Named after the first track on their 2009 album “Black Gives Way to Blue”, this whiskey is a collaboration between Alice in Chains and FEW Spirits. Now, it’s no secret that we here at Thirty One Whiskey are fans of the small distillery out of Evanston, IL — just check out one of six previous reviews or the behind the barrel article with Paul Hletko (the man who founded FEW Spirits back in 2011). So, naturally, buying and reviewing this bottle was a no brainer.
Evanston, located just north of Chicago, was the birthplace of the temperance movement that spawned Prohibition in the United States. For nearly a century following the end of prohibition the city continued to maintain some of the most restrictive laws regarding the sale and consumption of spirits, but all of that started changing in 2001.
Paul Hletko didn’t start out in the distillery business. Engineer, patent attorney, and rock and roll band member, Hletko took a rather unconventional route to the whiskey business. According to Hletko, the biggest inspiration for his turn to distilled spirits came from his grandfather, who owned a large brewery in Poland prior to the outbreak of World War II. His grandfather was forced to flee the country and spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully fighting to get it back. That determination and love for alcoholic beverages was a family tradition Hletko wanted to continue.
Between 2001 and 2011, Hletko was instrumental in getting the laws changed in Evanston to allow for alcohol distribution and production to resume. The path now clear, he opened his very own distillery called Few Spirits dedicated to doing things right: in-house production using local ingredients.
The FEW Spirits distillery was founded in 2011 in a small warehouse next to the train tracks and down a side alley in Evanston, Illinois. When asked about the inspiration for the name, Hletko simply responds that it was because “we didn’t make a lot”. They were a small craft distillery operating in the days before craft distilling was a common thing, buying second hand equipment wherever they could find it.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
FEW Spirits’ Bourbon Whiskey starts as a dry mix of 70% corn, 20% rye, and 10% “two row” malted barley (which is a regional variety of barley). FEW Spirits does not mill their grain on site – which makes sense given the small size of the distillery, plus the fact that the fine grain powder that is produced during the milling process creates a teeny tiny massive explosive risk.
The grain is mixed with some of Lake Michigan’s finest, cooked into mash, and then fermented in one of the massive tanks in the distillery. For fermentation, a specific form of yeast that’s typically used in the production of Saison beer (a typically lighter and crisper form of beer) is used. This yeast is 100% lab grown to ensure consistency in each batch.
The fermented mash is initially distilled on-site in their massive column still without first filtering out the grains. Filtering may be common practice at other distilleries to keep from scorching the mash and causing some bitter flavors but a careful distiller can impart some additional flavor at this phase in the process, as the grain is heated. The second distillation is done in a hybrid still, which is a pot still that has a small column attached to increase the alcohol content more easily. The final distillate is barreled in charred new oak barrels and placed in an off-site warehouse, where it sits for at least one year (current batches are rumored to be three years old) before being bottled.
While FEW Bourbon would be bottled after this aging is complete, this bottle of All Secrets Known variety is finished for an additional six months in ex-tequila barrels. Once finished, the bourbon is bottled at 101 proof. It’s this final step that makes this bourbon unique and gives it an “edgy, limited, and unique release to whiskey and grunge fans everywhere”.
I’ve always liked the FEW packaging, but only recently learned the amount of effort put into their branding. As Hletko himself said: “people don’t buy liquor — they buy stories”. The theme they eventually landed on for their branding and packaging was the 1893 World’s Fair, hosted in Chicago. This was a moment in time that not only saw a monumental amount of rapid change and innovation that they would pay homage to, but it was a place and time with a distinct style in which the folks at FEW Spirits could anchor their product lines. Not everything about the branding is obvious at first glance, and that’s by design: it allows people to discover the story behind the design choices and experience their product themselves, rather than having it spelled out for them.
I love the rectangular bottle. As I tend to have a number of FEW products in my cabinet at any given time, the packing density is great. Plus, it’s easy to hold and pour. What I didn’t know is that it was meant to mimic a deck of Bicycle playing cards, which were introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair (and which are also reminiscent of the “involuntary investments” made by Paul’s friends at the poker table).
