Earlier on sfbg.com, Virginia Miller turned WhiskyFest into Whisky Week, meeting with seven different distillers who’d come to attend the Fest from such far-flung booze berths as Kentucky and Scotland. Here’s part one of her scotch-heavy Whisky Week highlights. Read on for part two: conversations with bourbon and rye distillers.
10/8 COFFEE WITH JIMMY RUSSELL OF WILD TURKEY – The morning before WhiskyFest I learned about a company that’s been a Kentucky mainstay since 1855, and met with its master-distiller since 1954. Jimmy Russell comes from a family of distillers: grandad, dad — who worked for him at Wild Turkey in the early years — and now Russell is distilling with his son, Eddie. Jimmy could not be more charming. An older Southern gentleman, he’s soft-spoken, with an adorable sense of humor that I discovered as we chatted over coffee.
Russell makes Wild Turkey bourbons and ryes “the old-fashioned way” and says he doesn’t even tell his son all of his distilling secrets. They use barrels charred four times and made of white oak mainly from Missouri, Kentucky and the Ozarks of Arkansas. Their basic bourbons are a blend of six, eight and ten year-aged, with a lower proof than some bourbons, generally 108-110 proof. He explains lower proof is actually more costly as there is more water added to dilute higher proof bourbons.
The distiller’s yarns about his town of Lawrenceburg, KY are fascinating, particularly because it’s in a mostly dry county where no drinks are allowed in restaurants and bars do not exist. “We’re not dry, we’re moist”, he says, as there are a few limited options to purchase drink in the area. It was only a couple years ago they secured a souvenir liquor license, one of many complicated hoops to jump through to in order to allow tastings in their actual distillery. Russell says he adheres to the Southern Baptist tradition that one only drinks hard liquor for medicinal purposes. He qualifies in a gentle, Southern drawl, “I keep a cough pretty much most of the time”.
10/7 SIPPIN’ WHEATED BOURBON WITH PARKER BEAM – Amidst the annoying happy hour din at Bloodhound last Thursday night, distilling legend Parker Beam was hanging out with the Heaven Hill crew and a few of their whiskeys. They pulled out a bottle of brand new Parker’s Heritage Wheated Bourbon, an earthy, wood-laced wheat beauty whose mix blends in corn and malted barley.
Parker raised a glass as we attempted to chat above the din. Hearing took some effort as the delightful Parker speaks in a slow, Southern drawl that lulls one into a real enjoyment of the moment. His passion for distilling shines in his calm demeanor. He’s distilled for decades, both with father, Earl and son, Craig. And yes, he’s related to “that” Beam. His grandfather and namesake, Park Beam’s, brother was the storied Jim Beam (aka James Beauregard Beam). Parker is part of a royal distilling heritage. I asked if his son had any children who might next enter the fray. “My son has five daughters, so no,” he surmised. “But who knows? Maybe we’ll have the first female bourbon distiller someday.” It wouldn’t be the first noteworthy accomplishment in the Beam family’s rich history.
10/10 BACON BRUNCH WITH KEITH KERKHOFF OF TEMPLETON RYE – Setting: Reza Esmaili’s Long Bar. Food: delectable spread from chef Erik Hopfinger. Heaping bacon piles of Eden Farms Berkshire Pork — And don’t forget the rye. Templeton Rye from Templeton, Iowa, to be exact. The brunch was in celebration of this delightful rye — previously restricted for sale to Illinois and Iowa — finally becoming available in San Francisco.
Templeton is so small batch that you won’t find it in any Bay Area shops outside of SF, where our usual suspects, like Cask, Jug Shop, and K&L all stock the brand. Assistant master-distiller Keith Kerkhoff (I wrote about a Whiskies of the World seminar with their president, Scott Bush earlier this year) and brand manager Michael Killmer hosted us for a relaxed, festive brunch where the coffees were spiked with the rye and topped with Fernet whipped cream. Welcome to SF, Templeton.
Waxing poetic with Maker’s Mark at The Alembic
10/10 DIPPING WAX WITH KEVIN SMITH OF MAKER’S MARK — At The Alembic, Kevin Smith, the master distiller of Maker’s Mark, spent a couple hours with a small group, tasting through various ages of the bourbon from white dog to pours that were years older than the finished Maker’s product, so that we could get an idea of when a spirit is ready. From a somewhat neutral base cut down to 90 proof, the bourbon gained most of its flavor from barrel aging, and we sampled a woody 12-year version that came off astringent and tannic, though not unpleasant. Smith used the two to highlight their choice of the smoother, rounder balance of the fully matured final product which is aged roughly years.
We finished with Maker’s 46, their first new product in 50 years. I’ve had it a few times and it makes sense Kevin said the inspiration was rye whiskey with advanced spicing, toasty oak and that “cinnamon bite.” It’s certainly my preferred Makers. Thanks to The Alembic for serving us a gorgeous, bright Maker’s 46 cocktail: sweet vermouth, absinthe, maraschino and a mint garnish. But the session wasn’t over until we had hand-dipped glasses in Maker’s signature red wax, a tradition established from the chemist wife of Bill Samuels, Sr. (Maker’s original owner). She loved brandy and wanted the bottle shape and wax to imbue Maker’s with a brandy elegance.
Interestingly, California just surpassed Kentucky as Maker’s number one-selling US market. Raise a glass, shall we, to the pioneers and tastemakers who brought love of spirits to share during this past whirlwind week of whisky.
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