Julian Van Winkle, Peach Brandy, and Heirloom Rye: A Look at High Wire Distilling (Pt. Two)

There is something special about walking into a craft distillery that sets it apart from the larger ones across the globe. Especially ones within the border of the great state of South Carolina. As GC, Ryan Miles, and I walked into High Wire for our meeting (and to beat the heat), we were greeted with those great smells of cooking mash; though the aroma was a little bit different than the distilleries I’ve smelled in the past. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, I knew we would soon find out what it was. We were invited to High Wire Distillery a little over a month ago to learn about the ethos of the company; we couldn’t have been more pleased. The husband-and-wife team of co-founders, Scott Blackwell & Ann Marshall, have an extraordinary spirit about them that we took to immediately. Their pursuit of flavor and producing spirits incredibly different compared to anything the current market has ever seen, is remarkable. For nearly ten years they’ve tried countless grains of corn, rye, quinoa, wheat, sorghum, you name it. All for the purpose of creating a world class whiskey unlike any other. This is happening right here in South Carolina, and Kentucky has taken notice. When Julian Van Winkle comes to town to check out what you are doing, and loves it, it invites another chapter to be written in your story.

Our first hour or two was spent learning about their trials with different varieties of corn, and how they traced Jimmy Red back to its ancestral roots in Mexico. Their thought process behind the pursuit of flavor, I think, stems from the mass commercialization of corn. I’m not taking sides on this, but if you think about the percentage of corn grown in the US vs the corn consumed by humans, you will find that humans consume less than 4% of that corn. That includes anything edible: whiskey, corn meal, corn syrup, and just plain ole corn. Why would flavor be the most important aspect of commercialized corn if the numbers don’t support it? That’s because it isn’t, and points to why heirloom grain is so important to Scott, Ann, and High Wire’s products. The closer you can get to that grain’s origin, the less muted it becomes. Even more important than that, the components you find in the original strains are unique and concentrated with more flavor. This is where Julian Van Winkle comes into the story. When the life’s work of your family for generations is whiskey and discerning flavors, you typically have a knack for it. You’re a professional at the top of your industry, or at worst, the highest authority in the world on your own whiskey. When Julian tried High Wire’s finished Jimmy Red, as well as the distillate, he truly could not believe it was a 100% corn mash. A man who knows what flavor he and his family want to put the “Pappy” label on, and the mash bill that creates those flavors, was having fun! He even asked for a distillate sample to run through their own labs to scientifically prove that it truly was only a mash of 100% Corn. South Carolina Garnet Corn!!

Like most of you reading along, the pursuit of whiskey is never ending. You don’t always get the same whiskey when you sit down. There is a curiosity of what’s on the next page of the whiskey menu. Certain drams become every day for you as your journey spans decades, but occasionally, you get that fleeting feeling from your whiskey youth when you find something new to love. After hearing Scott Blackwell’s personal account of his many visits with Van Winkle, I personally believe he loved knowing that he couldn’t guess what the mash consisted of. I also believe he loved that someone could bring flavors out in a whiskey with 100% corn, whereas he can only get those flavors by introducing other grains. This sets High Wire apart from the rest in my opinion. They aren’t trying to out Pappy, Pappy. They stand alone and are doing what they want to do by playing with the scientific method. See what works, use it. See what doesn’t work, fix it. Repeat. My opinions may be off on how Mr. Van Winkle views Jimmy Red, but I invite you to visit High Wire and plan a tour. On that tour, you will find a barrel with Julian Van Winkle and South Carolina legend Chef, Sean Brock, signatures on a barrel that will most assuredly sell for six figures with the proceeds going 100% to charity.

