The Tasting Panel magazine

JULY 2011

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Page 28 of 120

Of Shots and Mugshots E A MAN DID TIME FOR THIS CORN-BASED LIQUOR story and photo by Fred Minnick very whiskey has its story. Steeped in tradition of bootlegging and mob hits, North American whiskey is storytelling in a bottle. And I thought I had heard them all. Then I learned about this new brand called Wylie Howell Whiskey, a California-made organic sweet corn–based liquor. The story begins in 1888 on a small 100-acre Kentucky farm, where Wylie Howell was born and raised. Poor as the dirt he walked, Wylie the kid picked corn and large tobacco leaves by day and sipped on corn liquor at night. With only a third-grade education, as a grown man the sharp-as- a-tack farmer started making whiskey to supplement his meager farming income to support his nine children during Prohibition. He kept a clean record, but in 1936 a Tennessee sheriff had his eye on Tasting Notes This is like nothing I’ve had before from a jug. I expected a moonshine-like quality, but Wylie Howell Whiskey has a pleasant pine-straw nose with elegant floral and honeysuckle notes. Almost grappa-like or eau-de-vie-esque, it’s grain-forward, honey-sweet in the middle with nice round tannins and no burn. It gently evaporates on your tongue, finishing with slight notes of cinnamon and citrus. I can see mixologists going mad over this . . . but Greg Jones only has 300 jugs in stock until he makes another batch. Online retail: $130. “The most expensive single component in the jug is taxes,” Jones says. 28 / the tasting panel / july 201 1 Wylie. Back then, dirty lawmen took bribes from moonshiners and bootleg- gers. But Wylie paid no such “protection” fee, and the local law set out to make an example of him. Sheriff Ellis and his men ambushed Wylie and his son, Frank, as he crossed the Kentucky state line. Their car was full of holes, but they escaped with their lives. The sheriff found Wylie at the local garage and searched the car, but found no hooch. What happens next would become one of the most historic events in Stewart County, Tennessee for a century: Wylie shot the sheriff in the gut. The sheriff claimed Wylie outdrew him; Wylie said it was self-defense. Nonetheless, the lawman died of his wounds months later. The only witnesses were law officials. Wylie was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die by the electric chair. The sentence was later reduced to life with possibility of parole; the Tennessee Supreme Court thought it was a little too convenient that the only witnesses were cops. Wylie was paroled in 1952 and died two years later. Today, Wylie’s grandson is on a quest to clear his grandfather’s name—and sell a few jugs of the family whiskey. Greg Jones, who helped spawn the microbrewery movement in the late 1980s, didn’t hear about this story until 1997. “Growing up in the Bible Belt, you don’t talk about stuff like this,” Jones says. Jones has sophisticated the recipe, using a mashbill of 75% non-GMO sweet corn and 25% malted barley. He uses a pot still and quickly ages the spirit in a heavily charred barrel. Jones not only makes Wylie Howell Whiskey but is also the wholesaler/distributor. The product is also available through online retailer Every now and then, he’ll be sipping his whiskey and feel a presence. “I think Wylie would be proud,” he says. What grandpa wouldn’t?

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