J. Henry & Sons barrels award-winning bourbon whiskey

Since April 2015, it's become one of the best
J. Henry & Sons barrels award-winning bourbon whiskey
Photo by Amandalyn Jones

There’s a thin sheen of black mold on the outside of a former dairy barn in Dane, Wisconsin, that now serves as the rickhouse for nearly 800 white-oak barrels of slowly maturing J. Henry bourbon whiskey.

And Liz Henry couldn’t be happier about it.

Mold is a clear indication that some of the ethanol gas is escaping, and that all is going the way it’s supposed to inside the J. Henry & Sons’ rickhouse. The clear, hot, newly made bourbon that went into the 53-gallon, charred-wood barrels is evaporating into the air, leaving behind a distinctly aged caramel- and vanilla-flavored bourbon with a golden, amber color.

“When you’ve got that, you’ve got a healthy rickhouse,” she declares.

Liz and Joe Henry have a lot to be happy about since they started producing bourbon on their 1940s-era seed corn farm. The house that Joe grew up in became a tasting room in 2014. They released the first batch of five-year aged small batch bourbon in April 2015 followed by additional expressions of their bourbon. Today, they have a list that includes a 92-proof bourbon and a Bellefontaine Cognac. And the Henrys have quickly racked up the awards. One of the honors went to the Patton Road Reserve, which was named Wisconsin’s top craft whiskey by the American Craft Spirits Association.

Widely available in Wisconsin, J. Henry & Sons has expanded distribution into Illinois and Minnesota, with other Midwestern states lining up to join the list. Newly installed equipment provides the ability to bottle and blend bourbon on-site, and a second rickhouse is set to open in 2018, making room for another 1,200 barrels of aged bourbon goodness.J. Henry & Sons barrels award-winning bourbon whiskey

But amid the flurry of success they’ve found, it’s the small pleasures that thrill the Henrys, including the involvement of sons Joe and Jack, both of whom are integral to the family business. Joe Jr., the eldest, who lives in Chicago, has stepped up to handle sales, marketing and brand management. Jack, who’s still working toward an agricultural business degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helps in the fields and the blending house.

Together the Henrys create products that satisfy the business’s growing army of fans. You can see the pride in the family patriarch’s eyes as he strolls among the racks of barrels, each one handmade from white oak that’s toasted, then charred. With his rugged, farmer-worn hands, Joe reaches out to caress the top edge of a barrel on the lowermost rack.

“All the bourbon’s color comes from the barrel,” he says. “[More than 60] percent of the flavor comes from aging. It’s magic what happens.”

Liz, a former UW-Madison agricultural business instructor and adviser, was an avowed vodka drinker before her husband took her on a tour of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail distillers. The goal was to gauge whether they could make bourbon themselves.

“We’re focusing on the things that are important,” she says. “That’s where craft differentiates itself.”

After tasting the silky caramel and vanilla undertones of the Patton Road Reserve, it’s impossible to argue with her.

Bourbon BasicsJ. Henry & Sons barrels award-winning bourbon whiskey

Aged bourbon is a connoisseur’s drink, and it can be a little daunting for the uninitiated. Next time you’re at a bourbon tasting–maybe even a tasting at J. Henry & Sons with co-owner Liz Henry–keep these points in mind and you’ll look like a pro.

1. All bourbon is whiskey, but all whiskey is most definitely not bourbon.
To connoisseurs, this truism is obvious, but not everyone knows there are very strict laws (yes, laws) that define whether bourbon is bourbon or something else altogether. True bourbon is a grain mixture or mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and is distilled at less than 160 proof and aged in new oak caskets. “The whiskey guys get away with everything,” Henry complains good-naturedly.

2. Treat bourbon like a fine wine.
Bourbon needs to breathe. Like wine, it has legs and a bouquet. Smell it first, inhaling the scent so both your nostrils and tastebuds can absorb it. Smell the top and bottom edges of the glass, with lips parted, to get a sense of the full flavor spectrum before taking a sip. “Get it so you taste it in your cheek,” advises Henry. “Don’t leave it on your tongue.”

3. Splash some water.
Alcohol loves water–chalk it up to chemistry. But even if you don’t prefer drinking yours on the rocks, consider splashing even just a few drops into your glass before quaffing. “Add in water and the bourbon is more aromatic,” says Henry. “You’ll taste a little more of the flavors.”

Aaron R. Conklin is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.