“There are no second acts in American lives.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Though I suspect that he was more of a gin guy, Scott’s ironic observation might apply both to the Bottled-in-Bond act, as well as to the whiskey we’re going to be considering today. More on the latter in a few moments, if you’ll permit me some musings on the former.
At the time of the Bottled-in-Bond act’s passage in 1897, whiskey was in a perilous place. So-called “rectifiers” were compromising the quality of the whiskey they bought and resold by cutting it with additives from prune juice to tobacco spit. The stipulations established by the act created a minimum standard of quality, with a tax incentive to persuade producers to comply. Both sellers and buyers won, and nobody was ever dissatisfied with whiskey again.
Though that last bit is a fallacy dripping with as much sarcasm as Fitzgerald’s, it is no exaggeration to say that the American whiskey landscape was significantly improved by the adoption of the act’s regulations. Fast forward to the current day, and there is grumbling from some quarters that the Bottled-in-Bond designation is little more than a historical curiosity, with limited relevance to the current day’s whiskey landscape… is it, though?
While I doubt that many of us are concerned about the presence of snuff spittle in the bottles we buy, there are other potential sources of disappointment for a whiskey shopper in the year 2022. To name but a pair: a not insignificant quantity of “craft” whiskey is distilled at big Kentucky and Tennessee and Indiana distilleries, filled into fancy bottles with exuberant labels, and resold at a premium. Disclosure of these arrangements is typically spotty at best, with only a few words of small print on the back label to tip off suspicious shoppers.
That said, I’d rather drink a river of overpriced MGP than much of what comes from craft producers’ own stills. For every Peerless doing a commendable job of producing flavorful bourbon, there are at least a half dozen Chicago Distilling Companies churning out emetic trash that is bourbon in name more than spirit, meeting only the weakest requirements for that designation.
Thus, in the case of craft distilling, the requirements established by the Bottled-in-Bond act provide consumers increased comfort about what’s both in and on the bottle. We know we’ll be getting bourbon with at least four years of age on it, bottled at a solid strength. The DSP(s) clearly stated on the label will let us know where precisely this was distilled and bottled. For a true craft producer looking to distinguish themselves from the pack of NDPs, these are some meaningful differences. It’s no wonder that the Bottled-in-Bond designation has been embraced by some of the better craft distilleries like Wilderness Trail and Old 55.
I was therefore excited to receive a bottle of Bottled-in-Bond Missouri Bourbon from the Ben Holladay distillery (DSP-MO-5) of Weston, MO. The distillery was originally founded by Kentucky-born brothers Ben and David Holladay in 1856. It changed hands repeatedly before the current ownership group took over in 1993.
To learn more about this, I had a chat with Kyle Merklein, Master Distiller and Noelle Hale, Communications Director. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: How did you get your start in bourbon?
Kyle: Getting a start in bourbon was not something I ever planned on. I grew up in Northwest Kansas; grew up on a farm. Both of my parents, neither of them really drank. My dad, he said, “Don’t go into farming.” You’re too reliant upon the weather; he was too tired of the droughts when I was in high school. I took that and went the engineering route; went to K-State, got a bachelor’s and master’s in biological and agricultural engineering.
I didn’t drink until I was 21. My parents didn’t drink, so I didn’t consider drinking until 21. After that I started to explore bourbon more, and that’s how I got into being a consumer of bourbon. My father-in-law, he has a collection, so I went through and tried everything of his and really go into bourbon. But then, how to get into working in the industry was really a lot of luck and timing of things. Right time, right place.
I went to work at another distillery making neutral spirits and then this job came open just 25 minutes away from me; it was an easy decision to apply for it. I like to drink bourbon, I have the background that I can kind of make it; obviously, I don’t have a generational distiller in my family. I don’t have any of that, but I have the technical aspect down. For me, [it was] the background of the education and the engineering side of it, mixed with the luck of this coming up.
Malt: Who are your mentors, or which master distillers do you consider hereos?
