The long game
"We were adamant about making our own whiskey, putting it in full-size barrels, and aging it ourselves," says John Uselton, co-owner of New Columbia Distillers, who notes that making a DC whiskey was part of the plan from day one. “But we knew that there was no way we could have whiskey available within five years." Since opening the first craft distillery in DC in 2011, Uselton and his partner Michael Lowe have been making a name for themselves through their wildly successful Green Hat gin, but they’ve also been working quietly in the background, laying down barrel after barrel of whiskey.
"Right now, we’ve got about 25 barrels," explains Uselton. "Most are rye whiskey." Of those 25 barrels, the oldest whiskey in the New Columbia facility is about three years old. "Our idea, when the barrels are properly matured, is to release a barrel, hold a barrel, release a barrel, hold a barrel." Following this staggered release schedule would allow New Columbia to let select barrels continue aging. "Say the first barrel released is five years old, then the next year we can release some six year old... and just keep going down the line."
Asking the question of what kind of whiskey is actually in these barrels leads down a fascinating rabbit hole. "We like our 70-30 rye mash bill [the make-up grains that are used in the brewing, fermenting, and distilling process], which is 70% rye and 30% malted barley, but the barley is half distillers’ malt and half brewers’ malt," he says. Rye whiskey is often accompanied by both corn and barley in its mash bill, but eschewing the corn "gives it a nice body," Uselton says.
Recalling a recent release of the Parker’s Heritage Collection, Thomas compares New Columbia’s mash bill with that of the 2015 PHC malt whiskey. "They went with the malted barley and the corn [65% malted barley and 35% corn], but I’d like to see it on the rye side," he says.
Nearly all of New Columbia’s whiskey is the aforementioned rye base, but Uselton and Lowe have experimented with different mash bills and barrels from different suppliers. The latter point somewhat out of necessity than innovation. One of the main obstacles whiskey producers currently face is a shortage of cooperage (barrels or casks). "We couldn’t get any new barrels," laments Uselton. But a chance encounter with a representative from the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia, who themselves use cooperage from Independent Stave Company in Kentucky and Kelvin Cooperage in Missouri, landed New Columbia with a steady supply of used bourbon barrels. By law, bourbon is required to be aged in new, charred American oak barrels, so using used cooperage lands New Columbia’s whiskey in the category of American whiskey.
"But that’s fine -- I think American whiskey should be the fastest growing category," Thomas says. "It gives you latitude to experiment and create some great stuff, while still following the tenants of whiskey-making that make whiskey great. I don’t give a shit about used cooperage; I care about the final product."
Uselton estimates that New Columbia’s first bottle of whiskey will hit the market in about two more years. While that timeline is an estimate, Thomas, who has spent significant time and money visiting distilleries tasting and purchasing barrels, has noticed that "rye tends to age faster and gain a lot more character quicker -- the two-year-old ryes that have been coming out have been really palatable, but for bourbon, it’s more like four years." Upon cracking open one of New Columbia’s barrels to sample the whiskey, Thomas remarks that he "can’t wait to see this at 2 and 3 years," but that it could conceivably be a product that’s releasable today.
"For some of the older experimental barrels," Uselton says, "if one turns out nice, maybe we’ll release it as just that barrel, but we haven’t decided yet." While by no means a certainty, the tantalizing prospect of a single-barrel whiskey release from New Columbia does exist.