Home Barrel Aging

My latest home whiskey rectifying project is my biggest venture so far. Last week Mark and Arch from Old Line Spirits contacted me to let me know that they had a barrel available that fit the criteria that I had been looking for, well except it was a little bigger than I wanted (or so I thought). What I was seeking was a very well used American oak from a reputable cooper, one that was very tight and that could be left unmonitored for a long time, and I was thinking a 5 gallon.

What they had was a Black Swan Minnesota Oak with a nice tight grain, recently drained of it’s first and only fill of a peated American single malt. The single malt had spent over three years in this barrel with not the slightest signs of weeping. This barrel was 10 gallons, twice the size that I thought I would be able to fill in the limited time I had left at home prior to leaving for an extended business trip. But after seeing it, I had to take it, just looked too good.

I picked it up on my lunch break and as I drove back to the office I pondered what I would do with it as I had to leave in days for a months long trip and didn’t think I could shoulder the investment to purchase over 50 bottles of spirit before I left. Maybe I would just fill it with some sanitized water a keep it for a later use when I return. But I sure would love to have this cask working diligently aging some fine white-lighting while I’m away.

Back at the office my coworkers were eager to see what I had skipped lunch to pick up. It looked large in the trunk of my car. I shared my dilemma with them about the cost of filling it and one by one each of them said “I’ll go in on it with you!”
I hadn’t even considered that, that I could get some friends to go in on filling this barrel. A whiskey aging co-op!

One wanted to go in on a case, another wanted six bottles, and another a case and a half. I started to think that I should have gotten a bigger barrel! I really appreciated that my friends would trust my whiskey rectifying abilities enough shell out hundreds of dollars towards it. Now I have a different dilemma, where am I going to get 50 bottles of white-dog with only a few days notice. This spirit had to be a quality spirit, one that sips well as it is, but not too smooth and sweet that it won’t age well. And of course, it MUST be a Maryland rye!

The week prior I was at McClintock Distillery in Frederick, MD. There was a rye making workshop going on there put on by the American Distilling Institute Expo that was in Baltimore that week and Braden was distilling some rye that morning for the workshop. I had mentioned to Braden and Tyler, owner operators of the distillery the day prior at the expo that I wanted to stop in to see the workshop and as always they welcomed my visit. When I arrived the hearts of their just recently award-winning white whiskey was streaming off the still. I was able to have several tastes over the next hour as hearts progressed and the cut to tails was made. I took the opportunity to make a live video for one of the online whiskey groups I belong to, Whiskey Bourbon Scotch Enthusiast while I was there. I had not idea at that time that I would be purchasing the lion share of this run.


I called Braden and explained my situation that I had just acquired a barrel and needed to fill it with a MD rye ASAP. I was in luck, not only did Braden still have the spirit for my barrel, but he hadn’t even proofed it down or bottled it yet which allowed me to custom request the proof. And I was excited that by total coincidence I was there while it was distilled. And my fellow “share holders” of the barrel we also excited to know that we were filling our barrel with an award-winning spirit. He said I could pick it up in two days, perfect!

So now I have this barrel and it has already been empty for about 3 days. It is still very wet inside as is apparent when I take a sniff from the barrel opening (Editors note: I’m sorry but I just can’t bring myself to write “when I take a sniff from the bung hole”). I won’t be filling this barrel for at least 2 more days and I thought I should put something in it to keep it moist and maybe even rinse it a little. I had in my cabinet a bottle of Carolina Rye, an unaged rye and a half of a bottle of XXX Shine, an unaged corn spirit. I pored the two bottles into the barrel and swished it around a little, carefully rotating the barrel to wet all of the inside surface and then let it sit on it’s side. Later in the same day I rotated the barrel a quarter turn and then continued to do this every once in a while for the rest of the evening and the next morning.

The following afternoon myself, Deirdre and Grant, two of the barrel share holders, arrived at MacClintock Distilling to pick up the bottles. I had special requested for Braden to proof it to 90 (or 45% alcohol by volume). In my other projects I have found this to be the sweet-spot for aging a whiskey. I also told Braden not to label the bottles but that we would take the labels with us to apply to the bottles later when we rebottle the whiskey after it’s aged. Our plan is to make up our own custom labels and place them on one side of the bottle and then place McClintock’s label of the original unaged spirit on the other side. We thought this would make a pretty cool conversation piece and a fun way to celebrate the efforts of both the distillers and the “age-ers.”

The white-dog was loaded up and brought home in the back of Grants pickup truck. At home I rigged a dolly to fit the barrel comfortably and allow me to move it as necessary. In my other projects I have aged whiskey in the loft of my barn but in those cases the amounts were 3 gallons or less. I didn’t want to have to struggle with heaving 10 gallons plus the weight of the cask up into the loft. Plus I thought it a good idea to keep this in a more secure place since others were trusting me with their whiskey, So I made a spot for this barrel to rest in the house behind the safety of the home security perimeter but in a place that will still get some temperature variations to enhance the aging process.

The barrel was rolled out and I carefully tapped out the bung which sprang out with a slight pop from the expanse of the bottle and a half of spirit that had warmed while it was in there for the last 36 hours. We dumped it through a strainer into a large stainless pot and divided it evenly between the two bottles from which it came. Wow, was this whiskey dark! It looked like MacAllan 18 Year Scotch! I didn’t expect to see much color change at all in only a day and a half but it had a wonderfully deep and dark hue. As I gave it a smell it occurred to me that these two married spirits hadn’t really aged at all in the barrel but rather just picked up the residual essence of the single malt that had resided there for the last few years. I gave one of the bottles to Grant and kept one for myself. I didn’t expect much from this sample but thought it would be interesting to taste later.

