With a pound, a screw and a sharp downward thrust, the bung is pulled from the bung hole… It sounds like the narrative direction of a Ron Jeremy film, but this is how you extract the closure from a barrel to harvest the sweet nectar from within.
Drawing open the doors and walking into the rick-house is a sensory experience hard to replicate. Dust and cobwebs drift through the air, and the smell of aging whiskey and seasoned wood looms all around, reminiscent of old books that have had a dram or two irresponsibly spilled on them. I find myself thinking that this is, perhaps, what Hemingway’s or Hunter Thompson’s personal libraries must have smelled like.
The westerly wind that carries the humid cool air from the Gulf Coast dampens the heat of an arid hill country, causing an average heat this year of just below 80F and an average humidity at a sweet 63%.
The date reads 6-13-16, exactly two years, four months and 31 days before today’s date. This is a barrel that I have kept a close eye on, for good reason. Vibrant flavors of allspice, banana bread, coconut, maple syrup and a touch of smoke make barrel 52 stand out above the rest and distinguish it as a single barrel that is ready for harvest.
Even though I wanted to keep this honey pot to myself, this particular barrel has been chosen from our “Barrel Select” program by the Houston Bourbon Consortium. The HBC is a collaborative group of restaurateurs in Houston, Texas including Underbelly Hospitality , consisting of The Hay Merchant, One Fifth Houston and the Agricole Hospitality group with Eight Row Flint and Coltivare, and let me tell you, they have impeccable taste when it comes to whiskey. We were extremely honored that they chose one of our barrels to release exclusively at their restaurants.
When Kevin Floyd of the HBC visited for the tasting, I wanted to take the time to explain a little bit about the maturation process that happens here in Texas. When giving tours of our distillery, I have been asked too many times, “Two years!? Is that enough time? I thought whiskey needed to be aged a minimum of four years.” As I explain, this might be true if we were in Kentucky but we are in Texas, and whiskey ages a little differently here.
Heat and humidity play an integral role in the maturation process. This is true no matter where you are aging whiskey. The ideal temperature for maturing whiskey is around 75-80F with a humidity of about 65%. The westerly wind that carries the cool Gulf air brings our arid hill country temperatures down to an average of 80F. During the heat of the day, whiskey is drawn into the grain of the wood. The opposite happens at night. As the cool of the night sets in, the wood will contract and push the whiskey out. With each breath it draws, flavor is being deposited into the whiskey from the wood sugars found deep in the grain. This consistent breathing action happens almost year-round here in Texas. Now, when the temperature falls below 46F as it will during winter in the northern states, the barrel will fully contract, pushing the whiskey completely out of the wood grain. It then sits nearly dormant for six months, until the warmer season. That said, because we have a longer growing season here in Texas, whiskey aged here naturally takes less time. There is a name for “the complete natural environment in which a particular whiskey is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” It’s called terroir, and we are proud to produce a whiskey that reflects just that.
Time is important but not as important as flavor. I harvest whiskey when the barrel reaches a specific flavor profile. Our particular sweet spot is in the range anywhere between 26 and 28 months, but that could change if we get a not-so-rare Texas summer with 100 days over 100 degrees. If that happens, I watch the barrels very closely and possibly pull them before the two-year mark. Either way I designate the age of the youngest barrel in the batch on the label.
So, remember kids, the time in the barrel doesn’t dictate whether the whiskey is ready for harvest–the flavor does.