What are the boundaries of bourbon?
Specifically, what are the limits of the strength at which a bourbon can be bottled? Half of the answer is a simple one: the TTB standards of identity stipulate that the minimum permissible bottling strength for a bourbon whiskey is 80 proof (40% ABV), and there is no shortage of bottles available at this level of potency (or lack thereof).
The high end of the range is more complicated, however. Nominally, those same standards stipulate that proof off the stills can be no greater than 160 proof (80% ABV) and that the whiskey cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). After that, however, the magic of maturation takes over, which can include dramatic changes in proof.
To simplify greatly: in drier and warmer areas with more air flow, water evaporates more quickly than alcohol, causing whiskey to “proof up” by rising in strength. The opposite effect is evident in a cooler, more humid environment. Large variations in temperature can occur even inside the same rickhouse, with the upper floors evincing the former conditions and yielding higher proof barrels on average.
That’s the “what,” but not the “so what?” Why is this a concern? Well, barrel proof releases are prized by bourbon aficionados for the intensity of the experience they deliver. The lack of dilution prior to bottling means that, hopefully, the aromas and flavors will be more vigorous and vibrantly expressed than would be the case when watered down. A more in-depth exploration of the topic can be found in this excellent piece from Breaking Bourbon.
Even among the generally elevated “barrel proof” or “cask strength” releases, there are occasional standouts in terms of their outlying, extremely high ABV. The C914 batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof came in at 140.2 proof (70.1% ABV), while the 2007 George T. Stagg release was a whopping 144.8 proof (72.4% ABV). The whiskey I am tasting today bests both of those, coming in at an eye-watering 150.8 proof (75.4% ABV).
This whiskey was produced by Kings County Distillery of Brooklyn, NY, which has not yet garnered any coverage from Malt. To learn more about the distillery, I had a chat with jovial co-founder and distiller Colin Spoelman. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Tell us about you, and about how Kings County got its start?
Colin: I grew up in Kentucky but everybody, once I moved to New York, started asking me about bourbon. It’s like, “I’m not really from that part of Kentucky.” You know, if you grow up in Kentucky, there’s the moonshine part of Kentucky and the bourbon part of Kentucky, and I was definitely from the moonshine part of Kentucky.
Through everybody else’s enthusiasm, I got interested in this cultural inheritance that I had. I was actually really interested in moonshine. I got a still and was distilling in my apartment and moonshining, selling to family and friends, with no particular intention to start a distillery out of it.
It was a lot of fun and it kind of took off, so I looked into getting a license and realized New York state had just changed its laws – as many have – around distiller’s licenses. So, I put in to become the first of the New York city craft distillers. We opened in April 2010. We started with some unaged whiskeys and I continued to really advocate for an aged whiskey. Always, we’ve been laying down whiskeys for longer aging. We’re just now starting to get into some of that, which is really exciting.
I would say, if there’s anything that we represent within American whiskey, it is the intersection of many distilling cultures. Just as New York is this melting pot city of many different culinary cultures – but just cultures in general – we take that and apply it to whiskey. Our peated bourbon is a good example of something that is pot distilled, it’s made with peated barley, and yet it’s also made with corn and aged in new barrels. So, it straddled the line between the American tradition and the international tradition in whiskey.
A lot of our whiskeys do that; even our bourbon does that. It’s a high malt bourbon, it’s pot-distilled, it’s aged in multiple formats; just little tweaks to the process here and there that make it less like a Kentucky bourbon, more like a more international-facing bourbon, I guess you could say.
Malt: How did you fix on the 80% corn, 20% barley mash bill?
Colin: When I was hobby distilling, I was reading this Canadian author, Ian Smiley, who had written a book, and that was his mash bill to make corn whiskey. Corn whiskey is 80% corn, 20% barley, as a minimum in the law. That was kind of the starting point, I was starting to make corn whiskey, and doing it to this Canadian recipe.
