A True Rhode Island Spirit: Single-Malt Whiskey
Why doesn’t America have its own version of single-malt whiskey?
That was the question that distiller and entrepreneur Michael Reppucci asked himself while he was studying in England.
“I was introduced to single-malt Scotches and I wondered why Americans didn’t make a single-malt whiskey,” he said.
As usual, it was the kind of question that has no easy answer but there maybe lots of reasons why no one had done it so far. For one thing, you have to teach people a language known only to distillers and the people who love their work. There are some distillers who insist that a barley-based malted whiskey doesn’t exist in America because it already has his national distilled spirit. It’s called Bourbon; and it is made with American maize, or corn, not malted barley.
Further confusing things was that, in the English-speaking world, the world that actually cares about whiskey, people call grains by different names in different countries. Until relatively recently, all grain was called “corn” in the British Isles and all maize was called “corn” in the colonies. Barley was “corn” in England, and our Anglican cousins named the mythical personification of evil whiskey “John Barleycorn.”
Add to that, the colloquial complications of calling some barley malt “honey malt” when it doesn’t really contain honey and then calling some rye “malted rye” and you have a recipe for getting dizzy long before you’ve tasted a drink.
In spite of all the explaining that it takes to get people to understand and take whiskey seriously, Mike Reppucci and his cousin and partner Chris Guillette, founded a new distillery in Rhode Island called Sons of Liberty Sprits and so far, people are beginning to see why Rhode Island should have its own uniquely flavored single-malt whiskey. It actually tastes good.
Sons of Liberty is one of over 400 micro distilleries in the country. They are a natural counterpart to the many microbreweries that have sprung up in the last 20 years or so and a logical extension of the “go local” movement in food production.
But, before we go any further, let’s describe exactly what whiskey is and where it came from.
According to the website of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), “The word ‘whisky’ is derived from the Gaelic word uisgebaugh … meaning ‘water of life.’” If you say the word quickly enough – or with a substantial quantity of whiskey in your system – it becomes, with a little shortening, “WEEZ-ga,” a word that was Anglicized to become “whisky.” [In America, an “e” is usually added between the “k” and the “y” but no one really knows why.]
Their history is a good general introduction to the world of whiskey, but “The Social History of Bourbon,” a book by Gerald Carson, first published by the University of Kentucky in 1963 but now out in paperback, is more scholastically disciplined and less of a booster text for the distillery industry in general and more for the distilling industry in Kentucky.
Carson explains that Bourbon, a spirit that can’t be made without a maize or corn “mash,” from our indigenous American grain, is a product unto itself, but in doing so, he also details the reason why whiskey was so economically important to our young country.
In 1640, the Dutch decided that liquor should be distilled on Staten Island and made it with corn and rye. Until the mid-18th century, what is now called whiskey was made in relatively small quantities, mainly by farmer-distillers, and without distinctive or consistent techniques. It was a way to convert leftover grain into something they could save or sell. They made beer with grain but beer didn’t keep long. Why not make whiskey out of beer, which would keep for a very long time. Distilling grain gave farmers whiskey and the leftover from the distilled mash could be fed to livestock. It turned surplus grain into a portable, saleable commodity.
“One horse could carry ‘about four bushels of grain or one 60-gallon barrel of whiskey – the product of 24 bushels of grain,’” according to DISCUS.
A veteran of the War of 1812 and patriarch of an upstate New York family, Michael Kernan, once risked his life on one of the Finger Lakes in a storm just to save a few barrels of whiskey, according to their family legend. He disappeared into the storm and was presumed dead until he sent word days later that he had reached safety with boat and barrel intact. For him, that whiskey was distilled from the sweat, tears and toil of an honest farmer and he was determined not to lose it.
If you are a little bit vague about what the “Whiskey Rebellion” was about, it was Alexander Hamilton’s idea of taxing whiskey that farmers used as a way to extend their income. Armed rebellion ensued and in 1791, Washington was forced to enforce a tax he probably didn’t like at all. But Washington prevailed and the first federal income tax, of a sort, was enacted.
When Michael Reppucci was studying distilling with David Pickerill, the former chief distiller for Maker’s Mark Bourbon and industry consultant, he did part of that apprenticeship at Mount Vernon, the ancestral home of one of the largest makers of spirits in post-colonial America.
“After he was retired from the Presidency, George Washington was one of the largest distillers in the country,” said Reppucci, “and we were using the same methods that he used. It was literally made by hand. You built a wood fire under a copper kettle and if you didn’t do it right, you got barley that wouldn’t convert to sugar or you got a big mess of burnt mash in your still.”
What stayed with Reppucci the whole time of his apprenticeship was that you started out with beer and the way that you made that beer determined the flavors you got in the whiskey. In the four years or so he has been at it, he’s had some successes and some failures but he enjoys the challenge too much to play it safe.
“We have had a lot of bad batches in that time, and made some stuff we just wouldn’t sell,” he said, “but we finally came up with Uprising and that has been our most successful whiskey in all respects.”
Repucci says he prefers to distill “slow and low,” which is to distill spirits at a lower temperature for a longer time to preserve the more delicate flavors and character of the brew it’s made from. He has experimented with flavoring whiskey with hops, which he thinks is a logical nod to the beer-making process. Their most recent concoction is Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey, of which about 1,500 bottles were produced and are on sale at a number of local outlets.
“It not something we made and just added some pumpkin flavor to,” said Bryan Ricard, the marketing director and the one employee in the distillery who is not related to Reppucci or Guillette. “We actually used real pumpkins. We chopped them and roasted them and then we squeezed all the juice out of them and added it to the whiskey.”
Ricard said the squeezing was the hardest part and they used the Sons of Liberty Facebook page to recruit volunteers to help.
“For their help, they got to put their name on the label of one of the bottles that would be sold in stores and on one bottle they could take home for themselves,” said Ricard, who didn’t think they were being the least bit under-compensated. “We all had a lot of fun.”
Ricard says that, after the Newport Storm Brewing Company’s distillery for Thomas Tew’s rum, Sons of Liberty is the first distillery to open in Rhode Island since the 19th Century, but Michael Reppucci says that he’s pleased to revive distilling in the state but thought that rum had much too dark a history for his taste.
“Rum, of course, was part of the triangle trade of slaves, molasses and rum, and that’s not a part of our history I’m anxious to draw attention to,” he said. “Whiskey has a more positive image for me.”
More specifically, “slow and low,” doubled distilled single-malt whiskey that is good to go now and going to get better in the future.
“In Scotland, where single-malt whiskeys are warehoused next to the sea, people believe that the sea actually affects the flavor of the Scotch,” said Reppucci. “Eventually, I’d like to see our single-malt whiskey aging along the coast of Rhode Island and capturing some of that flavor of New England and Rhode Island.”
For more information, visit www.solspirits.com.