Today’s post is a sneak preview of a Whiskey Wednesday of the future brought to you by a trip a few days in the past. And it’s going to be about Leopold Brothers which I know is going to turn some of you off but stick with me.
I know I’ve said it before but Leopold Brother’s is my platonic ideal when it comes to craft distilleries. They have no desire, or delusions about becoming the next Jim Beam, they just want to make good product, sustainably. They have a long term approach both to their product planning and even the build out of the distillery. I’ve written before about my love of their Maryland Style Rye, and in the pre-blog days even waxed poetic about how their fruit flavored whiskies don’t suck and am consistently intrigued by the fact that they’re still experimenting with new products despite having nearly 20 SKUs on the market. And this week we got to take a VIP tour of the Denver distillery.
I had been looking forward to this trip for a few weeks now and I was completely prepared to nerd out about the open air fermentation tanks, the in house malting floor modeled after the ones at the Springbank distillery, and the last hand hammered CARL still to come out of Germany. But the thing that I truly wanted to see was the Vendome Three-Chamber Still made specifically for Leopold Brothers. And it turns out it was in full operation under the eyes of Todd Leopold that day.
In distilling history isn’t a simple straight line from the old school pot stills to the modern industrial column/continuous stills used in most major distilleries today. One of the most notable steps along that path was the chamber still. The chamber still allows for distilling on the grain and as a large batch as each chamber is refilled from the chamber above. It’s a continuous batching process. And as each chamber is held at a different temperature, different alcohols boil off in each chamber allowing for more concentration of the good alcohols with less of the bad.
Its also a difference in terms of contact time. In a column still steam is stripping the alcohol off in a matter of seconds where as in the three-chamber still it’s closer to an hour for each batch. You’re getting alcohol either way but the three-chamber is extracting more flavor. And tasting off the still with Todd that massive flavor is immediately apparent with a massive amount of fruit and a viscosity I’ve never encountered in a white dog. If this was handed to me blind I’d be more inclined to identify it as a fruit brandy than a grain spirit.
And not all of that flavor is coming from the still. It’s also the type of rye being used. After careful research into what the standard mashbill used in chamber stills was (80% rye 20% malt) the Leopold’s also partnered with local farmers to grow Abruzzi rye more consistent with the style grown in the late 1800’s. The key difference is a lower starch content, which means less output but bigger rye flavor because there is less generic starch sugar overwhelming the rye. Combine this with their low fermentation temperatures and you have a mash that is less stressed, with fewer of the unwanted ethyl acetates, with a lower yield but more massive flavor.
So why did this type of still disappear? The simple answer is efficiency. The Three-Chamber still requires constant watch and tweaking during the distillation process. The batch that was running through the stills while we were there had been started at about 5:30 in the morning and Todd would be be finishing it up around 7:00 that evening. And he could not leave the still. Literally. The output is also relatively low. The still is only putting out about 4-5 barrels of white dog a day, and while the Leopold still isn’t the largest the yield from even the smallest column still will be magnitudes larger.
Todd’s worry when they were installing this still though was not the efficiency but the flavor. As Todd said, “If MGP rye flavor is 12:00 and this rye came out tasting 12:05 my brother would have killed me.” What convinced Todd that the experiment would pay off was the historical data. Not only were these stills considered standard for rye making at the turn of the century before Prohibition but also Hiram Walker, the largest distillery in the world at the time, had both a three-chamber and a column still. If they were going through the expense to manufacture whiskey on both types of stills there must be a drastic difference in flavor. And he was right, this whiskey is coming out a 6:00. It is just a bigger whiskey.
Which unfortunately means it going to need more aging. These flavors need more time to mellow, to integrate and mature so we’re at least another 2-3 years out from being able to fully experience this revived whiskey. But I suppose we could still visit the aging barrels to say our respects to the future deliciousness. And in the barrel house one more surprise was waiting.
Bottled-In-Bond bourbon barrels.
This is exciting because the proliferation of anything Bottled-In-Bond is cause for celebration but also because once again Leopold Brothers are doing something different. Their standard barrel entry proof is barely above the required 100 proof for bottled in bond products and four years is older than any other product they currently have on the market, so this barrels are going to need careful monitoring to ensure they will live up to their name. But these barrels hold a very real possibility of creating an incredibly unique bottled-in-bond whiskey A whiskey that carries the all of the flavors present in the liquid right off the still, evenly matched up with all of the larger barrel notes.
One of the things I love most about Leopold Brothers is that their experimentation is focused. They are not doing things the old way simply to do them the old way. They are looking how things were done before the need for maximum efficiency, maximum production and maximum profit. It’s about recognizing what changed because a better way was found to recreate the same product versus what was changed to replace a product. As for me, I’m going to keep drinking the Leopold Brother’s current product not only because of what it is but because of the future product will be.