Dark Horse, A True Craft-Distillery
Patrick Garcia, Head Distiller at Dark Horse Distillery
At the start of this month, GQ published an article that blows the lid off of the pot of “conglomerate distilleries” that manufacture a large number of brands from “so-called craft distilleries”. In an age when “…about half of the rye brands on liquor shelves today are made in a single, industrial facility,” it becomes even more imperative to know the family behind your whiskey. Love Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s? They’re distilled at Jim Beam. Enjoy George Dickel Rye? Well, it’s made at LDI, who is also responsible for the production of Redemption Rye, Templeton, Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout and High West, just to name a few. And unless you prefer products from a distillery that is “known colloquially as LDI, but is now part of MGP, a food conglomerate that specializes in bioplastics, industrial proteins, and starches for use in salad dressings,energy bars, imitation cheese, and fruit fillings…” we recommend digging a little deeper than the back label on your next bottle of bourbon or rye whiskey…
From Kansas City, comes Dark Horse, an upstart distillery that’s family owned and operated by the Garcia siblings. Not only do they source grains from local farmers, but they also mill their grains at the distillery, and hand-label their bottles, all of which are numbered and signed by Head Distiller Patrick Garcia. Below, we grabbed a few minutes with Damian Garcia, who writes candidly about the family’s experience in establishing Dark Horse Distillery. Thanks Damian!
1. What made the family decide upon a distillery as a family business? We had always talked about starting a family business, but never knew where to start or what to do, until we toured a distillery on vacation several years back. The process, brands and spirits really was captivating to us and we started looking at the possibility of starting one in our own backyard, Kansas City. Also, we had always been fans of micro brewery beers and doing a small batch craft distillery would allow us to bring the same creativity you see in the micro brews to spirits. We then all quit our day jobs and jumped into the planning and preparation – full time. The name Dark Horse originated from the fact that we felt like the underdog or the long shot when we started. When you see the brands that line shelves and back bars we realized that our spirits would be one of many in a very crowded field. What made you first commit to bourbon and rye? My brother Patrick, Head Distiller, had always been into whiskey and it really stemmed from his insight into the spirit. A lot of folks will tell you that the best Bourbon is produced in Kentucky and we really looked at that as a challenge to try our hand at it here in the the Midwest. We decided on a Rye whiskey because of the tradition that it brings. Before and during Prohibition, Rye was the norm, but it became out of favor shortly after Prohibition ended. Today, you take a look around and it is really starting to catch on again. We wanted to produce our rye a little different than those that are out there, by doing a 100% rye whiskey mash. A lot of distilleries, that are putting out rye whiskey are adding a secondary or third grain usually barely and corn because of the thick viscosity issue when doing a mash as well as toning down that full on peppery spice that rye brings. That full on spice and robustness is what we liked and made our whiskey different!
2. When first setting out, how did you determine to make Dark Horse different from other distilleries? During the planning stages of production, we were going to try and do things with a real local mindset. That included our equipment, mash tun, fermentation tanks built for us by a local welder, manufacturer. We also mill each of our grains, a lot of distilleries our size usually buy them in bulk already milled. This process allows us to purchase them from local farmers and have constant control of the size of the grind. We also implore a sour mash process with our whiskies, which will add consistency throughout each batch and create a proper pH balance in each batch. From the spent mash (grain) we don’t use, we donate it to a local dairy farmer who uses it as feed for his cattle. The other part that is separate from the process is that we created an event space to go along with our tasting room here, which my sister Mary runs and coordinates, to accommodate all sorts of events and functions.
3. How did you come to perfect your bourbon/rye recipes? We did a lot of panel testing and samplings with local bartenders and retailers on aged whiskies that were being sold in the market as well as our own white dog creations. From the feedback we received, we would then take those likes and recommendations to our own creations.
4. Your bourbon is surprisingly savory and not at all cloyingly sweet (like many other bourbons). How did you achieve the smooth integration of flavors without over-oaking? We barrel our whiskey at 110 proof and in doing so we have been able to find a really nice balance of flavors, as well as pulling it from the barrel at just the right time. A lot of whiskey distilleries will barrel at 125 proof, but from studies we have done it depends on the spirit you put in and the quality of grains used that helps flavor. We feel it definitely contributes to the well roundedness of our whiskies.
5. What can you tell us about your coopers, their barrels and the flavors they impart. Our coopers age their Missouri oak for a minimum of 1-2 years, breaking down the tannins. Our barrels come in charred at a medium level of #3, imparting buttery caramels, vanillas with hints of apple and cherry. This also goes back to the proof that we barrel at as well.
6. How did Patrick come to master the art of distillation? He had worked at a brewery while in college, so it gave him some insight into mashing and fermentation. Also, he started doing lot of hands on workshops at other craft distilleries around the country and was able to get an early understanding of the process. We also had become members of The American Distilling Institute, an organization built to help solidify and further craft distillery growth, where he could get more insight in the process and also utilizing resources thru the organization. We also hired a consultant and retired mastered distiller with over 15 years in distilling experience to help hone and refine our process. A little more than three years later, he continues to learn more and fine tune his art.
For more on Dark Horse Distillery Reserve Bourbon Whiskey & Dark Horse Distillery Reunion Rye Whiskey, read here.