Blending

The Three Chamber Still at Leopold Brothers in Denver

The Three Chamber Still at Leopold Brothers in Denver

“I’m driving back from Palisade where our orchard fruit is from,” Todd Leopold told me as we chatted over the phone this week. He was cutting in and out, right in the middle of every important detail, so I made a joke about the reception in Colorado and asked if he was stuck somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Palisade is off Interstate 70, about 270 miles west of Denver, and is renowned for its stone fruit. It’s actually known as the Peach Capital of Colorado.

“Our sour apple liqueur will have a brandy base this year and we’re gonna run it on the Three Chamber, so you can imagine how that will taste,” he continued. Todd is referring to his Three Chamber Still, of course; a beast of machine, built from a design he located on a diagram in an old Hiram Walker plant in Illinois. It’s a still that distills in batches rather than continuously, where mash is loaded into each level. As the liquid vaporizes, it passes through the mash, moving up through the chamber. Think of gin vapor moving through a botanical basket, but instead it's actual whiskey vapor moving the same flavorful whiskey mash from which it was originally boiled. Now imagine apple brandy vapor moving up through apple juice before condensing. Exciting, right?

I called Todd because I wanted to talk about his new Summer gin, but with his new Bourbon launch on the horizon, I had a few quick questions I wanted to get out of the way. “It will be between 4-5 years old and I’ll be doing some mingling. I don’t like to call it blending because we’re not big enough to call it blending. I can’t claim I’m blending for consistency at this point,” he said with a laugh. For those of you wondering what the joke is, most large whiskey brands blend to a consistent flavor profile to maintain a signature style. Because single barrels of whiskey are variant in their character and taste, crafting a new batch to replace the old one is always a task. For years, I think many whiskey drinkers just assumed branded whiskey tasted the way it did by default, but thanks to the single barrel movement of the last decade, more consumers than ever are aware of how different one cask can taste from another. A master blender’s job is to take those individual barrels, and combine them in appropriate volumes to ensure consistency from batch to batch. We’ll touch more on this in a bit.

Tasting with Todd Leopold this past January

Tasting with Todd Leopold this past January

I tasted the new Leopold Bourbon with Todd this past Winter in LA, while he was making the marketing rounds. “It doesn’t taste like Kentucky whiskey,” he told me at that time. “The esters are more subtle and there’s an orange marmalade note that comes from the bacteria in our malt.” I’ve been anticipating the Fall release of the whiskey here in California. I can’t recall ever having been this excited for a Bourbon that didn’t come from one of the major Kentucky players, so I wanted to make sure I had all the details straight. “The corn is from the grain belt of America. The rye is 100% Abruzzi rye from Longmont, Colorado—the front range on the Eastside of the Mountains. The barley is our famous Leopold Bros malt,” Todd added when I asked about the mash bill. “All of the whiskey in the barrels we are releasing was mashed, fermented, and distilled on site here at our distillery.”

100% pot distilled. Two times. Off the still at around 65%. Proofed to 50%. “It goes into the barrel at 100 proof and it comes out at 100 proof. It doesn’t change one bit after five years and I have absolutely no goddamn idea as to why,” Todd said with a laugh. “I think it’s much softer, and less angular than Kentucky Bourbons. When I taste Kentucky whiskey, I always get a big isobutyl acetate note. It’s like raspberry with vanilla. We don’t have nearly as much of that. This isn’t Kentucky Bourbon and it isn’t trying to be.” The next three years are going to be very exciting for fans of Leopold and American whiskey. 2019 will mark the launch of the Leopold Straight Bourbon. In 2020, we’ll get the Bottled-in Bond edition. And in 2021, we’ll finally get to taste the Three Chamber Rye. Having been graced by Herr Leopold with a sample this past January, I can safely say that minds will be blown, heads will explode, and the internet whiskey community might collapse under the weight of the endless threads that are bound to result.

