Part 1: The Malts
Welcome to a three-part blog post about a five-part whiskey…no, make that an 11-part whiskey…uh, maybe that’s a 22-part whiskey, or is it a a 60-part whiskey?! We’re talking about the imminent release of a project years in the making, closely guarded and shepherded all the way to its fruition in this autumn of 2023. It’s called New Riff Sour Mash Single Malt. This complex, extraordinary project is comprised of “Five Mashbills, Six Casks, Two Years of Malt Whiskey.” Let’s get started! First up: The Malts.
We formally began this saga in December of 2014 with the first malt whiskey to come off the still, a mere six months after we started distilling. But the roots of the project stretch back before that. New Riff Head Distiller Brian Sprance and I had been kicking around the possibility of running a malt whiskey on our column beer still for more than a year, and bouncing ideas off our consulting master distiller Larry Ebersold. To be honest, we weren’t sure what kind of a malt whiskey would work in a column beer still; it’s a kind of whiskey that does have a historical basis in Kentucky, but it’s not frequently made and even less frequently bottled for the public.
So, Brian and I resolved to begin rather simply, with a malt we knew well from our days as brewers (in Brian’s case, his years in Cincinnati craft breweries and at the Samuel Adams brewery). Brian ordered in a supply of Maris Otter, a classic British malt that powers many of that country’s great pale ales and barleywines. That was malt whiskey number one, and we dubbed it internally as “SMP1”—Single Malt Project. We were off!
SMP1— Maris Otter
The Maris Otter whiskey owns a grassy, grainy character that’s actually quite strong when blended with the others; we have to modulate our use of it. This classic 1960s English ale malt has made a rather powerfully flavored whiskey when crafted in the Kentucky Regimen.
The second malt was another Brit classic, this time from the storied whisky land in the north. Golden Promise is a 1960s-vintage malt that’s a legend in the Scotch whisky industry; for some years, the great Macallan Distillery mandated only Golden Promise in their production. It’s the most Scotch-like of our malt distillations, yet still owns the huge body and girth of a sour mashed Kentucky Regimen whiskey.
Having two whiskeys under our belt, it seemed a smashing idea to try a third. And for this one, Head Distiller Sprance stretched out his creative license and delivered something really special. Inspired by such beers as Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale, SMP3 is a barleywine-style mashbill. Full of two-row malted barley, along with toasted crystal malts and a dash of heavily roasted chocolate malt, it evokes the powerful, long-lived ales that inspired it. (Note, no hops are used in any of these mashes; some of them are beer-inspired, but they are not actual beer mashbills.)
Brian went after another tremendous ale tradition for the fourth recipe: Belgian Quadrupel, a dark, heady, bready and rich but mellow ale exemplified by such Trappist breweries as La Trappe. Belgian malts including Special B and CaraBelge create a dark, deep yet mellow impression. SMP4 might be the biggest surprise of the lot, the MVP and the secret weapon for how it effortlessly fits in with the other flavors; along with SMP2 Golden Promise it forms the core identity of the final Sour Mash Single Malt. And it is wicked good in a sherry cask. (Note, unlike actual Belgian ales recipes, this mash contains no candi sugar; it was also fermented with the same yeast that New Riff uses for all its whiskeys. Maybe someday we’ll try a Trappist ale yeast.)
SMP5—Scottish Peated Malted Barley
Finally, we have the wild child, the near-controversial, much loved/debated peated barley, imported from Scotland. Ken Lewis’s one missive* to us in the project was “don’t make Scotch,” and we always thought we’d steer away from this recipe. But by the by, I found myself thinking, if we REALLY mean it when we talk about being “a new riff on an old tradition,” how can we NOT make a peated malt whiskey? I told Brian my thoughts and he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.” And so, an order was placed for 8500 pounds of peated barley delivered from Scotland. Upon distilling the whiskey, we collected some of the stillage as backset and made one Rye and two Bourbon mashes with that which became the Backsetter™ whiskeys…but that’s another story. The finished SMP5 peated whiskey is pungent and potent, smoky and deep; in measured amounts, it contributes a subtle and welcome smokiness to this Sour Mash Single Malt.
