New Riff is a newcomer to the Kentucky whiskey scene, but has made quite a name for itself already. The bourbon and rye it distills are both bottled-in-bond, meaning they are at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof. The mash bill for the bourbon is high-rye (65% corn, 30% rye, 5% malted barley) while the rye is 100% rye (with 5% malted rye). The latest additions to the lineup are two whiskeys called Backsetter, a bourbon and a rye that use peated malt in their production. The whiskey is also bottled-in-bond and not chill filtered. New Riff co-founder Jay Erisman said that this project came about back in 2015 in a sort of understated fashion. “I wish I could say there was some grand, overarching strategy to make an absolutely unprecedented whiskey,” he said, “but really it was a matter of a creative, intrepid team of distillers at a young distillery determined to make a new riff on an old tradition. Backsetter is a collision of old and new; a cover tune, perhaps of a Scottish Hebridean reel filtered (or rather, unfiltered) through Kentucky bluegrass and a Marshall stack.”
The name Backsetter is really just a reference to the classic Kentucky sour mash process, where a portion of the stillage left over from distillation is added to the next batch, kind of like a sourdough starter. “We strain off a portion of the stillage, and ‘set it back’ to add into the next mash,” said Erisman. “This is called (in old time Kentucky distilling parlance), ‘backset.’ Some 25 percent of the liquid content of a mash consists of backset. What makes these Backsetter whiskeys so unique is the nature of that backset: it was from a peated malted barley distillation.”
And that peated malted barley is really what makes this bourbon and rye stand out. There are other distilleries that have made peated bourbon before (King’s County, for example), but New Riff’s method is different. For Erisman and the team, this was an experiment in how the sour mash process, or backset, really affects the whiskey. “The peated backset was derived from a distillation of 100 percent peated malted barley, imported from Scotland,” he said. He went on to explain the thought process in great detail: “The interesting thing to keep in mind is, there is nothing in the backset that could reasonably affect the resulting distillate. There is nothing fermentable in backset, nothing that can create more alcohol or more alcohol-derived flavors, because (if we do our jobs right) all the sugars that can ferment were turned into alcohol in the beer. And there’s nothing that can be distilled off, nothing volatile, because (again, if we do our jobs!) we removed virtually all the alcohol from the prior beer. So how, exactly, does the backset contribute flavor? Kentucky bourbon-style distillers have insisted for well over 100 years on the efficacy of the sour mash process, and Backsetter provides a dramatic rejoinder to this history.”
Making Backsetter was also a chance for the team at the distillery to stretch their legs, let their creative whiskey juices flow, and try out something new. It is a limited release that might be hard for some to get, but that’s okay with Erisman as he realizes this whiskey won’t be for everyone. “Our team that comes up with these things are like songwriters — these ideas come bubbling up, and we just have to give them voice,” he said. “The point isn’t to make something that everyone will like, it’s to push a boundary, to make a new riff, and to make what we think is a really cool and delicious whiskey.”
Erisman said that the distillery has been running at full production capacity during the COVID-19 crisis, while taking the necessary health and safety precautions. “It hurts to have the hospitality sector all but shut down,” he said, “and it sure pains us to see our chef and bartender and restaurant friends suffering like this. They put their heart and souls into their careers, too and now they are underwater, probably for a long time to come. But we already had put a little more of our sales emphasis on the retail side of the equation.” On that note, New Riff is doing curbside and online orders, and it’s planning on offering to-go cocktails starting June 8 with limited weekend tours starting again on June 13.
Backsetter Bourbon and Rye are available for an SRP of $49.99 at select retailers, or through the New Riff Whiskey Club.
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