We then began popping the corks of 51 bottles off the tail gate of the pickup and filling the barrel. We left a little in the bottles and re-corked them to keep them sterile until we need them again. The barrel took 50 and a half bottles with just a little air intentionally left in the top. I replaced the bung and gingerly tapped it secure with a hammer and then I rolled it to its place where it will rest. Then we just kind of stood there and stared at it, and then looked at each other and then looked at the barrel again. Then I said “Well, I guess that’s it” and we agreed that was all that there was to do. Now we just wait.

We plan to leave it unchecked for 9 months. Then we will take a sample and see how it’s doing. But I fully plan to let this sit for at least a year and a half, maybe two. I do want to make sure that it is poured before the wonderful yeast and grain notes that are so present in this unaged spirit are completely buried under the oak from the peated single malt barrel staves. The most common mistake I find made by some new distillers lately is the over-aging of whiskies in small barrels, taking an otherwise wonderful distillate and completely obliterating the more delicate dynamics of the flavor. I am committed to not make this mistake. This spirit already tastes good as it is. I just need to addsome barrel goodness with out overdoing it by checking it often as the time approaches. Like carving a statue of marble, you can always chisel a little more off but once you have gone too far, you’ve gone too far.

I’m feeling very confident that this whiskey will age well while I am away. For one thing, the barrel has over three years under its belt so I don’t expect any drastic changes in the first year. And secondly, when I sampled the bottle and a half of spirit that I had let sit in there for the day and a half it was great! I mean it’s really tasty! Now I know this whiskey didn’t “age” in this short stay in the barrel and that it only drew out the flavors of the preceding whiskey in a concentrated manner. But that fact that it tasted so good shows me that there are no offensive tannins or astringent nuances lingering in the staves to worry about in the near future.

Maryland style rye is my favorite kind of spirit to age with the wonderful spicy rye notes and the dynamics from the corn and other grains in the mix. In my home projects I have found that a lot of corn quickly buries the yeasty notes in a short time in the barrel and an all barely spirit needs a lot of time to reach it potential; sometime more time than a small barrel will allow. But a high rye mix with some corn and wheat or barley fits my fancy just fine. These Maryland style spirits sip well out of the still and age well too. I am already planning my next project as there are many more great Maryland ryes to age and enjoy. But I will take it slow and learn as I go, after all, that’s the real fun.

Pleated Pants and Whiskey, Neat

I was in downtown Philly looking for a whiskey bar. As we descended the dark basement stairs, I saw a sign that said Liquid has moved 2 blocks away. “It think this is the place” Amanda said as she opened the door. The first smell coming from the opening was the smell of alcohol. It was not smoke, malt or peat but more like the smell of a Manhattan with Angostura bitters and maraschino cherries.

We entered the dark room which had only a few patrons seated at tables. I approached the bar and saw that the selection was going to be more than adequate. “If you don’t find what you like we have a selection of rail whiskeys” offered the bartender.

The waitress dropped off some menus as I surveyed the bar. There was no food on the menu only drinks with crazy names like Baby Got Back made with Buffalo Trace, Bonal, Dolin Blanc, vermouth, lemon juice, strawberry basil syrup, Bitter End BarBQ Bitters, and egg white. It sounded like the American Revolution era drink Flip, but on steroids. Amanda ordered a Hot Buttered Rum. Karen got the Dog Fish Head 90. I love whiskey, so I got the Baby Got Back without the “back”. Just the Buffalo Trace neat.

Rum Butter
Buffalo Trace and Hot Buttered Rum

Amanda insisted that I try her Hot buttered Rum. Sipping it was like taking a big sip of the melted butter served with lobster tail. Only this melted butter had Ron Zacapa, El Dorada, Appleton V/X, Smith and Cross rums and honey. It was amazing.
Later, after reading Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company’s website I decided I may have missed an opportunity. The bartenders here are described as artists. The drink offerings really seemed like modern art creations. With drink names like Killer Bees in a Swarm, Always Crashing the Same Car, Rust Belt Punch, and Wave Away the Flies which is based on Famous Grouse, these certainly weren’t the pen and ink drawings of the spirits world. But I like my whiskey neat with a little water to release the fragrance and complexities of taste.

The real art to me is in the distillation of spirits and this bourbon did not disappoint. As I nosed, tasted, added a little water, smelled again and retasted, added more water I arrived at just the right balance for me. The vanilla and caramel came through. Maybe the tastes were not as bold as the modern art creations of the Franklin bartenders, but the Buffalo Trace had a lingering, pleasant, finish with hints of fruit appearing.

Franklin Motgage Mural
Franklin Mortgage and Inv Co. Mural

I continued to survey the room. I imagined the speakeasy bars that were frequented during prohibition. The wall had a mural with Al Capone, Tunney vs Dempsey and gangsters with Thompson machineguns at the ready. In the background was Ben Franklin.

The room began to fill with people. Most of them were half my age. In fact I could have been most of the patron’s papa. There were no pleated pants. The attire was flat front pants and slim fit sport coats like the uniforms on upscale urban men.
It occurred to me, this is how younger men and women can be introduced to the spirit I love. If they need bold tastes and bright palettes to introduce their palates to the simple elegance of grain, water and yeast distilled to perfection; then so be it. Maybe by the time they are ready for pleated pants they will be ready to try their whiskey neat.

Amanda Murm
Amanda and Murm



Backyard Bottle Aging

For some time now I’ve been thinking about buying one of those mini-barrel whiskey aging kits. I like the whole concept of being part of the whiskey production process by managing the aging and even the finishing of an unaged sprite. One day last winter while I was stoking the woodstove and shifting around the searing charred pieces of oak I thought, why not try to do the aging inside out?

Instead of putting the whiskey inside of a charred oak barrel, why not put the wood in the middle, and the whiskey on the outside? And I’ll use an old whiskey bottle to keep it all together.

A Choice Log

So I picked out a nice piece of oak from the wood pile. I had no idea what to look for, just a good piece of oak. I split it a few different times so that all of the exposed sides were now fresh from the ax. I love the smell of fresh split oak.

