Rye and Shine: Talking Whiskey with O’Shaughnessy Distilling
Built on top of a potato-processing plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota, O’Shaughnessy Distilling launched in 2021 with the key to making traditional Irish-style whiskey in America: three gleaming copper pot stills.
In year one, their Keeper’s Heart line of blended whiskeys collected 36 awards. In year two, the distiller hit its target output for year eight. This year they’re on track to produce 4,300 bbls. Because O’Shaughnessy sources Rahr Unmalted Rye and several fine varieties of Malted Rye from the BSG portfolio, we took a weekday field trip to discuss whiskey with Lead Distiller Chris Silber. We learned more than we could possibly relate, but here are a bunch of the highlights.
- Before joining O’Shaughnessy two and a half years ago, Silber began his brewing and distilling career in Colorado. There he spent time at Stranahan’s and helped start Old Elk Distilling in Fort Collins. He also brewed for Minnesota’s Indeed Brewing and met his wife at a Target Department store. Take it away, Chris!
Distilling and Brewing, Discussed
- “Distillation is an artform. The most important aspect is in the mashing and the fermentation side. If you make crap here, you’re just concentrating a terrible fermentation and you’re going to get all these off-flavors. The barrel’s not going to take that out. Time won’t. You could age it for 20 years and it still would be terrible.”
- “The beauty and the b*tch of whisky, is opening a distillery costs like ten times more than a brewery. The building itself costs four times more than a brewery. This is all flame resistant because you’re in the flammable zone with alcohol over 20 percent. Taxes go up at 20 percent, too. My hats off to the people who do this and have done it right. That is a feat to behold.”
- “At the end of the day, we really just heat stuff up and cool it back down. But the terminology is all over the place. Are we talking Irish terms or Kentucky terms? We speak Brewer with barrelage, Irish with hectoliters, and then we talk Kentucky, which is just goofy. Beer gallons? How many bushels per gallon?”
- “Some of the best whiskeys and Scotches are blends because you can pull from so many different profiles. Also, never overpay for vodka.”
- “What’s different from brewing is we’re not doing six different recipes a week. We’re doing 7 months’ worth of Rye. Before that, we did a year of our American Pot Still style. Next we’re doing Bourbon for 7 or 8 months. We have these different recipes. Some go to the pot stills and the others go to our column stills. But you don’t change everything around all the time. You do the same thing for a while and change it up occasionally.”
- “The Triple Pot Still system is the most complex pot still distillation you could ever dream of. Brian [Nation, Master Distiller] knew the recycling process and brought it here. The Scots do double distillation, and even that’s much easier. But hey hey hey, if the Scots can get it right in two times, the Irish say it takes three to really perfect it. Column stills are the most efficient, but they don’t replicate the flavors and heavier oils you get from triple distillation.”
- “Brewers are very clean. With distilling, you can be too clean. A little bit of Lactobacillus goes a long way. You have to have some of those bacteria to produce congeners so the whiskey can stand up to the barrel and aging. If it’s too clean, it’s just going to taste like wood. Wood, and alcohol.”
- “Making a new recipe is terrifying. Holy [redacted], I hope this tastes OK in four years. Otherwise, I’m screwed. This barrel is worth $20,000 and if it tastes like [redacted], it’s worth nothing. From oxidization to esterification to acids and aldehydes, there are so many variables. Where’s the rickhouse? What’s the char level? What barrel is it in? And it all depends on time. That’s where I find it harder than brewing.”
Rye or Die Trying
- “Rye is its own animal. Normally you graduate to rye because it’s such a [redacted] to work with. The viscosity on it is insane. It can go sour really quick. Once you hit your pH, you’ve got to get it out of the fermenter that day. And if it goes sour, no amount of cutting is going to make it drinkable.”
- “If you don’t have the pre-malt, it turns to goo. We don’t have that problem because we use enzymes. We want to get as much alcohol as we can as fast as possible, so it’s worth the cost for us at this scale. They built this distillery like a Ferrari, so we run it as hard and as fast as we can.”
