While wandering the aisles and searching the store shelves at the local grocery store, I often find myself in a state of confusion.
This confusion stems from trying to find bourbon that tastes great but doesn’t break my budget. I have been primarily drinking bourbon produced by major distilleries that are more easily attainable and affordable. I have found that the further you dive down the “rabbit hole” of bourbon culture and hype, the more you begin to chase bourbons that are “special” or “limited” instead of focusing on which ones are the best to drink.
In my experience the chase isn’t worth the trophy. When I find labels that are rarities, I am generally expected to pay well above retail price. I ask myself: “was this worth it?” This exercise made me alter my thinking when it comes to what bourbon I purchase. I’ve been finding a hell of a lot more joy in diving into local distilleries, rather than focusing on the next “rare product” being released from the national brands.
A slim bottle with a black label recently caught my eye. This bourbon comes from the Spirits of French Lick distillery. The rustic looking label resembles something out of the 1920s, and it was this label that drew me to this bourbon. While standing in front of the store shelf doing research on my phone, I read reviews and watched YouTube channels devoted to Spirits of French Lick that piqued my interest. When it came time to make a purchase, I landed on “The Maddie Gladden”, a high rye bottled-in-bond bourbon. It has a mash bill of 55% corn, 35% rye, and 10% Victory Malt.
To get more information, I had a chat with, Alan Bishop, Head Alchemist at Spirits of French Lick. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: Tell us about your grain: varieties and sources? How does this play in the creation of flavor?
Alan: The corn we use is all grown in the local foodshed which is very important to us, in terms of capturing the “terroir” of the local area. Victory malt is an old school roasted brewers’ malt that brings some very biscuity and dry types of flavor to the forefront and is an excellent flavor bridge with the rye. The proportion of the grains is of great importance to us as we wanted this to be a truly “high rye” bourbon by anyone’s definition and we certainly accomplish that with 35% rye in the mash bill.
Malt: Tell us about what yeast strains you use? Why were these selected?
Alan: We use a strain that we call our “house strain” on day one of fermentation. We propagate this yeast ourselves and captured it from the distillery environment. It really contains our “house character” and pulls the influence of the grain to the forefront. The second yeast is a brandy-specific yeast, we fancy ourselves brandy distillers at heart, and many of the methodologies we use to produce differentiated whiskies are actually brandy methods. The brandy yeast brings the fruity characteristics of the grain profile to the forefront.
Malt: Describe the equipment selection process? What considerations were there in the selection of pot vs column stills?
Alan: Pot stills are tools of an Alchemist. They are all about capturing, intensifying, and retaining unique flavors and aromas from the base material in a batch methodology. The pot still method is reliant on great inputs for amplified outputs and gives us a bigger, rounder, more full-bodied spirit that is also clean. Pot stills are percussive, much like acoustic guitars, they are reflective of the people running them, their state of mind and their environment during the process. A column still simply cannot reflect such spiritual matters due to its industrialized design.
Malt: Please describe the selection process for Mattie Gladden and any other considerations about barrels/char/toast/other criteria?
Alan: All the barrels we use are 24-month air seasoned at the very least. Always medium plus toast heads and number 2 char barrels and at least 53 gallons in size. We use a number 2 char because our emphasis is on a blend and balance between raw material, fermentation, and distillation at 50% and maturation at 50%. Since we run pot stills we are very well able to control the positive flavor contributions of the distillation process and to eliminate unwanted characteristics meaning that the char level doesn’t need to be anywhere near as intense in the maturation process as the char in the barrel really isn’t there to provide flavor but to provide filtration for unwanted esters and phenols. A number 3 char would be too heavy to pay homage to our tagline; “Respect the grain”. The flavor of the barrel is really from the toasting level that we achieve. The toast is where wood sugars begin to caramelize, and lignin begins to break down giving rice to Coconut and Hazelnut flavors and aromas in addition to vanilla and caramel.
Malt: What does using the bottled-in-bond designation mean to you?
Alan: Getting to bottled-in-bond status on all our bourbons has always been my main focus. As a craft distiller I have always felt that BIB would be the mark at which any serious and passionate consumer might start to take a craft distillery more seriously.
