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Master of Malt Blog

Fenjiu, baijiu for beginners

Despite being one of the bestselling spirits in the world, baijiu has not had much commercial success outside Chinese markets. But one state-owned producer, Fenjiu, has its eyes firmly on…

Despite being one of the bestselling spirits in the world, baijiu has not had much commercial success outside Chinese markets. But one state-owned producer, Fenjiu, has its eyes firmly on Western markets with an accessible, cocktail-friendly spirit. We spoke with Qiqi Chen, MD at the UK distributor, to find out more.

Whenever the subject of baijiu comes up, someone will pull a face and say how disgusting the Chinese spirit is. It seems like one of those things, like the rotten shark flesh that’s popular in Nordic countries, that will always struggle to cross cultures. But, as I learned at an event at the Excel in London, baijiu (pronounced ‘buy Joe’) is a very broad church. The occasion was the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention: there were western companies like Aston Martin, Barratt Homes and Lindores Distillery looking to sell to the Chinese, and Chinese companies looking to sell into western markets. At one point a crowd of dignitaries interrupted my tasting, apparently Liz Truss had arrived. I got excited thinking it was the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but apparently she’s the business secretary or something, and was showing around the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming.

Team Fenjiu: QiQi Chen on far right, next to her, Andrea Dionori

Aiming to change people’s perceptions of baijiu is Qiqi Chen, MD of Cheng International, the distributor of Fenjiu in the UK. She trained with William Curley, the chocolatier, and speaks excellent, London-accented English. Before we did any tasting, she explained a little about baijiu. There are four main types with different production methods: light aroma, rice, strong aroma and sauce aroma.. The last two are particularly funky and may be to blame for people’s prejudices against the spirit. “Some categories of baijiu available in the west are very heavy, very soya,” she told me. “There’s a big culture clash. Maybe you’ll be ready for them in 20-30 years, but that’s not something you start with.” She compared it with starting your Scotch whisky journey with Islay single malt.

Another reason some might be wary of baijiu is because many people, particularly journalists, have only tried it as guests at a Chinese feast and had a bit too much to drink. It’s the local hospitality: “We want to make you happy so we encourage you to drink,” she said. “We don’t drink like that every day.” 

She works with Fenjiu, a state-owned enterprise with a long history. It is based in Fenyang in Shanxi province in northern China. Apparently, the company and the spirit date back 6,000 years, though there is no evidence that the Chinese were distilling alcohol much before the 13th century AD. But what is clear is that alcohol has been made from local grains here for a very long time. 

Sorghum

Preparing the Sorghum for Fermentation

Production methods:

The techniques used to make Fenjiu are worth explaining. It is made from sorghum. First the grains are steamed for eight hours until they form a sort of jelly. Then they are fermented using a starter culture called daqu. This is made from a mixture of peas and barley which are formed into bricks and left to mature for three months. Fermentation takes place over 28 days in pits which are never cleaned and waste from distillation is added to them. So, rather like the dunder pits used to make high-ester Jamaican rum, you’re going to get lots of yeast and bacteria, and lots of wild flavours. 

Distillation takes place in a stainless steel pot still. At Fenjiu, two batches are made. Solid fermented sorghum is layered in the still and the first batch is distilled once. The heads are added back for redistillation. The heart is then kept aside. Then more fermented sorghum is added to any undistilled mash and re-fermented. This is then distilled with the tails from the first batch. The two batches are blended together and aged in clay jars to mature. The colour doesn’t change with age but the spirit does mellow, becoming more acidic. The spirit is then diluted with spring water and marketed under age statements such as 30 years old (not a minimum age, more like an average).

Tasting the baijiu:

We tasted the baijiu out of traditional bamboo (actually made from china) cups. Gingerly, I took the first sip of the 30 year old Fenjiu. And you know what? It’s not half bad. There was definitely a funky edge with earthy notes, vinegar and some acetone, but it had the most delicious umami texture and is incredibly complex. The flavour builds with each sip. I tried some other age statements too, and they varied in intensity and ABV but all had wonderful aromatic notes of jasmine, eucalyptus, and that texture. Chen said: “Light aroma baijiu is similar to what western people have been drinking, but at the same time different.” 

The Fenjiu range

Next we moved on to the flavoured baijiu. There was a honey one that had something of the Drambuie about it, and then two bamboo-flavoured ones: a ten year old, with grassy funky flavours akin to a rhum agricole and an intensely-flavoured 30 year old which came across like Green Chartreuse

In China, these are all drunk neat but, in May last year Fenjiu announced a cocktail competition in order to open up western markets,. The winner was Italian bartender Andrea Dionori from Milroy’s of Soho. He now works as a brand ambassador for Fenjiu and gave me some cocktails to try. Baijiu can be tricky to mix, according to Dionori. That creamy texture comes from ethyl lactate; dilute it too much and you lose the creaminess and just get acetone, but “add water and you make it harsher,” he said. One cocktail made with 10 year old Fenjiu blended with Cocchi Americano and lychees was odd but not unpleasant with the tang of the baijiu coming through strongly. More successful was a blend of five year old bamboo-flavoured spirit with bitters and ginger ale.

The aim with the cocktail competition and food pairing initiatives, such as a collaboration with her former employer William Curley, Chen told me, is to change baijiu’s hard-drinking image to make it “more sophisticated and appeal to younger, trendy consumers.” It’s clearly the work of years but baijiu is not going to go away, so it might be time you lost your fear. Fenjiu is the perfect place to start.

In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fenjiu will be taking over Harry Gordon’s Bar at Selfridges in London until 2 February offering baijiu tastings and cocktails.

 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Bobby Burns

It’s Burns Night on Saturday, so we’re making a cocktail named after the bard himself using a blended Scotch that you might not have tried before.  First of all, we…

It’s Burns Night on Saturday, so we’re making a cocktail named after the bard himself using a blended Scotch that you might not have tried before. 

First of all, we have to say that Robert Burns never got to try the cocktail named after him. He died in 1796, before the word ‘cocktail’ was even coined. According to Simon Difford, the first mention of the Bobby Burns cocktail is in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. It’s a variation on the Rob Roy, a cocktail named after Scotland’s second most famous writer, Irvine Welsh. No, sorry Walter Scottt. The Rob Roy, a Manhattan made with Scotch in place of bourbon or rye, was named after a musical version of Scott’s novel that ran in late 19th century New York.

Craddock’s Bobby Burns calls for half Scotch whisky and half Italian vermouth with three dashes of Benedictine. Very nice it is too, but also very sweet and rather overpowers the whisky. It’s much better made with two parts whisky to one part vermouth. Other recipes call for different additions: some people use absinthe or absinthe-substitute ie. pastis; David A. Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks recommends using Drambuie which has the benefit of making an already very Scottish drink even more Scottish. 

‘You want to get that seen to’

The big question is, what kind of whisky to use? Scotch can be difficult in cocktails, especially the smoly varieties, but I think I may have found the perfect blend for mixing. It’s called Hankey Bannister. An odd name, it sounds like the sort of thing an Aberdonian builder might say when looking round your old house. You can imagine him sucking his teeth and saying, “it’s going to be expensive, you’ve got a hankey bannister.” But like Cutty Sark and J&B, it was actually created by a London firm of wine and spirits merchants, which was founded in 1757 by Beaumont Hankey and Hugh Bannister.

