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ALAN BISHOP RESPECTS THE GRAIN


Alan in his rick house at Spirits of French Lick Distillery


"You are an Alchemist: Make gold of that" - William Shakespeare


One of the most enduring German fairy tales is that of "Hansel and Gretel." These siblings encounter a malevolent witch in the heart of the forest, testing their wit and courage. The tale reflects the balance between danger and resourcefulness in the natural world, and that balance is one that Alan Bishop, Master Distiller at Spirits of French Lick, personifies in his craft and conversation. He deftly lobbed back my curve balls touching on Indiana black forest history, tobacco crops, mysticism and biodynamic agriculture with the ease and aplomb of a true rennaissance man, giving me yet more proof that distillers who make great whiskey are part of a long lineage of like minded individualists. His insights into the business of spirit making were both refreshing and wise, and what follows is the result of our hour long conversation via zoom.


BST: So, Alan, one thing that I love about you is that you're deeply passionate about distilling history. I recently read this quote from you on Facebook...


Alan: Uh-oh!


BST: (Laughs...) You said, and I quote: If there's one thing I've learned regarding the art and roots of the history of distillation, it's that it's not what you think it is, but 100% what you believe it's not. What do you mean by that?


Alan: So basically, I think there's, and this is a biased view, but truthfully, I think there's a very large misunderstanding of the history and the point of distillation, and that can be from the surface level or even deeper than that, depending on how you want to look at it. So from the surface level, all right, so is it about marketing? Is it about packaging? Is it about whatever is the trend currently? And we have that view because industrialization and industrialized farming made that possible. This is surface level.


BST: Right.


Alan: But truthfully, even at surface level, is it about all that or is it about agriculture?

And then the deeper side of that is how few people, even those in the industry who claim to be very, very passionate about what they do and how they do it, and their attention to detail, or their involvement and process and understanding, really understand the roots of where distillation came from, what it was intended to be and why it was practiced beyond beverage alcohol consumption.


BST: Interesting! Alan, can you tell my readers about your current operation?


Alan: Our operation is pretty unique, I think, even for Indiana. So we are a double pot still distillery. We do no chill filtration whatsoever. We use alternative yeast. We use alternative grains. We do no sour mashing whatsoever, but we also don't sweet mash. So we adjust pH with either citric acid or with malolactic bacteria. Sometimes symbiotic cultures have propagated yeast and malolactic bacteria that was actually obtained from cheese cultures, which is a pretty unique thing.


BST: Wow.


Alan: Our motto is respect the grain and the idea is sort of having these four pillars, which are bourbon, brandy, botanical spirits, and American whiskeys. And then of course, a whole bunch of things in between, very much so a ready, fire, aim philosophy, right? Whatever kind of sticks, sticks, and that's what you have to go with if that's what's selling, but you also got to be able to turn on a dime. We do a little bit of rectification on certain products. So like once a year I do a Calvados style apple brandy and it's literally enough to make a barrel. It's going to be laid down for probably 10 or 12 years. It's all 53 gallon and larger barrels, all number two char medium plus toast heads, a few toasted barrels here and there, a lot of reused barrels for different things. Of course, primarily we're making bourbons, ryes, and apple brandies. That's kind of what we're really known for, but we also make things like aquavit or an Old Tom gin.


BST: How long is your fermentation as a rule?


The distillery floor


Alan: So typically on the whiskeys, we're looking at 85 to 90 degrees for three to four days, although occasionally we will stretch one out to six days if I really want to hit the lactic infection pretty hard. On the brandies, you're looking usually right around two weeks at 67 degrees. The coldest thing we ever did was we did it, we've got a white rum that we've done, we'll probably never do it again, but I always mention it. This rum in Indiana is a goofy thing, nobody cares about rum in any manner.


BST: (Laughs...) you know your market!


Alan: Right. We did ferment that at 57 degrees for three weeks. All the bourbons are typically co-inoculated... The fermenters are 1,200 gallons, so we do a half a mash each day to fill a half a fermenter. Day one, we'll use the yeast that literally started off as Fleischmann's bread yeast, but we've propagated ourselves now for like six years. So it's changed a little bit over that time. Then day two we'll use one of three different brandy yeasts depending on the product. Occasionally.


BST: What's your opinion on secondary maturations in other types of spirit barrels that's so popular right now: It doesn't seem like something you guys put much stock in that. Are you moving towards this sort of equality between the yeast and the fermentation and the grain versus the barrel influence? I know Todd Leopold puts a lot of stock in the yeast that he uses rather than tipping towards the maturation situation for flavour.. But that does seem to be trending.