Then I started to experiment with rye and wheat. We have done wheated bourbon and we have done high rye bourbon, but the high malt bourbon was just… I got used to the flavor profile and started to not like anything else, on one hand, and it helped differentiate us from Kentucky bourbon, which I’ve always thought was very important: to do something very different from what was being done in Kentucky, so as to make the case for bourbon outside of Kentucky, which until only very, very recently was sort of a little bit like, “why?”
Malt: I read that you perform a four-day, open fermentation. How do you think about flavor creation at the fermentation stage?
Colin: Unlike most bourbon, we ferment off the grain. We actually run the bourbon mash through a liquid-solid separator that basically does what a Scotch whisky distillery would do with a lauter tun. You’re separating the spent, fibrous part of the grain from the liquid, and then that’s what goes into the fermenter.
Malt: How does fermenting off the grain impact the flavor?
Colin: You end up with less of a cap on the fermenter, so the fermenter is much more active. You can actually fit more liquid in the fermenter. For us, it’s more about yield than about any sort of aiming at quality. It does all have an impact, and it has become one of these features of our process that we’re hesitant to change because we like the whiskey that’s coming off of it. Some things you design and some things you stumble into, and that was one that we stumbled into early on and have made a lot of efforts to preserve it as we’ve scaled up.
That’s an important distinction from the starting point, but then having open fermentation… you get a little more inconsistency, I would say, which [laughs] sometimes is good, sometimes is bad. In the summer, you get a higher temperature fermentation than you do in the winter, because things aren’t necessarily temperature controlled. You also do get a really funky, flavorful, and then estery flavor profile that I think you then preserve through pot distillation. For me, it’s preparing the mash for a particular style of distillation that we’re doing in the way that we’re fermenting. If we were using a column still, a lot of the effort might be lost.
Malt: Is that a sour mash or a sweet mash?
Colin: We use a sweet mash.
Malt: Ah, but you talk about a sour character that comes about as a consequence of using the wild yeast?
Colin: It is sweet mash in a sense, but in terms of the funkiness of it, I guess it’s a little different by the end than a sour mash would be, if you’re tasting the mash. From the distilling point of view, I don’t know… that’s an interesting question. We were doing sour mash for a little while, but I couldn’t actually tell the difference in the distillate, so it just ended up being extra work, so we stopped doing it. I would be curious what other distillers who have experimented heavily in that department, how they would characterize it?
Malt: You have three stills: two from Forsyths and one from Vendome. Any peculiarities, or anything that impacts flavor creation through the distillation process?
Colin: The Forsyths stills came first and they were a very simple shape. They’re very tall relative to their proportion in volume, so you get more reflux on the pot side of the still… but then we have a downward facing lyne arm and a lot of copper. I guess I would say an enormous amount of copper relative to the amount of spirit that we’re making. They use really heavy gauge copper when they make those stills, and they use the same copper when they make little dinky stills like ours.
When we were scaling up, I went to Vendome… we had used stainless steel stills before, and there was just a little less influence of copper that I sort of liked. When we had the opportunity to tweak the distillation, one thing for me was: it still has a copper neck and a copper lyne arm, and it’s in the same configuration as the Forsyths stills, but it’s horizontally oriented [giggles] which is a little weird looking, but it fits in our building. It’s a submarine-style Scotch swan neck pot still. I’m quite certain it is the only one of its type in the world. Partially our building, partially my wanting to scrub some of the copper contact out of the process, and so the strip is maybe a little cleaner than it used to be. That still has only been running for two years, so all of the whiskey that we’re releasing now is still from the old Forsyths system.
Malt: Do I remember correctly that proof off the stills is 140?
Colin: That’s the average of the hearts, but we actually collect 75% down to about 65%. That’s our heart window; it probably a little less than 70% as a true average.
Malt: What’s the philosophy around cuts?
Colin: We’re definitely heads-oriented, which I think matches an American whiskey distillation profile, even though we’re using Scotch-style single malt pot stills. The Scottish might run their tails down to 55%; we cut it pretty short at 65%, but we don’t collect a lot of what the Scots call “foreshot.” We just collect a little bit of the very first little bit of methanol, remove it from the process. We do collect a little bit of heads, maybe 1/20th of the total run as heads, and then start collecting pretty soon.
