“I play about with barrels,” said John Rempe, head distiller and master blender of Lux Rowe Distillers when modestly describing his day job to me at a recent interview opportunity at Milroys of Soho, London. Spoken with a wry smile though, it’s clear that John wasn't playing down his craft, with more than 20 years of distillation experience, a degree in biology and a certified food scientist, he is just having a great time doing it.
John's passion is represented most recently in Luxco's latest and fifth iteration of 'Blood Oath Pact' a blend of a six year wheated Bourbon with a nine year rye Bourbon and 11 year rye Bourbon finished in Caribbean rum casks that has sold out in the US before even hitting shelves.
John and Luxco international sales director, Greg Metzford were in London to judge a cocktail competition while also promoting the imminent release of their European exclusive, Rebel Yell French oak special finish Bourbon. I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions:
AW: To what do you attribute the growing popularity of Bourbon in the UK?
GM: For us, it is seeing the rise in consumption of cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Sazerac with American whiskey the key component. Discerning bartenders are more aware than ever before of the effect good quality Bourbon and rye has on the final product and have more choice to reach for. The average consumer is beginning to develop a more educated palate and likely to stipulate and have an opinion on which whiskey is used in their cocktails as a result of social media and increased presence of brands in the UK as a result of the growth.
AW: How is the profile of the typical Bourbon drinker changing?
GM: We see millennial consumption on the up due again to the thirst for choice over and above the brands that have long dominated the market and perhaps clouded public opinions on the category. Like the craft beer revolution that has now spilled onto the shelves of supermarkets, so too now is American whiskey, though admittedly has a long way to go before parity with the beer scene.
AW: What can you tell us about Bourbon blending/finishing and how it differs to Scottish counterparts?
GM: It's all to do with climate. The hot summers and cold winters in Kentucky create after only a matter of weeks, the equivalent of a year of vintage in Scotland. It's a faster process to pull those all important flavours from the barrel, but with far less margin for error.
AW: What's next for Bourbon and when/where can we expect innovation?
GM: I'm currently playing around a little with barrel entry proof, with Rebel Yell typically entering at about 129 where it was historically entered at 114 as has been confirmed by Bourbon historian, Mike Veach so am excited to taste those results. I've also been looking into barrel charring, and circular grooves with Independent Stave, the theory being that even with char number 1 (the lowest char), after only a short time, the liquid will penetrate the staves past the initial layer to pull the flavours from the oak. At the moment, for our own distillate, we are still trying to work out where in the rick-house we'll find those 'honey barrels' so that's the innovation we’re most looking forward to here.
AW: What can you tell us about the soon to be released EU exclusive Rebel Yell French barrel special finish?
GM: It's six year old Bourbon of our standard 75 per cent corn, 20 per cent wheat, five per cent malted barley mashbill aged for six months in virgin toasted oak French wine barrels. Yielding 6,000 bottles It's due to be released first in the UK in September/October this year and will retail with an RRP of £30.
AW: As a food scientist, what food would you pair with the Rebel Yell French barrel special finish Bourbon?
GM: It's got to be steak, a big fat thick cut, juicy ribeye, cooked medium rare!
Tasting notes (tasted blind)
Nose: Blueberry pie, warm apricots, pineapples and chilli jam. Sweetness from Golden syrup, a little bitter oak lurks too with barley sugar and candied almonds. Cherry jam. Some BBQ corn cob, black banana. Dusty woodwork shop notes too.
Palate: Cinder toffee coated in milk chocolate, more charred sweetcorn. BBQ pork and hot sauce. Those tropical fruits show up with roasted coconut and cherries in time. Fondant icing and eventually black tea tannins.
Finish: Huge and spicy. Numbing a little then all the fruits flood in. Tannins pucker the mouth in time too.
Comments: A serious Bourbon with a big personality, but you know you will get on just fine.
Nose: Honeydew melon left out in the sun, toasted coconut and cashew granola, blotting paper and raspberry crumble, raisins and prunes, warm blueberry muffins, prosciutto, dried mango, brown sugar and fine forests in the rain.
Palate: Tea-soaked prunes, gorgeous oak notes, 70 per cent dark chocolate, cherry pie, soft leather and poached pear and barbecued peaches.
Finish: Wood spice, vanilla and a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Comment: Like eating warm blueberry muffins outside on a sunny Autumn morning. Comforting and decadent in equal measures.