There are interesting things afoot in Indiana.
Though many whiskey lovers use “Distilled in Indiana” as shorthand for “sourced from MGP,” there’s actually a number of respectable Hoosier craft distilleries putting out solid products of their own. I’ve previously enjoyed rye whiskey from Huber’s Starlight Distillery. Ryan treated us to a taste of bourbon from Spirits of French Lick. Adding to our list, today we’ll be introduced to the Old 55 Distillery of Newtown, IN.
I prefer to let up-and-coming craft distillers tell their stories in their own words. Pursuant to that end, I phoned up Jason Fruits, who generously shared an hour of his time with me. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: Where did the name “Old 55” come from?
Jason: So, I’m standing out in front of the distillery right now on the road that runs right in front. It’s Old State Road 55; this is the road home.
Malt: Tell me about how Old 55 got its start?
Jason: I’m a Purdue grad, so I jokingly say that I got a Master’s – if not a PhD – in beer drinking. When I went there, it was an agricultural engineering school. All you had to do was drink beer and try to pass classes. I was always a beer drinker, loved beer, then got into whiskey because I managed a casino. I couldn’t pretend to drink warm beer all day. I could pour whiskey in a glass, walk around ten hours, no one knew the difference.
My grandpa started these grain elevators in 1968. We’re the largest family-owned grain operation in the country. My dad hates me saying that; it is a big operation and he’s super humble. He should be absolutely proud. We’re the only family-owned grain operation left in the country. They don’t exist. We’re a dinosaur.
We have two grain operations. My dad had been yakking my ear off about diversifying the family business. I would do anything for my dad – he’s the best – but Newtown is about 120 people and dying. We’re like the local Mafia; the friendliest taxpaying Mafia you ever met. My dad feeds all the police dogs around here. Every taxpaying business is basically owned by my dad. If you would have told me I would be back in Newtown in my late teens, early 20’s, I would have punched you in the mouth. I was never coming back to this hellhole. I have actually decided that my father is an evil genius because he has every single one of us back. How the world changes!
We had this joke for 20 years that we got all this corn because of the family business; we should make some whiskey, right? The joke is that the family is so conservative; my dad, who owns the distillery with me, has never had a sip of beer or liquor in his life. His mother, my grandma, will actually call me weekly to check on the business. Huge entrepreneur, awesome lady, but she actually doesn’t believe in drinking at all. She won’t step foot in there because she’s that religious; it’s kind of hilarious.
So, starting this thing was interesting to say the least. We just started dragging my dad around to craft distillers all over the country. This was circa 2010; I had my oldest in 2010 and had just gotten married. Priorities change, right? This entire thing is an ode to family and legacy. I’m the one that gets all the press and I’m the one that’s in the Whisky Advocate and all these things and that is super cool, but the problem with that is that there’s so many people that made this happen. I’m just the one that gets to look like the genius.
Lots of family worked their ever-loving butts off to make this happen. I’m a product of good breeding and better raising, man. My two sets of grandparents and my parents are just about as all-American as you can get; come from nothing and started this.
We went to Colorado, went to Stranahan’s before they got bought up. We were everywhere; Jounreyman, in Michigan. We have a Kothe still so the Koval crew, Robert Birnecker, we moonlighted with them. That’s the family joke, too: I like expensive things, so of course we bought the most expensive equipment you possibly could, to make the best stuff on.
We just got to the end of this and my dad said “Hey, bring me a business plan.” That’s kind of what I do; I have my Master’s in business. I would say I’m an idiot savant – more idiot than savant. I was one of those kids you hated in school. I wanted to be an astronaut; I’m too tall, so that dream was crushed.
It’s pretty funny how we ended up here. I brought dad a business plan and never thought he’d ever go for it, and he said “OK, this looks good.” I jokingly say that maybe a year or two ago, my butt un-clenched. It’s pretty crazy. We’ve been hammering away now, it’s been seven and a half, almost eight years back to distillation.
We do all farm-to-bottle spirits. When we started this whole thing, I knew the bourbon craze wasn’t here yet, but it was coming. That’s all I wanted to make, but bourbon’s expensive, man. It’s the most expensive spirit to make in barrels; more time than anything else. We’ve always been a bourbon company, that’s all we wanted to do. We did release a corn whiskey that’s won some nice gold medals and stuff.
We do things a little bit differently. It’s all farm to bottle. We single barrel everything, so when you buy a bottle of Old 55, you can trace that bottle back to a single barrel that has been distilled by me, that comes from one family farm, that’s been in the family for 103 years. It’s about as transparent as it can get.
