Today we reviewing something a little different, something that you likely won’t find on any liquor store shelf. There are a lot of “sourced” spirits on the market, in which the actual alcohol was created elsewhere and then improved and/ or aged by those who slap a label on it for sale. Normally, we as consumers only see the end result — but today, we’re actually getting to take a look at how this spirit comes straight from the tap.
The Western New York Energy Company was founded in 2004 with the intention of producing high quality fuel from renewable sources. More specifically: they make ethanol (fuel alcohol that is often added to gasoline for cars and such) from corn. The goal is noble and simple: to make a sustainable fuel source for powering our lives. They opened their facility in Medina, New York and quickly became one of the biggest ethanol producers in the country.
In 2022, CEO Tim Winters (who has been at the company pretty much his whole career and — full disclosure — is a fellow Penn State grad like myself) decided that the company should power our lives in another, very different way: through the production of spirits for human consumption. The company spent $38 million to expand their facility and open a 6,000 square foot mass production distillery, able to produce 15 million gallons of alcohol per year.
That expansion, dubbed ClearSource US, started operations in July of 2022 and has been providing raw spirits to companies large and small. These companies then take that alcohol and improve, age, and otherwise turn it into the delicious stuff that goes on store shelves.
Despite the large quantities, their tag line remains “Alcohol. The right way.” and the company is always striving to create a clean, environmentally friendly product.
The spirits produced at ClearSource all start as 100% New York grown corn. The Western New York Energy Company is the single largest purchaser of corn in the state of New York, using 20 million bushels of corn (specifically sourced from local small farms wherever possible) each year between their fuel business and ClearSource spirits.
Once the corn is brought to the factory, it is milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic mixture. That mixture is then highly refined in their series of massive column stills, squeezing every drop of water they possibly can out of the liquid to make highly refined alcohol.
There’s two reasons for this excessively high alcohol content.
The first reason is pure economics: it costs money to ship this stuff. It is far more economical to ship a rail tanker car filled with close to 100% pure alcohol than it is to ship bottling-friendly 40% ABV spirits — you’ll get twice the number of saleable bottles out of the more heavily refined stuff. Water is everywhere and easy to add, so there’s really no reason to ship it.
The second reason is all about the quality and putting the customer in control. These spirits are intended to be blended, barreled, and bottled by someone else who will put their own unique stamp on the flavor of the spirit. Having something as close to absolutely neutral allows for the cleanest canvas for these flavor artists to create their masterpieces — and the water in spirits is typically what carries the majority of the flavors you smell and taste. Removing that water removes all of those flavors, which makes this grain spirit truly “neutral”.
There are some options of spirits you can get produced by ClearSource, and for this specific version we need to check the label for what we’ve got.
First and most importantly, that proof isn’t a typo — this really is a one hundred and ninety three proof liquid. (That’s 96.5% ABV for those who don’t want to do the math.) Technically speaking, the US considers anything north of 95% ABV to be “neutral” for neutral spirits purposes (the EU is hoity-toity and prefers 96% ABV) but they went above and beyond here. Even Everclear caps out at 95% ABV.
There’s also a note here about this not being “denatured” alcohol. Denatured alcohol is just normal alcohol that has been purposefully tainted to be foul smelling, nasty tasting, or additionally poisonous. Basically, it’s been altered to deter people from drinking it (for example, the bottle of rubbing alcohol in your medicine cabinet). Since this bottle is intended for eventual consumption, that isn’t the case here and the label reflects that.
Once distilled, the spirit is packaged (as small as by the bottle and as large as rail cars, but 275 gallon totes are most common) and shipped to the customer. There is, to reiterate, no proofing down with water whatsoever.
There are some interesting things here that you won’t see anywhere else.
The bottle itself is about as plain as you can get. It actually looks like a scientific sample — partially because that’s exactly what this is. It’s a chemical you purchase from a manufacturer, not something you grab off a shelf at a liquor store. Even the cap is designed to maintain the purity of the sample inside, being a screw-on plastic cap rather than a cork.
We already took a look at the label for the details on what’s inside, but one additional note is noteworthy: right on the front it says “FOR SAMPLE PURPOSES ONLY NOT INTENDED FOR RESALE”. Long story short, that’s how we have this bottle in our possession: having met at an industry conference, ClearSource sent us a bottle, free of charge, to give it a try.
The liquid in this bottle is absolutely pristinely clear and water white. It’s like pure water from a mountain creek that’s being fed by some melting ice. I swear I can hear Bambi frolicking in the distance.
Quick word of warning: sniffing this in a Glencairn glass might not be the best idea. Not that there’s a strong odor — far from it — but the concentrated ethanol vapor coming off the glass can be a bit overwhelming. That said, there is still an actual aroma here. It’s like black licorice or star anise, but it’s pretty much the only thing I’m picking up.
(Seriously though, there’s no other aromas. None of the raw corn has made it through to the end at this point.)
Taking a sip is… powerful to say the least. The alcohol is large and in charge, and for good reason. It gives off an immediate burn on the palate and actually makes it difficult to sip if I’m honest. One sip and my tongue and lips are numb and can’t really feel the glass anymore.
What few flavors I do taste are consistent with the aromas. Just pure raw alcohol, which to me encodes as licorice and star anise. And that’s entirely it.
Usually our next step is to put this on ice, to try and drown out any flavors that might be lingering and see how it would do in a cocktail. But actually, I feel like the better test at this point would be to cut it 1:1 with water and see how it would fare as a strong vodka. For any distiller wanting to use this as the source spirit, this would be the “base” for whatever they made themselves.
With the added water, the aroma has died down significantly with only a faint hint of alcohol remaining even in this Glencairn glass. I still have that faint note of star anise but it is significantly softer and likely to be covered fairly easily by literally anything else you put in here.
Taking a sip, similarly to the aroma, the alcohol content isn’t no longer quite so overpowering. What’s good to note for blenders and bottlers is that there’s a faint hint of corn that comes back at this point, but it isn’t nearly as strong as something like Tuthilltown’s white dog whiskey. This is just a faint hint of corn that gets quickly overpowered by the remaining star anise and then quickly fades into the background.
Reviewing neutral spirits like this is exceedingly difficult. There’s not really much differentiation at this level of distillation — there’s really only well executed spirits and those that fail to reach the mark. This is one example where they absolutely hit the nail on the head for what you want in a neutral spirit, and what puts this over the top in terms of quality and value is their commitment to being environmentally friendly and sourcing their grain from local New York farmers.
We’re going to be watering this down and using it to test some aging barrels to see how well they perform, so stay tuned for that. But if I was someone looking for a high quality source of raw alcohol for my spirits company, ClearSource would absolutely top my list.
|ClearSource US Neutral Grain Spirits|
New York, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 96.5% ABV
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
Locally sourced, environmentally friendly, and absolutely pure alcohol. A great foundation for any sourced spirit.