To hell with barrels, and to hell with the norm, unbounded by barrels or convention - we're rethinking whisky. Taking the best of Scottish tradition and combining it with American ingenuity, we've started a whisky revolution and we're doing it the Defiant way." Tim Ferris, founder of Blue Ridge Distilling Co.
Defiant - The Oxford English Dictionary, 1. Showing a disposition to defy. 2. Feeling distrust.
Strongly believing in the adage 'question all authority', I prefer The American Dictionary's definition; De-fi-ant - 1. Marked by bold resistance to authority or an opposing force... Which igniting my curiosity over an upstart American whisky, so confrontationally named.
To discover if Defiant lived up to its braggart name, I nosed my Miata MX5 defiantly tagged UPYRKILT through North Carolina's curvy back roads in search of Blue Ridge Distillery, dream child of a swashbuckling deep sea diver named Tim Ferris, founder, too, of Defiant Marine Inc., a US based international salvage diving company.
The foothills en route remind me of Scotland's Trossachs, except these hills are forest covered, and the valleys host the odd rural farm, yet without electricity, still using hand-pumps to draw water. Such are found at Washburn's General Store and Community, dating back to 1831, located in Bostic (population 386). Pumps are displayed alongside local preserves, iron horseshoes, corrugated wash boards and bib front blue denim coveralls, to fit small fry kids to tent size 60. The locals relax by a wood fired pot- belly stove swapping white lies over black coffees and friendly conversations with old timers hinted these same valleys were notorious for moonshiners.
Motoring on through grandiose hollows awash in technicolor autumn splendor, I catch myself humming Simple Gifts, yon catchy Shaker hymn by elder Joseph Brackett (1797 - 1882) which Aaron Copeland later incorporated it into Appalachian Spring.
Friendly conversations with old timers hinted these same valleys were once notorious for moonshiners - none more so than local hero Amos Owens.
Amos Owens, hard drinking, defiant, freedom-loving moonshiner resembled a leprechaun. Owens delivered witty irreverence in his 'whisky tenor' voice - thanks to all the 100 proof 'shine he'd consumed. As for detested Yankee government taxes on sprits, Owens's ranting proclaimed "This is my land, my corn and it's my god given right to make whiskey" defiantly refusing to pay a cent.
Among Appalachian mountain folks a good corn crop turned to whiskey could turn a hefty profit. "One Sunday while Uncle Rob and Aunt Goldie were at church, Mom sold $270 worth of moonshine by mid-afternoon. It was 1936 and that was a great deal of money. I got so scared having that much money that I locked up the house and ran up the ridge to hide until Rob and Goldie came home from church," so said at the time Peggy Anne Shifflett.
Amos Owens, once owned the very mountain I was about to explore.
To Defiant Defiant American Single Malt Whisky is perfected at Blue Ridge Distillery, a right handsome affair secreted at the dead end of a single track dirt road in the foothills of Golden Valley, named for a gold rush back in1828. This region is so remote cell phones don't work and the nearest town is 30 miles away. Captivated by surrounding vistas, I flew right past Red Bud Lane, a gently meandering track ending at the distillery, built on the Ferris family's 100 acre farm.
Inside, heady aromas of barley malt and spirit fermenting fill the air; Tim Ferris jovially introduces head distillers Joel Patrino, Eric Meech and Bob Weigh. Everyone was incredibly proud of how they self-built the entire distillery, hiring only a sole craftsman to build the Scottish style drystone wall surrounding the 1,000 litre Kothe custom (German) built hybrid copper pot / column still. This is capable of distilling 8,000 bottles of Defiant whisky per month at 82 proof / 41 per cent ABV. Every 750ml bottle is regally sealed in Portuguese cork topped with American white oak.
Ferris earned his recreational diving certificate at age 21, the coveted commercial ticket at 25, then spending his following 13 years diving dangerous waters worldwide. "I always wanted to start a distillery," he confides. "Fascinated by the prospect of combining water with products of the land, converting these various parts into a smooth spirit - a creation that has had such an effect on mankind." As for naming his whisky Defiant? "I am not keen on following convention, preferring to think out of the box."
When Ferris and his 'A Team' deep sea dive crew are not offshore righting capsized container ships, salvaging exotic cargo (recently a trove of sunken whisky and champagne off Alexandria - right under the noses of the Egyptian Navy - pumping water from storm-flooded New York City subways or rush constructing lifeline piers in hurricane-devastated Haiti - they make whisky!
Ferris uncorks a bottle and pours us both a dram. I eye my glass, warmly backlit in the afternoon sunshine; robust copper colour. Nose: kindly aroma of honey and oak. A wee sip: subtle hint of barley, notable malt underpinnings; long finish punctuated by spice and caramel - exceptionally smooth!
"How long do you think it was aged?" Ferris asks.
"Hmm, ten years?" I venture, forgetting the distillery only dates from 2012.
"60 days!" Ferris beams, delighted his juvenile whisky genuinely fooled me - and yes, I will have another, thanks.
Defiant fooled experts, too, in Ireland. At a Teeling Irish Whiskey reception in Dublin last March, after tasting their admirable single malt, single grain, then small batch, I poured a wee nip from a bottle of Defiant craftily secreted in my camera bag. Privately I offered it to Teeling Visitor Centre consultant John Callely who carefully nosed, eyed the colour, then, sip... "Very nice, smooth, quite pleasant!" he smiled.
You should have seen John's astonishment as I explained Defiant is aged 60 days... "Can't be, impossible!" he exclaimed. Identical reaction came from an illicit potcheen (AKA in Ireland as Holy Water) distiller I ferreted out in rural County Kerry... Folks who know about such things.
Back in North Carolina I witness Blue Ridge's distilling process; Patrino flicks a finger under a stream of clear distillate, called heads. He's checking for flavour and alcohol proof (80%). Following suit, I wet my index finger and taste... the 'heads cut', surprisingly smooth, is next committed to large stainless steel vats. Here it meets Defiant's white oak spirals - oak chips would simply sink to the bottom - resting and ageing there for 60 days, sounding akin to a moonshiner's jail sentence!
As with traditional Scottish distilleries, water is of paramount importance. Deep beneath Carolina's highlands lies naturally filtered water both pH perfect and abundant. "We add premium American white oak, toasted to perfection." Patrino explains, "Specially cultured hand-selected yeast, two-row premium brewer's barley, and purest water from our aquifer below the distillery."
Defiant's secret lies in Ferris's innovative use of oak infusion, "Oak spirals are more efficient because they expose the white whisky to the capillaries of the oak instantly and not the side grain of the oak like a traditional barrel," explains Master Distiller Eric Meech. Result? A curiously enjoyable American single malt whisky.
Their initial batch hit NC's liquor store shelves December 2012. Today exported to several other states it frequently sells out thanks to growing demands from Canada, Malaysia and Singapore. Irish bars want some too. Legal wrangling aside, might export of Defiant to Scotland - home of traditionally aged single malt whisky - be far behind?
As soft evening breezes wafts dreamily amongst these storied hills and valleys, one can almost hear the ghost of Amos Owens whispering "Good on ya lads!"