Running the Gauntlet at New Liberty Distilling
I was not prepared for the sheer amount of spirits I'd find at New Liberty Distilling in Philadelphia. Let's just say I'm happy I took the train.
I should have known something was up when I spot the mock Ted Cruz campaign bus parked in the back lot of the distillery. I peer over the fence to get a better look. Along with a hand-painted monicker of "Low Energy," there are depictions of Donald Trump's minuscule hands and something called "Marco Rubio pops" - a flavor of icey, I'm guessing. So is Philadelphia where relics of the "resistance" come to rust?
Rob Cassell, owner and master distiller, later explains that the owner of the property, from whom they lease the building, is a political whacko. The bus was just one of his many protests incarnate during the past presidential campaign. The back lot of the distillery is the perfect size for it. Ok, moving right along to drinking.
I only get to meet Rob in passing. He is on his way out to a tasting in the suburbs. He leaves me in the very capable hands of Dave Pie, number two in charge. Dave, in turn, starts our tour with the distillery's pride and joy: a 240-gallon custom-made pot still. How custom, you ask? The company that made it branded it with its designers name, none other than Rob Cassell. It helps that the still-building company, Specific Mechanical Systems, shares a parent company with New Liberty.
Dave explains that the unique feature is the adjustable arm that leads either to the condenser, where alcohol vapor turns to liquid, or to an additional distilling column, depending upon what type of spirit they are making. Today, they are making bourbon, so no column is needed.
New Liberty is also getting ready for a party. Tomorrow they will celebrate the release of their latest spirit: Pennsylvania Dutch Malt Whiskey. The name can be a little confusing. Try to stay with me. "Pennsylvanian Dutch" is the name for Amish settlers from Germany. English-speaking colonists heard them refer to themselves as "deutsch" (basically "German" in German) and took it literally as Dutch. Hence the name stuck, kind of like Native Americans getting labeled as Indians.
New Liberty calls their single malt “Pennsylvania Dutch” because the barley is grown and malted in the Amish part of the state. To make matters more confusing, Dave tells me it is a Munich-style malt, meaning considerably darker than most. It all comes back to the Germans in the end.
For the sake of thoroughness, I first try the single malt as it comes off the still at 140 proof. It’s got some great chocolate and coffee notes going for it. I anticipate the year it spends in a new oak barrel is going to do wonders in accentuating those flavors.
Luckily, I don’t have to wait a year to see if I’m right. Dave is at the ready, bottle of the aged 102-proof version in hand. The nose reminds me of cookies and the general smell of baked goods, with a kick of hay for good measure. On the palate, the order is reversed. I get hay and the horsiness of stables up front, followed by vanilla fingers and some baking spice.
Let’s jump back to clear spirits for a bit (not necessarily coming straight from the still). New Liberty's vodka is unique in that it is distilled from a malted rye mash. Not only is the mash fermented on site, but like all of the grains used by the distillery, the rye is milled there too. Why is all of this remarkable? If the whole point of vodka is to produce a flavorless, odorless spirit, why would someone choose a starting point as far from the finish line as a flavorful malted rye? I don't ask Dave at the time. An image of Rob's magical still flashes to mind and it occurs to me: maybe it's just to show off. It's like when you see an insanely muscular guy in an arm wrestle challenge, who's so confident he'll win that he starts off with his hand just inches from being pinned. New Liberty is the tank-topped, tribal-tatted, raised-truck douchebag of the vodka-making world. I mean that with as much love and admiration as possible.
The vodka ends up with only the slightest earthy, malty nose. The palate starts off with a quick bite, before mellowing into floral notes.
New Liberty concedes to the moonshine craze that never-was, with a white whiskey version of the Pennsylvania Dutch Single Malt. In a nod truer to the tradition of backwoods moonshine than I've seen elsewhere, this is a hot sip at 115 proof. The nose carries wafts of alcohol, duh, followed by delicious bread. The palate is all barn. Think horses stomping in hay in the hottest of summer months.
There is a 143-proof silver rum. Is the room starting to spin for you too? It is fermented mostly from molasses, with a bit of granulated sugar thrown in, using a tequila yeast. The nose is planty and earth-like. The palate is sweet candy fire. I don't mean the cloying cinnamonness of a Red Hot (or, God forbid, Fireball). I mean this is like you find a piece of dark candy on the ground, crawling with fire ants, and because you're insane, you pop it in your mouth and chomp down, ants and all.
Dave next walks me through a revival of an old Pennsylvania whiskey brand, New Liberty undertook when it first opened three and a half years ago. The long lost brand is called Kinsey. The original Kinsey had a couple different expressions -bourbon, blended, rye- depending upon which distillery owned the name at the time.
In doing a little follow up research, I find that Kinsey was founded by its namesake, George Kinsey, in 1891 Philadelphia. Since he sold off the name in 1904, it has bounced around several distilleries and conglomerates, both before and after prohibition. It was finally dropped in the 1970s.
Fast forward to to 2013, when Rob got his hands on an old airplane bottle of the whiskey from 1943. Fortunately, liquor does not go bad and from a precious few sips from the bottle, Rob and his distillers have come up with an approximation of the original. They use sourced barley and corn whiskeys from an undisclosed distillery (or distilleries). New Liberty Distillery now sells a rye, bourbon, and 7-year old whiskey under the Kinsey label. These whiskeys derive from a blending of barrels aged between seven and eighteen years. In the case of the 7-year, it is aged in used bourbon barrels. The proofs range from 86 to 99.
I won't go into their flavor profiles, except to say that they were not overly oaked, considering their age. I will review another sourced whiskey of New Liberty's, just because it is so unique. The shortest version of the backstory is Rob wasn't satisfied running just one distillery, so he opened one in Ireland as well. (Again, why do things the easy way?) While the Irish whiskey is aging, he has released Brothership Whiskey. It's a mix of sourced 10-year old American corn whiskey and a 10-year old Irish single malt. The proportions are 48% and 52% respectively, and the proof is 90.
The nose is sour apple and assorted dried fruit, with a wheaty finish. The palate is of smooth cereals and grass.
I get to sample one New Liberty's bourbons made from 70% Bloody Butcher corn, 25% malted rye and 5% barley, straight from the barrel at 125 proof. It's been hanging out in new oak for about thirteen months. Dave says it's due for a couple more. It has a nose that mixes spicy corn with the sweeter barrel notes of caramel and vanilla. The palate is equally complex. It starts off strong with corn and cereal, followed by cinnamon before mellowing out into licorice and nutmeg. This bourbon is clearly a romp through the spice rack, in the best way possible.
Dave won't let me go without pulling something else from the barrel - just because I'm not spilled out on the floor yet. It's an unreleased malted rye, aged sixteen months so far in a used sherry barrel. Dave will release it in another six months. The nose is of chocolate raisins, followed by honey, cinnamon and flowers. The palate starts with cherries and plum, before delving into those heartier oak and char signatures of tobacco and leather. It leaves my mouth very dry, though that may just be the residual effect from this marathon tasting session.
If you couldn't tell, I'm very impressed with the breadth of New Liberty's output. However, if they're going to throw a party every time they release a new expression, they will be getting a lot of use out of their rear patio. And hopefully someone will drive that bus out of there well before the next election.