The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Food & Drink -

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.”


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.”

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