That’s how everything started. A couple whiskeys now; we’ve done really well. Since we started, I always wanted to do bottled-in-bond. That was the dream ten years ago when I set up the LLC: good products, and only good products, because it’s a legacy, right? It’s a pedigree, and it’s all kinds of transparency. Nobody’s doing it, because nobody really can do it, let’s be honest. So that’s what we’re pushing towards; hopefully in about a year in a half every single one of our product lines will be bottled-in-bond.
Malt: Speaking of doing things differently: what were your main areas of focus, where you thought Old 55 could really differentiate itself from all the other craft distillers?
Jason: First of all, it was never just “craft whiskey.” I still don’t really like that term; I think about it in terms of just “bourbon” or “whiskey.” That’s probably overconfidence on my end, but that’s how I’ve always felt. I never really felt like I couldn’t make what the big guys make. I have all the equipment. The biggest difference, and the biggest thing that differentiates us, is the vertical integration.
We are completely vertically integrated, so we farm this. If I want to make a whiskey, I can grow it on West Central Indiana, East Central Illinois [land], I mean: this is the best farm ground on planet Earth. They literally call this “black gold.” We have a family farm that has thousands of acres. More importantly: then I can harvest it and store it in the family grain operations that my dad owns. Then, we distill it at the distillery that my dad and I own; we don’t have any investors. We’re completely vertically integrated; that is the thing that separates us. We control everything from seed to bottle; I think it’s incredibly cool. It’s what we wanted to do from the beginning, and it’s what we’ve stuck with.
We do have a wildly popular whiskey to just teach people: hey, we can make whiskey like everybody else. We just buy grain, and then actually mill it and distill it and do everything here, which is even beyond what most people do, to be honest. Then we sell that at a very reasonably price, and that its why it’s so popular. It’s just $35 a bottle and it’s delicious. It’s great stuff; it’s a millet-sorghum whiskey we call “Wabash Cannonball.” It’s super cool.
I just wanted to make something weird. I laugh, it’s like my least favorite whiskey of everything I make… not because it’s not good; I would have rather it been terrible than the way it turned out. I always say sorghum’s like if rye and corn had a baby. It’s got that kind of sharp spice that you associate with rye but very sweet, too. The millet gives it this kind of rum-ish, awesome finish. I laugh; it’s like a OBSV Four Roses barrel finished in a rhum agricole barrel for a year. It’s like the most basic, high rye Kentucky bourbon thing that I make.
People are like, “why do you talk so down about it?” I don’t, it’s great, it’s just: I would have rather tacked off the wall, weird, and people not like it, rather than the way it turned out. You tried to make something weird and interesting and end up toeing the line. It’s a great whiskey and we’re expanding production on that as well.
Malt: Tell me about your corn?
Jason: The main bourbon mash bill is #2 yellow dent corn, which is what all whiskey should be made from because it’s excellent. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Beck’s Hybrids, they’re one of the biggest corn seed producers out of Indiana. We actually have a meeting with them next week; we’re doing some cool stuff with just traditional, Roundup Ready, #2 dent corn for them.
We have some things specifically that we target for, and we get some of our seed from them, and they’re like, “Hey, we could help you with that directly, and we’d love to go market it.” That’s also like a billion-dollar company, so we’re like, “Yeah, we’ll do that with you.”
Most of the corn – let’s say 95% of production – is just regular field corn. What we’re a lot more world-famous for, what we’re known for, is this sweet corn. We make the world’s only sweet corn bourbon. So, we grow corn on the cob, just like we eat all summer long, except we make bourbon out of it.
We should have known when nobody else did it… that should have been the first clue. I always say this: we’re the only ones in the world who make that because we’re the only ones in the world dumb enough to make it. It is obnoxious to say the least, man. The redneckery involved in making that is crazy.
It’s 100% corn mash bill. It just has this sweet corn… so much so that we actually classify on our tax records the sweet corn as a different corn. The TTB loves us doing that. It doesn’t act like corn. It’s almost a different commodity; it’s such a different hybrid, a different strain. We’re using the sweet corn for something it’s not intended to be used for. #2 dent corn is made to be dried down to 14-16%, put it in the bin, tons of starch, used for sweetener, you name it. People use corn for everything.
