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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Adam O'Connell

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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Cocktail of the Week: Leche de Panthera

Adding some tropical vibrancy to banish those January blues, our Cocktail of the Week is a twist on the Piña Colada from a certain recently opened Brazilian-fusion restaurant and bar… …

Adding some tropical vibrancy to banish those January blues, our Cocktail of the Week is a twist on the Piña Colada from a certain recently opened Brazilian-fusion restaurant and bar… 

Everybody’s had a bad Piña Colada. A fluffy, fruity frozen serve with festive paper parasols always sounds appealing in the summer months, in that garden bar or by the pool on holiday. Until you get a drink that’s borderline radioactive with chemicals and artificial sweeteners coupled with an oppressive amount of ice that means you end up feeling like you’re imbibing a colourful watery syrup.

But for Edoardo Casarotto, head of bars at Amazónico, a Piña Colada-style drink on the menu was a must. “We are a South American restaurant and I wanted to make a twist on South American classic drinks. The Piña Colada is one of the most iconic,” he says. “I love the flavour of coconut and the pineapple, but I wanted to make it a little bit more elegant so less creamy and less heavy”.  Some of you may know of a classic drink made with milk in Spain called ‘Leche de Pantera’, (milk of the panther, which is such a kickass name), a popular cocktail in Spain since the seventies predominantly made with milk, white spirit (gin or rum commonly) and cinnamon. It also served as an inspiration to Casarotto, who explained that the key to making his drink was “To create a combination of two classic drinks and make it a little bit more elegant while still retaining the intense flavour”. This is not a faithful recreation, folks. We’re experimenting today.

Leche de Panthera

At the beautiful Amazónico in London, where they really do love all things pineapple

As we learned in our review of Amazónico, Casarotto’s style is to make sensational drinks with the simplest ingredients possible. At the base of his cocktail is a mix of vodka, sherry, Agricole rum, lime juice and white chocolate liqueur. The star turn is the homemade spiced pineapple syrup, which he created in order to achieve that lighter and approachable style. “We use fresh pineapple which we cook with spices like star anise, cloves, cinnamon as well as coconut water,” Casarotto explains. A dash of turmeric powder is added for aesthetic, as is the dyed green coconut powder that serves as a garnish. The result is a finished cocktail that looks like a real pineapple.

Especially in that glass. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more striking glass than the one Leche de Panthera is served in.  The bespoke glassware was made to order Hundred Percent Barman and even requires a special gun in order to clean it properly. Casarotto says it’s having the desired effect: people see the glass and they want the drink. “It’s doing very well, to be honest, it’s one of the best sellers. When they see the drink on the table or on the bar, they want to know what it is, they want me to describe the drink. It’s very ‘Instagramable’,” he explains, laughing. “A lot of people love to take pictures of this drink, but it’s good to know that they are also getting a great drink inside the great glass”. 

Leche de Panthera

The Leche de Panthera

The Leche de Panthera is absolutely delicious. The balance of sour and sweet flavours is spot on and it avoids all the pitfalls of a poorly-made Piña Colada. It’s refined, it’s fruity and it’s going to wow company even without the signature glass.

Right, without further ado, here is Leche de Panthera!

35ml Belvedere Vodka
15ml Trois Rivières Agricole Rum
5ml Manzanilla sherry
10ml White chocolate liqueur
15ml of spiced pineapple syrup (If you’re not comfortable cooking your own, then try this an alternative)
10ml lime juice

Stir all the ingredients in a shaker with lots of ice for a minute or so. Strain into a chilled bespoke, made-to-order glass and add a dash of turmeric powder. Then garnish with a dehydrated pineapple slice and a maraschino cherry, then sprinkle some coconut powder (dyed green, of course) on the glass leaves of your pineapple. Or, you could just use a Poco Grande glass, a regular pineapple wedge and rim the glass with your coconut powder. Whatever works for you. 

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New Year, New Boozes!

A new year, a new decade, in fact, means there’s more new delicious booze for us to enjoy and so we’ve rounded up a few of the finest to make…

A new year, a new decade, in fact, means there’s more new delicious booze for us to enjoy and so we’ve rounded up a few of the finest to make life easier for you.

There are few things more joyful then the rewarding feeling you get when you take a chance on something you haven’t tried before and find a new favourite. It could be a film you’ll spend the rest of your life watching, a meal you’ll forever be tempted to order or a drink you’ll always have room for on your shelf. 

The beginning of a new year is the ideal time to try something different, particularly as there’s plenty of great events on the horizon that are perfect for a little boozy indulgence, from Burns Night to Chinese New Year. The following drinks are ideal for those who want to kick-off the new year by broadening their horizons and enjoying some of the finest new arrivals at MoM Towers.

That Boutique-y Whisky Company Chinese New Year Tasting Set

As we touched on in the intro, Chinese New Year is on the horizon (25th Jan, meaning it’s sharing some celebration space with Burns Night). That Boutique-y Whisky Company has decided to mark the occasion the best way it knows how: with delicious whisky! You’ll find five different 30ml wax-sealed sample drams from the indie whisky bottler’s stunning range in this set, the packaging of which was modelled on the red envelopes gifted during Chinese New Year festivities. There’s also an expanded 12 Dram Gift Set for those who want to really see in the Chinese New Year in style.

Chinese New Year Red Envelope Whisky Tasting Set Contents:

Macduff 10 Year Old; Glengoyne 9 Year Old; Cameronbridge 27 Year Old; Teaninich 11 year Old and Linkwood 10 Year Old.

Heaven’s Door Double Barrel Bourbon

Heaven’s Door Double Barrel Bourbon is a blend of three whiskeys which were finished in hand-toasted, new American oak barrels from the Louisville-based Kelvin Cooperage. Wait, I haven’t mentioned yet that Heaven’s Door was co-founded by Bob Dylan. That’s right. It’s a Bob Dylan whiskey, folks. 

What does it taste like?:

Honey on rye toast, apricot, liquorice, apple, peach, lemon, pepper, grilled pineapple, burnt brown sugar and a hint of strawberry. 

The Wrecking Coast Kea Plum Rum Liqueur

Rum is said to be the go-to spirit of 2020, which is good news for tasty rum liqueurs like this beauty from The Wrecking Coast. It’s a modern twist on the Rum Shrub, a traditional Cornish drink that dates back to the 17th century made from mixing fruit with rum. In this example, Kea plums, which are only found in a single valley in Cornwall, were foraged and then rested in white rum for around two months with orange and ginger too.

What does it taste like?:

Sharp plum notes, with warming ginger, sweeter orange peel, and a tart, jammy finish.

Peerless 3 Year Old Single Barrel – Modjeska

Given that this booze was bottled for the British Bourbon Society, you’d be forgiven for thinking Peerless 3 Year Old Single Barrel – Modjeska is a tasty bourbon. But you’d be wrong. Instead, this is a particularly delightful and young rye whiskey that got its name after a type of confectionery first created in Louisville, Kentucky that’s made by dipping marshmallow in caramel. Which sounds awesome. Much like this whiskey. 

What does it taste like?:

White grape skin, clove spice, fresh cream, prickly pepper heat, crème brûlée, toasted marshmallow, white chocolate, buttery vanilla pod and butterscotch.

Teeling 18 Year Old Renaissance Series

The Renaissance Series celebrates the ongoing Renaissance of Irish whiskey, Dublin whiskey and Teeling themselves, which we’re happy to raise a glass to! The 18 Year Old single malt is the first expression from the series and was matured first in ex-bourbon barrels before enjoying a finishing period in ex-Madeira casks.

What does it taste like?:

Ripe red fruits, figs, cinnamon, clove spice, toffee apple, dried fruits, maraschino cherry and rosewater.

Colombo Navy Strength Gin

A Navy Strength gin from Sri Lanka concludes our round-up, one from the fine folks at Colombo! Made from a similar botanical recipe as the original Colombo London Dry, which includes juniper, angelica, coriander seed, liquorice root, Sri Lankan cinnamon bark, ginger root and curry leaves. In the Navy Strength, which was bottled at 57% ABV, there’s an extra helping of curry leaves to add an aromatic, spicy kick.

What does it taste like?:

A kick of candied ginger, with refreshing menthol, aromatic curry leaf and peppery coriander.

