Getting Geeky with Union Horse Distilling Company, Part One: the Interview
As I state in my Statement of Ethics, I seldom accept review samples. And that if I do, I will disclose it at the beginning of the article. Please consider it disclosed. I would like to thank FleishmanHillard for putting me into contact with the distillery and providing the bottles being discussed and reviewed this week.
So yes, I broke my “No Review Samples” rule. I seldom do this, but when Union Horse Distillery agreed to get a bit geeky with us and answer some questions, I felt that the exchange was worth it. The following questions are a combination of reader questions and my own. They were answered by Patrick Garcia, Master Distiller for Union Horse Distillery and Damian Garcia, Director of Sales and Marketing for Union Horse. Enjoy!
Eric: Let’s start at the beginning of the process with the water. Your press release mentions that “Union Horse is rooted in an appreciation for the unified spirit it takes to run a homegrown business and the force which runs through its products.” It then specifically mentions water along with grain and barrels. A lot of distilleries in Kentucky make claims about the quality of the water they are drawing from, even though in many cases it is just the city water. So what’s going on with your water? Was that poetic license or is there something special about the Kansas City aquifer? If not, is there a specific adjustment that you take to help the fermentation process?
Patrick: We use regular city water which is carbon filtered. All of our mashes are sour mashes which helps with adjusting the pH for fermentation.
Eric: Along those same lines let’s talk about grain. Where do you source your grain from?
Damian: We mill locally sourced grains of the finest quality we can get from the Midwest, in particular from Kansas and Missouri farmers. And, we donate the spent grain to local Kansas dairy farmer. We like keeping it local as we believe it strengthens our local economy, and highlights the amazing products we have in the region.
Eric: Continuing with grain and moving into the cooking and fermentation process, the mash bills on your website state that your rye whiskey is 100% rye and that your bourbon is made with “a sour mash recipe consisting of corn and rye.” So my question is: are you using commercial enzymes in place of malted barley, as they do in Canada, or are you malting one of the other ingredients such as the rye or corn? In either case, can you touch on why that decision was made instead of using the traditional malted barley?
Patrick: Yes, we are using commercial enzymes in place of malted barley. We chose to use enzymes because we can control a mash a lot easier without the need for additional grain like malted barley. Enzymes enable us to more accurately control the liquefaction, and saccharification stages. Viscosity is also another issue easily controlled with enzymes especially with a Rye Mash.
Damian: This also makes our whiskies very different in flavor than most traditional whiskies, with the corn and rye grains being richer within the foundation. The floral notes that the malted barley brings maybe absent, but the sweet, bold and spicy notes are very prevalent.
Eric: Let’s stay with fermentation and move into the other necessary ingredient to making fermentation happen: yeast. I’ve talked with a range of distillers. Some (like many of the large whiskey makers) who take great pride in their yeast and some who admittedly just use whatever they happened to have purchased last time. Where does Union Horse land on that spectrum? Over the years you’ve been doing this, have your thoughts about what yeast to use changed at all?
Patrick: When we first started we tried multiple yeast strains from wine to champagne, beer to whiskey. There are a lot of choices out there and we narrowed it down to a couple of strains that we liked the best and tasted the best. We have a certain yeast strains, and certain combinations of them, we use for each of our products but that information is proprietary.
Eric: I’d like to skip distillation for a moment and move on to the other ingredient you mentioned in your press release: barrels. A lot of readers like to know about barrels so there are going to be a few of them here. First of all your press release mentions your “signature barrels.” So what make these barrels special? What size barrels do you use? What char level are they?
Patrick: The 53-gallon signature oak barrels come from Missouri forests and are made from primarily White Oak. Union Horse Distilling Co. requires that they are produced from 24 month, air dried, outdoors seasoned, aged wood at a char level of #3, with lightly charred heads and branded with the UHDCo. logo.
Eric: One reader who I shared a sample with, asked if you used toasted barrel heads as the flavors reminded him of toasting?
