The whiskey rebellion is perhaps the coolest-sounding event in American history.
Sandwiched into history class curricula between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the incidents in question tested whether our new Republic would devolve into a dictatorship. Like many aspects of American whiskey history, the contention at the heart of the conflict related to taxation.
I won’t belabor the details, which are widely available on your internet reference site of choice. I bring this up only in order to frame today’s review of Liberty Pole Spirits from Mingo Creek Craft Distillers. Mingo Creek is located in Washington, Pennsylvania, called “The Home of the Whiskey Rebellion” and site of an annual festival to commemorate the event (held, naturally, on Tax Day). Period iconography features heavily in the presentation of Liberty Pole Spirits, which are made with reference to practices in use at the time.
To get more information, I had a chat with Jim Hough, proprietor of Mingo Creek Craft Distillers. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: Tell me about how you got your start?
Jim: I was a hobby distiller for many years. I probably ran that still making whiskey for ten years, never even thinking about starting a craft distillery… until I got to an age where I could see retirement on the horizon. It was too far for me to just quit, too far for me to stay in the job that I was tired of doing, and I started thinking about, “What could I do?”
I got a sense that craft distilling was starting to gain some traction. I knew how to make whiskey and started to put a business plan together. Where we’re at in Western Pennsylvania, we do feel that this area is the birthplace of American whiskey. We wanted to be a whiskey-only producer. The stars aligned, and craft distilling was taking off. We like whiskey, whiskey was experiencing a real resurgence. It was a good time to start. We actually started in 2015 with the building renovation. We started distilling in early 2016 and opened our doors in summer of 2016.
Malt: Tell me about the history of building?
Jim: This building was built in 1905. It was a monument company; they made headstones in here. It’s incredibly beefy construction, which for us was really good because it allowed us to have heavy tanks, stills on the main floor, with a basement below. We have an overhead crane that was previously used to move headstones around. We have a small little tasting room; that used to be the showroom for the headstones. It’s a pretty cool building.
Malt: Where do your grains come from?
Jim: Early on when we were putting the business plan together, I had experimented on my own still with heritage grains. We really liked Bloody Butcher corn that I had been able to get my hands on while I was distilling from home. We set about to finding a farmer.
It’s really a cool story: this farmer that we found, the family ran a dairy farm, so they grew a lot of their own grains for the dairy farm. It was all GMO corn; non-GMO has to be planted separate, it can’t be in adjacent fields due to cross-pollination. This guy actually had some fields that we wasn’t farming that were physically separated from his fields. We approached him and he was very interested, but he said, “Look, I’ve never grown a heritage, non-GMO corn before. I’m not sure that I know how to do it.” I guess he sat down at the dinner table one night with his grandfather who very stoically said, “I used to grow that; I’ll help you.” He got into the corn growing business for us. We’ve been using him ever since. He’s about 40 minutes away from us here in Western Pennsylvania.
In the meantime, our demand has outgrown his capacity to supply us. We’ve actually had to find another farmer here in Pennsylvania who grows Bloody Butcher corn, so we’re using a combination of two local Western Pennsylvania farms.
Malt: How did you decide on a wheated mash bill for the bourbon?
Jim: I was always a Maker’s Mark fan. I was always a wheated fan. If you’ve looked into the mash bill, even on our rye whiskey, we have wheat in there. We like wheat; we think it adds maybe a little creaminess, a little sweetness to our different spirits. That was something, again, from my hobby distilling days, I was making the wheated bourbon. We really liked it and decided that how we were going to do it legally.
Malt: Does the wheat come from local farms as well?
Jim: Yes, it does.
Malt: Tell me about the malted barley and the peated components?
Jim: We do like a high malt content in our mash bills. We think that maltiness comes through in the final product. Originally, our goal as a craft distiller honoring the whiskey rebellion in 1791… those guys didn’t use enzymes. Our goal was to have mash bills sufficiently high in malt that we could easily convert without the need for enzymes. That’s kind of given way to reality; we do use some enzymes. It makes the process much easier in the backside for us. We still like the maltiness; we love the flavor profile that the malt adds.