Despite having a low profile, at least in this country, it has in its long life picked up some illustrious fans including such famous booze enthusiasts as Evelyn Waugh and Winston Churchill. The brand is now in the safe hands of Inver House which owns Pulteney, Balblair, Speyburn and Knockdhu distilleries. There’s certainly some quality spirits in Hankey Bannister – it’s fruity, with flavours of toffee and vanilla with a voluptuous mouthfeel. It tastes like there’s some well-matured grains in with the malt. In short, it’s just the sort of blend that isn’t either going to dominate or get swamped in a cocktail. Best of all, it’s not expensive either. 

Bobby Burns

It’s the Bobby Burns!

Now we’ve found our perfect whisky, back to the Bobby Burns. After some experimentation, I found that just a dash of pastis made it spicy without overpowering it with aniseed, while if you’re using Drambuie add a little more, a teaspoon full, to give it a herbal sweetness. Both are delicious. The final question is what to garnish it with: a strip of lemon or orange peel would be nice but a maraschino cherry is even better.

So, there we have the Bobby Burns, not a lot to do with the great bard, but a delicious cocktail nonetheless. Here are the ingredients:

50ml Hankey Bannister whisky
25ml Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino vermouth
A dash of Ricard pastis, or more to taste (or a teaspoon of Drambuie)

Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled shaker, stir well and strain into a coupe or Nick & Nora. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. 

 

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An introduction to Australian wine

With its vast land mass and varied climate, it’s little wonder Australia’s wines are some of the world’s most diverse – which can make navigating a wine list rather taxing. Here,…

With its vast land mass and varied climate, it’s little wonder Australia’s wines are some of the world’s most diverse – which can make navigating a wine list rather taxing. Here, three experts delve into the fundamentals of Australian wine-making and share the grape varieties and regions to look out for…

Australia is absolutely huge. In fact, with a land mass of more than 7.5 million square kilometres, it’s positively gargantuan. And if you’re thinking, ‘Well, yeah, duh’, let us be clear: it’s probably a lot larger than you think. You could fit the entire UK into Australia 30 times and still have some left over.

Not only does this mean the country produces an eye-watering amount of wine – 1.29 billion litres in 2018 according to Wine Australia, the government authority that promotes and regulates the industry – but also that the liquid is incredibly varied, with wines in each key region inextricably influenced by their local microclimate. 

Since the country enjoys year-round sunshine, the majority of Australia’s wine-producing regions are located in the cool(er) south, across Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Sunshine ripens the grapes and increases their sugar content, explains Daniel Sanna, sommelier at 28°-50° Wine Bar & Kitchen in London. 

Yalumba

The historic Yalumba winery in South Australia

“Too much sunshine and you can end up with over-ripe grapes, which is not good for quality wine,” he explains. “For this reason, vines are planted close to bodies of water or at higher altitudes – this helps moderate the temperatures.” With that said, a little stress on the vine can be a good thing. 

“A great example of this is in the famous Barossa Valley, where Shiraz vines experience increasing temperatures and droughts during the growing season,” Sanna says. “The diurnal temperature range allows the grapes to retain and concentrate flavours during the night and ripen during the day. Wines from this region are plummy, rich, velvety, spicy and able to age for long periods.”

Not only is the South Australia valley one of the country’s most prominent wine-making regions, but it’s also home to some of the oldest vines in the world. When phylloxera all-but-wiped out Europe’s viticulture in the late 19th century, it also wreaked havoc on almost all of Australia’s crops too, explains Desiree Russo, wine manager at Humble Grape, Fleet Street, in London. 

Phylloxera decimated almost all the viticulture in Australia, but it was contained to New South Wales and Victoria – they were able to put a stop to it in South Australia,” she explains. “Barossa Valley has some of the oldest vines in the world, because they have not been touched by phylloxera. As a result, South Australia essentially became the wine capital of Australia.”

Today, Australia is known for growing a huge range of grapes all over its vine-growing areas, but certains varieties are synonymous with certain regions:

Barossa valley in South Australia, home to the oldest shiraz vines in the world

Barossa Valley, South Australia

Speciality: Shiraz

“Shiraz is the most widely planted grape variety in Australia, responsible for over a quarter of all production, and Barossa is the benchmark region for the country’s signature wine,” McVeigh-Whitaker from Peckham Cellars explains. “Although often thought of as ‘new world’, viticulture in the Adelaide hills started life in the 1800’s. The vine cuttings brought by the settlers mean that Adelaide hills has a rich heritage of super-old vines. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Barossa valley, where these old vines, and long, hot, dry summers produce rich, powerful and textured Shiraz that are among Australia’s most iconic wines,” he continues. “The wines are always full-bodied, rich and powerful although in recent years there has been a move towards fresher, and more elegant winemaking.”

Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia

Speciality: Riesling

In Australia’s warm climate, finding cool sites in which to slowly ripen grapes is key,” says McVeigh-Whitaker. “In the Clare Valley, the elevated altitude helps the wines retain freshness due to the cold nights. Add in the Gulf breezes and you have a cool climate region, perfect for growing Riesling. Brought from Germany in the late 1800’s, Riesling has a long, distinguished history in the Clare Valley and has built a style unique to the region,” he continues. “Riesling from Clare is more-often-than-not bone dry, with intense lime and floral notes. The region has varied soils, but the best wines come from the limestone rich “terra rossa” or slate soils, both of which lend a beautiful minerality to the wines.”

Grapes ripening in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 

Speciality: Pinot Noir

“The wines of Mornington Peninsula are arguably some of the best examples of Pinot Noir in the world,” says McVeigh-Whitaker. “The region, which pays homage to the great wines of Burgundy, doesn’t go in for the large volume production or grape buying that is prevalent in much of the Australian wine industry. Rather, grapes are all harvested and produced by small, quality-focused producers. The top wines have cult-like followings and sommeliers and wine collectors fight it out for allocations of the top wines, which are produced in very small quantities,” he adds. “Mornington enjoys long, cool summers which enables Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to slowly develop its elegant fruit flavour. The constant sea breezes from Port Philip bay also play a vital role in keeping the fruit cool and help to preserve freshness in the wine.”

Other noted regions include the Margaret River in Western Australia, as well as Victoria’s Yarra Valley. In New South Wales, the Hunter Valley is highly celebrated for its Semillon wines, while in South Australia, Coonawara specialises in Cabernet, McLaren Vale is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Shiraz, and Eden Valley produces cracking Riesling and Shiraz. 

“These quality regions will make a small percentage of Australia’s overall production, much of which will be labelled South Australia, for example, and will be large scale blends from many vineyards,” adds McVeigh-Whitaker. 

While these well may be the most-prized varieties, a wealth of exciting bottlings are being produced with lesser-known grapes. The country’s producers are incredibly entrepreneurial and love to experiment, explains Russo. Not only did Australia develop the screw cap, but we have the country to thank for bag-in-a-box, too. With innovation on the brain, it’s not uncommon for producers to cultivate unusual vines. She points to Verdejo, a Spanish grape variety currently being grown in New South Wales, as well as a Yarra Valley producer who is making a solera system Sangiovese. Producers are experimenting with Greek grapes like Assyrtiko, lesser known Italian varieties like Fiano and even ones from Georgia such as Saperavi. “You’re seeing all these new and unique styles coming out, which is what makes Australia so exciting as a wine producer,” she adds. And we couldn’t agree more.

