At 8:30 a.m. on a chilly December morning, two key players of the Boise bar scene met in the back room at Edge Brewing Co. to begin the long, persnickety process of brewing a batch of whiskey—one of many first steps in restaurant/distillery Bardenay's first foray into liquid gold.
Bardenay Distillery Manager Scott Probert has been working to add whiskey to his repertoire of spirits for almost five years. In 2014, he and Edge Head Brewer Bryan Garcia-Brown started meeting at Edge, adding different grains and ratios to its mash tun (a stainless steel tank that, with the addition of hot water, converts starches into sugars) in hopes of drawing a flavor map for Probert's ideal whiskey.
"When we were first going through the process it took several tries, and we would do smaller amounts just to make sure we could get the mash right—make sure we could even get it to ferment," Probert said.
After much trial and error, the pair settled on a 60 percent rye blend, supplemented with corn (30 percent) and six-row malted barley (10 percent). Since putting up the first barrel of whiskey—it has the fill date 7/1/2014 scrawled across it in sharpie—Probert and Garcia-Brown have met at Edge roughly 20 times, churning out 500 gallons of sugar water, or "wort," every time. Back at Bardenay's downtown distillery, each of those batches eventually yields 45 gallons of distilled white spirit: enough to fill one #3 char American oak barrel.
"They deal with the fermentation on their end, so we're just making sugar water for them, basically," Garcia-Brown said that morning as he hefted a bag of processed corn flakes onto his shoulder and emptied it into the mash tun, which he'd climbed a set of stairs to access. "Scott's the brains, I just flip the switches."
Nearby, Probert fed bag after bag of Mountain Malt barley into Edge's mill, which ground loudly to life, kicking up a small cloud of grain dust. The bitter, musty smell of unbaked sourdough bread filled the air, wafting from the mash tun's open portal.
It will probably be five years before the public gets a taste of the whiskey Probert and Garcia-Brown made that day, but Probert said the 2014 barrels should be ready to bottle as early as next summer. On a quick tour of Bardenay's tiny downtown distillery, where barrels of whiskey are stacked two stories high to conserve floor space, Probert used a homemade tap called a "thief" to syphon a half-inch of the near-ready amber spirit into a glass. He cut it with water, then offered it to taste. The spirit's caramel-touched smell married with earthy, mineral notes and a hint of something herbal, creating a flavor that was surprisingly easy-drinking.
"You start to get that menthol, minty, tobacco-y finish on it," Probert said. "To me, that's part of the finish and it carries long—kind of like what citrus is to the gin. It really helps to carry the profile so you don't forget it two minutes after you take a sip."