The crazy world of the small distiller

25 February, 2019

One of the main attractions of social media is that it allows individuals and small businesses a platform from which they can shout loudly, without the need for the big-buck budgets that the global companies can call on.

And a producer with a quality product and a good back story can bring it to the attention of the world.

Or at least in theory, because the downside is that there are a lot of people shouting and that means a lot of noise. How do you not only get heard, but get listened to as well? The sad truth is, many drinks writers take the easy option and fall back on the tried and trusted press release sent to them by a major public relations company paid for by a global drinks company.

Which is a shame, because if you do listen carefully enough to the chatter, you can hear some remarkable and exciting drinks developments.

I recently travelled to Louisville in Kentucky, one of my favourite places in the world. It’s a city that revels in its weirdness, celebrates its individuality, and prides itself on its innovation.

It is also home to Copper & Kings, which describes itself as a brandy distillery, but is much, much more than that. The name was chosen by South African owner Joe Heron because it sounds very rock and roll, and in the past products have been named after local musicians and bands. But what sets the distillery apart is its desire to innovate. Joe and his team must have the most hilarious and crazed planning meetings. It would seem that nothing is off limits.

Take Stray Cat gin, which is an unfiltered, aromatic apple wine which has been distilled in a copper pot still and then aged for 12 months in a medium-char Serbian juniper barrel. Yes, you read that right – a Serbian juniper barrel. Which had contained balsamic vinegar.

“Dreadful cask,” says Joe. ”It is porous and leaks everywhere.”

Copper & Kings has teamed up with a number of craft whiskey distilleries, maturing brandy in whiskey casks and whiskey in brandy casks. Or why not try Moon in Juniper, which attempts to recreate 1495 Guelders gin, the oldest gin in the world.

Based on the personal family recipe, documented in 1495, of a wealthy merchant from the Duchy of Guelders region in Germany, it is made with grape wine, combined with a common 15th-century Hamburg-style beer and distilled with sage, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise and juniper berries.

“But note there are no citrus fruits,” says Joe. “This is before those fruits were available so the juniper flavours are amplified.”

Copper & Kings isn’t alone, either, and increasingly the pioneers and oddball producers are seeking each other out.

The distillery holds an all-day event called Bo & Luke (as in Dukes of Hazzard) to celebrate local brewery Against the Grain Brewery’s Bo & Luke, a bourbon-inspired Russian Imperial stout beer. It is made of barley, rye, corn and smoked with cherry wood and aged in bourbon. In 2018 variants of the beer were influenced by spreads including grape jelly, peanut butter, orange marmalade, and hazelnut cocoa.

It’s crazy stuff and just the tip of an ever-growing iceberg. Mad as a box of frogs, the lot of them.

But what fun.

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