 

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Behind the scenes at the UK’s first sake brewery

Through the strapline, ‘brewed like beer, enjoyed like wine’, Peckham sake brewery Kanpai is introducing British drinkers to the magic of fermented rice. Crafted according to Japanese tradition and moulded…

Through the strapline, ‘brewed like beer, enjoyed like wine’, Peckham sake brewery Kanpai is introducing British drinkers to the magic of fermented rice. Crafted according to Japanese tradition and moulded by modern London, the debut range has a distinct style of its own. We chatted with co-founder Lucy Wilson to find out more…

A sake buzz is building in the UK. It’s happening slowly – very slowly – but gradually, us Brits are increasingly showing interest in Japan’s beloved national beverage. Established in Peckham by Lucy Wilson and her husband Tom, the country’s first sake brewery (complete with upstairs taproom) marks a tipping point for the fermented rice spirit.

“It was born from a trip to Japan originally,” Wilson explains. “We went for a holiday – not specifically on a sake quest, we were there for the amazing Japanese food and culture and all the sights of Tokyo and the main cities. We ended up drinking a lot of sake, which led to us visiting breweries in some of the smaller towns that we went to. We really liked it and brought bottles and bottles back with us. So it stemmed from this inherent love for the drink.”

Lucy Wilson making sake

By the time they returned home to the UK, the Wilsons were hooked. Keen homebrewers, they turned their hands to sake and began making their own creations, practising initially with sushi rice – sake rice is tricky to get hold of, Wilson says, and sushi rice isn’t a dissimilar style grain. Unwittingly, they were laying the foundations for what would one day become Kanpai. 

“We used to have sake parties with friends and serve them our sake and other sakes and people really liked it,” she continues. “It grew into something that couldn’t quite fit in our flat anymore, and so we got a little lock-up in Peckham, because that’s where we live. It started out as something to do at the weekend and then before we knew it Tom could quit his day job to make sake full time.”

Today, the duo has three sakes in their core Signature range, available all year round, and as well as a limited edition trio of ultra-premium sake bottlings dubbed No Evil. Generally, Kanpai’s style is typically a little drier than than your average Japanese sake, Wilson explains, taking inspiration from the familiar flavour notes found within craft beers and dry white wine. From inoculating the rice to bottling the liquid, every aspect of production happens in-house. The entire process takes, on average, around three months.

“It’s a really slow build up at the beginning,” Wilson says. “You inoculate a portion of the sake rice with Koji mould spores, then you steam pressurise it and build it up with sake yeast. Then it’s just a long, low slow ferment. We do ours extra low and slow because the water in London is a lot harder than in Japan – the ferment would go wild, because the yeast actually loves the minerals in hard water.”

Pretty labels

“We press it, separating the rice solids from the liquid with a machine that replicates really old school sake breweries in Japan, bottle by hand in a little bottling machine, and then leave it to rest,” she continues. “It doesn’t really need to mature as such – we serve unpasteurized fresh sake from the tap room, which is quite spritz-y – but in the bottle we’d leave it for around a month to settle before we release it.”

The need for a lower, slower ferment gives the sake those signature dry flavours, and it’s this that Wilson feels most prominently embodies the London style. That, and the fact that everything is done by hand. “All the koji is turned by hand, the rice is washed by hand, we take it out of the steamer to cool by hand,” she explains. “The presidents of Japanese breweries come and visit us and they’re amazed that we’re still doing it this way. We’re very small scale!”

Growth is happening, albeit slowly. Last year, Kanpai hired its first employee, an assistant brewer, to cope with increasing production demands. The main focus for 2020 is growing the taproom, which is currently open on Fridays and Saturdays. “We’re really working on our tap range,” says Wilson. “We can do more small batch sakes and maybe experiment with flavours to see what people think – tea flavours and natural infusions, things like that.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here is the core range. There’s some technical information for sake nerds. The Sake Metre Value measures how sweet your sake is, the higher the number, the more dry it is.

Kanpai!

Sumi –  clear Junmai
  • Off-dry +6 Sake Metre Value (SMV)
  • Gohyakumangoku Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #701 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 15.0% ABV

Sumi is Kanpai’s clear, classic Junmai sake. “Very versatile, you can have it hot or cold,” explains Wilson. “It’s quite fruity but savoury at the same time. It’s your safe bet sake that you can pair with loads of different foods.”

Kumo – cloudy Nigori
  • Off-dry +7 SMV
  • Gohyakumangoku Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #701 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 15.0% ABV

Kanpai’s Nigori-style sake, which means ‘cloudy’ in Japanese. “This has a little bit of the finalised sediment in the sake, so it’s got some texture to it,” explains Wilson, “it’s a bit more banana-y, a bit punchier in flavour. It’s our Marmite one, it splits the room – you either want loads more of it or it wasn’t quite for you. 

Fizu  – sparkling sake
  • Dry +9 SMV
  • Calrose Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #901 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 11.5% ABV

Kanpai’s “most playful sake,” says Wilson. “It’s dry-hopped with Mosaic hops, which gives it blueberry notes. It has a natural secondary fermentation, so it’s got really fine bubbles like Champagne. That makes it quite versatile for cocktails.”

 

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Brilliant Burns Night bottles? We’ve got them!

For Scotch whisky fans, Burns Night is the ultimate celebration of the drink they love. Find the perfect bottle to mark the occasion from our line-up. It’s not long until…

For Scotch whisky fans, Burns Night is the ultimate celebration of the drink they love. Find the perfect bottle to mark the occasion from our line-up.

It’s not long until we raise a glass to honour the Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns, on his birthday, 25 January. Maybe you’ll fancy donning a kilt. Maybe you’ll carry out an Address to a Haggis with an appropriately theatrical cutting of the haggis with the ceremonial knife. Whatever you do, I think we can all agree the highlight of the night is a hearty dram of the good stuff.

Burns Night is perhaps the best excuse we get all year to splash out on a seriously good bottle of Scotch, which is why we’ve rounded up this delightful range of festive fancies. 

Happy Burns Night all.

Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!!

 

Robert Burns Single Malt

What better to mark the night than with a whisky that bears the name of the man himself. The Robert Burns Single Malt was produced by the Isle of Arran Distillers, who are patrons of the ‘Robert Burns World Federation’ and as a result, are able to officially carry his name. The single malt was produced at Arran Distillery in Lochranza and matured in ex-bourbon casks. 

What does it taste like?:

Pear juice, coconut, custard, vanilla, panna cotta, lime peel, apple strudel and cinnamon.

Aerolite Lyndsay 10 Year Old

If a whisky of mystery and intrigue sounds right up your street you then you’ll be more than happy to get stuck into this bottling from The Character of Islay Whisky Company. The peaty whisky has been sourced from an undisclosed distillery on Islay where it was matured for 10 years in a mixture of bourbon barrels and Spanish oak sherry quarter casks. The name is actually an anagram of the words ‘ ten-year-old Islay’, which is something you feel like Burns himself would appreciate.

What does it taste like?:

Maritime peat, iodine, honey sweetness, paprika, salted caramel, old bookshelves, mint dark chocolate, espresso, new leather, honey, liquorice allsorts, bonfire smoke and toffee penny, with a pinch of salt.

Timorous Beastie

Even casual Burns fans will know of his classic poem To a Mouse, which features an unfortunate field mouse he describes as a “tim’rous beastie”. Douglas Laing has paid tribute to this unlikely hero with this expression which has a distinctly Highlands profile thanks to a marriage single malts from the region, including whisky from Blair Athol, Dalmore, Glengoyne and Glen Garioch.

What does it taste like?:

Acacia honey, creamy boiled strawberry sweets, dried apricots, white grapes, coastal air, dried fruits, green apples, anise, sweet grist, malt loaf, pebble beaches, hot cinnamon and classic Highland heather, too.

