There’s an aspect of whiskey making the Scots have long called the “angel’s share” — the quantity of a spirit lost while it ages in a barrel.
Few phrases sum up the mythical world of whiskey better. A delicate art of time, grain, water and flavor, the deep, dark liquor has earned its place as a drinker’s drink, a magic potion of unrivaled complexity that also happens to be a massive challenge to get right.
Smugglers’ Notch Distillery was up to that task. The Jeffersonville-based spirits company has followed up on its vodka, rum and gin lines with an aged bourbon whiskey, which it began offering last month.
“It’s the blending that’s the most difficult part of making a good bourbon,” said Jeremy Elliot, who, along with father Ron, founded the distillery in the late 2000s, debuting its vodka in 2010.
Jeremy Elliot, a chemist who is originally from Connecticut, started distilling as a natural extension of his scientific work in the pharmaceutical industry.
Liquor is made by boiling a fermented grain, sort of like the rudiments of beer, in a still to condense the vapor into a concentrated liquid.
The Smugglers’ Notch Distillery was originally founded primarily to produce vodka, Elliot said. The distillery’s product is made with winter wheat and corn. As opposed to other liquors, vodka is simply the spirit that results from boiling and distilling grain, with no added flavoring or aging.
In 2011, the company added rum, which is made using a molasses base and aged in charred oak barrels.
The company’s 802 Gin, named for the Vermonters who were asked to sample different blends and vote for the final production run, debuted in 2012. Gin is defined as any grain spirit redistilled through a basket of juniper berries for aromatic flavor. Smugglers’ Notch starts with its own vodka as the spirit base, and evaporates the product through juniper, coriander and a couple of secret ingredients they’re keeping to themselves. The final product, they say, is uniquely American.
“There’s a term a lot of people are using now called ‘Western-style gin,’ which is very different from a London dry gin and has more citrus flavors,” Elliot said.
Whiskeys are typically aged in oak barrels to lend color and develop flavor. By law, a whiskey cannot be labeled as bourbon unless it was produced in the United States.
Unlike Scottish whiskeys, which use barley as the base grain, and Canadian whiskey, which is primarily rye, corn is the major ingredient in bourbon. Under federal rules, a whiskey must contain at least 51 percent corn to be considered bourbon.
“We’re looking for that sweetness, but it has to be smooth as well,” Elliot said.
Unlike the distillery’s vodka, which can be bottled immediately after it has been distilled and cut with water to soften the alcohol content, bourbon must be aged in charred oak barrels; Smugglers’ Notch gets their barrels from Jim Beam in Kentucky.
But it’s more complex than that. Different barrels containing differing ratios of the corn, rye and barley are used to make the final product. And those different barrels can be started in different years. The batch from each barrel is tasted individually, pulled when it has aged properly, blended with other batches, and then mixed with water until it has softened to 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume, said Austin Sachs, production specialist at the distillery.
“We’re looking for a corn nose, and also in some of (the barrels) we will get a little chocolate and that spicy rye finish,” Sachs said as he sipped a sample of the bourbon.
The final product is smooth, with the characteristic spiciness of the rye, the mellowness of the oak, and the sweetness of corn.
Neatly crammed into a small building off Vermont Route 108, the Smugglers’ Notch Distillery distributes its products almost exclusively in Vermont, with some vodka sales in New Hampshire.
It’s a compact but efficient operation, and it’s all done by hand using Vermont spring water. Stacks of oak barrels line the walls, tall white boxes full of product await delivery, and a small copper still sits at the back of the building. Even the label-maker, a simple tabletop device, is operated manually.
“I think this really is the best way to do it — to be involved in every step of the process,” Ron Elliot said.