Kyle: I think first and foremost is anyone here, on site; I respect and value those who have done it here, back when we had that history. 30 years ago, we shut down, but we still have people here who ran the still, who filtered the bourbon; they were on the barrel crew. Spending time with every employee that we had was huge, to learn about our local history and our production.
Obviously, the ones you think about down in Kentucky. Clearly Jimmy Russell is the first one that I immediately think of. He always says that he tries to do things the correct way, the old-fashioned way. That’s kind of the same thing that I was thinking as we’re doing this. We have a history; we have our own old way of doing things. Why would we change this legacy-type process?
In general, anyone in the industry is pretty helpful. You ask people questions, and ask for feedback, and there’s a lot of people willing and able to help you out. There’s been a ton of support throughout this process.
Noelle: My story is a little bit different; I did grow up around alcohol, pretty significantly. I was born in Cincinnati, OH. My dad’s been in the liquor business my entire life. He was an executive with Schenley industries back in the day. Then, for a period of time, with some business partners, owned Virgin Islands rum. At that time, their business was really the sale of bulk rum to other producers who wanted to bottle and label it under their own labels. From there, he ended up getting involved with McCormick Distilling Company in 1993. He is the Chairman of the Board currently for the company.
So, I’ve been around the liquor business my whole life and technically have been around McCormick since 1993, but didn’t work for the company. I was in law school at the time. For a very long period of time after that, when McCormick was still operating primarily as a value spirits company, there wasn’t really a role that I saw for myself in the company. I practiced law for a little bit, and then I worked for legal research and education companies in the types of jobs that you had to be a lawyer to get but were really sales and marketing jobs. Underneath it all, I always loved to write.
In 2015, I started talking to my dad and the president of our company, Mick Harris, about whether there might be a role for me at the company at this time of huge transition when we were renovating the stillhouse, going to start making bourbon again, leaning a lot harder into being a premium portfolio company. The concept of Five Farms Irish Cream was just a little germ in somebody’s brain at that point, but there was obviously a real shift happening. We were now going to have stories to tell about our company’s amazing history and the innovation and the different products we were coming up with, and most especially the bourbon.
So, I came onboard in January 2016, and we built up around us a really lovely marketing and communications team; small but scrappy. Just getting out there to try to get our name out, and letting people know what we’d been up to.
Nobody at this company was really talking about Ben Holladay and that piece of our history. My dad had been involved with the company since 1993 and I hadn’t even heard anything about Ben Holladay. Until 2015 when all this first started coming up, I didn’t know anything about it. It’s been a wild ride and it’s been a lot of fun going deep into some rabbit holes, trying to understand the true history of our company and of Ben Holladay himself, a pretty significant figure in American history that not a lot of people know much about.
Malt: What happened between the distillery’s foundation and the purchase in 1993?
Noelle: The business was started by Ben Holladay and his brother David. Ben Holladay then went on to his fame and fortune as “the Stagecoach King,” running a real transportation empire that included steamships and railroads and streetcars, all manner of things, silver mines, gold mines. He just kind of owned everything and David really ran the [distilling] company and it remained in the Holladay family until 1900. After David, it passed down to his son and son-in-law; it was known for a period of time as Barton and Holladay.
In 1900, the Shawhan family took it over, and it was run by the Shawhans for a period of time. It was acquired by Isadore Singer in 1936, then in 1950 it was acquired by Midwest Grain Products, a company owned by Mr. Cloud Cray of Atchison, Kansas.
At some point there had been a McCormick distilling company somewhere else in Missouri and it had burnt down. We ended up with the formulas and the name McCormick, and this distillery became known as McCormick Distilling Company. That was 1942.
It was largely, at that time, still operating as a regional distillery. The fact that it became a nationally known brand, very improbably, has to do with Elvis Presley. One of the executives in the company in the 1970’s had made a connection with somebody from the Elvis Presley estate and got the exclusive rights to make whiskey decanters in Elvis’ likeness. We were doing whiskey decanters of historical figures and Kansas City sports teams and all different kinds of things back then, and we got this license to make Elvis decanters, and they became so wildly popular that it opened up national lines of distribution for our company.
