DRAM ROLL: AMERICAN CRAFT WHISKEY RULES AT WIDOW JANE
Ol’ Blue Eyes missed out.
Frank Sinatra, so fond of American whiskey that a bottle of Jack Daniels was buried with him in 1998, would be jubilant (and plastered) from today’s buzzing craft whiskey scene. The cult of whiskey, which includes bourbon and scotch, is reaching a cultural zenith thanks to a proliferation of small batch distillers across the country, a boom of whiskey-centric bars – around 50 in New York alone including Soho Grand’s Grand Bar – and festivals, awards, and dedicated magazines/websites like Whisky Advocate and The Whiskey Wash.
Five-year-old Brooklyn whiskey distillery Widow Jane snagged a 2017 American Craft Spirits Association Silver Medal for its Single Barrel Bourbon. You’ll find their flavorful, burnt caramel-toned Straight Bourbon Whiskey at Grand Bar along with Connecticut’s multiple award-winning Barrell Whiskey, Evanstown, IL’s FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey, and upstate New York’s Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey.
Widow Jane head distiller Vince Oleson whose grandmother fashioned moonshine during the prohibition era, is quick to share a “Whiskey 101” with those who visit for tastings and tours at their Red Hook facility, which shares space and collaborates with a bean-to-bar chocolatier, Cacao Prieto, starting with the distinction between American whiskey and European whisky.
The latter was actually first to originate in Scotland or Ireland, depending on whom you ask (and potentially argue with), hence the nickname, “Scotch.” Scotch is largely derived from malted barley and grain whereas American whiskey is often corn or rye dominant (and adds an “e” to its spelling). Bourbon is comprised from at least 51 percent corn while rye is the dominant grain in its namesake whiskey and culls its dark color from aging in charred American oak barrels.
U.S. craft distillers often employ unique techniques, indigenous products and other additions while following strict regulations that dictate whether the result can officially be dubbed a whisky/whiskey. In Widow Jane’s case, water sourced from an “epic limestone well” located in the town of Rosendale, NY, just north of New Paltz, imparts a hard, sweet quality that enhances their line of whiskeys. Their flagship bourbon was originally sourced from a Kentucky distillery, Oleson points out, but the addition of this water gave it a Widow Jane “thumbprint.”
To make Widow Jane’s bourbon, once this water has cooked and broken down the milled corn releasing its sugars and starch, malted barley or rye is added, followed by a yeast with a neutral profile to push all the flavors forward. Oleson also employs a single-pass distillation (two or even three passes is the norm) and can pull as high as a 140-proof whiskey directly from the still.
Oleson mills his source grains on-site, a rarity which includes breeds of non-GMO heirloom American Indian corn – the Appalachian-born, red-toned Bloody Butcher and Iowan-bred Wapsie Valley – for a set of heirloom bourbons that reveal subtle, distinctive notes on the nose and tongue. “I feel the heirlooms are for the whiskey collector and advocate,” Oleson says. “Someone who thinks they’ve had all the bourbons out there.”
One bottle that can easily prove a gateway bourbon and may even win over the whiskey-averse is their maple syrup barrel-finished variety. The delicious result of a quid pro quo with Dutchess County’s bark-to-barrel Crown Maple Syrup company (https://www.crownmaple.com), which uses Widow Jane barrels to age one of its syrups. This bourbon is finished for six additional weeks in maple barrels to absorb a hint of sweetness and depth without obvious maple-ness.
One other distinguishing characteristic of American craft whiskey is its relatively young age. Widow Jane’s flagship Straight Bourbon Whiskey spends 10 years in American oak barrels yet their heirloom whiskeys spend as little as a year maturing. Contrasted against a 40-year-old single malt Scotch, these are babies but, hey, ageism has no place in the world of craft booze.
Widow Jane’s Fall Cocktail Recipe: “Raise your Spirits”
This fall twist on a classic whiskey sour cocktail uses Widow Jane Rye whiskey finished with apple wood staves. This non-chill filtered golden whiskey mixes seamlessly with a house-made apple cider reduction, lemon and is finished with an allspice dram mist.
2 oz. Widow Jane Apple Wood Rye
1.5 oz. Apple Cider Reduction
1 oz. Ginger Syrup
1 oz. Lemon Juice
1/4 oz. Allspice Dram
1 Egg White
4 sprays of Allspice Dram “spirits” mist.
Words by Lawrence Ferber