Jay Erisman, co-founder of Kentucky’s New Riff Distillery, is known as “the whiskeyman.” The term, according to Jay, “reflects his background in whiskey connoisseurship” that dates back over 30 years. As Fine Spirits Manager at The Party Source, a massive spirits retailer in Northern Kentucky, he was one of the first to bottle a private single barrel of whiskey, a trend that has exploded in recent years with retailers, restaurants, and whiskey clubs alike. When The Party Source owner, Ken Lewis, asked him a decade ago to partner in opening a whiskey distillery next to their liquor store, he didn’t hesitate. In 2014, New Riff launched a wildly successful brand of sourced bourbon, O.K.I., to tide over fans while their own whiskey reached a healthy minimum age. In 2018, they retired O.K.I. and introduced their own line of house-distilled bourbon and rye, complete with a single barrel program of their own that further cemented New Riff as one of the most admired craft whiskey distilleries in recent memory.
But for all his success with brown spirits, there’s something surprising about Jay. He really likes gin. Actually, he loves gin. He loves it so much he personally designed a gin for New Riff, and it remains to this day the only non-whiskey in their portfolio. During a visit to the distillery, I sat down with Jay to talk about his first spirits love and what makes New Riff’s Kentucky Wild Gin so special.
When and how did you come to love gin?
Jay: I was raised by a Martini man, and I’ve been stirring my own since my freshman dorm room in 1988. My father is a cocktailian and a gin lover of the first order. His signature cocktail is the Martini—a chemist by trade, he measures them out to this day in a graduated cylinder—and he’s mixed the better part of 30,000 of them since the late 1950s. He brought me and my siblings up in a home culture that celebrated the reasonable, responsible, studied, sincere appreciation of better drinking and good cocktails and especially gin. My favorite cocktail ever is still the Martini, and I stir one up…well, not quite every night but certainly on the weekends!
At what point during your plans for New Riff did you decide you wanted to make a gin?
Jay: I would say, as a born-and-bred Martini nut, it was always in the cards to make a gin at New Riff. I couldn’t work at/help found a distillery and NOT make a gin! Some of my retail experiences [at The Party Source] really got me wanting to make a great gin. I would have a craft distiller come in and try to sell me on “a gin that vodka lovers would like.” I told them to get out of here and bring me a gin that gin-lovers would love! People were scared of gin. You can’t make anything successfully with conviction if you’re scared of it. This gin was actually the very first recipe I ever made for New Riff.
You and Ken are self-described “corporate refugees” with almost no prior distilling experience. So, how did you go about creating this gin?
Jay: I was a home brewer, but not a home distiller. It still taught me a lot about recipe formation and the grain and sugar extraction and starch conversion. We had an RND still that we used to test a lot of things in the early days. A 10-liter alembic from Portugal. I distilled each botanical on its own, 30 of them actually, even though we only have 12 in our recipe. I essentially deconstructed the gin and then reassembled it. I so recommend that method for anyone who is looking to make a gin.
Did you get any assistance from outside experts in the industry?
Jay: Larry Ebersold was our consulting Master Distiller. [He] came to us after 35 or so years at the Seagram’s plant in Indiana. Larry is the best in the business for sour mash whiskey production…but what people probably don’t know about Larry is that he’s probably made more gin than any living American distiller. For a bunch of people who had never made whiskey [or gin] in our lives, we could have never ever done it without Larry. Or if we had, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. I designed the recipe, but Larry gave me some very important pointers.
How would you classify Kentucky Wild Gin?
Jay: Kentucky Wild Gin rightfully belongs in the burgeoning category of so-called “terroir gins,” or gins made from or including the botanicals of whatever patch of Earth they happen to inhabit. As for the style, I didn’t want a citrus-forward gin. I wanted a gin that would be good in Martinis. I love juniper, and I think gin-lovers love juniper, so that’s what I wanted. If you take out the unique Kentucky elements in our gin, you would be left with a pretty classic London Dry style.
Talk about those unique elements. New Riff’s Kentucky Wild Gin is reportedly made with some locally foraged botanicals. What inspired that approach?
