The whiskey ages in freshly charred barrels on a barge moored to the shore of the Mississippi River, constantly rocked by changing swells and seasoned by fluctuating temperatures and humidity.
It’s the result of a “crazy” idea that came to Orrin Henry “Hank” Ingram III while earning his MBA at Vanderbilt University in 2014: return whiskey to the river that once carried bourbon from Kentucky to New Orleans in the late 1700s, and see what happens.
“The barge – the floating rickhouse – creates this friction between the whiskey and the barrel, and it’s not like we’re aging it faster or anything. We’re just making our barrels work harder than anybody else’s, and in doing so, we’re really getting (a) smooth mouth feel,” Ingram said.
While Ingram isn’t the first to age whiskey on a boat (Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon finishes its aging process at sea), the barge’s location is unique: Wickliffe, Kentucky, known as the “Birthplace of the Mississippi,” sits just below the point where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet
Rivers are part of the family
Ingram is no stranger to the river as the son of Orrin H. Ingram II, president and CEO of Ingram Industries, and member of the Ingram family, whose prominence in the Nashville business community stretches back decades.
“One hundred fifty years ago, my great-great-great-grandfather got his start in the lumber business (in Wisconsin), and they would use the river to ship the logs to the sawmill,” Hank Ingram said. “My great-grandfather 75 years ago got us into the barge business. I’ve always heard these stories about the men in my family starting businesses and it always had something to do with the river.”
Hank Ingram III holds a bottle of his new O.H. Ingram River Aged Straight Whiskey at The Wine Chap on Harding Pike on Tuesday, October 6, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The whiskey is aged in barrels on a barge on the Mississippi River, inspired by his family’s historical and current marine business, which provides barges and tow boats for river transport.
Ingram Marine Group, one of four divisions of Ingram Industries, is headquartered in Nashville, operating about 5,000 barges and 150 towboats on more than 4,500 miles of river in the Southeast. Hank Ingram also works as a business development manager at Ingram Industries, but said his company, Brown Water Spirits, and its first product, O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey, are business ventures all his own.
First whiskey launched in October
Ingram launched his first river-aged spirit, a 96-proof straight whiskey aged for three years on the barge, in early October. Nashville-based Lipman Brothers is distributing the whiskey, which is available in retail stores in Middle Tennessee and will soon launch in Knoxville and Chattanooga. A 750-milliliter bottle retails for $79.99.
Ingram sold about a third of the limited-quantity product in Nashville during its first week of sales, he said. It was the culmination of nearly six years of experimentation, work and legal battles for permission to age the whiskey on a barge.
“It gets me choked up a little bit to think, OK, I’ve been working on this for (more than) five years, and I wasn’t crazy,” Ingram said. “People actually like it.”
In the whiskey business, planning ahead is a given, and Ingram has done just that. The brand will launch a three-year rye whiskey in November and has plans for a bourbon to come out in 2021. Ingram is already putting down barrels for 2029 and 2030; the barge has enough room to double its current inventory.
“It’s really a generational thinking,” he said. “My kids will probably (eventually) be drinking some of the stuff that we’re putting down (now). It’s kind of a cool thought.”
The same six sample barrels remain on the barge — “leading indicators” of what’s coming next in an aging process without a playbook. Ingram carefully tracks the temperature swings, humidity levels and swells, tasting the whiskey periodically and noting new flavors. Each batch is unique, exposed to the ever-changing conditions of the river.
Despite monumental challenges posed by launching his first bottle during a pandemic, Ingram didn’t hesitate to move forward. While COVID-19 has forced him to be creative with his launch strategy, he said he never will be able to predict what the future holds in a business that relies so heavily on the passage of time.
“Whiskey’s ready when it’s ready,” he said.
“This final product has been on my mind for (more than) five years, and the cool thing about starting a new business is that you have to be in constant learning mode, because when I started this, if you had told me six years ago that it would take six years to come to the shelf, I would have said, ‘No, you’re crazy,'” Ingram said. “But you can’t rush good whiskey, and I’ve certainly learned to be patient.”