Best Of The Best Part X: Spirits

The Big Idea: Green Juice

Illustration By Shout

It would be accurate to say that Peter Bignell runs a “green” distillery, but somehow that doesn’t quite capture it. For more than a decade, Bignell’s company — Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania, Australia — has produced whisky from rye he grows himself. This is unusual: most operations have their grains shipped to them at a considerable carbon cost. What’s more, he powers his stills and tractors with a biofuel he makes out of used cooking oil from a fish-and- chips place next to his farm.

All his water is from rain traps. He built his own still from scratch. He dug his peat bog out behind his brother’s house. For special releases, he sometimes burns dried sheep dung to smoke the whisky, and he feeds the same sheep the mash left over from distillation (giving an unfortunate visual to the idea of “closed loop”).

Bignell’s small operation may be the most sustainable distillery in the world. “The only significant material I bring to the farm is waste cooking oil,” he says, “and the main product to leave is whisky.” When we think of climate change, we tend to envision coal power plants, government policy and fires
in the Brazilian Amazon. We tend not to think about alcohol — but one incontrovertible truth of the climate crisis is that it’s a serious bummer and is fairly disharmonious with happy hour. Nonetheless, the facts are the facts: according to a Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable report, a 750mL bottle of spirits generates some six pounds of CO2, placing each two- ounce cocktail’s carbon footprint at a staggering half pound each.

In response, there is a movement sweeping the industry, made up not just of incremental improvements but of radical change. East London artisanal spirit maker 58 and Co. counts “wonky” (cosmetically defective) apples amongst the ingredients it uses, whilst its team spends one day a quarter planting juniper bushes and other botanicals at the Kent farm from which it sources them. York-based distillery Cooper King Dry states every bottle of its Herb Gin and Dry Gin sold removes 1kg of CO2e from the atmosphere and plants a square metre of native UK woodland. In Southern California, Misadventure & Co. makes vodka out of old muffins and other baked goods that would otherwise be thrown away.

This fundamental shift is exemplified by Copal Tree Distillery, in Belize. All the sugarcane for its rum, Copalli, is grown on-site, and only rainwater is used to ferment, distil and proof. The spent sugarcane is repurposed as fuel to heat the still, the exhaust gets treated to remove particulates and the ash fertilises the fields. And because its founders understand that poverty also leads to environmental destruction, the distillery and its farm hire local residents, pay its workers three times the national average and donate thousands of dollars in educational grants for students in the area.

It’s not that these companies try to be sustainable while achieving their goals; it’s that sustainability is the goal. Copalli USA’s CEO Mark Breene puts it plainly: “Concern for the community and the environment came long before the rum.”

Bourbon: Heaven Hill, Heritage Collection 17-Year-Old Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Heaven Hill is a storied Kentucky distillery known for the affordable bourbons Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. But it also excels at the high-end, and the inaugural release in the new Heritage Collection is the latest proof. Each whiskey is produced from one of the distillery’s six mashbills, and this one uses the tried-and-true bourbon recipe of 78 per cent corn, 10 per cent rye and 12 per cent malted barley. The bourbon was aged for a minimum of 17 years and blended with liquid up to 20 years old. Normally, bourbons of this age can become overly oaky and tannic, but this bottling is fantastically balanced. Classic notes of vanilla, caramel, stone fruit and a whiff of char dance across the palate with every sip. This bottle will certainly be a collector’s item, but the temptation to pour yourself a glass may be too much to resist.

Single-Malt Scotch: Bruichladdich Black Art Edition 09.1

Bruichladdich, the 141-year-old distillery in Scotland’s Islay region, was mothballed in 1994 and restarted production in 2001. That hiatus did nothing to diminish its reputation for innovation — or for producing some of the smokiest single malts you can find. Its ultra- premium Black Art series gives head distiller Adam Hannett free rein to bottle barrels produced before the closure. The ninth edition of Black Art is a 1992 vintage matured for 29 years in a variety of casks, though Hannett doesn’t reveal what types were used.

This, like the distillery’s core expression, is an unpeated whisky, with no colour added or chill filtration. Its flavour is lovely and complex, full of chocolate, tropical-fruit, spice and vanilla- shortbread notes. Just 12,000 bottles were released at a cask strength of 44.1 per cent, making this a prize that whisky fans should seek out.

Ultra-Aged Whisky:  GlenDronach, Aged 50 Years

If you’ve had the pleasure of sampling whisky aged for three, four or even five decades, you probably know the results can be . . . interesting. Sometimes the liquid loses its whisky character, instead turning into something more like an aged Cognac. But the GlenDronach got it right with the oldest release it has ever bottled, a rare and delicate half-century-old single malt. This juice was distilled in 1971 and spent five decades maturing in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso-sherry casks.

After so many years, just enough liquid was left for 198 bottles to be released globally, and each comes in a stunning decanter housed in a leather case. The colour looks more like balsamic vinegar than whisky, but the flavour unfolds with notes of dusty leather, sour cherry, tobacco, nutmeg, molasses and honey on the palate. If you can, get two bottles, one to enjoy now and one for your collection.

