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5 Questions with Brent Stephens of Charleston Distilling

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Photo by Stephanie Greene
Jasper's Bourbon Barrel Gin / Photo by Stephanie Greene

This month’s “Key Ingredient” print department features lemongrass, but as our text explains, this herb also lends itself very well to cocktail preparations.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Brent Stephens, President and Master Distiller of Charleston Distilling in Charleston, South Carolina. He created a signature spirit—Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin—which has a lemongrass forward nose and taste. So we asked him to riff on this pungent herb, and he gave us some insight into his specific distilling process.

Your barrel-aged gin is very lemongrass-centric. How did you decide to base a business decision (building an entire liquor) around this herb?
I was making gin at a distillery in Colorado three years ago when I came up with the idea for a lemongrass-forward gin. This particular distillery produced gin by a method known as compounding, where each botanical in the gin was separately distilled into a concentrated compound, and later recombined to create the overall desired profile of botanicals. This gave me a unique opportunity to taste several botanicals on their own as a distillate, and lemongrass was the one botanical that stood out to me the most as great tasting and underutilized in spirits. I enjoyed the taste so much I knew at that moment I wanted to make a gin where lemongrass was the star.

Photo by Stephanie Greene
Jasper's Bourbon Barrel Gin / Photo by Stephanie Greene

What are your favorite ways to enjoy lemongrass?
Besides a classic gin cocktail with Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin, I enjoy using lemongrass when I cook. I cook quite a bit, and Thai and Vietnamese are some of my favorite cuisines. They feature lemongrass in a lot of dishes.

How did you extract such lemongrass flavor for the gin? It’s very prominent. In other words, do you chop, cook, etc.?
We use lemongrass that has been dried and finely chopped to make our gin. The ethyl alcohol in the gin base is an excellent extractor of flavor, and finely chopping the lemongrass creates even more surface area to assist in that extraction. The lemongrass gives the gin a pleasant floral note on the nose and a soft fruitiness up front when you drink it, while toning down the strong juniper smell and taste.

Where do you get the lemongrass?
As lemongrass is not indigenous to the area, we have it shipped in from out West. We’ve bottled around 2,500 bottles so far, so that’s a lot of dried lemongrass.

How does barrel aging change gin?
The last step in the process is a short, two-month aging of the gin in a 6-year-old bourbon barrel. This gives the spirit time to mellow even further, while picking up a slight sweetness left behind by the bourbon, but without starting to taste like a whiskey. I get a lot of people that start out a tasting saying that they don’t like gin, but nearly all of them enjoy the Jasper’s Bourbon Barrel Gin. The ability of the lemongrass to mellow out the other smells and flavors makes it very approachable, while still working in all of your classic gin cocktails.