It’s an interesting question in any case: Does appellation play the same role—or any role—in defining a liquor’s quality as it does a wine’s?
Or is it purely marketing schtick?
I ask because a wine’s regulated place-of-origin is intimately woven with information about that wine’s terroir, whether it is as specific as the twenty-acre vineyard of Le Montrachet or all-encompassing appellations like ‘California’. With the former, you are legally assured that the grapes in the bottle are chardonnay, grown in a tiny, mystical plot of land in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. With the latter, according to the law, a quarter of the grapes don’t even have to come from California, and those that do can be grown anywhere in the state; and as a result, likely originate in the hot, flat, cheap Central Valley. The beautiful thing about this system is that the retail prices of each tend to reflect the exclusivity of the appellation. A California label will likely cost you under ten dollars; a Montrachet, more than five hundred. Whether or not you get what you pay for is a subjective thing, of course—but for the most part, you do.
Landis Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery told me, with evident pride, that he buys as much grain as he can from Michigan farmers; the only stuff he brings in is the stuff he can’t get in any great quantity, like like malted rye and barley suitable for whiskey mash. But it can be argued that winemaking is a process while distilling is an art, and how much the raw material has to do with what ends up in your pony glass has little to do with terroir provided the suitable variety of the starter fluid.
Those with better palates than I may disagree, and I’d welcome the chance for them to prove it.
In the case of Grand Traverse Distillery, the bragging rights to Michigan produce is as much an heirloom crow as a nod to eat/drink locovores; the Rabish family has been growing grain and making moonshine since Prohibition. Landis’ great-grandfather George Rabish used to distill the excess crop from his Standish farm back in the Thirties—some of his equipment, though not used, is still around.
“A lot of the best stuff was tossed out though,” Landis says, the regret in his voice obvious. “My grandmother didn’t like the association with our family and moonshine. We lost a few antique whiskey jugs in the purge that I’d love to get my hands on right now.”
Note to Grandmother: You can extinguish the fire, but not the desire.
In fact, distilling seems to have skipped a generation. It was Landis’ father Kent, with a background in biology and chemistry, who happened on an artisan vodka maker a decade ago and figured he could match wits with that sort of end game. A whole lot of expensive copper later, he distilled a couple barrels of neutral alcohol made with grain grown by the Send Brothers in Williamsburg and water from Lake Michigan. That became True North Vodka, the distillery’s flagship spirit, which Landis maintains is distilled 37 times for ultimate purity.
More on ‘number of times distilled’—which is, in many ways, a marketing hook—in a bit.
The distillery’s growth trajectory was exponential as befits Kent Rabish’s background as a sales executive for the pharmaceutical industry. The second year, they quadrupled output to eight barrels (in quantity; vodka is not ‘barrelled’), the next year saw 15, and this year, according to Rabish, the goal in a couple of years is to produce 250 barrels of liquor—the equivalent of 62,000 fifths, making them the largest micro-distiller in Michigan.
‘Large micro-distiller’, of course, being an outrageous oxymoron.
Not everything they make is vodka, of course—far from it. The Rabish rabble seems to have as much, or more fascination with the browns, and produce a number of interesting variations on the whisky theme, including bourbon.
For the record, bourbon is defined as grain alcohol potted in new, charred, white oak barrels and aged at least two years; of the grains, the law require that least 51% be corn. The rest can be made up of rye, sometimes wheat, and malted barley, which has enzymes that break down starch chains to fermentable sugars. Bourbon is a uniquely American product; to be called such, it has to be born in the U.S.A. The association with Kentucky is largely romantic because Bourbon County, KY—which once encompassed about half the state—can claim to be the origin of the name.
A good thing, because the Rabish regiment wants to keep the home team front and center in the beverage, claiming a ‘mash bill’ of mostly Michigan agriculture. The bourbon itself is sensational; softly spicy with notes of orange, vanilla and warm caramel; an additional year on new oak, above and beyond the call of duty and not required by law, adds an undertone of smoky charcoal.
The intriguing element of spice in the bourbon is likely the result of the rye content; according to Landis, rye is the traditional distillate of Colonial America, and for many years, Allegheny County, PA was the epicenter of rye production in the United States, accounting for a half-barrel of yearly production for every person in the country. Rye itself is a pedigreed grain, having been favored in Neolithic times, although Pliny the Elder wrote in 70 BC that rye is ‘a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation.’ Maybe so, but mashed, brewed and distilled, it produces a dry, spicy, fruity liquor that has more of a bite than bourbon and less of bourbon’s characteristic sweetness. Rye production the United States died out after Prohibition; popular tastes moved toward the brown sugar, caramel allure of corn-based bourbon. Not only that, says Landis, rye is pricey; he pays 50¢ a pound for rye; less than 15¢ for corn. But for those that love the unique nip of heat and rustic richness that only rye can impart, no other hooch comes close.
Rabish’s rye is called ‘Old George’ after his granddad; it’s not only an homage to him, but to old-timers of any designation who made rye before Prohibition. Bottled straight from the barrel without filtering, the unique rye flavors are perfectly represented—nosing a glass is like walking into a room where a loaf of rye bread is baking. There are provocative overtones of allspice and cinnamon and a complex floral that a basic bourbon can’t touch. This is a booze for an experienced and experimental palate, perhaps, but part of the learning curve to appreciating liquor—who liked their first snort of Scotch, for example?—is branching out from the familiar.
