Even 30 years ago, bourbon was not recognized as a spirit worthy of any special distinction or any especial celebrity. People who drank bourbon were essentially bums and layabouts who were looking to get drunk on a hard liquor that was cheap and easily found in and around Kentucky.
Today, bourbon’s pride of place as America’s worthiest alcohol export belies the story of its less-than-glorious past. Recognized by the Congress as `America’s Native Spirit’, with total sales at nearly $3.7 billion dollars a year, bourbon can be a desirable craft spirit that connoisseurs are willing to buy at any premium nowadays.
“Scarcity builds FOMO (fear of missing out) and a very telling example of this is a limited-edition bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle,” says Erik Leidholm, award-winning sommelier, wine director of John Howie restaurants, and distiller at Wildwood Spirits. “Wholesalers are probably selling it for about $ 150, but the influence of the nationwide bourbon boom is such that a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can now go in the secondary market for as much as $ 2,000!”
Wildwood Spirits is a micro distillery in Bothell, Washington, that is one of the few establishments left in America that still believes in the artisanal philosophy of fractional distilling, and has already produced two award-winning spirits that lay claim to uniqueness because of their seasonal and hyper-local botanicals: Kur Gin and Stark Vatten Vodka.
The next big news coming from Wildwood Spirits is `Dark Door’ – a wheated bourbon that exemplifies Erik Leidholm’s commitment to limited edition production of world-class spirits that are carefully reciped and handcrafted to perfection.
“We always knew we were going to make some kind of whisky,” says Erik. “But we wanted to select a product that could be produced consistently within the small Wildwood facility without compromising in any way on quality. We finally decided on bourbon, because corn is really easy to work with.”
But sourcing corn in Washington is not quite as easy, because the crop is grown sparingly in the state. “It was important to us that our corn was locally produced, keeping to our commitment to terroir, and finally, when we did find a local supplier for the corn, we were ready to commit to making a limited edition bourbon that we could justifiably be proud of.”
One of the most important ingredients in bourbon is oak. The quality of oak barrels used to rest the bourbon in, is paramount to the production process because the `oakiness’ can only be obtained from a good spirit-wood relationship. “As a sommelier with an extensive wine background, I was particularly concerned about achieving the best spirit-wood relationship – a process called `esterification’ that imparts flavor, color and all the good things you want in a great bourbon,” says Erik. “I am a connoisseur of barrels and really admire cooperages [barrel manufacturers] that build with eye on craftsmanship and not just profits.”
Searching for the right barrels proved to be an uphill task until Erik stumbled upon a small, artisanal cooperage in Higbee, Missouri that primarily made wine barrels. “Ninety-eight per cent of their barrels were made for wine, but they did make a small amount of whiskey barrels too. Since these barrels were three times more expensive than mass-produced whiskey barrels in the market, there wasn’t a whole lot of demand for them either.”
As Erik was relying on the barrels to do a lot of the work for the Dark Door bourbon, he bought them from this cooperage, no matter what the price. (More than three times the usual for a bourbon whiskey barrel.)
“They grew oak the right way in forests, close together with branches up high,” says Erik. “The way they felled the trees and cut the bolts, the tight cellular structure in the barrel staves – everything about their craftsmanship promised that we would get a very satisfying interaction between wood and spirit. Indeed, we could have released the bourbon even last year, we got such tremendous interaction!”
Can these barrels be used again for a second batch of bourbon? “No,” explains Erik. “We may reuse them if we make an Irish whisky. But bourbon barrels are for one-time use only. Traditionally, bourbon distilleries send their used barrels to Scotland for the making of Scotch. They break the barrels down and then rebuild it.”
From the 12 barrels Wildwood bought to make Dark Door, Erik expects 300 bottles from each barrel. At a pre-sell event, 100 bottles from the first two barrels already sold out, and will be available in February and May. “We relied on the barrels to add lots of oomph and character to the bourbon, and we couldn’t be happier with the results.”
What about the name?
After Stark Vatten Vodka, Kur Gin and Läka Gin, one has come to expect European-sounding, exotic product names from Wildwood — the same way we expect every furniture line from Ikea to be called Friheten or Djursbo or Ypperlig.
Erik Liedholm laughs at the suggestion, pointing out that while gin and vodka can trace their history back to Europe, bourbon was a true-blue, all-American spirit. “While thinking about names for the new bourbon, I recalled the dark wood door at my parents house,” he says. “I remember coming back from school every day and facing that large, imposing door that seemed to hold deep, dark secrets. Whether it was cloudy or sunny outside, that imposing, polished door never lost any of its grand majesty and it still looms pretty large in memories of my childhood days.
“Since bourbon names are expected to be somewhat evil, magical, maniacal, catchy, I thought why not `Dark Door’? My parent’s house is already the Wildwood emblem on the back label of all our products. Why not keep to the theme – and keep people wondering?”
For all bourbon connoisseurs out there who are fascinated by Dark Door’s artisanal back story and want to taste this latest spirit from Wildwood, you can still visit their tasting room at 9116 Beardslee Blvd #102, Bothell, WA 98011 and get an early taste of it. From the outside, the premises are as unassuming and low-key as its proprietor. But once you step inside, the décor of this small, cozy tasting room is a throwback to an old, English apothecary with millwork, Edison bulbs and medicinal bottles to transport you to the 18th Century – a time when gin was touted in Europe as a health tonic! Typically, it is small groups and romantic couples who visit the Wildwood tasting room, but if you have a large, tasting party who wants to experience Dark Door bourbon in it’s native `terroir’ — a few feet away from the metal vats that produced it — Erik is not even a little bit fazed. “Come on in busloads,” he invites. “We’ll see about where to put you once you are here.”
Isn’t that just the kind of futuristic, alternate reality promise of an extraordinary experience that all spirit connoisseurs are always willing to get first dibs on?
Especially if Erik Liedholm himself is on the premises to guide you, teach you, and inspire you to be a more discerning connoisseur than you ever hoped to be.