Following several successful sorties north of the border, I’m back in Wisconsin today for a taste of straight bourbon whiskey from Driftless Glen.
Located in the Baraboo Valley, Driftless Glen Distillery takes its name from the Driftless Area, a region of southwestern Wisconsin that was not subject to the glacial movements that flattened the remainder of the Midwest. In contrast to the flat topography that characterizes the American prairie, the Driftless region has a more rugged landscape, with rolling terrain and dramatic cliffs.
Driftless Glen was started by Brian and Reneé Bemis, who were approached by a business partner looking to start a distillery. He since dropped out, but the whiskey-making bug bit the Bemises, who soldier on to this day. Construction began in 2012, with distilling commencing in November 2014. Marketing manager Tanya Smith and distiller Max Thibodeaux helpfully answered my many questions, summarized below:
None of the distillery’s product is sourced. Grain comes from local farms in Illinois and Wisconsin. Fermentations are relatively long, between four and six days. The whiskey is distilled in a 500-gallon pot still and a 42 foot, 18 inch diameter column still, both from Vendome Copper & Brass Works.
Maturation originally occurred in 25-and-30-gallon barrels in order to accelerate time to market; these comprise the majority of whisky being released now. The last two to three years have seen standard-sized 53-gallon barrels from Kentucky’s ZAK cooperage being employed. The company bottles at 96 proof normally, but some cask strength expressions are available at the distillery. There is no chill filtration, and no coloring is added.
Other than this single barrel straight bourbon whiskey, Driftless Glen also produces a bourbon whiskey, a rye whiskey, a single barrel straight rye whiskey, and a Maryland-style “51 Rye Whiskey” (51% rye, 51% ABV). The distillery’s five-year anniversary is coming up, with a consonant age statement release planned to commemorate it. The obligatory vodka, gin, brandy, and moonshine are also on offer.
Before tasting a drop of this, it ticks a lot of my boxes: locally-sourced grain, long fermentation, own distilling, maturation times and barrel sizes increasing as the distillery evolves commercially, non-chill filtered and natural coloration, bottled at higher strength. The proof, as always, will be in the bottle. Let’s get tasting!
This is a single barrel (#607) straight bourbon whiskey, aged 31 months. The maturation time closer to 2.5 years puts this as one of the distillery’s earlier releases. The mash bill is comprised of 60% corn, 20% rye and 20% malted barley. It is bottled at 96 proof (48% ABV). I paid $40 for a 750 ml, slightly on sale from the retail price of $43.
Driftless Glen Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Golden brown, texture like sun.
On the nose: Intensely aromatic. Sarsaparilla dominates at first. This has a Burgundian stoniness to it, with flint and slate aromas. Gunpowder, Christmas pudding, pistachio shells, and the creamy and meaty richness of egg yolk.
In the mouth: Starts with piquant flavors of baking spice. This has a mellow intensity to it at mid-palate, with some of the sweet corniness showing through. Serious finish, with a persistent note of black licorice, a bit of fudge, and some intense woodiness. Not hefty – in the sense of being dense or overweight – but stolid, without any of the lazy, fatty excess that creeps into some lesser examples of straight bourbon whiskey.
I really, really, really, really, really like this. Astoundingly, Driftless Glen has managed to coax some truly novel aromas and flavors from a conventional bourbon mash bill. The mineral elements, especially, lend a serious dimension to this that balances some of the inherent sweetness. There’s not a single off note here despite a maturation of under three years, indicative of the fact that the folks minding the sills know what they’re doing.
As a proud Illinoisan, it pains me to admit that the folks up in Wisconsin are crushing it when it comes to craft distilling. I’ll certainly be a repeat customer of Driftless Glen, interested both to taste the evolution of this expression as the age increases, as well as the other expressions. In the meantime, Driftless Glen rises into the top tier of my Midwestern craft distilling league table.