Alan: Right. And sort of same here, bearing in mind that the vast majority of what we do is kind of based upon the way that the distillers here in the Black Forest region approached their fermentations and distillations in the 1800s. But so, yes, for us, the idea is respect the grain. And so the idea with that is grain has terroir the same way that grapes have terroir. So what I want ideally is, and this goes into the idea of that art and history of distillation we talked about earlier, right? What I want ideally is an equal balance between the raw material, fermentation, and distillation at 50% and 50% maturation. So that no matter how old a product gets, you can always taste the positive attributes of the grain. So a good example would be of what I don't want would be something like some of the older Wellers, right? I know everybody loves Weller, but if you blinded even a hardcore bourbon drinker on most of those older Wellers, they'd have a hard time saying that that was a wheated bourbon and being able to pick that out.


BST: So I would maybe venture to say that you're more interested in distillery character.


Alan: Very much so distillery character, yes! And that's not to say that we don't play with some barrel finishing and certainly some unique woods as far as different toast of French oak and stuff like that we do but like with the finishing barrels.. to me sometimes that feels pretty gimmicky like if we do it, and when that barrel comes in I want that barrel dry. The only character I want from what was in that barrel previously is whatever's trapped in the wood. Okay, we don't use any wet or even moist barrels. I mean the drier they are the better so that's interesting, Yeah for sure.


BST: So Alan, you started out at Copper and Kings. (Brandy distillery in Louisville, KY.) That was your first gig, Yeah? I'm interested in them, because I took the tour there when I was in Kentucky for about a year, and they claimed to have played music to their barrels, right? Maybe you can lend some insight. Do you think it's a gimmick or is that a legit sort of influence; I mean, what's the deal with that?


Alan: Here's what I would say. It didn't start off as part of their marketing plan.


BST: Oh really? You suggested it to them, or...?


Alan: Yeah, it started off as... whenever we, whenever myself and Brandon O'Daniel started there, they had bought a bunch of brandy from anybody in the US who would sell them double pot still brandy. Whether it was good or not is another story because there were some really bad barrels in there. Right. But we both like music so we played music in the basement. We didn't like the same kind of music ironically, because I hate Phish with a passion and he played Phish all the time. And I told him, I was like, I will strangle you if I come in here another day and you're playing that. Right?


BST: (Laughs...) That is too funny... I can relate!


Alan: Joe and Ron (Joe Heron, the founder and Ron Jason ,the creative director) were the two that came up with the idea of let's put speakers in the basement and put music in the basement and we'll use it to vibrate the barrels. So you can turn up the subwoofers in the basement and you can put your hand on the barrel and feel it move the liquid. For sure. So is there some interaction there? Yes. I don't think that it's, I don't, you know, it's not like you dropped it into like a, it's not exactly an ultrasonic deal where it's just going to completely vibrate everything all the time. And, and it's kind of, you know, barrels are alive anyways. They move every time a storm front comes through, barometric pressure moves everything around. It's cool to have music in your basement. And if you want to look at it from a spiritual perspective and you want to think of it that way, I guess you could say that depending on what they were listening to, maybe there's something there. But I think overall it's mostly marketing.


BST: Yeah, yeah... I mean, maybe it's a little bit like the whole Jefferson's Ocean concept.


Alan: Right.


BST: And, you know, like aging barrels on the ocean and aging barrels in space and, you know.


Alan: Right. But at least with, I'll even say this, at least with Oceans, if they're being honest, at least there's an environmental impact to some degree with everything around the barrel... And there would be the ocean air coming in and out, so there's some legitimacy there. Because really too with Copper and Kings, and this is a separate issue, but I'll throw it in anyways, take away the music and you add the cellar and cellar aging is something I'm very interested in as far as slowing down maturation, micro-oxidization, et cetera. But how effective is a cellar that gets up to 90, 95 degrees in the summertime, truthfully?


BST: Right, right.


Alan: I mean, the whole point of Dunnage is that it's cooler and damp, you know, kind of cooler and damper and darker.


BST: Yep. Like in Scotland. I've also read about you that you started getting interested in organic agriculture and sustainable plant breeding kind of ahead of the curve, and grew up in a family that had done distilling and were also farmers. And you've also said that distillation and agrarian culture are one and the same and can in no way be separated from one another. Can you explain what you mean by that, and by biodynamic distilling practices?