*In fact, Ken had one other instruction: don’t blow the place up!
Part 2: The Casks
As we set out to make sour mash malt whiskey on our column beer still and doubler, we didn’t have a lot of examples to go on. There were only a couple of existing examples made in the Kentucky sour mash tradition; these were straight malt whiskeys, with a minimum 51% malt and aged in new charred oak like a Bourbon. One of the things I had tasted, back in my Party Source days, was a number of barrels of malt whiskey produced in the mid-90s by a Kentucky distillery (which shall remain unnamed), which were 14+ years old by the time I tried them; I enjoyed them (the distillery hated them) up to a point, but they were admittedly quite over-oaked. The same was true of the few commercial examples we could try. In my opinion, malted barley just has a hard time standing up to the new charred oak that’s used across the Bourbon industry. The new barrel puts a huge amount of oak on malted barley, a relatively delicate grain compared to corn and rye.
So, the very first decision we made about barrels was to use both new and used cooperage. If this kicked the resulting whiskey out of the “straight malt whiskey” category and caused it to be called merely “whiskey,” so be it. We were fine with that. However, if we were going to age it in used barrels, we wanted to find the best of the best in used barrels. We contacted our wonderful cooper in Louisville, Kelvin Cooperage, and they crafted for us some top-notch used barrels. These were de-charred, which means they shaved away the charred inside of the used barrel, and then they were either toasted, which means just that, the wood was flame-heated and toasted by not burned and charred, or they were re-charred. So we had de-char/toasted or de-char/re-char barrels, along with new charred oak barrels just as we use for Bourbon.
Finally, our great relationship with Kelvin yielded additional fruit in the form of some red wine barrels, including French oak casks built by François Frères cooperage in Burgundy (one from Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley) and an incredibly hard-working American oak barrel (36-month air-dried staves!) from “Purple Wine Co.” dating back to 2006—it made a whale of a whiskey with SMP2 Golden Promise in it! In 2015, Kelvin called us to offer some rare Portuguese brandy casks. We snapped those up and put them into the program; they certainly lend a lovely dry, fruity note to this final SMSM blend.
In those days, sherry casks were hard to come by. We did acquire a number of 500-liter (132 gallon) sherry butts from Kelvin, some dating back as far as 1967—those are still aging, be patient! But in 2017, we entered into a relationship with the fantastic Tonellería del Sur of Montilla, Spain. They craft American oak barrels (the staves come from Waverly, Ohio, about 90 minutes from New Riff), custom-sized to 53 gallons to fit in our ricks, send them to a sherry winery for aging with sherry, and after 18 months they send the dripping wet sherry casks on to us. So, from 2017, these amazing sherry casks have gone into the program. In 2020 we moved a number of the de-char/re-char barrels into these oloroso sherry casks. In this retroactive fashion we can incorporate some luscious oloroso sherry character into this initial release from the 2014-2015 vintages. The sherry casks are a very significant—and very welcome—contributor to the character of this whisky.
Six Cask types for 2023 SMSM Release:
New charred oak
Red wine barrels (French and American oak)
Portuguese brandy casks
Oloroso sherry casks
About the Lot Code:
Each annual release of our Sour Mash Single Malt contains a code on the front label. The code contains data for the year, the number of mash bills/recipes in the mix, the total number of different types of malted barleys, and the number of types of casks used. The initial Fall 2023 release contains the following code:
- The first pair of digits are the year, 20xx.
- The second pair indicates how many mashbills contributed to this blend.
- The third pair is how many individual malted barleys were involved in all the mashbills, combined. Examples include Maris Otter, Golden Promise, two-row pale ale malt, Special B Belgian malt, Scottish peated malt, etc.
