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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

A closer look at Tennessee whiskey

When you hear the words ‘Tennessee whiskey’, we’ll bet your mind jumps straight to Jack Daniel’s. But the state is home to a host of whiskey producers large and small…

When you hear the words ‘Tennessee whiskey’, we’ll bet your mind jumps straight to Jack Daniel’s. But the state is home to a host of whiskey producers large and small who pride themselves on doing things the Tennessee way. Speaking with Jim Massey, co-founder of Nashville-based Fugitives Spirits, we dig down into the DNA of Tennessee whiskey and reveal what sets it apart from bourbon…

The two largest Tennessee whiskey producers are Lynchburg-based Jack Daniel’s and  Cascade Hollow’s George Dickel, but there are a wealth of smaller producers throughout the state – Chattanooga Whiskey Company of, naturally, Chattanooga, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery of Nashville, and Tenn South of Lynnville to name just three – who are dedicated to making whiskey the Tennessee way.

The term ‘Tennessee whiskey’ doesn’t apply to all whiskeys produced in Tennessee, since the liquid has to undergo a certain production process before it can wear the term on its label, but it does have to be made in the state. When it comes to regulations, Tennessee whiskeys are held to the same legal definition as bourbon – at least 51% corn, aged in new, charred oak, etc – but they benefit from an additional filtering process through maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process.

Just some of the Fugitive range

“The effect of these constraints has kept ‘paper tiger’ brands from hijacking and repackaging hundreds of variation brands on industrial bourbon and calling it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’,” says Jim Massey, co-founder of Nashville-based Fugitives Spirits, which uses sustainable heirloom grains to make its signature bottlings. “While the marketplace is flooded with repackaged bourbon brands all carrying the same juice, Tennessee Whiskey has held steadfast and true. There are only a handful on the market, so we’ve ended up being the true rare find.”

The process – which sees all new make distillate filtered through (or steeped in) charcoal chips prior to being aged in cask – is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which was the location of Jack Daniel’s when it was first established there. Interestingly, it’s no longer used in Lincoln County – the only remaining distillery is Kelso-based Benjamin Prichard’s, which is the only distillery exempt from using charcoal filtration.

For the rest – well, each distillery has its own method. Jack Daniel’s chars sugar maple staves with its own unaged distillate before grinding the remains into chunks, filtering its new make through a 10ft filter bed using gravity. George Dickel, meanwhile, chills its new make to around 5 degrees celsius before steeping it in 13ft of charcoal (as opposed to filtering it through). By contrast, Collier and McKeel pumps its whiskey through 10-13 feet of sugar maple charcoal made from trees cut by local sawmills.

While ‘filtering’ gives the impression that flavour is being removed as opposed to added, in reality the opposite is true. “Maple charcoal filtering certainly smooths the spirit, but it also adds dramatically to the flavour profile,” says Massey, who admits he was initially hesitant to introduce the process. “My heirloom grain distillate was so beautiful, I thought, ‘Why change this?’,” he explains. “But I was committed to making the best Tennessee Whiskey and that meant I had to do the maple charcoal filtering. The result overwhelmed me, it was indeed smoother and yet more complex.” 

Don’t mess with Jim Massey

This, Massey explains, is because of the additional congeners found in the charcoal, which he makes from storm-damaged sugar maple limbs at his family farm, which were planted by his great-grandfather more than 100 years ago. “I did this out of necessity – it’s not like you can go to the store and buy food-grade maple charcoal – but I realise this is probably the way it was originally done,” he says. “We get hints of smoke and certainly maple, but there is a wild fruit note that comes through as well.”

The spirit is certainly all the more compelling for it. I ask Massey for his opinion on existing practices regarding the production and labelling of Tennessee whiskey. Are there any changes he’d advocate for? “I’d like to see a designation for Tennessee Whiskey sourced from heirloom Tennessee-raised corn,” says Massey. “Other than that, it needs to be distilled and aged and bottled in Tennessee, and, of course, honour the Lincoln County Process. 

