*Sincere thanks to Quaker City Mercantile and New Liberty Distillery for the sample.
We will get to this somewhat unique whiskey in a moment. The first order of business, however, is deciphering the tangled web made by producers, owners, and marketers of this brand. Or maybe it’s not such a tangled web, maybe it’s a shrewd, new, diversified way of navigating the spirits industry. Or maybe it’s a fairly tangled web. At least to me it is, but then again, I have an art degree, and no one’s ever accused me of being particularly shrewd when it comes to business. In any case, tangled web or no, the many people and companies involved with this brand, and their relatively novel approach deserve a quick look alongside the whiskey.
The Penna Dutch Malt Whiskey is distilled by the New Liberty Distillery in Philadelphia, PA. New Liberty was founded in 2013 alongside a craft spirits consultation company called Millstone Spirits Group. According to Millstone co-founder and New Liberty co-founder and master distiller, Robert Cassell, the idea behind Millstone is to provide hire-able expertise in “distillation, distribution, marketing and sale of distilled spirits.” New Liberty’s focus is whiskey, specifically rye whiskey and the revitalization of Pennsylvania’s distilling tradition. It’s interesting to note that Cassell, along with Tom Jensen, another founder of New Liberty and Millstone Spirits, founded Ireland’s Connacht Whiskey Company in 2015.
So, yeah, some of the people behind this one have many booze-making irons in the fire, but just wait, it gets even more involved. In the beginning of this year, New Liberty announced a partnership with Quaker City Mercantile, a Philadelphia ad agency and marketing firm that also owns a retail space in Philadelphia called Art in the Age, and a New Hampshire distillery named Tamworth Distillery. Quaker City Mercantile has a rather fascinating history. Having created the Sailor Jerry brand of spiced rum and then sold it to William Grant & Sons, the agency became instrumental marketing partners in two other William Grant & Sons’ brands, Hendrick’s Gin and Milagro tequila. In 2009, the agency became part owners of the Narragansett brewery, and recently also managed to be picked by MillerCoors to shine up the Miller High Life brand.
There you have it, in a probably all too brief nutshell. There are certainly a dizzying array of companies involved with this one, but it’s a somewhat interesting array. In particular, Quaker City Mercantile seems to relish blurring lines that are usually more distinct, but at least in this case, it’s a blurring that makes a lot of sense. The partnership between New Liberty and Quaker City has resulted in a revamped tasting room at New Liberty, and a major re-working of Art in the Age into a tasting room and home bar supply retail shop. Quaker City Mercantile is handling the design work for New Liberty and Tamworth products. The collaboration between those two distilleries will yield several new spirits which they plan to release every couple of months. The Penna Dutch Malt Whiskey is the first of these collaborative bottlings.
This one is made from a “Munich style” malt that came from a small, artisan, Pennsylvanian malter called Deer Creek Malt House. Munich Malt is a popular beer-making malt which is traditionally both germinated and kilned at a relatively high temperature, creating the familiar nutty, malty, bready flavor profiles found in many German lagers, bocks, and Märzens. The Penna Dutch Malt has been aged in new charred American oak barrels, and is made up of whiskeys ranging from a mere six months old all the way up to two years old. It’s also been bottled at a very respectable 50.1% ABV.
The Nose: Lots of grain and distillate character, nicely tempered by sweetness, wood and a little spice. That toasted barley quality certainly comes through, this has some very pleasant coffee notes. There’s a subtle, interesting raw grain, dried grass quality as well, slightly herbal and almost rye-like. The sweetness comes through as malt syrup, rhubarb cobbler, light molasses, and Swiss Miss (no marshmallows). Subtle wood and spice notes of damp oak and vanilla bean, nutmeg, peppercorns and allspice. Adding a little water brings out even more grain and new make character, but also gives it a more expected “single malt” feel.