From that point we grew and grew, mostly on the back of McCormick vodka, which became a pretty common well liquor in many bars and restaurants in many states throughout the country. In 1993, when the current ownership group (led by spirits industry veterans Edward Pechar, my dad, and the late Michael S. Griesser) took over, there started to become more of a focus on getting away from the value brands; not dispatching with them altogether, but really trying to build something more.
Tequila Rose was our first premium brand, the strawberry cream liqueur that was, at its time, pretty revolutionary. It was the first cream liqueur on the market that wasn’t an Irish cream. About 10 years after that is when they came out with 360 Vodka, the world’s first eco-friendly vodka. Everything about it is sustainably made and eco-friendly. Then we acquired Broker’s gin, then came up with idea for Five Farms, [then] we started making this bourbon again.
We’re building a pretty solid premium brands portfolio. I’m not going to lie: it’s been a little bit of an uphill climb for us, because a lot of people think of McCormick as just cheap vodka. It’s really been a beautiful thing to have now gotten to this point where people are coming and seeing the distillery and learning the history and appreciating the fact that we’re making fine spirits.
[In the way that] Sazerac is the parent company and Buffalo Trace is the distillery, we are still McCormick Distilling Company, we still have all the McCormick family brands, but we resurrected the Holladay name along with the renovation of the stillhouse. We really decided to lean into that history and start telling that story, and so we now think of the location and the bourbon operation as Holladay Distillery and all of our premium bands from this point forward will be under the umbrella of the Holladay Distillery label.
Malt: Tell me about the decision to distill whiskey again in 2016?
Kyle: It started back up again – distilling full time – in 2016. The first batch was actually done 30 years after we had shut down; the first batch was actually distilled in December of 2015. We nailed that 30 year, trying to resurrect it. It was, how many years before that, to actually get going? We had these rickhouses on site. We had the well, but it was covered up. We had the old stillhouse, but the equipment wasn’t functional. We had to buy a new still. You had to do the whole process. So, it’s really been eight years in the making, more so, but yeah: in 2016 is when it started distillation full time, again.
Malt: How does the whiskey being produced now compare to the style of whiskey produced previously? Were you trying to maintain continuity of flavor profile?
Kyle: What we were doing [then] was absolutely critical to what we are doing today. This Ben Holladay piece is kind of honoring our past. We were focused in on that; we had a handful of bottles from back when we distilled in 1985 on-site and were tasting those. We knew they were quality product; B.J. Holladay Private Keep is what the term was at the time. It was slightly different proof, but still that six-to-eight-year-old bourbon. We’re definitely targeting that.
We had some lab standards that we used for the distillate. We had some lab standards of one, two, three years, to compare as we’re aging it. That was a big part of what we’re doing. When we did bring it back, we brought back a lot of the same aspects. We’ve got the same limestone spring water, still using that. We’re doing a two-cook process rather than one cooker.
We’re doing a column still with a doubler. We couldn’t revive the old column but went to Vendome and got one that is the same process. Same distillation proof, same barrel entry proof, same rickhouses. Everything we’re doing was trying to bring back that historic product.
Now, there will be tweaks in the future. The consumer of today is different than the consumer of the 1980s. Some of the things that were popular back then… we don’t want to bring back bourbon that has no flavor, and trying to dilute it down as much as possible.
Right now, we’re wanting to make sure we’re producing things that respect our past, but also stuff that we know the modern consumer will like, and that’s partly why the Bottled-in-Bond piece on that beginning one – that full flavor, 100 proof – we knew that was more popular now. We had some Bottled-in-Bond products in our past that we could look to, but we know that wasn’t really as much our heritage. So, it’s heavily influenced by our past, with the adaptations to today.
Malt: I was interested to learn that Missouri bourbon, by state law, needs to be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Missouri, aged in oak barrels manufactured in Missouri, and using only Missouri-grown corn in the mash. Can you talk about your grain sources and how that plays into flavor creation?
