This post is sponsored by Anchor Distilling, makers of three rye whiskeys in San Francisco, California.
Anchor Distilling makes three unique rye whiskies in a tiny corner of a big brewery in Potrero Hill in San Francisco. I visited, probably for my 6th time, to learn the story of how it all started and how the whiskies are made.
In the Beginning...
When you speak with start-up distillers, you realize that everyone wants to make whiskey, but whiskey takes time to age, it has the expense of barrels to age it in, and it requires space in which to age it. So most new distilleries launch vodka, gin, rum, and/or other unaged products first. That wasn't the case at Anchor Distilling, which launched an aged whiskey first and then gin later.
"We had a huge advantage in that we were all brewers, and the brewery was bankrolling all this. We didn’t have a time table to get a product out on the market. We could go until we had what we wanted," says Bruce Joseph, Head Distiller of the Anchor Distilling Company.
"We were lucky that we were able to spend a lot of time experimenting. There wasn’t a lot of information out there for small-scale distilling. It wasn’t what any bourbon distillers were doing." Joseph (interviewed in May 2014) had been a brewer long before Anchor's founder Fritz Maytag had the idea to launch a distillery.
He continued, "Later we discovered we had broken the California law, which was a stupid mistake. But in California to be called whiskey, never mind rye whiskey, you have you to be in the barrel for at least 3 years, and some of the barrels have to have been charred. Which is absurd because there were no charred barrels until about 1840 or so."
Yes, another unique feature: one of the three single-malt rye whiskeys made at Anchor is aged in a hand-made, air-dried, toasted American oak barrel, while laws for bourbon specify charred oak and that's the standard. It was a combination of Maytag's wine expertise and dedication to make a historically valid whiskey that had led him to the toasted oak decision.
"We called it 18th Century-Style Whiskey because we couldn’t call it rye whiskey because it wasn’t aged in charred barrels. (But) that whiskey can’t be called whiskey at any age in California because there are no charred barrels. We still have a product that in California is labelled as a “spirit”; can’t call it whiskey, it’s crazy," he said.
This Is How It's Done
- Old Potrero Single-Malt Straight Rye Whiskey (sometimes called 19th Century whiskey)
- Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey
- Old Potrero Hotaling's Single-Malt Whiskey
They all start with the same distillate, made from fermented 100% malted rye mash. Then they all go into different barrels at the same proof, "a little below the legal limit of 125 proof," according to Joseph.
- The Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey is aged in toasted barrels for 2.5 - 3 years, sometimes with a little bit of older whisky mixed in. Joseph says, "Toasted barrels work better for a younger whisky."
- The Old Potrero Single-Malt Straight Rye Whiskey is aged in new charred oak barrels for 4.5 - 5 years. Joseph says, "We prefer the whisky not to age too long."
- The Old Potrero Hotaling's Single-Malt Whiskey is aged in used whiskey barrels. These have always been ex-bourbon barrels, but recent releases will have been aged in used charred barrels that were used to age something else (forthcoming) at Anchor. Joseph says, "We kept tasting it but for the first 7 years we didn’t like it as much as the other whiskies. But finally we tried it after about 8.5 years after we hadn't in a while and we said 'We should have been putting more of this away!' The age of the release changes each year, as there isn't very much of it around.
The barrels were aged on-site in Potrero Hill for many years, but now they age in Western Sonoma County in a warehouse that keeps a San Francisco-like temperature year-round.
This post about the pioneering spirits created by Fritz Maytag and his team is sponsored by Anchor Distilling.