- The final two digits are the number of discrete cask types in the aging—for example, used barrels, new charred barrels, oloroso sherry casks, etc.
Part 3: The Blend
Nine years after we first conceived and planned this project, and after mashing all those malted barleys into all those casks, our whiskey makers were left with the final task of making sense of the monster we’d created. How would this intrepid whiskey come out to the world? In late spring 2023 we set ourselves to the task of creating a blend out of the five mashbills and six barrel types we had at hand. Thirty variables, across two years of production (seven- and eight-year-old whiskeys by now), had to come together in a final, harmonious marriage of flavor. How would we do it?
We took inspiration from the Scottish model of blending whiskey (arguably the greatest tradition of whiskey blending in the world) a typical example of which will incorporate dozens of different single malt distilleries into the world’s biggest selling style of whisky. The Scottish blenders broadly classify their malt whiskies into two categories:
- The “base” whiskies, that make up the largest portion of the mix. The base whiskies are everyday, good quality malt whiskies but not spectacular drams. Examples would include Dufftown, Miltonduff, Tomintoul, Tormore, Aultmore, Glenburgie and many others.
- The “top dressing.” These are finer grade, great-quality whiskies—such examples would historically include Linkwood, Macallan, Glenlivet, Balvenie, Highland Park, Longmorn, Mortlach—which were referred to as “top dressing.” These are the “cherry on top” of the blend, lending depth, character and polish. Finer quality blended whiskeys will include more top dressing, more age, and more sherry casks or other top-notch cooperage.
To this the Scottish blenders would also incorporate a certain amount of peated malt—typically from distilleries on the island of Islay such as Caol Isla, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and others—to lend that familiar smoky-peaty cast we all love in a good Scotch. (Alright, lots of people don’t love it. We keep them in our thoughts and prayers.) Our SMP 5 provides peat smoke style to our Sour Mash Single Malt; the question was only how to rein it in to an appropriate level.
We proceeded to conceive a Scotch-inspired blending strategy that considered two of our five whiskeys as the Base, two of them as Top Dressing, plus the peated SMP5. Our initial plan years ago was that the 100% malted barley whiskeys, SMP1 Maris Otter and SMP2 Golden Promise, would serve as the Base, and the beer-inspired mashbills of SMP3 barleywine and SMP4 Belgian quad would be the Top Dressing. But that’s not quite how it turned out.
Our Golden Promise SMP2 indeed lived up to our expectations as a great base whiskey; it “gets along” with all the other malts and just provides a solid foundation for the final blend. Golden Promise makes up a total 35.5% of the blend (including any sherry, red wine, or brandy casks with SMP2). But the other British malt? It turns out the great British ale malt, Maris Otter, when mashed and distilled in our classic Kentucky Regimen, develops a quite pronounced grassy, husky, grain-y flavor. Maris Otter malt whiskey proved surprisingly assertive in its flavor, and a small amount in a blend would really, really come through in the final mix. Although it’s a very cool whiskey, it was not really suitable to serve as a base malt with 25-35% in the blend, and it wound up providing just 16.8% of the blend. So where did we find another base whiskey?
To my considerable surprise, the Belgian quadrupel mashbill of SMP4 makes a fantastic base malt in the blend. It has a real personality, round and rich and fruity with all those great Belgian malts, but somehow it just effortlessly folds into the rest of the whiskeys. This Belgian quad mash makes up a stunning 27.8% of the total, and that is far more than we expected to see at the start. It’s the secret weapon, the unsung hero and the MVP of the whole project—and what’s more, maybe the greatest achievement of these five malts. Here is a Belgian beer inspired mashbill, not some classic whiskey creation but a mash of malts straight out of the world’s greatest beer culture, and it somehow manages to be a simply magical whiskey. Brian Sprance’s amazing mashbill took what was to be an expected top dressing at 10-15% of the blend, and cranks it up to almost 28% of the total. And yet, it is unobtrusive; it lubricates the whole affair, gliding around the other whiskeys and integrating with them, giving them room to shine, too.
