By Bruce Collier
September is National Bourbon Heritage Month in the U.S., and in the pioneering spirit of that pioneering spirit, Beachcomber paid a visit to Timber Creek Distillery, located in the woodsy country north of Crestview. I started things off right by getting lost (incorrect internet directions) but a call to co-owner and president Camden Ford put me on the right track.
Timber Creek Distillery sits at the end of a dirt road, on 1,400 acres near a stream called Juniper Creek. There’s a grand timber house (Timber Creek Lodge) with a beautifully carved front door, but the distillery action is in another building. I was greeted on the road by co-owner and master distiller Aaron Barnes. Barnes led me into a high-ceilinged, metal and wood structure, un-air conditioned, through which a chicken wandered until shooed off. It is in this building that Timber Creek distills, ages and blends its growing line of spirits—vodka, rum, coffee and apple pie spirits, and a distinguished line of whiskeys.
Barnes makes all the liquor, using (all Florida) Yellow #2 Dent Corn, Red Soft Winter Wheat, and Florida 401 Black Rye (specially developed for growing in this state), with cane molasses from Louisiana for the rum. The barley is sourced from out of state.
The grains are cracked with a roller mill (not ground, as is done in many other distilleries), and cooked separately in a mash cooker, as opposed to being first blended in a pre-determined mashbill. Florida limestone water is used. Each grain has its own optimum cooking temperature. The process of lautering is next—separating the grains from the mash (rather than a slurry of grains). A standard practice in brewing beer, it is done here to avoid “overexposure” of the grain to the mash, which can result in off flavors. Fermentation follows, also temperature controlled, in a 7,600-gallon fermenter.
Scottish whiskey making practices inspired the custom design of the pot still, which incorporates a traditional copper worm condenser. Distillation is also done by individual grain, resulting in pure corn, wheat, rye and barley spirits. The spirits are barreled for aging (by individual grains) in new white oak barrels, custom ordered from McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba, Missouri. The interior of the barrels gets a No. 3 char (Kentucky distillers favor No. 4). The rum is stored in steel tanks. “Seventy-five percent of the flavor comes from the barrels,” says Barnes.
The barrels are stacked on the far side of the still area, in neat rows. Ford noted that natural Florida temperature conditions are a big part of the character of the aged spirits. Aging is a process of patience and monitoring. The vodka (made from 100 percent northwest Florida red wheat) is filtered before bottling. The whiskeys are unfiltered. Filtering is common, because unfiltered spirits can become slightly cloudy when ice or water is added. For many, unfiltered whiskey has an added flavor quality that outweighs its appearance.
The last step before bottling is blending. Starting with the pure-grain building blocks in the barrels, a variety of tastes and characters can be constructed.
On a table near the barrel racks sit a line of bottles—vodka, rum, coffee and apple pie spirits, bourbon, reserve bourbon, black rye and single malt whiskies. The distillery is phasing in a new bottle style—tall and cylindrical, with the word “Florida” emphasized. “We want it to stand out on the shelf,” said Barnes. There are tasting cups, water and ice.
Unlike many vodkas I’ve tried, Timber Creek’s has a definite grain flavor, slightly sweet, and a substantial body. The coffee spirit is not syrupy sweet, rather dry but rich, like strong espresso. The standard bourbon is corn, wheat and barley, with a gentle, fruity, slightly sweet quality. The reserve bourbon adds rye, which gives it a spicy bite. I’d already sampled the black rye. It’s 100 percent rye, and showcases that grain unapologetically—spicy, crisp and gripping.
Also on the table was the single malt, which Barnes said the distillery hopes to release soon. Scotch-lovers should welcome it. Another spirit in the works is gin, flavored with juniper (near Juniper Creek) and other botanical essences being prepared.
Timber Creek got a boost of prestige this past July, when the Florida Reserve Bourbon and Black Rye each earned silver medals at the North American Whiskey Competition in New Orleans. Future plans include getting the product placed in more bars, restaurants and liquor stores, working with area chefs, and spreading the gospel of transparency in distilling.
Timber Creek’s products, including their custom Bourbon Blending Kit, can be purchased at area liquor stores, and enjoyed at bars and restaurants. The distillery is located at 6358 Lake Ella Road, Crestview, FL. Tours can be arranged by contacting the distillery in advance. Discover more at timbercreekdistillery.com.