Out of all the unique spirits that I’ve seen roll out of Spirits of French Lick over the past 2 years, a corn whiskey wasn’t one that I expected anytime soon. But then I got to thinking; barrels are expensive (especially those $400 Kelvin Cooperage ones that SoFL uses) and smaller distilleries aren’t able to buy them at a discounted bulk purchase rate.
So why wouldn’t a craft distillery be more inclined to reuse them for other products? SoFL already does this by maturing their many brandies they make in them; but corn whiskey is an excellent alternative for getting the most money out of your sunk costs.
Most of us are familiar with corn whiskey by way of Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn brand. Corn Whiskey is actually a regulated term that specifies that the whiskey must be aged in either an uncharred oak cask or a used oak cask. It also states that the corn content must be over 80% of the mash bill.
Heaven Hill’s mash bill is remarkably similar to MGP’s corn whiskey mash bill which just goes to show that when you’re boxed in with regulations like that, there’s not much room for creativity.
Chocolate Malt and Corn – The Dynamic Duo
But Alan Bishop, founder and head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, had other plans. He’s always said that the grains are the focal point of any whiskey he makes – followed only by the historical style of spirits he creates.
This is why he makes so much brandy – it’s an homage to the most widely produced spirit in Southern Indiana up until Prohibition. His focus on the grain is also probably why he decided to use one of the more unique ones out there to accompany all that corn: Chocolate Malted Barley.
Strangely, the original TTB label for Charles E. Ballard says the ratio of grains used are 90% corn and 10% chocolate malt, yet the label the bottle ended up being released with makes no mention of percentages. It even swaps the order the two grains were listed in (some may interpret this as the chocolate malt being the dominant grain). Strange!
I have always believed that chocolate malted barley was a specific breed of barley. It turns out that’s not the case at all. It has to do with how long and what temperature the malted barley is kilned/toasted for after the process of heating has stopped the grain from sprouting.
Normal malted barley used for distillation is lightly kilned resulting in an outside that is lightly toasted. But if the producer wants to create a “chocolate” malt, that process requires the malted grain to be roasted at a higher heat for a longer time. Thus, the outside of the grain develops a deep, brown color – similar to the color of chocolate. I
ronically, that color also denotes some of the flavor characteristics that the grain takes on when it’s prepared in this way. As an aside, this exact same explanation applies when you see another grain (like rye) use the name “Chocolate” too.
I was not sure about Alan’s decision to use chocolate malt in this whiskey when I first came across this whiskey. My experiences with chocolate malted barley or rye is that they are overbearing in whatever product they were added to. I won’t say it makes a bad whiskey, but there are plenty of examples that have been polarizing to many enthusiasts.
But I bought it anyway with the knowledge that Alan has done his homework and shown an acute understanding in the application of toasted grains to his spirits. The Morning Glory is a great example where he found the perfect ratio of toasted buckwheat (referred to as Kasha) that ended up giving the whiskey the most unique and flavorful punch I’ve had from any craft whiskey.
So did Alan find that perfect balance with Charles E. Ballard? Let’s find out with this store pick from Richmond Indiana’s homegrown liquor store chain “Papa Joe’s.” This store has a single barrel pick of virtually every label that Spirits of French Lick has produced.
And if you like their products as much as I do, you know where to go. As a final note, this single barrel comes in at 4 years old and 103 proof – roughly the proof that it entered the barrel at. Now let’s get down to tasting. I sampled it neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Every sniff is a reminder that there is chocolate malt in this whiskey. It is overwhelming. Chocolate covered cereal, chocolate covered caramel corn and chocolate covered cardboard. There is a light buttered scent to it all, which I find pleasing. Otherwise it’s kind of a one-trick pony. Let’s see if the flavors on the tongue can show me more.
Palate: The chocolate malt character that was so dominant on the nose cools its jets upon the first sip. Yes, it’s still there, in the form of hot chocolate. I also get this odd “chalky” sensation on the mouthfeel but the viscosity still seems quite oily.
It’s funny because the chalkiness almost reminds me of the terrible quality of marshmallows that some hot chocolate packets have inside. Speaking of chalkiness, what’s strange is that I find this same textural note in SoFL’s William Dalton Wheated Bourbon. I wonder why this is? Is it a product of the distillation? Or did this used barrel previously contain William Dalton bourbon in it?
Moving on, there are some spices that perk up my tongue with notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. Aside from the chocolate and chalky notes I just mentioned, there is a lot of similarities here between Charles E Ballard and Mellow Corn. If you’re familiar with one’ you’ll be familiar with both.
Finish: The finish is like the nose, personified into flavors. Cocoa Wheats Hot Cereal and Whoppers chocolate malted balls last forever while honey sweetness fights with wood and dry leather to ensure the flavors don’t lean one way too much. It’s overall a very nice effort, but complex it’s not.
You may get the impression from my score that this is a bad whiskey. Or that it’s not worth your time. It’s neither. Yes, the chocolate malted barley note is going to make for a very “love it or leave it” kind of situation for most enthusiasts, but it can be surprisingly rewarding. It’s not every day you find a corn whiskey with an age statement and proof like this.
Most corn whiskey tastes like they were made with minimal thought for the customer too. Charles E Ballard is different. You can taste that this wasn’t just a second thought to Alan Bishop. There is an oiliness and balance of flavors that did more than just give us “liquid cornbread” like Mellow Corn does. It’s a great effort and I’m glad I didn’t snub it.
On the value front, $49 for a 4 year old corn whiskey is a bad value proposition when viewed through the lens of a $15 bottle of Mellow Corn. It’s a bad value proposition when viewed through a $30 bottle of Krogmann’s MGP-sourced Corn Whiskey.
But there are times when the character of the liquid pushes past the expectations a normal person might have when they see the words “Corn Whiskey” and Charles E. Ballard surpassed mine. I would even argue that the chocolate malt was the right choice to pair with the corn (although I can’t stop thinking about if he had just used standard malt and sprinkled in some of that Kasha instead).
It makes this unique enough that it feels like it was worth your money. Mellow Corn’s label, on the other hand, cries out “steal me! I won’t be missed anyway.”
Are there other, better whiskies for the money from Spirits of French Lick? Yes. But Charles E Ballard is an essential part of the bigger picture that Alan is painting with his whiskies. I’m starting to feel as if he’s onto something with every whiskey he puts out, even if it doesn’t initially feel like it’s worth my time or money.
This macro-level way of looking at the whiskies he releases will show you how much each process of whiskeymaking builds off of each other. Corn Whiskey may be the most basic kind of whiskey, but when Alan touches the grains, I guarantee there’s going to be something to say about the final product.
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