“With the varieties of soil types and heirloom corn and distillation methods and skills and charcoal production possibilities, there are thousands of flavours to be explored for Tennessee Whiskey as it is defined,” he continues. “Those who say it’s too limiting are simply ignorant, have ulterior motives, or they don’t want to do the work.”

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Greenwashing in Scotch whisky

We hear a lot about environmental concerns and sustainability from the Scotch whisky industry these days. But is there real substance behind the marketing? Ian Buxton investigates… I watched a…

We hear a lot about environmental concerns and sustainability from the Scotch whisky industry these days. But is there real substance behind the marketing? Ian Buxton investigates…

I watched a nice little video recently. It features Doug Allan, a wildlife cameraman particularly noted for his work on Blue Planet, talking about his relationship with the sea. It runs alongside another short film about some rather earnest Californians who make ‘sustainable surfboards’. Both form part of Old Pulteney’s Rise with the Tide campaign on the brand’s website, where it tells us, rather sententiously I felt, that its story “is inseparable from the sea”, and that it embraces “the sea’s immense power… to do something remarkable.”

I rather like Old Pulteney and enjoyed the feel-good videos, without thinking about them very deeply.  After all, who these days doesn’t want to appear concerned about the environment in general and oceans in particular?  We’ve all seen the disturbing images of oceanic pollution and watched distressing footage of birds, animals and fish caught up or killed by plastic waste.  We all want to do something.

Kudos then, to the films with their stated aim. “Our latest film series is all about sharing these stories,” the website assures us, “so people can take inspiration from them. To get out there, embrace that opportunity and do something remarkable.”  

So, I wondered, what remarkable thing is Pulteney doing? I posed a series of questions to the brand, expecting to hear about wave power generating the distillery’s electricity, reductions in effluent and waste, work with local environmental campaigners – something, anything related to these worthy messages. To summarise the answer: there’s nothing in particular.  Turns out this is a brand awareness campaign attempting to highlight Old Pulteney’s claim to be ‘The Maritime Malt’.

Now we could discuss the highly-vexed and contentious question of saltiness in the taste of whisky, but I’m not going down that particular rabbit hole. Or we could enquire what it is, precisely, that makes Old Pulteney notably different from other distilleries located on our coastline (Talisker’s marketing is uncannily similar). But there’s a bigger issue – and that’s the question of ‘greenwashing’ in marketing.

Sustainable Surf x Old Pulteney - Rise With The Tide

The Ecoboard boys enjoying a dram

Greenwashing: “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organisation’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’” (thanks, Wikipedia for that cogent summary). I’d say that aligning your brand with cuddly Doug Allan and the manufacturers of ECOBOARDS™ without actually doing anything is a classic example. Incidentally, the surf video was shot on location in California – each person from the brand who flew to Los Angeles generated 2.63 tonnes of additional CO² (or around three times that if they were fortunate enough to be flying business class, which would wipe out the CO² saving of more than 200 ECOBOARDS™).

In fairness, I don’t think anyone at Old Pulteney really thought about this in terribly great depth. They seemed genuinely surprised by my questions so what I think we have here is a bit of fluffy PR with no real substance.

It’s a shame though, and the disappointment is made worse by the fact that some brands are doing this well. Take Glenmorangie, for example, and its DEEP sponsorship, which we covered back in May last year. It is helping the regeneration of the oyster beds in the Dornoch Firth, which will improve the local marine environment and may, in time, form the basis of a sustainable high-value fishery. Who wouldn’t enjoy half a dozen native oysters washed down with some Glenmo’?  I know I’d be available for that media trip!


The oyster beds in the Dornoch Firth

Chivas Brothers, justifiably proud of the reduced energy footprint at Dalmunach, is the  lead sponsor of VIBES, the Scottish Environment Business Awards. “We believe sustainable business should be at the core of any enterprise that takes a long-term approach and expects their product to have a purpose and role in society,” says Ronald Daalmans, environmental sustainability manager for Chivas Brothers. Past award winners include Diageo for its work on environmental protection on the Leven site.

