By Jeremy Beaman/Contributing Writer
Many believe bourbon is bourbon only if it comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Seth Dettling begs to differ.
“That is probably the most widely held unfactual piece of information,” he said, laughing.
Dettling is the CEO and head distiller of Big Escambia Spirits, a craft operation located in Atmore. A real estate man by trade, he got his start in the craft spirit world back in 2008-09 when the housing market collapsed. It wasn’t necessarily the collapse that motivated him to finally plant the longheld seed of an idea, though it certainly contributed.
“It just wasn’t that enjoyable of a business,” he said of real estate.
Dettling’s interest in making drink didn’t appear out of nowhere.
“We would make root beer and ginger ale at home. I grew up around small-batch beverage manufacturing,” Dettling said. He moved up a stage whenever he became old enough to drive.
“We would make beer at the house, me and my friends. We would go across the state line to Pensacola to a little home brew shop because it wasn’t legal in Alabama at the time. My parents tolerated it.”
As the adult Dettling began to get serious about the new business, he traveled all around to see how stills, small and large, operate. He also met with operators, those who are making money and those who aren’t.
“Some of them I got to spend days with, some of them 10 minutes, but I asked all of them ‘what was your biggest mistake?’ and they all said the same thing: not putting spirits away for aging.”
And so he quickly got something into the barrel.
Back to the bourbon
Bourbon is a unique spirit classification. By federal law, for a bourbon to be legally called such, it must be: made in the United States; made with at least 51 percent corn; and distilled at under 160 proof. There are other regulations, but these are some of the major ones. It begs the question, if bourbon is so protected, why isn’t it all the same?
“Well, it pretty much is all the same, because only a few big manufacturers produce it,” Dettling said. “They have great quality control that’s exceptional, they have very highly skilled people and labs constantly checking everything, and it’s cheap.”
That bourbon has such a narrow classification and that large companies produce it so easily make it difficult for craft operations to compete with their own products. For that reason, many small companies don’t even make their own bourbon.
“What most craft guys do is they buy that juice from them [the big companies] and then say they made it,” Dettling said. “With bourbon being so well-defined federally, then the question becomes, how do you differentiate? So I look within the definition and find where, within the rules, I can play a little bit of a different game.”
His solution is to become local and to actually make his own booze.
All the corn used to make Big Escambia bourbon is grown in Escambia County. Also, the process is fully completed by Dettling and company, which is notably rare.
“We actually do in fact make it, not push a button, not connect a hose, not put our name on it. It’s our corn; we grind it, we ferment it, we distill it, we don’t buy any juice to spike the fermentations.”
Dettling also splits from market norms regarding ingredients making up the rest of the bourbon.
“Bourbon has to be 51 percent corn, but the truth is that bourbon is usually 75-99 percent corn. It’s almost all corn, as far as what’s on the market. The primary reason for this is that corn is cheap. What we did is, we did 52 percent corn, and then our flavor grains are 48 percent. Why don’t [big manufacturers] do this? Because it’s expensive, and it very much complicates the cooking and fermentation process.”
The final factor that sets Big Escambia’s bourbon apart from other bourbons is the geographical location of its aging. Much of the bourbon on the market is made in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, all of which have a distinctly different climate than South Alabama. The location causes certain challenges for Dettling. Because of heat and humidity, his single-barrel, cask-strength bourbon will actually come out at a lower proof than when it went into the barrel.
“Because we’re humid, we don’t tend to lose water. We lose proof. From science, we know that there is an ideal climate for aging spirits, and it’s not South Alabama. It’s too hot and too wet.”
However, thanks to technology, Dettling can control the climate of his rickhouse, dictating temperature and humidity levels. The climate of Escambia County is not ideal, but it has an advantage.
“It will produce a geographically identifiable result. If you want to know what bourbon tastes like in freezing-cold Kentucky, you can go buy that. If you want to know what it tastes like in steaming, boiling, hot South Alabama, we’re going to show you.”
Big whiskey by no means intimidates Dettling, nor does craft whiskey, which oftentimes simply buys big whiskey’s product and renames it. He welcomes the competitive challenge, truly believing he can compete by making a uniquely local product, and by not cutting corners.
“What’s a bottle of bourbon worth today? And if it’s craft? You just name your price. We want to go toe-to-toe with the guys buying juice and beat them.”
In the meantime
While waiting for the bourbon to age, Alabamians can test another of Big Escambia’s products.
CRU Rum hit the market in May of last year. There are three products. All are the same rum, but one is aged in tequila casks, one in white wine casks and one red wine casks, giving each a bit of a different character. The rum, too, is uniquely made.
“We do rum the way you would do a bourbon. When you do a bourbon, you’re not allowed to put fake colors in it, you’re not allowed to add flavors to it, so it’s real. We’re listing our ingredients on the label, which we think is the first in the United States ever, for any spirit category. That’s a reaction to what is happening in rum, where everything is fake. Our juice goes in 100 percent and whatever comes out, that’s what goes in the bottle.”