 

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Micil Distillery wants you to give poitín a chance

We recently visited the Micil Distillery, the first distillery in Galway in over 100 years to talk to its founder Pádraic Ó Griallais about the potential of poitín and more……

We recently visited the Micil Distillery, the first distillery in Galway in over 100 years to talk to its founder Pádraic Ó Griallais about the potential of poitín and more…

I’m a fan of poitín. Maybe it’s the patriot in me. Maybe it’s the historian. It could just be that I love really good booze. It can be hard to find somebody as passionate about the spirit as I am. In Pádraic Ó Griallais, I’ve more than met my match.

Poitín has been distilled for over six generations by his family. The story began in 1848 with Micil Mac Chearra in Connemara, home to the largest Gaeltacht (a primarily Irish-speaking region) in the country. For over 170 years his ancestors have continued to make the spirit in the traditional manner using his secret recipe, predominantly illicitly. That was until 2015, when Ó Griallais gave up his teaching career to turn his legacy into a premium brand and bring back legal distillation to Galway after a century. 

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Ó Griallais at his charming distillery in the back of the Oslo Bar, which is also the home of Galway Bay Brewery, where we talked about illicit distillation, dispelling myths and creating a brand to prove poitín’s potential.

Ó Griallais was motivated to start Micil Distillery as he felt there was a terrible void in the poitín category for real authenticity. “There was plenty of ‘paddywackery‘, but I felt it was time to tell an authentic story,” says Ó Griallais. “I come from a family of poitín distillers. The methods have been handed down from generation to generation. My grandfather, Jimmi Chearra, taught me everything I know about the craft and heritage. I wanted to spread that knowledge and appreciation”.

The importance of family to Ó Griallais is underlined by the fact that the brand was named after Micil, while an old picture of Jimmi working on his craft was chosen as the brand’s logo, meaning he features on every bottle. “That was a pretty touching moment. He’s actually our honorary quality control, so he gets a bottle every week to give that final seal of approval. It’s great for myself and my brother that he trusts us to make it with absolute integrity” says Ó Griallais. “But more importantly, It really brought it home for him that this is the reality now: Micil’s recipe, Micil’s heritage and his own heritage is now on the open market and it’s being continued. The legacy has been brought into a totally different light”. 

It’s worth remembering the light that was cast on his family’s craft for many years was very different. Jimmi was fined as a younger man when he was caught in possession of malt. His story that he was only using it to brew beer was viewed rather dimly by the local police. If a poitín still, much like the one that sits in the middle of Micil Distillery, was found it would be confiscated and destroyed. Making poitín was a dangerous act of defiance for the people who distilled it, a hidden preservation of community and Irish identity. Ó Griallais talks about this troubled history passionately and knowledgeably, pausing to flash a quick mischievous grin before he tells me a story about that sums up that spirit of rebellion.

Micil Distillery

The old family still has a remarkable history

“Probably the most infamous poitín story happened about two miles away from where we lived. There was a confiscation of a still on local lands. The owners weren’t known by the local authorities or police but the still was brought to the police station to be destroyed. Nobody could have predicted what happened next,” says Ó Griallais. “That night the police station was broken into and the still was taken back by the original owners. The next morning the break-in was discovered and the search was on. Despite a big investigation, the still was never found and the culprits were never brought to ‘justice’ if you want to use that kind of terminology. We’re not believers of any kind of hearsay or old wives tales, but some people will say that the still exists today. Of course, nobody knows for sure.” Ó Griallais then says if I do happen to see it around, I should let him know before he allows himself once more wry smile and says, “But you know what? Sometimes it’s amazing what can be right underneath your nose”.

Things are much less controversial for Ó Griallais, who’s able to put to use the original 170-year-old family recipe in every bottle of Micil Poitín, using 100% Irish malted barley and a local Connemara botanical called bogbean. “We begin as you would imagine, by mashing our malts with hot water and then we’ll give it a rest period of approximately an hour. Then we take the sweet wort out of the mash and put that through a heat exchanger to chill it down to about 19 degrees centigrade. Later on, we add in our yeast, then the bogbean is added into the wash and we carefully observe the initial spirit to remove the heads and tails when necessary.” says Ó Griallais. “It’s amazing that we’re still able to use bogbean in our family poitín. It’s a local wild botanical that’s been used since the year 1324 by monks for medicinal purposes and it’s one of the things that really makes Micil’s poitín stand out versus many, if not all, the other poitíns that were being distilled around the same time”.

The words hand-crafted and small scale are tossed around a lot these days, but Micil Distillery is genuinely a modest enterprise overseen by Ó Griallais and his brother. Together, they distil approximately 60 bottles of poitín a day. The bottling, labelling and packaging all happen in-house. “My emphasis was always that we actually do things by hand throughout the process so we weren’t just a push-button operation. We didn’t want the craft to go out of the process and have it become too industrial,” says Ó Griallais. “That’s fine and I wouldn’t say it’s a case of one being better or worse, that’s just the way that we chose to do it. It’s romantic, I suppose, and very close to what would have been done throughout the generations”. 

Micil Distillery

Micil Distillery founder Pádraic Ó Griallais

For the Heritage Poitín the production changes as it brings into play one a raw material that is often considered Scottish in the world of booze: peat. “There’s no other fully Irish peated spirit on the market, so it’s something really unique, but it’s also something we’ve been doing for generations. It’s 80% barley and 20% oats and has the bogbean in there as well. For me it was such an exciting project because I wanted to show that we always made peated spirit as well as unpeated in Ireland,” says Ó Griallais. “We luckily found a farmer in County Meath that decided he was going to start peating his malt, so we actually gave him the turf that we harvest ourselves from Connemara. So it’s a real true expression of what poitín from Connemara would smell and taste like, which would be milder than your Islay whiskies”.

When it came to creating Micil Irish Gin, the process was different again because when you’re creating poitín, the emphasis is on the spirit more than the botanicals, whereas in gin this is reversed. But it was fundamental to Ó Griallais that the process retained the same sense of identity and provenance, which is why he was keen that his gin would showcase the botanicals, the flowers and the herbs available throughout Connemara. “I really wanted to express the West of Ireland and the Connemara botanicals in a different form to poitín, which is why I decided to go down the gin route. We wanted this gin to be what gin is all about: gin is all about juniper and gin is all about refreshment, but also creating something that has a real sense of terroir like our poitín, albeit in a different category,” Ó Griallais explains.

Fans of Irish whiskey will be delighted to hear that it is on the agenda for very soon for Ó Griallais and Micil Distillery. “Poitín is always going to be our founding category, so our whiskey will be modelled our poitín process. There will be innovation in terms of the type of whiskey that we do, from the use of grains to the styles. We’re not going to purely make single malt or your typical triple-distilled pot still style. There’s likely to be a variety,” Ó Griallais says. “We’re looking to move to a new location in the next year or two that will include more space to distil our whiskey. However, we are going to be making some whiskey before we move to our new location. We’re actually incredibly excited because we’ve got a new still for it, so we’re really looking forward to starting our journey with whiskey here in Galway”.

Micil Distillery

Micil Distillery is a small-scale, family-run operation

While Ó Griallais is comfortable engaging with different categories, poitín will always be at the heart of Micil Distillery. It’s not an easy sell, however. One of the reasons why it’s important for Ó Griallais to tell an authentic story of poitín distillation is because it’s such a misunderstood and maligned spirit. “I was brought up making it and recognising the difference between high quality versus mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter has been the experience of a lot of people in Ireland which means often they have no real appreciation of any of the nuances in the category or what high quality means,” says Ó Griallais. “For me, poitín was all about high-quality ingredients and attention to detail in the process”.

A lot of Ó Griallais’ time is spent dispelling myths about poitín, such as the idea that the sole raw material used to create the spirit traditionally was potato. “In reality, for most of poitín-making’s history it has been a grain spirit and the predominant grain would have been barley. Other grains would have been used with the barley, of course, like oats, wheat and rye,” says Ó Griallais. “A lot of those grains would have been malted, a difference in the Irish whiskey tradition where there was a large use of unmalted grains to avoid taxes. But the potato is largely a myth and for whatever reason, its role has been really over-emphasised in the grand scheme of the category”. 

However, the most damaging and pervasive notion about poitín is a classic criticism that will be known to anybody in Ireland: poitín is a coarse spirit with a dangerously high alcoholic strength. “Poitín is like any other spirit, if it’s made poorly and without due care and attention you are going to get an inferior product,” says Ó Griallais. “It’s the same with historic gin, a lot of amateur or inexperienced people made it with a focus on just on making something alcoholic, there was no care for quality. We had a different take and a different story to tell. We always had this strong emphasis on pride in what we were doing”.

Micil Distillery

Poitín has a long and complex history and Ó Griallais believes in its potential to have a big future

It’s a shame because poitín is a genuinely fascinating and worthy category that’s undermined by misinformation and ignorance. But Ó Griallais is a patient man and is diligent in how he deconstructs each myth. “The practicality of what people say just doesn’t make sense. Poitín would rarely come off the still at 80 or 90% ABV and it’s really important to note that the distillers would also, of course, cut their spirit with pure water to bring it to bottling strength. Just like today, they wouldn’t bottle it at the strength it came off the still because they were aware of what people could actually consume,” Ó Griallais explains. “It’s all a big myth, but unfortunately the good stuff has kind of been forgotten about in all this noise, which is why we’re obviously dedicating our time and effort in telling the different story”. Ó Griallais role at Micil is as much being an ambassador and educator as it is being a distiller. As you can imagine, being a teacher in a previous life comes in handy.

This blend of tradition, provenance and identity that is at the core of authentic poitín makes Ó Griallais believe it has potential in the current market. He points to the success of Tequila, a spirit category that has previously suffered from its fair share of ignorance, in recent times as an example poitín could follow. “Tequila historically didn’t have the reputation that it does today. But people are now more educated about the category. They have a perception now that it is made with high-quality ingredients, with traditional processes and made lovingly and traditionally in a specific region,” says Ó Griallais. “Increasingly consumers are moving away from an association of the category as a cheap, rough, coarse party shot that’s just a way of drinking more alcohol. Tequila managed to turn this perception around by educating people, providing them with a great spirit and showing people how it can be mixed or consumed neat”. 

Ó Griallais’s ambition for Micil Distillery is that it will become the brand that helps the poitín category progress and find a consumer base. “Let’s give Patrón the credit it deserves, that brand, in particular, has lifted the reputation of the Tequila category. For us, we want to be the brand that helps the poitín category achieve this by having our focus on quality and authenticity,”  he says. “We want to show people the huge potential and the huge enjoyment that’s available with this spirit. The ambition going forward is we want to drive the poitín category on. We want to have a globally recognised brand. That’s the ambition; that Micil Distillery and our poitín would be considered and recognised up there as one of the greats”.

Micil Distillery

The Micil Distillery range

As you begin a new year there’s an urge to broaden your horizons and grow. Exploring the world of booze and finding a new go-to spirit is as good a way of doing that as any, in my book. Micil Distillery wants you to give poitín a chance. Maybe you should. And that’s not the patriot in me, or the historian talking. That’s the love of really good booze.

Micil Irish Poitín Tasting Notes:

Nose: Incredibly fruity, with raspberry jam, Ribena and plenty of stone fruit. There’s a touch of peppery heat, wild herbs, honey and a hint of menthol.

Palate: Tinned peaches, blackcurrant and some delicate angelica notes, with a helping of peppermint and touches of peppercorn and red chilli warmth.

Finish: More stone fruit while the herbs also return.

Micil Irish Heritage Poitín Tasting Notes:

Nose: Earthy, aromatic peat is at the core with floral notes (violet mostly), red berries and garden herbs emerging through it.

Palate: Apricot, vanilla, blackberry and a little honey give the palate a sweet and juicy opening, which then develops with peat smoke and a hearty twist of black pepper. 

Finish: A little aniseed and mint linger.

Micil Irish Gin Tasting Notes:

Nose: Fresh and fragrant with bright juniper, creamy angelica, citrus peels and helpings of earthy herbs, green cardamom and aromatic spice from orris root and cumin powder. 

Palate: Hugely herbaceous and well-spiced, most of the notes return from the nose alongside hints of lemongrass and liquorice. Piney juniper pushes through these to make itself known sharply.

Finish: A little black fruit sweetness appears after a while, among liquorice, a little lime and the remnants of the well-balanced juniper, angelica and citrus peel core.

 

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Check out our winter spirits sale!

From Boxing Day to Burns Night you’ll be able to save some serious dough on this sensational selection of spirits thanks to our winter sale… Everybody loves a good bargain…

From Boxing Day to Burns Night you’ll be able to save some serious dough on this sensational selection of spirits thanks to our winter sale…

Everybody loves a good bargain and January is filled with them. For those not doing Dry January (we salute you), you’re probably scouring the web looking for the best deals on delicious booze. Consider your search concluded. Just head on over to our winter spirit sale page and you’ll find rafts of delicious products available for stonking good prices. To get an idea of the kind of the delights that await you, we’ve highlighted some of the best deals in this neat little round-up.

Enjoy!

Boozy Advent Calendars

It’s no longer Advent or Christmas. Which is bad. But that means that Advent Calendars filled with delicious booze are available for low, low prices! Which is good. Due to their popularity, some have sold out. Which is bad. But there are still calendars available that contain whisky, from Japanese, Irish, American, That Boutique-y, Premium, as well as gin, rum, vodka and Tequila. Which is good. They don’t come with any frozen yoghurt. Which is bad. They do come with 24 individual 30ml drams for your pleasure. Which is good. You can move on now.

WhistlePig 12 Year Old Oloroso Cask – Old World (Master of Malt)

A Master of Malt exclusive bottling, this 12 year old rye whiskey from WhistlePig was finished exclusively in Oloroso sherry casks, and was released as part of the Old World series. It’s rich, spicy and extremely delicious and available with a serious discount. Tell me there’s a better way to kick off 2020 then with a whiskey this good.

What does it taste like?:

Bucketfuls of dried fruit, with sweet caramel, new leather, rich sherry, a pinch of tobacco and vanilla alongside prominent baking spice notes and orange oil.

Salt Marsh Gin Greensand Ridge (That Boutique-y Gin Company)

This is sure to be another year where we indulge in all kinds of tasty gins, so why not take the opportunity as 2020 starts to enjoy one of the more intriguing bottlings you’ll find at MoM Towers? Greensand Ridge created this beautiful gin featuring an array of unique botanicals for That Boutique-y Gin Company using the salt marshes of Whitstable as inspiration.

What does it taste like?:

There’s plenty of salt – and a little marsh. The juniper is floral, teeming with lavender, bay leaves, a mossy earthiness persists, warming cardamom, creamy angelica, orange blossom, black pepper, vibrant grapefruit peel and liquorice root.

Laphroaig Lore

Said to be the richest ever expression from the Islay distillery, Laphroaig Lore is one for fans of peated whisky to enjoy. Created by distillery manager John Campbell, Lore was matured in a combination of casks including first-fill sherry butts and quarter casks and is said to contain some of Laphroaig’s “most precious stock”. Which sounds beyond tempting, frankly.

What does it taste like?:

Rich and smoky with seaside minerals, vanilla, chestnuts, fudge, creamy clotted cream, malty sweetness, rich peat, spicy chilli, a hint of ash and bitter chocolate drops. 

Larios 12 Botanicals Premium Gin

Gin is massive in Spain. If you thought England was the only country in Europe that goes gaga for the good stuff, you’d be mistaken. So it’s no surprise that our friends in Spain make some seriously delicious bottlings, like Larios 12 Botanicals Premium Gin. As you might have guessed, it was created using 12 botanicals including wild juniper, nutmeg, angelica root, coriander, Mediterranean lemon, orange, tangerine, mandarin, clementine, grapefruit, lime and orange blossom, which were distilled five times.

What does it taste like?:

Tangy, aromatic and herbal, with huge citrus notes, fresh flowers, coriander, juniper, potpourri and cardamom.

Maker’s Mark 46

If the first new Maker’s Mark recipe for at least 50 years doesn’t get fans of American whiskey excited, then nothing will. Maker’s 46 is an alternative to the standard expression that was created for those that like spicier bourbon. The Kentucky distillers inserted seared French oak staves into the barrels (with the stave profile “number 46” – hence the name) to make the spice-forward profile.

What does it taste like?:

Toffee sweetness, sawdust from freshly cut wood, nutmeg, mulled wine spices, allspice, cinnamon, hot apple juice and a slight grassy note.

Novo Fogo 3 Year Old (That Boutique-y Cachaça Company) 

Cachaça is such a fantastic and sadly often overlooked spirit but this aged expression produced by Brazil’s Novo Fogo Distillery and bottled by That Boutique-y Cachaça Company should please connoisseurs and newcomers alike. What makes this beauty stand out is that it was matured in a combination of Amburana and American oak, whereas most cachaças are aged in purely the latter cask type. 

What does it taste like?:

Butterscotch, caramel, liquorice allsorts, cardamom, pine needles, dark jammy blackcurrant, fresh mango sweetness, floral honey, spice and intense woody notes.

 

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A spotlight on… The Small Beer Brew Co.

We’re kicking off our Dry January coverage with a visit to the Small Beer Brew Co., a brewery that proves that low-ABV does not have to equal low flavour with its…

We’re kicking off our Dry January coverage with a visit to the Small Beer Brew Co., a brewery that proves that low-ABV does not have to equal low flavour with its historic style of beer. . . 

It’s January, folks, and that means we have to entertain ridiculous notions of ‘detoxing’ after the excesses of the festive period. Yay. Among the surge in gym memberships, people giving up booze en masse has now apparently become a fixture of the first month. While we’d always advocate drinking responsibly, it’s not a pledge I intend to take up. Not only is it not particularly productive for a drinks writer, but I prefer moderation to abstinence. 

Besides which, you can still enjoy alcoholic beverages without excess, particularly given that the burgeoning low ABV category is offering more and more appetising options. That’s why our take on Dry January will feature some low-ABV drinks, beginning with the nation’s most popular booze of choice: beer. It’s seemed for some time the only genuine alternative for those who want to imbibe in a lighter capacity was horrible ‘zero’ editions of already pretty poor bottlings. Dull and diluted doesn’t solve anybody’s problem, as far as I’m concerned. So who can quench a thirst for decent low-strength session beers? 

Perhaps the answer is the Small Beer Brew Co., the world’s first dedicated brewery dedicated to small beer. Founded in South Bermondsey in 2017 by James Grundy and Felix James, the ambition behind the project was to reignite the lost art of brewing beer below 2.8% ABV and providing a genuine alternative to those who want to enjoy a fantastic beer without any adverse effects.

We spoke to Felix James in a visit to the brewery to talk about the history behind small beer as a style, the unique production process the brewery uses and what the future for the category is.

small beer

Felix James and James Grundy, founders of The Small Beer Brew Co.

The history of small beer

Before we talk about The Small Beer Co., James and I discussed small beer as a style, because it didn’t begin with James and Grundy. It has a historical precedent. In fact, it’s an important chapter of drinking history, particularly in the UK, and it’s one that’s often overlooked. It was such a fundamental part of British society that it’s actually surprising to me that nobody has tapped into it before. Evidence shows that small beer existed in medieval times and possibly even before that. James is passionate about its importance. “Small beer was so prevalent that it was a staple of British daily life. It’s mentioned in Chaucer and Shakespeare. George Washington had his own recipe. And it’s been almost written out of history.” 

You might have heard of small beer being used as an alternative for hydration during the 1600s to the 1800s when clean drinking water was scarce. This is a little exaggerated. Drinking water was available, but small beer was certainly seen as a rejuvenating refreshment. “It was a working man’s drink. We’ve all heard of people drinking small beer instead of water which is a bit of a myth. There’s a general misconception that everybody was just walking around drunk all the time. But small beer or small ale was something that you could drink throughout the day for hydration and energy. It was even consumed by school children,” says James. “It also tasted better than water. There weren’t any processing plants then and a lot of the time the water that was used for washing, cleaning, drinking came from the same place and ended up in the same place. You couldn’t drink water before boiling it, and if you were going to boil it you might as well make beer and then you might as well get a bit of flavour. By boiling up your mash again and getting some of the tannins you got something that didn’t just taste like putrid water that you’d boiled.” 

Traditionally small beer was made by making a bigger beer (ie. higher ABV) first, essentially as a byproduct. “You’d make your mash to make the beer and then after the mash, you’d then add more water, boil the mash-up or sometimes just do a second running through the mash,” says James. “This wasn’t something that was mass-produced, it was all produced at home. Typically it was the woman of the house who would make the beer in the kitchen. You’d make lots and lots of small beer and you’d store that for the week. You’d have a small amount of bigger beer that you’d keep for special occasions. There weren’t big breweries churning this stuff out”.

James attributes this culture as one of the reasons why small beer died out. “These were often illiterate people who weren’t writing down recipes. In the same way that we don’t write down our recipe for porridge, it just gets passed down through generations. I make porridge the way my dad and my mum make porridge. Frankly, it was the same with small beer,” says James. Small beer as we know it was almost entirely wiped by the beginning of the 20th century, with the prevalence of palatable and readily available drinking water among the factors that spelt its end. 

small beer

The Small Beer Brew Co. Brewery

The production process of small beer

Now reviving the style in a modern context, the biggest obstacle for James and Grundy is ensuring that flavour isn’t compromised in the process of creating low-ABV beer. Drink producers, whether brewers or distillers, will readily admit that it is incredibly difficult to reduce strength without reducing character. It took two years of experimentation to master the process at the Small Beer brewery. “Before we built anything we’d just brew every single weekend. We’d taste beers, research into methods of achieving that perfect balance of fermentable versus unfermentable in the mash tun and look into the ways of extracting hop aroma and flavour,” says James. “We realised that you just don’t get the right amount of flavour from fermentation unless you allow the yeast to do exactly what it wants to do. The brewer should always be working with the yeast in mind. If you treat the yeast well it will return the favour. That was the first step in our flavour and recipe development.”

The core of the process ultimately comes down to one underlying philosophy: making small beer from scratch tastes a hell of a lot better than the traditional method of making small beer from the second runnings of bigger beer. “We make all of our small beers from scratch. We don’t have a sidearm of our business that creates really big beer and ships that off and then makes the small beer as second runnings,” says James. “One of the first things that we did was take a second runnings beer just to see what that tasted like versus making a beer from scratch. The latter tasted a hell of a lot better. With second runnings beer, you’re not getting quite as much of the malty character. You’re pretty much getting the husk, which means you get the tanninc, astringent and more bitter effects from the malt. As a brewer, you want hop bitterness but not malt bitterness”. 

Despite the Small Beer Brew Co. being a newcomer on the scene, James and Grundy have previous experience in the industry, having met while working for Sipsmith. James himself spent time at Fuller’s and AB InBev (working with the likes of Budweiser), where he picked up an appreciation for perfectionism. “Our approach of constantly working at that coalface is something I learnt from the bigger guys. There’s a good reason why Budweiser told everybody 50 odd years ago that they were the most expensive beer to make in the world, it’s because they genuinely were putting a hell of a lot of effort into dedicated research to make their beer. I’ve been around a lot of other breweries and I’ve never seen quality standards as strict as they are at Budweiser. We used to throw our toys out the pram when they tiniest little speck deviated from these very, very tight margins,” he says. “For us, that means that, while we’re set on the recipes now, we will always strive to get better. Whether that means increased head retention, or a quicker pour, or finer bubbles, or slightly less oxidisation, or longer shelf life. A lot of breweries will create a few beers and then innovation becomes just creating more beers. Some craft breweries end up with 60 different recipes. That won’t be us”. 

small beer

The brand is committed to a sustainable approach, featuring the UK’s only entirely dry floor brewery

Spending time at the brewery with James, it’s clear that a defining characteristic of the Small Beer Brew Co. approach is the challenging of conventional wisdom. “You go into one of those lecture halls and they will tell you that running your sparge temperature too high will give you tannins. Who said that? Where is the primary source? When is it that someone last tried that? We always question everything because malting may have changed in the last 50 years,” James explains. “With every assumption that we hear we go straight back to brewing and we try it just to see what happens. It’s a liberation from classical brewing teaching. We of course still use some classic brewing methods but we’re not just following all the rules in the book. That’s our approach to the technical aspect of brewing. We’ve got some bloody good recipes and I’m really proud of the beer now. It’s taken us a hell of a long time to get here.”

The novel approach to creating beer at The Small Beer Brew Co. means there is no vacuum distillation, no reverse osmosis, no filtration, no processing, no pasteurising, no sterile filtering, no added stabilisers, no arrested fermentation, no clarifiers and no isinglass. Just the chosen ingredients and natural carbonation. It also means that sustainability and ethical production are prioritised. The Small Beer Brew Co. runs the country’s only entirely dry floor brewery, where hoses are not permitted. A pint of small beer is produced using only 1½ pints of water versus an industry standard of 8-10 pints of water. The site is run entirely on wind, water and solar power. The brewery is cleaned with recovered heat & water, 12% of the gas it uses is green and the remainder is frack-free and the labels, boxes and business cards are all 100% recycled.

Ultimately, attention to detail and commitment to an extensive process that puts flavour first is the key. It’s all about flavour efficiency. The Small Beer Brew Co. uses more than twice the amount of ingredients per % point brewed than you’d find in an average beer. It lagers its beers for a minimum of six weeks vs the industry standard 9-11 days. “We have to invest a hell of a lot more than other breweries to create our beer. We’ve got the extended brewing period which means that we have to hold onto the beer for longer. That, therefore, means that we have to have a big buffer stock. It means we have to have a lot of vessels and pay for this massive facility here to store it in, and rent is not cheap in London,” explains James. “We’re not doing things on the cheap, we’re doing things to make the very best quality small beer because if we were anything but, people would immediately play that card and go ‘well it doesn’t taste as good as real beer, so why would I want to drink it?’ So we have a duty to show people what it can taste like and that then hopefully will bring back small beer”. 

small beer

The Small Beer Brew Co. range

The Small Beer Brew Co. range

The result of this exhaustive process is a modest but respectable core range of beers. The Small Beer Brew Co., at the time of writing, has introduced four expressions to the market: iLager, Dark Lager, Steam and the recently launched Session Pale. The Lager and Dark Lager were the first launched, the latter of which is my personal highlight from the range (more on that later).

The Lager was made in the classic Pilsner-style with the Saaz as well as Mosaic and Galena hops before it was bottled at 2.1% ABV (or 0.7 UK units/per bottle). James says that they always wanted to create a lager because it’s still the biggest part of the industry and perhaps the most underappreciated. “We might be beer connoisseurs and though craft beer has been growing massively, it still only represents a tiny part of the industry. The vast majority of people are drinking lager,” he says James. “From a brewing perspective, lagers are technically the hardest beer to brew. If you’re a craft beer drinker, it’s quite hard to tell when an IPA hasn’t gone quite right because there’s so much flavour there you assume that it’s all intentional. Whereas with a lager, it’s pretty clear when they don’t taste right. For a brewer, it’s true that if you can crack a lager, you can do anything else”. 

Cracking the Small Beer puzzle was all about creating that lager first. Once James and Grundy have achieved this, layering up with more flavour to create an ale or stout was the next step. What the duo arrived at was its Dark Lager, a deliciously intriguing and refreshing beer style that was bottled at 1.0% ABV. “The thought process behind it was two-fold. One, what’s a really flavoursome beer style and two, how low could we go, technically, to produce something that still really tastes like beer using traditional brewing methods?,” says James. “We didn’t want to go down the chemistry route of effectively making non-alcoholic beer, we wanted to use traditional brewing methods with natural processes and those same four key ingredients: water, malt, hops, yeas. No additives, no preservatives, no flavourings”. I have to say it’s my favourite of the range and, for my money, the best example of the innovation and creativity shown at the Bermondsey brewery. 

small beer

With Dry January here, low ABV beer is a good option

The future of small beer

Despite the quality of the product, it’s not always an easy sell, at least initially. “There is a stigma attached to small beer. When we first approach people and there’s a typical reaction of ‘why would I want to be drinking two per cent beer?’ because sometimes it doesn’t quite click with people,” says James. “As soon as they’ve tasted it, or understood the occasion, it makes sense. Everybody has had that moment when you really want another pint and you know that you really shouldn’t. That’s when people are switching onto water or soft drinks  If they had just been drinking small beer from the start, then there’s no problem! As soon as that clicks with people, they just immediately get it. Then they come round to us because at the end of the day there’s no one else in this space”.

Despite my reservations about it,  Dry January does present a useful opportunity to consider our drinking habits. James believes that people’s ability to have a little bit of alcohol without getting drunk is hampered by the current drinking culture. It’s why people are coming at us going ‘why would I drink a two per cent beer if you’re trying to sell it to me at the same price as a five per cent beer’. It’s happened cyclically through time,” says James. “If you go back to the 1980s it was commonplace to see a 2.5% beer on cask. That seems to have died out with this presumption that ‘premium’ means ‘stronger’. For me, a lot of breweries completely missed out on an entire set of drinkers who would rather drink something that’s not going to get them completely plastered”.

small beer

These might be small beers. but their potential is big!

James makes it clear that he and Grundy are not afraid of growth. “I think it’s ridiculous for brewers to say ‘you’ve sold out’ because you’ve gone into a multiple or you’ve gone into Greene King pubs or whatever it is. As long as you’re staying true to what you believe in, to the brand, and as long as your product hasn’t changed because you’ve gone into those places, then I think you’re doing the right thing,” he explains. “We went as big as we possibly dared and the demand is absolutely showing itself – we’re rocketing! Now we just need to stay absolutely a hundred per cent true to our mission because, as I said before, if the quality of the product isn’t there, the brand will never succeed. Small beer won’t work unless you can really show people that it’s great tasting beer”.

For what it’s worth, we think they have just that. Which you can see for yourself below in these delightful MoM tasting notes…

small beer

Small Beer Brew Co. Lager

Nose: Lemon sherbets, dried grass, floral honey and freshly-baked bread

Palate: Bright and crisp, the lager immediately hits all the classic Pilsner-style notes you’re looking for with biscuity malt at the core, a touch of tropical fruit and a delicate touch of cinnamon.

Finish: Refreshing and light with a slight herbal quality.

small beer

Small Beer Brew Co. Dark Lager

Nose: Roasted espresso beans initially, then dark chocolate and caramel. There are some earthy and nutty elements underneath with a touch of black fruits.

Palate: That chocolatey, earthy and coffee-heavy blend appears again, with sweet cinder toffee elements and sour citrus sour adding depth.

Finish: Dark, dry and slightly sour.

small beer

Small Beer Brew Co. Steam: 

Nose: Light and hoppy, with cinder toffee, seedless raisins and a hint of toasted grains among light hops and a touch of spice.

Palate: More rye notes at the core of the palate, with touches of burnt toast, molasses and a hint of citrus.

Finish: Dry and slightly astringent.

small beer

Small Beer Brew Co. Session Pale: 

Nose: Bready malt, warm citrus, black fruit compote and a little nutmeg.

Palate: Notes of pink grapefruit, green tea and lychee emerge through fragrant hops.

Finish: Very refreshing and delicately sweet, with orange peel.

 

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2019’s most terrific tipples

From smoky malts to innovative gins, we’ve rounded up a selection of standout bottlings from 2019, including big sellers and news-worthy releases.   2019 is dead. Long live 2020.  But…

From smoky malts to innovative gins, we’ve rounded up a selection of standout bottlings from 2019, including big sellers and news-worthy releases.  

2019 is dead. Long live 2020. 

But before we look forward to what’s to come from what is sure to be another exciting year, we thought you’d get a kick out of one last glance at 2019 and the drinks that stood out. While the rest of the world around us continued to go a bit J. G. Ballard, the world of booze went from strength-to-strength, releasing rafts of innovative expressions and delicious drinks for us to enjoy. So, what are you waiting for? Get stuck in!

 

Lagavulin 12 Year Old (Special Release 2019)

Every year whisky fans everywhere look forward to the Diageo Special Releases and every year the Lagavulin bottling is one of the most hotly anticipated. It did not disappoint. From the classic Islay smoke to the coastal salinity and the beautiful fruity notes, Lagavulin 12 Year Old was a smash hit. Also, there’s a badass eagle on the label. What more could you ask for?! 

What does it taste like?:

Sweet peat smoke like a recently extinguished bonfire, salty sea breeze, Bramley apples, freshly-cut wet grass and citrus.

Hayman’s Small Gin

Such a fascinating, innovative release, Hayman’s Small Gin was definitely a highlight of the last twelve months. It’s a full-strength gin that was created with stronger botanical flavours so you could reduce the amount of spirit required to make a good G&T. Essentially the aim was to reduce alcohol consumption by 80%, as you should only require 5ml of Hayman’s Small Gin (the bottle comes with a 5ml thimble, happily). We’re of the opinion that it really does work, but why not test it yourself?

What does it taste like?:

Piney juniper, fennel and bright citrus peel, with coriander spice underneath.

Rumbullion! Chilli & Chocolate

Abelforth’s already had a delicious drink in the form of Rumbullion!, but the crafty creators of spirits didn’t rest on its laurels. By adding criollo cocoa nibs, chipotle chillies and jalapeño chillies to the secret recipe behind the tasty rum they created Rumbullion! Chilli & Chocolate, a delightfully warming tipple that we think would be sensational in a hot chocolate…

What does it taste like?:

Intense bittersweet dark chocolate leads with earthy red chilli warmth, creamy vanilla. coffee beans, nutmeg, red cola cubes and orange zest in support. 

Graham’s Blend Nº5 White Port

White Port & Tonic is the cocktail of the future, people. Take note. And if you’re going to embrace the burgeoning sensation, then you’ll need the right spirit. We recommend Graham’s Blend Nº5 White Port, which was made from hand-picked grapes which were then fermented in small batches. It’s a contemporary take on the classic style, which is mirrored in the bright and beautiful bottle decoration.

What does it taste like?:

Medium dry, evident notes of white grapes, lime, peaches and a drizzle of honey alongside mint and lemon.

World Whisky Blend (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

One of the most wonderful things about whisky is that it’s made and enjoyed the world over, from Scandinavia, to Japan, from the US to Scotland and so much more. It’s this global appreciation of the good stuff that inspired That Boutique-y Whisky Company to create the World Whisky Blend, a blend of incredible whiskies from all over this planet called ‘Earth’. It’s delightful mixed or neat, although we suggest you embrace your experimental side and try it with coconut water or even green tea.

What does it taste like?:

Freshly baked bread, floral honey, orange marmalade, tart stewed apple, brown sugar, crunchy, underripe pear, a prickle of spice, toffee, vanilla pod and a slight mineral note.

Mermaid Pink Gin

Pink Gin has stormed the drinks industry in a big way in recent times, so it was no surprise to see it continue its surge in popularity throughout 2019. While some of the huge and established brands have perfectly good pink gins you can enjoy, we wanted to shine a light on an up-and-comer we feel has a lot of promise and its own take on the style: Mermaid Pink Gin. Made by the wonderful folk over at The Isle of Wight Distillery, this expression got its sweet flavour profile and rosy hue thanks to an infusion of island strawberries.

What does it taste like?:

Light and bright, the strawberry notes arrive right away, supported by citrus and slowly building juniper spice. Samphire gives is a coastal edge, while hints of liquorice root and coriander develop later on.

 

Nine Elms No.18

Who would have thought a few years ago that non-alcoholic tipples would be making their mark in the drinks industry? 2019 was a huge year for low-and-no ABV drinks such as Nine Elms No.18, one of the highlights of the growing category. Specially designed to complement food, it takes the juices from four different varieties of berry and botanical infusions from 20 different flowers, herbs and spices. Nine Elms recommend imbibing it neat, but we reckon a dash of tonic wouldn’t go amiss either.

What does it taste like?:

Bright and vibrant, with refreshing acidity and cranberry tartness, a hint of tannic black tea, and an earthy, leafy note.

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A liquid history of Luxardo

We recently have the pleasure of being hosted by one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing distilleries, Luxardo, to hear its story of defiance, family and home. Also, booze….

We recently have the pleasure of being hosted by one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing distilleries, Luxardo, to hear its story of defiance, family and home. Also, booze.

Some say Venice is the most romantic destination in the world. The former capital of a maritime empire certainly features an enchanting combination of contemporary and ancient, quaint and grandiose. Our host, Nicolò Luxardo, appreciates its charm. But he’s quick to point out that Venice has no monopoly on beauty or heritage in these parts. 

Less than an hour’s drive away is Padua. The oldest university town in Italy is home to over 100,000 students, as well as bars and local markets that grapple for space in the charming town squares. It’s also the base for a family that has been making a considerable range of liqueurs and spirits, including its signature maraschino liqueur and cherries, for nearly two centuries: Luxardo. Family member and assistant export manager Nicolò was kind enough to show us around the family distillery and tell us the story behind the brand.

Luxardo

Nicolò Luxardo 

In 2021, Luxardo will turn 200 years old, but it’s still family-owned. “We are one of the few family-owned businesses in this industry and one of the oldest in the industry which is still family-owned. There is a family member at the top of each strategic line of the company,” Nicolò explains. “Eight Luxardo family members in total work together today, representing three different generations (one member of the fifth generation, five members of the sixth generation and two members of the seventh generation)”. 

The Luxardo brand was founded by Girolamo Luxardo, who came from a small village called Santa Margherita Ligure in the northwestern part of Italy. “He used to trade clothes and ropes, especially with the navy and during one of these trips he ended up in Zadar, which is now Croatia. There he fell in love with the traditional liqueur that was made by the housewives at that time from marasca cherries, which are smaller in size than regular cherries, darker in colour and very, very sour. They are almost impossible to eat raw,” explains Nicolò. “Housewives in those days used to pick these cherries and make a homemade cordial or liqueur which was then given to all the people who were coming over for lunch or for dinner”. 

Girolamo settled there with his wife, Maria Canevari, who started producing her own maraschino. “Girolamo, an entrepreneur, saw an opportunity after her maraschino was proclaimed the best you could find in the city by those who dined with them. The key was they added distillation to the creation process of maraschino,” says Nicolò. In 1821 Girolamo and Maria Canevari founded Girolamo Luxardo and it wasn’t long before they started to produce other classic Italian liqueurs, from limoncello, to triple sec and even new inventions such as the Sangue Morlacco. “We also started producing a juniper-based distillate back in 1835, which is essentially an ancestor of the more modern gin,” says Nicolò. 

Luxardo

The old distillery and Luxardo family home in Zadar

The innovation and quality of drink Luxardo produced made it one of the biggest distilleries in Europe by the early 1900s and one of the first Italian companies to export almost worldwide all of our products. “We began to feature in a lot of old-school classic cocktail books, like Jerry Thomas’ first books. As the bartending culture grew, we grew with it, and part of our success was definitely down to bar culture and the emergence of cocktail bartending,” says global brand ambassador Gareth ‘G’ Franklin. By 1913, the third generation heir Michelangelo Luxardo had built a striking modern distillery on the harbour. “If you still go into Zadar today you can see a very big yellow building. That was ours. The house of the family was on the last two floors and the first two floors were the offices of the company. Production took place behind this building,” says Nicolò. 

The First World War inevitably halted progress, but by its end, Luxardo was able to recover and to become even more successful than before. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Dalmatian coast came under Italian rule. “At this time we were making all sorts of things, including gin, brandies, whisky, everything!” says Franklin. “But a lot of these recipes were lost due to the troubles of World War II.”

Troubles might be an understatement. The War was a complete disaster for the family. “Zadar was bombed 57 times in one year and the city was almost completely destroyed, as well as the company. Three members of the family were killed and the rest managed to escape,” explains Nicolò. “From the ashes of our company the Communist Party [the city was now part of Tito’s Yugoslavia] started a new company called The Marasca. Everything had been taken from us. In the beginning, they sold Luxardo Maraschino bottles and for 50 years we have fought them with lawsuits and won them all. But it has been very difficult for us.” 

Luxardo

The current Luxardo Distillery

The family could no longer call Zadar home or produce drinks so they relocated in 1947 to Torreglia in the Province of Padua, Italy, led by Giorgio, a fourth-generation Luxardo family member and Nicolò III (our host’s grandfather, who was from the fifth generation). “We started from scratch, from zero, with nothing,” says Nicolò. “The maraschino making process lasts roughly around four years. We could not just open the taps and have maraschino flowing out.”

The Luxardo way was not lost, however. The location of Torreglia was a strategic choice. The PH of the soil was very similar to that of Zadar, so it was particularly suitable for growing marasca cherries. What happened next was remarkable. The family got in touch with Professor Morettini, who worked at the University of Florence. In the 1930s-1940s they had sent some cherry tree samples from Zadar to Professor Morettini, so the family attempted to get some cherry tree plans from him so that they could plant them back again in Torreglia. It worked.

Luxardo has gone from strength to strength since. Today, every single Luxardo bottle is produced in Torreglia and the flagship maraschino is still made in the exact same way as it was made back in 1821. The brand has exported its products to over 87 different countries, with its sambuca proving to be the biggest selling bottling, followed by the Limoncello and then the Amaretto. The Maraschino liqueur, however, is the fastest-growing product in the last ten years, however, and Franklin reveals it is growing far faster than the others.

Luxardo

The marasca cherry trees in the scenic Torreglian hills

The marasca cherry is the heart of Luxardo. So much so that the firm cultivates a unique variety. “We’ve been growing these cherries for so long that they actually have their own genus. Our cherries are scientifically called the ‘Luxardo marasca cherry’”, says Franklin. In total there are more than 30,000 trees in the Torreglian hills that produce this type of cherry.

Luxardo does not own all those trees, however. “These plants are planted in soil which is not ours, but back when we started here in Torreglia we found farmers who were willing to cultivate them. We gave them the plants for free and they signed an exclusivity agreement to sell all the existing products at the end of the year to us, but at market price,” says Nicolò. “The farmers are very happy to work with us because they get the plant for free, they know they will sell all the existing product at the end of the season without having to go and find customers and they’ll get paid the market price of the cherries of that year. The only risk that they take is if the plants get ill or if there is a bad season for the fruits.” 

“We have two different souls in this company. One is more ancient, with more heritage, and the other one is modern and highly technological. Products like the sambuca and limoncello are made in a high-quality way that’s very fast and very modern. Products like the maraschino and the Sangue Morlacco could be done that way, but we’d rather still make them as they were made back in 1821,” says Nicolò. “We have been in business for almost 200 years because those products were made in the best possible way. We are the only producer of maraschino who still makes it in the traditional way.” Franklin agrees that the process has to be kept true to its roots, “We can do it faster, we have the technology, but we will be sacrificing integrity and taste”. 

Luxardo

The traditional copper pot stills. Distillation is a key part of Luxardo’s production of maraschino liqueur

It can take up to four years to produce a bottle of maraschino liqueur. The marasca cherries are harvested in late June/beginning of July. The pulp, the pits, the juice and the cherry are separated and the tree is also pruned as the leaves and branches are one of the most important ingredients. Inside larch wood vats neutral alcohol is added to this mixture of leaves, branches, pulp, skin, stem, the stones and a little bit of juice and it macerates for two to three years. 

Two of those larch wood vats are the original ones installed in 1947. “The older they get, the better they are because in this process the oxygen that comes in and out of these vats changes and matures the product,” says Nicolò. “That’s why we use larch wood, it’s a very porous wood, so this allows this oxidation to happen. We use dark wood as it has tannins inside which interact with the product that is contained inside the barrel.”

From here the liquid is distilled and the solid parts, the leaves, the branches, the pulp, are put inside bags and placed inside the traditional copper pot stills, which are heated with steam. “We only use the heart of the distillation for the maraschino. The heads and tails are separated and then reused in the next distillation,” says Nicolò, who then points to an array of machines around us that are used to make the other recipes for the other products. “The Amaro Abano is infused and is the only product for which they make a complete maceration. For the Bitter Bianco a small infuser is used to make separate infusions of each herb.” 

Luxardo

The Finnish ash wood butts

The blending process for the maraschino liqueur takes place in Finnish ash wood butts, complete with pores because oxygen is still required to interact with the product inside. The liqueur rests inside here for roughly six and 12 months. “This is where you get control. The Finnish ash wood butts are smaller and allow us to get more contact between the liquid and the wood. This is the step that allows us to get that consistent flavour and taste,” says Franklin.  “The whole process means we don’t make a regular cherry liqueur. What you get at the end is like a cross between a fortified wine and a cherry liqueur. So you get a big rich, bold cherry flavour but this has got a port-like richness to it as well.”

To finish, sugar and water are added in the mixing tanks, then the liqueur is stored in elliptical vats (shaped like this purely for storage reasons, they contain the same amount of liquid but they take away less space) until it is ready to be bottled. While there are mechanical bottling lines, built in 2013 and 2015 on-site, that can process 6000 bottles per hour, for all the technology the maraschino liqueur still has the same distinctive cardboard label produced by hand.

Nicolò finishes our tour by showing us the on-going construction of a whole new visitor centre and talks excitedly of the future. Franklin concurs, “The world of liqueurs is a funny world. It’s by far the biggest category there is. Mainly because liqueurs are all about flavours, so if you can think of a flavour, it has the ability to be a liqueur. But also if you can think of a combination of flavours then they also have abilities to be liqueurs as well. The possibilities are truly endless.” 

Luxardo

It’s been a long road for the Luxardo family, but there’s more to come from them…

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10 deliciously warming rums

They’re warming. They’re delicious. And they’re not just for Christmas. But they are particularly delicious this time of year. Rum is a go-to for many who want a good winter warmer….

They’re warming. They’re delicious. And they’re not just for Christmas. But they are particularly delicious this time of year.

Rum is a go-to for many who want a good winter warmer. It’s versatile in cocktails, it’s often full of festive spices and it tends to satisfy those with a sweeter tooth. But there are so many expressions around now, it can be hard to narrow down which bottling you should go for. 

That’s why we’ve done the hard part for you and created this collection of some of the most sublime spirits we have at MoM Towers. Enjoy!

Rumbullion! Chilli & Chocolate

Chilli and chocolate is a winning combination, as we all know. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise when Abelforth’s decided to add that delicious duo to its already sublime Rumbullion! Criollo cocoa nibs, chipotle chillies and jalapeño chillies were used to create the profile that we reckon would be smashing in a deluxe hot chocolate…

What does it taste like?:

Intense bittersweet dark chocolate leads with earthy red chilli warmth, creamy vanilla. coffee beans, nutmeg, red cola cubes and orange zest in support. 

Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23

Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23, a sensational Guatemalan rum that’s won more awards than Meryl Streep, was blended using the solera system and matured in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. It’s a firm favourite of ours for good reason and a real show-stopper at social occasions.

What does it taste like?:

Very sweet and nutty with honey, chocolate, dark brown sugar, pipe tobacco, molasses and gentle smoke.

Foursquare Spiced Rum 

Foursquare is one of the best spiced rums on the market from one of the best rum distilleries around. The actual recipe is a family secret passed down through five generations, but you should be able to detect cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg, which are gently blended among other ingredients at the centuries-old site.

What does it taste like?:

Spicy and sweet with notes of peppermint, nutmeg, toffee apples, gingerbread, Christmas cake, marmalade and parsley. 

Appleton Estate 12 Year Old Rare Blend

Appleton is one of the finest rum distilleries in the world and if you haven’t experienced any of its delightful expressions, then Appleton Estate 12 Year Old Rare Blend is a great place to start. Plus it was made by the wonderful Joy Spence, who were big fans of here at MoM Towers.

What does it taste like?:

A thick, nutty and spicy expression with notes of vanilla, salted butter, rich molasses and toasted oak.

Pineapple Grenade Spiced Rum 

Pineapple Grenade is a spicy, fruity and fun expression made with 100% molasses rum from the sublime Diamond Distillery in Guyana. The spirit is then imported into the UK where it was infused with a secret spice mix as well as a blend of pineapple and salted caramel. This is perfect for those who love a bit of Tiki in their lives.

What does it taste like?:

Tangy mango and pineapple, layers of caramel and a touch of ginger.

Five Hundred Cuts Botanical Rum

One of the more intriguing trends of 2019 was the emergence of botanical rum, such as this from bottling from the distilling arm of BrewDog. Five Hundred Cuts was distilled from sugar cane molasses, which was fermented with red wine yeast and rum yeast for seven days before it was then double pot distilled. Then botanicals, including orange peel, lavender, schezuan peppercorns and cardamom were then re-distilled in the spirit, while cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, tonka bean, ginger, and allspice, were steeped in the spirit for 14 hours. The two spirits were finally blended and finished off with a touch of muscovado sugar. It’s quite the process and the resulting rum is suitably delicious.

What does it taste like?:

Coca-cola, dark chocolate, caramel, cardamom and rich dark sugar combine with more aromatic notes like ginger, orange peel and cloves.

