ith international training in the culinary arts, Steve Stallard has a keenly-developed appreciation for the many layers and nuances that can be contained in a single bite or sip. A chef by trade, he began experimenting with food production to create ingredients he felt were missing in his own kitchen.
Initially, this took the form of harvesting and smoking his own fish roe from species native to the United States, including steelhead trout. Observing the pleasant interplay of bourbon and maple syrup in the smoking process, Stallard hatched the idea of ageing the same syrup in a used bourbon barrel.
“It was an expensive venture. It cost US$ 3,000 to fill that first 55-gallon barrel. To be honest, I was expecting a potential catastrophe, but what came out was really fantastic.”
That first experiment proved to be the foundation for Stallard’s company BLIS Gourmet. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the company’s name is an acronym for Stallard’s motto, and the reason he believes it’s essential to indulge one’s palette, “Because life is short.” When he started the company in 2004, he became the first commercial producer of bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.
Stallard’s signature syrup picks up notes of honey, charred oak, vanilla and spice from the bourbon barrels. Fine-tuned over the years, the process is not as simple as pouring syrup into a barrel and waiting. There’s an art in selecting barrels that will infuse the desired flavours. “About 80 per cent of bourbon barrels don’t impart the type of flavour we’re looking for. They need to have a lot of punch, a lot of traction. I want the result to be distinctive and undeniable. Some of the most expensive bourbon in the world simply doesn’t throw off enough flavour.”
Timing, too, is an essential factor to be controlled, “If you wait too long, it can start to become ‘overwooded.’ It gets this tannic, oaky edge that starts to dominate the other flavours and it can start to become bitter.” The BLIS Bourbon Barrel Maple Syrup spends about a year in the barrels.
Scientific knowledge also comes in handy to avert potential disaster. “You have to really know the chemical analysis of your product and it has to be stable. If you end up with fermentation, you could have the head blow off the barrels, there’s US$ 3,000 worth of syrup on the floor, which is a nightmare to clean up.”
Losing an entire barrel is an avoidable calamity, but a quantity of syrup is always inevitably lost in the process, notes Stallard. “With each go around, the barrels soak up about one gallon worth of the syrup.” Ever an experimenter, it was this discovery that led Stallard to expand his range of barrel aged products even further. “I now had these sweet, syrup-infused bourbon barrels and I didn’t know what do with them.”
First, he began ageing sherry vinegar in the barrels using a “double solera” process that involves adding quantities of vinegar at regular intervals. Next, he collaborated with Vietnamese fish sauce brand Red Boat to create a barrel-aged version of their product that spends about seven months in the barrels. “The American palate isn’t overly fond of the taste and smell of fish sauce, but the bourbon and maple syrup had a very interesting effect on it. The sweetness and smokiness really takes the edge off the nose, but you still have the body and mainline of the fish sauce coming through.”
This was the first of many successful co-branded barrel-ageing collaborations, including with Yamato Soysauce & Miso Co, that Stallard says are rooted in “sharing and growing each other’s businesses.”
BLIS continues to pioneer creative and complex flavour profiles with its product line. Blast Steak Sauce, for example, is aged in barrels that have previously held hot pepper sauce, stout beer, maple syrup and originally, Kentucky bourbon.
“To be called bourbon, the whiskey has to be aged in clean, never-before-used white oak barrels. After the bourbon has been pulled out, the barrel is of no more use to the distillery,” says Stallard. “Once we get those barrels, it’s completely the opposite approach. We keep moving new products through, massaging the flavours and giving it new life. After 10 years or so, we usually only throw a barrel out because it’s worn out.”
John Speights’ foray into barrel ageing began after he developed an appreciation for coffee through his colleague in the tech world, Jason Maranhao. “He was a coffee connoisseur and would bring in different beans from around the word to do tastings.”
Seeking out new flavours to sample, Speights came across a variety of different barrel-aged coffee beans. In recent years, this process has begun to catch on in the coffee world. Last spring, Starbucks released its own limited batch Reserve Whiskey Barrel Aged Sulawesi coffee.
Intrigued by the concept, Speights felt he could improve on the flavour profiles he had sampled. “A friend had opened a distillery, and so Jason procured one of their stout whiskey barrels. At first, we would age the beans, then pull them out and roast them in a small rotisserie, one sample at a time.”