Bowmore 18 Year Old

A legendary Islay dram that’s every bit as distinctive and delicious as you would expect it to be. Bowmore 18 Year Old is a perfect indulgence for Burns Nights for those who enjoy the peatier things in life.

What does it taste like?:

Stewing fruit, hints of damp wood, very soft smoke, perfume, plum jam, grapey, Seville marmalade and blossom.

Robert Burns Blended Scotch Whisky

Robert Burns Blended Scotch Whisky is a delicious blend that was made with a high percentage of the Arran Single Malt. It’s light, sweet and fruity profile make an ideal mixing whisky, perfect for long drinks and cocktails.

What does it taste like?:

Fresh apple peels, vanilla cream, juicy pear, custard and warm pastry, some tart citrus.

The Dalmore 12 Year Old

Few can boast an entry-level single malt as good as this beauty from the historic Dalmore Distillery, with its instantly recognisable stag’s head logo on the bottle. The Dalmore 12 Year Old was matured in American white oak ex-bourbon casks and finished in rare and aged oloroso sherry casks.

What does it taste like?: 

Coffee beans, oily nuttiness, malt, cereal, butter, Seville marmalade, triple sec, winter spices, zesty cocoa, milk chocolate and fruitcake.

 

The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak

Sherried Macallan’s are a favourite around the world for good reason and The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak is no exception. Part of the Sherry Oak range, this 12 Year Old its entire maturation in sherry-seasoned oak casks from Jerez before it was bottled at 40% ABV.

What does it taste like?: 

Sultanas, fresh apple blossom, calvados, tropical fruit, golden syrup, hot pastries, marmalade and barley sugar.

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New Arrival of the Week: Yellow Rose Outlaw Bourbon

There has been much wearing of chaps and yee-hawing at MoM HQ because this week we’ve chosen bourbon from the Lone Star state for the coveted New Arrival slot. You…

There has been much wearing of chaps and yee-hawing at MoM HQ because this week we’ve chosen bourbon from the Lone Star state for the coveted New Arrival slot.

You may have heard of nominative determinism: people doing jobs that are amusingly well-suited to their names. There are top urologists A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon, Israeli tennis player Anna Smashnova and, best of all, a Dutch architect called Rem Koolhaas. Perhaps not quite in this league but still pretty funny is that the head distiller at Houston’s Yellow Rose distillery is called Houston Farris. A Texan native, he wasn’t born in Houston, but something drew him to the city. Can’t think what.

Outlaw Bourbon

Outlaw Bourbon, it’s completely legit

Houston moved to Houston in 2002 and joined the Yellow Rose Distillery in 2014 as ‘brand mixologist’. He learned the intricacies of distillation before assuming his current role in 2017. There’s some serious booze heritage in the Ferris family: “My great-grandfather, Vance Raimond, ran the first legal moonshine still in the state of Texas since Prohibition,” Ferris writes on the website. “This was at the Texas Centennial Expo in 1936. He set up on the Midway of the state fairgrounds and attracted a great deal of attention. Unfortunately, that included the IRS, who wasted little time in shutting his operation down!”

You will be relieved to know that the Yellow Rose distillery, despite making a bourbon called Outlaw, is completely legit.  Founded in 2010, it claims to be the first legal distillery in Houston since Prohibition. The first whiskey was released in 2012 and the distillery opened its doors to the public in 2014. You won’t be surprised to hear that it is named after the 19th century American folk song: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (which, oddly enough, we used to sing in music class in my primary school in Buckinghamshire).

Houston Farris

Houston Farris, born to do it

The set up consists of 600 gallon (2700 litre) mash tun, two 600 gallon fermenters and a 600 gallon whiskey still. It produces over 10,000 cases a year. Currently the company produces three products, a rye, made with 95% rye in the mash bill, a blended whiskey and the award-winning Outlaw Bourbon which is double pot-distilled. The bourbon could not be more Texan if it was wearing a cowboy hat and firing a couple of revolvers in the air Yosemite Sam-style: it’s made from Texas yellow corn and aged in Texas in American oak. Anyone who has been to Houston will know how hot and humid it can get so the whiskey matures quickly. The distillery loses about 15% a year to those pesky angels demanding their share. Following maturation, it’s bottled at a punchy 46% ABV.

Yellow Rose is just the sort of smaller player who is being badly affected by the trade war between the US and EU that Ian Buxton wrote about recently. So help out an independent distillery and fill your cowboy boots.

Tastings note from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: A hint of floral oak, with a drizzle of caramel and oak char in there too.

Palate: Buttery caramel, toffee popcorn and vanilla with a hint of marshmallow.

Finish: Treacle and more of that lingering oak char.

 

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#BagThisBundle – Win a bundle from The Glasgow Distillery Company!

Check it out, it’s our first #BagThisBundle competition of 2020! Getting into the spirit of Burns Night, we teamed up with The Glasgow Distillery Company to bring you all kinds…

Check it out, it’s our first #BagThisBundle competition of 2020! Getting into the spirit of Burns Night, we teamed up with The Glasgow Distillery Company to bring you all kinds of delicious treats, all through the power of social media!

Now, these folks up in the largest city in Scotland have been up to some pretty cool business. It was named for one of Glasgow’s original distilleries, The Glasgow Distillery Company, which was founded in 1770 at Dundashill. Alas, it closed at the beginning of the 20th century, though in 2014 The Glasgow Distillery Company reopened, becoming the first single malt whisky distillery in Glasgow for over 100 years! 

So, what’s in this fabulous bundle? Well, we’re glad you asked, dear reader. There’s two bottles of smashing Glasgow single malt whisky, with a bottle of the 1770 Peated – Release No.1, as well as the 1770 Original 2019 Release. Then, for when you’re on the go, there’s a 1770 Hip Flask, as well as a handcrafted stave pen (actually made from 1770 Whisky staves!), a hand-blown glass whisky dropper, and for when you’re hosting, six tulip-shaped Glasgow 1770 Glencairn Whisky glasses.

#BagThisBundle Glasgow Distillery Company

You could win all these fabulous Glasgow Distillery Co. goodies!

We’re sure you’re raring to go, so here’s how you can enter! 

  1. Follow @masterofmalt Instagram account.
  2. Follow @glasgowdistillery Instagram account.
  3. Tag a friend you’d like to share the bundle with on our Competition post.
  4. Like the post!

Simple, isn’t it? Complete those steps by midnight on Thursday 23 January, and you’re in with a chance to win! 

MoM ‘Bag This Bundle’ Competition 2019 open to entrants 18 years and over. Entries accepted from 20 January to 23 January 2020. Winners chosen at random after close of competition. Prizes not transferable and cannot be exchanged for cash equivalent. See full T&Cs for details.

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Five interesting facts about Archie Rose Distillery

When Archie Rose Distilling Company fired up its stills four years ago, it pledged to honour Australia’s rich spirit-making history and at the same time shape its future. We peered…

When Archie Rose Distilling Company fired up its stills four years ago, it pledged to honour Australia’s rich spirit-making history and at the same time shape its future. We peered behind the scenes at the innovative Rosebery site, Sydney’s first independent distillery since 1853. Here’s what we found… 

With master distiller Dave Withers at the helm, the team has gradually built an eclectic range of sustainably-produced whiskies, gins, vodkas and rums that showcase Australia’s native ingredients – and the country’s unique microclimate – in all their glory. 

