Rom the hollows and hills of Brown County, the tradition of creating Indiana whiskey is being carried on.
Moonshiners have been distilling their own whiskey around Nashville, Bean Blossom and Morgantown since the 1830s. Even during Prohibition, bubbling stills dripped potent alcoholic beverages.
That history is re-created with every batch started at Bear Wallow Distillery.
“There’s the three different phases — the cooking, the fermenting and the distilling. They’ve been doing this in the woods for hundreds of years,” said Columbus resident Susan Spagnuolo, owner of Bear Wallow.
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Indiana might not have the whiskey reputation of Kentucky or Tennessee. But a handful of emerging craft distillers such as Bear Wallow — which opened Aug. 1, 2014 — are putting their own bourbons, ryes and moonshine out on the market.
From sharp “white lightning” to smokey, oaky aged versions, producers are tapping into the growing taste for whiskey while adapting to the unique challenges that spirit presents.
“People are enjoying the craft movement, whether that’s beer or wine or spirits,” Spagnuolo said. “The main challenge for us, since we’re making whiskey, is time. It’ll be a while before we have four-year aged bourbon.”
Craft distilling is a growing trend in the overall spirits market, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. The group’s 2014 annual report revealed that small distillers made 3.5 million cases of whiskey, vodka and other spirits last year, up from 700,000 cases in 2010.
More than 580 craft distilleries are in operation in the U.S., up from 51 in 2005, according to the American Distilling Institute.
Much of that growth has been due to relaxed regulations that allow for craft distillers to sell their products directly, which had been prohibited beforehand.
Vodka and gin remain the most popular spirits for craft distillers in Indiana, since the industry is relatively new and bourbon needs to be aged. But small-barrel techniques and options for unaged versions such as moonshine have led more distillers to try it.
Hotel Tango Distillery is a small-batch facility in the Fletcher’s Place neighborhood of Indianapolis. Along with rum, gin, vodka and limoncello, the distillery also offers a moonshine made of Indiana sweet corn, sugar, yeast and water.
Heartland Distillers started by producing gin and vodka, before its Spring Mill Bourbon was aged and ready for sale in 2012.
Spagnuolo and her husband, Mike, founded Bear Wallow. They had visited other craft distillers when they traveled throughout the country and thought it would slide seamlessly into the Brown County market.
“There are the breweries and wineries here around the county, but I really thought that a distillery would be a good fit,” Susan Spagnuolo said.
The Spagnuolos’ son, Adam, is the head distiller. He received an internship to study the process from Quincy Street Distillery in Chicago then participated in the Kentucky Distillers Association’s Moonshine University.
From the masters of Kentucky bourbon production, Adam Spagnuolo learned the delicate process of cooking up to 2,000 pounds of milled grain each week, fermenting the cooked mash with yeast, distilling it again and aging.
A single batch can take seven days to produce, plus however long the whiskey is kept in charred American white oak barrels to give it the flavors of toasty sweetness, Adam Spagnuolo said.
“That can take anywhere from five months in a small, 5-gallon barrel to 12 years in a 53-gallon barrel,” he said.
In their location just east of Nashville, the Spagnuolos have tried to create a rustic feel in their tasting room. Using locally hewn and reclaimed wood, as well as corrugated metal roofing, the space takes on the atmosphere of a backwoods whiskey shack.
“When they walked in the door, we wanted it to feel like Brown County,” Susan Spagnuolo said. “We wanted a warm, cozy feeling.”
Through the windows, people can see the cookers and fermenters used to make the whiskey. The big 250-gallon pot still, produced for Bear Wallow by noted Louisville producer Vendome, is the centerpiece of the production area.
“In whiskey, it’s all about the flavor. It’s supposed to taste like the grains that go into it. So it’s important to have a still that keeps the flavor in it,” Susan Spagnuolo said.
Besides being made locally, Bear Wallow’s whiskey has other Indiana bona fides. All of the corn, rye and other grains used to make their products are grown in Indiana.
L&M Glick Seed in Columbus provides the distillery with the raw materials for its whiskey.
The products are named after Brown County places — Gnaw Bone Bourbon and Liar’s Bench Rye, named after the bench located on the courthouse lawn in Nashville.
“We decided to start with whiskey because it was all right here — the history, the ingredients, everything,” Susan Spagnuolo said.
Indiana law allows craft distilleries to sell whiskey where they produce it, allowing for tasting rooms where people can try small samples and customized mixed cocktails using Bear Wallow products.
“We’re not a bar. We’re more set up to educate people; and if they like it, they can take the products home,” Susan Spagnuolo said.
Bear Wallow Distillery
Where: 4484 Old Indiana 46, Nashville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Hidden Holler Corn Whiskey Moonshine — Made from Indiana corn, this spirit is a historically accurate example of what local farmer-distillers have been producing since the early 1800s.
- Bear Trap Barrel Strength White Whiskey — Made with Indiana-grown grains and limestone-filtered water, this version is similar to what some call “white dog” or “white mule” because of the higher proof spirit’s kick.
- Liar’s Bench Rye Whiskey — Handcrafted using spicy Indiana rye and named after the bench that stands on the Old Courthouse lawn in Nashville.
- Gnaw Bone Bourbon Whiskey — Rich in flavor with notes of vanilla, caramel and oak, this whiskey is made with 100 percent Indiana corn, wheat and malted barley.
Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery
Where: 702 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis
Hours: 2 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Mike Moonshine — This unaged whiskey is made from Indiana sweet corn, sugar, yeast and water, made one barrel at a time.