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Dogfish Head gets in the spirits

Tours explore distilling process, cocktails, whiskey
July 13, 2019

Brewery tours at Dogfish Head in Milton are among Delaware’s favorite tourist attractions, and the company has now begun tours of Dogfish distilling operations.

Dogfish offers three options for distillery tours: cocktails, Sonic Archeology and a whiskey tour.

For $30, the cocktail tour features recipe building and tastings. Participants receive a shaker, glass, mixing spoon, jigger and muddler, and most importantly, they will enjoy the cocktail they make.

The Sonic Archeology tour, at a cost of $20, takes a deeper look at the Dogfish Head spirit that mixes brandy, rum and whiskey. At the end of the tour, visitors get a specialty glass and a 100 mL bottle of Sonic Archeology.

Finally, there’s the whiskey tour, which costs $60. While this writer is typically not a spirits drinker, I took one for the Cape Gazette team during a June 28 sneak preview.

Led by Dogfish’s Lars Ryan, the tour starts at the storage area, where we learn of the process of making whiskey and are introduced to the primary ingredients: barley, rye and wheat. Corn can also be used in whiskey, but Dogfish primarily uses rye and barley, which are kept in the storage area.

Ryan said at the beginning, the whiskey-making process is not unlike making beer. Like beer, whiskey is made from malt, barley that is wetted, kilned and ground. The malt is mixed with hot water to form a mash; in beer, this mix is called a wort. Yeast is added to the mash and the result is referred to as the wash. Dogfish uses its own specialty yeast, made specifically for them, referred to as “Doggie yeast.” In beer-making, hops are added along with the yeast, and while craft distillers have recently begun experimenting with using hops in whiskey, this is where the two processes begin to diverge.

On the tour, Ryan gives our group of six a taste of the fermented liquid prior to distillation. It is essentially a malt beverage and has a flat taste, although it is about 8 percent alcohol. 

At this stage, the beer-making and whiskey-making processes further diverge. Beer goes into cold storage for fermentation, while whiskey undergoes distillation. Following distillation, whiskey is put into wood barrels for aging. 

Dogfish began distilling at its Rehoboth brewpub in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2011, when the brewery expanded, that the company installed a full distilling operation. Ryan said Dogfish’s first experiment with distilling was making rum, which in addition to having a beachy reputation, is one of the easier spirits to make as it does not require aging. Besides whiskey and rum, Dogfish also makes vodka and gin. 

The distilling room has three stills, all specially made from copper by Vendome Copper and Brass Works of Louisville, Ky. Ryan said during distilling, sulfur from the yeast binds itself to the copper and stays there after the whiskey is removed from the still. Removing sulfur gives whiskey its smooth taste. 

Dogfish uses a column still, in which the fermented liquid starts at the top column and slowly works its way down. As the wash moves its way through the chambers of the column, it gets cooler and the alcohol content increases. For whiskey, Dogfish uses a four-chamber column still. Distillers can check the weight of the spirit by running some into a pot connected to the still. The weight lets the distiller know the alcohol content. Dogfish’s mass-market whiskeys consist of about 40 to 45 percent alcohol. 

Dogfish offers two types of whiskey for mass market: Straight Whiskey and Alternate Takes. The main difference is the type of barrels used to age the whiskey. The color of whiskey comes in part from the barrel; Ryan shows us wood that has been treated in several ways, from lightly toasted to nearly black.

Straight Whiskey is aged in barrels on the lightly toasted side, giving it its light-brown color. Alternate Takes, on the other hand, is aged in rum barrels, and has a darker color. Besides color, the second big difference is taste: Straight Whiskey is spicy on the front with a smooth kick at the end. Alternate Takes is sweet up front and spicy on the back. 

The tour ends with patrons pouring and labeling their own bottle of whiskey. This particular whiskey is specially made for the tours - it’s 120 proof, or 60.75 percent alcohol. Dogfish is particular about how much whiskey you take out. First, you need to log into a book your name and how many bottles you want. The first bottle is complimentary, but subsequent bottles will cost you. Ryan checked to verify we poured no further than where the bottle begins to narrow. 

Given the whiskey’s high alcohol content, Ryan suggested serving this whiskey on ice, which helps breaks the bonds of the alcohol and makes it a bit smoother to drink. That said, Ryan said whiskey should not be chilled, as chilling whiskey will negate the aromas and flavors that make it good to drink. The whiskey from the tour has some bite up front; it is 60 percent alcohol after all, but goes down smooth, especially when served on the rocks.

For ticket information on Dogfish’s spirits tours, visit www.dogfish.com/brewery/tasting-room/tours.