Whether they’re crafting Chocolate Rye Malt Whisky (the only whisky of its kind in Australia),  melting huge blocks of ice in a wood-fired oven to create Smoked Gin, or combining Vegemite, freshly churned butter and Sonoma sourdough toast to make an unapologetically Aussie unaged spirit, seemingly nothing is off limits.

When we dropped by over Christmas, Withers kindly showed us around the Rosebery site, soon to become a dedicated research and development distillery as the team moves their main operations to nearby Botany. Trust us, if you think smoked ice is a stroke of genius, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Until then, here’s five reasons to keep Archie Rose on your radar…

It’s Dave Withers!

1. They make spirits with a sense of place

At Archie Rose, indigenous ingredients are key. Australia is one of the largest malting grade barley producers in the world, says Withers, with many varieties being unique to the country – as such, Archie Rose works with an array of NSW farmers to get hold of malts that demonstrate regional terroir, as well as ancient and heirloom varieties. 

It’s not just about barley, of course. A limited run of Virgin Cane Rhum – the first of two cane spirits that were released under the distillery’s experimental ‘Concepts’ label – saw the team distill freshly cut and pressed sugar cane from Condong, northern NSW as a nod to Australia’s distilling heritage. 

The same homegrown ethos applies to the team’s extensive botanical selection. Their Distiller’s Strength Gin, for example, combines sixteen individually distilled botanicals, including fresh pears from Orange in NSW, rose petals, elderflower, juniper and honey from local beehives.

Unsurprisingly, this approach is extended to the ageing process, too. The country’s history of winemaking grants the distillery access to a vast array of wine casks, including ex-Apera (essentially Australian sherry) within which they age their whiskies. 

Archie Rose

The unique still set-up at Archie Rose

2. Quality over quantity is paramount

The recipe for their single malt whisky is a prime example. While most single malts typically feature one or two malt mash bills, Archie Rose’s new make is made from six distinct malts: pale, amber, caramel, aromatic roasted, chocolate and peated.

“Each of these malts offer a distinct flavour, the combination of which provides complexity and a depth of character rarely seen,” Withers explains. “Many of these malts are incredibly inefficient, some offering up to ten times less alcohol per tonne that a traditional malt, but it is important for us to put the flavour of the final product ahead of yield and efficiency.”

The team is always looking at ways to maximise flavour, Withers adds. “Our whiskies are the result of countless trials and hours of research and development,” he says. “They are boldly different in flavour as well as in philosophy to the majority of more traditional Australian whiskies.”

3. They’re big on transparency

Want to find out exactly where the barley in your bottle came from, and the grain treatment? Perhaps you’d like to know the type of cask was used, or get technical about the distillation process? Archie Rose has made it super easy for spirits geeks (ourselves very much included) to dig into the fine details.

“We love to show you everything that went into the creation of your bottle,” says Withers. “That is why we started the ‘Spirits Data’ section of our website. In essence, it is a tool for whisky drinkers to learn more about the bottle in their hand. Drinkers can use their batch code to explore all of the details of their bottle all the way down to the variety and origin of the malt that went into their whisky.”

Archie Rose

These babies mature fast in Sydney’s humid climate

4. They work with Australia’s distinct weather

Safe to say, the climate in Sydney is pretty unique. Being situated on the coast, Archie Rose enjoys year-round high humidity and temperatures, Withers says. As such, the climate is an important ingredient in Archie Rose’s aged spirits.

“In Sydney, we have some fairly warm stretches of the year which means that the casks work hard,” he explains. “It also means that the liquid should not stay in cask for an extended period or it may be prone to becoming over-oaked. We have specifically sought to ensure that the new make spirit enters the cask with enormous amounts of flavour while still being clean and refined. It does not have, nor need, decades to develop flavour or remove impurities. As soon as it hits that oak, the environmental and regional clock is ticking.” 

5. A hands-on approach from the very beginning

When building the distillery, Archie Rose founder Will Edwards enlisted Peter Bailly – then Australia’s only still maker – to handcraft three copper pot stills, all steam heated by a gas-powered steam boiler. 

“Our equipment is not akin to what you would find in many of the well known distilleries of Scotland; it’s a hands-on process of producing,” explains Withers. “Our current still was made in Tasmania and refurbished in New South Wales. It now sports a chiller jacket which increases the copper contact and reflux, providing us with the ability to control and accentuate the unique flavour compounds we are looking for.” 

 

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The Nightcap: 17 January

In the Nightcap this week we’ve got reinvented bar tools, Dry January discounts and news of victors in the World’s Toughest Row.  We’re officially back into the swing of things….

In the Nightcap this week we’ve got reinvented bar tools, Dry January discounts and news of victors in the World’s Toughest Row. 

We’re officially back into the swing of things. Not simply in sense of The Nightcap, but just in general. Those first couple of weeks following that gift-giving occasion and that world-kept-spinning celebration can be somewhat rocky, but we are firmly back in the saddle, and the saddle is back on the horse, and the horse is back on track, and the track is… OK, actually, yeah, that sentence is over, but not because our ducks aren’t in a row, but really it just went on a bit long. Never-the-less, The Nightcap is ready!

On the blog this week announced the return of the Burns Night poetry competition, while also revealing the winner of our Starward competition. Elsewhere, Henry explored the effect of the iStill on distillation and enjoyed a distinctive beer for our New Arrival of the Week. Jess then talked to Reyka Vodka’s Fabiano Latham before Annie looked at how Australia’s wine industry is reacting to the recent bushfires and the new wave of no-and-low-alcohol drinks. Adam then learned the story behind the revival of James E. Pepper and rounded-up some of the finest new arrivals at MoM Towers, before enjoying a Cocktail of the Week that was both trendy and tropical.

The Nightcap

A very moody looking Monkey Shoulder ‘Trigger Jigger’

Monkey Shoulder gets jiggy with it with the ‘Trigger Jigger’

Monkey Shoulder has made a big claim this week by stating it has reinvented one of the most popular bar tools on the planet – the jigger. Coined ‘The Trigger Jigger’, the Scotch whisky brand has said it guarantees 100% accuracy per pour and will save every bartender an average 4 hours and 42 minutes per year. For those unfamiliar with the tool, the jigger is used to measure and pour spirits and you’ll be sure to find them in any good bar across the globe. However, Monkey Shoulder has commented that inferior jigger designs are inaccurate by as much as 20% because of the likelihood for spirits to spill whilst being measured. A statement that will have many a bartender nodding knowingly. Lab technicians at Monkey Shoulder have put this new tool to the test and the results show that while standard jiggers produce one pour per 0.86 seconds, the Trigger Jigger has recorded speeds of one pour per 0.789 seconds. The design is the brainchild of Monkey Shoulder global brand ambassador Joe Petch, who commented: “Some jiggers are just not good for business and can result in slower serving speeds. So inspired by a nickel- and silver-plated jigger from the late 1880s and through countless hours of research with bartenders around the world, I set about righting some wrongs.” He went onto explain that the key was to streamline the design to ensure maximum liquid velocity: “By engineering a piston valve mechanism, I’ve ensured an accurate cut start and stop flow rate. Pour in the liquid and apply some pressure on a trigger using a good old-fashioned finger. The spirit streams out at an optimum rate into the drinking vessel.” The launch of the Trigger Jigger follows previous Monkey Shoulder inventions such as the extendable ‘iSpoon’, cocktail mixer the Konga Shaker and The Claw ice tong. Bars such as The Artesian, Swift Bar, The Beaufort Bar and Callooh Callay have already started using The Trigger Jigger, and others who want to get in on the act can get their hands on the limited stock by getting in touch with either John Wayte (@BarMonkey_ ) or Jody Buchan (@JodySpiritual).

The Nightcap

Duvel Batch No. 4

Duvel launches Batch No. 4 aged in bourbon barrels 

Beer and whisk(e)y share many things, from the base materials, the fermentation process, and even that time those whiskies were put into an IPA cask. Well, now awesome Belgian beer Duvel Moortgat has released Batch No.4 which has been treated to a nine-month maturation in oak barrels which previously held delicious bourbon. And not just any bourbon either, but liquid from Heaven Hill, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, George Dickel and Jack Daniels. The limited-edition brew was matured in more than three hundred barrels shipped over to Belgium, with 80,000 bottles released at a burly 11.5% ABV. “The Duvel brewers have not been sitting still in recent months, but our speciality beer has been doing just that,” says Hedwig Neven, brewmaster at Duvel Moortgat. “Lovers of beer, Duvel, and whiskey can once again enjoy Duvel Barrel Aged now that the barrels are opened after their long rest and the bottles have finally been filled!” With toasted flavours of toffee, vanilla and obvious bourbon influence, Batch No. 4 even stole a gold medal in the Brussels Beer Challenge. Said to be a great pairing with raw or smoked fish, sushi, grilled or smoked meat, cheeses, exotic fruit and chocolate, it’s hard to think of an occasion when it wouldn’t fit in!

The Nightcap

2020 looks like another big year for the family firm

Hayman Distillers launches spirit merchant arm, Symposium 

2019 was a big year for Hayman Distillers with the launch of its fiendishly clever Small Gin and Merser & Co. Double Barrel Rum, and 2020 looks every bit as exciting as the London distiller has announced a new venture: Symposium, an independent spirits merchant. Named, no doubt, after the top 90s punk band, Symposium. This arm will involve a variety of spirit brands in categories including gin, vodka, Scotch whisky, rum, Tequila and sambuca. The portfolio will be divided into three parts. At the top is the Heritage range compromising of in-house products, Hayman’s Gin, Small Gin and Merser & Co rum; then the Challenger range with products like Bush Rum, Firean Scotch Whisky, Red Griffin Vodka and Half Crown Gin; and finally the House range. There is also talk of bringing in some agency brands in the future but nothing has been confirmed yet. James Hayman explained: ‘Our mission at Symposium is to create and to sell the finest range of spirits available.” He went on to say: “Symposium will operate at every level of the market with our Challenger brands, in particular, offering an exciting alternative for those who are no longer content to settle for ‘big-name’ brands from large producers and who seek a quality, independent option with a partner they can rely on for the long-term.” It’s all go at Hayman’s.

The Nightcap

We’ll certainly raise a glass to this good news!

The great pub and bar bounce-back is on!

After fifteen years of decline, we have some good news if you like pubs and bars (that’ll be all of us, then…). According to Office for National Statistics paper Economies of ale: changes in the UK pubs and bars sector, 2001 to 2019, the number of such drinking establishments in the UK is on the up once more! (Thumbs up to whoever came up with the name.) Sure, it’s just a 0.4% increase, but at the end of 2019, there were 85 more across the country than in 2018. Taking in larger sites (11+ employees) and chains, the total increase stood at 815. Cheers to that! Some of the trends behind the headline stats: we’re increasingly becoming a nation of foodies, with pubs and bars employing more people on the eating than drinking side of things as we all spend more on eating out than drinking out. But despite that, turnover is at the highest level since the financial crisis. Long live the pub!

The Nightcap

The beautiful original Bar Douro near London Bridge

Bar Douro to open branch in the City

Do you work in the City of London? Do you love Portuguese wine and food? Well, we have good news because Bar Douro is opening a branch in Finsbury Avenue on 28 January. The original opened in 2016 by Max Graham from the family that owns Churchill Port. It quickly picked up rave reviews from critics including Marina O’ Loughlin in the Guardian who wrote: “I have to restrain myself from licking the plate”. The new restaurant will offer food and wines from all over the country. Spirit lovers won’t be short-changed with a selection of specially imported Portuguese spirits including gins and Maven Aguardente aged brandy. And don’t forget, the best White Port & Tonics this side of Oporto. Graham commented: “We have only just scratched the surface of Portugal’s rich culinary traditions and with our second, larger space we are excited to further explore the wealth of Portuguese cuisine”. There will be a soft launch from 28 January until 11 February. Email city@bardouro.co.uk for a reservation. You won’t be disappointed. 

The Nightcap

The team of four Brits made it into safe harbour after winning the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2019

Brits crowned champions in Talisker Atlantic Challenge

Remember when Talisker sent teams of intrepid sorts off across the Atlantic Ocean on the World’s Toughest RowWell… we have a victor! Or a team of four victors, to be precise. British team Fortitude IV was the first to make it from La Gomera in the Canary Island to Antigua in the Caribbean in an impressive time of 32 days 12 hours and 35 minutes! They braved 12-metre waves, a capsizing incident, broken oars, and “some of the scariest moments of [our] life”. Not for the faint-hearted, and especially impressive when you realise some teams expect to take eight more weeks to cross. Yikes. We raise our tasting glasses to Ollie Palmer (who also happens to work for Talisker parent company, Diageo), Tom Foley, Hugh Gillum and Max Breet, Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2019 champions! “Being on the ocean in quite an extreme context, strips back all the noise and makes you realise what is really important to you,” said Gillum. “You have a lot of time to think out there – with no distractions – and that inspires you in different ways. It was an amazing thing to have done – we set off thinking it was a once in a lifetime thing and we can certainly maintain that position. The sum of all the parts is incredible – from seeing the shooting stars, to the arrival here tonight, and the support from all of our family and friends. There are tough times that we perhaps would wish away slightly but standing here now [in Antigua] we just think that the sum of all those parts is incredible.” Time for a well-earned dram, we think. Talisker, of course… 

The Nightcap

The Suntory Group will donate $500,000 AUD in support of those impacted by the bushfires

Suntory pledges AUD$500k to Australia bushfire relief

The devastating bushfires in Australia have broken hearts around the world – but individuals and companies are stepping forward to offer support in all kinds of ways. The latest to join the relief effort is Suntory Group, which makes the likes of Jim Beam bourbon, Hibiki Japanese whisky and Courvoisier Cognac. It’s committed to donating AU$500,000 (about £264,000) to the Australian Red Cross, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the New South Wales Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service. “We have all been deeply saddened by the spread of these immense fires, which have destroyed lives, towns, homes and wildlife,” said Andrea Parker, managing director at Beam Suntory Oceania. “We are committed to helping rebuild these communities along with the rest of the Suntory Group.” The pledge follows another AU$500k donation from Diageo-owned Bundaberg rum to the Australian Red Cross earlier this week. Want to know more about the bushfires and how you can help? Check out the blog right here for more.

The Nightcap

The new partnership is for those who manage a team behind the bar and want to boost wellbeing

Small Batch Learning and Healthy Hospo team up on wellbeing initiative

Bartenders, (or indeed, anyone who works in hospitality) listen up! Smart-learning company Small Batch Learning has partnered with Healthy Hospo, a non-profit wellness education provider, to offer bars, restaurants and hotels an online tool to promote mental and physical health. Level 1 content is totally free to access and will be inserted into existing Small Batch materials, while Level 2 plans are paid-for, with proceeds reinvested in Healthy Hospo. “A healthy mind, body and workplace should be a non-negotiable, and we’re proud to partner with Healthy Hospo to help address these topics,” says Duncan Campbell, COO of Small Batch Learning. “As we continue our mission to make hospitality training accessible and relevant, this partnership will shine a light on serious issues facing the industry that are often pushed aside or laughed off. We’re thrilled to support Healthy Hospo scale up and help further the impact of its crucial training.” Tim Etherington-Judge, Healthy Hospo founder, added: “From chronic rates of sleep deprivation and substance abuse, to sky-high issues with mental health, we are not a healthy industry – and we often suffer in silence. It’s time to change the conversation and stop putting our health, and that of our colleagues, at the bottom of the to-do list.” If you manage a team in hospitality, check out Small Batch Learning!

The Nightcap

The choice of headline sponsor at SXSW is an example of the rise of hard seltzer

White Claw lines up South by Southwest partnership

If you needed any more indicators that hard seltzers are going to be A Very Big Thing, here’s another for you. White Claw, the US’s best-seltzer brand, has just taken over ‘super sponsorship’ of South by Southwest (SXSW). The actual interesting bit? It’s binned off a beer brand to nab the top spot. All eyes will be on the music, film and tech event, which takes place in Austin, Texas, from 13-22 March, and to have a hard seltzer over a beer marks a shift indeed. “We’re thrilled to bring White Claw to life at SXSW,” said Phil Rosse, president, White Claw Seltzer Works. “This brand has been built through the great passion and celebration by our fans, connecting the brand to culture and sharing it through their social channels. We are excited to support SXSW, an event that has always been ground zero for innovation in culture and technology.” Roland Swenson, SXSW CEO and co-founder, added: “SXSW is excited to work with White Claw. As one of the fastest-growing brands, their sponsorship of SXSW reflects the independent and innovative spirit that SXSW is known for.” Bring on the seltzers!

The Nightcap

Alain Ducasse opposes Dry January, and we salute him

And finally… Alain Ducasse fights Dry January with discount fine wine

Are you getting a bit bored of Dry January? The pious friends who won’t go to the pub, your favourite drinks website brimming with articles about non-alcoholic drinks instead of whisky and the dreaded word ‘mocktail.’ Well, Alain Ducasse feels your pain. He told the Guardian this week: “I’ve noted that trend but I don’t want to see or hear of it, I am opposed to it.” And so, he has put his money where his mouth is and slashed the prices of some of his best bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy in an effort to get diners drinking again. So get down to your local Ducasse restaurant, like Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester in London, order something fancy, and sip away those January blues.

 

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The story behind the revival of James E. Pepper Whiskey

We explore the comeback of James E. Pepper with new owner Amir Peay, who talks about rebuilding a historic distillery from the ground-up, the legacy he loves and why his…

We explore the comeback of James E. Pepper with new owner Amir Peay, who talks about rebuilding a historic distillery from the ground-up, the legacy he loves and why his love of boxing led to his new role.

You’ve almost certainly heard of the name James E. Pepper if you’re a fan of American whiskey. But the reason why you’re able to purchase whiskey of that name today is thanks to Amir Peay, a former bartender whose passion for history and the good stuff led him to revive the brand and rebuild its distillery. 

The brand did not begin with James E. Pepper, however, but rather his grandfather Elijah. Back in 1780, when most were concerned with the American Revolutionary war, Elijah Pepper built his first distillery. By 1790 he’d built another distillery in Kentucky and in 1812  he built a distillery on a site that today belongs to Woodford Reserve. Elijah was a very successful man and created a popular brand that was secure enough to withstand the fallout from the Whiskey Rebellion.

After Elijah’s death in 1838, the distillery was left to his son, Oscar, who continued the family tradition, building a larger distillery on the same site  and making notable improvements to the sour mash process with Scottish chemist by the name of Dr. James C. Crow (you may be familiar with Old Crow Bourbon, which was his creation). Old Pepper bourbon became so popular it was the favourite brand of noted Americans, including Presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Ulysses S. Grant, prompting Abraham Lincoln to once reply to critics of Grant, “By the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it!” 

James Pepper

The man himself, James E. Pepper

In 1867, the distillery passed to James E. Pepper. “The Peppers ran their distillery for three family generations, well over a hundred years, and there were a lot of very notable achievements there, such as the perfecting of the sour mash process,” Peay explains. “James inherited what the oldest whiskey brand made in Kentucky at fifteen, a very young age, so the family brought in an old family friend and guardian and business partner to help guide young James. That guy’s name was Colonel E.H. Taylor you might have heard of him?”

Taylor advised James E. Pepper to expand the distillery and he lent him money to do so. When Pepper couldn’t pay the loan back Taylor seized the property and later sold it. Undeterred, Pepper raised capital and came back to Kentucky and built a new distillery in 1879. “That distillery at the time was the largest and most advanced distillery in the United States. He continued to produce old Pepper whiskey using his grandfather Eljah’s Revolution-era recipes. For that reason he called the brand Old 1776,” says Peay. “He was quite the promoter and James was able to take the brand to another level. The Old Fashioned cocktail, legend has it, was created in his honour at the Pendennis Club in Louisville and then he brought it to the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan in the 1890s and from there it was introduced to the world”. 

Pepper was a bit of a character. He travelled in a private rail car and was a huge name in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, even bringing his horses to England to beat the King’s horses in the Doncaster Cup. Unfortunately, he had no children so when he died in 1906 the Pepper line died with him. His wife sold the distillery to a group of investors who continued to run it and make Pepper whiskey. “The distillery actually was one of the few in Kentucky that was allowed to sell its whiskey for medicinal purposes through Prohibition. The brand stayed alive, but that old distillery burned down in a fire in 1933,” says Peay. “On the exact same footprint, we know this because we’ve got all the old site plans and architectural drawings, a new distillery was built in 1934 and whiskey was produced there under the same old recipes. It thrived all the way up to the 50s and 60s, but overproduction in the American whiskey industry and the popularity of vodka caused a lot of distilleries to shut down and the Pepper distillery was one of them”. 

James E. Pepper

The image that prompted the revival

By 1961 the distillery was abandoned. That’s how it remained until 2008. “Until I came along! I’m a big American history buff, I really loved whiskey and I was a bartender for a lot of years. When I learned about this amazing brand I just couldn’t believe it had been abandoned, like a piece of garbage that no one cared about. So I thought ‘How cool would it be to relaunch this great iconic old brand?’ And that’s what I did,” Peay explains. 

Despite his previous work in the bars, the wine business in California and his great love of whiskey, it was actually his job as a boxing journalist that led Peay to James E. Pepper. “I was looking at some photos of a very famous old boxing match with the first African American Heavyweight Champion of the World, Jack Johnson and this fight he was in July 4th 1910, ‘The Fight of the Century’, against opponent Jim Jeffries”, Peay explains. “In the middle of them both was a big banner that says: ‘James E. Pepper Whiskey – Born with the Republic’. I started looking into it. The more I discovered, the more intrigued I became. I uncovered so much about the history of the James E. Pepper, a lot of which we won’t have the time to go into now in detail. But it is on our website and in our museum at the distillery”. 

Peay’s initial plan to bring the James E. Pepper brand back was to contact every distillery in Kentucky and ask for assistance. “I sent them a PowerPoint about why I thought this was such an amazing brand. I managed to get some amazing meetings with some pretty interesting people such as CEOs of big companies and distilleries. This approach wasn’t easy, but Peay eventually saw results. “After ten years of working with other distillers, reinvesting; trying to be smart about my business and I’ve really built an independent, bootstrapping whiskey company. To this day I’m the sole owner,” says Peay. “I’ve acquired hundred-year-old bottles full of the original whiskey, perfectly preserved from before, during and after prohibition, as well as old letters, recipes, the exact grain bills, production methods from James E. Pepper’s era and the era after prohibition. We’re making the same historic mash bill and we dug the historic limestone around the property from two hundred feet below ground to get our pure limestone-filtered water, the same water source the Peppers used”. 