Amanda Palmer Heirloom corn


Alan: Yeah. So, when I say that they can't really be separated from one another, so you have no agriculture, you obviously are going to have no distilling because distilling is based on surplus agriculture. There's really no way around that. Now, granted industrialization has changed things, but people forget how precarious the modern system is and that it's a very young system and that it could easily fail. And then when all that stuff fails and your marketing dollars, your labels, and all that stuff we talked about before, that sort of crop everything up, they don't really mean a whole lot. Not truthfully, not in any great deal or way, right? And again, probably a little bit of a bias because I did grow up in a family of, you know, I always hesitate to call them moonshiners and I always hesitate to call them home distillers. So I think I'm going to start calling them folk distillers. I think that's a more fitting term, maybe.


BST: Good call.


Alan: You know, and those people will continue to distill: they're not beholden to the system in the same way everyone else is, because they can grow crops and they can do things themselves and they can be industrious in a different way. And if you think about it, this is one of the weird things to me about distillation, and I think we're headed in the right direction now, maybe with local, regionalized distilleries. Think about all the great wine producing regions in the world, or all the great beer producing regions in the world. Those regions that are very, very old have gone through how many permutations of dictators and kings and famine and everything else and have survived it because they're tied to their agriculture and know where their alcohol then comes from. I think no matter how much we try to separate those two, you can't separate them. It's impossible to do as such.


BST: Right, right. But I mean, there's also such an interesting history and culture of urban distilling in this country, you know, especially in the Northeast, in Pennsylvania and New York City, and environs. The last distiller I interviewed was Matt Strickland. Do you know Matt?


Alan: I know Matt.


BST: So he's just started Iron City Distillery in Clayton, Pennsylvania, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. So there's this whole urban distilling culture in the US too.


Alan:Yep. But the beautiful thing about them too, is the same as the home distillers that are in the urban areas, right? They're tied specifically to localized regional culture, right? And I think the thing that has often been missed even in reviews of products like that is how closely tied to the food system they are. And New York's a great example of that. That's a fantastic example. Of course. So, yeah.


BST: So, you're really focused on Indiana distilling history and sort of raising awareness about Indiana distilling history. You do work with historical societies, am I right? Talking to people about and demonstrating how distilling was done in the past. Do you think that there's an Indiana style of whiskey that people could relate to? And part B is, and here's something I'm really interested in, and I haven't found anyone to talk to me about this yet, is the culture of tobacco, growing tobacco. So if tobacco crops were prevalent in Indiana at one time, and obviously were in Kentucky and in the Midwest at one time... does having a big crop like tobacco growing in the soil change the soil when that crop is no longer grown? I mean, I guess what I'm trying to ask is, would that affect future crops? And does it have any impact on future crops like oats, which you have said were prevalent in those areas? Does that make sense?


Alan: Yeah, so I kind of have to tackle that in two different sections, but just as a general rule with tobacco, it taxes the soil really, really hard.


BST: Oh, really? Why is that?


Alan: Because you're trying to grow as much foliage as what you can, so it's a very nitrogen-dependent crop and you're not really after flowers or anything else. So it pulls every bit of nutrition out of the ground that it possibly can.


BST: Oh, wow, I never knew.. Was that a big crop in Indiana?


Alan: It was!


BST: And in Kentucky too, I guess.


Alan: It was. Honestly, tobacco was a big crop here. I mean, up until about when we got out of it, I think in 98' or 99'. And the reason that, and this happened in Kentucky too, because you don't see nearly as much of it in Kentucky... The reason everybody got out of it is because it went from being sort of a way to work, because every family that had a tobacco farm, they had a tobacco base or an allotment. It's almost like a distillery permit, right? They'd give the government permission to grow X amount, you could sell X amount every year, and then you would bail it into like, I think they were 100 pound bails, and you'd take it to the auction house, and then the auction house would bid on it, right? More quality that you have, the better quality you have, the more process you put it through, the more they pay for it.


Well, they switched it over to basically putting the farmers under contract for tobacco companies. And when they did that, they said, you know, if you don't have however many acres, 50, 60 acres, and you don't have this bailing equipment to make thousand pound bails, then we don't want you. So it pushed a lot of them out.


BST: If you're not big enough, we can't pay you, you're not viable.


Alan: Yeah, you're not worth our time and our effort, yeah, exactly. And then the whole thing with the smoking thing sort of killed that, but anyway. They're not really around anymore as far as I know. But there's, there's a few. I mean... you get over by Switzerland County, Indiana, there's a gentleman over there who, when all that went down, he kicked his production over to growing specialty tobaccos. And so I don't know how many acres he has or who all he grows for, but that's like, you go through there, you'll drive along the road there along the river and he'll have eight or nine different varieties of tobacco.