Cut Smoked Rum 

A rum that should appeal to fans of peated whisky is not something that’s usually readily available. However, those who prefer the smokier side of things should be satisfied with this tasty rum. The base of Jamaican rum was smoked using oak chips to impart that signature flavour.

What does it taste like?:

Struck match, coffee bean bitterness balanced by vanilla.

El Dorado 12 Year Old

Any fan of rum will have good things to say about the Demerara Distillers Limited distillery, Guyana, who produce the fantastic El Dorado rums. The 12 Year Old is the perfect introduction to its range, a rich, complex and downright delicious tipple.

What does it taste like?:

Sweet vanilla, dark chocolate and brown sugar, then some syrupy dried fruit, zesty notes of marmalade and rich spice.

Ron Izalco 10 Year Old

Ron Izalco 10 Year Old is a delightful blend of Central American rums produced from volcanic sugar cane molasses which were aged in ex-bourbon barrels oak casks for a decade. This is one to be sipped and enjoyed.

What does it taste like?:

Fresh red chilli heat balanced by sweeter tropical flavours and citrus, alongside creamy caramel and fragrant honey, with a pinch of tobacco and a handful of raisins.

Caroni 20 Year Old (That Boutique-y Rum Company) 

As independent bottlings of rum go, Caroni 20 Year Old (That Boutique-y Rum Company) might just be the finest you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting. It’s hard to get your hands on spirit from the legendary closed distillery, such is the popularity of its rums, but thankfully That Boutique-y Rum Company managed to squirrel some away and it’s every bit as fantastic as you would imagine.

What does it taste like?:

Medicinal smoke, warm rubber, homemade blackcurrant and raspberry jam, ripe banana, manuka honey, muscovado sugar, rich vanilla, game meat, coffee beans, rancio truffles, drying wood spice and bread and butter pudding. 

 

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New Arrival of the Week: Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon

Our New Arrival of the Week is a Tennessee bourbon from the Heaven’s Door brand that was co-created by Bob Dylan (yes, the Bob Dylan).  Something is happening here, and…

Our New Arrival of the Week is a Tennessee bourbon from the Heaven’s Door brand that was co-created by Bob Dylan (yes, the Bob Dylan). 

Something is happening here, and we know exactly what it is. It’s another celebrity booze, folks! Ryan Reynolds is breaking through walls all over the place to promote his involvement in Aviation Gin. George Clooney made waves and the serious big bucks with Casamigos Tequila. David Beckham associated his frankly distractingly good looks with Haig Club Scotch. Now Bob Dylan has a Tennessee whiskey brand. 

It’s called ‘Heaven’s Door’, a reference to Dylan’s little-known ditty, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. The project started back in 2015 when Marc Bushala, the CEO of Spirits Investment Partnership and a former partner in Angel’s Envy bourbon, discovered that Dylan had registered a trademark application for a “bootleg whiskey”. He approached the legendary singer-songwriter about realising the idea. Ryan Perry and Jordan Via were brought on board as director of whiskey development and master distiller respectively, and together they established the character and taste of Heaven’s Door whiskey.

The core range features three expressions: a Straight Rye, a Double Barrel Bourbon and our New Arrival of the Week: the Tennessee Bourbon.

Heaven's Door

Bob Dylan. I shouldn’t need to caption this. It’s Bob Dylan.

The Tennessee Bourbon was made with a mash bill of 70% corn and 30% ‘small grains’ (tasting it there’s definitely rye, I’d guess a touch of wheat too), and was matured for at least eight years in American oak barrels. The Double Barrel Bourbon is a blend of three whiskeys which are then finished in hand-toasted, new American oak barrels from Louisville-based Kelvin Cooperage, while the Straight Rye has a particularly interesting maturation story, as it was finished in toasted oak cigar barrels (as in cigar shaped, they’re not barrels that previously held cigars). from Vosges in France.

As of yet, there’s no distillery, so there’s been some debate about where the liquid for these bottlings was sourced from. Some say George Dickel. Others reckon Davidson Reserve from Pennington Distilling Co. What we do know is that the whiskeys are directly tied to Tennessee either via distillation, ageing, barrel finishing or bottling. 

But, rather excitingly, The Heaven’s Door Distillery and Center for the Arts is slated to open in 2020 in a church, built in 1860, in downtown Nashville. where Dylan recorded four albums. While it’s going to be home to Heaven’s Door whiskeys, the site itself sounds more like a Dylan centre of excellence, complete with an art centre of all of his paintings and metalwork, as well as a concert venue, a restaurant and whiskey library. I simply must go there.

Heaven's Door

An artist’s impression of what the Heaven’s Door Distillery will look like

You might have spotted in that last paragraph the mention of metalwork, so let me confirm your suspicions. Bob Dylan is a metal artist. And the iron gate artwork depicted on each bottle? Designed by the man himself in his studio, Black Buffalo Ironworks. The Tennessee Bourbon sports a metallic crow, while the rye features a heel spur and a shovel adorns the double-barrel whiskey. It makes for striking artwork and gives the bottles, which I have to say are quite beautiful, a unique aesthetic.

It’s interesting to note the scope and effort that is being put into Heaven’s Door as a brand. It would have been very easy to buy some whiskey, slap Dylan’s name on it and watch the money pour in. But the impression I get is that this is not that kind of operation. There was clearly a lot of time and effort put in to creating the three core expressions. According to Perry, “It took over 100 different blends to find the desired tastes for Heaven’s Door”, and some interesting maturation processes were explored that a more cynical brand wouldn’t have bothered with. The plans for the distillery are extensive and read like a shrine to Dylan. And the man himself appears to genuinely be a full partner, not just a pretty face.

So it appears that we have an intriguing new brand in our midst. But do the whiskey’s stand up to scratch? Upon the launch of the whiskeys, Dylan was quoted as saying: “I’ve been travelling for decades, and I’ve been able to try some of the best spirits that the world of whiskey has to offer. This is great whiskey.” I’m cautiously inclined to agree.

Heaven's Door

The Heaven’s Door range

Today’s highlighted spirit, the Tennessee Bourbon, is my personal highlight of the range. Its corn-forward mash bill creates the kind of light, supple and sweet profile you’d expect, but there’s more going on here. It’s varied, elegant, and often pleasantly surprising in its complexity. I’d generally prefer it neat as I wouldn’t want to drown its subtle qualities, but bartender Jason Yu did create a Whiskey Smash recipe that I’m intrigued to try (I’ve included the recipe below so you can experiment yourself).

It’s worth pointing out that across the brand’s website and various social media platforms there are numerous cocktail recipes and suggestions to mix and play with Heaven’s Door whiskeys. It’s good to see they’re not taking themselves too seriously and have veered away from defining its whiskey by dated stereotypes.

Heaven’s Door Double Barrel Bourbon is darker and spicier, with more candied fruit, but the poorest of the three for my money. It’s a little thin and lacks the intrigue of the Tennessee Bourbon. The same cannot be said for the rye, which is completely unexpected. It’s incredibly delicate and measured and avoids the trap of being a one-dimensional spice-bomb. It might not satisfy those who prefer a more conventional rye profile, but this is Dylan, after all, so you should expect something that takes you down a different path.

 

Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon Tasting Note:

Nose: Maple syrup and pecan pie sweetness initially, before the aroma of warm baked bread rushes through with hints of dried earth, sweet tobacco, and new leather in support. Root beer, apples and brandied cherries emerge with time, while herbal tea and a subtle lick of marzipan reside in the backdrop.

Palate: Manuka honey, rye spice and cedarwood emerge through a beautifully measured vanilla note, which is sweet and slightly earthy. Toffee popcorn, butterscotch and apple pie add more sweetness which oaky tannins and sharp blueberries temper. Blackberry jam on soda bread develops with water, as does a little dusty oak and creamy nuttiness. Some orange peel, too. And nougat. Also gingerbread. This one just kept going. 

Finish: Thick, long and spicy, with a big hit of black pepper keeping notes of dark fruit and caramel sundae in good company.  

Serving suggestion: Whiskey Smash (Muddle 20ml lemon juice, mint leaves and 20ml simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add 45ml Heaven’s Door Tennessee Straight Bourbon and ice, shake well. Pour into a rocks glass over mint and ice).

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