Spirits: The potency of a spirit’s back story

If a luxury bed & breakfast  is equipped with a bar, it has the opportunity to stir the imagination of its guests simply by presenting them with the stories behind the spirits it sells. Bill Lumley takes a look at the way some of these stories unfold.

Inns can attract the kind of guests who enjoy exploring and encountering new experiences. In a world away from the Holiday Inn or Hilton, guests come to your hospitality business to encounter something special, and as  a rule they do not leave disappointed. You pay a high level of attention to detail in presentation of your abode to help enhance the guest’s experience.

Your bar enables you to take that experience to a new level not by intoxicating your guests but by introducing them to new sensory experiences via the back story to an intriguing drink such as a craft whisky.

It is the perfect platform from which to lead them to try to enjoy spirits they may never have enjoyed by simply immersing them in the brand’s own history and the way in which its drinks are created.

Craft spirits distributor Maverick Drinks is shamelessly particular about the brands it works with, focusing entirely on the kind that have provenance, have a strong story and the right people behind them.

Co-founder and head of brand development Michael Vachon tells Innkeeper magazine: “We call the brands that we work with craft spirits, a catch-all term that we have defined for ourselves.

“Every one of these craft brands has six points to which it adheres: Craftmanship, authenticity, provenance, high-quality, having a purpose, and being founder-led.”

Having a purpose ties into the idea that a craft spirit brand such as a whisky should have a story behind it to tell, he says. Every one of the brands with which the company works has a reason for existing more than simply filling a gap in the market. “It’s something that guides them. That’s important, because there are so many new products on the market that are designed around either what they manufacturers perceived as a market need, or what they saw as an opportunity to get into the same game. That has never been part of our objective.

“By contrast everyone we work with has a purpose, which may be to pursue their grandparents’ legacy, or a belief that they have great local grains that give their product a unique edge.

“It is important to identify what makes the brand stand out from those that may just be in the game to make a quick buck,” he says.

And he explains what he means by brands being founder-led: the distributor does not necessarily insist on the brands being independent. He says: “Just because a brand has extra investment shouldn’t mean their ethos is any different; we believe that having a vision with a founder who is actively involved with that brand is important.”

The brands with which Maverick Drinks partners don’t believe they are in the business for five years, instead every one of them is fulfilling their life’s work, and as people they remain involved with the brand, he says. “That is so important to me.”

Distillery resurrection

Vachon is proud of the company’s stable of brands, a portfolio that it is building slowly with carefully selected brands. His company is the sole UK distributor for a number of craft spirits brands in the UK. For example, Wolfburn is a whisky distilled in Thurso, in the far north of Scotland close to John O’Groats and the northernmost town on the British mainland.

Vachon says it had been a distillery in in the early 1800s that they decided to resurrect to bring back whisky distilling to the area, saying: “decades up in the highlands but in a place where there was an existing distilling heritage.”

The founders wanted something they could pass on to their children and their children’s children. They said they were not for sale: the brand is their life, their passion, and the whole purpose of this brand is to create something of meaningful legacy, he says.

“I think that is incredibly powerful. It speaks to the products themselves which are patiently and lovingly crafted and matured for longer than they necessarily need to because this is not a business they need to make a quick return on,” says Vachon.

Most importantly, he adds, Wolfburn only makes whisky. “Many other producers making whisky are also making a gin for the purpose of bringing cash into the business to keep it going while they lay down and age more whisky.”

That singular vision that nothing is going to cause them to deviate from that path is highly unusual, he says. “It is whisky made by people who are truly committed to whisky. Wolfbern’s products are extremely well received by the market and they are as dedicated to what they do as anyone we work with.”

French single malt

Further south to France, Maverick Drinks has a whisky that is brand new to the market, having only been launched this year, called Brenne. It was founded by a former US ballerina named Allison Parc. She had always been interested in food and drink from around the world, notably fine wine, but in 2012 she decided to get into whisky. She discovered that while terroir was at the forefront of every discussion about wine – the soil, the environment, the weather – people weren’t really talking about these elements as much with regards to whisky.

After she left the world of dance she wanted to see if she could create a whisky that has its roots in terroir. She chanced upon a single malt distiller in the Cognac region. At that time, a majority of the oldest whisky was around three to four years old in new French Limousin oak barrels.

Upon tasting it, she immediately identified it as something special. She and the distiller collaborated over the next four years to refine the aging spirit and continue laying down more barrels as each year’s crop of barley was ready to be harvested.

The breakthrough came when she decided to incorporate his previously used Cognac casks in the whisky aging process. This stimulated the whisky in a beautiful way; ultimately creating a new profile within the single malt category that became Brenne Whisky.

Brenne Whisky is crafted from seed to spirit in the heart of Cognac in very limited batches. Allison’s first expression, Estate Cask, has no age statement as every barrel is bottled in single barrel releases and the aging time on each cask may vary slightly.

“Brenne is more linked than any product we work with,” says Vachon. “The flavour is dominant and the brand is very much driven by its sense of place. It ties in very well with the concept of craft, it is authentic, it has provenance and it has craftsmanship in the sense that nobody else is doing this: it hits every note with us.”

