How would you like to earn your living sussing out special barrels of American whiskey? That’s how Dave Schmier spends his time. He scours the distillers rickhouses for maturing spirits that he can age, blend, and bring to market.
His Fairfield County-based company, Proof and Wood Ventures, is one of a surging group of middlemen who work in the space between national brands and local craft distillers. His search turns up everything from unique barrels to large consignments, each getting their own finishing touches before being bottled.
Back in the 90s when Schmier started doing this, you could taste in the rickhouses: ancient structures, usually in Kentucky, stacked high with cooperage. “You could find some really unique barrels,” he explained. Back then the market was dominated by white spirits, mostly vodka, while brown whiskeys, bourbon and rye, were going begging.
Rickhouses, barn-like buildings up to seven stories tall, are filled with barrels of aging booze. Seasonal changes in humidity and temperature, type of barrel wood, level of char, and the passage of time, all impact on the flavor of the whiskey. It goes in clear and comes out years later ranging from dark brown to light golden with nuanced flavor leached from the wood over time. Rickhouses can have their sweet spots where some barrels develop exceptional and desirable complexity and flavor.
These days, with hot competition for the best stuff, inventory is offered directly from the distilleries and through brokers. Schmier, an industry veteran with a well-developed network of contacts, has first crack at some of the best. He picks based on provenance, tasting samples, and a wee dram of faith. The whiskey is finished with additional aging, a change of barrels, careful blending, or a combination of all three.
Proof and Wood, the company name, are the tools he works with to develop the final product. “A balance of wood and spirit,” as Schmier puts it. Most whiskey is bottled at 40% alcohol (80 Proof), but it can be higher. Additional time in the barrel, the type of wood, and the nature of that barrel all influence flavor.
As whiskey ages some evaporates (the angel’s share, the Scots romantically call it). Depending on atmospheric conditions, more alcohol or whiskey will evaporate, concentrating flavor and altering the proof.
A finisher like Schmier can add water to lower the proof, but that has an impact on flavor — sometimes for the better. There’s a trend now to bottle at “cask strength” preserving the concentrated flavors. Alcohol levels can reach up over 60% (120 proof). Schmier says, “The consumer can always add water, but you can’t add alcohol.”
Barrels are blended to achieve a consistent flavor profile for a brand with wide distribution. This is Schmier’s art. His finely-honed tasting skills enable him to produce award-winning in-demand consistent bottlings.
His blends of twenty-barrel batches, available in about twenty-five markets around the country, include Deadwood Straight Bourbon, from barrels all at least 2 years old and 81 proof. He calls it American table whiskey, a value and quality balance good for every day.
Roulette Rye is a 100 proof “solid value for the money” with a recipe of 95% rye. Tumblin’ Dice “bold and spicy” bourbon is also blended in twenty-barrel batches at 100 proof from stocks at least 4 years old.
Occasionally as the barrels are tasted, one is exceptional and is bottled as a single unblended barrel commanding a premium price. The barrel of 4 year old Tumblin’ Dice that won Best Single-Barrel Bourbon at the World Whiskey Awards was sold to a Kentucky retailer.
Irene Tan of Whisky Mentors, a specialty retailer in Canterbury, CT, bought an entire barrel of Tumblin’ Dice for her store, a growing trend in the whiskey business. She and Schmier tasted through barrel samples to choose one that would be exclusively available to her national following of whiskey enthusiasts.
Schmier also does limited edition bottlings. Just released, 100 Seasons is a 25-year-old American Light Whiskey, a rare find in an industry where 12 years is considered ancient. His tasting comments say, “deep caramel and gingerbread notes jump at you immediately, notes of chocolate and stone fruit complete the finish with some strong wood notes reminding you of the whiskey’s age.” Only 500 bottles were produced, an exclusive and pricey product aimed at collectors, connoisseurs, and whiskey clubs.
There’s also what Schmier calls the DC collection of bourbons created with his Washington distributor, which includes: The Justice, 14-years-old; The Ambassador, 12 years; and The Representative, 4 years.
Schmier sees rye as the next thing for whiskey enthusiasts. Roulette Rye is his “solid value” 4 year offering. The DC collection includes The Senator, 6 years and The Presidential Dram, 8 years.
According to Gregg Glaser, Publisher and Editor of Modern Distillery Age, the spirits business has evolved just like wine, beer, and cider did in their turn. Greater consumer education and interest has made space for quality-oriented small producers to move in with unique products, products that satisfy the consumers interest in, “What’s new?”
From the start, Schmier was carefully selecting his bottlings and providing detailed information on the label about source, mash, cooperage, aging, and finishing. A pioneer in the field, he’s still out there looking for exciting barrels.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.