With bourbon, it’s not uncommon to see history and tradition at play. These aspects often serve to make bourbon and the experience that surrounds it, in a way, magical. As consumer expectation for what makes a satisfying bourbon experience evolves, distilleries naturally make adjustments to keep up with the times. These slight modifications to the “way it’s always been done,” while typically an improvement, can fail to capitalize on new ways of thinking and real opportunity to enrich consumers’ experiences. History and tradition are great, but sometimes mere modifications fail to keep up, and a fresh start can make all the difference. This is where New Riff Distilling saw opportunity.
Recognizing the balance of an inherently tradition-bound business with the opportunity afforded by designing from the ground up, the people behind New Riff Distilling took advantage of having a fresh start. With a clean slate and unique previous experience on the retail side, the door was wide open to build the company and experience the way they saw it, not how it had been done before. The company’s mantra:
“WE ARE INDEPENDENT SPIRITS, FAMILY-OWNED, KENTUCKY BRED, A NEW RIFF ON AN OLD TRADITION. WE ANSWER TO NOTHING BUT OUR RELENTLESS COMMITMENT TO WHISKEY, QUALITY AND CRAFT. NO SHAREHOLDERS. NO SHORTCUTS. JUST FREEDOM. FREEDOM TO INNOVATE AND COLLABORATE, RIFF ON THE OLD AND REDEFINE THE NEW.”
Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to visit New Riff Distilling for the first time and select a single barrel for our Single Barrel Club. Soon after, I spoke with Co-Founder and “Whiskey Man” Jay Erisman about New Riff, their single barrel selection process, and plans for the future. What follows are excerpts from an in-depth conversation with Erisman, which provides a unique perspective into what makes this rather young distillery different, and why you should be paying attention.
Edited from brevity and clarity.
New Riff Distilling was founded in 2014 by Ken Lewis and Jay Erisman. Located in Newport, Kentucky, it’s just on the other side of the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. The distillery’s parking lot is shared by a familiar establishment - The Party Source - a mega-sized spirits retailer (and more) known for fair prices, variety, and single barrel selections. The retail side being Lewis’ first foray into the spirits world which began in the 1980's, it eventually led to his success building The Party Source and ultimating selling it back to his employees. The Party Source is also where Lewis first met Erisman, who served as the The Party Source’s Fine Spirits Manager. This experience ultimately took them down the path that would eventually become New Riff Distilling.
While New Riff built up a supply of their own aged products, they sourced high-rye bourbon from MGP. They named this brand O.K.I. which stands for: Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana; aka distilled in Indiana, bottled in Kentucky, and loved in Ohio. A temporary measure that only lasted a few years, the brand has now been retired and New Riff is focused on their own distillate.
They’ve been at it for a while now, and recently saw some of their first distillate turn 5 years old.
Nick: 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.
Nick: 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.
Nick: 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.
Nick: 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.
Nick: 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.
Nick: 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.
Nick: Is there anything on the horizon that you’re able to talk about at this point with upcoming releases or upcoming experiments or projects that you guys are working on?
Jay: Well we make three what we call “main” whiskeys, by which I mean we make them every month - bourbon, rye, and malted rye. 100% malted rye grain, right? And we only make three fermenters a month of malted rye. We made it very sporadically in the early years...in the early days. At any rate, we make those three. So the next sort of official, if you will, whiskey to come out will be malted rye. That probably won’t hit the market until fall of 2020.
Nick: Little ways off, yeah, I saw that one a little bit, we talked about that one a little bit [when visiting New Riff].
Jay: Yeah, we’re going to give it a little extra time to age and let it be a solid 5 years old, not 4, and kind of make a little exclamation point out of it. So that’s coming down the pipe.
And then as well as that, we make...perhaps you appreciated on the tour...how we have the ability to digest different grains.
We can dump any bag of grain we want to into the process. For one thing, that’s how we make 100% malted rye. We have the ability to go outside of our silos and dump in 2,000 lb. bags of whatever grain we want and then that takes its malted run. So we’ve made a whole bunch of different things. We’ve made wheated bourbon, we made heirloom-grain bourbon, we’ve made heirloom-grain rye, we’ve made chocolate oatmeal stout bourbon where we were inspired by our background as brewers, beer lovers, to make a bourbon so it’s mostly corn, but there’s oats in it and malted oats and things like that. So those things will come out, I don’t know when, but in the future, as special limited editions. And for what it’s worth...but just so you know, those are not accessible for private barrels. And in fact will not be bottled as single-barrels, probably, they will just be Bottled-in-Bond.
Nick: To go forward for New Riff, what’s on the more immediate horizon? What’s on the long-term horizon? What might we expect New Riff to look like in 10 or 20 years from now, all things going as you guys kind of envision them today?
Jay: Well, I don’t think I can say really with accuracy here. But I would say that we do hold that 20-30% of our output every year to become older. That still is not a lot. 20% or 30% of what we made 4 years ago, in 2015, years from now, still is not a lot of whiskey. I hear from folks a lot, I can’t wait until it gets older. And it will get older. I don’t know how old, 7, 10, 8, I don’t know. But there won’t be a lot of it. So I hope that by 10 or 20 years from now, we have simply more whiskey to share with the world.
Furthermore, maybe, more whiskeys to share with the world. Right now we have bourbon and rye. What does malted rye do? What do our specialty, as we call them, for want of a better term, the speciality whiskey do? What is the perception of our version of wheated bourbon? And I’m not necessarily saying it’s the cat’s meow but we have the opportunity to change perceptions in the future with other risks, if you will, that we will do.
Nick: 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.