Four bottles of spirits from Rock Town Distillery on table

In times of austerity, craft gets cool. People knit things. Baking comes back in fashion. People start home-smoking, home-curing, home-growing.

Ironically, these things often end up costing more than store-bought items but it’s more about the idea of being ‘crafty’ that kicks in when people feel they need to cut back, about knowing you can rely on your own skills rather than those of others to see you through.

And so, this ties in well with the craft distillery revolution that’s occurring. All over the States – in particular – and in Canada, the UK and Ireland (to name a few more) small distilleries are opening up and making “handcrafted” spirits.

I have tried a variety of newer brands of late and one thing that many of them have in common is their approach to experimentation, especially those coming out of the US where the regulations tend to be slightly less picky than in the UK.

One that caught my eye of late was the Rock Town Distillery, which has recently started getting distribution on UK shores through The Great Whisky Company.

The Great Whisky Company

Rock Town was founded in 2010 by Phil Brandon and was the first legal distillery in Arkansas since Prohibition. Phil and his wife Diana – who both run the distillery along with distiller Andy Lewis – were in town with their two children to meet and greet people and discuss their products at the Soho Whisky Club.

Phil Brandon of Rock Town Distillery with a shipment of spiritsAs background, the distillery was built in a former warehouse in downtown Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas. It took three months to build, and includes a 1,000 litre custom made still.

Since launching, the company has won numerous awards for its products, including a double gold in the ‘Small Batch Bourbon up to 10yrs Old’ category at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits competition and the award for best no-age statement bourbon at the World Whisky Awards 2013.

On the day of Phil and Diana’s visit, I was able to sample four of the company’s 10 products. Unfortunately, I didn’t make any notes on Brandon’s Gin (other than that it’s made with seven botanicals and is bottled at 46%) but I did take more interest in the Young Bourbon Whiskey, the Hickory Smoked Whiskey and Apple Pie Lightning.

Bottle of Rock Town Arkansas Young Bourbon Whisky in front of two other bottlesThe first – I was told – is made from an 82% corn, 9% wheat and 9% malted barley mashbill and it goes through a three day fermentation, in which two yeast strains are used. Phil said this is because “two together gives it a little bit more complexity.” The spirit is filled into new charred oak 40 litre casks (bought from a small, family run cooperage in Arkansas) at 55% and aged for a mere eight months, before being bottled at 46%. On the nose, it was loaded with buttery cinnamon notes (slightly creamy, slightly spicy) and a bit of buttered toffee popcorn. It was one that needed time in the glass, one to sit with for a while and get to know because it was quite unusual. On the palate, the whiskey was more drying than expected but that buttery note followed through from the nose, with added notes of cherries, vanilla and black pepper.

We then moved on to the Hickory Smoked Whiskey, which is also aged for around eight months but is differentiated by being filled into used bourbon casks. The “hickory smoked” aspect comes from the fact the wheat is cold-smoked in a hickory smoker. The mashbill for this whiskey is 91% wheat and 9% malted barley. On the nose, there were more honey and vanilla notes and I found it much less potent than the Young Bourbon. There were also hints of white pepper, cardboard and cigarettes. On the palate, it was drying, with a sharp bit at the front of the tongue and notes of citrus and wood chips, vanilla and almond extract. I personally preferred the flavour profile of the Young Bourbon to the Hickory Smoked, as I found this one a bit too subtle for my tastes but it was a very interesting one to try regardless.

Single bottle of Rock Town Distillery's Apple Pie LightningWe finished on the Apple Pie Lightning. Based on moonshine recipes, this is made from a base of white spirit, to which apples, cinnamon and spices are added in a vat to marry the flavours together. It’s only 20% ABV so it’s very drinkable. On the nose, there were notes of minty bubblegum (I got Double Bubble in particular), apples and butter, while the palate reminded me of apple and toffee suckers I’d get at Halloween as a kid. It was definitely moreish.

In the end, what I liked most about the whole experience of meeting Phil and Diana was the fact that they’re another example of people who are so passionate about what they’re doing. They both seemed thrilled that a big group had come out to try their products and were incredibly down to earth, and just…well…filled with that effortless hospitality that many North Americans come in-built with. I was impressed with what they’ve managed to do in such a short space of time and am keen to see how they progress over the coming years.