The sweet corn, we’ve been genetically modifying that. For instance, our sweet corn is technically organic. We could get an organic label on that because we plant it organic and we don’t spray it; it’s just not something we really care about. It’s not the market we really go to; if we were closer to Chicago, that would probably work out. We’re in the middle of corn country; farmers want Roundup Ready #2 dent, man. They know the deal; we have to feed the masses.
We’re just using that sweet corn. That particular breed of corn is made to be the best when it’s sweet and ripe and on the vine. It doesn’t stand; why would you ever breed sweet corn to have strong stalks, because you never harvest it? The field looks like Armageddon, it’s all falling down. I call it the witching hour; we have like four or five days to get it off the ground before it all rots.
Last year was the worst ever. We usually get about six wagonfuls of it. I’ll make anywhere from 15 to 25 barrels of it. That’s all we can make. Costs us a fortune. Last year, I made four barrels. That’s all we got. That’s just how it is.
I always tell people: there’s basically three reasons why that sweet corn is so expensive. One is the cost of seed. A bushel of regular corn, I think my dad is paying like $5.30, or $5.40, is what the Chicago Board of Trade is today. A bushel is 56 pounds. 50 pounds of the sweet corn that we plant is $1,400. This will be the ninth year that we plant sweet corn.
Let’s say you have the acreage and you can grow it just like we can; I don’t really care that much about $2,800. It’s piddling in the bigger scheme of things. But, if someone wanted to mash that, a single mash bill would cost $60,000, $70,000, depending on how big. It would literally make it unaffordable.
We grow it, so then I have it. That’s really where the family business comes in: we know how to store and make grain viable and harvest it. You put this on these peanut carts, you dry it. We almost hand-malt it; I jump in there, I have to flip it to make sure it’s all dried out. It’s garbage, man. The sweet corn is a love-hate relationship: everybody loves it, and I hate it. But it is an awesome product. It’s a lot of work, man. I always hope people enjoy it because it is a lot of work.
Finally, the third thing is the opportunity cost that we lose. Year before last I got 19 barrels of sweet corn; that took me seven weeks to distill. In seven weeks I can distill 120 barrels of bourbon. That’s just how slow it is. A six-hour, seven-hour distillation goes to 14; on that 14-hour distillation I get a third, and I already keep a third anyway because we do 100% heart cut. I’m just cutting myself back and forth; it’s just exhausting.
Nobody can afford to lose that kind of money doing it. I always have people saying “Well, just buy another still and run sweet corn on that one.” You don’t understand business or economics, because then I would just run bourbon on that still, too. It never makes sense, we just keep making it as a loss leader. Because it is cool that we’re the only ones that make it. There are some other distillers that will put like, some sweet corn in here and there. Like Roy Neeley down at Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky. His grandpa’s old shine recipe has, like, a couple handfuls. It’s literally a distiller’s nightmare.
Malt: What is the mash bill for the single barrel bottled-in-bond bourbon?
Jason: It is 80% corn and 20% soft red winter wheat. No malted barley; I’m enzyming everything. We use six proprietary enzymes, four proprietary yeasts. We do have a malted barley product. It’s 2021, and when I started this, it was 2013. A lot of people are still using malted barley, and then they enzyme anyway. You’re just blindly following recipes that are 120 years old. Does anybody innovate?
Malted barley is expensive. I know, I pay for it. Our single malt just won best American single malt on the planet at the international whisky competition last year. The product is wildly popular, and it’s aged in sweet corn barrels. It’s an awesome product, but it’s expensive. It’s 100% smoked and malted product that cost me a friggin’ fortune; it’s out of control. But, it’s awesome, you know; it’s really good. And I like to do things other people can’t do
because they would cost too much, or usually probably stupid… but I can get with a little more stupid because we’re vertically integrated.
Malt: How do you think about flavor creation at the mashing and fermentation stages?
Jason: With this 100% heart cut, I’m keeping the heart of the hearts. Anyone else can’t afford to make the whiskey I make. The only reason that I can afford to do that is because we’re vertically integrated. While we’re doing that, I always like to say we’re absolutely as efficient as we possibly can be until we get to that cutting process, and then all efficiency gets thrown out the door. I make every bean counter on the planet, or anybody that tries to count dollars at the big three or big four [accounting firms] blush. Our cut is no tails whatsoever, and my cut of the hearts is maybe 40%. The rest goes to an ethanol plant; we let them sour mash it right into your gas tank. I can keep that smaller amount. No one else can afford to do that because of the vertical integration, because of the farm. We own it; we can afford to do expensive things that nobody else can do.