Split Oak

Then I cut off an inch or two from each of the long ends.
I stoked the woodstove good and hot and placed the oak stick into the inferno.




I waited until it was charred and hissing but not burned completely through to the middle. I took it out and let it smolder until it was cool.

Wide Mouth Bottle



For the bottle I selected an almost completely empty bottle of Dewar’s Signature Blended Whiskey. I ran across this bottle on one of my travels and picked it up to give it a try. It was smooth and sweet like you would expect of a high end blend. I doubt I will own another bottle of it and perhaps that’s why I’ve been reluctant to just finish off the last half-a-glass that’s been lingering in the bottom. This will make the perfect bottle for this project since it has an exceptionally wide opening. The cork is at least twice as wide as a normal sized cork and that large orifice will let me put in some decent size shims.

Charred and Split

Next I split and cut the pieces to the right size and placed them into the bottle. Now I need to fill it with hooch. For the whiskey I decided to use one that I’m familiar with instead of looking for something new.

I drink unaged spirits on occasion and one of the ones I like is Catoctin Creek’s Mosby’s Spirit. It tastes good as it is, so even if I don’t get any real aging effect from my experiment it will still be a pleasure to drink. One of the other benefits from choosing this range is that Catoctin Creeks also produces Roundstone Rye, which is the aged version to the Mosby’s, so I could use the Roundstone as a control during the process to guide me in choosing the right time to “bottle my bottle”.

With the charred oak staves in place I filled the bottle with the spirit. The wood floated to the top and the liquid remained crystal clear.

Day One, First Fill

The next day I eagerly checked the bottle. The liquid level was noticeably lower from the angel’s taking their share as the whiskey soaked in to the sticks, and there is some color beginning to show!

Day Two, A Little Color
Two and a Half Weeks Later

After about a week the bottle was beginning to take on some whiskey color but it still smelled like the unaged Mosby’s Spirit.
Another week and a half, a little more color.
The tone is now rich and for the first time it’s beginning to smell like real aged whiskey. I can smell vanilla, cologne, and the smell of the burnt wood is making itself present above the fruitiness of the rye spirit,

Another Month

A month later I take the bottle outside to take another picture and I remove the cork for a sniff. It really smells like whiskey now. I can smell the vanilla and spice. The cologne smell that was there before has diminished and the oak and a little charcoal is there with the caramel and toffee.

Three and a Half Months

And that’s just a sniff out of the bottleneck. I still have not taken the first sip. My thought was that the professionals do the blending on smell alone so I thought I would try to judge the right age using the same technique. Besides, I was afraid if I used sips for samples I would be out of whiskey by the time I got it just right. I think it’s getting really close!


Opening Day!

Today is the day I take the first sip. But before I do I have to get a clean sample.
I wrapped some cheese cloth around the neck with a rubber band. I could have put the cheesecloth on the receiving vessel and poured the bottle out into it but I wanted to keep all of the wood and debris in the bottle for now; I have a plan for it later.

The Color and the Smell!

I poured some through the filter into a snifter. I love the color! It’s deep golden-red. I just can’t seem to get a good photo to capture it, the color was really something. The cuts in the crystal were catching the bright crimson and gleaming it out through the amber field like ribbons of red lasers.

The smell was beginning to fill the room as I fumbled with my camera. Now that this whiskey is out of the confines of the bottle and stretching its legs in the large snifter I can smell the oak wood wafting into the room as it warms under the bright lamp that I’m using in vain to try to properly light the subject.

Finally I take my first sip. Vanilla, spice, oak, tannin and sweet sap. A lot of tannin. Caramel notes like Sugar Babies candy. Did I mention tannin, there were a lot of tannins, as in tannic acid. The finish is deep and dark, it fades into viscus varnish… with tannin. The aroma was wonderful and the counterpart flavor of each smell was present but not nearly as dynamic as the olfactory would have you anticipating.

It was somewhat two dimensional.  I think I made turpentine.

I poured the rest of the bottle though the cheese cloth into another bottle. So there it is, my first home aged whiskey. I learned that exposure to wood does not necessarily make a dynamic whiskey and that if you don’t know what your doing you can get too much too soon. It’s barely drinkable but it will be quite a conversation piece, probably for a long time.

So now I have this empty bottle of “second fill” charred oak sticks. Should I give up? I think I’ll give it another try. I know this time I will have to do some tasting along with the smell checks and I don’t think I’m going to try to wait so long this time. And as for the un-aged spirit, this time I’m thinking Wasmond’s Rye Spirit. We’ll see how it goes.

The Next Fill

Maryland Rye Revolution

Revolution (-lu’shun), n. the act of revolving; rotation; change or alteration of system; motion of a point or line about a center; recurrence.

Long Painting LDCIn 1634 the land that was to become the state of Maryland was beginning to be inhabited by people from Europe. They had a dream for a better life, they came, they settled, and soon after they made whiskey. Whiskey was made here for hundreds of years, the best in the world at times, up until the 1970s when the last whiskey distillery stopped distilling and left the state. Since that time Maryland has not produced a legal drop of whiskey, until now.

I grasped the handle and gave the door a sideways tug to slide it Doors LDCopen and it and it barely moved an inch. Repositioning my foot and leaning into it I tried again and this time gave it a solid heave to the right and the heavy door surged open. Entering out of the rain into the front room I was struck by that warm and familiar aroma of yeast and grain undulating together somewhere in this building; an uncontrollable smile came to me with a flash of memories of the other distilleries where I’ve smelled the mash before.

