I dig distillery tours.
I’ve been on two now, and while they were very similar, I enjoyed seeing their processes and comparing their business plans, as well as sampling their products. If you pay close attention, it’s an educational opportunity, too. There’s a science lesson in the chemistry and physics of the fermentation, distillation, and aging, yet there’s also a strong sense of craftsmanship in the final product. You learn about their marketing and advertising, from the business plan through the branding and the design of the labels. There’s even a bit of career education as you’re touring an actual workplace and seeing the labor involved.
A local friend has visited Galena, Illinois several times, and when he heard I was planning a short trip to the area, he told me about the Blaum Bros distillery. My family had no problem indulging my curiosity, so I hit the Blaum Bros website and snapped up some tickets. (Some distillery tours are free, some charge a modest fee. Blaum Bros will set you back $10 per ticket. It’s worth it.)
The distillery’s on the main drag on the way into town from the south, a small building with a white spire reminiscent of an old, rural city hall. You enter into the gift shop, but they have a nice lounge and bar area with some huge leather chairs and a gorgeous bar.
We were a good twenty minutes early, and I’m not exactly known for my patience, so I ordered an Old Fashioned and chatted up the bartender. I watched him closely as he put it together, as I’m still getting a feel for mixing up my own Old Fashioned cocktails. He served it up with fresh-peeled orange zest, something I may have to add to my Old Fashioned game.
Also, he nailed it. I’d only had a few Old Fashioneds at average bars, but his was easily the best I’d tasted so far. That sold me on a bottle right there.
The tour started in the lounge with a brief history of the company, and the guide confirmed some of the things the bartender already told me: the distillery had been there about three-and-a-half years, so their own bourbon was not quite mature enough for release. However, they blended their initial offerings with spirits distilled in Indiana and they dubbed them Knotter Bourbon and Knotter Rye. Say it quick and you’ll hear it as “not our bourbon.” Once their home-grown product is ready to go, it’ll be released as Galena Bourbon. I look forward to trying it.
We moved into main distillery, where we learned they’d imported the still from Germany. This one was much bigger than the other I’d seen, with extra columns for distilling vodka, and they had juniper and coriander on hand for making gin. As with my last distillery tour, they discussed their mash bills and manufacturing process, and we got to see all of their equipment.
I’m not a vodka or gin guy, but I enjoyed learning how they’re made. Those tall columns in the photo above are used for the vodka distilling, where it’s refined down to a much lower proof and then mixed up to its bottle proof. I half expected there to be sacks of potatoes around for the vodka, but it turns out vodka is mostly distilled from wheat and other grains these days.
Next we moved on to their barrel house, which has more of a simple warehouse feel. Barrel houses are not climate controlled, as the seasonal fluctuation in temperature helps with the aging process. Fortunately we were there on a relatively cool day.
Here we also got to see the distillery is working on some experimental barrels and blends in addition to their planned releases.
They dubbed one of those blends “Bloody Butcher” and stamped the barrels with a small haunted house logo. Bourbon must have at least 50% corn in its mash bill, and for this one the brothers decided to try red Indian corn. I have to admit, I’m curious if it will turn out to taste any different from regular bourbon.
The tour ended back in the bar with samples. They served up three of their products: the Knotter Bourbon, their gin, and their Hellfyre vodka. As I said, I’m not a gin fan, but I could taste and smell the hint of orange in it. The Hellfyre is made with peppers for easy mixing in a Bloody Mary (or, as the tour guide suggested, in hot chocolate), and I picked up a strong taste of jalapeño. This stuff is hot enough that it has its own dedicated machine for bottling to prevent the peppers from contaminating other products.
I would have chosen to try the rye if given an option, but I decided to take my chances and buy a small bottle of rye. I brought home both the Knotter Bourbon and the Knotter Rye, and my first impressions of both are good. I’ll try to write up some separate reviews in the near future. The Knotter Rye neat is excellent.
I found it interesting to compare the Blaum Bros business plan with that of our local East Peoria distiller, JK Williams. Because bourbon must, by law, be aged for at least two years, it takes some time before a new operation has something to sell. If a business is going to pay the bills and keep the lights on, they need product.
JK Williams solved this problem by releasing some unaged product for mixing, as well as some fruited whiskeys. They also released their “Young Buck Bourbon” which is made the same but simply isn’t aged as long and thus isn’t officially bourbon.
Blaum Bros, on the other hand, expanded into vodka and gin in addition to the Knotter Bourbon and Rye made with someone else’s spirits. I thought that was a good approach, as it gives a sense of the taste the brothers might be looking for in their own product.
Overall, it was well worth the hour or so we spent there. Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast or are just looking for something to do in the area, drop in and check it out.