BST: Oh, that's so interesting. So is he thriving?


Alan: He seems to be. He seems to be.


BST: So, is that kind of like a niche?


Alan:Yeah, and if you get in with the right companies like American Spirit Company, places like that, or if you get in with, you know, maybe some of the cigar companies, you could probably do okay, but I will tell you, it is way more work than I ever want to do again in my life.


As far as the Indiana style of spirit, or you ask about whiskey in particular... Yeah. Let me touch on that real quick. I would say that I think in modern days, not so much, right? I mean, Hoosiers are fairly, whether they're from the north part of the state or the south part of the state, we're fairly insular. That's why we're just now getting a distillery guild going. We've tried this twice before and it didn't work because nobody would get together and do it. So everyone in Indiana sort of seems to be kind of doing their own thing and whatever they're doing may be based on like whatever the market dictates or it might be based on whatever they originally could buy from MGP to sell. What I would say is there was certainly a distinct culture in southern Indiana in particular. It was mostly made up of people whose ancestry came from the Black Forest region of Germany.


BST: Glad you said that, because I was just going to talk to you about that.


Alan: Yeah, so it was a lot of fruit brandies, and originally rye whiskey.


BST: Are these Germans you're talking about mostly, or Scandinavians?


Alan: So mostly Germans, but they would have been a few generations removed. So families would have been in Maryland and Pennsylvania originally, then second, third generation coming in.. Indiana Rye whiskey would have been preferred but the problem that they had when they got here was that the old rye varieties were all seven foot tall and they all mature in June. Well in June we get a couple of Storms every year that come through and they'll be five minute storms, but they'll have you know 40, 50 mile an hour winds. And they'll just lay the rye over and rot it, so you know they moved into Brandies because they were already peaches here at the time that the Native Americans were growing, that they traded with the Spanish for and along trade routes. There were already some apples here. There was of course pawpaw here, blackberries, etc. So they made use of that and then of course they made use of corn.


If you sort of, I guess if you really want to look at an Indiana style, what I look at is the Black Forest region, which is Washington, Orange, Lawrence, Crawford, Harrison, and Perry County, although there are some other counties that would have been involved too. It's very much everything that you distill is very much from a fruit brandy maker's perspective from the black forest region of Germany. So it's all about double pot still, very much so retention and concentration of flavor. It is apple brandy, for example, would be the exact opposite of like Calvados. Instead of sort of a spirit that's kind of fleet on its feet, you want a spirit that's much more punchy and much more in your face and much more in common with bourbon.


The Chai Cellar at Spirits of French Lick


BST: Like Jersey Lightning!


Alan: Kind of like that, yes. But very bourbon with an apple crisp flavor is what you're looking for, basically.


BST: Is the only reason they call it the Black Forest of Indiana because of the brandy making or was it also because there was at one time a forest there?


Alan: So yeah, we're still those six counties and parts of those counties are covered by the Hoosier National Forestry and it is a fairly wooded area for sure. We do still have huge tracts of forest land all around us... I mean you'll see agricultural fields but you'll also see large tracts of forest.


BST: So, Alan, you also have talked about how oats were at one time a prevalent part of the historical whiskeys in the area where you live. So what happened to oats as a crop for whiskey? Was that a result of the government coming in after Prohibition and giving Kentucky big subsidies for corn and just kind of wiping out other stuff? Or why did that happen? And are oats still grown in Indiana? Because I love oat whiskey.


Alan: Yeah, so the Amish here do still grow quite a few oats. You don't see a lot of commodity farmers really growing a lot of them anymore, but the Amish certainly do. And the oat story is a little bigger than just the Black Forest region itself. Oats were incredibly popular in distillation, going all the way back to pre-Scotch, pre-Irish whiskey. One of the common grains that you would see in those early whiskeys were oats and malted oats alongside wheat and barley as well. Oats were prevalent even in Kentucky in early bourbon mash bills, or what would become bourbon mash bills up until about 1870. So what really switched it was the invention of the low-rec column still because oats are thick and they stick. So they don't make for good.. they're not an easy candidate for industrialization.


Amish Pic here?


BST: Got it. Essentially, It was the Industrial Age that wiped out that grain.


Alan: Yeah.

.

BST: That makes sense.


