In their own words – Phil Brandon, founder and distiller, Rock Town Distillery

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Phil Brandon Rock Town Distillery

‘The angels get their share, Phil gets his share and we sell the rest’

Telecoms-project-manager-turned-distiller Phil Brandon founded Rock Town in 2010, the first legal distillery in Arkansas. While he’s based in downtown Little Rock, he spends a lot of time on the road, travelling around the USA and UK to tell everyone about his whiskey, gin and liqueurs. We caught up with him at a recent tasting at The Whisky Exchange Shop in London.

The whisky journey can take you places and it took me to this place: craft distilling’

I’m an engineer by background; electrical engineer by degree; I have a master’s in business. I worked in projects. I took that project knowledge and said, “Okay, let’s see what it would take to build a distillery”‘

‘So I put the plan together and finally told my wife. “Guess what, honey? I think I want to start a distillery.” She heard me out and had faith that this was something I could probably do. My mom, on the other hand, she had other things to say about it…’

Our first batch of whisky was terrible. I had to do what we did in calculus class when we had an equation with several unknowns – the only way to solve that without more equations is to pull out one of the unknowns and change it for something else. Through a process of trial and error over the next couple of years we homed in on a whisky we liked. That’s what we make today’

The first two years I did every tour of the distillery myself, and did tastings with people constantly. You use that feedback: okay, maybe I need to tweak this or that, or look at this or look at that’

‘[On the stories of a bourbon shortage] It’s good overall for the industry because it’s really drawn attention to bourbon even more. It’s also built a bit more opportunity for the little guys like me, so I’m not complaining’

Rock Town CaskGetting good casks these days is much more difficult than it was two years ago. The cooperages are all busting at the seams trying to produce as much as they can’

To make good whiskey you need a really good cask. You can get kiln-dried wood fairly easily, but to get the good stuff, you’ve got to beg and plead’

I’m really big on sourcing locally, and Arkansas doesn’t grow any barley. But I got the farmer that grows my wheat, my rye and my corn to actually grow some. Now I’m all ready to get started on the Arkansas Single Malt Project, but I’ve had to put it to one side while we get the malting thing sorted out’

You steep [barley] in water, you pour it on the floor, you turn it and it grows. Then you throw it in the kiln and dry it out. Nothing to it?! Well… It’s another challenge, but we’ll figure it out’

Whisky is what drew me in, but I grew up drinking my dad’s gin and tonics’

‘[Making gin] is an academic effort at first, just to understand the building blocks. And then it’s about how you can put your own twist on that. I’m not going to put cardamom in because it’s not a flavour I really care for. So, I picked cinnamon because I like cinnamon; I picked anise because I like liquorice; citrus is great in there to balance the piney notes of the juniper; a little of the pepper comes through from the juniper and coriander; and the angelica’s underneath supporting it all. To me, that was just the way it made sense to put together’

‘Our philosophy is that we do it all in-house. We mill it, we cook it, we ferment it, we distil it, we bottle it. There is no sourced whiskey in our whiskey

‘For me there really is, to borrow Bruichladdich‘s mantra, a sense of place in whisky, and our place is Arkansas

It’s been an amazing five years, for sure’

Posted in Gin & Jenever, In Their Own Words, North American Whisk(e)y

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