Back in November we popped up to Derbyshire for the day, but it wasn’t for any English whisky. We were going to try a brand new bourbon called Never Say Die – and now we have our own Master of Malt-exclusive bottling! Here’s the skinny on our new arrival.
“England’s first bourbon” is the first sentence I read about Never Say Die, and it’s fair to say that piqued my interest. You might be thinking the same thing I initially thought – there’s no way that bourbon can be made in England?! And you’d be right. But it’s important to note that this isn’t an English bourbon, and no whiskey rules have been broken by Never Say Die. Let me explain.
What is Never Say Die?
The story begins back in 1950s Kentucky. Bear with me. A sickly foal was born on a family farm, and just when all hope was lost the horse was given a shot of whiskey, and lived to tell the tale. He was named Never Say Die thanks to his scrape with death, and three years later in 1954 went on to become the first American-born horse to win the Epsom Derby for 70 years – at odds of 33-1 in front of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill, no less.
That farm was owned by Pat Madden’s family, one of the co-founders of Never Say Die, the other of which is David Wild (who is very much from the north of England). Fast forward many, many years after that legendary Derby win, and Madden was sharing that story with Wild over a whiskey. He had only one thought: “We need to make a bourbon called Never Say Die,” Wild said. Alongside Madden and Wild, the founding team also includes Pat Heist and Shane Baker of Wilderness Trail fame.
Never Say Die does also try and give the racehorse credit for The Beatles’ success, but that’s where I draw the line. In the run-up to the Epsom Derby, in Liverpool a woman named Mona Best pawned her jewellery to literally ‘bet it all’ on him at those 33-1 odds. With her new fortune she founded a music venue called Casbah Coffee Club, where a band which you might have heard of called The Beatles played their very first gigs (and obviously went on to find huge success). Her son Pete joined them, but was later replaced by Ringo Starr. Ouch.
A journey across the seas
Back to the present-ish day. Just like the horse, the beginning for Never Say Die wasn’t all smooth sailing. Though production began in 2017, its journey to launch was hampered by 25% whiskey tariffs on US imports imposed in 2018 during the Trump administration. Dalton is also one of the co-founders of the Bourbon Alliance, a coalition of industry stakeholders which was pivotal in reversing these tariffs in 2022, when the team (and many others) all breathed a sigh of relief.
“The process of bringing Kentucky straight bourbon in original barrels across the ocean to further mature in England has never been done before,” says Dalton. “We are incredibly proud of what we have achieved, creating a world-class whiskey that is rooted in Kentucky provenance but with an undeniably English character.”
The bourbon itself is considered high-rye, made from a mash bill of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley. “Our philosophy is to only produce the best and most interesting whiskey possible for drinkers around the world,” says Pat Heist, Never Say Die master distiller. “Our custom mash bill has been designed to highlight the essence of the small grains with consistency, using carefully selected local grains. It is a pioneering sweet mash which results in a smoother, more flavourful whiskey. We also use high quality, mineral rich limestone filtered water sourced from the deepest aquifer in Kentucky.” Sweet mash is where you start with fresh water, yeast, and grains each distillation, as opposed to the more commonly-seen sour mash, part of the water you’re using to make the mash (between 20-30%) is actually recycled material from a previous distillation.
The impact of ocean ageing
Before its voyage, the bourbon spends around six years in a rickhouse ageing in the hot Kentucky climate. Shipping by sea takes about six weeks, allowing time for what effectively becomes accelerated interaction of the whiskey with the wood. It’s a story that’s come full circle – just like the horse, the whiskey began its life in Kentucky (with some struggles, I might add) before finally making it to the UK to make a name for itself.
Where the six weeks at sea has accelerated the maturation process, when the whiskey arrives in England at the White Peak Distillery in Derbyshire it then gets a chance to mellow in the cooler climate, taming some of that spice. It’s a win/win for White Peak as they then get to use these barrels to age their own English whisky in afterwards. Speaking of which, keep an eye out for another Master of Malt-exclusive whisky, this time a White Peak Wire Works single malt drawn from the same barrel as our exclusive Never Say Die bourbon! We love it when a plan comes together.
But back to this exciting release. When I tasted different Never Say Die barrel samples side by side at White Peak, the difference between them was genuinely astounding. Barrel #2 was all about herbal green cardamom and heaps of black pepper, whereas barrel #3 (which was only four months older) was more of your classic bourbon sweetness with cinnamon butter, brown sugar, and honey notes.
So there you have it – the story of England’s bourbon. We’re particularly excited because we have our own Master of Malt-exclusive single barrel to share with you! Ours came from barrel #5. There are a limited number of bottles available at a barrel strength of 55.6% ABV, full of all the wonderful complexity we’ve come to expect from this unique bourbon. Never Say Die Barrel No.5 is available from Master of Malt here.
Master of Malt tastes Never Say Die Barrel No.5
Nose: Black pepper, buttery vanilla, marmalade, and baking spices.
Palate: Chewy rye spice, cardamom, thick toffee, and wood char.
Finish: Something like salted caramel, with drying tobacco and cinnamon.