Friday, July 24, 2020 12 mins read
Friday, July 24, 2020 12 mins read
How Will’s passion for craftsmanship, flavor, and sustainable living led to Split Spirits revolutionary craft spirits
“Growing up, I wanted to be an explorer.”
This was long before he was “Founder and Chief Wood Splitter” at Split Spirits.
And in his own way, William Drucker would become just that, an explorer.
“As a kid, muddy creeks on my grandpa’s farm became unexplored tributaries of the Amazon, snowy cornfields transformed into icy expanses of remote Antarctica and enormous harvesters in the machine shed were spaceships,” Will explains.
“In my imagination I was on the other side of the globe, but tromping around Northwest Illinois gave me a deep appreciation for the wonder there is to be discovered right under our noses. I learned you can be an explorer in even the most familiar places.”
In his own way, Will Drucker would become just that, an explorer.
Years later, Will began delving into the world of whiskey. He learned that trees like his home state’s Illinois White Oak are the preferred wood for whiskey barrels. But in the course of his research, Will discovered a fact that gave him pause. A single 100-year-old oak only yields 1 ½ to 2 barrels.
Will felt there had to be a responsible way to develop the earthy, spiced aromas and flavors in whiskey usually imparted from years aging in traditional oak barrels.
And Will was going to find it.
An education in cooperage
“My journey began with the realization that all of whiskey’s color, and most of its flavor, comes from the white oak barrel it’s aged in,” Will explains.
“I was fascinated to learn about the process of cooperage. I discovered that this millenia old technique of barrel making had its roots in practicality.”
He continues, “We use white oak because it’s watertight. And it’s a pleasant accident that it lends some really delicious flavors to the whiskey that rests in it.”
That got WiIl thinking.
If distillers were mostly using white oak for pragmatic reasons, what other types of wood out there might also lend interesting and delicious flavors to craft spirits, but aren’t being experimented with because they aren’t suitable for barrel making?
That’s how Will came to create his infusion method of distilling grain spirits. He would invert the traditional process.
“Instead of placing the spirit in the wood, I place the wood in the spirit,” Will says. “This led me to test dozens of different species of wood, and different preparation methods, to draw out the most distinct and delicious flavors.”
Splits of wood set in every bottle allow these craft spirits to continue maturing and evolving after they’ve been bottled.
He continues, “This is a far more sustainable process as well. Since it doesn’t require the felling of entire mature trees. Split Spirits uses 90% less wood compared to traditional barrel-aged whiskey.”
“This led me to test dozens of different species of wood, and different preparation methods, to draw out the most distinct and delicious flavors.”
“To highlight the importance of place, I continued to pair wood with new make spirits made from grains well-adapted to each region in an attempt to create a truly single-origin spirit with a sense of place.”
Illinois White Oak, Vermont Sugar Maple and other sentimental spirits
“As you might have guessed,” Will starts, “place is pretty important to Split Spirits.”
So establishing a strong sense of place was central to the brand’s mission. In support of this mission, the wood and the grain in each bottle comes from the place right on the label.
“I chose three places I have a deep personal connection to,” he explains. “But it goes beyond that. Vermont, New York and Illinois each have a deep heritage around food and farming.”
Different types of wood lend distinct flavors to each of the distilleries craft grain spirits.
Known for its cheese, maple syrup and vibrant farmers’ markets, the state of Vermont has deep agricultural roots. These roots are reflected in Split Spirits Vermont Sugar Maple.
This delicate craft spirit is made with barley, corn and rye all grown in the Vermont’s fertile Champlain Valley.
Those raw, regional ingredients are boiled down and then infused with slivers of Sugar Maple wood to create delicious flavor notes that range from maple syrup and banana bread to cookie batter; something new to discover with each taste.
“New York not only has one of the most cutting edge culinary scenes, but the Hudson River Valley, and upstate, grows everything from apples and goats to grains and award-winning wines,” Will adds.
So naturally, there’s a whole lot of New York that finds its way into Split Spirits New York Black Cherry.
This very particular grain spirit is made from 100% organic rye grown just outside of Ithaca, New York.
Once infused with black cherry wood from the Hudson River Valley, the blend takes on bold notes of plum, dark chocolate, pipe tobacco and brown sugar.
As a native Illinoisian, Will has long understood that some of the finest grains in the world are grown right there in his home state.
When it came time to design their Split Spirits Illinois White Oak, he looked no further than the fields near his old hometown.
It starts with regeneratively grown corn, rye and barley all grown in the Driftless Area of Northwest Illinois. But when white oak from the same place gets added to the mix, the result is a suite of luxurious flavors like baking spice, caramel corn, toast and campfire.
Its long, dry finish leaves you with hints of both rye spice and oak tannin. Perfection in a bottle.
Will Drucker’s split from tradition
We’ve established that place is an important part of Split Spirits’ process.
But so is time.
Each piece of wood in Split Spirits’ bottles is split by hand by Chief Wood Splitter, Will Drucker.
Will elaborates, “Split Spirits infuses unique wood species in new make spirits in a matter of months rather than years since the surface area of the wood is much higher than traditional barrel-aged spirits.”
Will then adds, “Rather than letting a passable spirit mellow for years in a barrel. we take the tightest cut possible and only put the very center of the hearts cut in our bottles.”
In distilling, “hearts” are what ultimately become your finished product. They contain the cleanest spirit and best of the aromas and flavors that make a craft spirit distinct.
Will says, “This method also allows us to highlight the unique character and terroir of the grains. And the farms on which they’re born.”
Just for good measure he adds, “Each piece of wood is split by hand with an axe by yours truly.”
Split them. Sip them. Plant them.
Will Drucker understands, appreciates and embraces the role independent distilleries play.
He clarifies, “While big, established distilleries can occasionally come up with really novel concepts, they are inherently more risk averse. And have to cater to a pre-existing customer base.”
“So in a world with only a handful of big distilleries, we get more minor variations on classic whiskey.”
That’s what makes independent distilleries special.
He was drawn to the distillery’s dedication to quality and willingness to push boundaries and obtain uniquely delicious flavors. That and the fact the distillery is solar powered, efficiently designed and makes clean energy out of its spent grains.
Vermont Sugar Maple, New York Black Cherry and Illinois White Oak woods ready Split Spirits.
Will spells it out like this, “You have to take risks to create something new. And the big guys are just not in a position to be the source of innovation.”
“I want Split Spirits to inspire other brands to realize they have the power to shift our food and beverage system to something far more sustainable. And in a way that directly benefits their business.”
“I believe there are enough people out there that want to know they are supporting a better future through the products they consume.”
This goes beyond sourcing organic and regeneratively grown grains from independent farmers. In an effort to ensure there are healthy forests to provide the wood for barrels and for his own brand, Split Spirits plants a tree for each case of Split Spirits sold.
“Before prohibition, all breweries and distilleries were inherently local. And their products reflected natural diversity and variation. We’re headed in that direction. But until we’re all sourcing locally from responsible producers, there’s more ground to cover.”
The words of a true explorer.