Take gin, for example. This botanical blend of juniper and other aromatic herbs, fruits and spices has been popular since the Middle Ages, and because of the variety of possible recipes—many kept under lock and key by those who create a ‘house blend’. Most commonly, other than juniper—the predominate flavor—additions include anise, cinnamon, almond, citrus peel, coriander, grains of paradise and nutmeg. The concoctions are only as limited as the gin maker’s imagination and they made spend years perfecting the recipe. Landis Rabish has not spent years ruminating (no pun; it isn’t rum), but he’s definitely spent a whole lot of months mixing and matching, and more than likely, he isn’t done yet. The one I sampled had been aged in white oak barrels and showed a slithery softness infused with a myriad of exotic high notes. One of his ‘secrets’ which is happy to share is that the neutral spirit (wheat vodka) upon which his gin is based is of the highest quality; many producers are less concerned with the purity of the base booze, believing that the botanicals will mask them or the cocktail will, since gin is one of the few spirits that is made to be mixed, rather than consumed straight. Unfortunately, ‘GIGO’ is as true for distillers as it for computer techs.
In fact, all of Rabish’s liquor is built upon the purest, cleanest of foundational spirits—one of the things that he says the multiple distillation process insures.
So, Back To That…
In the distilling process, when broken down to its most basic elements, a fermented mash (called a ‘wash) is slowly heated to the several boiling points of the various liquids contained within. Water boils at 212 °F, ethanol (the pure stuff) at 173 °F, so in a perfect world, the process should be as basic as heating the wash to the second temperature and re-condensing the steam. Problem is, the organic mechanics of fermentation produces a number of compounds other than ethanol; a few are noxious and some are toxic, and some have lower boiling points than ethanol, and so, are contained within the first ‘run’. Essentially, these are poured off, but some remain behind, and to rid the final product of them, you re-distill. In theory, the more times you distill a wash, the purer it becomes. But again, the world is not perfect, and along with some of the bad-news congeners exist some of the flavor volatiles, so a careful balance between what you keep and what you toss is vital. Vodka, by its nature and legal definition (‘neutral spirit’) is on a Holy Grail quest for purity; whiskey, on the other hand, depends on heavier elements for complexity and depth. Rabish’s ’37-times distilled’ brag is the result of his column still (as opposed to a ‘pot’ still used in Scotch and Irish whiskey production). A column still has a number of plates, each acting as individual pot stills within the tube; the column is heated from the bottom and vaporizes the volatiles with the wash, which rise to the top (where it’s cooler) and condense against the plates and shed more of the non-ethanol every time they two. Vodka may be distilled until it is 190 proof, or 95% pure alcohol. Bourbon and rye, which also use the column still method, get held at 160 proof or less.
Essentially, the ’37 times distilled’ tagline results from counting the plates and the number of times the vodka has undergone the downward trickle. Even the most exceptionally ‘clean’ commercial vodkas like Italy’s ‘Purus’ claim quintuple distillation, so at some point, it becomes obvious that number of distillation is more marketing doublespeak than quality indicator. Which is fine—Landis Rabish has a degree in Communications and plenty of retail sales experience to shore up his right to use catchphrases as long as his products lives up to the hype.
And it does. Rabish (and his father) are a true craftsman, which means that no corners are cut and the quest for perfection is ongoing. To me, it matters far less how many times they distill their vodka and even less than that they buy raw grain from Michigan instead of Wisconsin, which may in fact grow better rye than we do in the first place. What matters is that Grand Traverse Distillery processes, ferments and distills on premise.
Because, far more nefarious to the reputation of micro-distilleries in 2014 are those that do not—despite frequent claims to the contrary—actually distill all their own liquor. As much as 75% of small-batch labels may be marketed and sold by someone other than the distiller for any number of reasons, the most logical of which is that it costs a boatload of cash to open a distillery. Whiskey requires aging, and unless you have very deep pockets or a ready market for fresh vodka, the lag time between the start of production and the release of a brand may be years and years. A new distillery needs cash flow in the meantime, and often those without the slow-growth mentality of Grand Traverse Distillery solve the issue by purchasing bulk whiskey that may not even have been made in the state where it is bottled.
Worst thing? Consumers don’t seem to mind.
I do, though—to me, that’s misrepresentation.
And because I think so, I’ll name names: A single distiller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana called MGPI makes rye distillate for George Dickel, Redemption, Angel’s Envy and Smooth Ambler, among many others. And not custom stuff, either—it’s the very same rye whiskey in every bottle. The logo is the only difference.
In my book, the true art of micro-distilling happens on premise, within the same bricks-and-mortar that bottles it, preferably by the person who pours you a glass in the tasting room. Like Landis Rabish does in his Traverse City oxymoron, Michigan’s biggest micro-distillery.
Talk about purity of spirits all you want; that level of purity is one of the essential spirit—the soul—and it outstrips 37-times-distilled every time.