Technically the process of whiskey distillation (from grain) and brandy distillation (from fruit) are similar. However they part ways in terms of distillation philosophy; whiskey focuses on extraction and purification (to palatability) and brandy is focused upon the retention and concentration (of varietal and flavor nuance).
We have said that we at Copper & Kings forge non-traditional spirits using traditional copper pot-distillation technique. We are focused upon the distillation of American Brandy using a double distillation process that produces a spirit that we leave unadulterated by chill-filtration or post-distillation addition of any additives.
We are inspired by the imagination and fearlessness of American Craft Brewers. They represent the best of America; courage, conviction and creativity. And we hope just a little bit of that rubs off on us.
We work with many craft brewers, and are privileged to call them friends. Craft beers are aged in Copper & Kings American Brandy barrels, Copper & Kings American Brandy is refined and polished in American Craft Beer barrels.
So why distill craft beer?
The essence of a great craft beer is character and flavor. Full bodied beers that have personality and flavor.
We believe that a brandy distillation philosophy is entirely appropriate for distilling beer. If you are going to make a gorgeous beer, why would you distill all the nuance and flavor OUT? The objective is flavor retention and concentration – as for brandy. Yup. As for brandy.
And we were just plain fucking excited to explore.
The project started as part of our friendship with the Against The Grain guys, and that they are as excitable as us, a spirited bunch one might say …. And that they wanted to distill Bo & Luke their premier beer, THE cult beer of Louisville, and a beer of global renown.
Bo & Luke is an Imperial Stout built upon the ingredients in bourbon whiskey (Barley, Rye, Corn) smoked with cherry wood. Then aged in Kentucky Bourbon Barrels. The resulting beer is rich, smokey and complex, with a bourbon character of caramel, vanilla and spice.
And who would want to screw around with THAT? We wanted to keep every single bit of that character within the spirit.
We focused on our typical double distillation – a first “stripping run” distillation to concentrate the flavor and then the doubling run with a heads, hearts and tails tasting and cutting process. We used Sara, our 50 gallon still named for Bob Dylan’s beautiful second wife (and the song Sara from Desire). Sara makes for a very pretty, beautiful spirit and she is gentle on the distillate. Which for an experiment was the way we wanted to travel.
Our stills contain no plates too punch the distillate proof higher; the brandy onion, shallow swan neck, horizontal condenser (and secondary chiller) “pillow” the distillate through condensation, we try not to “shock” the spirit through condensation. We don’t get too high in terms of proof levels – a batch proof is typically around 135 Proof.
So how did it go?
We distilled 200 gallons of Imperial Stout with an ABV of 11%.
It was pretty cold outside so we left the barrels on the loading dock to concentrate the beer in the liquid, Vs the barrel walls.
The distillation process was far faster than what we expected – about 5 hours Vs a typical 6 to 7+ hour process that we experience with our brandy distillation.
The Low Wine (First Distillate)came over at around 65 Proof, which was a little lower than we see for our brandy (+/-73 Proof), and incredibly soft. The chocolate malt carried through BEAUTIFULLY. Very apparent, very forward – cocoa, smoke, a little bit of corn and rye, barley upfront. Very clear. The biggest surprise was the delicacy of the spirit, the sheer softness of the distillate. Very elegant and refined, even for Low Wine.
If we were in any way concerned about the project following on, it was that we may destroy this delicacy, that we would lose all this refined flavor and clarity as we doubled the distillation. That it would all go away. We discussed perhaps adding back some stout in the barrel (which still sounds cool), adding some of the heads (which in truth were very “un-headsy – quite soft, delicious) – but we stayed the course.
But it didn’t…. thank God. It got better.
We doubled just over 55 gallons of Low Wine, and this yielded 22 gallons of gorgeous, gorgeous whiskey.
Aroma: Cocoa, malt. Rye & barley spice and front end tingle on the nose.
Taste: Mars bar! Edible, salivate inducing. Subtle corn sweetness, caramel, very balanced and rounded. Not very spicy at all.
Finish: Delicate, soft, smooth & elegant. Hits the full palate from front through mid-palate to long finish.
Which brings us to the final partner in a Louisville triumvirate. Kelvin Cooperage.
Coopering is as much an art form as any process in the creation of fine spirits, and Kelvin Cooperage (owned by the McLaughlin brothers) are indeed artists and our friends. They know how to think outside the barrel.
Paul McLaughlin decided that the best barrel to bring out the character (of a relatively small amount of distillate) was a 25 gallon barrel – new American oak staves, heavy toast, and a number 2 char. This would soften the lignens and tannins and bring out the complementary vanilla to enhance the chocolate malt character of the stout distillate. As a twist – Kelvin also felt that used Bourbon barrel heads would soften the power of New American Oak somewhat, but elevate the essential bourbon base character of Bo & Luke.
If you think in this detail about your craft you will always do good work, you will also bring out the best in your partners and Kelvin do this, they know the role of the barrel is pivotal to great spirits. And we were just happy that they made an amazing barrel for an amazing distillate.
So what next?
The distillate is easily soft and generous enough to drink un-aged.
But it’s in the barrel. It’s a small barrel, so the aging process is somewhat accelerated. We will taste every 3 months or so, my guess is that 2 years would produce a lovely spirit, but who knows? And Sam and Andrew are not known for their patience ….
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