Stone Barn Brandyworks in Portland is, as the name implies, a brandy-focused distillery. But even the most ardent of brandy lovers can’t live on distilled fruit alone. That’s why lead distiller Andy Garrison occasionally points the pot still grainward for a batch of whiskey.
Yes, Stone Barn makes a corn-heavy bourbon. Give Garrison enough oats and he’ll make an oat whiskey. His Oregon grain of choice is rye, and Stone Barn’s whimsical rye whiskey is among the most interesting whiskeys to ever pass my lips. (More on this later.) That said, he recently found himself with an abundance of ramen noodles thanks to one of the deleterious effects of the pandemic and upcycled it with fascinating, delicious results.
Portland noodle ninjas Umi Organic had ramen noodles that would’ve gone to waste. They’re essentially wheat and barley in string form — two of the most conventional ingredients in distiller’s wash. So, the lightbulb over Garrison’s brain lit up.
The downside is the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) wouldn’t let Stone Barn call it whiskey. The upside is that the distillery just invented “Umi Ramen Spirit.”
When asked if he considers himself a traditionalist or an innovator, Garrison said, “I draw most of my inspiration from people and places that have been involved in distilling for a long time. However, because there are few keepers of these traditions in America anymore, we end up doing a lot more exploration and research to figure out for ourselves how to make something ‘old fashioned.’ The exploration leads you to new raw materials, people and ideas.”
To pull off the booze he admitted sounds a bit wacky, Garrison added the entire mash — noodles and all — into the still after employing a giant immersion blender. The innovation didn’t end there. Given that the ramen has “kansui,” a mixture of mineral salts that gives the noodles “the right texture and chew,” the result was fairly alkaline.
“It’s not really an issue when cooking a pound of noodles in a gallon of water at home,” explained Garrison, “but after cooking 400 pounds of noodles, the pH was close to eight compared to a typical whisky mash around five. So the mash needed to be adjusted with acid for enzymes and yeast to be happy.” The result was then aged for a few years in a used Stone Barn wheat whiskey barrel before undergoing secondary maturation in a malted rye whiskey barrel courtesy of Bull Run Distilling.
Umi Ramen Spirit proffers the sharpness of a great Highland Scotch, the softness of a young bourbon, and the new world-ness of a Japanese whiskey. Yet despite its source, I find it’s entirely removed from any Japanese whiskeys I’ve tried. As Garrison noted, “The finished whiskey is a bit fruitier than I expected at first, and the mineral character was a bit surprising. But really the flavor is just a nice cocktailing style of whiskey; it isn’t really gimmicky tasting, just the origin story is. (The rye barrel) heightened some of the fruit flavors without giving it too much oaky-ness, which would bury the noodliness.”
Oaky is pretty standard jargon for whiskeys. Not so noodliness.
Understandably, Umi Ramen Spirit (94 proof) is a highly limited release. Only about 230 bottles were released, retailing for $35, available at the distillery and a handful of Portland bars. “It really sings with soda water,” Garrison added.
Now to that aforementioned whimsical rye. The new release of Straight Rye Whiskey (94 proof, $40 per 375-milliliter bottle, available only at Stone Barn Brandyworks) has its origins in the 2014 celebration of Hair of the Dog Brewing’s Fred Fest, an event created to celebrate the life and contributions of the late, great beer writer Fred Eckhardt. Hair of the Dog’s most famous four-letter-named beer is Fred, but the original, fittingly, that brewmaster Alan Sprints made was Adam. Hair of the Dog was the first brewery in the Pacific Northwest to really experiment with barrel-aging for beers and Garrison said he fell in love with them since moving to Portland in 2008.
“I had the idea to try finishing a whiskey in a beer barrel — a reverse of the more common beer finished in a whiskey barrel,” explained Garrison. So he beseeched Sprints to procure such a barrel, specifically Cherry Adam From the Wood, a malty, high-gravity “olde” ale aged on cherries in oak casks. It’s a profoundly impactful beer.
For this release, Garrison held off a portion of rye whiskey aged 44 months just so he could rack it into an empty 2019 vintage cask of Cherry Adam From the Wood before hibernating in a second cask for another year. “It’s quite a roller coaster of flavors,” Garrison understated.
Added Sprints, “The beer flavors blend with whiskey quite well, as well as having the shared malt base, so it seemed a natural thing to do. I am impressed with the sweet cherry flavors and how it lends itself to cocktails.”
For any Manhattan aficionado, the marriage of rye and cherry makes this a natural. “The cherries, after stewing for so long, have an interesting savory and leathery quality that I associate with Cherry Adam,” said Garrison. It’s especially prominent on the nose.
Now we wait with bated breath to see what comes out of Stone Barn’s rare whiskey program next.