Malt: How about the peated barley?
Jim: It is imported from Scotland. It’s actually a Highlands malt, not an Islay malt. We’ve had some really sophisticated palates point that out, “Boy, this doesn’t taste like an Islay malt.” It lacks the salinity, [not] being on the coast. I think it’s less salty, more campfire-ish.
Malt: You don’t see a lot of peated bourbons around; what drove that decision?
Jim: This is a good story. I keep going back to my hobby still. As I was playing around, I was making the whiskeys I like. I like ryes and corn whiskey and bourbons, but my wife is a huge Islay whisky fan. The dirtier, the smokier, the better. She said, “Why don’t you make a peated single malt for me?” As a hobbyist, your only source of grains are homebrew stores. Peated malts are not a popular grain for home brewers; you could get it, but you could get it in, like, quarter-pound bags.
I did the math in my head of how many quarter-pound bags I’d have to by to make a true peated single malt in my home still and decided it probably wasn’t financially smart. I just bought enough to give a peated overlay to the bourbon mash. It was a hit. That was the lynchpin that gave us the thought that maybe we could turn this into a business. It was so unique, so different, and really gave us our own identity.
Malt: What did you do in terms of getting back to historical roots of whiskey making in the late 18th century?
Jim: Really, for us, that comes down to pot distillation. That was our big goal, was to be a pure pot distillation shop. As far as re-creating those 18th century procedures: we’ll leave that up to Mount Vernon and the guys at the Washington distillery. Our big thing is local, non-GMO heritage grains, with a pot still. That’s our approach to being true to the history of Pennsylvania whiskey.
Malt: Tell me about fermentation?
Jim: We upsized our equipment two years ago. We went from a 300-gallon system to a 600-gallon pot still, fermenters, mash tun. In our 300-gallon system we did no temperature control of the fermentation. Fermentation is an exothermic reaction, so we had some kind of high temperature fermentations in the summer.
We realized, with a 600-gallon system, we couldn’t really do that anymore. Our fermentations are temperature controlled now. We try to keep them in the low 80-degree temperature range. We do six-day, on-the-grain fermentations. That’s a straight sweet mash. We use a standard Lallemand distiller’s yeast that we really like. The six-day fermentation is really special. We’re not controlled by a corporate entity that wants those fermenters turning over every three days, which I think is the standard. That primary fermentation is certainly done, but we pick up a lot of great secondary fermentation flavors in those extra three days.
Malt: What is the proof off the still?
Jim: The late-heads, tails, blended final proof is about 130; we’ll proof that down for barrel entry. We have a lower barrel entry proof; anywhere from 110-115.
Malt: You’d mentioned those unique flavors; is there a note off the fermentation or stills that is characteristic to Liberty Pole?
Jim: Especially our bourbon, in particular, the Bloody Butcher corn… we love the flavor of the Bloody Butcher; I often describe it to people as an element of a nuttiness, an earthiness to it. We’re not trying to make a Kentucky bourbon, and that comes through in the final product. Kentucky makes fabulous bourbons. We’re trying to stand out on our own.
Malt: How do you think about maturation? I saw that you’re using both 25 and 53-gallon barrels?
Jim: It’s evolution. What you’ve tasted and what we will be bottling over the next year or two will be coming out of 25 and 30-gallon barrels. Ever since we upsized to our 600-gallon system two years ago we’ve exclusively been laying down 53-gallon barrels. Our goal, in a couple years, is to be 100% 53-gallon barrels.
Malt: How do you manage maturation in smaller-sized barrels?
Jim: It’s so hard to start a whiskey-only distillery. You can source, which is a great option. If you have deep enough pockets, you can just produce until your whiskey is old enough. We didn’t fit into either of those camps, so we had to produce and have some product to sell, and we didn’t want to make vodka.
