Last week, I had the unique opportunity to join some friends at a local distillery down in Westminster for a barrel tasting and tour. I’d been meaning to visit Whistling Hare for quite a while because I love their blue corn bourbon… but, you know, COVID-19 and all.
In fact, Whistling Hare’s entire line is pretty darn fantastic, even the rum (and I am not a rum fan, thanks to one singular girls’ night combined with a handle of Captain Morgan in college). If you haven’t tried anything of theirs yet, go for the bourbon, the vodka, or the gin first.
Preferably in that order.
They’ll absolutely blow your mind.
The moment I walked in, I was greeted by a cozy tasting room in welcoming neutral shades and warm woods, with strung Edison bulbs adding a coppery overtone to complement the overhead lighting. Clearly an industrial space, complete with an enticing look at the workspaces through broad windows behind the bar, it instantly engaged the curiosity, and suddenly I felt myself craning for a closer look.
I noted after a peek at the tasting menu that visitors have an opportunity to sample not only the core lineup of spirits, but also some smaller experimental batches I haven’t seen in stores. Of course, there are also cocktail options, but I made a mental note to save that for another visit.
Once we had all arrived, Sandy, one of the distillers, led us on our tour. Sandy, the owner and head distiller, was unfortunately unable to make the event (yep, those are two different people).
Whistling Hare, as a small family-owned operation, had less space than I expected for crafting their products, but they maximize every inch with killer results, and that in my mind ranks highest.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of their copper still (oops), but I did get a couple of angles of the rather impressive column still, shown in the above gallery. It’s actually secured to the ceiling beam to provide more stability due to its height.
A brief explanation of the difference between the two still types:
- Copper stills (link goes to an image of one example) are squat and made from, well, copper, because it conducts heat really well. They’re normally used for distilling smaller batches at a time of flavored spirits like bourbon, such as in Whistling Hare’s case. And what bourbon they make! *dreamy look*
- Column stills (or continuous stills, if you prefer) are more efficient for making white spirits such as vodka, meant to be more neutral in style. By adding more chambers (and thus height) to the overall still, the resulting spirit loses more flavors and becomes more “pure” with regards to alcohol.
Next we ventured into the barrel room, which smelled delightfully of toasted oak and sawdust. Though you can’t see it in the image, a few cigar-shaped barrels lay nestled behind these regular casks, which I’d never before seen.
Here Sandy talked about the differences between a spiral/corkscrew cut and a wave cut inside a barrel. He noted that the bourbons created by Whistling Hare overall tended to taste better when using barrels with wave cuts, due to the fact that toasting likely occured within the barrel more evenly than with a corkscrew.
No idea what I’m talking about here? Barrels? What???
Worry not, click here for a quick primer that goes live on Wednesday @ 11 AM MDT.
Mind the rabbit hole, Alice, it’s a doozy~
And from there we moved on to the actual tasting. We had five different barrel samples to smell and taste blind, with a final choice to make at the end for the liquor store’s unique barrel. These samples came in around 114 proof, or 57% ABV, so the Whistling Hare staff made sure we had a nice charcuterie board and lots of water to keep us going. Each of us also had a glass of coffee beans — great to sniff when your nose starts getting overwhelmed and tired. Pro tip, that.
Word to the wise: always come to a tasting on a fairly full stomach, especially if you’re tasting items at barrel proof like we did. Most bourbons come in at a bottle proof of around 40%; I’ll explain how that works in another post.
Here are the notes I took on the five barrels, shortened due to time constraints at the tasting event:
- Barrel A: clear medium gold; aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, caramel, toast, and spice at medium intensity; flavors were super toasty, with some dried stone fruit (apricot?), cedar, and a touch of caramel
- Barrel B: clear medium gold; aromas of vanilla, apple, and smoke at medium (+) intensity, smelled “hot” (as in, lots of pure alcohol vapors wafting out of it); flavors are smoky, toasty, toffee, vanilla
- Barrel C: clear medium bronze; aromas difficult to distinguish clearly, muddled; tasted a lot more savory, herbal, almost medicinal (even after sniffing some coffee beans I struggled with this one)
- Barrel D: clear medium copper; aromas at medium intensity of toast, caramel, dill, vanilla, marshmallow; flavors butterscotch, toast, vanilla, cocoa
- Barrel E: clear medium bronze; medium intensity aromas of spice, oak dust, toast, vanilla, caramel; tasted more spicy than the others, very toasty, apple, smoke
I know, I know — nowhere near as detailed as some of my wine notes. However, I have as much time as I need when analyzing at home, and I’m a lot more familiar with the aromas and flavors in wine. Spirits are an entirely different animal…
After individual assessments and tasting, we came back together as a group to discuss the options. Selecting a new inventory item doesn’t always mean you pick your favorite of the bunch, I’ve learned through both experience and study — you have to also consider what your clients/customers seek, and how your choice best fits their needs. As a barrel is a huge investment for a liquor store, our individual tastes and opinions mattered only so much as they contributed to an existing customer profile. As my first ever barrel tasting, the particular experience of assess-and-discuss was both tasty and eye-opening all at once.
I’d absolutely rate the evening a solid 11 out of 10, accounting for all of the new learning, engaging discussions, fantastic company, and much-welcome laughter at the close of a weekday work day. My calendar has already been marked for a return to the Whistling Hare tasting room in the near future, and I fully recommend that any locals do the same!
Huge thanks goes to Sandy — and Sandy, though he couldn’t join us — and of course Brian! — at Whistling Hare for hosting, organizing the event, answering our many varied questions, and for giving us the rare opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of a working distillery.
Currently, the pandemic does not allow for public tours of Whistling Hare, but that should change very soon. In the meantime, you can still stop by and savor their tasty craft creations Thursday-Sunday each week.
Do it. Dooooo iiiiit. Go and visit.