Meanwhile, Whiskey No. 3, the barleywine mashbill with a dash of chocolate malt, is definitely a top dressing thing. That dark roasted chocolate note in particular can be quite pronounced. SMP3 also tends to dryness on the palate, not quite tannic but certainly not contributing any sweetness. SMP3 lends authority, power, intensity to the mix. This is one serious whiskey! Just 9.1% in the blend is plenty to make its barleywine point.
After establishing these basic blending relationships between the first four malts—leaving the peated SMP5 to the last—we started kicking in the special barrels. These made up 38.3% of the blend, and consisted of:
- assorted red wine casks, including ex-Mondavi from Napa Valley, and a couple of French oak Burgundian casks dating back to 2006 (one of these was a gloriously intense cask from “Purple Wine Co.”). These contributed a dry, high-toned red fruitiness to the whiskey.
- Portuguese brandy barrels, from the esteemed house of Macieira, producers of brandy since 1885. Also very dry in flavor, they lent a golden-baked fruit quality.
- Oloroso sherry casks. These are supplied by our cooperage in Montilla, the brilliant Tonellería del Sur, who sends us annually a container of full custom sherry casks sized especially for our rickhouse. For these early batches, we had at our behest only oloroso sherry casks, though future editions will include such sherries as pedro ximenez, amontillado, palo cortado and more. The 200-liter casks are quite a bit smaller than the classic 500-liter sherry butts, and carry a powerful amount of sherry character into the whiskey.
All the selected barrels of SMP 1 through 4 were dumped together to our bottling tanks, where we let them sit for a week or so while we evaluated them. Finally, on August 24, 2023, the initiators of this project—New Riff Co-Founder Jay Erisman and Head Distiller Brian Sprance—along with our Assistant Head Distiller Bryon Martin and Barreling Manager Louis Schroeder, got together and personally dumped the allotted barrels of SMP5 Peated into the tanks. We made many trial blends with varying amounts of peated whiskey, and settled on 10.8% as a figure that would contribute a subtle but evident smoky-peaty character. We wanted the impression of peatiness from our consumers to be a matter of, “Oh! Now that you mention it, I do taste a bit of peat.” Plenty of whiskey lovers dig this smoky vibe, but plenty (especially here in Bourbon Country) do not dig it. So, we wanted to soft-pedal that smoky note. We are happy with where it landed and hope, Dear Drinker, that you are as well.
This final admixture of the Sour Mash Single Malt was left to marry together in the tank until the bottling runs commenced on Tuesday September 12, 2023. By the following Thursday morning it was a done deal in the bottle, and we had at long, long last seen the end of this project that started so long ago on a dream and a whim—and to pour that first sampling dram, out of the glittering, gold-lettered Single Malt bottle into a glass, was a whiskey moment that we makers will never forget.
And thus we bring you NEW RIFF SOUR MASH SINGLE MALT. It’s likes have not been seen before in Kentucky, a project whose scope and complexity likely rivals any malt whiskey program in the country and perhaps even in Auld Scotland itself. It hasn’t been done before…but it will be done again, next year, with a second edition, and every year after that. Every year we get better at this riff, adding new tones, new speakers, new whiskey-amplifiers, new tunings. The SMSM project is very much about us living up to the statement on the back of every bottle: A New Riff on an Old Tradition. With this whiskey project, we have turned our all-copper column beer still as an interpretive lens examining the malted barleys and malt whiskey traditions of the world, and we are not stopping now—Sing on, brother, Play on, drummer!—the Malt whiskeys of New Riff Distilling are just getting started!
Blending Statistics for the 2023 Sour Mash Single Malt:
SMP1 Maris Otter: 16.8%
SMP2 Golden Promise: 35.5%
SMP3 Barleywine: 9.1%
SMP4 Belgian Quad: 27.8%
SMP5 Peated: 10.8%
Sherry/Red Wine/Brandy casks (across all SMP types): 38.3%