Kyle: Starting with the Missouri corn: we have a farmer who grows all the corn within 10 miles from here. Like you mentioned, that’s one piece of the Missouri bourbon legislation. It’s huge to have the resources and access to that.
Another part of that Missouri bourbon portion is that it has to be aged in barrels from Missouri. You get another aspect; you don’t think of the cooperages being here in Missouri, but we have a great one with Independent Stave.
Overall, what we’re doing is very traditional bourbon. It’s a column still and doubler. It’s distilling to very traditional proofs, and the taste profile doesn’t stary that far. It’s not that dramatically different, but it has enough of that local influence, and that local Missouri factor to distinguish it, and to make it slightly more unique, and we’re very proud of that.
Going back to the grain: we source the corn within 10 miles of here. On the back end, the stillage goes back to that same farmer’s cattle. So, full circle here in the region. We’ve got plenty of the agriculture industry around here.
Otherwise, with this product, it uses rye as a secondary grain. We’re importing the best possible rye we can. We have chosen to go with European rye on that. When we talked initially with the consultant who came out of Indiana, he knew the rye market and he said that European rye was very clean and very good quality, and so we chose to trust his opinion on that. We have, aging in the rickhouses right now, a wheated bourbon. The wheat is not exclusive to Missouri, but it’s primarily from Missouri.
Malt: What is the mash bill on the rye bourbon?
Kyle: 73% corn, 15% rye, 12% malted barley. That’s a historical one. That one dates back… I’ve looked at all the old ledgers from way back in the day and seen it around. As far as we know, that’s the historic one for Ben Holladay, so that’s the one that we knew, that we produced on site, for our history.
Malt: Talk about flavor creation through the cooking and mashing process?
Kyle: Ultimately, we want to respect each grain; we want to extract as much flavor as we can from those grains. So, handling them separately helps us to do that. with the corn, it’s primarily the starch component. For those flavoring grains: we don’t want to neglect those, so we have a separate cooker for those, and really trying to extract as much of the proteins from those grains.
The amino acids are what can cause your yeast to develop congeners that are more beneficial in the fermentation process, for the flavor development that we want. We’re trying to extract a lot of those amino acids from the small grains, and that’s how we’re doing it, through the second cook process. Yeah, you can accomplish the same thing and you can extract the starch with the one cooker system, but we really want to respect each grain individually.
Malt: What’s the philosophy behind fermentation?
Kyle: We’re going fairly quick and fairly hot, which is standard for bourbon. It’s going back to what we used to do, with the obvious exception that we have modern equipment. Back in the day they would take it up to 91 degrees, and then add cold water, and cool it off. We’re following a similar going up to 91 degrees, fairly warm fermentation cycle, completing fairly quickly.
I wish we had our old yeast strain; they used to propagate yeast up until about the 70s, and then they decided it was easier to buy active dry yeast. A decade of active dry yeast and then 30 years of no distilling means we don’t have that old, legacy yeast strain anymore. We went with a yeast strain that was as close as we could, in terms of that congener development and profile, to the old strain. Depending on what we’re doing, fermentation is three to five days. We’re using the sour mash process.
Malt: Tell me about the distillation process?
Kyle: With our distillation, we’re coming off the column at 120 proof, and then it gets condensed down and goes into the doubler. From there, we’ll increase 10 proof through the doubler, so we’re going to go 120 off the column and 130 off the doubler. Really, those are the main things that we’re looking at; we want to nail those proof points in the process.
Malt: What is barrel entry proof?
Kyle: Barrel entry proof is 118 for us. That was one that was changed to allow up to 125. When that change did happen, we didn’t go to 125. We went to that 118 mark, and that’s what we did for the latter half of our old distillation period. Anything that we were tasting, that’s what the barrel entry proof was – 118 – so that’s what we went with again.
Malt: Any specifics about the cooperage process?
