In the never-ending debate on how long a whiskey needs to age, Phil Steger of Brother Justus Whiskey Company offers a fresh take. While many consider the job of an oak barrel to be “smoothing out” a spirit—giving the liquid time to breath, mellow, and evolve—Steger thinks that may be asking too much.
“We want to show people that time is just one of the variables, but it’s not the most important,” he explains. “The most important variables happen before you even get it to the barrel.”
After four years of quiet experimentation in the basement of the Strong Scott Building in Northeast Minneapolis, two expressions of Steger’s single malt whiskey will be available during Brother Justus’ grand opening this Saturday, June 9, from 12pm–7pm.
While other distilleries have been pumping out a wide range of spirits and constructing gorgeous cocktail rooms (like the one Norseman Distillery installed upstairs from him), Steger has remained singularly focused.
“The whole idea was to keep everything as simple as possible,” he says. To that end, he makes one spirit (whiskey), from one grain (barley), using one kind of barrel (from The Barrel Mill in Avon, Minnesota, five gallons, #3 char).
Steger’s strategy is simple in theory and monumentally difficult in practice: Dial in a whiskey that tastes terrific without any aging, so a brief barreling adds only a few complementary flavors. If whiskey were a house, Steger asks his barrels to be a coat of paint, whereas in most single malts they’re more of a load-bearing wall.
As for his grain, Steger and former head distiller Jeremy Blankenship undertook a rigorous trial and error process to decide exactly which single malt can produce a spirit that tastes good on its own, and that will play nicely with what Steger calls the “ferociously flavored” barrels from Barrel Mill. They’ve landed on pale ale malt, which is a tad darker, richer, and toastier than a standard 2-row base malt.
His unaged whiskey, which he calls Single Malt Silver Whiskey, tastes like his experimenting has paid off. Far from the gut-rot moonshines that define unaged whiskey, Steger’s is beyond palatable. It’s intriguing, even—a word rarely, if ever, associated with white lightning. A distinct cocoa nib flavor is the first eyebrow-raiser, followed by some citrus and coffee notes on the edges, in a malty body that begs for some vermouth and bitters.
That same liquid rests for four months in five-gallon barrels for the Single Malt American Whiskey. That spirit shows some honeyed sweetness on the nose, and its svelte body opens up to reveal delicate notes of apple, vanilla, and toast. To be clear, you won’t confuse it for an eight-year bourbon or a 12-year Scotch. It treads lightly, but confidently, and is delightful to sip neat.
That’s not to say a deeper whiskey is beyond the Brother Justus reach. Steger gave us a preview sip of a whiskey formula he’s cryptically calling “Project X” that he claims was also only aged for four months, but showed a tremendous depth of richness and flavor. We may not see that product on shelves for some time, but count us excited at the prospect.
Steger is not making gin or vodka, he’s unconcerned with bourbon and rye, and he doesn’t even have plans to open a cocktail room. Instead, he’ll be down in his basement distillery slowly building a stockpile of five-gallon barrels, and producing a single malt that punches well above its weight class. With very few Minnesota single malts on the market, it’s heartening to have a local distiller giving this style the care and attention it deserves.
Distiller: James Ryan Jefferson
Spirits: Single Malt Silver Whiskey, Single Malt American Whiskey
Visit: 451 Taft Street NE, Minneapolis (enter through door “35” and follow the signs)
Hours: Bottle Sales: Saturdays, 12pm–7pm, beginning June 9.
Correction [June 10, 2018, 11:05am]: James Ryan Jefferson is Brother Justus’ current head distiller. Jeremy Blankenship was the head distiller during their R&D phase.