highly spirited

Cheers to Indiana-based distilleries
By Glenda Winders

The arrival of winter, with its heavy soups and hearty red wines, also brings with it a switch from fruity summer cocktails to stronger spirits that can warm you to the core. The new season mandates that revelers move indoors to find entertainment and conviviality, too, with masks in place and proper social distancing measures, of course. Luckily for Hoosiers, craft distilleries around the state are ready and eager to satisfy both of those longings.

Lindsey Skeen, marketing and media director for Indiana Foodways Alliance, says there are two more good reasons to visit in-state distilleries, too.

“Indiana is the fifth state in the nation for corn/grain production, so it’s a natural marriage for Indiana grain to be used for local Indiana spirits,” she says. “And we need to support our local craft distillers now more than ever, because so many local businesses have been impacted by the pandemic.”

A good starting point is at indianagrown.org, the website for a project of the Indiana Department of Agriculture. Click on “Distillery Trail” and print the map that highlights member operations. Get the map stamped as you try each distillery, then send it in when you’re finished for a prize.

Every experience is different and original. Take, for example, Bear Wallow Distillery in Nashville, where you can tour, taste and enjoy seasonal cocktails. While you’re here, give a nod of gratitude to owner Susan Spagnola, one of a small group of people who helped make this privilege possible. In 2012 she and her husband were on a brewery tour in North Carolina when they happened upon a craft distillery. It occurred to her that she could start the same kind of business in Indiana.

“I’d been to the Jim Beams and the Jack Daniels of the world, but you don’t go to those and think, ‘I’m going to do this,’” she says. “It planted the seed that distilling could be done at a craft level, too.”

But disappointment awaited her when she got home and learned that what she hoped to do was illegal. She joined other like-minded people to try to get the law changed, and the following year the Indiana Artisan Distillers Permit was created. After a year of construction, Bear Wallow began production in May 2014 and opened its doors that August — the first such operation in the state.

The company is family-owned, with Spagnola’s husband and sons working in the distillery alongside her, and it is one of only a few in the country owned by a woman. She says the family jokes about having the first legal still in Brown County, which was known as a haven for illegal producers during Prohibition. The name comes from a part of the county where those moonshiners hid out during that time because there were so many bears in the area that law enforcement officers were afraid to come and look for them.

Today Bear Wallow produces seven aged whiskeys, three unaged corn whiskeys and 16 flavored moonshines, all made with Indiana-grown grains. Spagnola says part of the fun of visiting several different distilleries is that spirits have terroir just as wines do, so you can put the exact same ingredients into a barrel and the finished product will taste different based on the geography of where it was made.

“A lot of it is weather, water and corn,” Spagnola says. “Water in Brown County is limestone-filtered, like in Kentucky, which makes a big difference in the taste of the whiskey. Even corn varies a little bit from year to year, depending on the growing season. Whiskey made in different parts of the country will taste different depending on how hot or cold the weather is throughout the year.”
A visit here can begin with a tour of the facility, which takes about 45 minutes and goes to the production area, the barrel-aging room and then to see how the whiskeys are bottled and labeled. The tour is unscripted so that visitors can ask questions whenever they like, and at the end they can taste a flight of up to six whiskeys or sip a cocktail made of Bear Wallow spirits.

“We use the same whiskeys, but we use them differently in each season,” Spagnola says. “In the winter we feature warm drinks and seasonal ingredients.”

That might include mixing whiskeys with hot tea, coffee or cider combined with flavors like cinnamon, ginger and cranberry. Also on the menu are a bourbon hot toddy and the salted caramel apple pie moonshine cocktail. Seasonal Hoosier Hooch flavored moonshines include salted caramel, sugar cream pie and candy cane.

“Distilleries are great places to visit in the winter,” Spagnola says. “Seasonal cocktails are a perfect way to warm you right up, the heated stills will keep you toasty and hand-crafted spirits make great holiday gifts.”

The experience at Huber’s Starlight Distillery in Starlight, near New Albany, is completely different. The operation is a part of Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyards, so you can visit its farm market for baked goods and apple cider, have lunch at the Starlight Café and try the homemade ice cream either before or after you’ve sampled the spirits.

“We have plenty of options, whether you’re stopping by on the spur of the moment just to see what we have or planning something ahead that takes a little more time and costs a little more,” says Lisa Kruer, Starlight Distillery marketing director.