- “One rye recipe we’re doing is a 50-50 split between malted and unmalted rye. We’ll also do 100 percent rye soon, but technically that’s 95-5. That’s 95 percent Gambrinus Rye and 5 percent Rahr Unmalted Rye. I like the consistency and taste of Rahr’s unmalted rye. We’ll run 100 barrels of that recipe.”
- “Canada makes great rye. When we do our grain test, Gambrinus Rye is always fresh and smelling almost like cinnamon. It gives us consistency and volume. I know it doesn’t sound sexy, but I want consistency and good starch content. Having so many ways to make adjustments and hit our targets is great.”
- “Another special one is the pot-stilled rye we’re doing. This one is 90 percent unmalted rye, 7 percent malted, and just a touch of Weyermann® CARARYE®. You smell that Cararye? Taste it? The 2 percent Cararye shows up. This is 115 proof, a little hot. Less sweet and more oily. It gives you complexity in the short term without taking it away in the long term. You want the wood sugars to shine through, too. Balance is everything.”
- “There are places using 30 percent specialty malt. We’ve done a lot of tests, where just 2 percent of something very unique is just right in terms of flavor profile. But it all depends on how much time you have. If you have just a year or two, adding more specialty malt will increase complexity in the short run. When you have long enough to age it, it can actually be a detriment to go over 2 percent.”
BSG Has Our Business
- “We’re using BSG for malted and unmalted barley too. Nobody really does that. The unmalted barley is a unique process, but it’s all the same quality and all the same stuff. Malted, unmalted, BSG is a one-stop shop. That was a huge selling point for the pot still, traditional Irish-style whiskey. When we do our Irish style, that’s traditionally done with a 50-50 split between malted and unmalted barley. Scotch is 100 percent malted, and the Irish do it 50-50.”
- “I worked with BSG and Rahr in Colorado and I’m comfortable working with these malts. The tradition, the consistency, the ability to pull from several growing partners. It’s the best delivery schedule you can get. And it’s cool to tell folks who take the tour that the ingredients are local to Minnesota.”
- “We’re not a small distiller filling a niche. One farmer, one field, that’s not a model for consistency at our scale. We want a partner who sources grain from multiple places. If it’s just one field and you have a [redacted] harvest, then you’re just [redacted]. We’re getting the consistency we need because Rahr knows the farmers and does the work.”
- “Our fermentation time is about 40-45 hours. We use dry yeast. It’s 10 lbs. in there. Sit for 20 minutes in 100-degree water. Put it in the bucket and pour it in. You can never get rye down to zero Plato like you can with corn. You’ll always leave some on the table. You can get way too in the weeds chasing yeasts. 60 percent of that character comes from the barrel. Red Star DADY (distillers’ active dry yeast) is a great strain. It’s economical, it finishes.”
Slapping the Dog
- “Y’all ever learn how to slap the dog? Any time you’re in a distillery and you have access to their New Make, this is the best way to figure out what’s going on.”
- “Go ahead, put a little on your palm. Don’t do anything yet. Just hold it there. Now, rub your hands together and smell. First you’re going to smell that alcohol burn. Rub your hands together a second time. This is where you get more of the grain. You get that rye coming through? [Silber sighs audibly]. I get the spice of the rye here. Rub for a third time and you get more of that yeast character. That breadiness.”
- “First is the burn, second is the grain, then the yeast gets you at the end.”
- “The only thing worse than working with rye is working with potatoes. Flakes, OK, maybe, but those are processed. You can’t replicate the mouthfeel a real potato gives you, and it’s the worst [redacted] fermentable. Never do potato vodka. [Redacted] the potato. You got to bring it in, clean it. You’re basically making mashed potatoes until you finally ferment it. And then it’s just the worst. It’s kind of like lagers these days. It’s a labor of love and requires more skill and time. It shows the skill of the distiller. It’s hard to make something that tastes like nothing.”
- “Reuben or Tuna Melt? Are we getting lunch? I love Reubens. I’m a Reuben fan. It’s got to be the good New York rye bread for the Reuben.”
The BSG Blog crew had a great time touring O’Shaughnessy Distilling and learning all about their advancements in the field of Rye. Thank you, Chris, for your hospitality — cheers!
If you’ve got questions about brewing or distilling with malted and unmalted rye, get in touch!