“Let’s talk about your new gin,” I finally suggested, having thoroughly recorded the whiskey updates for my notebook. Fresh to the market is the 2019 edition of Leopold Summer gin, a special recipe that Todd creates for the warmer months when people like me go from drinking straight gin to adding a splash of tonic and maybe a piece of citrus; “Tell me why you continue to distill each botanical separately into its own spirit, rather than as a recipe like every other distiller.” Todd has told me this at least a dozen times over the last decade, but I make him tell me again because it’s a fascinating explanation. Rather than dump all of the botanicals into the still at once, and run the spirit through like every other gin distiller, Todd creates dozens of individual botanical distillates and then creates a blend from those singular spirits. Why does he do this? Because of the control it gives him over the ultimate flavor. But the short answer is: oil.

The new 2019 edition of Leopold’s Summer gin

The new 2019 edition of Leopold’s Summer gin

“The start of the run is where it happens. You put juniper in the still, you bring it to a boil, and the first few liters are where the spirit has the highest oil content,” Todd explained. Oil provides texture in distilled spirits, and the Leopold gins are some of the creamiest in the business. I wanted to know why Todd’s gin had that unctuous mouthfeel. “You set those aside, and then you get to the heart,” he added; “The closer you get to the tails, the lower the oil content gets. When you distill the botanicals all together like most gin producers, each botanical has a different tail point, which means some get thinner than others. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just different. We distill them individually so that we get the right oil content and the right aroma for each individual botanical.”

The micro-distillations give Todd mastery over the science that drives flavor. “There are some people who say they don’t like gin because they don’t like the flavor of pine needles. That’s a chemical compound called pinene and it’s found in higher quantities in the tails,” he continued; “We’re collecting less of that in our gin, so it tastes more like a berry and less like a pine needle.” Given that the new release is made for Summer, Todd wants that fruit front and center. I asked about the recipe. “Juniper, with blood orange up in the front for a Spanish style gin and tonic,” Todd replied; “Lemon myrtle from Australia. I’ve never liked using lemon peel or zest in distillation. With lemon myrtle you’re using the leaf and you get a true lemon note.”

One of the key ingredients of the 2019 Leopold Summer gin is immortal flower, a staple of the United Kingdom. “I went to a British gardening site and asked about some options,” Todd said; “I had a 80 year old guy named Nigel telling me what his favorite flowers were, then I checked them against the GRAS safety list, and distilled a bunch of them as an experiment. I liked the immortal flower the best. It has a sort of cucumber floral note, sort of like violets. It works beautifully with the blood orange.” Distilling singular botanicals like immortal flower may sound simple enough in theory, but all of a sudden I found myself wondering: does Todd distill equal volumes of each one? How much alcohol does he use in each spirit? How does he determine concentration and quantity? It’s even more complicated than you think.

Juniper berries in the wild

Juniper berries in the wild

“I start with a rough framework for blending based on the specifics of the distillates,” Todd stated; “Most of the distillates are around 80% ABV—the flowers are a little bit higher because the cuts are higher. It’s a moving target because for each botanical that we distill, there’s a different amount of alcohol in the still and a different amount of each botanical.” So how does he decide volumes? “When I run juniper, it’s about 25 pounds in the still. But if I’m doing cardamom, it’s about 8 pounds. The oil content in each botanical is totally different, therefore the alcohol concentration of each is different. I use more alcohol for cardamom because if I put in less it pulls out astringencies that I don’t like.”

So after deciding which botanicals to use, determining how they should be distilled, taking into consideration the oil content of each and how that oil will concentrate itself during distillation, Todd then turns to the blending of the gin itself using the building blocks of those individual distillates. “The juniper makes up the bulk of the spirit,” Todd continued; “Then I blend in each component based off how each botanical plays off the others. It’s very complicated and labor intensive, but the oil content is higher and that leads to a creamier mouthfeel, which I really like.” The amount of work that goes into a blended spirit can vary (the Leopold’s gin is one of the most complicated procedures I’ve ever heard of), but the goal is always to craft flavor without resorting to additives. In our modern era, where every flaw can be fixed later in the lab using caramel, glycerol, and various other substances, blending is considered old fashioned.

Consider the fact that Todd Leopold is using science to extract the concentrated essence of each botanical at its peak distillation point, yet when it comes to combining those flavors into the final product, he’s using his palate. Blending is where science becomes art. It puts the art in artisanal. Striving to avoid any sort of adulteration, it’s a process that separates the artisans from the entrepreneurs; those who can find an equilibrium of perfect flavor without resorting to enhancements.

More on this later this week.

-David Driscoll