In the center of the room and in motion towards me, either to assist with the door or perhaps to intercept me thinking that I was a customer entering before they were officially opened that morning was Ben Lyon. A giant of a man with a warm smile, he greeted me as if he knew me. From the other side of the room behind the tasting bar, Jaime greeted me with an enthusiasm that was immediately contagious.Ben Lyon

I generally try to cool my excitement going in to visit a new distillery. Usually I’m met with earnest craftsmen that, although eager to share their craft with me, no longer wear the giddy excitement they once had of making whiskey on their sleeve and I’m cautious not to present myself a novice in my vocation by letting on just how excited I am to smell the mash and see the process of creating whiskey.

Entering Lyon Distilling Company was different from that. The three smiles in the room, Ben’s, Jaime’s, and mine all seemed to express in unity the same notion; “I can’t believe that I get to do this!” Ben and Jaime were excited that I was there and it was apparent that they were even more excited that they were there. I had been swallowing for days the emotion of what I was expecting to experience this morning and it was now surfacing.

Greetings made, Ben asked if I wanted to taste the rye, or would I like to taste the rum first and then the rye, or that I would probably want to just taste the rye first and then everything else, or however I wanted to do it, it was up to me. I assured him that I definitely wanted to taste the rye but first I wanted to take a look around if that was okay. I wanted to put a face and a story and a pedigree to the whiskey that I was about to taste. I wanted to get to know it and make the experience last a bit… I was stalling.

Inside Lyon Distilling CompanyI wasn’t sure how I was going to react that morning and I had intentionally not thought much about it on the three hour drive down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Now that I was there I was starting to get butterflies in my stomach faced with what was about to happen.

I’ve been a whiskey enthusiast for over a decade. This hobby of mine, that I’m so passionate about, the history, the heritage, and the heraldry of local whiskey, is coming alive before me in recent years as everyone seems to be finding an interest in it. That I am able to share the enthusiasm that I have had for years with others for the benefit of all involved is wonderful and exciting to me.

I have always loved the local history of whiskey and the history of Maryland and I was delighted when I learned and realized that my Maryland was once the cradle of American whiskey. That this state, along with our distilling brothers in Pennsylvania, once made the best whiskey in the world. When I was young in my hobby of enjoying fine whiskey and loved only scotch I dreamt of the time that I could visit Scotland, the Mecca of whisky.

Then upon growing a love for American whiskey, I learned that I LIVE in the ancient Mecca of American whiskey. All around me were the ruins of the great American rye. Great American whiskeys like Sherwood, Pimlico, Horsey, and Pikesville were made only miles from my house. I no longer dreamed of traveling across the ocean to visit the home of the great Scotch whiskies but rather longed to travel back in time to this very place to see the wares of the great pre-prohibition Maryland rye.

Sipping from a cheap bottle of Pikesville Supreme, now made in Kentucky, I dreamt of one day being invited to taste from a dusty old bottle of Pikesville Maryland Rye discovered in someone’s basement; a bottle that was made here in Maryland back before the distillery closed up and sold the recipe to Haven Hill in Kentucky. In my dream I would finally know what real Maryland whiskey tasted like.

In reality though, I never thought that I would ever taste a true Maryland whiskey; I never really thought it would happen. I thought that I would have to be content drinking Kentucky Pikesville Pikesville SupremeSupreme, and continue dreaming of one day sipping from a bottle of young Maryland whiskey with melancholy reserve.

Then I received the first reports that there was to be a new distillery opening shop in Maryland. The name was Lyon Distilling Company in Saint Michaels, Maryland and there had been rumors that they were going to begin to produce rum just as Marylanders did in the Colonial days when the trade triangle moved tobacco, molasses, and humans in a constant motion. But the rumors also had it, or perhaps it was just my yearning imagination, that this new distillery would evolve, as did the colonial distilleries during the American Revolutionary War and begin to produce Whiskey.Old Maryland

I waited and wished and continued to dream. Part of me thought it only a matter of time, but another part truly would not believe that soon I would experience a historic repetition, or resurgences, or…revolution; yes, a whiskey revolution here in Maryland! I won’t forget the message I received one morning stating that Maryland whiskey was again alive. It had been a part of my family for well over two hundred years and with a slight break of two score it was back; Maryland Rye Whiskey was flowing again.

Marylanders don’t get it. Whiskey drinkers don’t really get it. But history buffs, especially whiskey drinking history buffs get it! This is a big deal! With little notoriety or fanfare an American industry has reaffirmed itself in the form of a two person operation as it began to trickle off the first hearts of a dismissed heritage and I was invited to experience it firsthand.LDC HallwayBen showed me down the corridor to the distillery room. I have been to so many small-batch, craft distilleries but this is the smallest operation with the smallest stills that I have seen. The building is plenty large and with character to spare but the actual operation of distilling the rum and whiskey is not a micro distillery, but a nano-distillery. Ben made mention that he never wants to grow beyond the point that he can have his hands on every aspect of the production and he is certainly achieving that. This is truly small-batch.Everything Room LDC

Everything from grinding to putting the label on the bottles takes place in one room, the entirety of the operation. Here, in stainless Bottles LDCsteel barrels lined up, were grain and water and yeast churning in constant motion. There were barrels of corn mash and barley mash, and in a homemade wood framed and tyvek covered warming cabinet was batch number two of Maryland Rye.

I looked around at every aspect of the production and finally Batch 002 Maryland Ryerealized it was time to take a taste from batch number one. We walked back to the front to where I was to receive a sample of barrel number zero-zero-one of Maryland Rye Whiskey. The little cask was produced from behind the counter. The bung was removed and the slender glass tube of the whiskey thief was inserted and a sample was collected to be transferred to my glass. The liquid was mostly clear with just the Whiskey Thief LDCslightest amber-grey tint from the six days that it had been resting with the charred wood.

Ben let the liquid slide down the tube into my glass and said I hope you like it or something like that, I can’t really remember what he said to be honest; I had before me a glass of Maryland Whiskey for the first time in my life and everything else in the room became a blur as I focused on the glass.