Not so very long ago, Dewar’s adopted lightweight bottles for its blends and installed a biomass boiler at Aberfeldy distillery, which was projected to deliver a phenomenal 90 percent reduction in the brand’s carbon footprint on the site. In 2018, Chivas Brothers barred plastic straws and stirrers from all its events in over 100 countries, and campaigned on Twitter to raise funds for the Marine Conservation Society. 

And so on… there’s no shortage of whisky brands stepping up to meet the environmental challenges in distilling.  So, greenwashing marketers should take care. Today’s consumers are alert to empty claims and not shy in calling out offenders, with the consequent backlash far outweighing any early wins for brand image.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

After Ian Buxton filed this article, he received a short statement from Old Pulteney:

The Rise With The Tide campaign was developed to tell the story of The Maritime Malt in a new way, giving more insight into how our coastal hometown of Wick has depended on its relationship with the sea for hundreds of years.

Our content series shares personal life stories which mirror our brand narrative. Our first partners (Doug Allan in the UK and Sustainable Surf in the US) were selected for their lifetime of work with the sea, and their craft depending on the same patience that’s required to make a really great whisky. This is just the beginning, with the next phase of the campaign set to reveal more about the $20,000 investment we’ve made with Sustainable Surf to back their projects designed to protect the sea. This is being finalised now and will run this year – we’re looking forward to revealing more on this in the coming months.

Being a responsible member of the community is a value that Pulteney distillery has held for decades. Working in partnership with Ignis, Pulteney has supported a district heating scheme which supplies over 200 homes with renewable energy and utilises the biomass boiler’s steam to reduce the distillery’s greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, we updated the secondary packaging of our whisky to ensure the design was fully recyclable. Projects such as these continue our ongoing commitment to, where possible, put in place sustainable measures.”

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Fenjiu, baijiu for beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Preparing the Sorghum for Fermentation

Production methods:

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

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

Tasting the baijiu:

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

The Fenjiu range

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

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

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

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




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Why you should embrace draft cocktails with Black Lines

Cocktails on tap are coming to a bar near you. We take a look at this burgeoning phenomenon with Black Lines co-founder Casey Sorenson. You may have ordered a cocktail…

Cocktails on tap are coming to a bar near you. We take a look at this burgeoning phenomenon with Black Lines co-founder Casey Sorenson.

You may have ordered a cocktail in a bar recently and been surprised to see the bartender make their way to a draft tap. But it’s a sight that you’re sure to see more and more of in the future. While draft cocktails are not a recent innovation, the popularity of them is rising and the trend shows no sign of slowing down in 2020. The quickfire service previously solely associated with events and festivals is featuring in highly-regarded venues such as Fare Bar & Canteen, TAYĒR + ELEMENTARY, Duck and Waffle and Amsterdam’s Super Lyan.

Some argue, however, that cocktails on tap compromise the craft and the theatre of bartending, while others simply fear that taste and quality of ingredients will suffer. So, we decided to talk to somebody from a company that has made kegged cocktails its business to give his side of the story. Enter Casey Sorenson, co-founder of Black Lines, a company that specialises in providing cocktails on taps for pubs, bars, festivals, events and more. 

Black Lines

Say hello to Casey Sorenson!

Along with Kuleen Khimasia, the duo founded the company in 2017 having met and become friends the year before. “Kuleen was running his own street food business and was looking at developing house cocktails on tap in his first permanent site. I was at Soho House, doing the drinks development there and had already done on-tap internally,” Sorenson explains. “We realised there was no one actually providing cocktails on tap commercially to pubs, bars, festivals, events. Nobody at the time had a platform people could buy from like they’d buy a keg of beer in the UK. It was a lightbulb moment”.

The duo understood not only that there was a gap in the market, but plenty to be said for draft cocktails as a drinks delivery system. “The clear benefits are speed of service, accessibility and price. But consistency is one people don’t often consider,” says Sorenson. “If you go into a pub without cocktails on tap and they don’t have that skilled bartender or cocktails is not at the forefront at their drinks offering, then you can order a cocktail from a different bartender and get a different drink.”

