“Blended” has been a dirty word in American whiskey for years. That’s because according to US rules, the category can contain as little as 20% actual whiskey and still be labeled as such. The remaining 80% can be—and often is—neutral grain spirit. This reality has lead many aficionados to dismiss the most popular examples within the genre as merely whiskey-flavored vodka. They aren’t exactly wrong. But the thing is, this characterization doesn’t have to be right. An increasing number of modern American whiskey makers are reappropriating the term “blended whiskey” to mean something downright delicious, full of flavor, and, indeed, full of straight whiskey.
Leading the charge is Adam Hines and his crew at the High Bank Distillery in Columbus, Ohio. It’s been just under five years since the whiskey maker opened up shop in this part of the world with the intent of introducing high-end bourbons and ryes. But while he was waiting for his own juice to come of age, he figured he would do something audacious: assemble a recipe of sourced American whiskeys and proudly blend them together into a sum greater than the whole of its parts.
The result was Whiskey War, a series of blended American whiskey that’s assembled, finished, and bottled on-site. Some hit the glass at cask strength, other releases undergo a secondary and even tertiary finish in pre-seasoned barrels. But all of them are interesting and worthy of connoisseur’s consideration. In fact, at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Whiskey War took home Best In Class in the American Blended Whiskey category…in both 2021 and 2022.
It’s an exceptionally rare feat for the same liquid to go back-to-back in earning this particular accolade. What’s more, in an exclusive for Forbes, Hines has revealed that Whiskey War will be taking home Best In Class for an unprecedented third year, when the SFWSC announces its complete list of winners at a June 17th gala in Las Vegas.
At the competition, the expert panel of judges samples liquids completely in the blind. Nobody can play favorites on anything other than flavor. So clearly Hines must be doing something right. We sat down with the distiller in order to get a better sense of how he’s made ‘Blended American Whiskey’ a tempting phrase for craft connoisseurs. Read the interview below…
What are you actively trying to do differently at High Bank?
Adam Hines: “We are embracing the blending process and what that can produce for the consumer, as opposed to hiding what we do. I remember vividly when we launched our brand and people within the Ohio distilling industry were criticizing us saying, ‘I hear Whiskey War isn’t even their own juice!’ To which I would comment we are completely open and honest about our processes and I would send them a direct link on our website stating Whiskey War was 100% a blended product we created out of 3 different mash bills we source and finish on site. The whole reason I did this was to give our bourbon—that we do make in-house, but has not been released yet—the proper time to age, not knowing that Whiskey War, on its own, was going to be a massive hit.”
Where did that name come from, Whiskey War?
AH: “As the story goes, Prohibition is said to have started just 12 miles from our original High Bank facility, in Columbus, Ohio. In 1875, a gentleman named Henry Corbin took a chance and tried opening a saloon in Westerville, Ohio—where my family and I reside today—which was an area known to strongly oppose the consumption of distilled spirits and was home to the Women’s Temperance Movement. Before Henry could open his saloon, not once, but twice, it was blown up. It was said before the first explosion, Henry came outside to address the protesters with two pistols drawn, which is where we get our cross pistols logo. That single act is believed to have ignited the Whiskey Wars of Prohibition and launched the Anti-Saloon League.
Talk about blended whiskey. Why did you decided to go into this particular subcategory?
AH: “I did it because I am not a fan of young whiskey. What I didn’t realize is how much I would love it. The fact that I can source different mash bills from around the country and achieve the exact flavor profile I want, versus only distilling our own and having to wait 4-6 years until I really find out what the final product will taste like…Blending and second—and third—aging our Whiskey War blend has allowed me more control and more ability to experiment in small batches, which has panned out very well for us. I’m very excited for our own juice to mature next year as it will become another unique flavor in my blending arsenal!”
What is your process for blending the Whiskey War. What can you tell us about the blending components?
AH: “My blend of Whiskey War started with me sourcing over 100 different mashbills from almost 50 different distilleries around the country, factoring in 3 things: taste, price and availability. The goal was to create a craft product that could compete with the big guys on flavor and price. I spent 9 months blending 12 batches a night, night after night, until I landed on the final product. I felt I needed to do it over and over again because I wanted to create a whiskey that tasted good no matter if I ate a salad, pizza or a steak for dinner before I did my nightly blending routine. What was the whiskey I was drawn to most over those nine months? That was Whiskey War. It is a blend of 1 rye and 2 bourbons. The blend is a rye-heavy mashbill and the bourbons give added depth and complexity that round out the entire experience.”
How significant is it to you to receive Best In Class recognition for three years running at San Francisco?
AH: “I’m a bit numb to be honest. It hasn’t really sunk in. I’m just really excited to celebrate with my team. They all work so hard and take ownership over every single bottle that leaves our facility. It’s really an amazing thing and they deserve this so much. Blending is just as much of an art as distilling and you have even more control over the outcome. We are in the flavor business; drink and make what you like and see if you can get others to buy in. From the start I have only wanted to make spirits that I personally enjoyed because I always felt that if I was 100% bought in to them, I could convince others to like them as well. Turns out, I have a ‘palette for the people’ as my team always says [laughs].”