Patrick: With them being lightly charred, the whiskey will bring flavors of a low-medium toast.
Eric: Skipping to aging process. Do you age in a climate controlled environment or do you just let nature take it’s course?
Patrick: Our barrels are stored in our non-climate controlled warehouse that gets extremely cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. The drastic climate shifts we experience in Kansas City (Midwest) is perfect for the maturation of our whiskey. The barrels expand and contract throughout the years adding continuous depth and complexity with each cycle.
Eric: Now onto the whiskey in the bottle. I was sent a bottle of Batch 1 of the Rye and Batch 2 of the bourbon. How big are your batches and how long do you let them marry before bottling?
Patrick: One batch could be anywhere from 1000-2000 bottles. We will blend different lots of barrels to create a batch and then yes we let it marry or rest for a period of time before filtration and bottling.
Eric: I’ve talked with other craft distillers who, for marketing reasons, have decided to not use the word “Straight” on their label. Union Horse uses it prominently on the label. Whiskey lovers everywhere applaud that, but what was your reasoning for including it?
Damian: We started distilling and aging our whiskies back in the spring of 2011. Our plan at that time was always to move into a “Straight” whiskey when the whiskey was ready and that time has now come. We feel these whiskies not only highlight the maturation of the spirit, but the maturation of our distillery.
Eric: I get this reader question a lot when I review craft whiskies. Mostly because, unfortunately, some bad actors have poisoned this well and trust levels are low among a section of whiskey geeks. So to stave off the inevitable, I like to ask this. Union Horse doesn’t add any flavorings or additives to their straight bourbon or straight rye whiskey, correct?
Patrick: No, no flavorings or additives are added. The #3 char caramelizes the natural sugars in the wood giving the whiskey a sweet caramel, smoky spice and vanilla flavor during the aging process.
Eric: The press release mentions that there is whiskey up to five years old and the label states the whiskey is two years old. So I’m assuming that these contain whiskies of varying ages (as most non-single-barrel whiskies do). Yours being from 2-5 years old. What’s the distribution of the whiskies in question? Is it mostly 2-3 year old whiskies with some 4 and 5 year olds thrown in to give it some depth? Or does is trend older than that?
Patrick: The ratio really depends on the taste of each lot ranging up to 5 years. We’ll test (taste) each barrel individually, then blend, proofed down to spec and test again to see what flavors are being brought to every single batch.
Eric: As a follow on question, are you holding back some of those older stocks to release on their own some day?
Patrick: Our first barrels that were laid down are being used in these whiskies, but we also have others that we’re saving for future use; we’re really anxious to taste those in the next few years to see what they will continue to do.
Eric: I have another reader question regarding style. What style of whiskey are you aiming for? For example, some places want more oak, some want to be cocktail friendly, etc.
Damian: The aim is for our whiskies to be as well rounded as possible so that they can be enjoyed, neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail.
Eric: What have you guys at Union Horse learned since the beginning? Have your processes changed between the older stocks you are using in these batches and the younger ones? Fermentation times, barrel entry proof, barrel size, etc.
Patrick: There’s always growth in anything you apply yourself too and yes we’ve evolved and continue to do so, but we’ve pretty much tried to keep the processes the same from day one. Before we started our distillery we did a ton of research and worked behind the scenes on this craft which has enabled us to keep things pretty consistent.
Eric: And finally, where can we buy these whiskies? Is this a regional release or are there plans for going nation-wide with it?
Damian: These spirits are distributed in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, in and soon to be in Oklahoma, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Anyone not in those states can visit unionhorse.com/where-to-buy to see where our spirits can be purchased online.
Eric: I would like to thank Patrick and Damian for getting geeky with us and answering questions from both your fellow readers and myself. And once again thank FleishmanHillard for putting us into contact. Looking for the reviews? Due to the length of the article, I've broken it into two parts. The next part, coming Thursday, will be the whiskey reviews.
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