2019 Driftless Glen Bourbon & Rye by t8ke
Back in December of 2019, I had the opportunity to spend a day at Driftless Glen in Baraboo, WI. Nestled in the Driftless Glen region of Wisconsin, the distillery is well positioned near excellent water and grain suppliers.
When I visited, I hadn’t yet tasted any Driftless Glen at all. I wanted to go in fresh. My intent for the day was to investigate their work and see if it would hold up for an r/Bourbon 2020 Barrel Selection.
In the past, I’ve been involved in quite a few selections in various capacities, but this would be my first solo selection. Lots exciting, little nervous. Hopefully there was something good.
Late December rolled around pretty quick, and a sunny but crisp day greeted me for the short drive northward. Walking in the door, I expected to be greeted by an ambassador or someone from marketing, much like the other distilleries I’d visited. I was a little surprised to meet Max, one of Driftless’ Master Distillers. He brought me to see Renee, an Owner/CEO. They’d be my companions for the day. They also brought along their pup, Rye, which was more than alright with me.
Max and Renee showed me the grounds, the restaurant and the tasting foyer before we headed into the distillery. If you’re reading this, you likely know the process of distilling, etc so I’ll gloss over it.
Driftless uses a brand new Vendome still for all their whiskey, and a pot still for their vodkas and gin. They have the capacity to produce a wide variety of mashes and batch sizes. Max also serves as their Master Blender. We dipped into a blend he was working on while he showed me their still modifications – I can see why he blends. I’ve worked hard over the last 5 years to release my own blends, and it’s much more difficult than one would think. Driftless is producing a variety of single malts, bourbon whiskeys, rye whiskeys and more.
After checking out the distillery, we took a walk through the snow to their warehouses. Driftless sources their 30 gallon and their 53 gallon barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. Their 30 gallon barrels typically feature a #4 char.
Racked traditionally in a metal warehouse with zero climate control, Driftless Glen is maturing casks of bourbon, wheated bourbon, and several mashbills of rye whiskey. Additionally, they are maturing gin in spent barrels and both smoked and un-smoked American single malts. We tried a couple barrels in passing, one of which was their wheated bourbon. Not quite ready to pick, but getting there. I think in 2-3 years, it will be killer. We also sampled some single malt and a 51% rye. Both progressing nicely. We moved on.
Max and Renee showed me their dumping, bottling and labeling line. Since implementing their labeling and bottling improvements, DG can accomplish an entire selection – tasting, dumping, bottling and labeling in just a weekend. Pretty cool. Their bottles are square, dense and unique – featuring a thumbprint of both Renee and Brian Bemis. I asked if custom bottles like that are cost effective. Renee said no. I believe her.
At this point, they asked if I was ready to try some casks for selection. I was ready. We moved to their private tasting room and got cracking. I asked Max if it was possible to taste everything that day blind. He was surprised, but willing and happy to accommodate. Returning with a tray of Glencairns, we kicked off the morning with bourbon.
I had asked to try both bourbon, other whiskeys and some rye so that I could pick the best of the batch. Of the six bourbons presented, I took a couple hours to go over them. In a recent selection to New Riff, we noticed how diverse New Riffs barrels were, for better or for worse. Driftless’ stock was pretty contrasted against this – I found 5/6 bourbons to be fairly similar, with one outlier that was very off profile.
While tasting, one thing that really impressed me was the lack of “craft” notes. I’ve come to expect notes like green grass, wet cardboard, musty spent grains and a youthful maltiness in many craft whiskeys – notes that all point me to believing that the distillate is too young. Despite being approximately 4 years old and matured in 30 gallon barrels, these notes were entirely absent. This gave me a lot of excitement – craft without one of the major drawbacks of craft whiskey was really reassuring.
Some notes that were fairly prominent were orange peel, pepper, tobacco and toasted almonds. Some outliers featured more fruitiness, more focus on clove, a bit heavier oak in some. I was particularly drawn to what I would find later to be Barrel #1416 – which exhibited nice body, excellent oak structure, some fruit and toasted almond. I narrowed the pool one by one – a couple a bit hotter than I’d like, one or two too fruity, and dialed in. #1416 was it. Max asked if I was ready for the reveal, and then he let me know the cask, age and mash for this whiskey. Barrel #1416 was a 4yr 3mo bourbon, with a mashbill of 60% corn, 20% rye, 10% distillers malt and 10% caramel malt. I had found my favorite of the bourbon.