Jay: Giving credit where it’s due, my specific inspiration was The Botanist, a gin made at Bruichladdich Distillery on the great Scottish whisky island of Islay, which employs botanicals harvested from the glens and bogs and tidal pools of the island. While visiting Bruichladdich in preparation for launching New Riff, I had the opportunity to see the gin still they use to make the gin, and it occurred to me: here’s this Botanist Gin, not merely bottled on Islay but actually gathered from this great whisky region…why doesn’t Kentucky have a native, local botanical gin as well? I determined that, if we made a gin at New Riff (and given my upbringing I simply HAD to make a gin at New Riff), it would include and uphold native, Kentucky/Ohio Valley botanicals, from the lands that birthed Bourbon whiskey and where we grew up.
Those locally foraged ingredients include wild juniper and American Spicebush. How did you discover those and what kind of flavors do they impart to the gin?
Jay: I’m a cook and gastronome. I don’t eat industrialized food, so I go to lots of farmer’s markets. One day, I picked up a packet of berries from one of the farmers and it was Spicebush. I had vaguely heard of it, never worked with it, but I had the eureka moment then. This is going into gin. Spicebush is an ancient plant of the Ohio Valley. Smells like allspice, sometimes called American allspice. It has a twang though. If allspice was playing bluegrass banjo, that would be Spicebush. From another farmer, I discovered unbeknownst to me that we had a juniper in Kentucky, as well. That’s the Eastern Red Cedar bush. We put that into each batch of gin to augment the more traditional juniper.
Kentucky Wild Gin is also unique in that it contains a little bit of your new make rye whiskey. What was the thinking behind that and how does it impact the flavor?
Jay: We redistill 100% corn GNS (Grain Neutral Spirit) for the bulk of the base of our gin, and we augment that base with a little bit of our new make rye whiskey. Without that rye, the gin is a little more in your face. It makes a textural addition more than anything else. A little bit of spice, but mostly texture and weight come in from the rye.
Kentucky Wild Gin is also available in a barrel-aged offering. Why did you decide to also do a barrel-rested gin? How does the barrel change Kentucky Wild’s profile?
Jay: Given that at New Riff we are A) producing gin in a whiskey region, B) sitting on scads of freshly emptied, dripping wet whiskey barrels, how could we not make a barrel-aged version of our Kentucky Wild Gin? Kentucky Wild Gin Bourbon Barreled, for me, offers an additional versatility to the gin as a cocktail companion. The barrel notes, the hints of vanilla and oak, also help make the gin a year-round cocktail companion, rather than just a summertime mixer for G&Ts. There are so many historically important, terrific cocktails—the Martinez and the Gin Cocktail (which is just a gin-based Old Fashioned) come to mind—that tremendously benefit from a barrel-aged gin.
So, now we know what cocktails to make with the barrel-aged. How do you recommend enjoying the classic Kentucky Wild?
Jay: As was said of voting, I recommend enjoying New Riff Kentucky Wild Gin early and often! We think Kentucky Wild Gin, bottled without chill filtration at a hefty 94 proof, proves a versatile cocktail partner. It makes a good Martini (it had better, or my Dad would disown me!), as well as all the classic gin cocktails; it is particularly nice in a Negroni, thanks to the textural contributions of the rye spirit in the base.
Any other gins that you anticipate adding to the portfolio?
Jay: Oh my goodness, as a lifelong gin lover, I have a lifetime of gins yet to make! Given New Riff’s experience and experimentation with various malted barleys used in our Bourbon making, it would be a natural fit to explore the realm of malt-based jenevers, which conveniently also include a tradition of barrel-aging. However, in terms of our broader, nationwide portfolio, we’d very much like to just stick with Kentucky Wild as our gin. Happily, our existing gin portfolio has won repeated Double Gold Medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including Best in Class for the Barrel Aged Gin in 2019 and another Double Gold for the standard Kentucky Wild in 2020.
Finally, where do you see gin heading as a spirits category?
Jay: By all accounts, ultra-premium and/or craft distilled gin is still blowing up all over the world. Witness the tonic-obsessed countries of Spain and Portugal for evidence; and in the gin mothership that is the UK, the category shows few signs of slowing down, either. I applaud the distillers around the world who, like New Riff, find a gin in their own local plants and traditions. I truly believe you can make a gin out of anyplace on the Earth, and I think crafty distillers will continue to do so.