What Is Alabama Bourbon? This Distiller is Figuring It Out - The Whiskey Wash

What Is Alabama Bourbon? This Distiller is Figuring It Out

by Tony Sachs

What sets an Alabama bourbon apart from its siblings in Kentucky and elsewhere? That’s what Seth Dettling of the Atmore-based Big Escambia Spirits is figuring out on the fly with Dettling Bourbon, the first bourbon made entirely in Alabama from grain to glass. “Where are you gonna go to learn how to age bourbon this far south of the Mason-Dixon line? No one knows,” says Dettling. “At the end of the day, nobody’s doing it, so I just kind of have to learn this stuff over time.”

Dettling launched last September with a bourbon that was aged a little under two years; since March, when his aged stocks turned two years old, he’s been releasing straight bourbon exclusively. While other bourbons have claimed to be “Alabama Style,” most notably Clyde May’s, they’re actually sourced from outside the state.

Dettling, on the other hand, is following his own vision to make a distinctly Alabamian product. He starts with a locally sourced corn which he describes as having a “real bready” flavor — “actually, it made great cornbread.” He uses five other grains in the mashbill, all normally used by craft brewers, which Dettling feels elevates the finished product: “Nothing here is a commodity-grade ingredient,” he says. “It’s like something a chef would work with.” Among the grains are a roasted rye, which imparts coffee and chocolate notes; and oats, which aren’t often found in whiskey but contribute a creamy mouthfeel.

As only the fourth licensed distiller in the state (he estimates the current total at close to 30), Dettling is making up the rules as he goes. But he’s putting an emphasis on quality control in every step of the process. That includes everything from making sure the cornfields stay segregated to avoid cross-pollination, to the barrels, which are exclusively full-sized (53 gallons).

Many craft distilleries use smaller barrels to try to mature the spirit faster, a technique Dettling shuns. “Smaller barrels, they impart a nose that I don’t like,” he says, “and I think your oak-to-spirit ratio is off of what we’re looking for.” When it comes to selecting barrels, he has decidedly offbeat advice: “You can carve off a little piece and put it in your mouth, and just kind of walk around with it and let your body heat and saliva sort of start to break it down and you can start to taste it.  You need to eat your barrels!”

The heat of Alabama ages whiskey faster than the more temperate climes of Kentucky. Dettling says his sweet spot for his bourbon is about 3 1/2 years. He plans to release a bottled-in-bond expression — “We have barrels that meet the requirements for the season and single distillery and new oak.  They don’t meet the age requirement yet, but they’re getting close.” Beyond that, however, he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to age his bourbon without it getting overly tannic.  The barrels he has, he says, are “kind of telling me stories as they go, as far as what the changes are, and are they negative or positive or neutral.”

Right now, Dettling Bourbon is only available in Alabama. Seth Dettling wants to get a little farther along the learning curve before expanding further. As he puts it, “If you’re gonna storm a beach, you may not land where your objective is — you’ve gotta land where you don’t get crushed.  If I do too much, I’ll be crushed.” But business is booming thus far, and the distillery is about to expand from a 250 gallon still to 2,000 gallons, which will also be able to distill rye. Three full-time employees man the distillery, along with another half-dozen part-timers who help with bottling, in addition to Dettling and his wife Seth still maintains a day job, the proceeds from which he puts back into the company.

Right now, creating brand awareness isn’t high on Dettling’s to-do list. There’s no Big Escambia Spirits website (the name, incidentally, comes from the river which flows by the rickhouse), only an infrequently updated Facebook page. And visitors to the distillery will likely be disappointed. “We do not sell here, we don’t even have a tasting room — we don’t have a sign!” He wants the product to speak for itself. “It is the exact opposite of what everyone says you have to do. [But] all that can come later.”