While the craft movement has brought us novel takes on whiskey, most have fallen into two categories. The first is the distiller who procures a still and makes their own spirit. Many distillers of this type either hasten maturation by using small casks, or make another spirit that doesn't require long aging (like gin) to pay for their equipment and licensing while they wait for a return on their whiskey investment. A second type called a nondistilling producer, or NDP, simply sources whiskey through another distiller, puts its own brand on it and commences marketing immediately.
J. Henry & Sons, a Wisconsin Bourbon maker, has settled upon a third method, an amalgam of the two. It grows its grains on a family farm, has another party ferment and distill the liquid and then ages on its own property.
For the proprietor Joe Henry, the reason is simple: "I wanted to make Bourbon. I didn't want to get into gin or vodkas." For him the grains, the aging and blending was where it was at. So he struck upon a solution that would allow him to create a whiskey to his own specifications without the enormous capital outlay that faces many craft distillers. "I'll worry about the hardware later," he says about the equipment that distilling entails.
Instead, Henry contracted with the 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, Wisconsin, about 225 miles from his farm in Dane, near Madison. In 2009, he first had whiskey distilled there using a special strain of corn developed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s called red corn for its color. He also grows his own rye and wheat, which are part of the mash bill along with the red corn and barley in the unusual, four-grain recipe.
After fermentation with a Belgium yeast and distillation in a column still, the spirit returns to the family farm. There it is aged for a minimum of five years in barrels made by Kelvin Cooperage, a Louisville, Kentucky, maker of whiskey and wine casks. J. Henry's barrels are of the standard 53-gallon variety used for most Bourbon.
At the farm, the maturation differs considerably from the typical Kentucky Bourbon aging conditions. The barrels are stored in a converted dairy barn under very different climactic conditions. Henry attributes the extreme temperature fluctuations that come with Wisconsin seasons—100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit in winter—to the character of his whiskey.
His first batch was distilled in December of 2009 and was ready for bottling last year. J. Henry now has two expressions: a 92 proof five-year-old and a variable barrel-strength version, also a five-year-old. While the Bourbon is currently in very small production ("We make less in a year than Jim Beam spills in a week," Henry says), the whiskey is now available through Binny's Beverage Depot, based in Chicago. Check it out if you can.
J. Henry Patton Road Reserve Cask Strength Bourbon (tasted from Bottle No. 208, Batch No. 3 at 113.6 proof, or 56.8 percent alcohol by volume; five years old; $79.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep mahogany color; slow, medium-width legs.
NOSE: Starts with rich caramel and vanilla notes and opens up to release cherry, banana, some perfume quality and an enticing olive oil.
PALATE: The anticipated Bourbon notes—caramel, vanilla maple, butterscotch, toffee—quickly take on some tang and recall the fruit influence of the nose, with cherry, orange, tangerine, banana and pears. From there it flows into spicier realms with mint, eucalyptus and licorice.
FINISH: Very long finish. The olive oil of the nose revisits. Very deep into the finale come savory nutty and herbal notes.
CIGAR PAIRING: Saint Luis Rey Belicoso (Honduras, 6 1/8 inches by 52 ring gauge, $5.48, 91 points, August 2016 Cigar Aficionado) Abundant notes of dried red fruits and berries are well balanced by vanilla bean and nougat intonations and a touch of charcoal on the finish. This torpedo smokes evenly throughout. The theory to this pairing was just a straight-up matching of tasting notes—the fruits (especially berries) and classic Bourbon notes (vanilla and nougat). While that worked out quite well, the real joy was that outliers boosted the experience. The cigar's charcoal brought out the nutty quality on the Bourbon. The J. Henry's mint and spice gave welcome tang to the Saint Luis Rey and coaxed out more of its hearty side. A great give-and-take on a paired presumed to be a simple meeting of like elements.