Darek Bell is a self-professed “whiskey nerd.” Together with his wife, Amy Lee, and childhood friend, Andrew Webber, Bell owns Corsair Artisan Distilling. In fact, the three owners’ silhouettes appear in a “Reservoir Dogs”-styled image on each of the company’s products. The reference to this classic film is an apt one since the distillery itself is also an independent hit with an ever-expanding cult-like following. The team started out home brewing beer in their basements and eventually started experimenting with making biodiesel. One day while toiling away at the smelly, volatile biodiesel process, Andrew looked at his sweaty friend Darek and said, “Y’know, I wish we were making whiskey instead of this stuff.” And a dream was born.
Since then, Corsair has earned a vaunted reputation for creating some inventive spirits at their facilities in Nashville and Bowling Green, Kentucky, producing regular releases of more mainstream products like Gin-Head Style Gin, Vanilla Bean Vodka, Red Absinthe, Spiced Rum, and Wry Moon Unaged Rye Whiskey. They also take advantage of their small-batch stills to create experimental and seasonal concoctions like the much loved autumn offering, Pumpkin Spice Moonshine. These products have made Corsair a favorite among the more enlightened members of the mixologist community as well as among consumers who enjoy complex craft spirits.
Bell and Corsair are perhaps best known for their mad-scientist concoctions that are not generally crafted for wide release. Bell refers to these unique mash bills as “Alt Whiskeys,” and even wrote a book of recipes and distilling procedures by that same name. Despite his affinity for experimentation, he is careful to warn readers about the legal requirements of home distilling. “Distilling without a federal permit is a felony. This is no parking ticket.”
Corsair finishes their brown liquors in relatively small five-gallon barrels, which allows them to speed up the maturation process and find out sooner rather than later if their latest batch is a hit or a miss. Corsair employs many exotic non-traditional grains including oats, spelt sorghum, quinoa, triticale, and barley in their more esoteric production runs, including some experiments that have included as many as thirteen different grains. Other brews feature the individual grains in single malt formulations that may never be consumer favorites but are important to the distillers’ understanding of how each ingredient contributes nuances, flavors, and character to the intricate blends that make up Corsair’s unique whiskeys.
There’s even a recipe for Cannabis Moonshine in Bell’s book—for educational purposes only, of course, as he readily admits. “I’ll be honest. I have not made this recipe. The reason I include it is that about once a month a suspicious character, looking nervous, comes into our distillery with his hand under his coat. We always think we are about to get robbed. Instead of a gun, he pulls out a mason jar of cannabis moonshine. I’m talking about pot, that’s right—marijuana—boys and girls.” Never a dull moment in Corsair Distillery.
Occasionally, one of the experiments stands out enough to move to larger-scale production. One of the first to hit was a special Triple Smoke Malt Whiskey that won a Gold Medal at the Beverage Tasting Institute’s International Spirits Competition in 2010. Bell studied whiskey making at the Bruichladdich Distilling Academy in Islay, Scotland, and Triple Smoke Malt Whiskey is the crowning achievement of his classwork. It uses three different smoked malts in equal proportions to create a complex and smoky whiskey. American cherry wood, Scottish peat, and German beech wood are used to smoke the malts and to lend unique characteristics to the flavor profile that creates a very memorable whiskey.
Corsair’s latest strange brew to go mainstream is a whiskey distilled from Russian Imperial Stout that Corsair has named “Rasputin.” Extremely hoppy and floral on the nose and with the hue of a copper penny, Rasputin is a little sweet and very herbaceous on the tongue. This is not a whiskey for everyone, but if you’re an adventurous sort and love hoppy beers, Rasputin might need to find a spot in your home bar.
If you’re expecting the typical sweet vanilla/corn/maple characteristics of a typical Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey when you sample a whiskey from Corsair, you’re liable to be surprised. Hopefully you won’t be disappointed or affected by preconceived notions of what a whiskey can be, because Darek Bell and Corsair are doing their part to reinvent the category. Just as the silhouettes on the bottles indicate, they are bravely walking into new territory, and many of us are eagerly following their lead.
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