On a brilliantly crisp and clear fall-like day, a clutch of volunteers is hard at work in a Geauga County barn literally filled to the rafters with wooden barrels full of booze.
On this day, the team will drain just two of those barrels while working for hours on an assembly line comprised of stations for filling, corking, taping and dipping into molten wax each bottle that makes its way down the line. These two barrels along with 18 others comprise the very first batches of Tom’s Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a hand-crafted product years in the making.
You might know Tom’s Foolery for its distinctive apple brandy, or applejack, which it has been producing and selling for four years. But soon after owner Tom Herbruck began crafting his applejack, he came into possession of some pedigreed whiskey-making equipment from Michter's in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest American whiskey distilleries. He was personally trained on the equipment by bourbon royalty, David Beam and Dick Stoll, who worked at Michter's from 1955 until the day it closed.
For just shy of three years, Tom, his wife and business partner Lianne, and fulltime brewer Erik Rothschiller have been filling barrels full of whiskey at a rate of nearly one per day. The sour mash bourbon is made the old-fashioned way, namely by employing open wood fermenters and copper pot stills in place of continuous column stills. The bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years. It contains zero added colors or flavors.
“Why do we do it this way?” Herbruck says about the process. “We do it this way because this is the way we were taught to do it by David Beam and Dick Stoll, who were doing it this way 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
The release of this first batch of bourbon is a dream years in the making not just for Herbruck and his team, but also for Beam, who had purchased the equipment from Michter's when it closed, intending to launch a new Kentucky bourbon micro-distillery with his sons. That plan never materialized.
"Me and my brothers and father had been sitting on this equipment for so long, we gotta see this through,” Beam told me at the inaugural distilling session in 2011.
Out of the barrel the bourbon clocks in at around 107 proof. It is “proofed down” to 90, filtered to weed out any errant bits of wood or char, and bottled by hand. Each bottle bears a sticker that identifies the contents right down to the batch and barrel. Consumers can go to the Tom’s Foolery website to unearth details such as the particular mash bill, the maker of the barrel and even its char level. This is true small-batch bourbon.
Edwin Vargas, a founding member of the Cleveland Bourbon Club, had an opportunity to sample the whiskey before it was boxed up to be shipped out for distribution. “Quite frankly, I had great trepidation going into this tasting because I know the distiller so well,” he admits. “It’s a great straight two-year bourbon. Granted, it’s not yet a big bourbon with huge flavor, but it will probably get there. Flavors are showing themselves already and in good portion. This is a nice first release worth drinking and owning.”
Bourbon fans can expect the first of roughly 5,000 bottles to hit store shelves the first week of October. The retail price will be $39.95. A freshly redesigned bottle features an embossed image of copper pot stills along with a characteristic copper-colored wax seal.
“It is absolutely exciting,” says Herbruck, seated in the barrel-filled rack house. “This has been a dream of ours for more than five years. Every step of the way has been fun. I think people are excited about the taste, for starters, but also that it’s a well-made product.”
Some barrels from those earliest batches have been set aside for later release as four-year-old, 100-proof “bottled in bond” bourbon, explains Herbruck. Tom’s Foolery also will offer some single-barrel releases down the road.
“Time does interesting things to bourbon,” he says.
That’s not all spirits fans have to look forward to. The latest batch of applejack will be released on the heels of the bourbon, and next spring, Tom’s Foolery will bottle and ship its first batches of rye. Already at just two years old the rye is tasting like a world-class product.
“We really enjoy where we’ve gotten — and it’s exciting to look forward to where we’re going.”