We decided after tasting the bourbon to take a break to give my palate a rest. We had a light bite to eat from the cafe, we took a little more touring around the facility, and Max answered a long list of questions I had. After a bit, we were back at the table. Time to try some rye.
Driftless Glen distills and bottles a variety of ryes. All I knew when tasting the ryes is that they were legally rye, and barrel proof. Max picked out 7 rye barrels for me to taste through and blinded them.
Immediately, I noticed that the ryes had far more variety from one to the next. Some were fruity, some were malty, some were really big clove bombs. It was really interesting to taste the differences. After a bit of work, I was able to separate the ryes into three groups, with 3 ryes being fruit forward, 2 ryes clove forward and 2 ryes on the sweeter, cake like side of things.
Rye took a lot more work than the bourbon did – the bourbon jumped out fairly well at me after a while. The ryes fought a bit harder, though I eventually chose to disqualify the clove forward and cake-y ryes. They didn’t have as much body or complexity. After some more tasting, I was able to pick a winner from the fruitier batch. I had found a plum forward rye that managed to bring along a good deal of spice, oak body and some nutty character. It wasn’t like much that I’d had, and fended off youth pretty well. I decided it was the one.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the rye that I had picked was from a low barrel entry proof set of barrels. Being drawn to it made more sense – it went into the barrel closer to 50% ABV rather than their typical 58.5% ABV. It was also impressive in that it didn’t have any green spearmint-y notes that some young ryes, or MGP high rye (95/5) can really smack you around with. I was sold.
After, we tasted some wilder stuff – single malt, their gins, smoked malts, brandy and more. That’s the topic of a different blog post, but I had a dilemma to deal with.
If you remember my original goal, I was supposed to take a visit to DG and maybe bring home a barrel. Now I had found two barrels I really liked. I wasn’t really sure how to choose. I fired off an email to Blake asking whether he’d prefer a rye or a bourbon.
He responded pretty quick and I was pretty elated to hear that if I thought both were worth buying, we’d buy them both. He needed more DG stock for Seelbach’s – so go for it, was the word.
That was that. One day, two barrels. I came suspicious, left impressed.
At this point, it was almost New Years, and Driftless shuts down for a couple weeks in January to give everyone a break. This gave me some time to get the full cask information, generate some informative labels and wait to hear on bottling.
Both bottles, which we decided to call the inaugural ‘t8ke x Seelbach’s Collaboration’ were bottled in late January.
t8ke Single Barrel Bourbon
Distiller: Driftless Glen
Bottler: Driftless Glen
Mashbill: 60% Corn, 20% Rye, 10% Distiller’s Malt, 10% Caramel Malt
ABV: 58% ABV
Age: 4 Years, 3 Months
Nose: Bright, fruity and creamy. Lots of vanilla bean, toasted almond, orange peel and brown sugar.
Taste: A bit hot, ethanol calming with time. Lots of toffee, rich cinnamon and clove, orange peel and toasted almonds. Vanilla bean, nice oak structure, good body with some tobacco. Long, warm but not too hot, lots of tobacco, baking bread, toffee and toasted almond.
This barrel, #1416, competed against 6 other bourbon whiskeys and won blind. It is bottled at cask strength, with no filtering or dilution. This single barrel yielded 108 bottles. Displaying no young, malty notes, this barrel was a huge favorite, though several others came close.
t8ke Single Barrel Rye
Distiller: Driftless Glen
Bottler: Driftless Glen
Mashbill: 75% Rye, 12.5% Distiller’s Malt, 12.5% Caramel Malt
ABV: 51.5% ABV
Age: 3 Years, 11 Months
Nose: Rich and fruity, with loads of plum, honey, apricot and cotton candy. Bright, effervescent, and rich. Some heat, though not punishing. Clove makes an appearance, adding some savory balance against the sweet fruits.
Taste: Rich mouth feel, though there is some mild heat. Plum, toffee, almond, rich clove and some pepper. The rye spice is apparent and mingles well with the fruit and nut notes.
Finish: Long, and powerful. Pound cake, plums, orange peel, clove and tobacco. Rich finish despite the youth.
This barrel, #1827, shone brightly among the rest of the ryes. Compared blind against 7 other ryes, this rye ended up being revealed as the youngest. A testament to the merits of blind tasting, this cask was both unique and off profile for Driftless Glen’s ryes, in the best way. Bottled at cask strength, this low entry proof rye yielded 17 cases, and was with no filtering or dilution.