The Palate: There’s a rough sweetness initially. Dark orange blossom honey, chocolate-covered cherries, coffee-flavored hard candy, and subtler hints of dried red fruits. While that young grainy character is present, it’s less prevalent that it was on the nose. More chocolate, dark and semi-sweet, along with candied, roasted nuts. The oak is lightly grippy with cinnamon, clove, star anise, and black pepper. As with the nose, a little water brings out more traditional single malt character, toning down some of the fruit and chocolate.
The Finish: Medium-ish, with toasted grain, café au lait, dark chocolate, cinnamon, and dusty, lightly tannic oak.
Thoughts: A nice surprise. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I found this a little unexpected. The distillate quality seems very good and the Munich Malt definitely gives this some character with the coffee and chocolate notes throughout. While it does have a youthful straightforwardness, it’s not hot or harsh, instead it’s surprisingly smooth, sippable, and somewhat unique at strength. It does a good job balancing the interesting young grain with the oak and spice. With a little water, this seems to lose a bit of complexity and novelty, falling back into more of an expected young single malt profile. I found this an enjoyable whiskey right now and, if they stick with this expression, I’m curious to see what a few more years in wood could bring to it. The price is steep at $50, but relatively in line these days with offerings from craft distilleries.
***Bonus Cocktail Whatzit! On a whim, I mixed up a damn delightful twist on a Boulevardier using the Penna Dutch Malt, Campari, and Tattersall Distilling’s Amaro in place of sweet vermouth. A little more bitter than the standard, the malt’s high ABV stood up well to the sweetness of the other two, and the herbal Amaro nicely complimented the roasty notes of the whiskey and tied it all together.
Just for fun, let’s get local and let’s get weird for a moment. Here in Twin Cities, we have a great fish and chips/Irish pub food place called The Anchor Fish & Chips. We also have a fine place called Bent Brewstillery which, as you might guess, is a taproom, craft brewery and craft distillery all rolled into one. Apparently, one evening (or it could have been one morning, what the hell, you never know with these fish & chips and brewstillery types) a meeting of these two seemingly disparate minds came together and hatched a plot to collaborate on some fairly unique booze.
Bent Brewstillery took a boatload of Anchors’ high quality potato peelings, fermented them in a wash with a little molasses, and distilled it all into an Irish Poitín. Poitín, meaning “little pot” in Gaelic and pronounced pot’-cheen, is basically Irish moonshine. It’s a white spirit historically illicitly distilled from that all-important tuber, the potato. Before the “craft” distilling movement began, Poitín had pretty much been relegated to a minor cultural curiosity outside of Ireland, and perhaps even inside. With the advent of the craft distilling and smaller distilleries looking back at more obscure forms of hooch, it’s made a small comeback. Now, admittedly, I don’t know Poitín from Shinola. The only other Poitín I’ve tried was some fairly jagged, shattering stuff purchased at Bunratty Castle near Limirick, but I thought a local mash-up as odd-sounding, yet oddly logical as this was worth a try. Luckily, my friend Bill came through with a bit Bent Anchor’s Irish-Style Poitín.
The Nose: Hot. A little sweet, and a little sour. Along with some earthy, faintly potato-esque moments, there’s a bit of light brown sugar, and a faint hint of teriyaki(?!). If you ever had the inclination to barely wash a raw, un-peeled potato, sprinkle some powdered sugar on it…and then take a big bite, this would seem to be along those lines.
The Palate: Hot…but actually not debilitatingly so. This is surprisingly smooth. Lots of confectioners sugar, little to none of the faint sourness from the nose, and a nice subtle nod to the tubers that made this tick.
The Finish: Fast. More powdered sugar with gentle burnt sugars lingering the longest.
Thoughts: I don’t really have any reference point for this kind of thing. I didn’t know I needed a new way to enjoy potatoes, but I guess now I’ve got one. Bent Anchor Irish-Style Poitín was certainly fun to try, and I suppose I was pleasantly surprised at how drinkable it actually is. While the flavor profile leans much more towards sugared notes, there are enough hints of those potato peelings to keep things interesting. Definitely an entertaining collaboration from some good local folks.
