If you're reading this magazine, chances are you already know that Bourbon became widely produced when American pioneers headed west. They were obliged to distill corn because they no longer had easy access to the rye and apples that were abundant on the east coast. In essence, Bourbon was the first alternative whiskey. In today's distilling world, pioneering is more a matter of ideology than geography. And with only their creativity to limit them, distillers are venturing into unchartered territory with gusto.
To be sure, it's easier for a distillery to experiment with unconventional grains if it's been around long enough to have an aged whiskey on the market. Name recognition is everything in this game. After all, a consumer has to have a certain level of trust if he's going to invest in an unusual product.
There were only about 50 boutique distilleries in the USA when High West opened in Utah in 2006. Owner and distiller David Perkins's first products were made with sourced whiskeys, but today he's releasing plenty of his own hooch, including Campfire, a blend of Bourbon, rye and (wait for it…) peated malt. He's also selling a pure rye, made with 80 per cent unmalted barley and 20 per cent malted barley, and an oat whiskey made with 85 per cent oat and 15 per cent barley.
"When you're a small guy, you need to be different," Perkins said. "Lots of people are doing Bourbon. When a little guy comes out with something different, it gets noticed."
Indeed, that's a prevailing attitude (and marketing strategy) in today's increasingly crowded and competitive microdistilling scene.
"We're using unique and interesting grains because we don't want to do what everyone else does. The obvious mash bills are tried, tested, true, and loved. We don't need to do what's been done for generations," said Sonat Birnecker Hart, co-owner of Koval Distilling in Chicago with her husband Robert Birnecker, who comes from three generations of Austrian brandy-makers. Koval's products have included overlooked grains like millet, oak, and spelt. "I think it's a fun way to differentiate. Offer something unique and interesting to the market. There are few ways that a company like mine can compete if we're doing what everyone else is doing."
If the alternative grain movement has a godfather, it's Darek Bell, who started Corsair in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2008 and has since added two distilleries and a malt house, which are all in Nashville. Eight years ago, having come from a home brewing background, he started tinkering with alternative grains and literally wrote the book (Alt Whiskeys: Alternative Whiskey Recipes and Distilling Techniques for the Adventurous Craft Distiller). He's since turned out an array of unusual products involving everything from quinoa to millet, and that's to say nothing of the various woods he uses to smoke his own grains. He says he aims to make at least 100 new products a year. (Only his top five favourites are entered in competitions. Maybe one of them will make it to market.)
Plenty of newer distilleries are hitching their wagons to the alternative star. In 2011, Monte Sachs launched the first spirit made at Catskills Distilling, his farm distillery outside New York City. Like many, Catskills started with a vodka, but today Sachs peddles a buckwheat spirit made with 80 per cent buckwheat, 10 per cent malted barley and 10 per cent corn. It cannot legally be called a 'whiskey' because buckwheat is classified as a 'pseudo-grain.' It's aged a minimum of two years in 25 gallon new oak barrels. Buckwheat, a staple of Japanese and European cooking since ancient times, lends the spirit a distinctly earthy body. It's a huge commitment, as buckwheat is four times the price of corn, takes three times as long to mill and is heavy to mash. But Sachs, who was mentored by the late Lincoln Henderson, of Brown-Forman fame (he had a hand in creating Woodford Reserve, among others), didn't balk.
While some distillers are turning to overlooked grains and pseudo-grains - others are tinkering with ingredients that are widespread in another realm; that of brewing.
"None of the distilling texts mention other malts that brewers often use," said Matt Hoffman, Master Distiller at Westland Distillery in Seattle, an area long known for its lively craft brewing scene. Westland produces several whiskeys, including a peated malt made with Scottish barley and Scottish peat. "If you have malts with incredible flavours - chocolate and leather and tobacco - think about what that could add to the whiskey."
To that end, he developed Westland's flagship single malt with 70 per cent pale malt, 12 per cent extra special malt (called so because it's created with a cutting edge, but undisclosed malting process), 4 per cent pale chocolate malt, 4 per cent brown malt and the rest a Washington state barley malted in Munich. Hoffman is particularly enthusiastic about using pale malts, which are made at a roasting level that's long been popular among brewers. Pale malts offer gentler nuances than standard roasted malts. "In Scotland, everything's done with one varietal of barley, kind of like if winemakers all used Merlot grapes," he said. "We see different varietals of barley as a big area of exploration. We're progressing faster than Scotland on the barley front. We don't have 700 years of history behind us. We can pursue what we think is the very best option."
For the truly audacious, there are designer grains. That's where Ralph Erenzo at Tuthilltown Spirits comes in. The first distillery to open in New York, about three years before the wave of spirit makers swelled, Tuthilltown now produces its Hudson whiskey range for William Grant & Sons. But they've been running lots of experiments in the meantime, including one with triticale, a rye hybrid. Erenzo sees it as a benefit of longevity, and market necessity.
"A newcomer doesn't have the luxury of experimenting in the open market. It takes time to do these things, but the market is dying for something new. Our Baby Bourbon - made with 100 per cent corn - was a good example. It was really different and good, but if we introduced it now, I don't know… there are over 750 startups, all of which are trying to do something new."
And it's easy to argue that the startups are inciting the handful of Bourbon leviathans to develop products that stray wildly from tradition. The 'white whiskey' craze, for instance, started because new producers couldn't afford to age their spirit without having something to sell. Before too long, Jim Beam released its unaged Jacob's Ghost, Buffalo Trace introduced its White Dog products, Maker's Mark unveiled Maker's White and Heaven Hill released its unaged Trybox series.
"The new wave of small distilleries are quick to experiment in a lot of ways, and that forces the big guys to experiment in ways they wouldn't have without smaller distilleries," said Bell, noting that he communicated with the head of innovation at MGP, the well-known bulk spirits producer. "He emailed that he had a bunch of unusual grain bills. It was a weird moment - on the one hand, I was terrified."
But that's only the beginning of what to expect.
"We have a long list of ideas around grains and we're in the early stages on many of them," said Harlen Wheatley, Master istiller at Buffalo Trace. "Hopefully we can divulge some results soon on our findings of a few of them."