My wife and I were heading down to a town near Pittsburgh for a family event, so naturally I looked up any distilleries that may be along the way. I came across Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing, which is just off the I-90 on the far Western edge of NY state, and so we stopped in to try their rye and bourbon.
Turns out, the brewery/distillery is owned by a large winery, and they share their tasting bar at the facility. I was pretty disappointed by the staff at the tasting bar who, when asked about the whiskies, replied that they didn’t know much about them, as they were primarily wine people. It certainly didn’t start the visit off on a very good footing. They did, however, say that Steve, one of the distillers at Five & 20, would come out to answer some questions in a while. But, while I waited for Steve, I did a couple of whisky reviews, which you’ll find at the bottom of this post.
When Steve did come out, it was like night and day. From a couple of wine people who couldn’t tell me a mashbill for the stuff they were selling, to a complete whisky geek who absolutely loved talking about his craft! I was quite happy when only 1.5 questions in Steve asked if we’d like to come back to the still room where he could show us their equipment and process.
They’ve got 2 stills, a 105L still with 11 plates from Germany and a >600L still from Kentucky. The former is used for a lot of their vodka, neutral spirit runs (they make a bunch of eau de vie’s and other spirits too), and soon some experimental stuff, while the larger one is used for their whisky distillation primarily.
Steve talked about their process, how manual it is, and some of the stuff he wants to experiment with in the near future.
I was asking about barrel sizes, as I could taste from the whiskies that they were fairly young or small barrels, and they range from 10-15gallon up to 53 gallons. You can see a bunch of barrels being sweated and tested for water-tightness near the larger still.
He then shows us the fermenters where they do both their whisky mashes, and their beers. At the time, they were working with some lacto-bacillus and he talked at length about the cleaning and sanitation needed and the impact it would have on the whiskey if they didn’t clean it perfectly. Having tasted some lacto-mash whisky before from Toronto Distillery Co I could attest to its impact. Sadly I didn’t get pics of the fermentation tanks.
Steve then took us to the warehouse and showed us around. He talked to us about their heads & tails and what they do with them (pretty industry standard), and we talked about aging feints, as it can be quite delicious.
He also showed us the barrels, some of which are their own product, and some of which are contracted for other companies. They actually do a lot of contract distilling of vodka, neutral spirits, brandies etc. The most exciting barrels in the place were the sherry and port casks you can see at the top of the one rack. Steve and Joe have been talking to the owner about doing more experimentation and those casks are just the start. Steve wants to start doing malt whisky and even try out some agave, though the latter is difficult as they want to stay 75% New York grown inputs for their products and NY state isn’t really agave-friendly.
One more interesting thing I saw was a barrel from Wigle, which a contract customer asked them to use. Steve hadn’t had their stuff yet, but I have, and this tiny barrel explains to me why i didn’t really enjoy it! (links below)
So Steve helped turn around an initial negative impression of the place. Thanks to him for his time, energy and enthusiasm! I would like to recommend that the company educate their front line retail staff about all their products, so they’re able to do more than just say they don’t know the answers to basic questions!
Now onto the reviews. The first is their Rye, an 80/20 blend of rye and barley, aged about 18 months in a variety of barrel sizes. (thanks for the info Steve!)
Five & 20 Spirits (SB)2RW Rye – 45%
- Nose: Fresh oak, slight spice, apple, smells young.
- Palate: Very young oak, tastes like a small cask and little aging. Very cedar like. Maple note. Decent spice level. More apple. Sort of one noted
- Finish: short, oak, some spice.
- Score: 76
it was better than the Liberty Pole Rye, and not quite as nice as the Rabbit Hole Distilling straight rye in my opinion. Certainly, it was a lot better than Wigle’s stuff that we had on an earlier trip to Pittsburgh.
Then I tried their Bourbon, a 70/15/15 blend of corn/rye/barley, aged a minimum of 2 years (but doesn’t claim the straight designation, which I forgot to ask Steve about), again in a variety of barrel sizes.
Five & 20 Spirits (SB)2BW Bourbon – 45%
- Nose: Corny, light oaky
- Palate: Same small cedary barrel taste, bit more classic oak. 2yr aging helps. Some rye in the mashbill for sure. Some sugar and vanilla
- Finish: Longer, oaky. Sweet
- Score: 77
again I preferred Rabbit Hole Distilling Straight Bourbon, but I scored it on par with Liberty Pole’s Peated Bourbon for overall quality, though the two are very different animals. I didn’t have any bourbon at Wigle, but I imagine this would beat it given the experience with their ryes.
So my overall thought on the whiskies are they’re middle of the pack for American craft whisky, at least given my limited experience in the genre.