Turns out you don’t always reap what you sow.
At one point in the past decades, novel grains were all the rage among craft whiskey producers. Whether heirloom corn varietals in bourbon mash bills, or whiskeys distilled with grains other than the traditional four (corn, rye, wheat, and barley), there was much excitement about the possibilities that lay beyond #2 yellow corn.
A few smaller producers made their names entirely (or at least mostly) on account of their use of these unconventional raw materials. Chicago’s Koval was an early mover, gaining attention for their millet whiskey. Nashville’s Corsair was another startup craft distillery that became famous for featuring oddities in their mash bills.
My first run in with Corsair came in the form of a freakishly flavorful single barrel of their Oatrage whiskey. For whatever reason (and I could speculate about a few), the distillery seems to have eschewed this approach in recent years, choosing instead to focus on a handful of core expressions.
I imagine that these outlier whiskies are a hard sell to the general public. Even for whiskey completists who pride themselves on an encyclopedic knowledge of every brand and expression, I’d guess that a craft oat or millet whiskey is a one-time dalliance rather than a home bar standby.
Things have changed since the early days of the craft whiskey boom. The experimentally minded distilleries seem to have shifted their attention to playing around with finishing casks. This practice has brought some obscurities into the shared lingo of whiskey nuts; I doubt many of us could have told you anything about Amburana three years ago.
I’m not the type of navy-blue-dyed-in-the-wool-blazer conservative that stands athwart history yelling “STOP,” to paraphrase a departed navy-blue-dyed-in-the-wool-blazer conservative. Whiskey can, should, and must evolve. Whiskey changes with the times and the tastes of the consuming public. If weirdo grains were really the future of whiskey way back when, then presumably a great deal of whiskey using weirdo grains would be made today… which it is not. Instead, these peculiar products have mostly been forgotten by fans and de-emphasized – if not abandoned outright – by producers.
However, I can’t help but feeling like we have lost something in the shift away from unorthodox grains. Perhaps I’m bringing my bias – accumulated during years of listening to the marketing puffery of the Scotch whisky industry – to the debate. My eyes roll reflexively when I hear about “only the finest” casks or barrels, or when the sole compelling attribute of a whiskey is the way in which it was finished.
I believe that flavor creation starts with the raw materials: the grain and water that go into the mash. Second to this is production processes; more specifically, expending the extra effort to cook, ferment, and distill whiskey in ways that may not be maximally efficient from either a time or economics perspective. I’m talking about practices like sweet mashing, long fermentations using less efficient yeast strains, lower proof off the stills, and lower barrel entry proof.
Now, that’s not to say I haven’t had great whiskey made from commodity corn and distiller’s yeast, coming off the stills at 160 proof and entering the barrel at 125. These are the specs of some of my favorite whiskeys, but they’re typically made by the large Kentucky distilleries. The whole point of craft distilling, as I have said before, is not to produce a lower quality and more expensive imitation of Jim Beam. Rather, it’s to embrace the potential of wonderful weirdness, and to do something that nobody else is doing in search of aromas and flavors not to be found anywhere else.
With this rueful prologue in mind, I will today be reviewing one of those eccentric craft whiskeys of yore. I present to you the Corsair Quinoa Whiskey.
I remember well the quinoa (pronounced keen-WAH, but you knew that) explosion of the late 2000’s. Health nuts expostulated at length about this little grain as a “superfood,” invoking quinoa’s Incan origins to position it as a sort of primordial secret. Quinoa started showing up everywhere: in burritos, shaped into burger patties, and – as it turns out – even in a mash bill.
At that time, as mentioned above, Corsair was messing around as a craft distiller should. Quinoa was but one of their tangents; oat (already noted) and buckwheat also made appearances. These expressions ended up being casualties of the distillery’s recently refocused approach, and – to my knowledge – are no longer being produced by Corsair.
Thus, I felt compelled to grab this bottle of Quinoa Whiskey when I spied it gathering dust on a liquor store shelf. I can’t recall precisely what I paid, but looking back across other reviews of this whiskey, it appears that SRP was around $50, so I’ll be using that price for evaluation. This has a mash bill of 80% barley, 20% quinoa. It comes to us at 92 proof (46% ABV).
Corsair Quinoa Whiskey – Review
Color: Golden orange.
On the nose: Holy Riesling, Batman! This smells exactly like super mature German wine, by which I mean: the ripest fruit you can imagine, doused in gasoline. I’m getting orchard fruit, stone fruit, you name it; it’s all in here, and it’s all accented by the very piquant scent of petrol. If I give my nose a break and revisit, I get some very potent floral aromatics of rose petals, the airy sweetness of cotton candy, as well as spicy accents of lemongrass and ginger.
In the mouth: This is less expressive to start, and indeed throughout the mouth. Most of the nose’s elements are here, but in toned-down form. Starting with a fruity kiss, this moves quickly into more customary malt whisky notes of barley and wood, indicative (I’m guessing) of the relative youth of this whiskey. The middle of the palate has a soapy texture and some tannic astringency from them barrel; tasted blind, I might have pegged this for a very young Highland malt. The flavors are most potent in the middle of the mouth, where this takes on a roasty note of espresso for a moment. That quickly dissipates as this moves into the finish where there’s a reprise of the spicy nuances from the nose and a lingering sweetness that dances with that aforementioned drying woodiness.
As other reviewers have pointed out: this is more a malt whiskey with a splash of quinoa than a quinoa whiskey proper. As such, I don’t feel like I was truly able to get a sense of the unique characteristics of that uncommon (in a whiskey sense) grain. There may be practical considerations underpinning this; I recall reading that oat, for example, was extremely tough to mash and ferment.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with this whiskey. I’m especially impressed how intense yet balanced the flavors are, given this was matured for a comparatively short time. While it may not be conclusive proof of concept for the integration of wild card grains into a mash bill, it provides a mostly pleasurable drinking experience.
In consideratinon of the price, I’m feeling like this should sit bang in the middle of our range, hence…
While this wasn’t the strongest argument in favor of new grains, I’m staying hopeful that craft producers will not stop their pioneering efforts in this field. I’ll remain on the lookout for expressions incorporating different types of raw materials, and would encourage you to do likewise.