Engaging in some Foolery

by Alexander Szokolyai

In this installment of collaboration with Cleveland Bourbon Co-Op, we find ourselves at Tom’s Foolery distillery out in Burton, OH. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, and that would make sense, because they’re pretty small and family-operated. I honestly hadn’t heard a thing about them until now either.

I drove out to the distillery (but what appeared to be just some grain crop field), and as my truck tackled a dirt road back around some corn and rye fields, I wondered what I was in for. And then I came upon a barn-looking building in the middle of some trees and saw Hank waving at me. I was still wondering.

Hank and Carl greeted me warmly and introduced me to a few new faces from the Cleveland group, as well as the owner/distiller/gracious host, Tom.

After everyone was assembled, Tom kicked off the event by showing us inside the barn, where the magic happens. We sampled a few very impressive products, including a bourbon, rye, wheat whiskey, maple-finished bourbon, and an apple brandy. My favorite was the cask strength apple brandy hands-down… I was impressed.

With some obligatory yet delightful sampling done, we moved to a bit of a tour of the production. They had recently moved operations onto the 150-acre property where they also grow their own grains (yes, they use their own grain!). I say “barn,” but it’s nice and tidy inside, with concrete flooring and electric garage doors—nice, but still feels like you’re shinin’ just a bit. Inside he showed us his stripping and spirit stills that he’d restored and modified himself to meet his specs. The spirit still was an antique cognac still. Very cool.

He breezed over the distilling process, almost as a formality, as all of us present are at least generally knowledgeable about the distilling process. And yet, the short tour quickly escalated into some deeper discussion involving vapor temperatures, reflux, mash pH, thresholds for cuts, and entry-proofs. I just can’t help being an uber-nerd. It turned 15 minutes of introduction into about an hour, but we all came away a bit more knowledgeable and Tom was really excited to be able to geek-out a bit. It got us all off to a good start.

Once that was done, we drove over to the actual barrel house, about 15 minutes drive.
Tom pulled 6 of his favorite rye whiskies, siphoning them from the barrel with a good ol’ fashioned vinyl tube, some lung power, and gravity. Tom’s partner and lovely wife, Leanna, set us up just outside of the barrel house on some picnic benches so we could enjoy the gorgeous day (low-mid sixties and sunny with a slight breeze).

From there, we got straight to business and tasted blind the 6 ryes in two flights of 3. We picked a winner from each flight of three and then pit the two winners against one another in a final round.

The abbreviated notes from the two contenders (blind) are as follows:

Sample 2:

Nose: lightly phenolic ripe banana, and bubble-gummy, like a banana salt water taffy with a hint of peppermint. There’s even a hint of cocoa, but artificial, like chocolate taffy. The aroma overall is very lively, and with a noticeable presence of malt and grain character.
Palate: it’s chewy from the barrel character and a bit candy-sweet, carrying the same flavors over from the nose, with an almost cool sensation from the minty-ness.
Finish: The finish lingers on, still chewy, but with a black pepper spiciness.
Overall: There seems to be both maturity and youth showcased here–some sweet flavors, lactones, and body from maturity, but there’s also some bright and youthful, sharper aromas and flavors. Not bad at all, certainly balanced, and intriguing.

Sample 5:

Nose: similarly to sample 2, there is ripe/artificial banana, but the bubblegum and mint are there to a lesser extent. Instead, there is more cocoa and some butter and allspice. Compared to sample 2, the nose is much less edgy, more round.
Palate: quite chewy, with a buttery and oily slickness that mingles nicely with a brown sugar sweetness. The sensation of salt water taffy with the chocolate banana flavor is strong. Like in the nose, there’s a bit of allspice. It’s nearly a baked good taste, but there’s no biscuity component. And it’s all rounded off in butteriness.
Finish: long and round like the mid-palate, but with some spicy black pepper and allspice.
Overall: I’d expect this to be a well-matured product. The butteriness was sensational. Though the flavors were great, however, the aroma (and palate) was a touch soft.

The selections of both 2 and 5 from their respective flights were unanimous. They were both ringers. Yet, when it came down to choose between them, we all struggled. Different enough to be distinct, though sharing a few hallmark qualities, but objectively matched.

For different reasons, we all—almost painfully—picked one of the other and came up tied down the middle, 2 versus 5. At that point, we decided we had to lift the blind, consider some stats, and even get Tom’s opinion to help us out (he’s definitely not the type to be biased about his product—very grounded). Using their brilliant and super-transparent barrel database (open to the public via their website), we looked up all of the stats on each barrel, including: mashbill, entry proof, cooper, char level, and age.

Both mashbills were identical: 70/30 rye to malted rye—both an atypical 100% rye bill, and with no exogenous (added) enzymes to boot! We had our guesses about age and all felt 5 was likely older due to some higher perception of different lactones and barrel character and a bit fewer youthful aromatics compared to 2…. And we were all wrong! In fact, 2 was a 6-year barrel with a level 1 char. Level 1!! That’s super-light, like about toasted as opposed to charred. Barrel 5 was a much younger rye, but with a more typical level 4 char.

The other important factor in why these two selections were winners, I believe was their low entry-proof. Barrel 2 clocked in at just 102 proof! This gave me an excellent chance to revisit the earlier “disagreement” I had with Tom about preference for low entry-proofs… in good humor of course!

Taking a break from the serious deliberation, we sampled a few other special products of Tom’s: a 6 year old Apple brandy, a bourbon made with chocolate malt included, and a super-high-quality corn whiskey at a whopping 120 proof. All were fantastic bonus tastes and impressive in their own ways, the brandy being fine and mellow, while full of apple flavor and barrel character, the chocolate malt bourbon showcasing the chocolate malt roasty-toasty coffee bean/cacao nib flavors atop a solid bourbon profile, and the 6-year corn whiskey delivering a super full and sweet whiskey with all of the rich vanilla and toasty barrel notes you’d get from a quality 6 year bourbon (yeah, it kicked ass of the “corn whiskey is cheap” stigma).

We tossed and turned. Smoke was coming out from Carl’s ears as his gears grinded and he scribbled equations on his tasting sheet. Carl is sometimes indecisive and always deliberate, but his was still a really hard decision! Finally, we settled on barrel selection 2, and it was set, and quite happily for all of us… and soon, for you when you get your bottle!!

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