In the scheme of world distillers we’re pretty heads-oriented; in the scheme of American distillers – which, you know, there’s not a lot of distillers who are running pot stills exclusively without some sort of rectification; there’s not a lot to compare to – it’s a relatively narrow cut. When people talk about the tasting notes and the flavor profile, it preserves a lot of those esters from fermentation, giving the whiskey a great viscosity. Particularly when you get up to barrel strength stuff, you have this oily, rich, buttery texture that’s really cool, that we like.
Malt: What sorts of flavors are typically expressed through the new make?
Colin: I think a lot of the solvent-y notes or just the clean ethanol… you know, it’s very clean, but from our perspective: when you have something a little dirtier, you can either go dirtier and more toward the heads side and pick up those solvent-y notes, or if you go dirty in the middle of the run, you get these great, hefty, almost brassy notes coming from a corn-based whiskey, and that bright, buttery corn that just defines great corn whiskey. Toward the tails side, we can get toward like a skunky beer characteristic, so trying to stop short of that, too.
Buffalo Trace has released their white whiskey. Maker’s Mark, it’s all a little bit cleaner and maybe even a little soapy compared to ours, whereas we have, hopefully, very prominent, bright corn characteristics. It changes a little bit, whether we’re doing a summer distillation or a winter distillation… sometimes people make mistakes. [chuckes]
Hopefully it resolves itself in the barrel, but I’ll be the first to say: for every whiskey single barrel that we’ve released at six, seven years old, there’s probably two others sitting that we’re sort of waiting for it to come around. I’m not entirely sure that it’s going to come around, so we’ll have to figure out something to do with that.
Malt: What happens in that situation?
Colin: I’m not entirely sure we know, but there may, at some point, be a high age statement, lower priced Kings County product that is just the result of some of the stuff that is maybe valuable because of the high age statement. People really invest a lot in that, but as distillers we’re sort of like, “Eh, it’s just whiskey that never came around.”
Malt: The barrel entry proof is 116?
Colin: Yes, for all of our corn whiskeys, that’s generally the barrel entry strength. It’s not always the case; we played around with some other stuff, but 95% of our barrels go in at 116 for bourbon. It’s 110 for rye.
Malt: What drove the decision making there?
Colin: [laughs] It’s a good story… Nicole Austin and I were hosting Dr. Bill Lumsden of Ardbeg and whatever, you know… Scotch whisky. We were just getting started; this is back in like 2010. We were kind of like, “We don’t know what barrel entry strength to go in; what do you recommend?” He was like, “I recommend going in at 125, 120, 115, 110, 105, and then pick the one that you like the best.” I was like, “OK, that’s what you recommend, of course!” [laughs]
There was a little bit of trial and error at the very beginning of the business, trying to find something. I guess I would say that the lower entry proof that you can reasonably get away with from a financial perspective is better. I think 116 is a little bit of a compromise toward the lowest proof that we think is economically viable for us. Some people go lower, and I commend them, but cooperage is very expensive and storing whiskey is very expensive. Obviously, there’s an advantage to going higher proof within that. For a rye we go pretty low, for a rye whiskey. If we could go even lower, we probably would. Maybe we’ll do some special releases at a lower [barrel entry] proof.
What’s interesting, I should say, on that: we just had a barrel that we put in at 100 proof, and the blenders all love it, but it’s hard to sell because it’s so low proof. At barrel strength, people are going to gravitate – in a blind tasting – to something that’s higher proof. It just sort of grabs you, in that regard.
Malt: Tell me about the evolution of barrel size?
Colin: We started with five-gallon barrels just because we were producing literally three gallons a day. It actually took us two days to fill a five-gallon barrel. That’s because I just took the hobby equipment from my apartment over to the commercially devised distillery and started very, very small.
As time has gone on, we’ve been gravitating to bigger formats, just practical formats. For the last three years we’ve filled 53s exclusively. It has created a great opportunity in the blending of the whiskey to use the smaller formats at higher age statements for really oak heavy notes, and then use 15s… let’s say one or two 53s as a base and then you can layer in the 15s at anywhere from three to five years to make a nice middle section, and then 10s on top of that gives you a lot of baking spice and oak and leather and things that you wouldn’t get from a three year old whiskey any other way, if you weren’t using small format [barrels].
