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Spirits: Interventionist whiskey-making

There's a lot of talk in wine circles about "interventionist" versus "non-interventionist" winemaking techniques. So many wineries claim to be non-interventionist, meaning they strive to allow the natural "terroir" (or a sense of place) be the determining factor in the wine rather than what happens after the grapes are harvested. It's a chic position to deplore the use of interventionist techniques such as the invasive usage of oak barrels or "watering back" high alcohol wines made from overripe grapes or utilizing an ion exchanger to reduce acidity. The sainted non-interventionist winemaker simply allows the natural wine to be itself.

When it comes to whiskey-making, however, we hear almost nothing about non-interventionist approaches. That's because intervention is central to whiskey-making -- even when we're talking about unaged white whiskey. Almost all aged whiskey relies on some level of barrel aging, blending or alchemy before it arrives in a bottle on the liquor store shelf. As explained in my feature on bourbon last year, there are so many factors at play in making whiskey: the yeast strain used in fermentation, the type and amount of grains used in the mash recipe, the kind of barrel used in aging. Even where the barrel rests as it ages in the rickhouse even matters. Does a barrel on the sixth floor age faster in a warm microclimate than one on the second floor? Does the rickhouse serve as man-made "terroir"?

Back in May, when I attended the American Distillers Institute conference, I asked this question: "What makes great whiskey: Is it the distillation? The barrel aging? The final blending of different ages and recipes?" This was in response to concerns raised about the excellent High West Rendevous Rye (which won Best of Show). Rendezvous Rye is a blend of 16-year-old and 6-year-old ryes sourced from a defunct distillery. Many microdistillers complained that High West didn't "make" its own whiskey, but only blended it.

At the same conference, there was serious discussion about the key dilemma facing small spirits companies: How to age whiskey faster so that cash-strapped distillers can get their bottles on the market faster. "A lot of people would really like to make whiskey, but the big problem is the barrel," said David Pickerell, a former master distiller at Maker's Mark and now a consultant, who spoke at the conference. "The thing everyone wants to know is, 'How can we get this stuff out of the barrel faster?' " At ADI, I saw oak barrel salespeople claiming their products could magically age whiskey faster through state-of-the-art design. And just a few weeks ago, I saw a Cleveland entrepreneur claim he'd invented a process that can age a whiskey to six years -- in six months.

So with all this in mind, it was interesting to recently sample the new, much-hyped Maker's Mark 46. The simple fact that Maker's Mark has even launched a new whiskey is big news. For 52 years, as other whiskey distillers introduced dozens of new expressions -- single barrel, small batch, longer aged, higher proof, special wood finishes, etc. -- Maker's Mark stayed true to its original bottling. The standard Maker's Mark is fairly unique because it relies on wheat in the mash bill rather than rye (which most bourbons use). It was also unique because it never made an age declaration, though the blend mostly consisted of six-year-old bourbon. The original 90-proof Maker's Mark is a good-value, versatile bourbon at around $22, and I often recommend it to people who are new to bourbon.

The new Maker's Mark 46 is surprisingly different, and the difference happens because the basic Maker's whiskey is aged for a couple extra months with toasted oak staves inserted into the barrels. So important was the wood, Maker's Mark distillers worked closely with cooper Brad Boswell of Independent Stave Company; "46" is the number of attempts it took to perfect the process. Last-minute tweaking with oak staves regularly happens with Scotch, but among American whiskies, you generally only see this sort of technique in experimental or collectors' bottles.

Ok, so the most important thing: How does it taste? There's much richer and more pronounced vanilla and caramel, but also more spice, particularly cinnamon, which adds complexity to Maker's Mark usual fruitiness. I find the finish softer than the original Maker's Mark, even though it's bottled at a higher 94 proof. I could see using it in all the classic whiskey cocktails -- Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Rickey, Mint Julep, etc. My only small complaint with new Maker's Mark 46, is I think it's a tad pricey at $35-37. Still, even at that price, it's definitely a drinking whiskey, and not some precious, limited-edition production.

Maker's Mark 46 is interventionist whiskey-making in all its glory.

-- Jason Wilson
(Follow him on Twitter. And watch for his upcoming book, "Boozehound," set to be published next month by Ten Speed Press.)

By The Food Section  |  August 20, 2010; 11:36 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, spirits  
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Just a few more of the common winemaking interventions...

Real red and real purple, enzymes that extract and produce particular colors in wine.

Reverse osmosis to take chemical flaws out of wines

Spinning cone technology to remove alcohol while leaving the cloying overripe flavors intact

Addition of acids.

Use of fermentation nutrients to allow fermentations to complete because the grapes grown with todays vineyard management techniques may not compelte fermentation on their own.

Lees stirring done with attachemtnst oa power drill which beat the dormant yeast cells and the wine into a frothy mix to extract yeast flavors to cover up the flavor of the grape.

Wood extracts {teas made from wood chips) that can be poured into a wine to add wood flavors tat can mask flaws, hide bitter tannins, add flavors etc.

Posted by: restaurantowner | August 23, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

The bourbon distillers correctly jumped on the success of single malt in the US with single cask bourbons and age statements. Will they also follow with additional interventions such as finished in wine casks that is happening with those of us in the single malt business?

Posted by: VAWhisky | August 23, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

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