Kyle: When we started this process, that was one aspect that I haven’t seen anywhere. Thankfully Independent Stave had documented when we used to buy from them char 3 barrels. We went for the standard char 3 barrel and that’s what we use, for the most part, on everything. We have different trials; we have different things in the rickhouse, wanting to experiment with everything. High seasoned staves, high temp staves, and the various small batch type barrels that they offer… but the vast majority is a char 3 barrel made in Lebanon, Missouri.
Malt: Tell me about the two rickhouses, and the variations between and within them?
Kyle: All of this is with the caveat that the oldest thing that we have is six years, right? But the rickhouse that we have is very traditional. 20 to 30 degree difference, bottom floor to top floor, as well as a 10% humidity difference. The bottom floor is the lowest, that’s around 114, so it drops around four proof during aging. The top floor is going to 123, gaining five proof. So, there’s a pretty dramatic swing, like what you would expect in a typical rickhouse.
It’s a seven-story structure. We started with rickhouse C; that’s the one that was in better shape. That’s the one that we inspected and fixed up first. That’s where the vast majority of our older stock is. Now, B warehouse is also getting filled up as we speak, and that one may be different. All of this is subject to change. I get asked that a lot: “Where is your sweet spot? What do you like? Preferences in the rickhouse?” Right now, it’s early in the process. You can compare three year product across the board, but is that going to continue to evolve at the same rate over the next three years? We don’t know that answer.
Digging into this, there was some information about aging, but that’s probably the one area where we have the least information on site: where the preferences were, and how they came up with blends, and what they pulled from where. The best we can come up with is we know they had a logbook, and you could look at it and say, “We pulled BJ Holladay Private Keep from these floors,” and they showed where they were coming from… or Signature 10 was sitting in this floor. The rickhouses are kind of the new aspect for us, of trying to re-learn, and we don’t have a ton of that. They are a legacy piece, but they’re not as well-known a part of our past.
Malt: Your materials mention disclosing the rickhouses to allow people to learn; are you intending on releasing a single barrel expression to further that?
Kyle: That’s possible. Single barrel is one that everyone wants to see, and we intend to eventually do something along those lines, but we have to figure out what we’re doing with the main Ben Holladay brand first. There’s a lot of things that we’ve talked about and planned, but nothing firm on when, where, what it will be.
We, as a company, value transparency. A lot of us were bourbon consumers before we made bourbon. We saw some of these games, or we saw some things that weren’t fully transparent, so that’s some of the things that we’re interested in. Single barrel is part of that; anything that we do is with that focus in mind.
Malt: What was the thought process behind the inaugural release being a six year Bottled-in-Bond?
Kyle: On the Bottled-in-Bond piece, that’s something we talked a lot about. For those that know what Bottled-in-Bond means, and know what seeing the DSP number means, we really wanted to embrace that and be proud of that. This was a big process; a lot of time, money investment went into making this, and a lot of waiting. We’re very proud of that so, coming out of the gate with that Bottled-in-Bond piece, that’s something that – for those who know what it means – that helps to continue to tell the story. For those that don’t know what that means, we can continue to educate you on that. It was important to us.
Also, as we had people up here while this was aging, you got feedback like that a lot of times. In addition, you got feedback from mixologists and bartenders who said, “I like the higher proof stuff. 100 proof is the minimum I want to use in a cocktail.” Taking all that feedback together, it just worked pretty well. It’s a good way to tell our story; it’s a good way to tell that we did all of this here.
The waiting on six years: credit to the board and the ownership group. It’s clearly not an easy decision. Thankfully, we had that history here of knowing that six to 10 years was our sweet spot. That’s what we had done, historically. That’s what those who tried our bourbon knew us for. We knew that, and we had that background, so that was a big driver in the decision to try to wait until six years, knowing that was our historic sweet spot.
Noelle: I would agree with Kyle. It’s a testament to the board and their patience – but also their trust in Kyle – that at the four-year mark, when we had originally thought about putting it out, he didn’t feel it was ready yet. It felt good for all of us to say, “We’re going to wait as long as it takes to be right.” Kyle felt – based on the history, but also just based on what he was tasting and trying – six years was what we needed, and luckily the board agreed.
