Lost Lantern Tom's Foolery

Tom’s Foolery Guest Post: Tom Herbruck On Maturing Whiskey In A Cold Climate

A Guest Post written by Tom Herbruck, cofounder and head distiller at Tom’s Foolery Distillery

The Lost Lantern Midwest Collection launches on March 27. It’s our very first regional collection, and as the name suggests, it’s focused on a region that we see as one of the unsung heroes of American whiskey: the Midwest. The region is home to hundreds of distilleries, and our Midwest Collection showcases six of the brightest lights in the Midwest. We truly think Midwest whiskey is poised to emerge as a distinct and recognized whiskey style. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

For our first regional collection, we asked several distillers across the Midwest to contribute guest blog posts about what makes their distillery and the Midwest as a whole unique. Today’s guest post comes from Tom Herbruck, cofounder and namesake of Tom’s Foolery Distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Tom’s Foolery is a member of the first wave of new distilleries, and has been distilling since 2008. They’ve always been committed to traditional, slower, labor-intensive ways of making whiskey, including the use of pot still distillation, open-air cypress wood fermenters, and long aging in the cold climate of Ohio’s snowbelt. 

We released our first whiskey from Tom’s Foolery last year: a 9-year-old Ohio bourbon (labeled as an 8 year old, because it actually turned 9 just a few days before bottling) that ended up being the hit of our 2023 Summer of Bourbon Collection. 

Tom’s Foolery returns in the Midwest Collection in two ways: we used a small portion of a nine-year-old rye cask as a component of Far-Flung Rye, our blend of straight ryes from across the Midwest. And we’re also releasing a Tom’s Foolery 9-year-old single cask rye, the oldest whiskey we’ve ever released.  

We asked Tom to contribute a blog post about the unique experience of maturing whiskey in the cooler climate of the Midwest, and how that climate affects the whiskey over longer time periods. His comments below are primarily about their bourbon, but apply to their rye whiskey as well.

Here’s Tom–and thank you again for contributing! –Adam

Tom Herbruck of Tom’s Foolery on Maturing Whiskey In A Cold Climate

At Tom’s Foolery Distillery, we mature our bourbon in an unheated rackhouse in Northern Ohio. The winters get cold up here. On average, our temperatures are about 8 degrees colder here than in Kentucky. When we started distilling bourbon, we wondered how our cold winters would affect the maturation of bourbon.  

So we called around. Our connections at large Kentucky distilleries were interested in the question, and they had some opinions. However, their point of reference was limited mainly to their experiences in Kentucky, which was not so helpful. 

I spoke to the head of research at Independent Stave, and he had a lot of opinions on the topic, too. We went in-depth about extraction, evaporation, barrel pressure, and how the rate of oxygen would be affected by temperatures. Ultimately, he said that he didn’t know how temperature would influence the maturation, and he said, “Give me a call when you find out.”

That was in 2011. Some 12 years later, we’ve learned a few things, and I think it’s worth sharing what we have observed with the community. 

Ohio Bourbon Vs. Kentucky Bourbon

Admittedly, our experiment is not well-controlled since many differences (other than temperature) will result in our bourbon tasting different than typical Kentucky bourbon. A primary difference is that we make our bourbon in pot stills, which results in a meaningfully different-tasting bourbon than what would be produced on a column still. 

Our mash bill varies from a typical bourbon mash bill in that we use 20% malt, 20% rye, and 60% corn. We use a brewer’s pale malt rather than a distiller’s malt, changing the flavor. We barrel-fill at 108 proof (rather than the standard 120 proof). I could go on. Our new make bourbon is different than typical Kentucky bourbon, which makes it challenging to know which of our mature bourbon’s attributes result from lower rackhouse temperature. 

While not wanting to understate the fact that our new make spirit tastes different than Kentucky bourbon, it’s still bourbon, and there are other important similarities too. Specifically, our barrels are identical to barrels used by many large distilleries. We typically mature in standard 53-gallon charred oak barrels that we buy from Independent Stave, char level 3.

But first, let me share a few more things about our rackhouse. It’s a standard metal pole barn and it is short, relative to a Kentucky rackhouse. We stack just 3 or 4 barrels high, so there is not much variation in temperature based on the height of the barrels. Out of necessity, we move the barrels around so they get agitated. We’ve installed industrial ceiling fans, so the warmer heat in the trusses is pushed down in the summer.

Ambient temperatures in the rackhouse are similar to those outside in the winter (average 10 to 30f), with a few lows well below zero. The rackhouse seems to stay a bit cooler in the summer than it is outside, but we’ll still see temperatures in the 80s. 

Tom's Foolery Still

Ohio Maturation: Over A Decade of Observation

Here is what we expected and what we observed.

We expected less oak and tannin extraction. I don’t think that happened, as our bourbon seems to have a color and oak characteristic similar to Kentucky bourbon. 

We expected a lower rate of evaporation. That did not happen. Our angel’s share seems on par with the rates experienced in Kentucky. We’ll pull a 10-year-old bourbon and often find evaporation rates in the 50% range. I am guessing that we underestimated how much dry winter air would suck that bourbon right through the staves. 

In a colder climate, we expected that congeners and other more volatile components would evaporate at a lower rate, leaving a more aromatic spirit. To my joy, that seems to have happened, as our bourbon typically has a more robust nose than Kentucky bourbon. The increased aromatics are probably the most meaningful difference in flavor contributed by the colder climate. 

In this vein, one could speculate that if volatiles don’t escape, there is a greater likelihood that some more harsh (volatile) components would remain, but we don’t observe this. However, the lack of harsh volatiles might have more to do with the distilling technique than the maturation temperature, as a distiller can more easily separate heads when distilling on a pot than on a column. Yes, column distillers can remove some heads, but it’s still not the same quantity as can be done on a pot still. 

We expected the higher oxygen rate (held in a colder fluid than a warmer fluid) would speed up the reaction, such as oil breaking down. I don’t think that we observed this. If it was there, it was overcome by the reaction rate expected in a colder fluid. 

We expected a slower reaction rate, meaning oil and tannin breakdown would take longer. We saw this in the oils in particular but not so much in the tannins, which seemed to break down at an expected rate. 

Overall, we expected maturation to take longer. That we did observe.

 

The Logistics of Snow

One challenge that we underestimated was the simple problem of managing the snow. We distill in the Snow Belt, and it’s not uncommon to get a dump of ten inches of snow overnight. Receiving deliveries of grain and barrels was often a challenge. We had to rig a fork on the back of a tractor to move barrels between the distillery and the rackhouse. 

Another unexpected challenge was dealing with the cold temperatures. Pumping whiskey in 10 below zero temperatures was hard on the pump and my wife Lianne, who filled all the barrels. 

These challenges in dealing with the snow and cold temperatures were real, but they did not affect the taste of the whiskey. 

In the end, here’s a summary of what we observed: similar evaporation rates, similar extraction, slower maturation, and more aromatics. 

When we decided not to heat our rackhouse, the primary driver was to go ahead and let Mother Nature contribute. We wanted to make an Ohio bourbon and let the temperatures in Ohio affect the product, for better or worse. In the end, I’m glad that we went that route. For one, it’s more practical, as no distiller wants to heat a rackhouse. 

More importantly, we’ve produced a product we can be proud of. And because it has a slightly different flavor profile, I think any curious bourbon enthusiast would be delighted to taste something different. 

 

 

Learn more about Lost Lantern’s Tom’s Foolery Ohio Straight Rye Single Cask!

 

Additional guest posts from our Midwest Collection: