Steven Revare and David Epstein readily admit their Tom’s Town Distilling Co. doesn’t look much like a distillery at the moment.
The red brick building at 17th and Main streets still sports the previous occupant’s signage. There’s no still yet, and the first floor restaurant and speakeasy bar are decidedly under construction.
Descend to the basement, though, and you’ll find something they say a distillery paying homage to political boss Tom Pendergast can’t do without: barrels of whiskey.
“The people are thirsty, so we got this for them to drink,” Epstein said, paraphrasing Pendergast, whose reign during the late 1920s and 1930s meant liquor flowed freely in Kansas City during Prohibition.
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The move makes sense. New distilleries often lead with vodka, because it doesn’t require aging and so it can be sold immediately after being distilled and bottled. But whiskey ruled during the Pendergast era, so that’s what Tom’s Town needs to open with, the co-founders said. The only way to do that was to buy it, and so they recently purchased 40 barrels of 4 1/2 -year-old Tennessee bourbon through a broker.
It’s simply what Pendergast himself did, Epstein said.
“He would go buy bourbon to sell, put his label on it and brand it,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing.”
Tom’s Town is even reviving the boss’s brand. Pendergast Royal Gold will be a series of small-batch curated whiskeys, with new releases every six months that will eventually include the bourbon now resting in the basement. The distillery will also produce its own vodka, gin and whiskeys as soon as its still and other equipment is installed.
The project in some ways brings Revare and Epstein, who are childhood friends and longtime business partners, full circle with their own family histories. Epstein’s grandfather was a bootlegger during Prohibition, albeit one who operated on the wrong side of Pendergast and so eventually lost his business. Revare is related to Maurice Milligan, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Pendergast.
Before selling anything, though, both agreed they needed to know the potential of those barrels. For that, they went to distilling consultant Nancy Fraley, who owns the Berkeley-based Nosing Services.
Her job, as Wayne Curtis put it in an article for The Atlantic, is to smell spirits made by craft distillers and tell them what they’ve done right or wrong. If that sounds like a tall order for a single nose, well, Fraley’s is no ordinary nose.
It’s not that she has an exceptionally acute sense of smell, Fraley said, but rather that her brain is wired to process olfactory information in a different way.
“For aromas that are really intense, I can remember not just the year that I nosed or tasted it, but I remember what the weather conditions were, I remember what I was thinking and feeling and what was going on,” said Fraley, who first noticed the phenomenon when she was 7.
Fraley can evaluate a dizzying array of characteristics and identify the point in the process responsible for them. Base ingredients, fermentation and distilling methods, cogeners (the chemicals that affect taste and aroma), barrels, aging conditions — she can parse all their aromatic secrets.
Fraley travels constantly, visiting clients in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe, Haiti, Tasmania and elsewhere, but I caught up with her in Kansas City in late August to find out.
When I arrived at Tom’s Town, distiller Rob Vossmeyer and Fraley were working their way through the 40 barrels. Their method seemed simple enough: pour a sample into a small, tulip-shaped tasting glass, sniff, taste and spit. (Spitting is essential, given that Fraley sometimes tastes as many as 100 samples of cask-strength spirits in a day.)
It quickly became clear, though, that each step was complex and purposeful. Plunging your nose in for a deep whiff is a no-no because the alcohol overwhelms your senses, especially when the samples are around 120-proof as Tom’s Town’s were. Instead, Fraley lightly sniffs near the bottom rim of the glass, where heavy volatile elements settle, and the top, where more pleasant aromas reside. She also tilts her head back and forth, alternating between left and right nostrils, because each side of your nose smells things differently.
Then, she tastes the spirit — something that has as much to do with aroma as it does flavor. Fraley took small sips, swirling the liquid a bit and then holding it while inhaling slightly through her mouth.
That bit of air delivers aromatic compounds to the back of the nose and throat in a process called retronasal olfaction, as opposed to orthonasal olfaction (what I think of as nose-only smelling). Fraley likens the difference to that between AM and FM radio.
“FM is when your lips are parted, and you’re taking oxygen up through the back of your throat,” she said with her easy, ready laugh. “You’re getting a much more complete picture of the distillate.”
In the case of barrel #7, the only sample I tasted with her at Tom’s Town, that picture included wood sugars, toffee, vanilla-cream notes and bit of resin and earthiness. It was fairly balanced, Fraley said, but with lots of tannin and some bitterness.
That’s fine, though. Fraley wasn’t there to rate finished spirits. Rather, she was giving the barrels a sort-of check-up to determine if they are aging as they should and help Vossmeyer decide how to manage them going forward. Some might benefit from more time in oak, or finishing in sherry or other casks. A few might be worthy of single-barrel bottlings, while others are better blended.
“Without nosing and tasting it, you don’t know how to best utilize it,” Fraley said. “The last thing you want to do is say, ‘Oh well, let’s just throw barrels one through 10 together and see what happens.’
“Two plus two rarely equals four in the world of blending.”
Fraley will continue working with Tom’s Town to develop its maturation program and facilities. In the meantime, the distillery will launch its first Pendergast Royal Gold whiskey in December, a 10-year-old bourbon that will be available only by the glass in its tasting room.
“Since it’s the inaugural batch of the Pendergast line of curated spirits, we wanted it to be the absolute best we could find,” said Kirsten McGannon, who oversees marketing for the distillery.
Boss Tom would expect nothing less.
Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer for Chow Town. She blogs at food_drink_ life.wordpress.com.