“I had somebody leave a Post-it note on my door when I wasn’t open that said ‘Hey, you can’t call it bourbon if you’re not in Kentucky,’” recalls Gene Sigel, owner of Red Eagle Distillery, with a chuckle.
Not technically true; it just has to be made in the USA. Bourbon is American-made whiskey, legally required by federal standards to be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, aged in new charred-oak barrels, distilled to no more than 160 proof, aged at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at 80 proof or higher.
Commonly, Kentucky bourbon is produced by large distilleries in column stills. Grain mash (a combination of corn, wheat or rye, and malt that has been mixed with water and fermented with yeast) is fed continuously into the top of the large column and alcohol is drawn off along the way.
Gene Sigel opted to produce his bourbon in a more traditional copper pot still. Unlike the new larger column stills, the grains are brought to a boil in the 250-gallon pot still and the alcohol slowly makes its way up into a column where it is collected. While the continuous stills in Kentucky may be more efficient for larger-scale production, Gene was taken by the pot still’s ability to extract more flavor from the grain, giving his small-batch bourbon an intense character not found in bourbons produced in industrial operations.
Sigel’s vision to reflect the region in his product is demonstrated with local non-GMO corn produced in Ashtabula County and rye grown right on his own farm and stone-ground locally at Fowler’s Milling Company in Chardon.
The malt component is where Red Eagle really gets creative. Gene has been experimenting with custom blends of chocolate, caramel, smoke, and other malts that showcase a complexity of flavors in the final product. While most distilleries perfect and remain true to one recipe, Gene enjoys the opportunity to adjust and experiment with the malts in each batch, approaching the process much the way it is done with craft beers.
After the distilling process, the clear spirits are stored in aging barrels where they acquire their characteristic color and oak flavors from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Gene uses a smaller 10-gallon barrel to intensify the process as opposed the larger 53-gallon industry standard. The high ratio of wood surface area to liquid enables more essence to be extracted in a shorter time—from the customary several years to only a few months.
Gene and his wife, Heather, began the distillery in 2010 with a blind leap of faith before state regulations changed to allow its operation. Heather had suggested they pursue the new venture after seeing distilleries in her travels. Gene contacted Ohio Rep. Ron Young about making a change to the law that had allowed only one distillery with carryout to operate per county of 800,000 people. What became HB 243 was passed in 2011, and the distillery began production in March of 2012.
The idea was a perfectly timed hobby for Gene. The distillery is located next door to South River Vineyard, the couple’s boutique winery. Distilling season dovetails with the grape harvest, keeping Gene busy all year long.
Nestled in the Grand River Valley wine region, the bold red building that houses the distillery proudly stands out in the crowd. Unlike the century-old church that was moved onto the site by the Sigels to house their winery, the renovated barn was built on the property in the 1800s. With its richly varnished hand-hewn timbers and new wrought iron details, the bar, located on the main floor of the distillery, is buzzing every weekend with a cultured clientele enjoying cocktails and tasting bourbon and rye to a soundtrack of soulful artists like Lana Del Rey. The bar features a dozen seasonal signature cocktails that showcase the versatility of bourbon, but, surprisingly, not Red Eagle bourbon.
Regulations in Ohio require restaurants and bars to serve from 750ml bottles, so you won’t find Red Eagle bourbon and rye at your favorite restaurant or bar anytime soon. Gene’s decision to bottle his liquor in smaller 375ml bottles limits sale at his own distillery to 1/4 ounce tastings (four per customer per day) and carryout only. That means if you want to give it a taste, you’ll need to head out to River Road one weekend to claim your daily limit.
The Red Eagle Distillery is located at 6202 South River Road in Harpersfield Township, in the midst of the Lake Erie Vines and Wines Trail. Open Saturday 1–9pm and Sunday 1–6pm. RedEagleSpirits.com