As I leveled the glass to my nose for a sniff my eyes refocused on Ben watching me with a smile of anticipation from across the counter. I took a sniff and smelled the corn in the mash bill. There are many rye whiskies on the market these days and many of them are 95% rye and in some cases 100% modeling themselves after the Monongahela style of whiskey from western Pennsylvania. But the Maryland whiskey was known to have a little more corn in the mix and some barley too. This combination of grains was what led to the smooth and yet dynamic taste and the quintessential Maryland style. This whiskey was 55% rye, 35% corn and 10% malted barley.Bags of Grain LDC

I was standing at the counter in the front tasting room and there were some other customers there by this time ready to taste some of the rums and perhaps buy a bottle or two. Jaime was pouring samples at the other end of the counter and Ben was standing in front of me waiting for me to sip and make an assessment of his whiskey.Customer at the Counter LDC

Just then Ben was called over by Jaime to assist or to answer a question for one of the customers and I used this opportunity to escape the pressure of being watched in my tasting and carried my glass to an ornate metal chair off to the side of the room where I could continue my experience, if not in private, at least with a little more stand-off than across the counter.

I continued to nose the glass. I could smell the alcohol of a new distillate and the sweet corn. The smell of green corn silk was out in front along with the slight mellow hue of the char from the very short time this liquid spent in the barrel. I continued to smell. It didn’t smell overly sweet and I was very glad of this. Many of the other craft rye distillers seem to be trying to create a smooth and sweet distillate these days. Sweet tasting whiskey is nice but the sweeter tasting whiskeys don’t benefit as well from longer times in a barrel and therefore lose the ability to be aged long enough to reach a whiskey’s full potential that can only be achieved with a longer time in wood.

I put my nose to the glass and inhaled the aroma deeply and continued to tip the glass back to take a sip in one smooth motion. I chewed the whiskey as I do when I analyze any whiskey but I couldn’t get my mind to focus on the taste profile of what was in my mouth. The only thought that was racing around in my head was that I was drinking Maryland Rye Whiskey! For years I’ve been dreaming of this day. I reveled in the moment with still no focus on the flavors.

Finally, I needed to refocus. I had to taste this whiskey. I was invited here this morning before the distillery opened to taste this historic drink straight from the barrel and it was expected that I would at least be able to share with others how it tasted. I needed to glean as much as I could from a tiny sample and not simply drink it away in misty emotion of the moment. I composed myself and began again from the beginning. I again raised the glass to my nose to smell.

With regained attention on the whiskey that was finishing on my palate and another smell from the glass the colors became vivid. The whiskey that was sweet green corn to my nose shared tones of toasted rye on my tongue. The mellow barley was present. The corn now had a suggestion of dark brown King Syrup but the slight sweetness did not overtake the tang and spice of the young rye that was dancing on my tongue. What’s best is that this whiskey was dynamic and evolving, even with this first glass.

Usually with young whiskeys the flavor is monophonic and what is there presents together in two dimensions with no distinction between the individual attributes. This whiskey was dynamic with depth in dimension, there were spaces between the colors of the flavors to move and explore them individually. Very rarely is this found in young whiskeys and this had it, it was three dimensional.

By now my glass was empty and I continued to nose from residual drops in the bottom. Ben, freeing himself from his customers asked if I would like another taste. There was only one answer to that question and this time Ben drew a sample from the bottom of the cask as it rested on its side and I could see more of a smoked-grey color from the charcoal sediment that settled there. I felt like I had to offer some reaction to Ben’s whiskey as he poured my second glass but I hadn’t yet shuffled all of my thoughts of it into an articulate deck that could be translated into a simple “this is really good” or such. What I said instead was “Thank you for not making this whiskey too sweet.” I don’t think it was the reaction he was expecting but it was an honest complement from me.

I added a little water to this sample and a twinge of smoke from the burned wood in the barrel came out in the flavor. With water the flavors continued to evolve, there was a little bit of tire rubber and a nice, slight bitter nuance.

In and amidst all of the excitement that I was having with this historic moment I had to ask myself “Would the average fine whiskey drinker want to drink this”? I think this first batch is just slightly out of reach for most whiskey enthusiasts. The dynamics are there, the flavors are there, but there is just something that I can’t quite put my finger on with this whiskey that leaves me slightly off balance. I have to remind myself that this is barrel 001 and no one can expect to produce Macallan Lalique on their first run, and that this whiskey is only 6 days old. Perhaps some wood aging can bring all of this together, and I have yet another visit planed.

So three and a half months later I return to Lyon Distilling Company to taste again. This time my sample is poured from a bottle containing the same distillate that I had tasted before but that spent another eleven weeks in the barrel. The color was dark and rich. The relatively short duration, amplified by the small barrel size, really left a mark on this spirit. All of the flavor colors from the previous taste were present but now tinted with hues from the charred oak. The quintessential vanilla from the American oak was slightly acidic with tannins but some of the other flavors had begun to round and mellow.SONY DSC

This batch 001, produced as a small prototype could not bare any more time in such a small cask and well it was that they were separated. With such a proportionally large amount of surface contact between the liquid and wood the affect happens quickly; but it’s not exactly aging. The subtle and immensely important exchanges that happen over greater periods of time must occur with less wood-to-whiskey contact. Simply put, this spirit has to be aged longer in a bigger barrel.

