A Relic Grain Makes a Comeback In American Spirits
Western Reserve Distillery is bringing spelt spirits to your cocktail glass.
Sign up for your run-of-the-mill distillery tour in the states and what you’ll usually come across if you stick your nose (or your finger) in those warm, bubbling fermenting tanks of mash is some combination of wheat, barley, rye and/or corn, causing the familiar scent of cereal to waft across the facility.
But there are producers going against the grain.
Spelt, also called dinkel wheat or hulled wheat, was an important staple in Europe; now it's considered a "relic crop" in Central Europe. Western Reserve Distillery is a family-owned certified organic and non-GMO distillery just outside Cleveland in Lakewood, Ohio that opened in May of 2018. Right now it is one of the only American distilleries (and one of just a handful around the world) to use it in some of its spirits—and it’s locally grown, to boot. Co-owner Kevin Thomas says they were inspired to try their hand at making them from tasting and learning about spelt spirits made at Koval Distillery in Chicago.
Spelt has fewer fermentable sugars than other grains, so spirits made with it have a drier finish and cleaner mouth feel. (To make a comparison while admitting there are variations among brands, a whiskey distilled with spelt tends to have a profile more like rye or a dry Scotch and less like the sweeter, heavier bodied cereal notes of most bourbons.)
“The main driving force behind our grain selection is flavor. As the industry continues to modify and hybridize modern grains to grow with less water and less natural nutrients you simply get less flavor,” says Ann Thomas, who co-owns the distillery with her husband Kevin. “In addition to using a grain like spelt, which has been around since 5,000 B.C., all of our other grains are organic heirloom seed stock to help us insure we are starting with the absolute best raw material base possible.”
Western Reserve’s Premium Spelt Vodka ($30) is made with organic spelt and the same slow fermentation as their corn-based Handcrafted Vodka, then distilled through twenty-four plates and three condensers before the hearts are cut. The resulting spirit is dry with a gentle bite and just a hint of cereal grain sweetness that goes especially well in cocktails with lime juice, according to Kevin. They also pour it at the bar in their Blood & Sand-esque Jigsaw Saloon (a tribute to the beloved Cleveland hang) where it’s mixed with Cynar 70, Cherry Heering and blood orange. The couple says the only other distillery they’ve come across that’s making a spelt vodka is V-One Vodka, coming out of Poland.
Western Reserve’s Premium Gin ($23) is made with a combination of organic spelt and organic corn and a strain of yeast selected to coax out fruitiness from the former, and sweetness from the latter. The botanicals include juniper, coriander, bergamot, anise and lime. It makes a lovely 3:1 Martini that’s floral and soft.
On the brown spirit side, the Premium Spelt Whiskey ($56) is a collaboration with Koval Distillery (the spirit is produced according to Western’s recipe at Koval) made from a blend of grains all sourced from organic farms located within 150 miles of the distillery, then aged in #3 charred American oak barrels. It’s crisp and clean on the nose with a buttery palate and smooth chocolate finish. A small percentage of spelt also makes up the mash bill.
Western Reserve currently produces about 20,000 cases of spirits per year, and welcomes lots of visitors to their tasting room as well as the adjacent cocktail bar and farm-to-table restaurant Distill Table. A tour and a tasting costs $10 for four spirits, during which visitors learn about the couple’s backstory as well as all about relic grains and their use in the distillation process.
What can be challenging about using these grains is maintaining a good cost-benefit ratio. Because spelt doesn’t have that many fermentable sugars, distilling it to proof can be more difficult and time-consuming. And the Thomas’ pay two to three times the amount for it than other products. “The most rewarding part is hearing the consumer feedback once they taste the product,“ Ann says. “People continue to be amazed at how smooth and flavorful the products are.” Western Reserve Distillery’s spirits are currently distributed in Ohio, California, New York and Connecticut.