Winter has always been my favorite time to visit a Distillery. Distilleries are very hot places to work in or visit. The heat of the stills make them very hot places in the summer. That is why traditionally, distilleries close down in the heat of the summer – usually July and August. However, there are also reasons for closing down for maintenance during this period.

George Dickel believed the best whiskey was made during the winter. Schenley built the charcoal mellowing vats with coolers to extend their distilling season, but even then, they would close down for maintenance during the heat of summer. Let us look at why winter is good for distilling whiskey.

Traditionally, in the early days of the 19th century, distillers considered September through May as the time to make whiskey. Corn was being harvested so they would start by mashing the remaining corn in their storage bins to make room for the new harvest. It was well dried and easy to mash. They also found that the yeast worked better in the cooler weather. They had better yields and the new make whiskey tended to taste better. If the yeast gets too hot, it quits working and dies off. With the invention of the column still, distillers looked for ways to make more whiskey by extending their distilling season. In the 1860s, the distillers at the Old Crow Distillery patented cooling coils for the mash tubs. It allowed them to distill longer during the heat of summer. Still, in the hot summers of Kentucky, they would close down in the hottest days of the year.

When bottling became profitable for distilleries in the late 1880s, they found another benefit of the cool weather. Before the days of chill filtering, the cooler weather helped remove more of the oils in the whiskey as they ran it through cloth filters to remove the charcoal from the barrel. It gave the whiskey a better flavor. This is especially true when using the Lincoln County process and running the whiskey through a vat of sugar maple charcoal before barreling the whiskey. This is why Dickel liked his whiskey made in the winter.

It is true that winter slows the process of the whiskey extracting flavors from the oak barrel. In the 1870s, many distillers started building warehouses out of stone or brick and including steam heat so the whiskey would not “sleep in the wood” during the winter. As anyone knows who pays heating bills for their house, this is an expensive process. Warehouses are big and not well insulated, but many distillers thought it worth the expense to get the extra wood flavors at a younger age. Schenley, in the 1940s, even decided to put a heating system in some ironclad warehouses at their Fairfield Distillery in Bardstown. It proved to be extremely expensive to heat these warehouses and they soon quit using the system. 

Visiting a distillery during the cooler months of the year is a good idea. When you walk in the fermenting room, it seems to me that the mash smells better. The aromas coming off the mash are stronger and I get more of the fruit and spice aromas being produced by the yeast. Then, when walking into the still house, the heat is more of a welcoming feeling than the oppressive heat of summer. The worm does not need to work as hard as the cooler temperature of the air helps cool the spirit vapors. The new make whiskey always tastes better to me in the winter months. Leaving the still house and moving to the warehouse brings back the cooler temperatures and it can be downright cold in an unheated warehouse. The whiskey is sleeping away the winter and the heady aromas of the summer are hardly found in the winter. Still, there is the lingering aroma of whiskey barrels in the air. It is my favorite time to visit a distillery.

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Rosemary Miller