Backyard Bourbon

The story of bourbon is a story of necessity, of restrictions turned rules, and practice turned tradition. Bourbon was an experiment that became the law. The story of Tom’s Foolery is the opposite. A story of tradition not as a straitjacket but as a wingsuit, of flights of creativity, of mystery barrels and guesswork and heaps of data and in the end, some damn good whisky.

The smell ripples over the lawn, through the lacrosse goal net, across the driveway, past the beehives and chickens, out to the road. Loki, Tom Herbruck’s Australian shepherd-husky mix (it’s in the eyes) bounds ahead, thirsty. “I love that smell,” Tom says. Loki seems to agree.

That smell is 400-some barrels of whisky and applejack breathing in sync, whisky seeping into wood, and tannins leeching back. The smell of living liquor.

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In 2008, Tom and his wife Lianne started making applejack with a 50-gallon still. Why? “No one else was,” he says. In 2011, he started making whisky because he didn’t have a choice. He lucked into a set of stills from David Beam (yes, that Beam)—the first stills, in fact, to make pot-distilled bourbon after Prohibition. Those stills had a story, and Tom wanted to keep telling it. “They set us on a path.”

Bourbon is strict—51% corn, aged in unused, charred oak barrels. What makes bourbon bourbon is now regulated by the Code of Federal Regulations, but those methods used to be simply the only way to do it. The limits were born of necessity—in the middle south, corn grew and barley didn’t. A barrel of spoil-proof liquid corn is an easier sell for farmers than a cartload of ears, and so most turned to whisky for a better buck.

Charred oak helped mellow the flavor of raw white dog spirit. And a sour mash helped ensure a fast, clean fermentation. Not legally part of the definition of bourbon, but practiced by most traditional bourbon makers, a sour mash involves reusing the scraps of the previous batch to help start the next one. The nutrients in those dregs make great food for yeast that turns the grain sugars to alcohol.

Traditionally made pot-distilled whisky is a unique beast. The first batches Tom made were simple, but still folks couldn’t describe it. “Wow, that’s different!” they said. Tom laughs, “Well, that’s pot-distilled bourbon.”

Industrial stills are continuous, meaning raw, undistilled liquid is constantly fed into the chamber, and distillate alcohol is constantly siphoned out. Pot stills work batch by batch, one distillation at a time.

Within these boundaries, though, Tom has found endless choice. “There’s plenty of room to have fun,” he says. The barrel room is 400-plus bits of proof, each barrel a different variation on the theme.

Tom pulls a chair up to a rolling Craftsman toolbox and clicks awake his computer. Here is the Herbruck’s database, a vast online archive of every variable in every batch and every barrel. Take Barrel 384. Tom tracks this batch from the raw grain (Canadian) to the mash (the time it took, its pH fluctuation, its yield), to the barrel itself (type, char level, fill). Keeping track here, in the distillery, makes sense. They have to, on some level, for government regulations, and, of course, to ensure that what they make can legally be called bourbon. But they share it too. Look at your bottle, and plug its number into their website. With a click, the dram in your glass turns into a sea of detail.

But there’s data, and there’s drinking. All those numbers can’t beat a single sip. In the barrel room, it’s 100% taste. Making whisky is a tightrope walk between science and art. At the still, you need to choose which parts of the distillate to keep, and which parts to discard. Not everything that comes over is good, or even safe to drink. “We tried to make the cuts by hydrometer readings, by time, but nothing beat the taste,” Tom says. It takes a while, and there’s big risk. And yet, no computer can tell you when a barrel is ready to harvest.

“I haven’t tasted a lot of these,” Tom says happily, shouldering a stepladder. He twists out corks with a crescent wrench and dips in a glass tube, or thief, to suck up a taste. A two-and-a-half-year-old straight rye has a cut of fresh raw wood, not the familiar vanilla sweetness of oak, but the slight resin of a sawn pine log. “Ooh, I would give that a four,” Tom says. A two-year-old rye—exactly two years, in fact, put in barrels on the same day I visited—had a slightly sour finish. Not yet. “That one has potential.”

“Can we find the Vienna malt? Hmm, it used to be right here,” Tom says searching the packed room. Vienna malt is more familiar to brewers. Toasted and sweet, distillers rarely use it, preferring less processed grains. It gives the bourbon a strange, off-center flavor—tannic up front like black tea. “Who knew?” Tom said. There’s a straight corn whisky Tom shrugged off as boring when he first made it—just corn, after all. But after a few years, it’s smooth and creamy with a sweet nutmeg edge. There’s Barrel 90, which needs time. Tom pours the rest of his glass back in. “We’ll leave it. If it gets good, we’ll sell it. If not, the angels will drink it.” And there’s Barrel 166, as close to perfect as it gets. A blend of corn, rye, and pilsner malt—a super-light barley used for bright, kicking light lagers—it blooms with a buttery fullness, narrowing to a rich, cinnamon buzz.

A taste today won’t taste the same tomorrow. The barrels change. The barn’s unheated, and barrel temperature can swing 70 degrees. One hit 13° last winter. What will that do to the whisky? “We asked everyone, and got every answer under the sun,” Tom says. “Some said it won’t be as good. Some said it’ll just take longer.” Moisture in the air has an impact too. Whisky evaporates over time—the lost amount is called the “Angels’ Share.” In Kentucky, that means its strength, or proof, goes up over time. Here, bizarrely, it falls. So what does it all mean? “We’ll let you know.” The point is, this isn’t a tomb, it’s a farm. The barrels are alive, always changing, and no one quite knows where they’ll end up. It makes sense that when the Herbrucks empty barrels, they call it harvesting.

Whisky is more than its numbers. Bourbon is a folk tale, and Tom’s work riffs on the classic themes. With so much whiskey in the works, the stills are gone for now, and the story shifts from steady production to the ebb and flow of tasting and waiting. While this chapter continues to age in row after row of barrels tucked into the barn awaiting their time to be sipped and savored.

“Just 10 miles east of here we own a 112 acre farm where we grow all of our corn and some of our rye,” Tom explains, We completed construction on our first building this fall and we are now starting the permitting phase so that we can move our distilling operations to the farm. It has worked nicely to start our distillery here as it has allowed us to mature over 400 barrels of whiskey while we were work on our permanent location.

For recipes and to find out where to track down a bottle of Tom’s Foolery bourbon or applejack visit