We started with the five-gallon barrels, move to tens, move to 15s, and then 25 and 30’s. That gave us a quicker feedback loop on how distillation affects our products. I tell everybody: I would be scared to death if we were just dumping our first four-year-old distillate without having it had any feedback prior to that.
In a way, I’m really happy we did it that way. I think the one thing we learned is that small barrel whiskey can be good, but you can’t have super-clean cuts off the column still, throw it in a 25-gallon barrel, and expect that that whiskey is going to be great. We like the pot still; we do wider cuts than a lot of craft distillers. We like some of those lighter, fruitier flavors that come through in the late heads, and we love the flavor, and the oils, and the viscosity that comes through in the tails.
A lot of craft distillers talk about their clean cuts, very conservative cuts, and we take a much different approach to that. We’ve widened our cuts even more going into 53-gallon barrels. That’s the one change that we’ve been making in the process; we’re going into bigger barrels; we’re widening those cuts. Our cuts are primarily based on what we’re tasting and what we’re getting out of barrels, feedback from our processes. We like what we’re tasting with these cuts we’re tasting.
Malt: Where do the barrels mature?
Jim: We have two areas: we have the basement of our building… which is sub-optimal, in my opinion. It’s partially below grade; it’s not 100% below grade. It doesn’t get as crazy hot in the summer as we would like; it doesn’t get as crazy cold in the winter as we want. Once we started filling 53-gallon barrels, we found a warehouse across town that is more of an open-air, tin-walled, non-HVAC controlled climate. We’ve been aging our 53-gallon barrels in that warehouse for the last two years.
Malt: I see the bourbon whiskey says “a minimum of 24 months;” is this straight whiskey?
Jim: It is, we just haven’t updated our labels. Technically, being all over 24 months now, it’s two years old. We’re going to do a re-branding later this year that all of our labels will include the word “straight” on there.
Malt: Speaking of the label: who’s this lady?
Jim: We call her “Spirited Jane.” Jane Miller was the mother of the young Oliver Miller, who was fatally wounded in a Whiskey Rebellion clash. We picture the mother of a 16-year-old young man, we picture her brandishing the Liberty Pole, cursing the lack of doctors in the theater. Spirited Jane is going to stay a part of our brand in the future.
Malt: Over the long term, what’s the ideal age for your bourbon?
Jim: As the whiskey gets older, from bigger barrels, it gets better. Our business plan right now and our projections, based on what we’ve been producing, we hope to be exclusively four-year-old whiskey, or older, within four to five years. As we go through our 30-gallon barrel stock, meet the demand with maybe some under-four-year-old 53-gallon whiskeys… eventually we’re making enough and we’re putting enough away that we think that in four to five years we’ll be four years old. From there on, I can only go by what Jimmy Russell has said, and Fred Noe, those guys claim that eight to ten years is the sweet spot for American whiskey.
We’re sampling some of our two-year-old, 53-gallon rye whiskey and – at least, to our palate – it’s tremendous. Fritz Maytag, I think, was quoted by Lew Bryson as saying, “the world has not yet discovered the beauty of young rye whiskey.” We’re really excited about those whiskeys and that’s something we will watch, as they age; we don’t want that to fade away. We don’t want that to be overwhelmed by oak and barrels.
Malt: How did you decide on the 46% bottling strength?
Jim: We’re a family-owned distillery; my two sons are the production crew back there. They’re mechanical engineers, both of them; they wanted to come back and help with the family business, so they’ve been here since day one. They want to move to a little higher proof. I think, ultimately, we may kick the standard proof up a little bit.
Our original thought was, we tasted this at varying proof levels, and I thought 92 was the best combination of a high enough proof for whiskey enthusiasts but not overpowering to people that are not super into high-proof whiskeys. I always compare it to when I go to a brewery; I’m not looking for a Michelob Ultra [light beer] at a brewery. I felt like we wanted to do the same thing here; people aren’t coming in here looking for an 80-proof whiskey. We felt that was a good combination. We have a peated rye that we do an annual release of that we release at cask strength. We’ve started a single barrel program at cask strength. The 110 range is really nice, we really like that.