Alan: The interesting, well two interesting bourbon things here in my region, Southern Indiana, I can touch on for you though, and one involves grain. The first is that if you look at Southern Indiana... so if you ever talk to someone from Indiana, you say, where are you from? If they're from Southern Indiana, they'll say Southern Indiana. They never ever say Indiana. Just a thing. It's a very strange thing, but it's a thing.


BST: Right, like you would say if you grew up in South Brooklyn, where I live.


Alan: Right.


So, very much so, you know, just like Kentucky, same pH, same minerals and water. In fact, the Empire State Building was built from limestone from Bedford, Indiana, which is kind of cool. And most of the DC monuments are limestone from Indiana as well. But the long and short of it is, if you look at that word bourbon it doesn't really show up till 1823 as a descriptor. So bourbon at its base is really just corn whiskey right until you start stamping barrels with the word bourbon. So if you look at even a small town like Salem in 1818 just the town of Salem alone shipped 200 barrels of corn-based whiskey out of Salem. Well the interesting thing about both Southern Indiana and Southern Ohio is that if you were anywhere east of New Albany, Indiana before they put the locks on the river, you had to actually cross into Kentucky and hit shipping support to get anything downstream.


So a lot of that early Bourbon quote-unquote probably could have came from Indiana and Ohio as easily as it could Kentucky. And geographically not far away from Bourbon County, Kentucky as well. So, the other part of it, the more interesting one I think that you might find, because oats don't have a direct tie to Indiana overall, although they were used, they were just kind of used everywhere. We have an opposite thing here in the Black Forest region from what they had in Kentucky. So in Kentucky, they always used rye in their bourbons, and they saved wheat for their bread. For some reason here it was the exact opposite and the only thing I can speculate is because they were so used to, because they were culturally German and that had been passed down, they were used to eating rye bread and because the rye was a little more scarce because of the storms that we would have here, they tended to use wheat as both their cover crop as well as for their whiskey instead of using the rye and save the rye for their bread.


BST: That's so fascinating! Because you talk about the storms and because my understanding of rye is that it's a super, super hardy grain that can grow under almost any conditions. Like it would grow if you put seeds on the of blades of a tractor...and under super harsh conditions like in the winters in the East Coast and stuff like that. And that's why rye grew so much better here than it did in the South. So it's interesting for you to tell me that rye doesn't survive storms.


Alan: Well, and it's not the growing that's the problem it's the harvesting because in June it's ready to harvest but again, at seven feet tall the seed head is completely full and that strong wind hits it and it just lays it over. Well then it lays in the mud and then you have no way it doesn't stand back up so you can't scythe it or anything.. it just lays there and rots. Those are crazy storms !


BST: Do you do an oat whiskey?


Alan: We do. We actually, I don't think we've released 100% oat yet. There's one that's bottled, getting ready to come out. But we do use oats in our flagship bourbon, our Lee St. Claire bourbon, which is a four grain. So 60% corn, 17% wheat, 13% oats, and 10% caramel malt.


The line-up


BST: Very cool. So, just moving on a little bit here, what do you mean when you say on your website that your craft verges on alchemy? And can you explain the philosophy of alchemy in a simple way for me and our readers? One thing I find very interesting about you is that you have such a great focus on the alchemical process and the philosophy of alchemy, which I've studied a little bit, but if you could simplify that for a moment, what that means?


Alan: So on the alchemical side, for me, especially with the art of distilling spirits, it's about capturing - and this again goes back to that respect the grain or respect the fruit idea, capturing the quintessence of whatever that object was when it was ripe, right? So, the best way to think about it, the easiest way for me to think about it would be, because it's not just about capturing that.


Because it's more than just that sensory thing that you get. There's also that there's a spiritual component there. And that has to go into the distillation and the intent of the distiller when he's standing in front of the still too, right? You know ideally in a in a world where someone didn't have to distill every day for a living, you'd have time to quote-unquote get your shit together before you went in and stood in front of the still. Have the right and proper intent every single time Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you try to do that every day that you can to the best of your ability. Of course.


So the alchemy part with Spirits of French Lick too is also related to all things sort of esoteric. So I've joked many times that a lot of what we do is really not only in methodology and production but in even the marketing is sort of a form of necromancy.


BST: (Laughs!) Do tell!