What’s wonderful is that this whiskey has all of the attributes necessary to become a great whiskey with the appropriate aging. This rye just needs more time and I am confident it will mature well with it. I asked Ben how old he thinks a Maryland whiskey should be and he indicated around two and a half years. I think this whiskey will be wonderful in two and a half years. And what’s more, will continue to bloom in the barrel, if patience can burden it, for years beyond. And again, I have to remind myself that this is still run number one! No one should expect the first run to be exceptional. And yet I’m still impressed.Aged Free State Rye Lyon Distilling Company

Three months again later I receive another call that the unaged Free State Rye is bottled and ready for VIP distribution. This is run number three, Jaime relates to me on a cold windy Maryland afternoon as she delivers my bottle. She adds that Ben likes this run the best. The bottle is signed “For Whiskey America- History in the making for you to taste!” (A play on Whiskey America’s tag line, History You can Taste). And this certainly was not lost on me; this is history in the making. I expect that in the future there may be many new and great Maryland whiskeys but right now, there is one; and I’m holding bottle number 19!MD Rye #19 Signed

At home the following night I prepare to open the bottle, but first I snap some pictures. I choose the glass, readjust the lighting and readjust the exposure settings on the camera and take some more pictures. I was, once again… stalling.LDC Free State Rye Bottle 19After all these years, I’m staring at the first bottle of Maryland Whiskey that I have ever owned. I felt like there should be something more to the experience then just opening the bottle. Like there should be some kind of opening ceremony. I decided not to use my regular snifters but rather use my Madison Avenue glasses with the silver band around the top for this special occasion. It is at this point that I even consider lighting a candle to emphasize the gravity of opening my first bottle of Maryland Whiskey. (I need to just crack this bottle and drink it already!) And so I do.LDC Bottle 19 Opened

I pour the first tipple into the Madison Ave glass and give it a smell. Once again I get the corn and the same color spectrum as before. Then I add some water and something interesting happens. I smell some creamy caramel, which is interesting in that usually this is associated with wood aging. I spend some time nosing the glass and finally go in for a taste.

Wow! What an unexpected surprise. There is a toasted nuttiness that was not at all present in the nose or in any of the previous samples. I attempt to pigeon-hole the flavor: almond, toasted English walnut. I can’t pin it down other than that it is a sweet toasted barley flavor that presents separately from and along side of the sweet green corn. I pause to examine the finish and find the fading flavors shift to a dry corn husk and finally leave me with a mouth drying effect that beckons for another sip. Ben is right, this is a great run.

It is at this point that I begin to play with the water a bit. I try a sample neat, and then add water, then more water. Then finishing the glass that I’m tasting I try the next glass neat again. I begin to realize that the water plays a huge role in the flavor of this spirit and as I drizzle the spring water into this whiskey I am reminded that I’m drinking from the trickling headwaters of a spring that has been dry for over forty years.

So now, months later, I send out the notice to the panel, the Zulu Whisky Club. The group is assembled, dinner is served and we retreat into my whiskey room. There before the group are the glasses and the bottle. The significance is not lost on these men. This group has been assembling in the name of fine whiskey for almost ten years. Headquartered in Maryland, the Zulu Whisky Club has focused on Scotch single malts for most of it lineage, but like me, always waxed poetic on the thoughts of the eastern U.S. regaining the throne.TW's Whiskey Room

I begin by reminding everyone of Maryland’s significance in the history of American whiskey. My approach is immediately challenged by the Pennsylvania contingent in the group; that it was not Maryland alone which created the American Rye but Pennsylvania too. In fact it was not a north / south division between these two states but rather an east /west geographical difference. Eastern Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, eastern Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania were in fact the terroir of this whiskey. Correction noted, the glasses were charged.

My excitement with this new Maryland whiskey is well met by my contemporaries, even those present from north of the Mason Dixon. We all momentarily reflect on this moment of drinking Maryland rye whiskey.

Glasses tip and comments fire crisscross between them. No one pair of ears could follow the mass dialog but only pick up sound bites in the din of historical recounts and mash-bill ponderings, yeast type speculations and flavor profile opinions and the change of the same with the addition of water. I leaned back sipping and basked in the cacophony and patted myself on the back for bringing this experience to the Zulu Whisky Club as we spend time drinking.

Glasses were discharged and refilled and re-swirled. Then the obvious questions were tabled of when will this unaged rye be available to the public and when will we taste it aged?

To the former I answer “I don’t know.” I had asked Ben and Jaime the same question and all I got in response was “Not yet.” To the latter question I rise beaming and walk to my desk to retrieve two small sample bottles containing a brown liquid that Jaime and Ben had supplied specifically for this group on this occasion. The Glencairns were sucked of their final drops of unaged spirit and eagerly produced for a sample of Maryland Free State Rye, aged.Aged Free State Rye Mini's

This close room filled with the aroma of vanilla oak and caramel as this whiskey was swirled. Glorious accolades and envy I received to be holding these little brown bottles and praise and thanks for sharing them.

It was now a year later from when I first communicated with Lyon Distilling Company about their aspirations to one day make a Maryland Rye MiniMaryland Rye, and here I am drinking it with my friends. In this past year there have been several other distilleries in Maryland that have entered into the revolution to bring back the great American rye. I reflect back to the time when I didn’t think it ever possible to see whiskey again produced in the Free State as my friends drink their rye and discuss what would be the best rout to be able to visit all of the whiskey producers now in Maryland and would it take one day or two to get around to see them all.

Things are cyclical, styles come and go and culture evolves only to find interests again in forgone eras. New things don’t always appear and become the mainstay because they are the better idea just as things that become passé are not always bad. Maryland rye whiskey is one example, it was never bad and there are a dozen separate reasons that all contributed to its retirement. Now it’s coming around again like a rocket using the gravity of the moon to accelerate itself back to its point of origin. Maryland rye is gaining velocity as it circles 180. It’s coming around, revolving, back to us at full speed, and what a revolution!

Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Single Barrel

My brother Don came home to Maryland for a visit and brought with him a bottle of Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Single Barrel he picked up in St Louis. Lion’s Pride is of Koval Distillery in Chicago, they boast to be the first legal distillery in Chicago since repeal day. This whiskey is a 100% rye grain distillate, aged in American White Oak, felled in Minnesota. It’s 80 proof and this one comes from barrel number 216. The rye grain hails from Midwest farms and the water comes out of Lake Michigan and is charcoal filtered.