Events that must be planned might include a day out with a tour and lunch or a tour and tasting with pizza. The tour of the production facility is unusual because it includes a progressive tasting. Visitors see the barrel room, rick house and still house and sample the products along the way.

If you only have time for a quick sip, visit the Tasting Loft and take home a souvenir glass when you’re finished. If someone in your party doesn’t enjoy spirits, there’s an option for that, too.

“If you have a mix of people who prefer spirits or wine, you could do the distillery tour and the others could do the wine tour and tasting,” Kruer says. “Or you can combine. If you go to our Tasting Loft you can taste side by side with someone who is drinking wine while you’re sampling the spirits.”

Master distiller Ted Huber and co-owner Greg Huber are especially proud of the brandies they make based on their ancestors’ methods from the early 1800s. They worked with a German company to make sure they were doing it properly, and they also worked with legislators to make producing both wine and brandy legal in 2004.

The Hubers are producing upward of 35 different spirits at any given time, and except for tequila, which comes from Mexico, they make nearly every type possible: whiskey, bourbon, rum, gin, grappa, infusions and more.

“We basically do it all,” Kruer says.

The farmers on their 700 acres grow strawberries in the spring, then blueberries and apples and lots more, so the craft cocktail menu here also varies with the season. Heavier bourbon-based recipes and the cider they produce play a large part in the winter lineup.

Kruer suggests trying the Hotty Toddy, which uses their Apple Jack Brandy, apple cider and spices to make a hot mulled drink. Or the Orchard Mule, their take on the Moscow Mule that uses their vodka along with house-made ginger beer and apple cider. If your tastes are simpler and run to bourbon and Coke or gin and tonic, they’ll be happy to make that for you, too.

A visit to West Fork Whiskey Co. in Indianapolis provides a whole different vibe. It doesn’t offer tours, with good reason: The cocktail lounge is situated right in the industrial ambience of the distillery. When the distilling crew stops work at 4 p.m., the lounge opens and the party begins.

The distillery produces six whiskeys — two corn, two bourbon, one rye and a natural-infused cinnamon whiskey — with catchy names such as B-Street Blues, Rye-ters Block and 3rd Degree. With the help of the Lawrence County Historical Society, it has also resurrected the Old Hamer brand, whose bourbons and ryes were known in the 1800s as some of the finest whiskeys around.

Here the spotlight is on all the different cocktails bar manager Jacob Cantu can dream up using the whiskeys they produce.

“We’re always creating new things, staying current with the trends and giving people in the Midwest what we call ‘the international cocktail experience’ while catering to their particular palates,” Cantu says. “We try to give people a lot of options, so I usually have 15 or so cocktails to choose from. Some people tend to be scared of whiskey, so I create a lot of cocktails to introduce them to whiskey, and then it creeps up the continuum. I have cocktails for people who don’t like whiskey at all to the people who love whiskey.”

He’s also happy to pour such traditional drinks as Manhattans and old-fashioned cocktails, but they come with an unexpected wrinkle. The company’s artisanal license doesn’t allow it to bring in any “alternative spirits,” such as sweet vermouth, Campari and others required to properly make such drinks, so over the quarantine they deconstructed how vermouth is made and then created their own. They also made canned cocktails.

While these resourceful distillers were social distancing, they created cocktail mixes to pair with their whiskeys. The mixes are stabilized so that they last 15 to 30 days in the refrigerator, and West Fork Whiskey Co. is about to start making them on a national scale.

“They have everything except the alcohol so that people can make the cocktails at home, Cantu says. “Instructions on the bottles show you how much alcohol to mix with the elixir. Then give it a shake, and you’re ready to go.”

In the coming year West Fork will begin an expansion project at a second, much larger location in Westfield. Along with additional production and aging space, the 35,000-square-foot family-friendly agritourism center will feature an event center, retail space, a restaurant with a cocktail lounge and a speakeasy, all designed with the downtown aesthetic in mind.

The new facility will provide space for tours and tasting classes, and the restaurant will highlight Indiana agriculture, flavors and artisanal products. The additional capacity will make West Fork the largest agritourism experience in Indiana and the largest micro-distillery in the United States — something to look forward to on a future whiskey-tasting adventure.