The alchemists at 451 Spirits want to buck industry trends and, dare they say it, add flavor to your liquor cabinet.
The bent and polished trunk of the copper pot still sprouts from amongst the barrels and large plastic vats at 451 Spirits. The still appears to be an ancient relic in an otherwise unremarkable commercial space, as if the entire Clintonville neighborhood sprung up around it.
The still's actually less than 3 years old—custom-designed in part by Chad Kessler, the chief distiller and co-owner—but its pre-Prohibition aesthetic is no accident. Even the upstart microdistillery's name is a reference to the country's long flirtation with temperance: Prohibition was akin to the book-burning in “Fahrenheit 451,” wiping out vast knowledge about the alchemy of distillation.
The result? The widespread standardization of liquor, an industry in which a slew of the country's popular “craft” bourbons are produced by the same MGP factory in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, including Templeton Rye, Redemption Bourbon, and until recently, Angel's Envy. MGP distills it; the craft brands blend it and finish it in their barrels and then bottle it as their own. David Chew, another of 451's co-owners, compares it to buying cans of Progresso and Campbell's, mixing them together, adding some parsley and labeling it as his own because he “hand-selected in a craft-like manner only the finest of soups available.”
In the first year in stores, 451 founders Kessler, Chew and Paolo Rosi of Via Vecchia Winery have used their copper device to fire off three new products: Midsommers Night Absinthe, Writers Block Mint & Lime Flavored Rum and Dear Johnny Smoked Apple Flavored Whiskey.
The whiskey is most telling of 451's approach. Like all their liquors, its flavors are infused during the actual distillation process rather than added afterward—in this case, with smoked apples and a grain mix resembling stout beer. Then Kessler ages it using a solera system, in which portions of spirits are transferred between barrels over time, mixing younger and older whiskeys together.
Rather than obsessing about each batch tasting identical, they're comfortable with a chameleonic flavor profile, like a vintage wine or single-barrel spirit. The difference between batch one and batch four of Dear Johnny is striking. The first is tamer, with smokiness that begs to be passed around a campfire; batch four has a more traditional punch of whiskey flavor, that familiar burn. Both are notable for their lack of overt apple flavor; the apples are used primarily to add smoke and natural sweetness. But federal guidelines mandate that 451 use the word “flavored” on its labels, a turnoff for many longtime whiskey drinkers who eschew flavoring as artificial or overly sweet.
“They're like, ‘I only drink real whiskey,'” Kessler says, making his voice comically gruff. “And I'm like, ‘It's real whiskey. Just taste it.'”
He and his colleagues plan to put out a version of Dear Johnny without the apple and smoke, tentatively called Plain Jane, as well as an aged rum and possibly a gin. The biggest development on the horizon is the new tasting room, which they intend to build in their current space by early spring. It will give them a chance to produce more limited-run, specialty liquors and to hold workshop-style tastings about the distillation process and all its long-lost possibilities.
“That's what's great about liquor as a thing,” Chew says. “It's a very social drink, it's very easy to share with other people, and it's very easy to tell the stories of liquor.” 451spirits.com