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Craft distillers moving from pals to partners

Four Kings, a blend of bourbons from four craft distillers in the nation's mid-section, signals a shift from collegiality to collaboration.
Four Kings, a blend of bourbons from four craft distillers in the nation's mid-section, signals a shift from collegiality to collaboration.
Bob Benenson

Craft distilling is still a small -- though rapidly growing -- slice of the overall spirits market. Most producers in the sector are collegial, citing the mantra that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

In other words, the success of any craft distiller creates a greater thirst among consumers for small-batch spirits in general. And it appears that craft distilling is starting to move beyond collegiality to outright collaboration.

Take Four Kings, a specialty bourbon produced for the annual World of Whiskies tasting event staged last Thursday by Binny’s Beverage Depot, the Chicago area’s biggest liquor store chain. It is a blend of equal amounts of whiskey produced by four rising craft distilleries in the midlands: Journeyman of Three Oaks, Michigan; Few Spirits of Evanston, Illinois; Mississippi River Distilling of LeClaire, Iowa; and Corsair Distillery of Nashville, Tennessee.

As with many of the innovations in the craft sector, the idea for Four Kings came about during brainstorming over cocktails.

“It started a year ago here,” said Ryan Burchett of Mississippi River, referring to the 2013 Binny’s event. “We had done a seminar together, and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could blend our whiskeys and have something special just for this?’”

Although the 30 gallons contributed by each distillery to this very limited bottling would be a drop in the barrel for a big commercial producer, it was a bit of a gamble for the small producers who do not have a lot of excess product laying around.

But the result is a very smooth melding of the different styles, with a lower-octane alcohol level (80 proof) to keep it accessible to newer whiskey drinkers.

As with most blended whiskeys, no one of the constituent parts stands out above the others. “I taste a little bit of everybody’s,” said Paul Hletko, Few’s owner and chief distiller. “The Corsair is obviously there, they make such wonderfully crazy, awesome whiskeys. I tasted a lot of the spice from mine. I tasted some of the sweetness from the other ones. I think it’s really a marriage of all four whiskeys, all four styles.”

Bill Welter of Journeyman said, “We knew that all four whiskeys independently were excellent. We just assumed that if you throw them all in there together, it’s still going to be good whiskey.”

Experimentation is still a calling card for distillers in the craft sector, as is a growing pursuit of locally grown ingredients. These are combined in Bill’s Michigan Wheat, which is in its second year of bottling by New Holland of Holland, Michigan -- one of the few micro-distilleries that is also attached to a craft beer operation.

The mash bill for this whiskey is 80 percent wheat, 20 percent malted barley, and all-Michigan. “It’s all grown and malted about 50 miles from Holland. It’s really cool that it’s so nearby,” said Rich Blair, national accounts manager for New Holland. He added, ““We want to use all ingredients from Michigan to begin this new approach to whiskey that focuses on what Michigan produces, at very high quality.”

It is not always easy. Journeyman, for instance, is one of a small number of all-organic spirits producers. “We try to get as local as we can,” said Welter, noting that he gets all of his wheat from Michigan, his rye and corn from Illinois, and malted barley from Wisconsin.

Hletko said he enjoyed working with the three other distilleries on Four Kings, and discussions are already under way for another release at next year’s World of Whiskies -- perhaps a rye. He said, though, that if this had not worked out, he would have sought some other kind of collaboration.

“Even if it wasn’t four of us, I’d have worked with somebody else, because it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s something new,” Hletko said.

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