Storage Experiment

We set out to answer a question that does not seem to have a good answer: “What happens to bourbon when stored in different real world conditions and fill levels over time?”

We went into this tasting thinking there would be little if any difference in the samples at the 6 month mark. However, that was not the case. The results were surprising. What follows is a summation of our opinions, however we want to stress that although most flavor differences we noticed were nuanced, they were confirmed blindly by two different tasters.

Read Part 1 of our Bourbon Storage Experiment for the complete details of the setup of the experiment.

How We Tasted:

  • There were 2 tasters - Nick and Eric.

  • We tasted blind in sets of 2-3 samples at a time, as any more would have been too many to compare at once.

  • We purposely varied the blind sets between the 2 tasters so that different direct comparisons could be made. Once complete, we cross-referenced our notes in order to piece together the findings so they could be presented here.

For this tasting there were two of us blind tasting different sample flights. Despite this, we lined up fairly consistently on the results. We both agreed on the ⅓ fill closet sample being the best of the bunch and the full fill sunlight sample being the worst of the bunch. Combine this with the opinion we shared that the samples generally tasted better as more air was introduced and we were really surprised.

The introduction of oxidation for a 6 month period not only proved to help the taste of the bourbon stored in the dark closet and refrigerator, it also helped mitigate the negative effect of sunlight… maybe someone reading this who happens to be a chemist can weigh in on what might be happening with the oxygen and sunlight here. With that in mind, if you have a sealed bottled that’s been around for a little while and it tastes a little bitter or sour the first time you open it make note of how much time it might have spent in direct sunlight. Where were you storing it? Where was it stored before you acquired it? This is only the 6 month mark, but after this tasting we have a feeling the sunlight stored samples are going to get quite a bit worse over time. We don’t know what to expect from the other samples going forward, but we’d be quite surprised if the ⅓ fill samples continue to get better. It seems there would have to be a turning point, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Our most important word of advice after this 6 month tasting: Keep your bourbon out of direct sunlight!

What We Noticed:

  • We both thought the ⅓ fill dark closet sample was the absolute best overall.

  • We both thought the full fill clear sunlight sample was the absolute worst overall (note that for this 6 month tasting the full fill samples were equivalent to the drink down samples).

  • None of the samples were undrinkable. The full fill sunlight sample was the only one that jumped out as tasting worse without really having to dissect it with more scrutiny. Most other differences among the samples were subtle and nuanced.

  • The refrigerator stored samples tasted very similar to the dark closet samples… with the dark closet ⅓ fill sample tasting just slightly better than than refrigerator ⅓ fill sample.

  • In each condition less fill (more air) generally yielded a better taste - ⅓ fill > ⅔ fill > full fill.

  • The amber bottle stored in direct sunlight seemed to help mitigate the negative effects of sunlight as it tasted better than the full fill clear sample stored in direct sunlight, however it still tasted a little off.

About New Riff Distilling

Breaking Bourbon: I know that a lot of the crew does not come from necessarily a whiskey background. Was that accidental, or was that deliberate for some reason?

Jay:
Mostly that was deliberate. Talking to Larry Ebersold, because first of all we needed a consultant, a master distiller to teach us what to do, and I had a lifetime of knowledge and learning about alcoholic beverages and spirits, but I’d never made them before. I wish I could tell you, yeah, I had a still in my dorm room, man, you know, I never did that. I never owned an illicit still. And so when we opened New Riff, all of us put together had made zero whiskey, zero spirits of any kind. Larry’s advice was...and Ken and I felt this way too...we didn’t necessarily want to just recruit someone out of the Kentucky industry who would come in with a lot of perhaps good preconceptions and foreknowledge and assumptions and practices. That might have been just fine.

But it was Larry’s advice that said, you might just think about hiring a brewer. Hire someone who knows fermentation, because that’s where the flavor is made. You don’t make flavor in a still. Stills don’t make flavor. Stills can...depending on the use of them and everything...they can shape flavor, but they don’t create the flavor. And the flavor is all made in the fermenter. And so we were looking, in fact, to hire a brewer, and we wound up with Brian Sprance our head distiller and production manager. Brilliant guy, came to us out of the craft beer industry. He was probably a master level brewer, more or less, at Boston Beer, and came to work for us, and he had not distilled a lick of whiskey in his life. He didn’t know anything about making whiskey, but he knew all about fermentation. And having him then trained to run the distillery by Larry, that was very much a deliberate act that we didn’t just hire someone…we wanted to find our whiskey, find it ourselves, so to speak.

