Raising his shot glass in salute, Jeff McCabe offered a toast, “To the Truth.”
With a name like “Hard Truth,” one might not expect Big Woods’ new brand of malted barley whiskey to go down easy. But for a liquor that hasn’t even been aged, it’s surprisingly smooth.
McCabe attributed the quality of the whiskey to Cole Smith, the company’s distiller. A Brown County native, the 31-year-old Smith returned about three years ago to work for Quaff ON!, the Big Woods beer brand.
While he was there, he distinguished himself with his initiative and creative problem solving, McCabe said.
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“Cole is an example of the way that we try to hire and develop talent,” McCabe said. “We recognized him as a young guy with motivation and talent, but not experience.”
McCabe said he and his partners gave Smith a little time to develop among the fermenters down at the Quaff ON! brewery. Then, when it came time to create a whiskey that was unique and special, they decided he was the person for the job.
Smith closely monitors the distillation, cutting the heads and tails — the less-pure products at the beginning and end of distillation — as precisely as possible, he said. Attention to detail plays a key role in producing a whiskey that holds the unique flavor of malted barley while avoiding the harshness of a less-pure liquor.
“It’s the art that makes it our own,” McCabe said of Smith’s exacting process.
The distillery is housed as part of the microbrewery on Van Buren Street in Nashville in order to comply with laws allowing microbreweries to also distill, McCabe said.
With the two together, they decided to take advantage of their existing brew operations, which is where the barley comes in.
The barley wash used in creating the whiskey is the same used in producing Big Woods Beer, McCabe said. It is cooked in the microbrewery, then piped to the distillery, where it is separately fermented to produce the whiskey.
Hard Truth is available at the company’s restaurants and bottles can be purchased in the Big Woods tasting room in downtown Nashville.
Whiskey isn’t the only project Big Woods has going on right now. Up State Road 135 North, just at the edge of Nashville sits Orchard Hill Inn, which McCabe and his partners recently bought. The inn is next door to the Quaff ON! brewery. The company is working to put offices in the inn, McCabe said. Down the road, they want to add on to it with space to store barrels for aging Hard Truth and warehousing beer. The company also is diving into barrel-aged beers, such as its Bourbon Busted beer, McCabe said. They may offer tours at the barrel facility north of town, but it is unlikely there will be a shift of the focus of Big Woods’ business, McCabe said.
“The center of our activity right now is here in downtown,” McCabe said. “So, anything we do up there will be in support of that, not to replace it. Our hub of activity is downtown. We’re going to keep that.”
As things continue to build locally, the new restaurant in Speedway is going up on schedule, McCabe said. They expect to open in the spring.
Big Woods Speedway will have seating inside for 300 and a 20,000-square-foot beer garden outside. It is expected to employ about 75 people.
The owners have started hiring and training staff for that restaurant, including as a chef they pulled in from Pittsburgh and a manager from a successful restaurant in Indianapolis. Part of the reason for hiring them this far away from the opening is so they can get experience in Nashville — as well as Quaff ON! Bloomington — and learn the values that underlie their brands, McCabe said.
Big Woods got its start with the Big Woods Brewing Company restaurant in 2009, which still stands at its original location in the heart of Nashville.
With all the changes and future expansion of both facilities and brands, there is the potential for job growth, McCabe said.
In July, Big Woods partner and part-owner Ed Ryan told the Nashville Redevelopment Commission that expansion of the Quaff ON! brewing facility will create 15 jobs. But much of their hiring is ultimately dependent on the season.
“We’re always looking for talent. We are hiring for some positions,” McCabe said. “At the same time, it’s the offseason for the restaurants.”