Satisfied with the initial results, and spurred by positive feedback from critics, Speights and Maranhao partnered to start a more formal venture in 2015. They named the company Cooper’s, a nod to the trade of making wooden barrels. They continued to hone their process, putting single source, whole green coffee beans in whiskey, bourbon and rum barrels and ageing them for about 45 to 60 days.
Green, unroasted coffee beans tend to absorb fragrances from their immediate environment. When transported, this can be a liability as they may take
on the flavour of the burlaps sacks they are packed in, or even soak up the exhaust fumes from the vehicle in which they are transported. When placed in wet whiskey barrels however, this becomes an asset as they take on the pleasant tasting notes of the spirit.
“In the beginning, we were pairing different beans with their own flavour profiles, with different whiskey barrels that have their own flavour profiles. There’s definitely some trial and error involved. The Uprising whiskey barrels from Sons of Liberty, for example, contained a stout-based whiskey. With this you get a bit of vanilla, and some tropical fruits and caramel. That one paired very nicely with the tasting notes and earthy profile of the Sumatra beans.”
Constant testing is crucial to ensuring consistency and quality from batch to batch. “We take a little out, then roast it and cup it at different temperatures to see what kind of profile tastes best for that particular bean. We start at a light roast and pull beans out of the roast every five degrees (Fahrenheit) all the way up to a dark roast.”
The final product, Speights notes, will still satisfy a discerning java lover, even if they don’t have a taste for spirits. “You’re not getting a mouthful of alcohol. It’s still a coffee drinker’s coffee. You taste the nuances of the whiskey on the back end of the coffee as you’re drinking it.”
THE HIGH SEAS
For Trey Zoeller, a nautical revelation inspired a novel twist on the ageing process, one that didn’t involve changing the contents of a bourbon barrel, but instead its external environment.
To celebrate his 40th birthday, Zoeller was spending time aboard the marine research vessel of Chris Fischer, a long-time friend. Fischer is the founder of OCEARCH, a non-profit organization that tracks and studies marine species like great whites and tiger sharks.
“We spent the week fishing, surfing and drinking bourbon. As I watched the bourbon slosh back and forth in the bottle, I knew it would do the same in barrels if we placed them on the ship,” says Zoeller, who launched his company Jefferson’s Bourbon in the late 1990s with his father Chet, a noted bourbon scholar. “It took some convincing, but Chris agreed to allow me to bring five barrels of new fill, clear-as-water bourbon and place them on the bow of the ship.”
Fischer kept the barrels on board his ship for three and a half years. During that span, the vessel covered more than 10,000 nautical miles, traversing the equator and passing through the Panama Canal six times. Corrosion claimed two of the barrels, causing them to burst, but three survived the journey and returned to the US intact.
“We tapped into the barrels and discovered gorgeous, dark, thick bourbon. It was almost black. When we sampled it, we were blown away by the taste and the smoothness,” says Zoeller, noting that the four-year-old bourbon had taken on the colour and complexity one would expect from a 30-year old variety.
Bourbon enthusiasts snapped up that first batch, with some paying as much as five times the US$ 200 selling price at auction. It was clear the product was a hit, but sending along another set of barrels on a research ship was neither practical nor scalable. “The original voyage was simply an adventure. I did not know how it would turn out and was shocked at how great it finished. I had to find a way to commercialise it but could not put a couple of hundred barrels on my friend’s ship.”
Zoeller now has containers taking fully matured bourbon around the world, hitting 30 ports, on five continents and crossing the equator five times. The barrels travel as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Official tasters monitor the ageing process at various ports of call along the journey. Each generation of the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea bourbon charts a unique course that imparts a different flavour and colour to that particular batch.
Ageing bourbon in such a globe-spanning fashion presents its own unique challenges, some bureaucratic, and others chemical. “The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau gets a bit confused when we want to export something then import it back to the US. We had a lot of hurdles to jump through to make it work. There’s also the extreme amount of evaporation, or angel’s share. We lose about half of the yield through evaporations due to the constant rocking of the liquid and the humidity on the Ocean.”
The rewards make it all worthwhile, however. “The bourbon that arrives from this process is much different than what departed. The viscosity is noticeably thicker. The bourbon smacking against the wood gives it color and flavour while also filtering the liquid to take away the stringency of the whiskey. The salt air adds a briny taste and when the ship passes through the heat of the equator, it caramelizes the sugars inside the wood. It came out tasting like salted, caramel popcorn.”