Breaking Bourbon: How integral was the O.K.I. brand both from a learning side...and development in bringing New Riff to be? Did that inspire [the New Riff concept], or was it always the idea to get into the distillation side?

Jay:
Yeah, good question, and particularly to the point of education or our experience. So the story of O.K.I. was as Ken Lewis and I were spinning up this distillery in the formative days, we were starting the process, I guess. I said to Ken, you know, we should go and buy a few barrels so that we have an aged whiskey to work with now, you know, to work with not in 10 years or 4, 5, 6 years, but to sell now. And it can be a standard bearer. We didn’t make it, but we did bottle it and we put it together and we vat it together, and moreover we made quality decisions that govern how it plays out, namely to be un-chill filtered and to say, this is how we think whiskey ought to be bottled. And it was a standard bearer. It was a little bit of a placeholder, certainly to the point of meeting people in the industry, bars and retailers and restaurants, and stuff like that.

We did a few picks with various stores and stuff. It was a way to get to know those people. But internally, I don’t think I appreciated when I proposed it to Ken how much of a huge learning platform it would be for us. We did some barrel-finishes...now we haven’t done that at New Riff, and we’re not likely to do that anytime soon...but we did it, and we learned how to do those. We made a sherry-cask finish, that for me, a lover of single malt scotch since the age of teen years old, I loved sherry-cask stuff. So that was just a tremendous learning platform for us both in the vatting and the selecting, but very much in the bottling, packaging, bartending…we had great material to work with. And finally, it was not just any old whiskey. To most people, oh, that’s an Indiana whiskey. Ok, another one of those. I get that. But for us, they are sort of our big brother neighbor distillery. They’re right here in greater Cincinnati. They are a high rye distillate, you know 35% rye with O.K.I., and we were going to be that as well.

And furthermore, we were trained by their emeritus master distiller, Larry Ebersold, he was the master distiller many years there at the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, IN, and he was serving as New Riff’s consultant, and so we were trained and taught the black arts of how he made whiskey. The 95% rye, his precept, his quality goals, and tricks of the trade and stuff like that. So, we were taught to make a whiskey like that, sort of. I wouldn’t have wanted barrels of wheated whiskey from [another distillery], for example. It was something right here that attracted us to the Indiana stuff.

So O.K.I. was always meant to die. It was not intended to persist as a brand. Perhaps if the supply of aged whiskey had been available later in our careers, we would have continued it, but the fact is it was not available. That whole market dried up. You couldn’t go and get 5, 6, 8, 10 year old whiskey anymore, and we always intended for O.K.I. to die. What we were not going to do is this switcheroo where Indiana juice is in the bottle and suddenly Kentucky juice is in the bottle. We wanted it to be a clean break and a different design.

Breaking Bourbon: And thinking about your size...I know you guys position yourself really mid...I mean you’re a big craft facility...but you’re a small, large producer...a mid-range producer. So tell me about that.

Jay:
Some people call it the mid-major. We’re the biggest of the small but the smallest of the big. Frankly, I don’t even know if...we probably don’t really consider ourselves a “craft distillery.” We were definitely inspired by that movement, and we’re friends with all those people and we know them well and love them, but we are sour mash whiskey producers in full size barrels for 4 years. Most of what we have done is not the business practices of the small craft distilleries, for better or for worse, I think we can agree, sometimes for the better.

When you have whiskey in a six gallon barrel that’s six months old and they’re pushing it out for 50 bucks a half bottle, we’re not part of that milieu. That said, we are…yeah, a mid-major. We make whiskey just like the big boys, but we make a lot less of it. But we’re cognizant of how much we do make. We make 80,000 barrels a year, and that’s not small potatoes, you know?

Another reason why we want people to come here and see in person what we’re about. I do underline a little bit the commitment to Bottled-in-Bond, why we do it. We had not… what’s the word… agreed, or… we didn’t plan to do that in the early days. We kicked it around, should we do Bottled-in-Bond? And we thought, well maybe, we could do a Bottled-in-Bond, maybe we should do that, I don’t know. We were going to be un-chilled filtered for a certainly. That went without saying. And that was at least one early quality commitment. And we promised ourselves we would go at least four years. If the whiskey wasn’t ready at four, I had to explain to Ken Lewis we got to go to five. Happily, it’s pretty good at four.

