When I first heard of Herman Marshall whiskey, I assumed, as with so many of the American whiskeys and bourbons I've tried and seen, that it was named after an ancient founder of the company, a master distiller from generations past, or a similar historical figure-- a name meant to convey a sense of mythology to the whiskey.
I was wrong. On the bright side, I got to meet Herman and Marshall, founders and co-owners of the distillery, on Tuesday for lunch and discuss their whiskey with them. We ate at the recently opened Galleria location of Peli Peli at 5085 Westheimer, and I learned about the company's origins, the whiskey they make, and more.
Herman Beckley and Marshall Louis met 14 years ago in a Starbucks. Beckley had worked in the software industry for many years, and as a native of Indiana, grew up among corn fields as was intimately familiar with what it took to grow and identify a high-quality harvest. Louis, a native of South Africa, had decades of experience in the winemaking business and the spirits industry. He and Beckley got to talking and entered a partnership to make bourbon.
As they put it, Beckley is in charge of what's "inside the bottle"--every step of the spirit-making process-- and Louis is in charge of what's "outside the bottle"--marketing, distribution, and the like. Beckley said he spent ten years practicing the process before getting it right-- "trial and error, mostly error"-- but that his ultimate goal was to make a whiskey in an older, pre-Prohibition style. To that end, Beckley researched whiskey-making methods from the late 1700s and early 1800s, and learned everything he could by copying those methods and processes, trying again and again until finding the recipes that satisfied him, the ones Herman Marshall bottles today.
Two elements of this approach to whiskey-making stood out to me:
First of all, HM's bourbon has no secondary grain to the corn. Whereas most bourbon mash bills contain a small percentage of rye or wheat, Herman Marshall bourbon has none of either. The whiskey still contains barley, necessary for the enzymes it produces; the resultant mash bill is 77 percent corn and 23 percent barley. The rye whiskey is the exact same proportion, with its namesake grain substituted for the corn. This not only is closer to how whiskey was made in the recipes Herman studied, but he also said his recipe contains an increased amount of barley in order to give the bourbon a flavor profile with a stronger sense of certain flavors typically associated with Scotch.
Second, Herman Marshall uses open-air fermentation tanks, handmade from cypress wood by Beckley himself. (Most distillers use closed steel tanks.) This allows the natural elements to have more of an effect on the finished product; Beckley said he wanted his product to be distinctively Texan.
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So what are the results of the whiskey HM has made in this manner? Well, they're pretty good all around, and unique to boot.
- Bourbon. My main tasting notes from the bourbon: "very vanilla, very soft mouthfeel, uncharacteristically smooth." It's not the same kind of smoothness as the Garrison Brothers single barrel I tried recently; if that was a velvet caress, this was a cottony pillow. The mouthfeel combined with the vanilla flavors almost gave the bourbon the effect of a toasted marshmallow. I'm not one who especially likes spicy or fiery elements in my bourbon, so a smooth finish was well appreciated.
- Rye. The rye flavor profile was a mix of vanilla and cinnamon, with more spice and bit to the mouthfeel and finish. At Marshall's suggestion, I added an ice cube to open up the rye; this really helped enhance the vanilla flavor and made it last longer. I usually don't drink my whiskey over ice, but that was a nice touch. (Now that I write it, I wonder how the vanilla-cinnamon flavors of the HM rye would taste in a horchata.)
- Single Malt. The single malt started with the familiar, pleasing malty sweetness, but unique among single malts I've had, the finish was very spicy, with strong flavors of cinnamon and oak. (I believe they use new oak barrels for all their whiskeys, which probably explains why their single malt has more oak flavor than most I've tried.) If you're looking for a single malt with a little heat but no peat, this is a good one to try.
While I'd recommend any of the three to fans of each style of whiskey, the bourbon was my favorite of the three, with a mouthfeel and smoothness that is unique in the genre. In a field where so many of the brands are owned by a small number of companies and made with the same basic recipes, a quality product by an independent distiller, with its own unique flavor profile and characteristics, stands out all the more.
The seasonal release single malt should be available in selected bars and liquor stores soon. For a bottle, the bourbon runs $37-40, the rye $42-45, and the single malt for around $58.