Malt: Do you experiment much?
Jim: We do; that’s the beauty of craft, is that you can do that. However, we are nervous about, we don’t want to have a flavor of the week. Customers become numb to a release every week, or every month. We try to be very guarded with our one-off releases. Now, that said, we do the peated rye, which I think is going to become a core part of our portfolio because it’s been so well received. We have a mesquite rye that’s coming of age this year that I think is going to be really good.
The one thing we did that we’re really having fun with, and I can’t wait for this to come out: we do a wheated bourbon. Our base bourbon is wheated. So, we’ve taken a look at Kentucky distillers producing rye, and it’s a barely legal rye, 51%. We’ve done the opposite, being that Pennsylvania is a rye whiskey state, so we’ve produced a bourbon that’s a barely legal bourbon; it’s 51% Bloody Butcher corn, but then 45% rye. We’re excited about that; we’re going to call that “Pennsylvania Bourbon.”
Malt: Is your whiskey available outside of Pennsylvania?
Jim: Not yet. Pennsylvania is a control state. We are in all areas of Pennsylvania. We ship to the three distribution centers that the LCB [liquor control board] maintains. We’re in maybe 30 of the larger state stores.
Our goal is really to stay regional. It makes more sense to us to be able to support the brand, to be able to go out and help distributors. When we have capacity that we can eventually look to get outside Pennsylvania, we’d like to keep it in the Northeast, where I think the brand would resonate a little bit more. We’re not looking to be in 40, 50 states with a case a year in those states. We want to maintain a regional profile for at least the next five or six years.
My kind thanks to Jim for sharing his time and insights, as well as his whiskey. In the spirit of full disclosure: please note that all these whiskeys were provided free of charge by Jim but, as always, this will not affect my notes or scores.
On to the tasting! We’ll be starting with the bourbon whiskey. It’s worth noting that Mingo Creek’s websiteprovides a great deal of information about the technical details, which is very much appreciated. This is from a mash bill of 57% Bloody Butcher Corn, 18% Red Winter Wheat, and 25% Six-Row Distillers Malt. As noted above, this is straight whiskey, with this batch (#30, bottled 12/8/2020) aged a minimum of two years in 25-gallon barrels (medium+ toast, #3 char). It is non-chill filtered and comes to us at 92 proof (46% ABV); SRP for this is $49.
Liberty Pole Spirits Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium pale golden orange.
On the nose: A zesty and rich topnote of Meyer Lemon mingles with a pronounced maltiness and some diluted tannic notes, in the manner of iced tea. There’s a meaty element of smoked pork shoulder as well as assorted spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg.
In the mouth: The initial impression is of wood-kissed malt. This evolves the promised nuttiness as it moves toward the center of the mouth, where the wood also becomes a bit sharper but never overpowers the spirit. Through the finish, this develops a subtly chocolatey note as well as a peppery bite that serve as interesting counterpoints to one another. The whiskey lingers with a tingling heat that coats the mouth, bringing with it more of that chocolatey aftertaste.
On paper, it would be easy to write this off as young craft whiskey matured in small-sized barrels. However, this whiskey is pleasantly surprising in that it avoids the pitfalls of its craft brethren (overbearing woodiness, awkward flavors) and instead delivers layers of aromatic and gustatory nuances that are surprisingly diverse and well developed. Based on my conversation with Jim, it’s clear that the long fermentation has been paired with appropriate adjustments to the cuts and attention to maturation. It’s a convincing proof-of-concept and makes me excited to try the forthcoming four-year-old whiskey matured in full-sized barrels.
Moving along, we have the Peated Bourbon. This comes from a mash bill of 59% Bloody Butcher Corn and 41% Six-Row Distillers Malt and Heavily Peated Barley. Once again, this is straight whiskey ages two years in a 25 gallon barrel. This is batch #24, bottles 11/23/20. Also 92 proof (46% ABV), SRP for this is $57.