So we were always going to be un-chill filtered, but we weren’t settled in the early days on Bottled-in-Bond. And then internally, we started asking ourselves, and we realized, hold on a minute. Bottled-in-Bond is not just a category for old men and bartenders. It is the world’s highest quality standard for an aged brown spirit, full stock, the highest quality standard. Higher than the standards in scotch. Higher than the standards in Cognac.

You know that they add caramel color to those spirits, but also in the case of Cognac, you can add sugar, you can add oak flavoring, you know this? Look at Canadian whiskey, you can add any damn thing you want, practically. Japanese whiskey doesn’t even have to be distilled in Japan to be called Japanese whiskey. A lot of what’s in the bottle of Japanese whiskey...I’m speaking very broadly here...comes from [Scotland]. Sometimes it comes from America. Anyway, it’s the highest standard in the world for any aged brown spirit and since 1897. So when we realized that and we say to ourselves, if we really are putting our heart on our soul about being quality-first...and every single drinks company in the world would tell you they’re quality-first...and you and I know that’s really not the case. At some point, the piper gets paid, and the shareholders put out their hand and a decision gets made.

Breaking Bourbon: You don’t have many with “poor quality” in their advertising. That doesn’t come off so well...

Jay:
That’s a good way to put it. Anyway, we really, really, mean that, and we do. It is really our goal to be...and this is our goal, Ken and I...and we reiterate it to each other all the time. If our goal truly is to be one of the world’s great small distilleries, than how can we not not only Bottled-in-Bond, but make everything peg to that highest standard in the world.

On top of that, by being un-chill filtered, we don’t even do the one thing that the federal government allows that you could do. If you read part of the Bottled-in-Bond regulations very closely, the only thing you can do to change the whiskey from its native state is to filter it, what they call chill-proofing. Because you have chill-filtered...to make a long story short...we don’t even do that. So we are taking the world’s highest standard and putting a New Riff on that and taking it to an even higher restriction. And with all this kerfuffle about the private barrels and the single barrels, and oh my gosh, this is so amazing, we love your barrels. For me the much bigger import is the fact that we bottle everything in bond. Nobody else does that.

About the Single Barrel Selection Process

Breaking Bourbon: You guys are, from my experience, doing things a little bit differently in terms of the starting point selection of your tasting notes from a lot of different barrels, get it down to a smaller number, and then go from there. [Editor’s note: New Riff first has you choose from approximately 25 pre-selected single barrels via barrelling date and tasting notes to narrow down to 5 options to taste, then provides a very well thought out environment to conduct the tasting. For an in-depth explanation, read about our experience here.]

Jay:
We did an awful lot of intimate work with Kentucky’s finest distilleries back when we were retailers with barrel picks and other products, things like that. We launched at The Party Source, for example, Four Roses private barrels for that distillery, among other things. And so we knew well how that all works at the retail level, at the experiential level. And when we go to offers that to people in our now distillery, we wanted to do it right. We hope we do everything right, but that’s kind of how we went about that. I hear from other groups and stores and our customers, things like, you know, you hear horror stories about where this wound up at other institutions or distilleries. Like, they go to a tasting and they’re all tasting out of a common glass. They pull it out of a barrel and pass a glass around.

I’m pretty sure you guys can afford getting some glassware, you know? It’s just uncivilized and things like that.

But the notes that we put out, these tasting notes...look, back when I was doing these, I never wanted notes. Don’t give me the note. Just give me the whiskey and get out of the way. In fact, honestly, at The Party Source, I almost never went to the distillery to do a pick for one thing. It was long enough ago that they were fold-over thrilled-happy at distilleries that someone wanted to do a pick, and they didn’t care if you came there or something. Today, many distilleries, including in a way, New Riff, although we’re not absolutely dogmatic about it, to constrain somewhat. I know Four Roses does this, again. Places require you to come to the distillery, they’re not just going to send out samples. And by the way, one reason they don’t like to do that so much anymore is it chives up a lot of the barrels. If you have 100 barrels, and you want people to pick 5 barrels out of them, and you start sending out 4 barrels at a time, what happens? Suddenly you’re waiting on people to get back to you, and they take a long time, or they blow you off, or whatever they do. So there is that. I never wanted a tasting note though.

And I have some sort of our…how do I put it…more evolved or more sophisticated bar- restaurant retailer clients who are extraordinarily experienced and bourbon-experts, they sometimes pick them at random, you know, give me that one and that one and that one. I had one retailer in Louisville say, “Ehhh, just give me four barrels, from, let’s say, even numbered dates.” Ok. 10, 12, 14, 16, like that. That’s a great way to randomize what you’re tasting.

