Behind the Barrel-Strength: An Interview with Wyoming Whiskey’s David DeFazio

The first legal distillery in Wyoming has launched its first barrel-strength bourbon.

Wyoming Whiskey opened nine years ago in Kerby, Wyoming. The distillery crafts whiskey from the state’s natural resources, including grains grown within one mile of the distillery, and water piped in from a mile-deep limestone aquifer.

In 2012, Wyoming Whiskey launched its initial line of small-batch bourbon. Next came its Single Barrel, followed recently by a Barrel Strength: 116 proof, in a 3/8″-thick oak box, for $199 per 750-ml. bottle.

Blink and you’ll miss it. Only 96 bottles were shipped for sale across the country, including in New York and Illinois. Wyoming Whiskey, however, plans for additional barrel-strength releases in future years.

We recently spoke with David DeFazio, the company’s co-founder and COO, about the process of producing barrel-strength bourbon.

BD: What led to this release?

DD: It was not by design by any means. When we started the whole thing in 2006, we were three attorneys who didn’t know anything about making whiskey. So we brought in Steve and started laying down as many barrels as we could at the highest quality.

This past spring, we identified two barrels as being exceptional. Sam Mead, our distiller, texted me that ‘this stuff is amazing’. He’s not one to exaggerate. I texted back that I was excited. He responded, ‘As in, you need to come over and try it, right away’. So I made the four-hour drive.

At barrel strength, which is 116-120 proof, this whiskey was smoother than any of our Single Barrel products. And those come from the top 1% of our barrels. This was not something we manufactured. We were not looking for it. These two barrels stood out for their quality, and we made a product because we had found them.

Three times a year we bring in Nancy Fraley, a nosing expert. She’s no nonsense. We had her sample those two barrels. She confirmed their quality and said that they were ready for release. She recommended that bottling sooner than later, in case the whiskey declined in quality.

BD: Where’d you find those two barrels?

DD: They came from an area of our warehouse that is producing better barrels than other areas. This is in the northwest corner of Warehouse A, on the top floor. I’ve heard about there being sweet spots in warehouses where honey barrels come from. These two barrels were found side by side, by [Warehouse and Bottling Line Manager] Kermit Sweeney, on the top two layers of their rick.

BD: Why is this spot better for aging whiskey?

DD: There are so many variables. Air circulation and temperature changes are a big part, I think. That corner of Warehouse A doesn’t get any morning sun. But the honest answer is: I don’t really know. And within the next year or so, Kermit will probably find similar spots in Warehouses B and C. Those whiskeys just haven’t had time yet to develop.

In general, because of our operation’s smaller size, we can pay closer attention to individual barrels. We’re able to observe patterns. At a larger company, I wonder if they taste individual barrels like we do.

BD: What’s the background of those barrels?

DD: We wouldn’t try to hide anything. There is something with those two barrels.

Back before [Former Maker’s Mark Master Distiller] Steve Nally started with us, we first consulted with [legendary Brown-Forman distiller] Lincoln Henderson. At the time, Woodford Reserve was big into accelerated maturation, and Lincoln wanted us to build a room in the warehouse for that. The room in the winter would heat up to 130 degrees, and then gradually drop down in temperature, mimicking summer. We built the room.

Lincoln led us to Steve, who’s more of a traditionalist. We had to twist Steve’s arm to experiment with the accelerated-maturation room. We rolled 20 barrels in. Turns out, none of us had considered the laws of physics. The barrels expanded too much. We almost blew them up. A number of them leaked.

These two barrels, they were in the accelerated-maturation room. They were the leakers. They leaked at a rapid rate for five years. When they were discovered, there was only 10-12 gallons left in the two 53-gallon barrels. They lost a tremendous amount to the angel’s share. But that helped in the oxidization process. There was a greater surface area, which could be more effectively oxidized. I believed that really helped produce the exceptional whiskey.

I don’t believe the heating process helped that much. It may have helped with a scant amount of flavor. The biggest factors, I believe, were the placement in the warehouse, the leaking, and the barrels just being made of good wood.

BD: Any plans to replicate what happened?

DD: Without getting too much into it, yes. We’re going to experiment. Basically, we’re going to attempt to simulate what happened, though there’s obviously no guarantee that we’ll get the same magic.

To that point, we’ve actually found a third barrel of the same quality. It was not a leaker, and had a traditional amount of angel’s share loss. In other words, we’re going to find honey barrels from time to time because of who-knows-what variables. I think that anyone who says that ‘this or that’ makes bourbon good, they’re full of it.

BD: What has been the connoisseur response to Barrel Strength?

DD: Phenomenal. We sent [WhiskyCast Host] Mark Gillespie a bottle. He said it was one of the best bourbons he had ever tasted. Later, he expanded that to it being one of the best whiskeys he had ever tasted.

We sent a bottle to [noted whiskey writer] Clay Rizen of the New York Times. He posted it on Instagram with the phrase “One of the best craft whiskeys I have ever tasted.”

BD: What’d they like about it?

DD: How smooth it is, especially at that proof. They said it was complex. Mark kept gushing about that, the complexity and the mouth feel.

To get those kinds of compliments means a lot to us. As a new distillery, that’s something we’re looking for: validation from people that we know and admire.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com.

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