The bottle says it’s a Dark Rye and to look through it I can see where they get that notion from. The color is dark and caramel with a tint of rusty red. It’s unfiltered and on close inspection I can see a few tiny “things” that sink to the bottom as the bubbles rise when I turn the bottle.


In a snifter the nose struggles to hold back the flavors but the oak slips through as does some cold blackstrap molasses.

On the pallet the flavor pours out. More dark molasses and deep sweet tannins derived from its undisclosed duration in the barrel. This tastes very “hearty” to me with the heads and tails of the cut readily dispatched, leaving only the sweetest smoothest portion of the distillate for the bottle.

This is not the flavor profile of the quintessential rye whiskey that the colonist, pioneers, and cowboys drank. This, I think, is a much more gentle and dessert-like libation. It has a wonderful viscous mouth feel and is delicious but not overly dynamic. The rye fruit and spice are in the background and tend to present on the exhale after a swallow. It’s warm and deep and comfortable like sitting in a bear skinned beanbag chair. (Ok, I may have gone too far with that last analogy)SONY DSC

The finish is nice and of medium length. As the sweetness fades just the slighted bit of black pepper and cinnamon is left to linger in the back of my throat.

This for me is not the bottle I want to drink from throughout an evening of whiskey drinking but rather the glass I want to have to end the night; or perhaps the perfect dram to have on the way to bed.

Dills Tavern, Part One (The First Ninety Seconds)

Murray met Chuck and I outside in front of the Dills Tavern. He took a long draw from his cigar and beamed with pride over the night’s event that he had planned for us. I go inside as he talks with Chuck by the car and fills him in on some of the details of the evening.

Like countless weary travelers over the last two hundred years I unlatch the cold cast iron box-lock of the solid wood front door with a chunky click. Pushing the door, I feel its weight as it opens. Walking in through the door it’s dark in this unlit front hallway. I was expecting to be met with a warmth common to walking into any building in the 21st century, there is none. It’s as cold in the front hallway as it was outside; maybe colder for the darkness and solid stone walls draining any radiating heat I might have swept in with me from the heated car.

Moving through the darkness I’m trying to strain my eyes which are not yet adjusted from the overcast late afternoon light outside. I manage to find my way through the doorway from the front hall into the next room. I pass by a man in the haze; he’s dressed in a kilt. We exchanged brief hellos as he is following after Murray.

Ghost of the House XXLike a ghost of the house dressed in 18th century garb, the man in the kilt paid no more attention to me than would any tavern patron passing another stranger in these halls. I turned to watch him disappear through the doorway. Out of sight, I hear his footsteps pause at the front door and the sound of the cast iron box-lock echo off the stone walls in the hall as the door opens and closes.

This next room is only slightly illuminated with a glow from the fireplace on the adjacent wall. Cast iron pots simmer in front of the small flame and whatever food is being prepared in them smells great.??????????????????????

I find the next door into the tavern’s taproom, a small tabled room for eating and drinking. I’m shocked by the level of smoke in this room. The window with its glass panes rippled from the years filter in the grey light from the dim sky and adds to the haze and surrealistic atmosphere as I scan the room. The fire is crackling with hot flame and coals and there are a few candles adding some tone to the grey hue as my eyes are finally adjusted. It’s my nose that cues me into the fact that it’s Murray’s fragrant cigar, not the fire or the candles, which has this room thick with smoky ambiance.

The warmth of the fire draws me over and I hold my hands outstretched to it. How often have my exact footsteps been echoed through centuries from the front street to this tavern’s taproom fire, seeing and smelling and hearing those very same kinds of things on the way?

I was mesmerized by my first 90 seconds in the Dills Tavern. I have visited living history exhibits before. I love history and I live in a great area to experience it. I’ve even been privileged to be a special guest at some great historical sites and museums before. But I have never walked back in time like this as I wander through the Dills Tavern.

Murray enters the room and offers me a dram to start off the evening’s exploration of whiskey; Glenkinchie. I sip the Lowland Scotch and slowly turn, examining every detail in this historic place. The whisky is sweet and floral with fruit and cereal. It seems even more intricate and delicate in contrast to these rustic conditions that I am experiencing.

In our modern times of the 21st century when we are constantly blasted with sensory-overload it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate all of the quiet and subtle nuances in a whiskey. Reduce your conditions down to a stone house with open fire and suddenly the flavors in the glass seem to be a work of magic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI continue to take it all in. On the other side of the room are the whiskeys of the evening, lined up, presumably in the order we are to indulge. In all Zulu Whisky Club events there is a theme in the whiskey; a thread that ties the whiskeys to the event or to the evening or to each other. There is always a method to the madness.

I scan for the method in this lineup, I see none. It starts on the left with the Lowland I have in my glass. The far right ends with an American Rye. There is chaos in between. There needs to be a flow to the order of whiskeys at a tasting. The whiskeys need to build on each other, support the next glass to come and at the same time complement the glass just finished. Could it be that Murray got so involved in coordinating this truly awesome historic location that he fell short on the spirit compilation???????????????????????

I take another sip. The food in the cast iron pots smells wonderful and I’m starving! The log burning on the fire rolls forward and the flame doubles in size. I can hear the voices of the rest of my Zulu Whisky brothers coming in from the street. Someone is starting to play bagpipes. This is going to be a great night!

To be continued…Echos of the Past XX

Dills Tavern, Part Two (To A Haggis)

“I want to see how you are going to make this work”, TW stated as he viewed the line-up of whisky perched in the doorway of the guillotine bar of Dill’s Tavern. He was referring to the eclectic collection of Highland, Lowland, Island and American whiskies lined up in a formation like Scottish Highlanders preparing to discharge a volley from their muskets. Each whiskey was selected for a specific role as the evening unfolded.