Malt: How do you balance that awkwardness that you can get from smaller barrels to create something more complete?
Colin: This is, again, one of the things we do that is more like Scotch whisky. The real author of our whiskeys is the blending department. Some distillers will take everything in an age range that’s ready to go by their criteria. Or, they’ll start with “This is what the thing tastes like, we need to maybe add a couple things here and there.” In our case, every blend is pretty much assembled meticulously each time. That’s why we end up with so many barrels that get permanently rejected. It really puts the emphasis on the sensory evaluation of every single barrel.
I think that is a big differentiating thing that we’re really doing in a significant way that I’m not sure all of our peers are doing. It was really Nicole [Austin], who is now at George Dickel, but started at Kings County. She kind of initiated the program, created the blending specs, taught herself how to do it and then showed it to Ryan [Ciuchta, Head Blender & Production Manager], who has carried it on ever since.
There’s a lot of continuity in terms of who’s making the whiskey day in and day out. Even though certain things have changed – you know, the stills have gotten a little bigger, the barrel sizes have gotten a little bigger – it’s still a consistent vision from the point of view of assembling the basic whiskeys, and the rarer whiskeys that we do, too, like the Bottled in Bond, or the Barrel Strength editions that we do.
Malt: Is the expectation to eventually rely solely on 53-gallon barrels?
Colin: From a practical and economic point of view: yeah, we’re eventually going to do all 53-gallon barrels [laughs] but that could be in like 12 years, where we would say “Everything in this blend is a 53 gallon barrel.” There are 15-gallon barrels that are not ready yet. We have a big set of 30-gallon barrels that we haven’t really gotten very much into. We’re only just pulling the 53-gallon barrels at seven years, and we don’t even really consider them until seven years.
So, there’s a big set of 53-gallon barrels that will gradually, over time, become more and more of the flagship whiskeys, but they’ll also be used for the rare whiskeys. It will always be a little bit of a dance, I think. We could lean into 30-gallon barrels, which we have a little bit of a set to cover a gap in our bourbon production. In general, eventually, at some point, everything will be 53-gallon barrels.
Malt: Tell me the story of this particular barrel, #1392?
Colin: I knew Blake [from bourbonr] was going to come in, and he was going to bring in Aaron Goldfarb. I have his book, and know his thing, so I was sort of like, “We have to pull a decent set!” Not that we don’t always pull a decent set, but let’s put in some stuff that very different, or very odd, or very outlier-y. Ryan pulled a set and I sort of forgot about it. I didn’t taste anything until we were all in the room tasting everything together.
That barrel, I mean… it stood out to me, and I didn’t even realize it was especially high proof. When you’re blind tasting stuff at barrel strength, certainly high proof stuff does show, and does announce itself. There was a little of that going on, but it was a cool barrel that stood out in the set of seven year 53s and really rich 15s that have been sitting for five or six years. They had a lot of flavor profile. A lot of oak, a lot of richness. This one, it was barrel number C in the set, and it was cool.
It’s a 30 gallon barrel, and the other thing that distinguishes this barrel is where it was aged. We have four warehouses; most of the whiskey that we’re pulling right now is from the second warehouse. This actually aged entirely in the original warehouse, which is in the distillery, in this big glass room that gets a lot of light during the day. You get these crazy fluctuations. It’s well ventilated, but it also gets a lot of temperature fluctuation. Different from a shipping container, different from a tin rickhouse where you have different levels. Everything’s at the same level, well ventilated, but a lot of swings in temperature. That is what we have seen, maybe one of the reasons we have occasional barrels that just go crazy high in proof.
Malt: What’s the highest proof that you have ever seen?
Colin: That was the Alexis Ohanian barrel. It was almost 89% alcohol, which was sort of insane. It was 88.7%, that’s the highest proof we’ve ever seen. It was like a tincture of whiskey; it was barely drinkable as whiskey, but just sort of a fun thing. That was really because he had done a 5 gallon barrel of wheat whiskey. At four years we were like “The barrel is ready, come pick it up.” He was like, “I’m just going to age it as long as I want,” and we hadn’t really made any particular agreement about it. It went until it was almost evaporated away and he finally said, “Alright, let’s pull it.” We got three 750 mls out of it.
