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Whiskey 101: A Tasting at Mad River Distillers

At Mad River Distillers, we ferment, distill and bottle bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, rum and apple brandy. At our Tasting Room in Burlington, you can purchase our spirits and cocktails, learn about distilling, and shop in our retail section for a variety of cocktail accessories, including bitters, mixers, syrups, books and apparel. You can also sample our spirits with a tasting. 

A tasting is a great way to try a variety of our spirits in one sitting, to learn how the individual spirits are made, and the unique qualities of each. Often, people will come into our tasting room and ask about our spirits before ordering, and we’re always eager to share what makes each one distinct. Ultimately, a tasting is your opportunity to determine which spirits you prefer before purchasing a full bottle. While you can order a tasting of any of our available spirits, here we wanted to share a Whiskey 101 on what makes these spirits distinct, much in the same fashion we would share if you were sitting at our Burlington Tasting Room with a flight of four spirits on a board.

Whiskey, which is distilled from grain, is commonly made from barley, corn, rye, or wheat. In Europe, the most common whiskies are those made in Scotland and Ireland, where they are traditionally made using 100% barley and therefore designated a single malt whiskey. In the United States, whiskey is predominantly made from corn or rye. While all Bourbon is Whiskey, not all Whiskey is Bourbon. To qualify as a Bourbon, the Whiskey must be made in the United States and include at least 51% corn (for rye, the requirement is at least 51% corn). Here, the spirits must be aged in charred new oak barrels and the barrels may only be used once. Importantly, there can never be any additives (such as coloring or flavors) in a Bourbon or Rye. Doing so would change the Bourbon designation to a Whiskey.

Below is an overview on each of the whiskey options available at Mad River Distillers Burlington Tasting Room today:

This is our Vermont version of America’s favorite whiskey. It is a wheated bourbon that is distilled from local grains, and has a distinct corn sweetness which is complemented by a hint of honey from the wheat. As a straight bourbon, this spirit is stored for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. The result is a bourbon with a deep and rich aroma of Vermont-grown corn, smokiness on the palate, and a smooth aromatic finish. It’s a popular choice at Mad River Distillers, which is great for sipping and in a variety of cocktails. It also won a variety of awards, including a Gold award at The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and a Silver award from both the American Craft Spirits Association and Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.

Named for a popular hiking trail in the Mad River Valley, this 92 proof Vermont-made bourbon has a smokey twist thanks to the unique bourbon mash, which includes smoked barley over maple wood. The combination of 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% smoked barley results in a bourbon that explodes with flavor and spice, with just a touch of smoke. Recently, the Burnt Rock Bourbon received an Ascot Award, which described this spirit as nutty and buttery with a soft sweet finish, and a lovely mouth-watering texture. Given the high demand for this spirit, what once was a limited offering is now available year-round.

Earthy and peppery with hints of walnut, berry and tropical spice, our Revolution Rye is made using three distinct rye grain varietals, including chocolate malted rye, which lends the spirit a cocoa richness and finish. This whiskey is carefully fermented from local and organic rye (with a portion of “toasted rye”), and is distilled using our German still to bring out the delicate nuances. The result is a rye unlike any other, and while it is delicious on its own, it makes for some incredible cocktails as well. Perhaps that is why it is our most awarded spirit, including a Gold award from both Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, among others. It is also a Good Food Award Winner, and received 92 points by Wine Enthusiast.

At 96 proof, our throwback Corn Whisky is a re-do of the original released in 2013. The updated mashbill of our current release includes 75% corn, 10% rye and 15% barley. Aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, the result is a whisky that is spicy and complex, and it won a Silver award from Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America! It is a limited offering, so be sure to stop into our Burlington Tasting Room to try this in a flight while it lasts.

What happens when you add peated malt to bourbon? We wanted to know, so we produced one barrel of our Pandemic Peat made with a mashbill of 70% corn, 20% rye, and 10% malt, then finished it in a sherry cask. With only one barrel made of this 92 proof spirit, the supply is extremely limited, so if you want to let your tastebuds savor the flavor of this one, you’ll need to visit our Burlington Tasting Room soon!

All of our whiskey mashbills at Mad River Distillers contain unique grains, including oats, chocolate rye and maple-wood smoked barley. We use only regionally-sourced, non-GMO grains and age our spirits on site in the clear, clean air of Vermont. During the aging process, the distillate oxidizes and penetrates the wood of the barrels. This combination of the mashbills and aging process is what imparts a lot of the flavors that make one whiskey spirit distinct from another.  

When customers visit our Burlington Tasting Room, we typically explain how our Straight Bourbon and our Revolution Rye whiskeys are on opposite ends of the American whiskey spectrum, and we arrange our spirits on a tasting board from light to bold, both in flavor and in length of finish. Our Straight Bourbon is made with four grains (including oats) but no rye. The taste is soft, and the finish is smooth and delicate. Because we use non-GMO varietals of corn (which are flavorful instead of sweet), rye is not needed to balance the sweetness, a common practice at larger distilleries using generic corn. Our Revolution Rye is made from 100% rye, using bold varietals for a lot of flavor and a long finish. 

In between the Straight Bourbon and our Revolution Rye is the Burnt Rock Bourbon, which is made from 70% corn like our Straight Bourbon, but instead of using wheat and oats in the mashbill, we utilize rye and smoked barley. This results in a fuller body than the Straight Bourbon and a medium length finish. Our limited Corn Whisky is not designated a Bourbon, because this whisky is aged in a barrel that previously contained our Straight Bourbon. The resulting whisky is similar to a bourbon, but the grains shine through with less flavor influence from the barrel. The limited Pandemic Peat follows the bourbon making process, except the barley is processed in a traditional Scottish fashion. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our bourbons, or any of our spirits, we highly recommend a visit to our Burlington Tasting Room in order to sample and ask questions! Our incredibly knowledgeable team is always happy to chat about our spirits and our process, or even to give you pointers on the perfect cocktails to make at home. We also welcome you to contact us for a tour of our distillery, so you can see and learn from our distilling team firsthand. Tours are scheduled by appointment and last 45-60 minutes on certain days of the week, and include a tasting. Visit our Distillery Tours page to learn more.

We hope to see you soon! Cheers!

Written and published by Brianne Lucas on January 22, 2024.

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