"My standard joke is that John Wayne never went into a bar and said, ‘Give me a mango-infused cocktail-and make it a double.' " So says the Colorado distiller Jess Graber of his creation Tincup American Whiskey, a high rye-content spirit made to the specifications of a straight Bourbon and intended to celebrate the assertive whiskeys from the past.
Graber, the co-creator of Stranahan's, an all-barley whiskey from Colorado, says he was challenged to make an American-style whiskey and decided to look to the spirits drunk by the mid-19th century pioneers "before whiskey flavors were dumbed down in the 1950s and ‘60s."
The name—and part of the personality—of the whiskey comes from an old Colorado mining town that was named for the tin cups used by miners. The wood closure on the hexagonal bottle is also topped by a small tin cup.
While Tincup is made in column stills in Indiana, it is shipped to Colorado where it is bottled with local waters. That decision was based on economics, says the distiller. He wanted to use Midwestern grains and it was cheaper to ship the liquid west than the corn. While Graber allows that the column still "is not as pretty as the copper pot still" used to make Stranahan's, he calls it a classic method for making American whiskey.
With a mashbill containing about one-third rye grains, a majority of corn and a modicum of barley, the recipe adheres to the legal recipe of Bourbon. The whiskey is aged in new, charred-oak barrels for between four-and-a-half to five years, again following the stipulations of Bourbon as well as other straight whiskeys. However, Graber says he felt that calling it American whiskey was "more appealing. Whiskey drinkers are willing to try a lot of different things."
Even as the current craft-distilling movement is a little over a decade old, Graber's tutelage in moonshining dates back to 1972 when he trained under a local Colorado character known as "Larry the Missouri River Rat." Working with a 10-gallon pot still, he made Mason jars full of hooch, which he used as gifts until his hobby became legitimate.
Graber went legal due to a bit of serendipity. When his whiskey-making was little more than a diversion, he supported himself in the construction trade, but he also served as a volunteer fireman.
In 1998, he responded to a fire at a barn owned by George Stranahan, founder of Flying Dog Brewery. Although the building was lost, the two struck up a friendship over a mutual interest in distilling. They went on to create Stranahan's whiskey, using space and beer at the brewery. The first official distillation came in 2004. In 2009, Stranahan's won Whisky Advocate's Whiskey of the Year award.
Today, Graber attributes much of his development as a distiller to his background in experimentation, which was necessary due to his lack of formal training or equipment. (E.g., not having the luxury of barrels, his first attempts at aging involved packing chunks of staves into whiskey-filled jars.) "I didn't kill anybody and I thought that was successful distilling."
(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)
Tincup American Whiskey (84 proof, or 42 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $27.99 per 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Light, but rich, honey color. Thick, quick legs.
NOSE: Honey and caramel is first detected, followed by candied, floral notes, then spices and finally toffee.
PALATE: Once again that sense of honey presages a fruitier sweetness. The candy notes grow and grow before that balloon pops and out comes a mix of spice (licorice) and corn and rye bread as well as vanilla and caramel.
FINISH: Just when you think it's become all about the dough, the fruity candy returns on the long, rich finish.
CIGAR PAIRING: Flathead V770 Big Block (7 inches by 70 ring gauge, $9.50, 88 points, Cigar Aficionado, February 2014) A colossal box-pressed cigar draped in a dark, oily wrapper. The smoke is creamy with touches of licorice, earth and sweet woods. The whiskey immediately finds a spice partner in the licorice of the cigar, which grows under its influence. The cigar donates a healthy portion of hearty flavors, which bring out the same on the Tincup, to complement the sweet and fruity taste. The two elements intertwine and create that sublime partnership in which it's hard to distinguish between which is giving and which is taking. A wonderful nuttiness develops in the synergy.
Espinosa Habano Belicoso (6 inches by 52 ring gauge, $6.65, 89 points, Cigar Aficionado April 2014) A thick, attractive belicoso with some large veins. It starts out with cereal notes and an oaky, wine-barrel woodiness before a minty and spicy finish. Whiskey picks right up on the cigar's mint flavors, creating a touch of cocoa. The Espinosa's cereal quality adds depth to the Tincup and, again, that nutty note. The two swirl about, giving off candy-bar aspects.