We also had a barrel that was uncharred; that was an eight year, 5 gallon barrel. That went pretty high, too. I don’t know what it was about it being uncharred that might have cranked the proof up. That was a strange whiskey.
Malt: Why were you using an uncharred barrel?
Colin: I think it was just a cooperage error! [laughs] For years – this is a testament to having a blender verify every single barrel. It kept getting rejected; people would say “It tastes pencil, it doesn’t taste like whiskey!” It had this sort of lumber yard note to it. Somewhere after year 7 Ryan was like, “I’m just going to stick my finger in there and see if I get any char on there.” It was a completely uncharred barrel that was either a mistake… there’s a possibility that I ordered one and forgot about it, but for whatever reason it was not something that was known to us throughout its aging process. It was just sort of a discovery after the fact.
Now that we’ve seen some other barrels go crazy high, I think we can look to factors beyond the factor that it was uncharred. I think that probably helped somewhat because it may have limited the angel’s share in terms of the larger water molecules. I have no idea. I wouldn’t really be trying to articulate a process that I don’t think anybody really understands. We have seen enough barrels that go higher than typical to be able to say there’s something about that particular room that does that.
Malt: Do you think that is associated with an improvement in flavor, in the way that people who seek out high proof bourbon expect?
Colin: It’s one of those things that – as a distiller – you’re sort of like “Well, that’s a very silly thing to choose high proof, because that doesn’t mean it’s good whiskey.” For every barrel that we have that goes up to high proof there’s 10 barrels that don’t go to high proof. Of that total set, of the 11 barrels, maybe three of them are great, and they may not be the high proof barrel. We’d caution people [not] to assume that high proof is good whiskey.
But, on the flipside – certainly the way that we make whiskey, where we have that viscosity that holds up to higher proof – I do find that the high proof barrels really announce themselves because they’re so concentrated in flavor. If you have the texture, they can be a really great whiskey experience that it’s hard to get from something like Booker’s. I don’t want to shit on Booker’s but, compared to one of our barrel strength whiskeys, it’s just a very different thing. There’s a lot more of that sort of solvent-y characteristic. It’s a burn-y whiskey, for lack of a better descriptor. It’s good, but it’s just a totally different whiskey than some of the stuff we make that’s at a comparable barrel proof.
I guess I answered the question both ways. One is that high proof certainly does not mean the whiskey is good. I hope we never get to an era where people are engineering their whiskeys so that they go to high proof, which would be high barrel entry proof, artificial pressurization and depressurization – through temperature or any other means – low humidity. I think that would be a weird approach to start to reverse engineer your whiskey to that end. You start get into feeding the wrong mentality.
Ultimately, I think the interest in barrel really strength stems from a historical moment when you could get a lot more value out of a barrel strength whiskey. You could dilute it to your taste, it wasn’t that much more expensive than the regular bottles. It just gave the user a lot of control and it was less expensive. I don’t think that’s going to be the case going forward, because distillers have no incentive to sell barrel strength less than by a proof basis. If you’re selling a 60% whiskey over a 40% whiskey, you want to charge 150% to get the same return on it.
For a long time, distillers wouldn’t see that the market would appreciate that, and so they avoided barrel strength. There’s a lot more demand for barrel strength whiskeys than the distillers are servicing, partly because I think they’re sort of trapped in the situation where they don’t necessarily want to mark it up so much. The consumer is like, “We appreciate the fair markup based on the proof increase.” That’s an interesting dynamic, too that is going on behind the scenes, on the economics of it.
I’m also pretty deep into a very [small] subset of whiskey appreciation and connoisseurs. Not everybody is chasing barrel strength whiskey in the way that our corner of the internet is doing it. It’s even polarizing amongst our staff. We have a tasting room and, once you start serving people essentially double whiskeys in every single pour, you create a work environment that gets a little unpredictable. Barrel strength whiskeys are definitely for drinking at home with people that you trust and appreciate, not necessarily something to run out and have in the bar three times in a row.