There’s a clear environmental benefit to draft cocktails too, with the need for less ice, energy and the reduction of beverage wastage often cited as factors.  It’s an aspect that Sorenson was conscious of when founding Black Lines. “The environment has been a big focus in the last five, ten years. When Kuleen and I set up the business we wanted to reduce our impact where we could,” Sorenson explains. “By working closely with some of the best independent British distilleries, we arrange for most of our spirit supply to be delivered pre-bottling in large containers that are later returned and refilled, meaning no waste packaging whatsoever and a heavily reduced carbon footprint”.

Black Lines

Part of the Black Lines range

Sorenson makes it clear, however, that the focus at the centre at Black Lines is one of quality. It’s a concern for those who are sceptical of draft cocktails that it’s an easy way for bars to utilise cheaper ingredients or water down their drinks. For Sorenson, that’s the biggest misconception about cocktails on tap. “When I host tastings with people or a customer might have one of our drinks for the first time they often say that they can taste the booze in there. There’s no reason why you should water a drink down just because it’s on tap and it doesn’t mean that we’re making a cheaper product,” he says. “Quality is ultimately what’s really important for us. We only work with good quality juice companies or spirit companies, like Chase Distillery or the East London Liquor Company”.  

Sorenson is not blind to the criticism and understands people’s fears of what you may lose by imbibing a draft cocktail. “We completely respect the craft and the theatre that goes into making cocktails at the bar. Seeing a bartender make a drink is really important. But there are certain places, like a rooftop bar, where you’re not going there to look at the bartender making a drink are you?” says Sorenson. “If you look at the studies that have been done on the most sold cocktails in the UK, there’s not a lot of those drinks that involve a lot of theatre. Take an Aperol Spritz – how much theatre can you really go into combining Aperol, soda and prosecco? The cocktails that we do haven’t retracted a lot of theatre.”

Black Lines

Could you tell the difference between a draft cocktail and a regular cocktail?

In fact, Sorenson makes a convincing argument that draft cocktails facilitate the best bartenders to make more signature drinks as it lightens their burden. “What we have done is imagine a bartender has an order for eight Aperol Spritz, one Manhattan and one Vieux Carré. They have time to focus on the latter drinks because with the Aperol Spritz on tap they can just pour them in ten seconds each,” he explains. “If you go to places like TAYĒR + ELEMENTARY, Fare, Duck and Waffle, they’ve got cocktails on tap because they’re still made with quality ingredients, they provide a consistent serve of the cocktails that they make a lot of and it means they can focus their love and attention on the really cool and classic cocktails that need it”.

The reaction within the industry is becoming more welcoming and this understanding of how cocktails on tap benefit bartenders as well as consumers is a key reason why. “When we started in 2017 it was a challenge, winning over the bartenders. Every place we went into, operationally it made sense to have a cocktail on tap but the bartenders sometimes feared that we were trying to replace their expert knowledge,” says Sorenson. “But they’re starting to realise that it’s actually there to work in synergy with them and can really work to their benefit. The industry reaction has really picked up in the last six to 12 months. The bartenders are really getting behind it and seeing our point of view. How many bartenders complain about making 30 Mojitos in a night? When you put a Mojito on tap they realise you’re doing them a favour”.

Perhaps another factor that makes bartenders accepting of draft cocktails is that the process of creating them is very similar to creating a drink in a bar. Along with quality spirits, Black Lines works with fresh ingredients: “An important part for us is we work with a local London juice producer. They juice their juice at about 4 am in the morning and then it gets to us at about seven. We’re really not having that juice out for very long, so the quality of the juice is kept,” Sorenson says. “We also don’t pasteurise our products, we use filtration because pasteurising cocktails will change the flavour. Filtration allows you to keep that flavour profile”. 

Black Lines

A Negroni being poured from a tap

The Black Lines drinks list covers much of the best selling cocktails in the UK, from the Aperol Spritz to the Mojito, as well as popular options such as the Negroni. “They’re the ones that cause an operational issue for a lot of venues in terms of keeping up with the demand when they have their peak periods of service as these are the drinks that consumers are going for,” Sorenson explains. 

The product development of recent additions such as the Pink Grapefruit Spritz and the Elderflower Collins and the Rum Punch demonstrates that Black Lines is conscious of emerging trends, however. The latter is interesting with so many expecting rum to have a huge 2020 on the back of a promising 2019. “The Rum Punch has been insanely popular, we weren’t expecting it to take off the way it did. In Boxpark it sells more Rum Punch there than we sell Mojito, which is quite interesting,” says Sorenson. “Then you’ve got The Pink Grapefruit Spritz, which is one of our vegan cocktails and also it’s lower alcohol than most cocktails. When you compare it to a beer, 8% ABV it’s not low alcohol, but for a cocktail it is. We do try and to keep in tune with trends when we develop cocktails. We know people are more health-conscious, we know more people that are vegan/vegetarian”. 

Black Lines benefits from a signature look, with intriguing artwork on each of the labels. The name of the brand actually comes from an abstract painting from 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky. The branding is unsurprisingly black and white, given the name of the company, which was chosen to contrast the overtly colourful nature of artwork you’ll see on taps typically in bars, particularly with craft beer. “We worked with eight emerging young artists to develop artwork for each drink and gave them a brief to come up with their own influence and style for each serve. We gave the history and flavour profile for each drink and then let them take their own view of how they wanted to put it across,” says Sorenson. “It really allows us to stand out and with more people coming into the space, we want to stand out. We wanted our artwork to be the opposite of what you would expect. If you saw a Mojito you’d expect to see like a highball with mint etc., and that’s great but we wanted to have something more eye-catching with more identity and character for each drink”. 

Black Lines

Black Line’s branding is based on signature artwork

Ultimately, Sorenson outlines that the ambition of Black Lines is to make fantastic cocktails accessible to more people in more locations. He stresses that part of his role is to be an educator and advocate for how cocktails on tap can help the drinks industry. “Our drinks really speak for themselves,” he said. “I could confidently say that if I put a drink in front of someone that didn’t know that it was from tap, they wouldn’t know the difference from a good quality cocktail being made by a skilled bartender. We’ve really got to get people to understand that they can have cocktails that are accessible, quality and consistent from tap. That’s what we at Black Lines need to get across”. 

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When Burns Night goes wrong

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews,…

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews, so it’s the perfect time to share the highs and lows of honouring Scotland’s national poet in some decidedly unScottish environments. 

After many months of reflection and internal discussions, I have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. I intend to step back from Burns Night to focus on a new chapter.

Over the past decade it’s been my pleasure and privilege to attend Burns Night celebrations, often acting as fear an taighe (that’s master of ceremonies to you), at gatherings as far-flung as San Diego in the west to Budapest in the east; Lisbon to the south and Helsinki in the north.  Not every one of these would be recognised as an entirely conventional Burns Night in Alloway, the birthplace of the great man.

Burns Night, for those of you unaware of the event, is the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar (well, apart from Hogmanay, possibly, and the Scottish Cup Final, but Celtic generally win that and it’s getting quite boring to be honest).  It commemorates the 25th January 1759, birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. He’s noted, apart from the verse obvs, for collecting traditional songs, authorship of a book full of dirty ditties that his admirers tactfully forget to mention and for siring twelve or possibly thirteen children with four different women.  Frankly, in the world of #MeToo, Burns would be in the dock as a sex pest.

But back to the party, which involves the consumption of haggis and whisky; a set pattern of speeches and sometimes songs, and the consumption of haggis, not forgetting the whisky which greatly assists getting the haggis eaten up.  Not everything runs smoothly on these occasions (did I mention the consumption of whisky?)

Now that is what a haggis is supposed to look like

At one event in the rather glamorous setting of Lugano in Switzerland, I was deputed to give the Address to the Haggis and all eight verses were requested. No difficulty there as I learned this at my mother’s knee and other low joints (sorry). I instructed the kitchen and requested a sharp knife for the theatrical third verse:

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

They obliged with something close to a bayonet. Again, no difficulty as I fondly imagined this could only add to the fun.  What I did not expect was that the kitchen, having been strictly enjoined not to cut up the presentation haggis, had also neglected to cook it.

