Ask American Whiskey fans what an independent bottler is or does and you’re unlikely to get much of a response. It’s just not something done on this side of the pond. But thanks to Adam Polonski and Nora Ganley-Roper, the minds behind Lost Lantern Whiskey, and their American Vatted Malt Edition No 1, that finally might change.
For those who don’t know, an independent bottler purchases casks from various distilleries in order to release unique single cask bottlings and to create Whisky blends under its own label. In Scotland, this is often the only way to get certain single malts that either have very limited distribution or are used as part of blends for major brands. “If Scotland has such an incredible diversity of flavors in a relatively small country, how much variation can we expect in a country more than 100 times larger?” asks Adam.
That question inspired the creation of Lost Lantern, and sent Adam and Nora off on an eight-month road trip around the country visiting distilleries. The result of that excursion is Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition No 1, a blend of Whiskeys from six different distilleries located across the United States. In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we sat down with Adam and Nora to discuss the underexplored world of American Whiskey, the importance of independent bottlers, and the making of the brand’s first vatted malt.
Spirited Zine: Just to get started, What was your first experience with Whisk(e)y? And how does that memory impact the way you view Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition No 1?
Adam: When I was in college, I spent a semester at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and that was my first real whisky experience. I didn’t know much about whisky at that point, but I did fall in love with the romance of it. Years later, I started exploring home mixology and that’s how I really got into whiskey: through cocktails. And once I became a professional spirits writer, first at the trade magazine Market Watch and then at Whisky Advocate, I had incredible opportunities to try whiskies from all over the world. And that’s when I really came to know American whiskey. But those early experiences still stick with me. Learning about the regionality of Scotch whisky was a clear inspiration for our American Vatted Malt. If Scotland has such an incredible diversity of flavors in a relatively small country, how much variation can we expect in a country more than 100 times larger? That romance, that sense of place, really drives me.
Nora: I had tasted Scotch and Irish whiskey on family trips in my early 20s but I really fell in love with whiskey when I started working at Astor Wines & Spirits in NYC. I methodically worked through the store’s famous whiskey wall (well, what I could afford of it!) and through that process I became more and more interested in the unique things that were happening with newer American distilleries. I feel like our American Vatted Malt is very much an extension of that! We want it to be something that shows what the landscape of American single malt is like right now.
SZ: Independent bottlers are common in the United Kingdom, but they are basically nonexistent in America. For those unaware, can you tell us a little bit about what an independent bottler does and why that was an attractive option for you?
LL: In its most basic sense, an independent bottler buys casks from a wide variety of distilleries and releases single casks and blends. In Scotland, independent bottlers have often been the only way to get single malts from a large number of distilleries that make great whiskies, but aren’t household names–most of their whisky goes into big-name blends. The independent bottlers have helped these distilleries showcase their single malts, which would otherwise be impossible to discover.
There’s actually a similar situation in the United States, but for a very different reason: there are now around 2,000 distilleries in the U.S., at least half of which are making whiskey. And that’s way more than any one person could try. What’s more, they aren’t all at the same level–some of these distilleries are already making fantastic whiskey, while others are still honing their process or waiting for their whiskey to age longer.
That’s why we thought this was the right time to launch an independent bottler in the United States. We want to shine a light on the best distilleries around the country–ones that whiskey lovers already know, and ones they haven’t discovered yet. We believe that great whiskey is being made all across the country, and this is our way of showing that off. The incredible variety of flavors and styles now emerging also screams out for blending. We have opportunities to combine flavors and marry styles in ways that have never been done before, and that’s really exciting.
SZ: Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition No 1 is a blend of Whiskeys from across the United States. How did you choose which distilleries to include in the project?
LL: When we decided to start Lost Lantern, we wanted to make sure we truly understood the full landscape of American whiskey–not just the distilleries with enough reach and distribution to get to the media in NYC, but everything. That’s why we launched the company with an 8-month road trip around the country visiting distilleries, starting in the Pacific Northwest. This was before the pandemic, obviously–we started our road trip in September 2018 and ended in April 2019.
We found that American single malt distilleries were particularly excited about our idea–they were already familiar with the idea of independent bottlers. And what we kept hearing, over and over again, was that these distillers and blenders actually loved the idea of blending with other distilleries’ whiskies. These are experts in their field, who had mastered blending with their own whiskies, but rarely got to play with flavors from other parts of the country. After probably the third time someone told us “that’s so cool, I’d love to blend with malt from other places!” the lightbulb went off. We realized that we had the opportunity to create something genuinely collaborative in a way that had never been done before.
The distilleries we invited are some of the very finest American single malt distilleries in the country. They’re also pioneers in their field, and have played a key role in defining what American single malt is becoming. They’re all members of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (as are we). (more specific details in the question below)
SZ: What makes each of the Whiskeys unique and why did you think they would work well blended together?
LL: We wanted to ensure broad geographic and stylistic representation. Copperworks and Westward are both leaders in the Pacific Northwest, which is heavily influenced by the region’s strong brewing tradition.
Copperworks has a special place in our hearts. Adam had gotten to know a lot of distillers at Whisky Advocate, but Copperworks was the very first place we reached out to where neither of us had a warm contact–we knew their reputation but had never met them before. We sent them a cold email, saying that we were launching an independent bottler and wanted to meet them. Jason’s response, to total strangers, told us that there really was a chance that this would work. He said, “We have been waiting for years for someone to do this. Please come in!”
Westward is a pioneer in American single malt and was on our list from the very beginning. Christian, the founder, was a brewer for many years before distilling and that deep knowledge of all things fermentation has brought a unique perspective to single malt. We also love what they’re doing with low char barrels.
Randy from Triple Eight was also originally a brewer. Located on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, Triple Eight is (we believe) the oldest single malt whiskey producer on the East Coast. Triple Eight’s flagship is actually 15 years old! Adam got to know Randy while writing a story about American island whiskies for Whisky Advocate and was very impressed by what he’s doing. Triple Eight’s whiskey is quite limited and hard to find, but really special, with a distinct maritime flavor.
Virginia Distillery Co. is a beautiful distillery near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When we brought them onboard, they had actually not released their own flagship single malt yet, but Adam had gotten to try barrel samples of their whiskey and knew they were onto something. It’s a very different climate from anywhere else in the group–hot but also humid. It’s a unique maturation environment.
Balcones is the original pioneer of Texas single malt, and Jared and his team are great innovators. Beyond that, they’re among the first to mature single malt in a hot and dry environment, which brings out a real intensity of flavor. And it’s worth mentioning that the Balcones team really loves independent bottlers. The distillery has an incredible collection of releases from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and other IBs, so they saw the value of what we were doing immediately.
Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico is doing something truly new: they’re adapting the long tradition of peat-smoked whiskies to the environment of the Southwest. Instead of using peat to smoke barley, they use mesquite wood. Their founder, Colin, is an Englishman who moved to New Mexico, so he knew his Scotch whisky. Santa Fe’s single malt is elegant and delicate, with a lovely and unique smoke flavor. We were incredibly excited to have them as part of the blending group, not just because we love their whiskies but because nobody had really blended with mesquite whiskey before! To that end, we did some blending experiments beforehand to make sure mesquite and peat play well together. And they do!
Finally, we think these blended well together partly because we selected barrels to integrate into a uniquely American profile. But also, we slow-proofed this blend (which means adding water slowly) over three months. This gave the disparate components a long time to integrate and mellow into each other.
SZ: The final blend of the Whiskey was made over the course of one day in Denver. How did you get everyone together and why did you choose Denver?
LL: We did the blend the day after the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference. Many of the participants were already planning to be in Denver for the conference (although Christian from Westward flew in just for the blending session!) so it made getting everyone in a room together much easier. We were still on our road trip at the time, so we drove up to Denver after a few weeks visiting distilleries in Texas and New Mexico. After the blending session, it was time to get to work, so we booked it back east pretty quickly!
SZ: Can you take us through the process all of you went through when it came to blending the Whiskey?
LL: We spent the morning tasting through all of the samples together with the intent of eliminating any samples no one wanted to play with. However, the samples everyone brought were so good that we couldn’t eliminate anything (what a great problem to have)!
From there, everyone got down to blending a prototype to bring to the group for discussion. We spent a few hours playing around with different combinations individually. Then, we came together and tasted through the blends and voted on them together. The blends covered a wide variety of styles: some smokier, some less smoky, some more like Scotch blended malt, others heavier on new oak. The blend that emerged as the clear favorite has a distinctively American flavor, with a balance of new and used cooperage and a wide variety of cask types. From there, we discussed tweaks and proofing.
We took all the distillers who joined us out to dinner afterward, and we’re truly touched to say that they wouldn’t even let us pay for it. They had come out to Denver, picked barrel samples just on our word. They trusted us with their time and with their whiskies, even though we were a brand new company without much more than a name and logo. But they knew us well enough to take a chance on us, and we’re so thrilled we could have that amazing experience together.
SZ: The Whiskey was aged for two years. What did you mature the blend in?
LL: Once we collectively chose all the casks, we moved them to Virginia for bottling. As discussed previously, we slow-proofed the blend to help the flavors integrate, but did not age them further. The two-year age statement reflects the age of the youngest whiskies in the blend, while other casks ranged up to 7 years old. Since we were working with mature barrel samples, we actually didn’t want the blend to age any longer once we had chosen the barrels!
SZ: How do you recommend enjoying Lost Lantern American Vatted Malt Edition No 1 and what should be paired with it?
LL: We firmly believe whiskey drinkers should be able to enjoy whiskey however they like it. That’s why we kept American Vatted Malt Edition No. 1 at a relatively high proof–you can drink it that way or water it down, based on your preference. We tend to drink it neat in a Glencairn, but we also fully support adding water or enjoying it on the rocks. It also makes a great base for a Penicillin cocktail–especially one topped by a mesquite-smoked single malt instead of the traditional peated malt.
You recently introduced your first single cask collection. What’s next for Lost Lantern?
LL: We did! We decided early on that we were going to adapt the Scotch IB model to the wider world of American whiskey, rather than just focusing on single malt. Our first single cask releases demonstrate that: We have an American single malt from Santa Fe Spirits; a Bourbon from Cedar Ridge in Iowa, the heart of the corn belt; a cool-climate rye whiskey finished in an apple brandy cask from New York Distilling Co.; and a 4-year-old Texas corn whiskey from Ironroot Republic (which sold out almost immediately). All of our single casks are at cask strength, natural color, and non-chill-filtered, and hand-chosen from distilleries that we think are leaders in the field.
We plan to release another cohort of single casks roughly every quarter. Each set of releases will include a single malt, a bourbon, and a rye, and sometimes an ‘other’ whiskey (like the Corn Whiskey). The labels are color coded based on category. We’ll be announcing our next single casks soon and already have our lineup ready for most of the year, and we have some really thrilling and unique whiskies ahead!
In addition, we are working on our own (non-collaborative) blend, and look forward to hosting another collaborative blending session for American Vatted Malt Edition No. 2 as soon as we can. We had planned on hosting one in April 2020 until the pandemic hit, and we can’t wait until we can all get together again!