Kristofer Kwant puts thought into everything at Triple Sun Spirits
Let me start at the end: I leave Triple Sun Spirits in Emmaus, PA mentally exhausted. It's been a very rewarding hour and a half getting schooled by owner-distiller Kris Kwant. This man is meticulous in everything, and our conversation weaves across numerous topics: Pennsylvania's excise tax laws, how a spirit's coloring will effect its hydrometer readings and tons of molecular chemistry as it relates to flavoring and alcohol.
Looks are deceiving and we -yes, I'm including all of us- unfortunately try to do our best with the most superficial of information. For instance, I show up at the Triple Sun facility and think "here's a hobby distiller renting out the back of a brewery, for his experiments and whatnot." Wrong. Well, Kris isn't even there when I arrive. The doors are unlocked because some folks are in the attached, though unrelated, brewery, so I make myself at home at the bar on the distillery side.
It's a spartan space. Or maybe the room is too big to not have any tables or chairs in the middle. I'm drawn in by the works of art on the walls. These are original oil paintings of trippy human-insect mashups and scarily grinning princesses. It's like the concept art for a video game where the winner is whoever takes the most LSD. Then I catch a glimpse of the price cards. These hallucinations are no joke.
Kris comes in dripping wet and apologetic, even though I'm the one who's early. As I will come to understand, Kris speaks in breathless bursts not because he is rushing. It's just that his mind covers territory faster than words can express.
As he leads me to the backroom with all the equipment, Kris is already explaining the rationale for a relatively low output of spirits (60 cases per month). It's as simple as quality control. It may prove to be a blessing and a curse that Kris has a pharmaceutical background. (And a day job at a lab. That's where he just came from.) You can pinpoint any stage in the spirits-making process -from the grain stalk itself to what's happening in the bottle- and Kris will breakdown the what and why of chemical reactions. So I learn about Maillard reactions, where sugars interact with amino acids under heat to produce the flavors found in charred or "browned" food. Some of these molecules will make it through distilling and some won’t. The ones that make it through will further morph over time spent in the barrel. Kris has taken up the challenge of using these facts to determine the flavor of his spirits.
Kris calls his white corn whiskey “lightly distilled.” The beer created by fermenting 100% corn gets distilled twice. The first stripping run goes through a stainless steel still. The second run goes through a copper pot still for flavor. It comes off the still after the second run at 150 proof. It gets bottled at 100 proof using water filtered through reverse osmosis.
The moonshine is purportedly Triple Sun’s most popular spirit. Its nose is sweet and yeasty. The palate has a sour and tart quality, with chocolate on the finish.
Kris has made a bourbon that’s almost reached its goal of aging two years, though some barrels will go longer. The mash bill is 80% corn, 10% rye and 10% malted barley. Kris pulls some out of the barrel for me to try. Since it goes into the barrel at 136 proof, Kris estimates this sample to be at 115 proof. It will be bottled at 100 proof. It has a nice stouty nose that’s like dark sherry. The palate has a lot of chocolate, tobacco and wood, finishing on a roasted wine note.
Kris knows a lot about rum. Why shouldn’t he? So he goes into moderate detail (by Kris’ standards) of the different styles throughout the Caribbean ranging from the lightest (clear agricoles in Martinique) to the heaviest (Jamaican darks). The main differentiating factor is which type of sugar product the rum is distilled from; or if it’s made from multiple types, then the proportion of each in the mash.
Triple Sun has two rums, made from the same mash bill of Caribbean molasses fermented for four days and then distilled once in the copper pot. The difference is one is aged and the other is not. Both are 80 proof.
Kris places his unaged rum in the Cuban tradition, which means halfway between Puerto Rican, which are light on flavor, and Jamaicans, traditionally full of earth and thick syrupy goodness. I find the nose on this rum to be light, almost imperceptible. If pushed, I'd have to say it's like a flowery coconut. The palate, oddly, strikes me of wheat, with slight malty notes.
The aged rum spends about six months in new oak barrels. The nose is sweet, with an undertone of barrel notes: caramel, vanilla, and so on. The palate is heavier with those barrel flavors. It's las if someone has magically subtracted all the grain from a bourbon. I'm sure Kris would have a strong rejoinder to that.
I've saved my least favorite of the Triple Sun spirits for last. You have to keep in mind, with the level of perfection Kris is going for here, "least favorite" hardly carries any weight. But it is a gin, and I just don't play nice with botanicals, as hard as I try.
Triple Sun's gin starts as a grain neutral spirit that Kris runs through their column still three times. The last time, the vapor passes through a basket containing twelve botanicals: German juniper, hops, coriander, cardamom, clove, anise, three types of peppercorn (black, pink and green), lemon and lime zest, and amarillo. It tastes as complex as you'd think, once you get past the juniper, of course. It is way too overwhelming for me. God bless drinkers that love a good perfume bomb in the mouth.
Speaking of overwhelming, I'm now driving back to my aunt and uncle's house over an hour away, and I'm reeling. It's not the alcohol. I make sure to take tiny sips when I sample. It's more the facts I've been drinking up as if from a firehose for the past two hours. It's a very rewarding type weariness. Like if one day you decide to learn how to make scrambled eggs, but somehow find yourself in the advanced soufflé class at the Institute of Culinary Education. You'd experience the same sense of informational whiplash. At least now, should I ever hear the words "Emmaus," "Triple," "Sun," or "Kristofer," in any combination, I will think back fondly to this rainy late-afternoon spent at the back of an industrial building.
Here's an image to leave you with. I didn't take this photo of Triple Sun's tasting room. I stole it from their Facebook page. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, I think a couple more are still owed in this case.