“Of Genever” – Stephen Osborn Stout Ridge Winery and Distillery

You may remember that not long ago I interviewed Stephen Osborn of Stout Ridge Winery and Distillery for the Alchemist Cabinet and also asked him to write a little Genever phillosophy for us as well.  He has graced us with that writing now and I truly enjoyed reading what he had to say as his passion really shines through in the following words. Enjoy and be sure to check out stoutridge.com  Stephen also just walked away from ADI with a Best in Category for his Gen X Genever as well!

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The subject of Genever Gin holds a special place for me. As a winemaker using natural methods to preserve a natural chemistry which I prize in wine, I nearly always see the taste of toasted oak as a sign of compromise on quality. So you can imagine my conflicted feeling in becoming a whiskey producer! Of course whiskey cannot be a natural circumstance as a wine can, and so I began distilling grain mash by thinking of the presence of oak in whiskey as a style statement or as an artistic statement. And of course as a Federal mandate for Bourbon or Rye. I suppose it must be said that I didn’t become a distiller to make any particular category of products, but rather to bring a winemakers sensibilities to a very adaptive distillery and see what happened.
My take on whiskey (not low wines) off the still is a lot like my take on a wine. The flavors are the flavors of a field of grain, fermented and then concentrated. The field of grain is of upmost importance, and the reflection in the white whiskey of the grain flavors a testament to the quality of the grain and the distilling art.
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So after making a few white whiskeys I was fairly disappointed in their complexity versus wine and brandies. It seems fruit has a significantly more diverse array of flavors than grain does. Perhaps charred oak is a valid way of making it more complex, and aging to allow the fatty acid esterification to proceed a necessary component of making a complex spirit from grain mash. Now I know for distillers I am stating the obvious, but it was nice to see it validating through experience rather than rote.
But then It occurred to me that if I took walk through the field of ripe grain, that their wasn’t only be the aromas of the grain there, but also of various aromatic plants as weeds or on the perimeter of the field. So I began to think of adding botanicals as representatives of these other plants to the grain at the outset of the distilling process and see what happened. Would the resulting white whiskey taste more like the natural event of the field at harvest? So I put a few through the hammer mill with the grain to test it out.
( – “be” )
But before I did this I began to worry what I would call it. Couldn’t be “whiskey”, despite that for me it was because I was still thinking of whiskey as the expression of a field of grain not as an art. Winemakers! So I began investigating gin theory and came across a bottle of Bols Genever. Well this certainly seemed what was likely to happen with my experiments. I decided at first to call it “Dutch” style gin, and then finally Genever gin when I realized it was the usual market terminology.
The Feds require juniper as a component of gin, so be it. There is not a lot of juniper underfoot in a rye field! But in any pursuit there are limitations you can’t control. You do the best you can. So to the little bit of juniper I added one other botanical, and through the hammer mill they went. The resulting mash aromas and fermentation aromas were wonderful and it looked like the theory was holding up. The spirit off the still was indeed going in the direction of the character I had hoped. Here was an improvement in the expression of the true flavor of a field of grain, weeds and herbs underfoot intact.
So in Genever style gin I had found in a grain spirit the analogy of wine as I make it. I think of this as a complex flavor set of natural derivation that is “interior” to the flavor of the grain itself. In other words where the added flavors are smaller than the grain flavor. This is in opposition to the art of Whiskey where the charred oak flavor is seemingly external to the flavor of the grain, or in a dry gin where the botanicals hugely exceed the intensity of the flavor of the base spirit. This is very artistic and stylized, but not in a natural setting.
I had to tinker a lot with botanicals and amounts, and I am working on several themes, but right now Stoutridge Dsitillery has three Genever style gins, two of which are rested in 3 vintage used Pinot Noir barrels. It’s been very rewarding to make these wine-like spirits, and has allowed me to venture off into the art of whiskey and dry gin with the confidence of knowing in spirit production a basic difference between art and nature.
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