Alan: So we always say it's not just the spirits in the bottle but the spirits in the place. I'm sorry to laugh but it just makes me laugh. It's all good. It's not just the spirits in the bottle, it's also the spirits of the place, right? So when we're naming things after people, we're naming them after people for a reason. Yeah, but also specifically people who either didn't get their due just in the history books because they either weren't part of the right political party or weren't popular. Right, right. Or in the case of Maddy Gladden, she ran a whorehouse. I mean, you know, how long that was like suppressed in the town of Salem, Indiana after she was gone. Or the William Dalton, you know, you can read all these things about Spring Mill State Park and the old Daisy Spring Mill Distillery and you'll read about Hugh Hamer and Jonathan Turley, but there's only one source that I know of that mentions William Dalton and he's mentioned one time as the distiller. And then you read into it and you start figuring out, well, he was the distiller for 45 years at this Triple Fire Distillery. He certainly should have a little bit more on him, you know. Of course, of course. So, yeah, and I know that.


BST: Do you know Colin Spoelman?


AIan: I do, I do.


BST: So, you guys sort of seem like bookends to each other in a way because I know that your family originally came from Eastern Kentucky and migrated to the part of Indiana where you're in, and Colin is from Eastern Kentucky and ended up in New York City. So you guys have always seemed in my mind like these sort of interesting bookends as distillers who are doing these amazing things and are both interested and invested in the history of whiskey throughout American history. And how your family migrated from Eastern Kentucky is really interesting to me. And I know you're a fan of the book Dead Distillers.


Alan: Yes, absolutely. Great book!


BST: So, let's switch gears for a minute and talk about superstition and if distillers are by nature superstitious, Alan? I mean, do you think that that sort of comes with the territory? And what's the connection between superstition and distillation? I mean, is there one and why?


Alan: I think traditionally very much so. I think even if you're disconnected from that tradition, I think you get one of two kinds of people that become distillers, right? You either have the people that are really open to a lot of stuff or you have the people that are hardcore science. And both can be right and wrong at the same time, even on the theoretics of the thing. A chemist looks at a thing and goes, no, this is how it works. And then a distiller looks at it and goes, that's how it should work. But it's not logical. People hate stuff that's not logical: It just blows their head up. I think you can become superstitious being a distiller for sure and I think some of that is healthy and some of it is not. But I think if you really look at the history of distillation and where it really comes from and you really track alchemy and not just from the Arabic Islamic mystic sort of circles but also even through...


BST: From Maria Hebraea.


Alan: Yeah, and even tracking it from Solomon's Temple to the Knights Templar to the Rosicrucians to the the Chtamians between the 3rd and 4th century. So this is a thing that I've written about before and I've talked about a few times but I really like the idea of, so superstitions that are more than just superstitions. They're there to remind you of certain things that you should be doing, or shouldn't be doing, for that matter. So in New Jersey, a lot of the Italian moonshiners, they would distill once a year. And when you went into the building, you distilled, you got done, and when you got ready to walk out of the building there was a towel hanging on the door. It was considered bad luck if you didn't wipe your hands on the towel.


BST: Yeah?


Alan: But what it was really there for was to remind you not to talk about it when you left to anybody until you were back again the next time.


BST: What happens in the distillery stays in the distillery...


Alan: Right! Or another one was, some of it is good manners stuff, right? So, like, a lot of cultures would be out, you know, if they were making botanical spirits, you would take your basket with you and you would hold the basket in your left hand and you would pick the botanicals with your right hand. Right. Never pick the botanicals with your left hand because same reason you don't shake hands with your left hand. It's supposed to be the hand that you use for personal hygiene. Yeah. So little things like that I think are worthwhile. You know, and those are little superstitions that really mean something. You know, even something as simple as like, a lot of the old moonshiner's would have a talisman of some sort that they would bury if there's still light. More often than not it was a turtle shell and I still don't know the significance of why a turtle shell. I've never been able to figure that out. But even if it didn't mean anything overall to them, it's the fact that they took the time and the care to do that that meant that they would go through the extra steps to pay attention to what they were doing. Right.


So I think that those superstitions are very, very much so worthwhile. Now I do think on a much deeper level if someone is into the more esoteric leaning things, I do think that spirits are a door opener. I think they're a way of changing our attitudes and opening our minds within reason, right, to things that we might not normally be attuned to, and I think to the process of distillation itself. I think there's more than enough paranormal slash ghost stories associated with distilling, the process itself, and the fact that it is a mind-altering substance being produced is enough to get the attention of whatever spirits are out there within the world.


BST: So that's a great segueway into my next question and it's great because you're right on track with me. I was just about to ask you to comment about your podcast, If you have ghosts, you have everything.


Also I have to give a big shout out to you because I love the music you use. The music on your podcast is fantastic and I love your pseudo "spooky" voice that you do in the intro. It's really nice. It works! Great show. You know, I'm an old school gal and I used to watch The Twilight Zone. That's probably before your time but you know, I used to love watching Rod Sterling do his spooky intros and your writing is just really good, like his. So what's all that about and how does that play into your career as a distiller?


Alan: Yeah, that's actually a really interesting question! Like all those things are interrelated as far as I'm concerned. So like wherever there's a crossroads where there is anything to do with the paranormal, like the Twilight Zone,right? Literally where anything with the paranormal, anything with distillation, anything with theatrics, anything with music where those things come together... that's what I'm interested in, right? And so like for me there really is no dividing line between those things because If you have ghosts, you have everything is just a dedicated space to be able to lean a little harder into that, right? But very much so, they're all related to me, for me. So for years I've done reenactments too, so that's one of the things I've always been really big into.


BST: What kind of reenactments?


Alan: So I've done a little bit of everything... I've done Civil War reenactment, I've obviously done a lot of the Distillery reenactment, so everything from 1812 up through 1880 at some point in time, I've probably done. And that's how I first really got on the trail of these distillers that were here in the Black Forest. It's not like anybody told me about them. I found them through research and doing this stuff. So, and I've told this story maybe a few times too, and I know that people sometimes think these things are weird, but I say them because I believe they're true, and whether anybody else believes it or not, it doesn't really matter to me.


So, one of the characters I came across was a man named Reverend Thomas Green. And Thomas Green was an early preacher distiller here in Washington County, Indiana. He came up here in 1812 and worked for Becks Mill. He started his own distillery. It was very common to be a preacher distiller at that time, by the way. That's how they built most of their churches.


BST: It's a great job description!


Alan: He was a preacher distiller until 1858 when he passed away. In the 1850s, the temperance movement was growing, and so it became very popular to kind of make fun of the preacher distiller. So they would take the hymn books and they would change lyrics. So one of the lyrics they changed for those was..Thomas Green, prettiest man I've ever seen, Miler, Stiller, Soul Saver! So from 1855 to 1858, there was actually statewide prohibition. I've always joked that Thomas Green died of a broken heart, right? But, and I've played his character a million times, did this thing that we used to call Hell's Half Acre, Hell Barely Billy Burlesque Show, and it was me literally talking and telling all the historical facts, and then all my friends and my dad would have black powder pistols, and we'd do like a little, you know, shootout and all that stuff.


But there would be times, no joke, Lia, that I would be talking, and I know my history of Southern Indiana very well, and I would say something. Something would come for me that I would say that was not part of the script and it would come out as historical fact and I'd get done and I'd think back on it and I'd go, well, that was kind of weird. Then I'd go do research and I'd find out that it was an actual thing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, was I channeling that spirit? I don't know, but here's what I can say. Every time I get done with one of these chapters in my life where I've named something after someone or I've paid tribute to this person or to that person, that always leads me to, I say it like this, that ghost always leads me to the next ghost. Okay. It almost sometimes feels like they're tapping each other on the shoulder and going, this guy, go talk to him.


BST: Yeah, makes sense to me. Very cool. So let's switch gears for a minute. Just a couple more questions for you. So I wanted to bring us back to some stuff about the current business, right? So I guess a couple of days ago, this article came out in The Chronicle, which is a Hudson Valley paper, how small craft distilleries in New York State are being gobbled up by the big spirits companies.


Alan: Yeah, you tagged me on that ..Anyway, it's not a new story, but it affects a lot of small operations and the way they produce whiskey.


I've seen both sides of what the craft distilling world looks like: I've seen the company that cares way too much about marketing but not about the quality, the company that cares about quality but puts no marketing out there. I think there are instances where a takeover can potentially be a good thing but I think it would have to be 100% hands off, right? Like when the record labels would buy out a bands contract, put them under that contract and then say oh yeah, but what you are doing now isn't good enough.


BST: Right! Great analogy!


Alan: You know, who are you to say? If we are good enough to sign, we are good enough to do what we're doing, because obviously what we are doing is working. I think most of these distilleries know what they're doing with their spirits. History doesn't repeat itself but it certainly has echoes. You know, this very much looks to me like what was going on with the Whiskey Trust before Prohibition. I think craft distilleries sometimes become a little too...precious. They get overloaded on a product that they are very passionate about as opposed to staying fleet footed and being able to do what the market needs. And the problem is that the middle ground, middle sized distillery is absolutely a death knell. You do not want to be in that mid sized area ; you are just asking for problems.