Malt: On the topic of price: this was $159 for a half bottle. How do you think about pricing? Did you have any say?
Colin: I will say we didn’t have the final say on the price. We knew it was going to be a 375 [ml], we knew it was going to be fairly expensive. [laughs] I was a little surprised to see how expensive it ultimately was, but maybe I’m living a little bit in the past. I definitely think it’s a whiskey that’s very superlative, and there are not many whiskeys like it in the world. We won’t make many whiskeys like it, even if we do have another high proof whiskey, it won’t be exactly the same. I think Blake was maybe smart and knew that it was something very unique; I don’t begrudge him the pricing. It was maybe a little more than I would have set the price at but, nonetheless, I’m glad people found it, I’m glad people were willing to pay for it, and I think it’s a worthy whiskey.
Thanks to Colin for sharing his time and insights. It’s now time to evaluate the worth of this very intimidating whiskey. Some final particulars: This is barrel #1392, aged seven years, and bottled at 150.8 proof (75.4% ABV). I paid $159 for 375 ml, equivalent to roughly $320 for a full-sized bottle, which is the price I will use for scoring.
Kings County Distillery Barrel Strength Bourbon (Barrel #1392) – Review
Color: Medium-dark chestnut.
On the nose: Meaty to start, this presents smoked and roasted pork and beef notes that are reminiscent of a BBQ joint. With time, this evolves diverse notes of cinnamon, cherries overripe to the point of rotting, and a faint whiff of cigarette ash. There’s a dense herbal perfume of tarragon, thyme, rosemary, oregano, dried basil, and a piquantly spicy aroma of cayenne pepper. This periodically returns to a juicy sweet stone fruit scent of ripe apricots and nectarines. The whiskey keeps on going… molasses, thick maple syrupy notes, and some darker whiffs of bitumen morph into a subtle accent of anise. Very promising.
In the mouth: A kiss of fruit yields to the sharp tingle of the high ABV, though this quickly reverts back to an enveloping woodiness. The whiskey ascends the tongue with a wood-wrapped flavor of cherry, accented by chocolate coffee notes. The mouth overall is a dance between piquant wood, abundant herbal seasonings, and the bitter-and-tart flavors contained within fruitier espresso beans. The lone nit to pick is that the cherry notes shift to a slightly underripe, sour bitterness at the commencement of the finish. Nevertheless, this quickly dissipates, yielding to a mouth-coating mélange of mocha, wood, açaí berries, sticky black tar, and a lingering radiant heat. For all the attention paid to the extra proof, it is worth noting that this tastes no worse (from a mouthfeel perspective) than any of the aforementioned high proof bourbons; it is certainly not painful, uncomfortable, or otherwise unpleasant on account of its strength.
On paper, this whiskey had some serious hurdles to overcome. I was prepared for a scorching mouthfeel that either crowded out the flavors, or numbed the taste buds so as to make them imperceptible. As you can tell from my notes, this wasn’t a problem. This was easily in the top three most flavorful whiskeys I have tried this year, and among the most memorable I have ever tried. The breadth and intensity of aromas and flavors is impressive, but it is their balance that really pushes this into exceptional territory.
The second hurdle was the price. Do I regret spending about as much as I ever spend on a bourbon whiskey to secure this bottle? Not in the slightest. Offered the chance, would I pay the same again for a second bottle? Yes, definitely. Would I pass up another bottle of 2017 George T. Stagg at the same price as this (which is, coincidentally, what I paid for my last one)? Probably not, but I’m happy to tell you that the decision would be much more of a dilemma than I might have thought going into this tasting. In summation, let’s call this whiskey just a bit less than perfect…
Kudos to Colin and the Kings County team for producing this exceptional whiskey, and congrats to Blake and Aaron for selecting it as their pick. Though bottles have vanished, this is a strong incentive for me (and, I hope, for others) to sample through the rest of the Kings County range. Watch this space.
Bottle photo author’s own; other photos courtesy of Kings County Distillery.