August 2018's Selection – Yokka Koji Awamori

This month’s selection is an incredibly rare and unique Asian beverage called awamori. This spirit is produced only in Okinawa, a subtropical archipelago that’s the southernmost prefecture of Japan – but actually geographically closer to Taiwan than Tokyo.

Yokka Koji Awamori Bottle

The raw material for awamori is long-grain rice from Thailand, which is used nowadays because Okinawa can’t produce enough of the right kind locally. The rice is steamed then laid out on large tables to cool to the correct temperature.  

Next comes the part that’s unknown in the West – the rice is inoculated with koji, a type of fungus. The koji has several functions – it breaks down the starch in the rice to sugar, which can then be converted to alcohol by yeast, and also starts adding compounds that give unique umami flavours by breaking down proteins to their constituent amino acids. This step is very similar to the way the Japanese produce sake rice wine.

After the koji spores have been sprinkled on the rice, they are usually left for two days to act. The rice that’s used for Yokka Koji is however left for four days, so that more intense flavours can be formed (yokka literally means fourth, as in the fourth day of the month).

After the koji phase, the treated rice is placed in a tank with yet more steamed rice, water and yeast – and allowed to ferment.  The resulting low-alcohol beverage is then distilled one time in a pot still to produce awamori. Some awamori – like Yokka Koji – is bottled basically straight away while some varieties are aged in clay pots for several years to mellow their flavor.

Yokka Koji Awamori With Sipping Liquor Magazine

The islands of Okinawa were for centuries part of the ­ancient Ryukyu Kingdom before they were annexed by Japan in the late 19th century.

Like many beverages with a long history, the etymology behind the name awamori is a bit of a mystery. One popular theory is that awa refers to the bubbles created during production and mori refers to the way they rise or swell.

The four-sided design on the bottle alludes to the Japanese character for the number four. Which of course refers to the number of days the steamed rice is allowed to react with the koji.

Andrew Rummer
June 2018's Selection - Christian Drouin Calvados
Christian Drouin Calvados Bottles

Calvados is an often overlooked category in the UK, something we wanted to rectify. When done well it can match or even exceed the traditional big beasts of the aged-spirits world: whisky and brandy. 

Just as brandy is distilled wine and whisky is basically distilled beer, calvados is distilled cider. But not just any old cider. Christian Drouin produces its cider from 30 varieties of apple (and a small amount of pear) grown in organic orchards around Gonneville-sur-Honfleur in Normandy, northern France. Strongbow this ain’t. 

Christian Drouin's Réserve des Fiefs is a blend of calvados aged from three to six years. It combines fresh apple flavours with smooth spices and vanilla from the wood. 

Drouin resides in the Pays d’Auge appellation d’origine contrôlée, generally considered the "best" of the three calvados AOCs. The orchards have shallow soils rich in clay and limestone, spread over rolling hills. Drouin uses a very apple-heavy cider mix, with only 2-5 percent pear. The results in a “very round style” with a soft mouth that “grows in time with a lot of complexity,” Guillaume Drouin, grandson of the company’s founder, told us in an interview.

Sipping Liquor Box with Drouin Calvados

The story of the distillery begins in 1960, when Christian Drouin became the owner of the Fiefs Sainte Anne estate near Honfleur. The farm was planted with cider-apple trees and he soon decided to produce his own calvados, more as a hobby than a serious business. With the help of a local distiller, Pierre Pivet, he spent the next 20 years producing calvados and setting it aside without selling much. He also acquired several batches of very old calvados when the estates of some reputed regional producers were sold. 

By 1979 Christian and his son, also called Christian, began marketing their calvados to high-end restaurants and hotels in France and overseas. At the time calvados was mainly a regional beverage consumed by the working class of Normandy with meals or coffee. In 1991-92 Christian junior transferred production to another 17th-century farm in Coudray-Rabut near Pont l’Evèque, to meet growing demand.

In 2004 the third generation of Drouins joined the firm. Guillaume Drouin gradually took on more responsibilities before becoming general manager in 2013. To this day Guillaume and his father, Christian junior, create the calvados blends together. The company now exports to 50 different countries. 

“We’re not a big player in terms of volume and that’s not what we’re aiming to be,” Guillaume told us. “We want to be in all the good restaurants and hotels.”