Malt: What makes Spirits of French Lick special to you?
Alan: We simply do what we do and blaze our own trail. Too many others are trying to copy the big guys, or to get to a point where they can sell. If there is something, we want to do that doesn’t yet exist that just excites us more because we get to make it a thing. Our commitment to grain and our geography and history is very unique to us as is our commitment to making our labels as nice as the products in the bottle.
Malt: How are you seeing the distilleries progressing within the state and how would you set Indiana apart as a bourbon region?
Alan: For me they are not progressing fast enough. They are not doing enough to differentiate themselves or make themselves an important part of the local economy. Some certainly are – Old 55 comes to mind, alongside Hubers – but too many are just doing the same old tried and true. Indiana was one of the three big distilling states prior to Prohibition including Kentucky and Illinois, and we can be there again, so long as we take ourselves seriously and continue to deep dive into our art. I love seeing Indiana back on the distilling map and I think we have done well as a state, but there is so much further to go! The new Indiana Rye Whiskey designation will help a lot. More people producing their own products so the assumption that everyone isn’t just bottling MGP will be a tremendous help.
Thanks to Alan for the insight. Going into the tasting my expectations for flavors tack toward something along the lines of other high rye bourbons. I tend to lean towards that flavor profile because I don’t like overly sweet bourbons. Don’t let me down Indiana! Let’s get into the glass.
Spirits of French Lick “The Mattie Gladden” Bottled-In-Bond – Review
Color: Mahogany/Dark Caramel.
On the nose: Honey sweetness, buttered cornbread. Light fruit notes shine through, honey crisp apple or red pear. After sitting in the glass, this reminds me of what a baked apple tart would smell like drizzled with honey. You can tell that grains are the forefront with this whiskey, despite showing its youth, I still can find some oak in the background of this one.
In the mouth: Pleasantly mouth coating, surprisingly viscous for 100 proof. The apple that was found on the nose comes through on the taste. Dark sugars, like molasses and toasted sugar, start to come out in the taste. The rye grain then comes to bat, bringing its herbal and spicy notes out. A eucalyptus, almost menthol note, presents itself which quickly evolves into peppercorn spice moving to finish. The toasted oak finally shows up as a greeting going into finish. The finish, given the viscous nature of this bourbon, is medium in length. You’re left with the charred oak and tannic notes of barrel with a parting kick of pepper and tobacco. The pepper spice is something that lingers with a pleasant tongue numbing.
The complexity of what Spirits of French Lick does shows up in the glass, as this is a stunner. I was surprised at how grain-driven this bourbon is, I can tell the “Respect the Grain” motto is a core focus. Compared to some of the other Indiana distillery bourbons that I have had, this easily ranks among the best. I have a certain fondness in my heart and tastebuds for Starlight distillery, another Indiana producer, but I have to say this certainly stacks up, and for my region, is readily available.
It gives me a great sense of pride that not only is this such a good bourbon, but a good Indiana bourbon.
This delightful sipper has enough complexity to keep me coming back to the glass to find more. The grain flavors come through, not only on the nose, but also are at the forefront in the glass. The Mattie has a sweetness that my tastebuds welcome, and surprises me with the rye spice coming to the party as it prickles my tongue.
If you’re in the Indiana area, this should be easy to pick up. It can surprise the novice or experienced bourbon taster alike. At a comparatively modest price point of $37 (at Total Wine in Indianapolis) this is at a comparable level with a lot of the national “mid-shelf” pours, which it exceeds with flavor and composition alike.
I am looking forward to the future of craft whiskey in Indiana. This bourbon makes me excited to dive into the other varieties this distillery offers and what grains they give a voice to in the glass.
Finally, if your” thing” in bourbon is a story, this Mattie Gladden has a fun one. The namesake and figure on the label was a Madame with a bordello in Indiana. She is rumored to have rebelled against the town she lived in, loved P.T Barnum, and generally stood as stark contrast to the ideal of women of that time period. What’s better than an interesting story paired with an interesting bourbon?
Photograph by Jami Andrews.