I’ve often poked fun at some of the baffling and possibly dangerous-to-pronounce Scottish place/distillery names, and while I still think names like Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, and Dailuaine are fair game, I also feel just slightly sheepish doing so because I come from Wisconsin. If you’ve looked at a map of that beautiful state, you’ll see there is no shortage of baffling place names there as well. With towns like Weyauwega, Manitowoc, Oconomowoc, Ashwaubenon, and Mukwonago, a Wisconsinite isn’t really one to talk when it comes funny place names. Most of these names are Native American in origin; the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida tribes among others are responsible for a huge number of ’em, but any Wisconsinite worth their bratwurst can rattle them off as easy as you’d like.
For personal reasons as well as phonetic reasons, one of my favorite Wisconsin place names is Kinnickinnic. There’s a not-all-that-beautiful Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee and another far more beautiful Kinnickinnic River up near the somewhat bustling college town of River Falls. In Milwaukee, near the not-all-that-beautiful Kinnickinnic River, there’s a rather industrial-transitioning-to-neighborhood stretch of road called South Kinnickinnic Avenue (South KK to the locals), most famous in my mind for being the home of a beloved and bedraggled punk club called Cafe Voltaire and later the Odd Rock Cafe. If I remember correctly (and I’ve not lived in Milwaukee for some time, sadly), there was always a bit of regional debate as to how to pronounce Kinnickinnic. For some it was KINNICkinnic for others it was KinNICkinnic…for most it was just easier to say “KK”.A nuanced and minor debate, yes, but a potentially volatile one, especially later in the evening at any number of Friday night fish frys.
In any case, Kinnickinnic is an Ojibwe word for a blend of tobacco and local leaves, bark, and grasses, literally meaning, “what is mixed”. Great Lakes Distillery chose this appropriate title for their unique Kinnickinnic Blended Whiskey which is made up of sourced bourbon (reportedly around four years old, not sure from where), and their own young, perhaps barely aged, rye and single malt whiskies. Located in the great city of Milwaukee, Great Lakes Distillery was founded in 2004 and was the first distillery in Wisconsin since Prohibition. Like many craft distilleries, they have a varied line-up including eau de vie, vodka, gin, and rum that can quickly make it to store shelves while they wait for their spirits in barrels to mature. In a time when so many “craft” brands are at best elusive, and at worst outright lying about where their booze comes from, Great Lakes certainly deserves praise for being upfront and proud of the fact they are blending sourced whiskey with their own distillate to create a rather different product.
The Nose: A light and subtlety different nose, at once bourbon-y and malt-y with a bit of heat. Initial notes of caramel-y, nutty toffee, thick honey, and maraschino cherries are followed by nice cracked rye and slightly beery malt notes with lesser hints of dark chocolate fudge. There are spice notes of vanilla extract, cinnamon, orange zest, and earthy pepper, with some dried leaves in the background.
The Palate: The palate is a bit more weighty and sweet than the nose, but this is still a lighter whisky. An early, candied orange and orgeat sweetness is slowly joined by more dark chocolate and malted milk balls. While this gets a little spirit-y with some harsh sharp edges towards the end, there’s nice, slightly vegetal spice notes: cinnamon, dusty, tannic clove and crackling, peppery rye which is much bolder here than on the nose.
The Finish: Medium-ish, the sweeter notes fade quickly leaving more of that drying peppery spice and just a touch of malt.
Thoughts: One of the more interesting and unique American whiskies out there at the moment. The three whiskies blended here, bourbon, and the house-made malt and rye are integrated fairly well, though this does have a crisp, youngish, spirit-y quality to it. The palate is a little sharp around the edges, no doubt due to more youthful whiskies used. It’s ok as a sipper, but is quite nice over ice, and proves fairly interesting in cocktails. In the end, I think this is decent stuff but lacking the maturity to make it great. I hope Great Lakes sticks with this novel idea, as their own stock matures and their expertise at distilling and blending grows, there’s potential to release some great whiskies in this style.