Once they invited us back to the stills and cellar room, that original aroma we smelled was now concentrated and absolute perfection for my nostrils. It wasn’t the normal corn mash we had been learning so much about, this was Ambruzzi Rye. As soon as we walked towards the still, in front of us was a long 2-3inch wide pipe hanging over a massive container collecting the flow of the distillate. They let us smell two cuts that had come in intervals before we walked in, and the differences were astounding. Stone fruit in one glass and the other was brighter and almost citrus like. The cut they let us taste was towards the middle of the process, and you could really pick up on the baked rye bread notes. If you’ve ever smelled a French bakery from down the street, then you know exactly what this tasted like with a kick. What an experience to taste a 100% rye sweet mash off the still that is being made from an heirloom grain that South Carolinians have used for nearly 3 centuries. 100% Ambruzzi Rye.

The bottling area and cellar room were behind the distilling columns, and there was a team of people hard at work putting human hands on every bottle. Each label delicately placed, each twine delicately tied, and each bottle filled with pride just steps away from its home over the last few years in the wood. The different varieties of whiskey, and even different coopers on different barrels, adorn the rest of the warehouse from top to bottom beginning to show High Wire’s age in the game. Peach Brandy, Maple Barrels, honey barrels, red and white wine barrels, and other unique finished offerings are all waiting patiently to perfect so that we can all enjoy them one day at a table with family and friends. Which is where we headed next: the tasting table.

Amongst our gracious hosts was the Cellar Manager, Alexander Helms, and he selected some of the most unique barrels they have from 2014 until the whiskey produced that very day. Incredible! Inside the main bar area is a room they call the “Emporium”, and it is complete with bar, tables, and the perfect atmosphere to taste whiskey. He pulled about 8-10 different whiskies and brandies for us to taste with them, and each one more unique than the next. I think each of us had a different standout as well. G.C. couldn’t quit talking about the Abruzzi Rye being aged in Matthiasson white wine barrels. When you blend Jimmy Red and its oily texture with the buttery nature of a high-end white wine barrel, you’ve got a flavor profile unlike anything you can get your hands on today. My favorite was one of the two Bottled-In-Bond barrels they pulled, followed closed by their Peach Brandy. They don’t need any help selling their Peach Brandy as people ask about it daily, and it isn’t around long once offered for sale. The stuff is legendary, and I couldn’t possibly recommend it enough for your liquor cabinet. Paired with vanilla bean ice cream at your next gathering of friends, and your status of knowing what the heck you are talking about goes next level. Which brings me back to the Bottled-In-Bond I mentioned. That’s the surprise I am happy to leak to the public.

This fall, High Wire Distilling Co. will be releasing their first ever Bottled-In-Bond bourbon. I’ve talked briefly about this in another article, but the nuts and bolts of what that means is:

1. Aged a minimum of 4 years.

2. Bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% ABV)

3. Goes through rigorous government loops and hurdles.

4. Made by one distiller, in one distillery, in one season, and subsequently aged in a Bonded warehouse.

In short, it’s the ultimate sign of a company’s transparency. No blending of other seasons. No proofing down to increase your product quantity with water. Scott Blackwell touched on this earlier in the visit: Whiskey is the only way you can bottle the flavor of a particular grain, from a particular season, and store it for those who live 600 years from now to enjoy. To me, that is an admirable and remarkable quest, and I’m here for it.

One of our goals for this visit was to let them know about our incredible community here at the Gamecock Bourbon Society, and that we are here to support them as they grow. Our reputation as being honest and forthright with our society is paramount. This should let you know that we aren’t putting our stamp on this due to any promises made or for any monetary gain. I’ve got a bottle of Jimmy Red that is close to 6 years old on my bar, though it has about 2-3 drams left, so I have seen their growth and tasted it in various stages throughout the last decade. What G.C., Ryan, and I enjoyed mid-July of 2023 at High Wire was whiskey that would turn heads in any blind tasting. Not every whiskey will be your favorite, but no whiskey you own will be like High Wire’s Jimmy Red. Another goal of ours is to work hard on securing the best barrel they have in the warehouse so that we can offer it to our members this fall. With any luck, you will be the proud owner of one of the 150+ bottles or so by the end of the football season. Let’s hope our Gamecocks give us reason to crack it and celebrate!

Once again, many thanks to Ann, Scott, Alex, and the staff at High Wire Distilling Co. for their generous hospitality. We will be back, and we will bring friends!

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