Malt: Given the breadth of the company’s distribution footprint, should we expect to see Holladay bourbon available widely in the near future?
Kyle: The Ben Holladay brand is going to be unique. We don’t know how far and how wide and how fast it’s going to go. There’s limited barrels of that. The bourbon game is: you can send it everywhere, and then it becomes allocated, and then you see one bottle once every year. We have our home territory, Kansas and Missouri. We’re here, we have friends here, we have family here, and so we want to make sure it’s available as much as possible here. There’s really not a huge rush on this first Ben Holladay release to get outside of that area; we want to make sure this area’s satisfied.
After that, we’ll look into additional states. That wheated that’s coming up, that one will likely spread out beyond Kansas and Missouri. That’s going to have a wider distribution as well. But, this Ben Holladay release, this one that uses our original mash bill, original process, we’ll see how far it goes.
Thanks to Kyle and Noelle for sharing their time and insights. Now, let’s consider the bottle that they sent my way:
The label contains lots of details on the composition of the blend (in terms of warehouse and floors), with the stated intention (per the promotional materials) of allowing “bourbon fans to learn more about how variations in temperature and humidity on different floors contribute to subtle differences in flavor profiles.”
This comes to us at the age of six years, having been distilled in Spring 2016 and bottled in in Spring 2022 (May 27th, to be precise). Holladay provides the added detail that this batch comes from barrels stored in seven-story Warehouse C, with 79% from floor five and the remaining 21% from the first floor. It is bottled at the required 100 proof (50% ABV).
Suggested retail price is $60. This was a bottle provided to me free of charge by Holladay, for which they have my thanks. Per Malt’s editorial policies, this will not affect my notes or score, but is being mentioned in the spirit of full transparency.
Ben Holladay Missouri Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond – Review
Color: Medium gold.
On the nose: This immediately presents a marriage of two very different ends of the aromatic spectrum. There are bright, light and sweet scents of flowers, candy, and some deft touches of fruit intertwined with heavier, darker whiffs of cashews, anise, and cloves. Some more sniffing reveals notes of mint sprig and citrus, but mostly this returns to that dance of heavy and light.
In the mouth: The initial flavor is a woody nuttiness reminiscent of the notes frequently found in bourbons from the Jim Beam distillery. Toward the middle of the palate, this evolves a tannic texture and sees a reprise of the mint and floral elements from the nose. Moving toward the back of the mouth, I am sensing a return to a more polished woodiness and more of that light, powdery sweetness in the manner of confectioners’ sugar. A lingering taste of café Americano and some tart berries (I’m thinking açai) punctuate the finish.
Very solid bourbon whiskey here. I like the bipartite nose, with both heavy and light aspects evident in harmonious proportions. In the mouth, this hews more toward the center of the flavor spectrum. There are woody notes here (of a very well-resolved and mature-tasting variety) as well as some spicy and fruity aspects that keep things interesting.
Thinking about those peanut notes: this is at least the qualitative equal of Old Tub Bottled-in-Bond, perhaps even edging that bourbon a bit, particularly on the palate. It’s a fair deal more expensive than that, justified (I believe) by the fact that this brings something new and different in terms of the use of local ingredients. There’s also a better flavor development here from the additional years in the barrel; whereas the Old Tub tasted just a bit on the young side, this has a poise that speaks to a more comprehensive maturity. Factoring in the obvious diseconomies attendant whisky production on a smaller scale, this price feels more or less fair.
Reflecting that judgment, I’m happy to award this a score on the positive side of the range.
Based on the strength of this inaugural bottling, Holladay’s “second act” has been a rousing success. On paper and – more importantly – in the mouth, this gives bourbon fans a lot of what they want from both craft whiskey as well as the Bottled-in-Bond designation. Those who see a bottle of this around might want to suspend any lingering skepticism and give it a try.