Now that I’m a resident of the great state of Minnesota, I thought I’d show a little local pride by profiling a new Minnesota distillery. Tucked way the hell up there in the hinterland-ish, northwest corner of the state, not far from the small town of Hallock, Far North Spirits broke ground in the Spring of this year and is poised to be one of the northern-most distilleries in the U.S. In the last couple of years, the craft distilling movement has gone from being a burgeoning trend to what is today a delightful, occasionally delicious, full-blown epidemic. It’s become far easier to open a distillery in pretty much any town in the county. Laws have been loosened, nobody wants to drink rail cocktails anymore, and locavore foodies are feeling good (and smug) about boozing again. With any kind of movement like this, at some point the explosion is always followed by the real contenders separating themselves from the pretenders. We haven’t reached that point yet. To be sure, there are some great craft distilleries out there, but there are also some that need a little help. There are also some that are just downright full of shit. There seem to be quite a few “craft” brands that imply small-scale distilling but in reality are actually just bottling and labeling juice they’ve purchased from a large-scale commercial distiller…most likely the large-scale commercial distiller located in Indiana. Slapping a label on a bottle can’t really be called a craft…sure, there might be some skill to it, to get it on straight and all, but it’s not a craft. Many true craft distillers are also quite vocal about trying to control as much of their own process as they can, and often this unfortunately leads to rather inflated claims of doing everything from “grain to bottle”. It’s only on very rare occasions that you find a distillery actually growing their own grain, processing it, fermenting, it, distilling it, maturing it, bottling it, and skillfully slapping a label on a bottle of it. With their upcoming rye whisky, Far North intends to do just that.
Located on their fourth generation family farm, Far North Spirits is the brainchild of the husband and wife team of Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese. With their respective backgrounds in bio-chemistry and sustainability, and PR and marketing, the couple decided to return to their roots and create a business combining the locally focused, sustainable sensibilities of traditional farming and experimental craft distilling. They are looking to begin production by October of this year, and like many small distilleries do, they hope to release a rye-based gin and a spiced rum by the end of the year to generate some early cash-flow. They will be producing a rye whisky that they intend to release in the Fall of 2014. The rye, wheat, and corn (thankfully, all non-GMO) will all be grown and milled at the farm, while the botanicals for the gin and spices for the rum will be sourced as locally as possible. Believe it or not, there is a bit of Scandinavian heritage in the state of Minnesota, and Far North has taken that family heritage and incorporated it into the naming and packaging, and in the future, hopes to create special editions of traditional Scandinavian liqueurs.
Fairly exciting stuff, if you ask me. As if running a farm and building a distillery wasn’t enough work, Michael graciously took some time to answer a few questions The Casks had for Far North Spirits
The farm has been in the family for a while, but when and why did you decide to start the distillery?
Yes, almost 100 years (1915); the idea started with the desire to live more simply and seasonally. Research on making a finished product with grains from our family farm turned up the old farming model of turning grain into whiskey, which sounded like a helluva lot more fun than scaling up acreage and playing the commodities market. In 2009, while getting my MBA at St. Thomas, I wrote a mini-business plan on making whiskey, seed-to-glass, for an entrepreneurial class. The idea never went away.
What is your background in distilling?
None. Like a lot of craft distillers, we are coming in absolutely new to this process. Strange thing is, everything I’ve learned is useful – the bio/chemistry degree, writing about food/drink, cooking, marketing, not to mention being a farm kid and working with lots of different kinds of equipment. That’s probably been the most helpful because after talking with dozens of distillers (and training with 45th Parallel in New Richmond, WI, Koval in Chicago and Spring 44 in Denver), I’ve realized that they’re a lot like farmers. Everyone has their own way of doing this – there’s no wrong way. At the same time, it’s similar to talking with farmers about crop rotation, everyone thinks their way is best. You talk to any one of the 10+ distillers starting up in MN right now, and every one of them is getting there in a slightly different way, but a way that works for them.
