For the most part, the world of distilling has deep respect for tradition. The vast majority of spirits on the market tout their made-the-old-fashioned-way bona fides, whether that’s the hundreds of years of history at a famous Scotch distillery or the labor-intensive all-by-hand production methods used by a tiny mezcal maker in the Oaxacan countryside.
But not every distiller wants to just follow established procedure and make the same kinds of things as everybody else. Here are four booze rebels doing things their own way that you should know.
Copper & Kings American Brandy
“Fuck dogma” is Joe Heron’s motto, and when he built a distillery in 2014 in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, that’s just what he did. Copper & Kings is in downtown Louisville, but it doesn’t make a drop of whiskey; the distillery specializes in grape and apple brandies. Heron himself is no stranger to liquid success: The South African-born entrepreneur has already built two successful beverages. He and his wife created a nutrient-infused soda called Nutrisoda that was bought by a Pepsi bottler in 2006, and they also founded Crispin Cider, a hard-cider brewery acquired by beer giant MillerCoors in 2012.
In contrast to cognac, which uses only French oak barrels, Copper & Kings ages its spirits in American oak to add some whiskey-like spice and sweetness to brandy’s traditional floral notes. Heron also plays music to his barrels through five massive subwoofers 24 hours a day in a process called “sonic aging” that he says pushes the liquid deeper into the barrels to accelerate the aging process. Copper & Kings currently sells aged brandies distilled elsewhere while its own stocks age, along with unaged brandy made in-house and a set of absinthes. (The first house-made aged brandies should be released later this year.)
When Toulvaddie begins production later this year, it’ll mark two important firsts for the Scotch industry: The first legal distillery on the Fearn Peninsula, an area of the Scottish Highlands that grows a lot of barley and was home to many illicit stills in the past, and the first Scotch distillery founded and run by a woman in nearly two centuries. Founder Heather Nelson grew up on her family’s farm in the area and always loved whisky but had no connection to distilling until she started studying it during off-hours of her day job in media. “Whisky has always been perceived as a man’s drink, and it really isn’t. I am pleased to say that this incorrect perception is dying, slowly,” she says. “By starting my own distillery I hope to help break down the barriers, and say it’s ok to like whisky.”
Toulvaddie is now being built on the site of a World War II-era Royal Air Force base, and when it opens it’ll have a capacity of just 30,000 liters per year, making it one of the smallest Scotch producers. But Nelson has big dreams for her brand. While most new whiskey distilleries start off selling gin or vodka while their main product ages, Toulvaddie’s stills will only be used to make Scotch. Nelson is funding her company with a Kickstarter-like scheme: For £2,000, you can pre-purchase one of the distillery’s first barrels, which you can choose to bottle after three years and a day (it can’t be called Scotch if it’s any younger) or let age as long as you’d like at the distillery. Or you can join the Founder’s Club for £595, which gets you a sample of the distillery’s unaged whisky, plus bottles of Nelson’s very first releases in three years, five years, eight years and 10 years.
Tate & Company Distillery
For most of the last 10 years, Chip Tate has been beloved by spirits geeks as one of the world’s finest indie distillers. The native Virginian founded Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas in 2008 and almost immediately started racking up awards for his whiskies, including best American whiskey at the World Whiskey Awards, best in show at the American Craft Distillers Association and craft distillery of the year (three years in a row!) from Whisky magazine. But then an ugly dispute with investors led to Tate’s ouster from the company in 2014.
He was forbidden by a non-compete agreement from making whiskey until 2016, but Tate immediately started making plans for a new distillery in Waco, Tate & Company, which will be up and running by this fall. The centerpieces of the distillery are six copper pot stills, all custom-made in-house by Tate and his team. When they fire up, they’ll be producing single malt and corn whiskies much like Tate did before, as well as some new whiskies and even-more-experimental spirits. Tate played around with making brandy from Texas-grown zinfandel grapes at a friend’s distillery and got inspired. Though whiskey will still be the main focus of Tate & Company, he says, “we will continue to try to create truly Texan brandies that will focus around the unique and excellent fruit we grow here.”
Compass Box Whisky
For hundreds of years, Scotch whisky was basically all made by blending together whiskies made from 100 percent malted barley and whiskies made from other types of grains. Distilleries didn’t regularly bottle and sell single malts until the ‘60s and ‘70s, and as they became popular, Scotch drinkers started looking down on blends as somehow inferior. Way back in 2000, with the modern cocktail movement in its infancy and worldwide whiskey sales in the doldrums, John Glaser quit his job working for a large Scotch distiller and started a company dedicated entirely to blended whisky. You couldn’t have typecast a better outsider to shake up that world: He’s an American who’d worked at wineries in the US and France before moving to the UK.
Today, Compass Box is widely admired as among the world’s most creative whiskeymakers. Bottlings like Hedonism, a rich blend of only grain whiskies and no single malt at all, and Orangerie, a whisky infused with orange peel, cassia and cloves, push the boundaries of what Scotch can be. Lately, Glaser’s also turned his eyes to transparency in whiskey labeling, advocating for changes to EU regulations that would allow blended Scotches to be labeled and marketed with detailed information about their component whiskies. To dramatize his campaign, Compass Box released Three Year Old Deluxe, a blend of 1 percent three-year-old whisky and 99 percent much-older spirits Glaser’s not allowed to reveal thanks to regulations saying a blend can only talk about the age of its youngest component.