This article was originally published in 2015
Whiskey & Rum
I love my brown spirits, in particular the whiskies and rums. Pour white spirits into a charred oak barrel, roll it into a warehouse and wait at least six years. Come back and pop it open. Outcomes a brown spirit, provocatively lush and vanilla flavored. It’s time honored truth that it takes a long time to make great whiskies and rums.
Most distillers in Philly have only been at the game for a few years, not enough time for traditional brown spirits. In the meantime, a new distillery needs to sell something delicious, or they are going to go broke. Sure, they can sell white spirits, but the trend for barrel-aged spirits is growing fast.
Distilleries like Mountain Laurel Spirits are innovating how they bring brown spirits to market. One technique used in aging is smaller oak barrels called quarter casks that help impart flavors and color at a quicker rate: eight months versus 5 years. There are some downsides. Among them, quarter casks will extract more tannin into the spirits, bitter notes to the final product.
Here are four new distilleries in the Philadelphia region that are getting around that problem in innovative ways.
Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin
Bluecoat has always been one of my go-to gins, although I have never reviewed it or any of Philadelphia Distilleries products. That’s not because I have some deeply twisted bias against them. It’s quite the opposite, with a whiff of irony to boot.
At one point or another, Philadelphia Distilleries have sent me bottles of all of their spirits. I love most of them. For reviews, I run a strict “no free samples” policy. As much as I love their spirits, I wouldn’t go out and buy a bottle when I have one or two bottles kicking around already.
Then a few months back, I got an email from Kylie Flett of Neff Associates. She’s one of the handful of PR agents in town who will talk to me (I offended most of them years ago). So when she asked me to buy a Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin bottle, I didn’t ask why. When it comes to Kylie, I do what I am told. I promptly forgot about it until I started rooting through my booze assortment (it’s far too unorganized at this point to be considered a collection).
This is a unique bottling. Gin in itself is an infused spirit. Typically juniper flavoring is the principal component. Bluecoat clearly has it as a base, but orange and lemon peel are core flavors with bergamot and chamomile in the mix. Gin is not traditionally oak-aged. The barrel aging is likely done in quarter casks for two to three months, as the oak comes through with a serious tannic edge that offsets the citrus and coconut sweetness but brings in some cinnamon and coriander flavors.
La Colombe Different Drum Rum
A few years ago, Tobin Bickley of La Colombe attended a Rum class I was teaching. This was before they launched their distillery, and after class, we started talking about the project. I was intrigued by the concept but promptly forgot to email Tobin except for a few “yo!” emails over the years.
My local Wine & Spirits shopped just unpacking a case of La Colombe’s Drum Rum when I was rolling in to do some wine newsletter reconnaissance. Oak-aged rum flavored with coffee. Crap, I thought. I am not a fan of modern flavored spirits (vanilla cupcake vodka and the rest of its lowest common denominator booze). This could suck, and I’ll never be able to go back to my favorite coffeehouse, pretend to be cool, and name-drop Tobin again. I also noticed the price dropped from the original $50 to $30. I picked up the bottle and hoped for the best.
Good aged rum has a singular component: a dark as night hue earned only after years -6 or more- in oak barrels. That barrel aging gives the distillate a coconut creaminess followed by a lingering vanilla note. Good-aged rum manages to be both simple (vanilla!) and complex (phenols!) in the same sip and always neat. That is not something to be messed with.
I question La Colombe until I sipped it. Fantastic. A complex citrus and brown sugar that twisted around a dark malted note that dipped into the oak flavors but wasn’t oak. The was a sweetness that wasn’t the sweetness of oak, a creaminess that wasn’t the creaminess of oak. It is a vibrant twisting marriage. It was too good to just put it down. I had to think about how this was made.
The coffee they used is the Geisha variety from Panama. That explains the flavor profile of citrus and sweetness. The only way they could have extracted those flavors is SFE-CO2 (Supercritical Fluid Extraction). That is pretty crazy, but if they sourced Geisha (which is super expensive), I wouldn’t be surprised if they went all out in the laboratory, too.
La Colombe brought in rum from Brazil to blend with their own, aging in quarter casks. From the high quality of this rum, that Brazilian product must have been at least a 5-year barrel. My guess would be they are sourcing from Rhum Agricole, which makes the amazing 3 Praias Ouro.
The Rest of the Best
There are three other local distillers that are making some very good barrel aged spirits.
Dad’s Hat Rye
Mountain Laurel Spirits from Bristol, PA, are making some serious early American style whiskeys. These are the classic Monongahela Rye that was made here in PA long before Bourbon ever existed. This is the type of whiskey that needs at least 5 years in barrel. They are currently making the Dad’s Hat Rye, aged for a half year in quarter casks. They do have some 2-year rye as well.
Petty’s Island Rye Oak Reserve Rum
I met James Yoakum before the opening of Cooper River Distillers. He was still working on his molasses distillation, and I was privy to a still-strength sample. It was the only time I was too drunk to get home (I drink for a living, after all).
James makes a delicious white rum. For an aged rum, he went in a unique direction. Instead of using new barrels that impart sweet vanilla notes after a few years, he used whiskey barrels. He is aging his rum in upwards of 10 months in rye whiskey barrels, which impart a smoky grain quality to the rum. I am pretty sure he is using barrels from Dad’s Hat. If that is the case, that is awesome.
Cooper River Distillers is located in a great location for a distillery: 4th street in Camden, right on the train tracks in a former auto garage. That is some serious prohibition-era shit going.