The year 2020 will be chiseled in our memories for many things; few of them good. It was a year marked by a worldwide pandemic, economic upheaval, riots in American cities and extraordinary political divisiveness. But on that good side…2020 was the Year of Spirits of French Lick.
The Year of Spirits of French Lick
It seems that everyone had plans, hopes and dreams that were delayed, down-sized or otherwise destroyed last year. While head distiller / head alchemist Alan Bishop and the team at Spirits of French Lick didn’t get to do everything they had in the works when 2020 started, they still had a remarkably successful year.
Single Barrel Program
Despite not being able to have groups in to the distillery to do barrel picks, the single barrel program thrived at Spirits of French Lick during 2020. “We expected single barrel sales to dry up when the pandemic hit”, said SoFL marketing director, Jolee Kasprzak. “Instead, they tripled!”. Single barrel offerings have primarily consisted of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon and The Mattie Gladden high-rye Bourbon. Bottles from single barrels have been released through various liquor stores scattered across the country and through on-line retailer, Seelbach’s.
The heart of Spirits of French Lick is the energetic, copper-haired Jolee. The native Californian says, “My grandparents were immigrants and they always made art a focus in our family growing up”. She studied English, Art History and Communications in college and took a job working for Wolf Creek Brewing, a Southern California restaurant and microbrewery. It was at Wolf Creek that she “learned how to taste”.
After getting married, Jolee journeyed from the left coast to the Hoosier state. Her time in Indiana saw her gaining design expertise as the director of operations for a sign company and experience in the hospitality industry through restaurant management. From the microbrewery to the sign company to the restaurant, all of this experience shaped Jolee into the perfect fit for her role as Director of Marketing Operations at Spirits of French Lick, which she started in 2018.
Jolee’s design experience was especially useful as she led one of the biggest undertakings of 2020 for SoFL which was the complete re-design of their labels. With several new product offerings in the pipeline, it became a priority to freshen up the appearance and feel of the brand. “There are unique details to each label depending on the spirit in the bottle”, Jolee explained, “but the feel, the scrollwork and the font are very similar. This gives the Spirits of French Lick lineup a distinctive look on the shelf”.
The new labels will be submitted to design competitions this year. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do very well in competition as they are some of the most attractive labels on the market today.
“This is, in fact, the most ‘dickish’ thing I’ve done in the industry and I couldn’t be prouder of it”. This is how Alan Bishop unveiled Unpretentious; a two-year, high-rye bourbon finished in port casks. Alan hates the marketing behind barrel finished Bourbon, especially port finishes. So, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Alan made the most pretentious whiskey he could and called it “Unpretentious”. He also made it taste pretty darn good. It was released in the gift shop in mid-June and sold out by early August, so the public was extremely receptive to it. Social media buzz and Bourbon award season also showed there is a place in the market for Alan’s sense of humor, especially when it is accompanied by a great whiskey.
July saw Spirits of French Lick reach a major milestone when their first bottled-in-bond Bourbons were released. Younger versions of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon had been out for a few seasons, but in mid-July it hit the shelves as a four-year, bottled-in-bond offering. This spirit’s name-sake, Lee Sinclair, was a successful southern Indiana businessman who bought (and rebuilt after a fire) the West Baden Springs Hotel. Most of the whiskeys created at Spirits of French Lick are named after characters or places of historical significance to the region.
Cast in this unlikely role of being named after a high-rye Bourbon is Mattie Gladden. Mattie Gladden, the woman, was the local madam who is infamous for many reasons including having once been mistress to P.T. Barnum. The Mattie Gladden, the whiskey, was released at the end of July as the second bottled-in-bond Bourbon in the SoFL line-up. It is a high-rye Bourbon that Alan jokingly remarks “has a whore-forward profile”. I’m not sure what that means and I’m not sure that I want to know. What I do know is…it is fantastic and was one of my favorite Bourbons from 2020.
Alan Bishop Day
A shocker of an event occurred on October 20. That is the day when on the ABV Network’s The Bourbon Daily podcast, Steve Akley randomly declared that day to be Alan Bishop Day. In a classic “If You Know, You Know” fashion, this took on a chaotic life of its own inspiring a flurry of social media posts some of which might actually be suitable for sharing.
“Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street” is the first line to the Cure song that this barrel-aged absinthe was named after. An absinthe comprised of 13 different botanicals aged for two years in a number 2 char new American oak barrel produces a unique and flavorful spirit. Fascination Street was released in October and is available in short supply at the distillery.
As 2020 was coming to a merciful close for all of society, it was also a celebratory close for Spirits of French Lick. Indiana Bourbon started things off by naming The Mattie Gladden as the Bourbon of the Year for 2020. Whiskey media guy, Fred Minnick, selected Unpretentious as the second best barrel-finished whiskey for 2020 and Lee W. Sinclair as the best non-Kentucky Bourbon of 2020.
When Steve Akley and the ABV Network announced winners of their 2020 awards, much of the hardware (if there was actual hardware) was taken by Spirits of French Lick with Alan Bishop being crowned Craft Distiller of the Year and The Mattie Gladden being anointed Best New Whiskey and Best Bourbon.
In their year-end awards show, My Whiskey Den (Patrick Belongia, Mike Lisac and Benjamin Eaves) unanimously named their Distiller/ Distillery of the Year as Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick.
Finally, Lee W. Sinclair bottled-in-bond was included in Minnick’s year-end blind tasting for his 2020 Whiskey of the Year. LWS made a deep run and ended up remaining until the final six and beat out some of “Big Bourbon’s” biggest boys along the way.
“Several years ago a friend told me that I approached distillation like an iconoclast”, Alan recalled. “I liked the word and it has stuck in the back of my head all this time and it seemed like a good name for this special series of whiskey”. To save you a few clicks, an iconoclast is one who opposes settled beliefs, institutions and traditions. If you spend much time with Alan you’ll see very quickly that he is against the run of the mill and swimming against the stream. The moniker “iconoclast” fits him and it fits the whiskey he makes.
Spirits of French Lick christened 2021 with the maiden voyage of the Iconoclast Series (yes, there will be others). This first release is a three-barrel batch of Lee W. Sinclair at barrel proof. Alan explains, “These three barrels simply did not fit the Lee profile at all. I decided to try them in a stand-alone batch and it could not have worked better. I’ve not never put anything in a barrel I like more than this first Iconoclast release”.
Iconoclast is a distillery-only release and when they’re gone…they’re gone. This four-year Bourbon carries a proof of 107.9 with prominent flavors of cherry, French toast, vanilla and cream. It is truly delicious and should not be missed.
2021 and Beyond: Anything Can Happen
The release of Iconoclast is a strong indication that Spirits of French Lick intends to extend their “Year of…” past 2020 and into 2021. Alan and Jolee have shared with me some of their plans for the rest of the year. Each of these deserves being termed as “the highly-anticipated release”.
- Valentine’s weekend: The Right Way is a rye aged in absinthe barrels. It is available in the distillery gift shop starting Saturday, February 13. What better way to say I love you?
- May: April showers bring May flowers, but this May brings The Morning Glory. This is a kasha (buckwheat) Bourbon. Respect the grain, indeed.
- May: This month also is the scheduled release of William Dalton. This is a bottled-in-bond wheated Bourbon and will replace The Wheater in Spirits of French Lick’s catalog. Dalton was the longest-serving master distiller in Indiana history, holding this role for 55 years at the Spring Mill distillery. The Wheater was a blend of SoFL wheated Bourbon and sourced wheated Bourbon. It was my least favorite of their whiskies, so I am looking forward to this change. The William Dalton will be 100% Spirits of French Lick bourbon. I have tried a sample and it is quite excellent and is a much better fit in their lineup.
- Summer: It’s hard to say “now this sounds really different” when I’ve already listed a rye aged in absinthe barrels and a kasha bourbon, but…this does sound really different. Further evidence that anything can happen: an apple brandy aged in tequila barrels.
- Fall: A perfect fit for the fall months will be the release of a bottled-in-bond apple brandy.
- Fall: A bottled-in-bond rye will hit store shelves. It will be called Solomon Scott. Scott was a regarded distiller, bootlegger and moonshiner in pre-prohibition southern Indiana.
An overnight success thirty some-odd years in the making, the accolades of 2020 have Alan Bishop living in the limelight, so to speak. With that attention from the Bourbon public come expectations. The things Spirits of French Lick have in store for 2021 is quite an encore to 2020 as Alan and his team makes a tradition of defying traditions.