As illustrated by these two samples they sent me, Indian Creek’s Missy and Joe Duer are very new to whisky. They sent these two nearly-empty water bottles along with two perfectly-good, empty glass bottles so I could see the labels they would come in. To be fair, I’m probably one of the first bloggers they ever sent samples to, and I did have a good laugh wondering why they didn’t just put the whisky in the glass bottles before shipping them.
At first glance, there’s a lot of neat looking information out there about these folks. I had lots of questions for them, but the website they deferred my questions to is very short on useful stats. Instead, they use the page to dub themselves mavericks, point out how their last name has a phonetic similarity with the word doer, and name-drop two distillers in an attempt to lend some credibility to their self-proclaimed “200 years of distilling the American Spirit.” Though from what I can glean, for the last 90 of those 200 years, their stills were silent; there are at least two generations of Missy’s family between her and anyone who actually walked the floor of an active distillery; and it sounds vaguely like Joe, unrelated to Missy’s distillery kin, is the one running things, especially when the webpage claims the creed “…one man, one vision, one family farm…”
But I didn’t want to write about this. I wanted to write about hickory and hops. They wanted to talk about how Missy’s great-great-great-grandfather, Elias, was a distiller, and how her husband Joe thinks “distilling just ain’t that difficult”. To me, coveting her ancestor’s accomplishments to boost the appeal of their own whisky is a bizarre departure from the website’s theme of self-sufficiency and pioneer values. I found the dismissal of whisky’s difficulty a bit short-sighted, too. Making whisky is, after all, very easy… making good whisky, however, is another story and I’m not sure it’s one the Duers have heard yet.
I hate relying on unconfirmed info aggregated from other interviews, but judging by the content of the interviews I did find, I can’t help but wonder why none of the things they told people made it to their distillery’s webpage. Were they deceiving interviewers and leaving blank spaces on their own publications for plausible deniability? Are they just being short-sighted and forgetting how to leverage their online presence? Maybe they just think people from New England are annoying and didn’t want to answer my questions? I mean, we are kind of annoying…
According to one interview, their ancestor’s recipe used hickory casks, which sounds awesome. Unfortunately, here hickory casks have become hickory inserts to shortcut true maturation. I’m all for historical recreation, but is this really it? Inserts, much like small barrels, will never make a whisky as delicious as a full-sized cask. Greed and industry drive the small cask market, not awesome results, and Missy did manage to tolerate me enough to confirm via email that the casks they use are 15 gallons, roughly a quarter of the size of the industry standard, and that the moment’s aged whisky is only about 12 weeks old.
Another unusual reagent mentioned in other interviews is the addition of hops to the mash bill. Every other bottle of hopped whisky I’ve seen has been forced by the TTB to add the words hop flavored to the label. Charbay, Corsair and Sons of Liberty all released hop flavored whiskies before Indian Creek, but all clearly declare the addition of identity-forbidden, non-grain ingredients in the mash with that phrase, a phrase mysteriously absent on Indian Creek’s stuff. Equally curious, unlike all the other hop flavored whisky I’ve tried, this one isn’t hoppy at all. When asked about the hops and labeling issues, they replied with a written toast to Elias and zero confirmation. Was it the TTB that had the wool pulled over their eyes? Or is there some strange distinction I’m not aware of which they managed to slide under, a distinction that the TTB had not yet made when they broke ground for Charbay and created the category in 1999? To Elias and six generations of vague assertions: cheers!
One last thing I’d like to talk about here, before divulging my notes, is the spirit’s classification as a whisky distilled from rye mash. According to the federal code, Bourbon and any other American whisky that declares a grain in the title, like rye whisky, must be made from 51% of that grain (corn in the case of Bourbon), distilled to under 80% abv, laid to cask at no more than 62.5%, matured in virgin charred oak, and bottled at no lower than 40%. If you choose to lay your stock down at a proof higher (and more neutral) than the specified 125 proof, or mature in a cask that does not meet those requirements, then your spirit must go by the title whisky distilled from -whichever- mash or have the phrase distilled from -whichever- mash somewhere on the label. For the unaged stuff they probably use the distinction to allow for the word whisky to be on the label without aging it. As for the aged stuff, they could be re-using their casks, using casks that weren’t charred, or using a higher proof than allowed for rye whisky to juice the economics and fit more spirit in each cask. Higher proof alcohol extracts flavor differently than mixes with more water; it’s bitter and extra tannic. There are both water and alcohol soluble flavors, and those percentages were chosen for the character of their ratio. Also, the amount of water you add to bring a high proof spirit down to bottling proof is greater than a lower proof one, making the mature, higher-abv spirit more dilute when brought down to 40%.
Elias Staley Whisky Distilled from Rye Mash – unaged
Nose: Like fresh cut berber and carpet glue. Burlap sack. Beer and sopressatta bloom. VERY feinty. It actually feels like it’s carpeting the inside of my nose. Complete train wreck.
Palate: It’s like a mouthful of industrial dust and fermenting salad greens. Peppery with a lot of that yummy carpet glue.
I can’t see giving this a rating. I mean, based on how terrible I think it is, I could easily tell you to Drink At Your Own Risk, but I’m not sure it would be useful or fair to start rating new make, no matter how poisonous it may smell. New make is great for didactic purposes, and I’m glad that distilleries bottle it for the market to try and to learn about the process from… but unless you like drinking carpet glue, this one isn’t great for drinking. I can tell they left a lot of the feints in it, if they cut any out at all. Most distilleries use the feints to clean their floors, but not Joe. Whisky is easy, yaaaaay!
Staley Rye Whisky Distilled From Rye Mash – aged
Nose: Apple juice, ketchup and champagne. Super mild and very youthful. Wood chips for the smoker. The rotting vegetal smell from the new make is substantially muted and there is barely any detectable rye spice.
Palate: Watery, spiked with whole grain crackers. Coffee in the finish. It’s still a tiny bit vegetal but not nearly as offensive.
There are lots of rye whiskies out there that offer more flavor, taste amazing, and cost much less money; Indian Creeks whiskies are $50 and $65 each. Unexplained inconsistencies make me uncomfortable, as well. It’s one thing to be vague about what’s going into your bottle, and another to rely on confusingly deceptive marketing tactics, say things publicly and then backtrack to ignoring that you said them in the first place, all while slapping on a premium price tag with none of the requisite experience to back it up. While I can’t say for sure if they’re deceiving you, they seemed tentative about being explicitly clear about their pride and joy, the whisky, which is terrible… juuust terrible.
Thank you to Missy Duer at Indian Creek Distillery for the samples.
EDIT 10/30/2013: It seems like the debate about hops in whisky is more complicated than I initially realized. It took me a long time to get to the bottom of it. Not a lot of bloggers or industry people had the answers, but I spoke with a dozen distillers, TTB agents, historians and brand ambassadors and then found a lot of really cool information about the subject. If you’d like to read about it, I’ve delved a little further into the issue here.