This bottle is unique, as the label is not in the turn of the century style as the rest of FEW’s products. This label looks like album art… because it is. At the request of Alice In Chains, this whiskey’s label was designed by iconic artist Justin Helton who has designed tour posters for Phish, The Grateful Dead, and Dave Matthews Band (who, let’s be honest, does not really seem to fit the narrative here, but is always a good time remind you that August 8, 2004 is Dave Matthews Day in Chicago… Google that at your own risk).
This might be the most surprising aroma I’ve ever nosed coming from a bourbon. Mild notes of maple syrup and clove begin the experience, but quickly give way to a bouquet of tropical fruit notes. It’s like getting a fresh plate of mango, kiwi, and papaya.
The first sip is a bourbon that tastes leathery, almost meaty. It’s very rich with just a hint of vanilla, the only real sweet flavor present. In addition, there are subtle fruit notes, an earthiness that is refinement of agave, and a small amount of black pepper. There is also a bitter finish on the back of your tongue that reminds me of a rye whiskey. The vast difference in the aroma versus the flavor is surprising — but even more surprising is the lack of typical flavors that you would find in either bourbon or tequila. The flavors that are present seem to have combined into a something entirely new.
I like bourbon. I like tequila. I was not really sure what to expect with a bourbon finished in tequila barrels, but I guess it’s fairly unsurprising that I really like the end product. It’s flavorful, complex, unique, and, most importantly, delicious.
Just like the pairing of Elton John on the piano with in Alice In Chains’ song “Black Gives Way to Blue”, two dichotomous things (in this case, spirits) can come together to create something great.
As we often see when adding ice to a spirit, the bolder and louder flavors mellow this out. And it really helps the overall vibe. The leathery flavor is more subdued (which is a welcome surprise), and the fruit notes and sweet vanilla are able to come more to the forefront. You also pick up more of the agave notes and even a sweet caramel.
Most importantly, the rich woody notes from the barrel maturation are much more forward. It’s not the typical charred oak flavor that you get from a bourbon, but instead a more mild wood with a resonant earthy flavor.
This spirit is good when taken neat, but it’s substantially better on the rocks. The ice allows the flavors to open up more and allows them to play together, like a well-rehearsed grunge band.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Not every track on an album is a hit… and unfortunately, this is that track. I think the bitters and orange just do not play well with the flavors in this spirit. Rather than being complementary, the flavors are at odds with one another, and it’s just a swirl of bitterness without any real personality.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible drink. This is still a perfectly drinkable old fashioned — but after the great flavors I experienced with this on the rock, I was really hoping for something more dynamic and interesting.
The Kentucky mule is a big test to how well a whiskey can stand up in a cocktail… and this bourbon rises to the occasion. The bourbon flavors are bold enough to stand up to the effervescent ginger beer, and the tropical fruit flavors add just a kick of tang.
The ginger beer almost seems to enhance the sweet vanilla in the cocktail just the right amount, and the black pepper finish akin to a rye whiskey helps punch this up. Both are perfectly complimenting the ginger and lime in our cocktail, and everything works in harmony (to continue today’s theme of musical puns).
“All Secrets Known” is the first track on the album “Black Gives Way to Blue”, and the titular song is the last. Just like this mule, you have to have a strong closing.
This is another hit from FEW Spirits. It’s a bourbon with a unique, yet delicious flavor.
Now, it’s not perfect in every drink format — but sometimes you need to experiment to find the next great hit. And I greatly appreciate the willingness of FEW Spirits to try new things. (Speaking of, if you have never tried their bourbon proofed down with cold brew coffee or the rye proofed down with 8 immortals oolong tea, I would highly recommend it.)
It’s this desire to innovate and create great products that makes FEW Spirits one of our favorites. To quote Paul Hletko: “We don’t measure our success based on revenue, we measure success by the liquid in the bottle.” And this particular bottle of liquid is a total success.
|Few Spirits All Secrets Known
Produced By: Few SpiritsProduction Location: Illinois, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50.5% ABV
Price: $60.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
This bourbon has a unique flavor – and might not be for everyone – but if you have a chance, give it a try and drink like a rockstar.