There’s a symbiosis between the technical world of the craft beer industry and that of the distilling industry that sometimes goes unacknowledged. Although beer production and distillation obviously involve different processes, those working in the beer industry have an understanding of fermentation in particular that can make them a natural fit for a sideways transition into the whiskey world. That’s how it was, anyway, for Brian Sprance, the head distiller at Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling, which in the last few years has become an emerging and oft-cited favorite of the whiskey blogosphere. Sprance built his alcohol knowledge as a brewer for Boston Beer Co. in Cincinnati, and was hired by New Riff founder Ken Lewis thanks to his knowledge of fermentation—the distillation part, he then picked up while training with legendary consulting distiller Larry Ebersold, he of Seagrams fame.
It was only natural, then, that at some point New Riff was going to make a whiskey that called upon Sprance’s background in beer. But rather than distilling actual beer to make whiskey or “beer schnapps,” as some have taken to calling it, Sprance decided to instead tinker with the familiar bourbon mash bill, incorporating new varieties of malted barley that are typically seen only in the beer world. The resulting whiskey can still carry the title of bourbon, thanks to a mashbill that is predominantly corn, but the rest of the mash looks nothing like any whiskey you’ve likely seen before. That’s the gimmick behind New Riff Winter Whiskey—it’s a spirit designed to evoke the darker end of the beer spectrum.
Personally, the idea excited me, because I’ve actually had a few whiskeys like this before. One was a Georgian-made rye whiskey that was made with a portion of heavily roasted malted barley, while another was the literal distillation of Deschutes Brewery’s flagship Black Butte Porter into a spirit, and in both cases the results the results were beguiling in their novelty. In particular, the Black Butte Porter Whiskey possessed an amazing roasty note, like biting into a high-end dark chocolate bar. I was definitely curious to see what New Riff might do with a similar concept.
New Riff Winter Whiskey is based on a bourbon mashbill, but replaces the standard rye entirely with other grains—both barley and oatmeal in this case, in order to evoke “chocolate oatmeal stout,” according to Sprance. The final result ends up being 65% corn, 20% malted barley, 7% pale ale malt, 5% steel cut raw oats, and 3% chocolate malt. Like other New Riff bottles, this is a bottled-in-bond bourbon aged at least four years, bottled at 100 proof without chill filtration. It carries an MSRP of around $50, which doesn’t seem bad to me considering the novelty here.
The presence of “chocolate malt” does require a bit of explanation to those who don’t know the brewing industry well, or have no homebrewing experience. Chocolate malt is a deeply roasted variety of malted barley, so named more for its color than specifically for the flavor it imparts. It’s used in small quantities in the making of styles such as porter and stout, contributing tons of coloration to the final beer while also contributing drier roast flavors. Some may perceive those flavors as having cocoa or dark chocolate dimensions, but this is by no means malt “flavored” with chocolate or anything like that. Savvy?
With all that said, let’s get to tasting New Riff Winter Whiskey.
On the nose, I’m initially surprised to find that this bourbon isn’t extremely roast forward, at least in a way distinct from most bourbons. Whereas some of the similar whiskeys I’ve had in the past possessed an unmistakable profile of coffee or chocolate that made me question “wait, what am I drinking?”, this one is much more identifiable as bourbon. I get caramel corn and vanilla bean, cornbread and something slightly more musty, along with a touch of more floral notes—likely a result of a greater percentage of malted barley in the mash bill. Over time, however, I did start picking up some darker elements—in particular, there’s something that emerges that I’d liken to smoked maple syrup. Ultimately, though, the “roasted barley” elements show up as more of a player on the palate than on the nose.
Tasting this sample, it becomes more clear that it is something unique, and not simply a bottle of bourbon. There’s a combination of dark nuttiness here and barrel char that is appealing, with distinct hints of sweet smoke—I would liken it to a combination of the profiles you’d expect in Columbian (nutty) and French roast (smoky-sweet) coffees. This isn’t to say the whiskey is sweet, as its residual sweetness and richness are both on the mild-to-moderate side. One aspect I do quite like is how the oats eventually play into this profile, contributing a hard-to-place spiciness (hints of anise) and a flavor on the back end reminiscent of an oatmeal cookie, sans the raisins. Lingering roast and hints of dark chocolate tie everything together, along with a bit of roasty astringency the makes for a dry finish. At 100 proof, it settles into the chest with an appreciable warmth, as one would no doubt expect “winter whiskey” to do.
All in all, I feel like this is a more subtle approach toward using the darker spectrum of beer brewing malts than I’ve seen in the distilling world in the past. I had partially expected this to evoke stout in a very direct and forward way, but it’s a somewhat more delicate evolution of New Riff’s very solid bottled-in-bond bourbon, rather than a total transformation. In particular, it feels like the oats are the x-factor that helps make for an interesting bottle. I’d be very curious to sample other, beer-inspired New Riff whiskeys in the future.
Distillery: New Riff Distilling
City: Newport, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.