The phrase “grain to bottle” is oft-used, and frankly sometimes abused by craft distilleries, could you take us through, step-by-step, your farming, harvesting, milling, and distilling process?
We are a true seed-to-glass distillery. I sourced each of the seed varieties we’re growing myself — organic corn, winter rye and winter wheat (no GMO). I planted 140 acres of rye on Section 4 of the family farm; 7 acres of corn is growing right outside our distillery door. I plan on harvesting the rye soon – probably by second week of August. From there, once each of the grains have been cleaned and dried by a local seed dealer, I’ll mill them at the distillery, mash, and ferment for 3-4 days, then distill. The rye will be the neutral spirit for the gin and the base of the rye whiskey. The rye whiskey will be mostly rye, with a bit of corn to sweeten it.
Speaking of the rye, are you using a particular variety of rye and what are its distinct qualities?
We started with a variety called AC Hazlet. This is a winter rye, and I chose it based on yield, winter hardiness, and resistance to lodging (stands up well, literally, against the wind and rain – ed.). It’s a bit shorter in height than older varieties of rye, and this is primarily what helps with the lodging. There are dozens of rye varieties, and I’ll likely give a few of them a try next year and see how they like it on our ground.
Not knowing much about farming (ok, not really knowing anything), how much distilling capacity does your grain crop allow? Are all the crops used solely for the booze-making?
We’re only using a fraction of the family’s 1,500 acre farm for the distillery operation. One can make a surprising amount of booze from a small amount of grain. I’ll use approximately 25 bushels of grain (about 1,500 lbs) per 500-gallon mash. If yields are average, I calculate that I can produce all the grain I can distill in a year on less than 100 acres. And you can only distill grain from the current year – keeping it longer can reduce your alcohol yield. I’ve already had other distillers ask me if I’ll have any extra rye this year, and it looks like we will so we’ll either sell the excess to other distillers, or on the open commodities market.
What type of still(s) are you using and what is the distillery’s capacity?
We’re using one 500-gallon and one 50-gallon copper pot stills custom-made by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky. We’ll start by producing around 8,900 proof gallons, or 4,700 cases. Our capacity without additional expansion is around 19,000 proof gallons, or around 10,000 cases.
When will the first spirit be run?
Legally, we can’t run until we get our Distilled Spirits Permit (DSP). We can purchase equipment and set everything up, but we can’t operate any of it until the permit is in place. That will likely take place in early September if the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau – ed.) grants us our permit according to schedule. Now that said, one can do a significant amount of experimentation that doesn’t involve direct distilling. Infusions of spices and botanicals can be done using high-proof neutral spirit (Everclear), or high-proof rum. This gives a significant amount of information about flavor and blending characteristics. For the gin, I’ll be distilling each of my botanicals separately, and then blending them together to make the final product. This process is more time-consuming, but I think it yields a superior gin. When you talk about botanicals you’re talking about plants after all, and this represents a multitude of variability. Location, seasonal effects, environmental changes, etc. Distilling the “sweet spot” of each botanical gives you much more control over your product, and helps maintain consistency batch to batch. With the spiced rum, I’ll infuse some of the spices separately. Some of the flavor characteristics that I’m looking for show up sooner or later in the infusion process depending on the spice.
What types of casks are you using and where are you sourcing them from?
There’s some thought that using smaller casks to decrease the maturation time is “rushing” it, in a way skipping a step, and there’s a resulting lack of complexity, what are your thoughts? Will you be using “full-size” barrels in the future?
I’ll be putting away whiskey in small (10 gallon) and large (30 & 53 gallon) barrels, depending on how long I plan to age it. I don’t think that aging whiskey in a smaller barrel is rushing it, necessarily. As long as the whiskey has a chance to move through the extraction and reaction phases with the wood, and you fermented and distilled it with a smaller barrel format in mind, you have a lovely whiskey from a small barrel. In fact, using a small barrel for a longer aging period can be detrimental; you start pulling flavors out of the wood that you don’t want.
How long will the first run of rye be aged for?
