Whiskey Wednesday: Collier and McKeel Finally Knocks Out the Bunghole with Speakeasy Spirits

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Mike Williams tests a sample of Tennessee whiskey
  • Mike Williams tests a sample of Tennessee whiskey
Collier & McKeel has quietly been sort of a man without a country of late. After starting up the business as a co-location with Corsair Artisan Distillers, Collier & McKeel moved their equipment into a modern new facility in old West Town on 44th Avenue North. Unfortunately, making the move required that they basically recertify their whole production process to be able to legally distill and distribute spirits.

Bureaucracies being what they are, this took much longer than anticipated, so Mike Williams and the rest of the crew have been sitting on "R" waiting for the word to proceed. If a former Tennessee state representative can't fast-track the approval process, you know the red tape must be pretty thick.

But Williams was determined to follow USDA protocols even though he was watching his lovely 600-gallon custom Vendome pot still sit sadly empty. Luckily, Collier & McKeel had distilled some extra product to age in barrels while they waited, so supply was not affected in a major way. They have moved from 5-gallon to 15-gallon barrels, which slows the aging process a little bit, but also allows for greater productivity. Every part of their process is hand-crafted, down to adding Williams' thumbprint to each bottle label.

Their whiskey is manufactured in small batches of less than five barrels, using the Lincoln County charcoal mellowing process. Williams designed his own charcoal filtration system and burns his own sugar maple to create the coals that he runs the precious elixir through five or six times to mellow. The result is a smooth-drinking whiskey that belies its youth. They strive for process consistency at Collier & McKeel, but they welcome variations in character from barrel to barrel. Their systems are not driven by computers, but rather every decision is based on tasting the product throughout its development.

Jeff and Jenny Pennington are partners in the Speakeasy Spirits operation, where they run the blending and bottling side of the process. Both Penningtons are serial entrepreneurs with experience in the beverage business, so it was logical that they would want to team up with Williams and the Collier & McKeel folks. In addition to running the bottling line, Jeff Pennington is working on a line of whiskey-based cordials and liqueurs.

His first release is Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream, an alternative to Bailey's. Whisper Creek is made from a base of Collier & McKeel whiskey that is blended with many other flavors and essences to create a 40-proof sipping cream full of nuanced character. Pennington consulted with Chef Deb Paquette of Etch to help develop the flavor profile, and if you know Paquette, you know she's not afraid to work with many different flavors to create something special.

Speakeasy Spirits is also hard at work developing a couple other new products that are still in testing but should be very interesting when they get out of beta. Watch this space for more news as soon as they give the go signal. Look for Whisper Creek in your favorite liquor store or as the topping on an excellent dessert at Urban Grub. Collier & McKeel's Tennessee Whiskey, White Dog and Snowy Creek Vodka are also readily available around town, and their new Fiery Gizzard Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey should be in wide release soon.

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