American Whiskey's Next Big Thing?

By Clay Risen
risen june17 whiskey post.jpg

Photo by sashafatcat/Flickr CC


Rick Wasmund is the Doc Brown of distilling: a rogue tinkerer, a mad scientist, the guy working in his basement on crazy inventions no one understands and no one expects to work. Until one day they do.

Wasmund is the owner, and just about the only employee, of the Copper Fox Distillery, a microscopic outfit nestled against the Shenandoah Mountains in Sperryville, Va. The operation was born from Wasmund's dream to create a Scotch-style whiskey in the States (Scotch has to come from Scotland to bear the name). Wasmund is not alone: A half-dozen craft distillers, mostly on the West Coast, are churning out malt whiskeys, and most are faithful versions of their Highland brethren.

But Wasmund didn't just want to recreate a style; he wanted to revolutionize it. Instead of aging the whiskey in barrels, letting the wood flavors seep into the liquor over years and years, Wasmund figured he could get unique results much more quickly--six months--by steeping a teabag of woodchips in the distillate, and that doing so would give him unique control over his whiskey's flavor profile.

Wasmund's is getting better with each batch. Wasmund continues to improve his skills and process. And skepticism is turning into grudging appreciation.

Another key part of the Wasmund technique: It's all by hand, and all by him. Wasmund claims to be the only American distiller to roast his own barley, and he is the lead guy, often the only guy, working each step of the whiskey-making process (a few friends chip in, and he has an assistant). Unlike the big distillers, Wasmund doesn't age his whiskeys in a federally bonded warehouse; instead, he has to pay a bond on each barrel individually. In the long run that's more expensive, but the scale of operations he'd need in order to afford a bonded warehouse would mean removing him from much of the distilling action.

A few years ago, after several false starts, Wasmund's Single Malt started appearing on whiskey shelves along the Mid-Atlantic coast. It sold out rapidly, in no small part because Wasmund has the hustle of a big-top showman. I once met him by chance at a Georgetown liquor store, late on a Saturday night. He had just wrapped up a tasting at a nearby restaurant and was chatting up the store's owner. He should have been done for the night. But when he saw I was listening, he ran next door and brought back a bottle of his whiskey for an impromptu sales pitch.

This was 2006, just as the first bottles were hitting the market, and my thoughts then tracked the reviews that started appearing in subsequent months. Scotch expert Kevin Erskine, who blogs at www.thescotchblog.com, wrote, "A peculiar sweetness from the combination of fruit woods gives me a hint that this could be something interesting if it were allowed to mature longer." The Wall Street Journal concurred: "[It is] lacking in the deeper, more complex flavors that give fine whiskeys their structure." Wasmund used primarily applewood to dry the barley and in his teabags, and it showed: much too sweet, almost treacly--think of Calvados, or an aged grappa.

Here's the thing, though: Wasmund's is getting better with each batch. Wasmund continues to improve his skills and process. And skepticism is turning into grudging appreciation; liquor sellers who two years ago told me Wasmund was on a fool's errand are now saying he could be the next big thing, nationally. The Beverage Testing Institute gave the latest batch 93 points, calling it "exceptional"; Malt Advocate editor and blogger John Hansell wrote recently that he "was impressed by how improved the whisky was compared to the earlier releases."

Wasmund is also branching out. Earlier this year he released the first of his "Distiller's Art" series--unaged distillate, what folks in the business call "white dog" and most everyone else calls moonshine. Whiskeys are marketed for their age; Wasmund markets Distiller's Art by its youth, with a "born on" date written on each label. He has two expressions, a 100 percent malted barley distillation and a 2/3 barley, 1/3 rye variant. Both are crystal clear, fragrant, and deadly, at 62 percent ABV. A friend and I found them at Central Liquor in Washington, retailing for $19.99.

There are lots of moonshine gimmicks out there--Georgia Moon, for example--but I've long wondered why no one tried to up-market white dog. Quality white dog is good stuff--both the Maker's Mark and Four Roses distillery tours include a chance to test out their unaged product, and both taste great, with crisp fruit and a sharp finish. It's not for the faint-hearted: At upwards of 130 proof, white dog packs an enormous punch.

So, too, do the Distiller's Art expressions. The 100 percent barley is a fruit bomb, both in the nose and on the tongue; apple predominates in both, though there is some assorted berry throughout. Cutting it with a bit of water doesn't do too much to diminish the flavor, and mixing it with tonic water makes for a refreshing warm-weather quaff.

The rye/barley blend is a little too harsh for me to drink straight; the nose is similar to the barley, though a little more subtle and earthy, but the taste is what you'd expect from any rye, amped up to 11: overloaded with spices, it lingers in your mouth for a long time. But it too balanced nicely with a little tonic water. I'm not sure I would ever take one of these over your average aged whiskey, but I appreciate what Wasmund's doing--essentially deconstructing the whiskey-making process and putting it out there for consumption.

With the Distiller's Art series, Wasmund is playing at the true fringe of the liquor market. It will never catch on among most drinkers, though I can see it developing a cult following. Whatever its commercial success, though, it allows Wasmund to underline his claim for being the country's most exciting distiller.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/american-whiskeys-next-big-thing/19492/