The result: a greasy, rugby-ball shaped beast that resisted all my increasingly frenzied attempts to break through its skin and which proceeded to bounce off the magnificent platter and across the table. My Italian audience applauded with vigour, believing this to be a regulation part of the proceedings; the Scots in the room were generally helpless with laughter, though their enthusiastic consumption of whisky may have played some small part.

In Oslo, the distinguished chef took great offence at the idea that the haggis should be shipped from Scotland and insisted that he was more than capable of preparing the dish himself. The result looked like cheap dog food, which I then spent some anxious minutes wrapping in cling film wrap to give some resemblance to an actual haggis. “So you eat this in Scotland,” enquired one politely curious guest. I fear that I may have prevaricated somewhat and that they can only be disappointed if ever they encounter the genuine article.

Ian Buxton with Hungary’s finest piper

On piping in the haggis in Budapest the locally-engaged piper, allegedly the finest in Hungary and it must be conceded splendidly arrayed in full Brigadoon mode, appeared to have indulged not wisely but well in the drams that I had arranged. As a result he was unable to inflate the bag on his pipes and marched in an unsteady manner, swaying somewhat as I attempted several a cappella verses of ‘Flower of Scotland’ while we presented the haggis to the assembled guests, now somewhat bemused by proceedings.   No more, I may add, than I was. The piper made his excuses and left shortly afterwards

And, at a prestigious London venue, the kitchen staff made such a mess of cooking the haggis that the host for the evening dragged them out in front of the guests and made them apologise to the company for their inept presentation. If nothing else, it certainly made for an unforgettable evening.

On Burns Night, in the words of the poet: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Truer words have seldom been written!


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An introduction to Australian wine

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

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

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

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

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


The historic Yalumba winery in South Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barossa Valley, South Australia

Speciality: Shiraz

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

Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia

Speciality: Riesling

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

Grapes ripening in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 

Speciality: Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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


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Behind the scenes at the UK’s first sake brewery

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

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

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

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

Lucy Wilson making sake

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

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

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

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

Pretty labels

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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Five interesting facts about Archie Rose Distillery

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Dave Withers!

1. They make spirits with a sense of place

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

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

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

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

Archie Rose

The unique still set-up at Archie Rose

2. Quality over quantity is paramount

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

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

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

3. They’re big on transparency

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

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

Archie Rose

These babies mature fast in Sydney’s humid climate

4. They work with Australia’s distinct weather

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

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

5. A hands-on approach from the very beginning

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

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


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The 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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How the iStill is revolutionising distillation

To make good spirits you need a room full of gleaming copper. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong! says Dr Edwin van Eijk, inventor of the revolutionary iStill. We talk to the…

To make good spirits you need a room full of gleaming copper. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong! says Dr Edwin van Eijk, inventor of the revolutionary iStill. We talk to the good doctor about automation, cask ageing and why most distillers are stuck in the past. 

We met Dr Edwin van Eijk, or Odin to his friends, at an event called Speakeasy organised by Spanish spirits distributor Vantguard. Presenting after the charismatic Carlos Magdalena aka the Plant Messiah (one of the Evening Standard’s 1000 most influential Londoners, dontcha know) can’t have been easy but the doc more than kept the audience of bartenders and industry types transfixed. While he spoke, a silent lab coat-clad assistant (who I was later specifically told that I was not allowed to ask questions of) beavered away in the background with an iStill. It was like the Pet Shop Boys of distillation.

Odin in action with a mini iStill.

The genesis for the iStill comes from visits to Hungary, Van Eijk’s wife is Hungarian, a country where amateur distillation is commonplace. Most of the fruit brandies he tried were pretty rough, according to van Eijk, “but one guy came up with a nice smooth drink, no hangover. How?” Van Eijk’s curiosity was aroused but he quickly became frustrated by the unscientific approach to distillation: “I soon discovered that most information was anecdotal,” he said. “My grand grandfather did this.” For van Eijk this was good enough, he just kept asking ‘why?’ 