It was time for another Zulu Whiskey Club meeting. This one was a Robert Burns Dinner hosted by Murman in the tap room of an 18th century tavern in Dillsburg, PA. A quarterly event is held by the club. There are no rules except that one member is responsible for the concept and conduct of the meeting. Regimental Sergeant Major Malcom MacWilliams and his assistants prepared the traditional Scottish fare of haggis, neeps and tatties, cockaleekie soup and shortbread that is served at events which commemorate the life and rhymes of Scotland’s most famous poet Robert Burns.

Two Highlanders

The first whisky was Glenkinchie. The role of this whiskey was to represent the Scottish lowland area of Burn’s birth. There are distilleries closer to his birthplace of Alloway, but they make grain whiskey that is generally not used for single malts but as an ingredient in several blends. In 1786, Burns borrowed a pony and rode to Edinburgh to try to sell his poetry. Founded in 1837, the Glenkinchie distillery was not around when Burns made his ride, however the style of the whiskey that is produced in this region became known as the lowland style of whiskey. The distillery is only a few miles from Edinburgh. This whiskey is light and floral like cut flowers. It was a great place to start an evening of exploring whiskey. We charged our glasses and awaited the arrival of all of the guests.


The Selkirk Grace signaled the beginning of the meal. The first course was cockaleekie soup. The chicken based soup with leeks and vegetables was light and paired well with the Glenkinchie. After the salad course we switched to Talisker and prepared for the haggis. The Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race was delivered to the room with solemn drama.

To say the poem “To A Haggis” was recited would be an understatement. Sergeant Major MacWilliams performed the poem in theatric fashion, plunging his sword into the “meaty buttocks” and drawing his knife to carve huge chunks of the warm-reekin rich. Following toasts and a standing ovation to the recitation of Burns’ Ode to the Offal, huge plates of steaming haggis, neeps and tatties were passed around the table. Talisker was a great compliment to the main course. Several whiskey writers recommended it. The peppery flavor went well with the rather plain haggis. The balanced smoke and peat served to pull all the flavors of the plate together.

Lagavulin was meant to serve as an alternative to Talisker. The pros recommended Talisker. My amateur choice was the rich nectar from the salty, iodiny shores of Islay. I was not disappointed. The blast of flavor from the heavily peated Lagavulin was a perfect complement to the haggis. A sip after a mouthful of the bland haggis revealed the sweet sherry flavors of this whiskey. Reasonable men can disagree on which whiskey was the perfect shepherd for the sheep innards. For me it was Lagavulin.

As we finished the haggis, bubbles and squeak was served, second helpings were had and we prepared for the final course. Several members of the club rubbed their hands together in anticipation of the next whisky. The Glenmorangie 18 year was opened. The sweet smell of this highland whiskey was evident even through the smoke of the fireplace and pre-dinner cigars. The golden color shimmered in the candlelight as I poured into each Glencairn glass. The nose of this whiskey was exquisite. The Glenmorangie was selected because it is Sergeant Major MacWilliams favorite. TW described it as a most complete whiskey. Some whisky has an awesome nose or a great attack on the palate. Others have a wonderful blend of malt and smoke and a long luxurious finish. But Glenmorangie 18 Year has it all.

The original spirit is finessed for eighteen years in oak casks with a finish in oloroso sherry barrels gilding the fruity, floral delicacy. It is a completely sensational whisky. It was combined with a homemade shortbread. I hate the phrase “to die for”, but if you like that phrase, it is an appropriate description of the combination. The buttery sweetness of shortbread with the silky, sweet, luscious, honey of the whiskey was well….you know!

Old Scout
The first after dinner spirit was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout. This whiskey also had a special role. The ruffians and scoundrels of the Zulu Whiskey Club do not like to reveal their soft sensitive side. But several members wanted to know if they needed to prepare some verse or poetry for the event. When challenged about getting in touch with his feminine side C2 retorted that he was just an “Old Scout” and wanted to be prepared for the event. (thus the whiskey). TW visited the distillery and is a huge fan. This is a high rye bourbon whiskey (36% rye). It was a great segway from the old world of scotches to the new world of American whiskey. This whiskey gives you a little pepper with the sweet. It led the transition from the sweet of the shortbread and Glenmorangie to what was in store for the balance of the evening: stogies!

It was perfect to light up a cigar. The cigars were hand rolled from the tobacco roller at the Dill Tavern. The sticks were moist, burned evenly and produced a good volume of smoke. Many complementary comments were heard about the Dill Tavern stogies.

Dads Hat
As we settled into the evening of storytelling, and the badinage that always accompanies these events, we opened the final bottle: Dad’s Hat Rye. This is a perfect whiskey to sip about halfway through a good cigar. As the taste of the tobacco reaches its fullest, it needs a crisp full flavored whiskey to bring out the best of the cigar. Dad’s Hat was chosen for two reasons. It is a rye crafted in the Monongahela Rye tradition. It is very similar to the whiskey produced at Dill‘s Tavern during the heyday of whiskey-making. Second, it is a young, bold whiskey that could stand out from the plethora of flavors from foods, spirits, and cigars of the evening. It got noticed. CRS, our resident gourmand, who has arguably the most trained palate said, “I love this whiskey”. He was seen in the corner, guarding the bottle and rationing the spirit to others in measured pours.

The evening went on into the wee hours of the night. As the fires died down, we retired to the upstairs sleeping quarters of the tavern with bellies filled with haggis and spirits. Our prayers, according to Robbie Burns were answered that night, even before they were offered…….

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care, (those that make mankind their care)
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware (old Scotland wants no watery ware)
That jaups in luggies: (that slops in bowls)
But, if Ye wish her gratefu prayer, (but if you wish her grateful prayer)
Gie her a Haggis!

Cheers and sweet dreams, boys!

ZWC Group