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Barrels make difference for local bourbon

June 18th, 2018

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

One and done – that's the fate of Three Rivers Distilling Co.'s bourbon barrels.

Each 5-gallon, charred white oak barrel is used just once before it's pulled from the local company's inventory, making each batch of bourbon unique. And rare. Each barrel produces fewer than 30 bottles.

When a group of Cap N' Cork employees visited Three Rivers Distilling to sample from some barrels, the results were eye-opening.

“Just of those five few barrels, the variations (in flavor) were amazing,” said Rachel Burkholder, Cap N' Cork's marketing director. Variations, she said, included sweetness, spiciness and the amount of vanilla.

Officials at Cap N' Cork, a chain of 15 local liquor stores, decided to offer that single-barrel experience to customers. After selecting two batches that tasted of brown sugar, spice and vanilla, the retailers bought the barrel and got it bottled for sale at the Covington Plaza store.

This deal marks Three Rivers Distilling's first foray into single-batch bourbon.

“We all saw different things in each of the barrels,” Burkholder said about the eight-person sampling session. “It all came down to what we thought was most approachable for a Midwestern palate.”

The bourbon they chose was a bit sweeter than some others and had a smooth, round finish, she said.

Cap N' Cork has previously sold batches distilled in Kentucky by Marker's Mark and Jim Beam.

“We were just looking for community partners so we could tell a more local story,” Burkholder said about approaching the distillery.

Distilleries typically blend batches of whiskey from different barrels and different years to create a more consistent product. Jim Beam and Wild Turkey are well-known brands readily available in liquor stores. One-barrel bottles are considered more artisan.

Cap N' Cork bought two barrels from Three Rivers Distilling. 

The first is a cask-strength batch taken directly from barrel to bottle. The result is about 125 proof and sells for $56.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Each barrel produces just 20 bottles. 

The second batch was mixed with reverse osmosis, or mineral-free, water to reach 90 proof. The lower-alcohol content is selling for $36.99. Each barrel produces about 28 bottles.

Patrick Tanesky, Three Rivers Distilling's master distiller, knows the quality of wood used in the barrels plays a big role in the liquor's flavor. He works with a local cooper, who builds barrels using 31/2-year-old seasoned wood from Kentucky.

“He's got the best wood in the business,” Tanesky said.

Marla Schneider, the distillery's president, explained that bourbon is an aged spirit that picks up its color and flavor from the charred white oak.

The chemical compound found in vanilla and other extracts and spices is also present in the wood, Tanesky said. During the 10 months the bourbon stayed in the barrel, the liquid picked up that flavor, he said. Distilleries don't add vanilla extract or other spices to their products to create those flavor notes.

Bourbon is regulated by Congress. Legally, the liquor must be made of at least 51 percent corn to earn the name bourbon. Three Rivers Distillery uses 60 percent corn and 40 percent wheat. 

The wheat makes the bourbon mellower and smooth-drinking, Schneider said.

The distillery buys all its grain from a Bluffton farm, which is organic and doesn't use genetically modified grain.

Cap N' Cork's Burkholder approves of using local products.

“It's just another layer in what makes what's in those bottles unique,” she said.

The bottles are selling so quickly that Cap N' Cork staff is already talking about buying another, Burkholder said. The next time, the retailer might take customers along to make the selection.

Or maybe it will be all women. Or a group of veterans. Burkholder is bubbling over with ways to market the batch to a niche of bourbon lovers.

No matter who does the sampling, they won't find a batch exactly like the one now on sale at Cap N' Cork in bottles signed by the master distiller.

Tanesky is philosophical about not being able to exactly reproduce his work. After all, what appealed to one group of tasters might not wow the next.

“You're never really going to get that same flavor profile again,” he said.

At a glance

Three Rivers Distilling Co.

Business: The company distills bourbon, gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, rye and coffee liqueur and operates a tasting room on site.

Address: 224 E. Wallace St., Fort Wayne, IN 46803

Founded: In 2016 by Stephen Blevins and Travis Kraick

Owned: Travis Kraick, Aaron Pence, Darrick Hoopingarner and Scott Glaze

Employees: 20

Annual revenue: Not disclosed