Q&A With Single Malt Whiskey Expert Distillers

Most of my whiskey experience comes from college (shots!) and living in Tennessee, where Jack Daniels reigns. Recently, I got the awesome opportunity to learn more information about single malt whiskey from three of the best distillers out there: Colum Egan, Master Distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey; Jess Graber, Founder and Creator of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and TINCUP American Whiskey; and Rob Dietrich, Master Distiller of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

I met with Colum, Jess, and Rob at the Culver Hotel in Culver City last month to discuss the finer points of whiskey tasting, distilling, and so much more.  Bushmills Irish Whiskey is one of the oldest whiskeys in the world and they are re-establishing themselves as a prominent single malt within the Irish Whiskey category.  Jess founded Stranahan’s as an American single malt whiskey that pays homage to its home state of Colorado and this experience led him to develop TINCUP. Stranahan’s is now overseen by Master Distiller Rob Dietrich, who learned all about distilling from Jess, and Rob is now pioneering the new American Single Malt movement.

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Check out some excerpts from our chat below!

How are the traditional styles of whiskey influencing the new American styles?

Colum: I think it’s just fascinating that in the 1800s the Scots and Irish came over and did a lot of the building for the bigger infrastructure around America and brought their distilling traditions. Single malt and maple malt whiskey lasts for a long period of time, and, Jess, being a maverick in that, saw an opportunity in that to bring back something that would have been brought over all those years ago and has reinvented the category. 

Jess: It’s going back to traditional ways and making a really good product. Barley whiskey has a lighter composition to it and I think that’s really cool to take that idea and say, “Yeah, we’re doing it the old-fashioned way.” It took us long. We’re not back to the 1600s yet.

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How do you think the taste of modern whiskey has evolved?

Jess: I think modern whiskey, like the rest of society, has evolved. In primitive distillations, it probably wasn’t as smooth tasting. Everything’s more consistent because we know more. And so I think that’s why a lot of people now are drinking whiskey. It kind of died out in the ’50s, because it wasn’t that good — you had to learned to like it. Now, you can taste whiskey and say, “Oh, I like that. It’s very flavorful.” When we do our jobs right, we’re putting flavor into something and it doesn’t have to be harsh, it can be enjoyed.

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What do you think it is about the modern whiskeys that speak to the millennial generation?

Rob: We have a great tour program at our distillery and we see a lot of millennials. They want something new They’re used to craft, having their choices, and trying something different. It’s not generally people who are drinking the whsikey that their dad drank, but they want to drink it and own it themselves. It seems to be a trend where we’re seeing from people from late 20’s and on.

Colum: I think what we’re seeing from younger people these days is that people in their 20s and 30s are more concerned with what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re more concerned about their food, what the cattle were fed on, are their vegetables organic, etc. So it’s the same thing we do with whiskey. We don’t add chemicals to our whiskey. The way that we make whiskey hasn’t changed, but I think that really appeals to the younger generation. And that there’s a great lineage to the past as well. 

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How To Properly Taste Whiskey, According To The Experts

  1. Pour some into a glass (of course).
  2. Add a dash of water. We used a straw to add 1-2 droplets into the glass.
  3. Slightly part lips. Breathe in with mouth and nose at the same time.
  4. Take first sip. Let it roll around the back of your mouth.
  5. Take another sip. You’ll be able to taste even more of the flavors.

How important is fresh ingredients to the whiskey distilling process?

Jess: In simplistic terms, if we were to make our whiskey and then cut it with swamp water, it’s not going to taste very good. If you have a pure water source to work along with what we’ve made, then it makes the whiskey a lot better.

Rob: We know how to make whiskey and we know how to do it well, but we’re also reliant on everyone else before us: the farmers to grow great barely, for the malter to malt the barely to our specs. Same with the water source. If we don’t have it, it changes the recipe. All those factors make a huge difference. What we can control at the distillery, that’s all up to us. 

Colum: The exact reason why Bushmills’ distillery was located there for all those years was the water source. It gives the water a certain mineral composition. It’s a very consistent supply and flow. We constantly monitor the quality of that water as it comes onto site. As for malted barely, there’s very little difference in the strains — very subtle difference.

Thank you to Vicki for some of the photos & video!

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