Rejoice wishful whiskey maker: The mix experience Founder’s Lab at Breckenridge Distillery’s Founder’s Lab allows you to mix and match your whiskey under the supervision of first-class whiskey and glass swirls. distilled. You can learn the art of bourbon blending from flavor and flavor classification to pairing substrates and breaking down combined flavors. Perhaps the best reason for rejoicing: At the end, after measuring the combinations in milliliters, you can leave with a bottle of your creativity, complete with a custom label, to impress your friends back home.
“This is exactly what the bourbon connoisseurs are looking for,” says distillery owner Brian Nolte, radiologist and former Scotch nerd who founded the largest whiskey distillery in Colorado in 2008. “You walk through the whole process, and it’s pretty complicated. We teach you what you taste and why. It’s like going to Andrew Zimmern’s for dinner.”
Upon our arrival, the glass-top barrel coffee tables were crowned with four bourbon glasses, numbered A through D, as well as five snifters, two sterile pipettes (10 and 25 ml), and a glass blending tank with pestle. Next to them are tasting plates, with nose, flavor and finishing categories; Official American Bourbon Association Tasting Wheel, whose characteristics kick off from the Big Five taste wedges of wood, grain, spice, sweet, and fruit/floral; and Blending Trials, where we can trace our creativity.
All bourbons are barrel resistant, 115 to 134, higher than the bottle. In our cups, we’ll top it up to taste with a dropper to add water (think reverse osmosis) straight from the Continental Dave. Breckenridge Distillery proofs their bottles up to 86 proofs). Nolte says the water will make the bourbon “start to open up, releasing intricacies along the way.”
Under the tutelage of the Max Stafsholt head distiller, we then begin sampling each bourbon, adding water as desired. We learn to swish our cups back and forth, not spin, before we smell them — picking up delicate notes of oak, spice, and caramel. Model A, a 2016 full five-year-old, bears notes of orange, cinnamon, caramel, honey and maybe a little white pepper. On the lips, the balance of predominantly orange stands out, with a hint of cinnamon. We join the moon-making likes of Hatfields and McCoys, with the only animosity between our senses.
The ingredients are nothing but water and grains, including corn, barley, and rye, Staffchult says. It’s the thousands of chemical compounds in each, as they oxidize and release tannins, that cause subtle flavor differences.
“Ninety-five percent of our barrels fit into four categories — fruit, vanilla, rice spice, and ripe oak,” Nolte says, adding that barrels age faster at Breckenridge’s 9,600 feet, which leads to more evaporation but also flavor. “Then we get 1 percent of these weird stuff, like anise or cloves or even a banana foster. We reserve it for our hound powder mix.”
After smelling and tasting, we move on to the “finishing” category of the sheets – aka how to attach them to the tongue. Is it staying? Is it grainy or earthy? “We’re looking for a long-lasting finish,” says Stafsholt. “Those that finish quickly can be a little boring. We love spices that last.” We also learn about the characteristics of “mouth texture”, which are just as important as the nose, flavor and finish. This is what it feels on the tongue. Staffholt says you want a certain viscosity or texture – nothing that burns or is too “thin”.
We turn to each sample: gonorrhea, olfactory, aspiration. Sample B, a 2013 8-year-old barrel at 134 whiffs of buttercream notes—from our own taste wheel that falls into the sweet category alongside toffee, caramel, and vanilla—plus spice and a little whipping.
Beaker C, 2016 who’s also five years old, sits at 128.6 proof. Her noses are in scents of candy, dark and sweet fruit and dried fruit with traces of chocolate. Its end is thicker, almost creamy. Bourbon de is more difficult to describe. “It just baffled me earlier,” admits Stafsholt, who, after a further slack, outlined nasal tones of spicy brown sugar and a banana caramel Foster. Its flavor carries bits of ripe oak and possibly figs.
Then we move on to blending, which we learn brings out the more dominant characteristics of bourbon while suppressing its more inert properties. Once we reach a golden point, we are told, they will help us prove it by adding water. Most bourbons come in at 86, 92, or 105 percent.
“Blending is hard,” Nolte says. “What you thought could go together often doesn’t happen. Those sweet treats might just be gone. And it’s hard to find two that complement each other.”
Nolte must know. Now producing 23 barrels a day, five days a week, in a 10,000-gallon mash boiler and multiple fermentation tanks, his business is growing 40 percent each year. Led by the leading company Breckenridge Bourbon, a three-time winner of Whiskey Magazine’s Best American Blend, bottles 1.5 million tiles of his drink annually. But even he can stumble.
Advised that it’s all about playing and having fun, he suggests starting with a baseline and stepping into the “simpler features” we like.
“I see three ways this could go,” Nolte continues. “Fifty B and D; 50 percent A and then increases from others; or 80 percent of the people you like, then adjust for others.”
My first bite was 80% C, which I enjoyed the minutes of, with 20% A. Not bad. An amount of fruit and possibly acorns, with a few milliliters of water releases the nuances. I jotted down the percentages under the appropriate column headings in the experiment sheet.
The second stab is a 50/50 B and D. A little wonky. Then I try 50 percent C with 25 percent B and 25 percent D. Yikes. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who stumbles on blends that don’t work.
WeiweiBrian yells from across the room, biting his nose at his own concoction. He even knows when Harstan doesn’t get tangled up. Then he admits, “Sometimes I get tricked into mixing younger whiskeys.”
An hour later, a tray of charcuterie of meat and cheese interrupted us. We take a break, happy with something in our stomachs besides booze. Stafsholt says that salty cheeses, like Brie, bring out the bourbon fruit.
We bite and notice, we bite and notice. In the end, I settle on a combination of 50 percent A, 10 percent B, and 40 percent C. Voila! I love that; It is more balanced, while not accentuating a specific flavor. It bears fruity undertones, with a bit of spice and a light touch of oak. Stafsholt dangles, sniffs, sips, then nods his consent.
Then, to the delight of the joys, we take our picks home. Stafsholt mixes a larger batch with my finer proportions straight out of the barrels, fixes it to the required 105 degree, applies the label and corks the wax onto the bottle. I did it. I may not be Pape Van Winkle, but I blended my bourbon for the first time ever, the proof tightly in the palm of my hand.
Nolte, who belongs in the same room as Van Winkle or Basil Haydn, is finally happy with his own mix, too. “I don’t know anywhere else you can find something experimental like this,” he says, adding that they plan to host one to two such blending experiences per week. “The average person can’t do that. It’s easy to find romance with wine, but hard for consumers to sit behind the curtain with whiskey. And I’d love to share it.”
Breckenridge Distillery hosts one to two blending experiments per week. The cost is $300, with a minimum of four people, which gives you a bottle of your final creation (Additional Bottles: $100).
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