So, he built his own still, and added thermometers and automation so it could run while he was doing his day job. He quickly realised he was on to something so he quit his job, sold his house and set up his own business in 2012 with the aim of, according to the website, “making modern, game changing distillation technology.” 

All iStills are made in a factory in the Netherlands. It’s now a big operation. Van Eijk claims to be the largest supplier of distillation equipment worldwide in terms of numbers sold. Such well-known operations as Dornoch in Scotland, Wrecking Coast in Cornwall, Blackwater in Ireland all use iStills. You can see from these maps how ubiquitous they have become in Ireland and Scotland.  Some distilleries have both a traditional and an iStill. There’s something for all budgets: an eight litre mini still that can be carried in a suitcase (see above) starts at €3000; whereas a 5000 litre one begins at €90,000. The company recommends customers take a four day training workshop. Odin is also very responsive in distillation forums for those who have further questions. “We are successful because we keep asking why. Innovation is only key to success. Try something different”, he said.

A map showing all the iStills in the world

Take automation, for example. When you visit distilleries, even new ones or especially new ones, you are often proudly told that everything is manual. There are no computers here. For van Eijk described this as “bad business covered up as romance.” He went on to say:  “We all love horses and carriages but I came here by aeroplane and taxi. It’s in the glass you beat your competition.” He compared distillers love of old equipment unfavourably with brewers: “Craft brewers are ahead of the curve,” he said. “Brewing is understood and researched. Not magic.” iStills are fully automated with a robot that takes the hearts, heads and tails, and an app that tells you where to cut depending on what you’re looking for in a spirit: “The most profound flavours come from back end tails,” he said, “Toothy rooty, nutty and earthy flavours.”

An iStill doesn’t look much like conventional still. It’s square for starters and made out of stainless steel. “Why are stills made from copper?” he asked me. “It removes sulphur caused during fermentation. Why not start with great beer or great wine without sulphur?” (Though, of course, you might want some sulphur in your spirit). iStill does, however, offer a copper ‘waffle’ to remove sulphur compounds caused by “substandard fermentations” as the website puts it. iStills are direct-fired either with electricity or gas and claim to be much more economical than a standard set up. The biggest surprise though, is that it’s possible to mash, ferment and distill all in the same vessel: “Why mash, ferment and distill in separate containers?” he said. “They all take place in a boiler and are about heating up and cooling down. My machines can do everything in one boiler.” He thinks part of the reason people go for the traditional set-up is so that suppliers can sell more equipment.  

We’re not in Rothes anymore

You won’t be surprised to hear that Van Eijk has strong views about the finished product too: “Why should whisky taste like peat or sherry?” he said. “I want it to taste like grain. People in the whisky business used to say that 50% of the flavour comes from cask, now they say it is 80%. New make spirit has deteriorated in terms of the grain and procedures used in order to create as much alcohol as possible. This is worldwide. The real reason people use sherry and Port casks is to cover up spirit that has a fruity flavour deficiency.” That’s fighting talk! He’s also critical of gin: “Most gins do not have a lot of back end,” he told me. With the app, you can, according to van Eijk “see where there is a gap in flavour profile and find something that fills it out.” 

“We love to bash the status quo,” he told me. This has angered some people. To answer some of his critics he took part in a challenge with a distiller in Chicago. “He had beautiful copper still costing $200k and my little still cost $10k”, he told me. To the horror of the distillery owner and (some of) the critics, Van Eijk’s little still not only distilled faster but his spirit tasted better in a blind test. That day he sold seven stills. 

While van Eijk was talking, the iStill was running watched over by his silent assistant. Then at the end we got to try the result, a rum distilled with mint and lime, like a gin. Made in around half an hour. And the results, well, there wasn’t a traditionally-distilled version for comparison but it tasted pretty damn good to me. I’m going to start saving up for a iStillof my own. I think I could squeeze one into my shed.

You can find out more about how the iStill works on its YouTube page. 


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