Ren Fuller

Cask-Finished Whisky: Heaven’s Door, The Master Blenders’ Edition

The spirits world is over- saturated with sub-standard, cash-grabbing celebrity brands, but some, such as Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door, offer legitimate high-calibre releases. This special Master Blenders’ Edition is a collaboration with esteemed Irish brand Redbreast, which makes some of the best single-pot still whiskey on the market.

Heaven’s Door’s 10-year-old bourbon was finished in Redbreast casks for an additional 15 months, bringing notes of fruit, sherry and a bit of apple pie to the palate. While Dylan’s name is front and centre, the real artists here are master blenders Billy Leighton (Redbreast) and Ryan Perry (Heaven’s Door), who have put together a whiskey that sings with flavour and character.

Rye Whisky: Whistlepig, The Boss Hog VIII: LapuLapu’s Pacific

Each new Boss Hog bottling offers something unique. But LapuLapu’s Pacific, the eighth in the series from Vermont’s WhistlePig, is a standout, elevating the distillery’s already superb stock of sourced, aged ryes. The whiskey was first put into 7-year-old rum casks for four weeks and then finished for just 10 days in barrels from the Philippines that previously held rum for a decade.

This double- finish brings a sweet, almost floral bouquet to the peppery, spicy rye, with notes of candied orange, cinnamon, banana, mango and baked apple on the palate. The result is a luxurious sipping rye whiskey unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

Barrel-Proof Whiskey: Little Book, Chapter 5: “The Invitation”

Freddie Noe, grandson of the legendary master distiller Booker Noe and son of current Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, isn’t resting on his family legacy. The youngest Noe is the mind behind the excellent and innovative Little Book series. These blended cask- strength whiskeys are amongst the most creative releases the company has launched in recent years.

The latest, Chapter 5: “The Invitation”, is a blend of 2-year- old, 5-year-old and 15-year-old bourbons, as well as 3-year-old malted rye whiskey. This is a powerfully good combination with Jim Beam’s familiar nutty grain and oak character at its core, along with notes of jalapeño corn bread, malted chocolate, caramel apple tart, nutmeg and grapefruit.

Ren Fuller

Mezcal: Agua Mágica

Among the rapidly growing number of mezcal releases, Agua Mágica was one of the best of the past year, in terms of both aesthetics and flavour. The stylish bottle can be purchased as part of a gift box designed by artist Miguel Cardenas, and the liquid within is just as beautiful, balanced with notes of soft smoke, dewy grass, citrus and white pepper. This is an ensamble mezcal, meaning it’s made from two types of agave (in this case, from espadin and tobala sourced from farmers in Mexico’s San Juan del Rio region).

Don Rogelio Juan Hernandez and his son distil the mezcal using traditional techniques, such as the ancient tahona process, which uses a stone wheel to crush the juice out of the agave piñas. Agua Mágica is a true sipping mezcal that should appeal to both newcomers to the category and experienced aficionados. £56

Tequila: Don Julio Ultima Reserva

Celebrating a distillery’s 80th anniversary calls for an impressive bottle. Ultima Reserva delivers. The extra- añejo tequila is made from Blue Weber agave harvested from the final field that Don Julio González and his family planted in 2006. To preserve the fruits of their labour, blenders use the solera aging system, which marries portions of much older liquid with less-aged tequila in the final blend. Most of what you’ll drink was rested in ex-bourbon barrels before being seasoned in Madeira wine casks, then aged for a minimum of 36 months.

The expression, housed in a tall, elegant decanter, is a beautiful golden copper colour, with notes of crème brûlée and spice on the nose and a palate that expands with flavours such as dark chocolate, plum, hay and a splash of dark berries on the finish, the result of that final maturation step.


Ren Fuller

Gin: Sông Cái Dry Gin

The gin moment has stretched into years at this point, with fresh expressions popping up in virtually every corner of the world. One of the most intriguing and flavourful new releases is said to be Vietnam’s first gin. Sông Cái was founded by Daniel Nguyen, and its team uses locally foraged botanicals to flavour its Dry Gin.

This delicate spirit includes green turmeric, jungle pepper, black cardamom and heirloom pomelo, all of which complement the core juniper base. It’s equally suited for a martini or other classic cocktails like a Negroni or Last Word, with notes of eucalyptus, citrus, cherry, spicy pepper and earthy juniper. Gin lovers should keep an eye out for this fragrant and complex spirit.

Rum: Ten To One Uncle Nearest

This new rum, released to celebrate Black History Month, is a collaboration between two Black-owned brands. Ten to One Rum launched in 2019 and sources and blends rum from several Caribbean countries, each bringing its own specific flavour and character to the spirit. For this release, aged dark rum was finished in bourbon barrels from Uncle Nearest, a Tennessee whiskey brand named after Nathan “Nearest” Green, the man who is now recognised for teaching Jack Daniel his distilling technique.

This resulting rum is a deeply complex sipping spirit. The nose opens with freshly baked banana bread and nutmeg, which slowly transforms into layers of caramel, pineapple, vanilla pudding and a bit of spice on the palate. Whiskey fans, take heed, because this rum can stand with the best bourbon, scotch or rye.

Ren Fuller

Photography by Ren Fuller, Prop styling by Nidia Cueva, Beverage stylist Caroline Hwang

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