James E. Pepper

The James E. Pepper Distillery prior to restoration

After Peay was able to revive the James E. Pepper name, he brought back the 1776 brand. But the biggest obstacle was restoring the old distillery. It had fallen into a state of disrepair, changing hands a few times with different real estate developers but remaining derelict. It took years of lobbying and negotiation, but once again Peay was eventually successful. On May 4 2016, it was announced that the distillery was to be rebuilt with a museum on the remains of the historic distillery. The first barrel was filled on December 21st, 2017. “Since then we’ve been in full-scale production, making everything in-house in our full-scale distillery! We have our museum here, we give tours and we’re proudly doing it all right in the heart of what’s known as the Lexington Distillery district,” explains Peay. “We’re also very proud that we were able to get back the federal distillery permit for the distillery: DSP-KY-5 (Distilled Spirits Permit Kentucky, Number 5), the 5th license ever issued in the state of Kentucky when it was given to the original distillery. If you build a new distillery in Kentucky today your DSP number will be in the twenty thousands. For us to have number 5 speaks to the heritage of this brand and its place in Kentucky history. There’s just a few of us in the single-digit club”. 

The James E. Pepper distillery rebuild was soon joined by restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, bars and even one of the places where you can throw axes (rad) in the thriving ‘Distillery District’, a 25-acre entertainment district in downtown Lexington. “All these other great independent Lexington entrepreneurs built thriving businesses and it’s become one of the hottest neighbourhoods in the city, it’s actually caused a parking crisis!” says Peay. He might not be a native, but his pride for the local area speaks volumes about the manner in which he has approached the restoration of James E. Pepper.

The fact that the new stills are in the same location where the previous stills were and were even made by the same company speaks to that desire for historical authenticity. “Our solid copper still system was built by Vendome Copper, the Louisville company that builds all the stills for every Kentucky family-owned company. One of the cool things that I uncovered in my research was seventeen pages of detailed mechanical engineering drawings of the still system that was built at our distillery in 1934 by Vendome,” says Peay. “So I went to Vendome with those old drawings and that old manway cover from the old still, which was thrilling for them because their family was almost put out of business by prohibition and they didn’t even have one from that date. It was really exciting to work with them to rebuild the system inspired by the old one, although we did make some improvements. We ended up with a state of the art, advanced distillery and we’re very happy with the distillate coming off the stills”.

James Pepper

The Vendome copper stills

There is no warehouse facility at the distillery so the maximum storage capacity there is around 200 barrels, meaning the majority are shipped off-site for storage. The few that are kept on-site are essentially there so the team can taste the progress and the whiskey matures, although all secondary-finishing is done at the distillery. “There is no long term storage at the distillery, instead we work with a few different distillers who have large rickhouses out in wide-open spaces in the middle of a field somewhere. We are in an urban area,” says Peay. “People ask why we don’t build our own or use the old rickhouse, but imagine if I go to the city & state and I say I want to store thousands of barrels of whiskey in a densely packed, residential urban area next to all these businesses? It’s just too much of a hazard, so it’s not possible for us”.

The barrels are brought back to the distillery once the whiskey is matured as bottling occurs on-site, another important factor for Peay as he wanted to honour the fact that the Pepper distillery was the first in Kentucky to bottle its own whiskey (Old Forester were technically rectifiers not distillers). “It was actually illegal in Kentucky for distilleries to bottle their own whiskey in 1890. Rectifiers would bottle so if you were a distillery you had to sell by the barrel to somebody who would bottle off-site, but James E. Pepper hated that because there are a lot of counterfeiters and fraudulent people and no consumer protection laws,” Peay explains. “He sued the state of Kentucky to allow him to bottle at his distillery and got the law changed to allow him to do it and he was also an instrumental advocate for the Bottled Bond Act of 1897. He was one of these guardians of the purity and quality of American whiskey early on”.

While Peay may have been the man who brought the James E. Pepper brand back, he’s the first to admit he’s no whisky maker. That’s why he brought in Aaron Schorsch as master distiller. “You see a lot of people who build distilleries and last year they were an accountant and this year they’re a master distiller, that’s kind of a big leap, right? I know a lot about making whiskey, but Aaron knows how to turn an idea into a reality. He came to us with about almost twenty years experience, his first ten years were at the Lawrenceburg Distillery when it was owned by Seagrams and he also spent time at Jim Beam and Sam Adams,” says Peay. “Today you see a lot of distillers who are essentially marketing people. If you’re out on the road a hundred days a year or two hundred days a year always doing interviews, how are you actually running a distillery? Aaron really runs that distillery and is on-site. He’s super knowledgeable and he’s worked side-by-side with some very big names in the industry. He actually came on board before our distillery was operating and was there for the entire construction process. I’ve been really impressed with his knowledge and his expertise. He’s the real deal”.

James Pepper

The revived James E. Pepper Distillery today

Though the plan is very much for all James E. Pepper whiskey to be made on-site, initially that wasn’t possible, of course, so Peay sought help from elsewhere. “Our 1776 Rye, our best selling product, was made at the Lawrenceburg Distillery. I really like them as a partner because they’re an ex-Seagrams distillery, which was by far the best whiskey producer in the United States during a very dark era of American whiskey,” Peay explains. “They have high-quality distillate and a great team of people there. But most importantly, they made a rye whiskey that had 95% rye in the mash bill and 5% malted barley, a very unique mash bill at that time. But James E. Pepper used to make a pure rye whiskey, 100% rye, and I loved that. None of the big guys in Kentucky made that, pretty much everybody made a rye whiskey with corn in the mash bill. So I loved that connection”. 

The extent of Peay’s historical research and the abundance of surviving records means that he knows an awful lot about the kind of whiskies that James E. Pepper made, from the exact grain bills, to the type of stills and fermentation he used. “We wanted to maintain that flavour profile so when we distil 1776 at the distillery we’re making it exactly as Pepper did. We are also distilling the actual historic bourbon mash bill that was produced there when the distillery was shut down in 1961,” Peay explains. “The tradition and the heritage are very important to us and we want to honour that, but at the same time, we don’t want to be limited by it. I would say at least a third of what we do is innovative mash bills and oak cooperage that I developed along working with Aaron. We’ve established that we will always do a minimum of eighteen months air seasoning, for example. We have sherry casks, we have ale casks. We’re excited to share that stuff when it’s ready to be bottled with everybody and that will be at least another couple of years”.

It can be difficult to balance ambition and progression without compromising your ability to create innovative, interesting whiskey. Peay does feel that pressure to uphold the legacy and the heritage, but early signs for the revive James E. Pepper brand are promising. “We’ve won a lot of awards and got a lot of recognition. I feel pretty good about what we’re making. I know that we use high-quality grain. Our water’s great. Our fermentation and our chemistry are great. Our distillations are perfect. The new-make tastes good,” he says. “For us, the future is going to be all about continuing to be a producer of high quality and unique whiskies. To honour and respect the tradition and the heritage, but also to innovate. We love making whiskey and we want to share our passion for it. We’re not trying to take over the world; we are happy being a decent sized independent producer. We don’t need to make tens of millions of cases of whiskey, we’re fine doing it the way we do it, with a lot of attention paid to quality”. 

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