Breaking Bourbon: And how do you get to those barrels that are going to end up in the single-barrel program, at this point?

Jay:
We taste every lot of whiskey, by which we mean, at New Riff, fermenters...and this is an interesting point, really, it’s the more important point than other aspects of single-barrel or private-barrel programs...most larger distilleries have…so you distill a batch of whiskey. A fermenter full of whiskey. It goes through the still you get the white dog, etc. Most places, that goes to a ginormous tank, big as your house, and all the whiskey pours into that and they cut it and they start filling barrels. And by this, means the batch-to-batch, fermenter-to-fermenter difference...there’s a slight difference between each one. This one get that flavor or that one gets this flavor…is largely ameliorated and kind of blended away if you will, which is great for consistency, and that’s a very smart way to make whiskey.

We happen here to not really be able to do that. Well, we distill a fermenter whiskey, and it goes to a gage tank, and that gage tank is only big enough to hold the output of one fermentation. That’s not absolutely discreetly dogmatically true. We have...perhaps you saw on your tour...a beer well. So a fermenter goes with the beer well, and we distill it out of the beer well. It takes about 7 or 8 hours to go through a whole fermenter in the beer well. Well we top that beer well off from other fermenters through the day. So there is a small amount of combining or mixing together different fermentations, but there’s also...at least in a relative sense...there’s a more concrete, discrete line between each fermentation than at many distilleries.

The long and short of this is, Nick, that we see a difference not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we always give people advice when they’re picking...don’t pick stuff all from the same lot. I don’t care if you really like this note and that note and this flavor...be sure and pick some from different lots, because we get to see a flavor, not only a difference in flavor, not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we change each lot of whiskey, and based on that, we go into that lot or not and pull out some single barrels.

Breaking Bourbon: And you don’t have any plans to become, or ideas to become, larger on a scale of say...let’s open another distillation location or something of that nature? I know there’s another warehouse that’s in the works, at least, as we toured the warehouses, and were speaking about that, from a distillation and production standpoint. Or would you grow into demand, do you think...or do you think you’d want to keep it in the tighter kind of way you have it right now?

Jay:
One thing I can say with certainty is, we’re going to remain independent. As we’re in this business now and I start to work inside the bourbon industry in a totally different way than we did when we were retailers, you can start to see people’s business models. And these are all good...no criticism of anybody...they’re all viable ways to do your business, what have you...but I can see places making decisions for an eventful outcome. And sometimes that outcome is to remain independent and often that outcome is to someday be bought up. Sell it to someone.

I can look at someone now and see that they’re making decisions to do one or the other. Nothing wrong with that, but if Ken Lewis’s intention is to get bought up someday, he’s doing it wrong. We are not doing the kind of things...you know, putting the money where the mouth is...that would lead us to be bought up. We are making decisions that are for long-term independence and quality. So that I can say with a certainly is what you will see in 10 or 20 years. Will we be owned in 10 or 20 years by, take your pick of Diageo, Sazerac, William Grant, Brown-Foreman? No. We’re not going to be sold. I don’t know that we would ever expand with another distillery. It’s doubtful. We think that you are not wanting to get too big.

One thing that we are not really concerned about is the very thing that all these big companies are concerned about, which is two words - the words are market share. Market share. What’s our market share in San Francisco? How we doing in London? What’s our market share? We don’t really care about that. We don’t have stockholders. We don’t have shares out there. We have one brilliant owner who’s a fantastic guy to work with.

You know how you hear of such and so entrepreneur is just the most amazing boss to work for, but it’s never your boss.

Well, Nick, it is my boss.

Working with Ken Lewis is tremendous. And I think that’s not going to go away, so. We don’t need to get really big. Our goal here is not to get rich. We’ll have nice lives and we’ll make our money, and we’ll be successful, but the point is not to gain market share. The point is to be a great small distillery. Which if you think about it, is an amorphous goal. How do you know if you’ve made it? What do you do every day to get there? If your goal is market share, it’s simple. You need to make and sell more booze. But that’s not the case when your goal, your stated goal, that you remind yourselves in every meeting every week, is to become a great small distillery of the world and to do it in sour mash Kentucky whiskey. If that’s the goal, how do you go about it? How do you know that you do it?

You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other with confidence and skill and commitment to quality. That’s what will go on. I’m sorry that sounds corny but its the truth.

Written By: Nick

February 12, 2015
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