Liberty Pole Spirits Peated Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-light auburn.
On the nose: Similarly malt-forward to the unpeated bourbon, this also has a very pretty dried floral accent of potpourri. There are some darker fragrances of musk in here, as well as a hint of the phenolic salinity that one typically associates with peated malt whiskey. More time in the glass reveals toasted pumpernickel bread and a touch of black licorice.
In the mouth: This starts with a serious note, presenting some very exotic woodiness at the front of the mouth. The smoky notes start subtly but build steadily as this reaches the middle of the mouth where, again, the Bloody Butcher corn imparts a nutty character, this time the meaty flavor of Brazil nuts. There’s a momentary flavor of tar or bitumen, which is once again subsumed into the evanescent smokiness. Through the finish, there’s an iodine flavor that meets a polished woodiness. This lingers with a piquant spicy note and more subdued heat in comparison with its predecessor.
I’ve written before about how delivering novel flavors is the sine qua non of a craft distillery’s existence. On the basis of its novelty alone, this peated bourbon would demand consideration. However, Mingo Creek has once again delivered a successfully executed divergence from the norm that unleashes some truly unique flavors. The inherent nuttiness of the Bloody Butcher corn is becoming a delightful hallmark, and is enhanced (in this case) through its marriage to the well-balanced smoky note imparted by the peated malt. I’m awarding this a positive score and, again, this strongly recommends a try of the next generation of this expression, once all the full-sized barrels have reached maturity.
Finally, we’re bringing it on home with some rye whiskey. This comes from a mash bill of 61% Rye, 13% Red Winter Wheat, 13% Rye Malt and 13% Six-Row Distillers Malt. Also matured for two years in 25-gallon barrels, this particular bottle is from batch #27 (bottled 11/6/2020). Again 92 proof (46% ABV), this carries a suggested price tag of $42.
Liberty Pole Sprits Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium golden with auburn glints
On the nose: Much nuttier upfront than the bourbons, this presents a note of cashews that plays against more classic rye aromas of citrus-accented cream and aloe vera. There’s a doughy note in here that calls to mind freshly baked rye bread, as well as some other assorted notes of buttery pastry (think croissants and pie crust). This is also less obviously young-smelling than the bourbons, with the overall sense from the nose being one of a more complete whiskey. Let’s see if this carries through to the palate?
In the mouth: More sedate than the prior drams to start, this is mostly mute on the entrance. There’s a faint flavor of iced tea with a lemon wedge squeezed in, reminiscent of the nose on the bourbon. This remains very low-key as it moves across the tongue, with the most salient feature being the blooming heat that rises toward the top of the mouth as this crescendos. There’s a very subtle and exceedingly pleasant note of candied orange that emerges gracefully as this finishes.
The nose was promising and, while the palate didn’t have any flaws or off-notes, I didn’t really get the carry-through I would have liked. Still, there’s plenty of promise here, in keeping with the bourbons. I’m similarly inclined to watch the maturation of this expression as the whiskey ages in larger barrels, with the expectation of more emphasis on some of the very nice notes contained herein.
For those of you who may be new to the site, I’d like to refer you to our scoring bands which are, again, price sensitive. Given the preponderance of high-quality output from the major distilleries and the premium price required to support a small distiller’s economics, it’s no small feat for craft whiskey to earn even an average score in this space.
The fact that Mingo Creek has been able to achieve this consistently across three expressions still in their relative infancy constitutes a very positive reception from my perspective. I’m happy to report that Mingo Creek is doing things the right way, and even happier to report that this has resulted in whiskey that is full of both flavor and promise. They’re on my list to watch, and – should you find yourself in Pennsylvania (and in a rebellious mood) – Liberty Pole should be on your shopping list.
Photos courtesy of Mingo Creek Craft Distillers.