We sweet mash everything. It was over 200 degrees Fahrenheit in there, and I just dumped our first yeast in there. It will die under 194. We were one of two beverage producers that even use that yeast because most of the big guys are like, “Why? You’re just wasting money.” I’m like, “Well, I waste no money to make the best thing that I possibly can, so then I can waste all my money on my cut on the end.”
Everything, all that yeast and all those enzymes we’re using are specifically to get as much alcohol as we possibly can, because I’m going to keep so little. To make that tiny cut as big as possible: that’s always the strategy.
Malt: Tell me about the distillation, cuts, proof off the stills?
Jason: 19 bubble plate tower, hybrid reflux system. This is a Kothe still that they made just for us; it was an accident. This is the only still of its kind on the planet; that’s what I was told. Perfect example: the heads are running off right now. I know by temperate, and also by volume, roughly where those cuts are. I can have the computer make those cuts for me and put them in special tanks; we have never used that once. All of our cuts are made by me.
Corn changes, temperature changes, barometric pressure changes. That’s honestly why I love distillation; there’s just so much individual expression that you can put into it. That’s what’s beautiful about it. I really came into this just purely from a business perspective and then fell in love with distillation and the nerdiness of it. Dude, I’m a Purdue nerd; I love the detail of this process. There’s just so much that makes you nerd out to the tenth degree.
All of our cuts are made by me. They’ll change daily because grain, weather, you name it. That’s really more just me tasting it. Always making sure that we keep in that heart of heart cuts. If I start to taste those heavy tails we’ll cut it off immediately. I’m done. It doesn’t matter where we’re at, volume-wise.
yWe can’t compete on volume here; we can make a lot of bourbon, we have a very large setup. We’re probably at 1/25th of production right now, of what we could do. We’re just kind of growing organically. We’re going to have some growing pains, like the Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel. It’s awesome to get those [positive] reviews, but you just can’t make enough. That’s part of the growing pains. It’s just family; it’s just me and my siblings doing all this. Dad, the boss, is like “Hey, let’s just grow at a pace that is sustainable, instead of just chasing dollars.” It’s not really about making money. It’s insanity to be able to say that.
We’re doing well, but to be able to grow organically, and to grow our customer base, and to see the desire that we’re seeing, it’s incredible, man. To be able to not sell ourselves short. We’ve had offers; the big guys are very much interested in what we’re doing. I’m making incredible whiskeys that are winning at the biggest competitions, and they’re four years old, and the stuff I’m competing against is 12-to-16-years old, and I’m doing it [in] a quarter of the time. It has nothing to do with me; it is all because of these people that I get to call grandma and grandpa, mom and dad.
Malt: What is your proof off the stills?
Jason: We run right at 160, which is rare as well. We run it at the legal limit that bourbon can go at. The idea was: it’s cleaner, right? I don’t know how I feel about that. That’s why it’s smooth; at 100 proof, that drinks like it’s 80 proof. Our barrel strength selections, which is my favorite thing we make, at 112 to 120 are smoother than anything else, because we’re taking that heart cut, and we’re distilling it higher. The worry is there, as a distiller, is you’re going to strip flavor. You’ve tried my bourbon; I don’t have the issues with flavor.
Malt: What’s the barrel entry proof?
Jason: 56.25% [ABV] is what I would say 60% of our barrel entries have been. So, right around 113. Now I’m playing with it. I’ve got some sweet corn that I put in right at 50. I was just like, “Ooh! Lower barrel entry proof gives you higher sweetness levels.” Let’s see how sweet we can make it, because that’s already a super sweet whiskey.
Our single barrels are 95% the same. The difference is, all that magic, is in the last 5%. It’s usually proof; the little differences in proof when they come out the barrel, whether they’re overproofed, or where they happen to fall. Then we’ll take sister barrels; a single distillation of that standard bourbon will run us two full barrels. They’ll sit right beside each other for four plus years and they are similar, but you can still taste differences.
People will be like, “What do you like?” and I’m like, “It depends what day it is and what I had for lunch.” The 62.5, 125 entries are delicious. The lower stuff is delicious. We played with doing some stuff at 107, kind of those old-school, late 1800’s, early 1900’s barrel entries. First of all, it’s too early to tell. Most of it goes in at 113 because that’s the stuff that I’m seeing now that is winning at everything. The stuff that we put in varying lower and higher doesn’t scare me; I’m still doing it low and high.
