Three things happen when you age whiskey on the Mississippi River:
- The motion keeps the whiskey constantly churning (not sloshing), so every bit of liquid is exposed to the surface of the charred barrel.
- The shift in temperatures enhances this process. As the temperatures rise, the wooden barrels soak up the whiskey, and as it cools, they squeeze it back out.
- Finally, the water’s humidity keeps the barrels moist. The moisture and heat create a molasses-like consistency in the wood that translates into caramel notes in the final product.
Whiskey is typically aged in wooden barrels stored inside warehouses, so this particular aging process — aging whiskey on the water — is unique. The idea to do so came to Hank Ingram when he began to explore the history of bourbon, beginning with bourbon’s journey from Kentucky down the river to New Orleans. “I wanted to revisit how bourbon and the river interacted with each other,” he explains.
When Hank released the first bottle of O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey earlier this fall, it became the first whiskey to be aged entirely in a floating rickhouse on the Mississippi River.
It was in business school at Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management that Hank was exposed to the history of bourbon whiskey. Previously only having a casual knowledge, he became an admirer of the craftsmanship behind the process. With a new appreciation for bourbon and a family background in river shipping, he began to wonder what might happen if he put a barrel of whiskey on a barge.
Six years later, a rickhouse on the Mississippi River holds more than 1,200 barrels of bourbon and rye, and the first release of the river-aged spirit is on store shelves today. “It was a lot of small steps to get where I am today,” Hank tells us. “I took one step, and then the next step would reveal itself. I joke that it all came together because the stars aligned. I had one conversation that led to another conversation, and before I knew it, I had an idea worth trying. I am sure someone told me ‘no’ at some point, but I didn’t like that answer, so I kept asking.”
Whiskey is an industry deeply rooted in tradition, but there is still room for the new guy. A process that combines tradition and innovation results in a whiskey with caramel and vanilla notes and a smooth finish. During its time on the barge, the whiskey never stops working and maturing, which mellows the spirit. According to Hank, “There is a playbook on the ways to get these flavors in whiskey, but there is not a playbook for river-aged whiskey. We learn something new every day.”
In conversation with Hank, we asked a few questions that get to the bottom of what makes O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey special.
What was your primary goal in developing a new whiskey, specifically one that is river-aged?
My focus was the bourbon-making process, and I wanted to change the way that bourbon and the barrel interacted. The more research I did, the more I realized that there are only a few aspects of making bourbon that allow for differentiation: how you distill it, the grains you use and the aging process. I saw that time from when it is distilled to when it is bottled as an opportunity for differentiation. It takes years to make an exquisite whiskey, and time spent in the barrel is what makes it special.
Family history is important here. Can you talk about your connection to the river? How are you writing the next chapter in your family’s story?
People in the whiskey business have been doing this for a long time, and they tell stories of their grandfather or great-grandfather making whiskey. I am a student of our family history, and because my grandfathers on both sides were large personalities and successful businessmen, I always wanted to do great things like they did. Our family grew up hearing stories about their adventures. There is a long history of business on the river. My great-great-great-grandfather was orphaned at a young age in Wisconsin and went to work at a lumber mill in his teenage years. With hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, he eventually formed his own lumber company. They relied on the river to ship the logs to the mills. Later, my great-grandfather, who also went by Hank, founded a barge company that is still run by our family today. My family has been working on the rivers for over 150 years and this is a new venture built on that history.
Why did you decide to age your whiskey in Ballard County?
Ballard County is the birthplace of the Mississippi. We chose Ballard County for the natural landscape and the flow of the water where the Ohio River and the Mississippi meet. We keep the barges on a stretch of water about half a mile wide, and the water flow is significant in the process. We currently track the rise and fall of the river on our website in real time to see how the barrels are moving.
What is your favorite way to drink the whiskey?
I like it neat. If it is hot outside, I might add a cube of ice. I design the whiskeys to be very drinkable because if I am not going to drink it, I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. I think this whiskey stands up nicely against any bourbon out there. Recently, I was at a bar, and the bartender asked if it felt weird to pay to drink my own stuff. I told him that I have been working on this for six years, so it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to buy my own stuff in a bar.