What can't Ironroot Republic Distillery do with Corn?
If you want to know what gives Ironroot Republic's whiskies both their sweet and spicy flavors, you better brush up on your varieties of corn. The distillery uses up to six in some mashes. If you're like me and were only familiar with canned and on the cob, don't worry. Robert Likarish, co-owner and co-distiller along with his brother Jonathan, is happy to fill you in.
The best example of the differences in taste between varieties of corn is Promethean Bourbon, their first whiskey, which premiered in 2015. The mash is 95% corn and 5% rye. Of the corn, in proportions Robert didn't specify, are purple, yellow and two varieties of red, all from Texas. I didn't get to taste each type of corn on their own, but Robert explains that the sweetness will largely come from the yellow, spice from one of the reds (Aztec), and the purple lends it an earthiness.
As if that's not enough variety, the whiskey then goes into barrels made of either American, French or European oak, charred anywhere from light (#1) to fairly heavy (#4), and then aged from one and a half to five years. You'd be forgiven for thinking this would lead to a wide variation from bottle to bottle. I thought the same, and wish I could have sampled more, just to verify. But Robert assures me they blend enough for consistency, while reserving the best casks for special releases.
Robert walks me through the rickhouse, explaining another source of variation. The barrels are stacked four high and Robert tells me there's as much as a six degree difference between bottom and top. I am told about the aging effects of Texas weather, not only the toasty summer but the extremes throughout the year from nighttime lows and daytime highs. That's why Ironroot and other local distilleries can get away with aging as little as one year: the liquor gets so excited and moves around plenty in and out of that wood.
I try a very intriguing Special Release Whiskey. It's not officially bourbon, because it's aged in former bourbon casks, for up to thirty months. The mash is a mix of purple and red corn. Again, I was not let in on the exact proportion. But no matter, it's also a delicious mashup of sweet and spicy. At 120 proof, it was surprisingly smooth. Robert tells me it won the Best Corn Whiskey award from Whiskey Magazine in 2017.
Ironroot doesn't sell it's Moonshine anymore, but Robert gives me a sample anyway because... drinking. It's "only" 90 proof and has a hint of sweetness. That could be because the mash bill is 95% red and yellow corn mix, and 5% barley.
Robert seems proud that their vodka is Eastern European style. I don't know what that means. I ask if it's the same as being Russian and I catch Robert chuckling. It just means it's not chill filtered. Well excuse me. He adds that everywhere besides the US is pretty lax as to what can constitute vodka, pretty much as long as it's clear. Ironroot's falls into the flavorful category, where the major note is sweet grain. It's not majority corn, like the bourbon. It's 20% wheat and 80% yellow corn.
The gin has a lot going on: lemon grass, citrus peels, coriander, ginger, pecan and the requisite juniper. Juniper is still the main nose for me, while citrus jumps out on the palate. Again, on display is the the gin-maker's goal of appealing to non-gin drinkers. Totally unnecessary to me. All the same, Robert is proud of those 'gin haters' he's converted to the piney side. As flavorful as it is, I would choose any one of his whiskeys over the gin any day.
Lastly, I try a peated corn whiskey. It's the same mash bill as the Special Release, except it's been roasted over peat smoke. It has a slightly lower proof than the Special Release, at 107, and is aged in bourbon casks for two years. It's sweet on the nose, and identical to a peaty scotch on the palate. Go Texas!
To sum up Robert: he is the consummate host, only edging this side of prideful when warranted. Otherwise, he is all about his guest - answering questions patiently (and I'm sure I made him repeat himself a bunch of times, or word it in different ways). And for Ironroot: it's a modest facility putting out high caliber and varied spirits. Even though I didn't meet his brother, I can see the evidence of a family operation. As I get ready to leave, Mom comes out to clear away my samples. Corn, apparently, is not the only sweetness at Ironroot.