve personally felt dejected at the woeful quality of some of the craft whiskey being produced in my region. A list of all the reviews would challenge your patience, dear reader, so I’ll dispense with the cavalcade of links and offer a more brief summation: some of it is aggressively terrible and can only be explained as the consequence of cynicism, apathy, or incompetence. A lot of it tastes like a second-rate imitation of what comes out of the mega distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee, but at double the price.
Some of it, though, is truly inspired. Where does the difference come from? The answer is that it’s made by people who aren’t performing a Jim Beam impression on a small scale. This can take many forms: locally sourced grain, unconventional grain varietals, smoking or malting, sweet mashing, long fermentations, careful distillation, low barrel-entry proof, and use of innovative finishing methods are but a few of the ways that craft whiskey can set itself apart.
With that checklist in mind, I was delighted when I was invited to a Zoom tasting of Chattanooga Whiskey. This was arranged for Chicago whiskey folk by Chris Blatner (a.k.a. @urbanbourbonist) on behalf of the distillery, and was led by co-founder Tim Piersant. The details below come from Tim and from the company’s website, which is delightfully long on factual information relative to the proportion of marketing shtick that usually accompanies craft whiskey.
Before I get to reviewing the whiskeys, a brief history might be of interest: founded in 2011, Chattanooga Whiskey established their brand with sourced whiskey from then-LDI (now MGP), selecting a high rye (21%) recipe. Labeled “1816,” the whiskeys came in “Reserve,” “Cask,” “Single Barrel,” and “Native” variants.
In the meantime, co-founders Tim Piersant and Joe Ledbetter began to become politically active, with an eye toward getting the laws in Hamilton County changed to permit whiskey distilling. These efforts advanced in November 2012, when the county commission voted unanimously to request an amendment to the state law. After a period of legislative sausage-making, the resultant bill was signed into law in May 2013. This paved the way for Chattanooga to start distilling in 2015 at their small-scale Experimental Distillery, producing a barrel of whiskey per week. To date, more than 300 experimental recipes have been produced at this facility.
Construction on the commercial-scale, 45,000 square foot Riverfront Distillery was commenced in July 2016, with a production capacity of 50-60 barrels of whiskey per week. The distillation setup consists of a 30-foot Vendome copper column still and a 100-gallon pot-still style doubler. A dunnage-style warehouse has the capacity to hold 4,500 barrels of whiskey. There’s also a 4,000 gallon Solera barrel, used for finishing the “91” expression.
Chattanooga’s landing page boldly proclaims that it is “THE ONLY TENNESSEE HIGH MALT WHISKEY” a style invented (and, indeed, trademarked) by Chattanooga and defined by the mash bill of yellow corn, malted rye, caramel malt, and honey malt. A sprouting period of three to five days is followed by slow toasting for the rye, roasting for the caramel malt, and stewing and kilning for the honey malt. A long fermentation of seven days is undertaken with a “malt-forward” yeast strain typically used for malt whiskey.
Maturation occurs in two barrel types: half are a #4 char and the remainder undergo a 30-35 minute slow toast before being charred to #3. Barrel entry proof is 115. Two years of aging is followed by a transfer of 8-12 barrels to the aforementioned Solera barrel, which is never emptied. Chattanooga released its first whiskeys (91 and 111) in August 2019. Tennessee Rye Malt followed in July of this year.
Reflecting again on our checklist, you’ll notice that Chattanooga ticks many of the boxes: unconventional raw materials, long fermentations, and some finishing tricks. So far, so good, at least in theory. I’m looking forward to tasting the results to gauge the distillery’s success at creating something unique.
The first whiskey we tasted was the 91, so-called because it is bottled at 91 proof (45.5% ABV). Retail price on this is around $35. This was a sample provided, free of charge, by Chattanooga Whiskey.
Chattanooga 91 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-pale orange.
On the nose: Subtle at first, this has a gently sweet and vaguely malty aroma. There are some nondescript stony notes in the background, as well as a thicker sweet aroma of vanilla buttercream. With some time in the glass, I get a whiff of fried egg yolk, some floral perfume scents, and a piquant nuance of anise. Throughout and around the nose, there are some greener aromas of freshly-cut grass and pine needles which, over time, metamorphose into a medicinal scent of eucalyptus. Yet more time allows this to take on aspects of wine, lime, and rock salt.
In the mouth: Starts mute, with little to notice until the whiskey has made its way well into the middle of the mouth. Baked honeyed notes of graham cracker are the most prominent feature at the center of the palate. There’s also a pert stony note in the middle of the mouth that lends this some much needed backbone, but disappears all too quickly. There’s a momentary heat that transitions to a lingering maltiness through the finish, which terminates abruptly.
There are some promising elements here, but overall I’m not completely convinced that the malt has been put to its best, most flavorful use. When I consider what the likes of Corsair and Cedar Ridge are able to coax out of their malt whiskeys, I am left wanting more from all the time and care that has gone into crafting this. On the positive side, there are no off notes and the price is fairer than we frequently see from craft distillers. Net, I’m giving this a bang-average score.
The second sample provided was the “Cask 111,” which is the result of a single fermentation and distillation run, resulting in an 8-to-12-barrel batch. Once again, the number in the name references the 111 bottling proof (55.5% ABV). In addition to the higher strength, we get this presented without filtration. Retail price for this expression is $47; again, this was a free sample.
Chattanooga Cask 111 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Similar medium-pale orange.
On the nose: Also similar to the prior dram, this has a subtle maltiness with the addition of some earthier aromas. There are some sweeter and richer notes of honey, appropriately, as well as the sweet smokiness of marshmallows roasted over the campfire. With some time, I am getting a fulsomely fruity and delicious whiff of ripe mangoes. There’s the faintest stony note dancing around the edges of this.
In the mouth: More hot and spicy in texture, yet more restrained in terms of flavor. Some bread-y notes at the front of the tongue move towards a general woodiness in the middle of the mouth, again punctuated by high heat. I get a synthetic, chemical-tasting fruitiness (like the artificial flavoring used for fruity gum or candy) at the top of the tongue. There’s one really solid note of cherry that hangs around as an aftertaste.
Again, some high points but also plenty of blank spaces. The lingering impression is one of overpowered but underflavored whiskey. While the dilution of the prior expression unlocked abundant aromas, this is more limited through the nose and the mouth. Even adding a few drops of water on my own doesn’t really loosen this up in a way that allows it to approach its predecessor. Again: not flawed, but not a standout. I like it less and it costs more, so I’m knocking a point off of average.
So, returning to our initial prompt: does Chattanooga justify its existence? I’d say so. They’ve taken a different tack and produced a pair of whiskeys that, while not yet true standouts, show plenty of promise. For my tastes, to earn higher marks they’ll have to figure out a way to take the many intriguing and pleasant notes found here (particularly on the nose) and translate that to bold flavors that demand to be noticed. Best of luck to them and, indeed, to all those craft distillers trying to do things the right way.
Photographs kindly provided by Chattanooga.