Locally sourced

When guests enter the restaurant at an inn they may be told that the proprietors source their meats from a local farm a few miles down the road, that they grow some of their own vegetables in their own garden. Vachon says: “That is increasingly important to the kinds of people visiting these places. Yet nobody really thinks about this sense of origin when it comes to spirits. But interest is growing, and people are definitely more in discovery mode.”

He says he was staying in a guest house recently in Cirencester, a beautiful old town in Gloucestershire, where on the menu was a list of local gins. “You could identify with one gin from the region produced within a few miles, and it was a highlight of my stay to discover where the gins came from and how they were made,” he says.

“Furthermore, the property itself faced onto an artisan food market where the local gin distillery bottles were on sale.”

The wider craft message here is that to be able to provide an offering your guests are increasingly moving towards with products that have more character. “You may try to provide a personalised experience and add a bit of charm and character to your place but when the guests go to the bar and find just Gordons and Bombay Sapphire then it doesn’t illustrate that same level of thought and care that you are putting into the other details of your establishment,” says Vachon.

Punters will absolutely be willing to pay an extra pound for their G&T because it’s form a more well though-through selection, he adds. “That’s the real craft element here: you are creating experience that should show you have put thought into every aspect of that hospitality. When I see a bar stocked with the bog-standard gin then you are still providing a bog-standard experience.”

Another brand Maverick Drinks distributes is one called Few, based in Chicago, which makes a breakfast gin – ideal for a bed & breakfast, and the only gin tailored to the glory of the first meal of the day. It features a recipe based around Earl Grey tea and bergamot as a botanical with a good dose of juniper. The people at the distillery are trying to innovate and to do so very much on the craftmanship side, rolling out new products every few months so they are quite agile. We come at them with ideas and they come back with some products. They are trying different things push- ing innovation and having fun along the way.

Guests who visit an inn often demand more out of an experience: The story, the heritage and the craft, he says. “I don’t think you are providing a good enough experience if you are leaving out any detail, but this is actually a pretty important detail because it is so visible in the bar. When you first walk into the place where most guests will spend at least some time.

“A bar in an inn is potentially high yield commercial element of the business. An inn’s guest is looking for a personal experience, so why give them an impersonal experience? That’s the customer right there,” he concludes.

Australian Whisky

Scotch whisky dominated the category for decades – centuries even – before the emergence on the international stage of whisky from North America and Japan. Relatively unheard of here in the UK is Australian whisky.

In fact, there are 120 listed distilleries in Australia with quite a few of them down south in Tasmania. Whisky was being distilled there in the late 18th century, but the price of Scotch whisky fell, and it killed off the domestic whisky trade.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Aussie whisky saw a revival.

Starward Whisky founder David Vitale set out in 2007 with a goal of creating a uniquely Australian whisky. His idea of an approachable, affordable whisky to be served neat or as a cocktail with food was a big leap of faith at a time when Australia had a small-scale ultra-premium whisky scene.

The whisky was founded at a Qantas hangar in Melbourne suburb Essendon Fields. Here it produced the first whisky, Starward Solera, in 2013, and last year produced a product to commemorate the brand’s 10th anniversary. Starward is now Australia’s fastest-growing whisky brand.

Starward has been in the UK since 2016 but was only picked up by distributor Axiom Brands in late 2017 and following the soft launch in the UK it is now in the position to step up, says UK brand manager Pete Garraway.

“For B&Bs guests will come in and the owners will appreciate a story to tell. There are a couple of stories here. The wine barrels we use give it

an absolutely Australian flavour: where it is produced in Melbourne is surrounded with fantastic wineries and wine producers and has four seasons in one day “We get the barrels as fresh as possible from the wineries and our new make spirit goes straight in to clean the barrels up a bit and there is still a lot of the wine character in the wood “The climate helps too with Melbourne weather- as anyone who has visited will testify – famously able to offer four seasons in one day.

“While in Scotland the whisky is put into the barrels to rest, in Melbourne it goes straight to work: the whisky is constantly expanding and contracting, creating the colour and character from the wine that is still in the wood given the barrels are so fresh from the wineries.”

A major factor behind the brand is that Star- ward drinkers aren’t established whisky drinkers, says Garraway, which reflects founder Vitale’s original goal of approachability. “We try to create an accessible whisky both in terms of price but also flavour. We want people playing around with it and use it in different ways. For example, we create a whisky and tonic for example which raises a few eyebrows.

“As a distillery we are curious and always encouraging ways of thinking differently with different products and at the distillery always having fun and trying new and wonderful things. That will resonate both with innkeepers and their guests, who want to try something a little bit different. We are trying to challenge the perceptions of what whisky is and for us it is not about sitting by the fireplace and sipping a dram, it’s all about exploring the flavour and do something a bit different.”

There are currently two Starward expressions. One is aged in apera barrels – Australian style sherry barrels, while the other is made with Australian wine barrels. “Australia  is  at the forefront of changing the market in the wine world and we very much want to follow that route with whisky. Mention the big  flavours of an Australian shiraz or cabernet and people know what you are talking  about.  If you like those big flavours then take another step on that journey and try this fantastic whisky,” Garraway says.

“We use brewer’s barley and brewer’s yeast in the production process which is very different to classic scotch produced with yeast and barely. We are seeing quite an explosion in craft beers among beer drinkers and now they understand the brewing process”, he concludes


This feature was first published in the Jun/Jul 2018 issue of InnKeeper Magazine