Our first whiskey release will be aged for 12-16 months in 10-gallon barrels.
Do you plan on holding on to some maturing stocks?
Absolutely. I’ll be putting away whiskies in 30 & 53-gallon barrels for longer aging. I plan on releasing “straight” whiskies in the future, and this requires a minimum of 2 years per TTB regulations.
Being that far north, with the long, cold winters, and shorter but potentially quite hot summers, what challenges do you foresee the climate having on distilling and maturation and likewise, do you see any advantages?
Well, the climate has a lot more challenges to farming than distilling! In fact, there are some distinct advantages for distilling. The temperature swings from season to season actually help the aging process – the expansion and contraction of the barrels allow for greater interaction between wood and whiskey, yielding a greater depth of flavor. For this reason, our aging room is not climate controlled.
Distilling and agricultural production complement each other quite well, if you think in terms of energy flows. In agriculture, a short summer means that you “make hay while the sun shines” (harness the available energy for plants). You really have to have your act together to get the most out of the growing season – there are narrow windows of opportunity to plant, cultivate, and harvest each crop. In distilling, the energy flows are “flipped”. Distilling equipment produces quite a bit of heat, and ramping up production during a long, cold winter means that you can treat that heat as an asset rather than a waste stream.
Winter is also a traditional time for reflection, and I think it leads to greater creativity as we ponder future recipes.
Do you have any role models/mentors/idols that have inspired you along the way?
Definitely. I’ve been particularly inspired by Bill McDonough, whose book Cradle to Cradle was very influential to me. In fact, it played a large part in my not going to medical school, and pursuing a career in corporate sustainability instead. But over the years, again and again I would find myself thinking about our family farm, and I had to admit I was the most enthusiastic about experimenting with sustainable agricultural practices. We’re planting native prairie grass and wildflowers both as decoration as well as discharge water processing around the distillery. If all goes well, I’d like to expand the native prairie areas around the distillery. I like the idea of reverting some of our farmland back to the prairie that existed here prior to the late 1800’s. During our time in the Twin Cities, I developed a real respect for Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant, and talking with him and tasting the fantastic things he could do with local ingredients was a revelation. Dave Pickerell has also been inspiring, and his “own your backyard” approach to product development has fit perfectly with what we’re doing with the farm.
Outside of your own, of course, what’s your favorite whisky? Gin? Rum?
Whiskey: Toss-up between Whistle Pig and Hillrock Estate Gin: Right now it’s dead even between Leopold Bros American Gin and Grandten Distillery’s Wireworks Gin Rum: Tough one! Lately I’ve been liking some Demerara rums like El Dorado, but I’m particularly fond of Montanya Rum (Colorado) and Folly Cove (Ryan & Wood – Gloucester, MA). 10 Cane as well.
Favorite music to distill by?
After I run the first few batches, I’ll send you a playlist. There will also be a separate playlist for the barrels (I plan on playing them music during the day to keep them company).
Favorite book to read whilst drinking whisky on a cold Winter night?
The winter months of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life.
In this land of 10,000 lakes, which one is your favorite?
I practically grew up on Lake of the Woods. In particular, Whitefish Bay is my favorite part of the lake – the water is clearer, and the scenery is more dramatic. In fact, back when I was in college I used to scuba dive there because the visibility was enough to make it worthwhile. After doing my open water certification while it was snowing (true story), Whitefish Bay was like a dream. But Lake Superior has the sound of the surf, which makes it really hard to choose.
Being that far north, which of the nine and a half months of Winter is your favorite?
My favorite time is from the winter solstice to the 15th of January. Basically I want to see one full moon on the snow, and then I want the whole winter business over with.
Like I said, exciting stuff! The return to the traditional roots of farming and farmhouse distilling is certainly a compelling story. The most recent news from Far North is that their stills have arrived and are being installed. With any luck, that first run of spirit will happen very soon. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more (and tasting more) from these distilling neighbors to the north and I’d like to thank Michael and Cheri for taking the time to talk with me about Far North Spirits.