BST: Alan, when you say midsized, in terms of dollars, what are we talking about here? And what kind of output?


Alan: Well, let's look at it from the distribution side. Let's say a company that's able to distribute to 8-10 or 15 states. You've gotten just big enough to be really dangerous, is what you are. Because I can guarantee you, you might have the money to cover production costs, but not to cover marketing teams in those states. And if you don't have boots on the ground in those states, it doesn't matter if you have distribution there or not, because the distributors will park you. So it gets dangerous there. I think you either have to get an investor that believes in you, or you have to stay very small.


I think a decent example is Stout Ridge Winery and Distillery. That guy is very specialized, does very weird things, and does them very well. If I were him, that's where I'd stay.

Or maybe the alternative is to not be so focused on one category, but to do a vodka and a gin and do bar-friendly spirits. I think you have to. I don't see a way around it. I mean, there have been times that have been really tight for Spirits of French Lick, and right now it's tight for them because the wine market is trashed right now.

BST: I know! I know it's going downhill in Europe right now as far as I've understood, and wine is trending down there.


Alan: Another thing that I think gets misunderstood and I think something that craft distillers miss out on in particular (not all of them but a great many of them) and that the urban distilleries should really catch on to is that the drinking audience has changed, first of all. And second of all, there's also a bit of a new temperance movement happening, unfortunately. All these non alcoholic drink brands popping up. It's basically temperance form a different angle, is what it is. And last but not least, younger people are no longer label slash brand specific. They may buy something from you but they'll never buy it again even if they like it, which is a very strange thing: They aren't brand loyal anymore.


BST: They're not brand loyal anymore and they're seeking out the next new thing really quickly because of the speed of the social media..


Alan: I've given up trying to figure that stuff out. Aquavit is the one that really gets me.

Like every two years it catches on for about three months and then dies a horrible death! It goes from selling multiple pallets at a time and then nothing. And then this article will come out talking about it and it will be back to selling pallets and then nothing.


BST: (Laughs) You have to laugh.


Alan: You have to laugh or else you would cry, right? That is a lesson in humility, right there! When I came to Spirits of French Lick and was still in the Copper and Kings mindset, I was like, ok, that's an on premise brand. What are we gonna be? And I thought, well, we could do an Aquavit because Absinthe and Gin are doing okay. We made so much Aquavit. You will be able to buy a vintage bottle of Aquavit from Spirits of French Lick 30 years from now!


BST: That is a great story! ... Finally, Alan, what are your thoughts on the American Single Malt Category?


Alan: I think anything that expands the lexicon of both consumers and distillers in general, in the United States, is good. I would have like to have seen it be a little... it's fairly broad as it is, but it would be nice to see the ability to go 100% single malted rye and that sort of thing, right? That would seem to make more sense for American distillers. But I am very excited about it. We've made a bit of Single Malt over the years. I think the original owner complained about the pricing of the malt I wanted to use, or something like that. So what we have is like these barrels of these random single malts that are made in a very strange way. Because we use so many different brewers' malts, I always have bags left over and so they're not always consistent. So they're going to be like whatever single malts I have on hand are going into them. They may be trash, I don't know. They tasted good coming off the stove!


BST: What would your barley source be?


Alan: Probably coming from Sugar Creek Malt company. I'd probably be doing some of their smoked malts that they actually do on their traditional smoker.


We do have another related product: It's not a single malt, I'll tell you up front. We call it the Whiskey Witch. And well, it's kind of like a bonus character, right? You have to buy single barrels from us and like, become part of the family to gat an opportunity at this thing, right? But it's basically based on the old pre Irish, pre Scotch whiskeys. So oats, wheat, and smoked malt.


BST: Oh lord that sounds fantastic!


Alan: We did go Indiana on it. We had Caleb from Sugar Creek, - he got peat from up North in Indiana from up around the lakes, and smoked the malt with that. And what we are doing is, we were basing this on the fact that in Ireland and Scotland during the early times, brandy was preferred, but they couldn't afford brandy. What they could afford though, was raisins and they would often hang raisins underneath the worm (condenser) and let the whiskey run over the raisins.


BST: Oh my god, I never heard about this!


Alan: We distilled this, and instead of using the raisins, I used Copper and Kings brandy barrels and we aged the juice for four years in those barrels and blended those with Marie St. Claire bourbon and used brand new American Oak barrels. They're really good and I'll make sure you get one of those bottles, for sure!


BST: Thanks so much, Alan, this has been a real pleasure.


Alan: Anytime!

















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