If it was up to me, I would sell every single one of our barrels as an entire barrel to retailers. We’re almost to that point now; it’s getting insane. Do a barrel pick, you pick it, you taste it, and that’s your whiskey, at cask strength.
Malt: Speaking of casks, tell me about your cooperage relationships.
Jason: Level 3 chars; everything comes from The Barrel Mill. They’ve been awesome to us since we started this. It was really hard in 2013, when we started, to find good dry-aged staves. I love the guys down in Kentucky – Independent Stave and Kelvin, they’re awesome, and they make great stuff – but they just can’t get me stuff that’s dry aged long enough. I can get, like, 10% of my order, and then the rest is kiln dried. The reason for all that is repeatability.
To that point: we age all of our barrels underground in a basement. We’re the only North American facility that does that; the only bourbon producer that does that, to my knowledge. We have just shy of 90,000 square foot; I have thousands of barrels down there. It’s kind of more like a Scottish dunnage house.
Now, we’ve done 53 [gallon barrels] in the past. We haven’t released any of that whiskey yet; they’re still sitting down there, and they’re still aging. We’re waiting to see what that does, but 30-gallon barrels is what we use exclusively. That is everything we’ve won on, every award that we’ve won, is all 30-gallon cooperage. So, either straight two-year plus, or now, with the Bottled-in-Bond, four-year plus.
Malt: That’s incredible. I would not have guessed that was less than a 53-gallon barrel when I tasted that whiskey!
Jason: That was my biggest thing. I call it “big barrel robustness.” So that craft whiskey taste is indicative for a reason. I know what guys do to get that, and I wanted to steer so far away from that. That’s why we started putting 53’s down. If I switched to 53’s today, I would halve my cooperage costs, and that’s my biggest expense. I could put those two 30’s in one barrel!
We make better whiskey faster than anybody else can. That’s what we do. And we do it by the things I’ve just told you: we’re vertically integrated, we can control the input products, we spared no expense to make that. Credit once again to grandparents and parents for giving me the resources to make the whiskey that I want to make.
Malt: Is there a house style or a flavor note or profile that you think is consistent?
Jason: The sweet corn is awesome, it’s one of a kind, but the wheated bourbon is my mainstay. The wheated bourbon is something I make most of; that’s my favorite thing. Caramel, vanilla, that’s all we’re going for. We get those [spicy notes]; that 100 proof is going to give you all those notes. We get a lot of banana notes, and that’s our yeast strain. If I was going to pick a bottle that shows off what we do as a family, and what we’ve accomplished, it is that single barrel Bottled-in-Bond.
Thanks to Jason for sharing his time and insights.
Having heard all that, I’m excited to be tasting the Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond expression. List price for this is $80, but it’s currently on sale for $70 from the distillery shop. This was a sample generously provided by Ryan; thanks to him as well. It is bottled at the legally-stipulated 100 proof (50% ABV).
Old 55 Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon – Review
Color: Bright golden orange.
On the nose: Grain-driven to start, with sweetly corny notes. There’s some vanilla custard in here, as well as cola-flavored gummy candy and very faint whiff of acetone, but mostly this is grounded in a rich and buttery nod toward the raw material input. Some time in the glass releases additional spicy nuances such as cumin and nutmeg, as well as numerous other scents wrapped together and intertwined so tightly that it’s impossible to pick them apart.
In the mouth: Upfront, this has a surprisingly and deliciously exotic spice and herb note balanced against a sugary sweetness. I’m again reminded of cola candies, though there’s a more piquant bite to this in the manner of root beer as well. This takes on a more potent herbal character as it progresses toward the middle of the mouth, where the accumulated spices and the nose’s creamy notes meet in perfect harmony. This is the whiskey’s high point, after which a fade into the finish reveals a slightly stale and juvenile woodiness as the lone nit that I am able to pick.
I’ve frequently written about how craft whiskey needs to present novel aromas and flavors in order to justify its existence and the typically premium prices asked for it. This whiskey delivers in full, with aromas and flavors more reminiscent of far-flung and tropical locations than anywhere I’ve been in Indiana. There’s an entire bazaar worth of spices here that are put to their best effect as counterbalances to that initial rich creaminess. It certainly piques my interest in paying up (roughly $135/bottle) for the Sweet Corn Bourbon Whiskey. In the meantime, I’m placing Old 55 on my list of up-and-comers to watch, with a positive bias, and would encourage you to try a bottle if you can find one.