A gourmet chef, a beekeeper, and a brewery owner walk into a bar…
Waiting for them are Mike Hinds and James Davenport, the two gentlemen behind the meteoric rise of Nashville Barrel Company. The bar sits between the gift shop and the tasting room at Nashville Barrel’s brand-new home located four miles from Downtown Nashville. Mike was already well-known for his exclusive barrel picks with major distilleries as well as his commitment to philanthropy. I have the proud distinction of securing a ticket for Mike to attend the 2018 Willett to Be Cured charity event in Louisville, where he set the evening ablaze by purchasing several rare bottles of bourbon being auctioned to fight cancer, ripping the seals off, and pouring them for a room full of guests.
It is this sense of community and shared wonder that Hinds has injected into every facet of Nashville Barrel Company, which is evident the moment you step into the building. There is nothing about the experience that hasn’t been thoughtfully considered from the whiskey fan’s point of view. The bar pours several previous single barrel picks. The gift shop sells limited release bottlings, barware, and clothing you’ll actually want to wear. The tasting room is gorgeous and that is where you’re most likely to find Mike’s partner, James. He is as cool as they come, and his energy is infectious.
Nashville Barrel Company is a proud NDP, which means they do not distill their own bourbon, rye or rum. But that is hardly the same as suggesting, “They don’t make anything.” Other brands source MGP whiskey, but very few of them have spent years picking through barrels to understand their nuances and aging characteristics like Mike and James have. That expertise was about to join forces with three other masters of their craft for one of the most unique whiskey projects I’d ever heard of. And as luck would have it, I just happened to be on hand to participate.
Just like single barrel whiskey, there is also “single hive” honey. For flavor consistency, most store-bought honey is batched together from multiple sources just like small batch bourbon or rye. Just like whiskey, a honey geek gets really excited about all the different variations you get from one hive to another (I was about to meet one). With so many similarities between the process of tasting whiskey and honey, wouldn’t it be cool if you could expertly pair a particular honey with a particular whiskey?
That was the thought process behind this project, which was basically laid out like this:
- Taste a mix of rye and bourbon samples to determine its flavor characteristics.
- Do the same with a mix of honey samples.
- Pair a whiskey with its ideal honey counterpart
- Empty the whiskeys into stainless steel tanks
- Pour the honey into its corresponding whiskey barrel
- Dump and bottle each whiskey barrel-finished honey at the desired taste profile
- Replace the whiskey back into its original barrel that had been absorbing its corresponding honey
- Finish the whiskeys in the honey barrels until the desired taste profile
- Dump and bottle the honey barrel-finished whiskey
- Fill the empty honey-whiskey barrels with stout beer
The net result of this project will be three unique products:
- “Single hive” honey that was finished in whiskey barrels
- Single barrel bourbon and rye finished in honey barrels
- Stout beer finished in those whiskey and honey barrels
However, Mike and James weren’t content merely attempting something totally unique. Like everything else at Nashville Barrel Company, there would be no corners cut. They brought in the best people in the state of Tennessee to help make it happen.
Let’s begin with Matt Bolus, executive chef of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville’s Gulch, and a semifinalist for a James Beard award. He’s also a whiskey fanatic, having selected many sought-after private barrels for his restaurant. On top of that, he’s a lively and engaging personality to be around. I was excited to see his palate and pairing skills in action.
Next is the beekeeper. Five different “single hive” pails of honey samples were brought in by Grant Clarke from his 50-acre farm near Lewisburg, TN. Along with his 13-year-old son Gavin, the father-son duo sells honey under the brand name Two Gs Plus Bees. Grant beamed with pride as he relayed how he gets to share his craftsmanship with his son. It gave the honey a special stamp of authenticity for me.
Then there’s the brewery owner. Kevin Antoon from Southern Grist Brewing Company could not contain his excitement over eventually filling those barrels with stout beer to release in one of their two Nashville taprooms. “Then I get to complete the final leg of the journey,” he continued, “when we chop up the barrel staves and use those wood chips to smoke meat.” Kevin certainly knows how to speak my language.
Everything in the Nashville Barrel Company tasting room is tastefully considered – from the television screen displaying personal welcome messages to guests right down to the light fixtures. Gathered in that room was a group of people with unmatched passion for their respective crafts, and on this day, that passion was tapped for a shared mission.
We began by tasting four MGP bourbons and two MGP ryes that James had selected specifically for this day. There was plenty of variation to play with due to differences in mashbills, ages (five or seven years), and cooperages (barrel producers). It was an absolute joy to share and listen to tasting notes from people who taste different products every day. I tried my best to listen and just stay out of their way. Unlike a typical whiskey barrel pick, they were not tasting to find a favorite drinker. They only wanted to note the dominant features of each spirit to better pair it with the ideal honey.
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Tasting the honey was a surprisingly similar process. Grant introduced each of the wildly different samples with distinctive names like “Sweet Steroids,” “Orange Zest” and “Easy Sweetness.” As someone who really enjoys honey (especially on pizza crust), I was shocked by the variations in flavor profiles from one hive to another. As each sample was tasted, the group collaborated on hypotheses for potential pairings. Once the samples had all been evaluated, it was time to put all that creative expertise to work.
To simulate the barrel finish, we mixed in a couple drops of honey with the whiskey. A couple of the pairings were perfect right away. Others were tweaked and fine-tuned until there were smiles all around. One whiskey just couldn’t find a honey match, and nobody was willing to proceed on that one with limited enthusiasm for it. In the end, five barrels (three bourbon and two rye) were successfully paired with a honey.
I’ve never been that excited about barrel finishes, but experiencing this process taught me a lot. For example, one bourbon I found slightly bitter on its own was transformed into something truly delicious after the honey influence. When the pairings worked, they really worked. The caliber of expertise and commitment to quality from the people in that room is what made all the difference. That is true of every successful individual in their field, and it is certainly the reason Nashville Barrel Company has already developed a loyal following.
A few hours later, I returned to that tasting room for a private bourbon barrel selection. Once again, James was in his element, arranging six special barrels with different properties and making everyone feel welcome. We even got a surprise assist from Wilderness Trail’s Pat Heist, who joined us in the tasting room. After we selected our barrel, signed the barrel head, and took our group photo with it, Mike asked, “Would anyone like a bottle to take with them?”
15 minutes later, six of us walked out of the gift shop with professionally labeled bottles of the private barrel selection we just did. “Is there anything you haven’t thought of yet?” I asked Mike. That’s when he took me up a small hill around the back of the property and showed me where the new music pavilion is going to be. As I looked up at a view of the Nashville skyline and then down at the Nashville Barrel Company building, it was clear to me that this story is just beginning.
Stop by Nashville Barrel Company at 222 Fesslers Lane or call (615) 891-1046 to schedule your very own barrel pick