Andrew Rummer
April 2018's Selection - St Abbs Captain's Table XO Rum
St Abbs Captains Table XO With Sipping Liquor Magazine

Our selection for April is an aged Caribbean rum, a young brand that looks back to the time when sail-rigged vessels dominated international trade. St Abbs Captain’s Table XO is a blend of rums from Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica. St Abbs sources ten different marks, the rum-making term for a single distillate, from distilleries around the Caribbean. Each has been aged for a different time in ex-bourbon casks in the tropical heat, creating a variation of flavours, before they are shipped to Amsterdam for final mixing and maturing.

St Abbs Captain's Table XO Bottles

St Abbs rum was founded by David Owens and Matthew Norris, an Englishman and an Australian living in the Seychelles. David was there helping to set up a distillery on the Indian Ocean island paradise when he came across the story of the St Abbs shipwreck in a local museum and thought it would make a great spirits brand. 

The three-masted full-rigged wooden vessel St Abbs was named after a village near the border between England and Scotland. It was launched from the ship yards of Sunderland in 1848, chartered to the East India Company. In 1855 the vessel set sail on a ten-month passage from London to Bombay with a cargo of Caribbean rum and municipal supplies for the Indian navy.

On 14th June, during the final leg of the journey, the ship struck a reef in the shallow waters of an atoll at the southern tip of the Seychelles archipelago. The vessel was ripped in two and the aft part of the ship, along with most of her crew, were never seen again. St Abbs’ fore part washed ahore, along with 100 barrels of rum. Only a handful of crew members ever made it safely home to England, among them the captain. 

Curious stories emerged in the years following the shipwreck of distress calls carved on wood and leather, carried on ocean currents and washing up as far away as the East African coast. This sombre artwork was traded by curio vendors in African bazaars, spreading the tale of the St Abbs and her rum-soaked crew far and wide.

March 2018's Selection - Bán Poitín
Ban Poitin bottle

Who's this handsome fella with the exotic name? To mark St. Patrick’s Day, for March we've selected Bán Poitín, a modern take on a traditional Irish spirit with a lively past. Pronounced “bawn potcheen,” this unaged white liquor is made from barley and potatoes grown on the Echlinville estate, as well as sugar beet molasses. The production process is very similar to whiskey’s: fermentation followed by double distillation in copper whiskey stills, with blending taking place at the end.

Poitín derives its name from the small pot still in which it was traditionally heated in remote, rural homes. The ruling British outlawed the drink in 1661 because its makers refused to pay a spirit tax. After the ban, poitín production became even more confined to the most rural areas of Ireland. This almost-mystical home-made moonshine was shared only among family and friends, usually concealed in a hip flask. The ban was only lifted 336 years later in 1997. Yes, that 1997. 

Sipping Liquor box with Ban Poitin and Poacher's Tonic

Bán was created by Dave Mulligan, a bartender by trade who felt the poitín brands available post-1997 lacked the passion and ­reverance commensurate with such an important part of Irish culture and heritage. Keen to create a superb-tasting poitín he could proudly share with the rest of the world, Dave teamed up with the Echlinville Distillery in County Down after experimenting and blending distillates in his North London bar. The word Bán literally means “white” in Irish and describes the clear colour of the drink. It’s also a nod to the ban on production imposed for over three centuries.

Sipping Liquor subscribers also received a bottle of another Irish beverage — Poacher’s Classic Tonic Water — with which to mix their poitín should they so wish. Poacher’s is made with spring water from County Wexford and has a very low sugar content which allows the ­spirit’s flavour to to shine. Meanwhile, the high natural quinine levels give it a serious robustness and attitude. It also has a very light sprinkling of Irish thyme which brings a subtle depth to the liquid. 

Ban Poitin bottles
February 2018's Selection - Cocchi Grappa Bianca

February sees us travel to the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, home of this fantastic grappa from Cocchi (pronounced “cocky”). This white, unaged beverage is produced from 100 percent locally grown barbera grapes.

The Cocchi brand has existed since 1891 when a pastry chef called Giulio Cocchi started producing sparkling and aromatized wines in the town of Asti. The legend goes that he only arrived in Asti after accidentally getting off the train from Florence to Turin one stop early. He stayed after falling in love with, and eventually marrying, the daughter of a local barkeeper. The establishment, now known as Bar Cocchi, can still be found in Piazza Alfieri in the centre of Asti. 

Cocchi grappa bottles

Grappa shares some DNA with brandy but, like much of the best Italian cooking, grappa is a product of frugality. It’s base material is the detritus remaining after grapes have been pressed to produce wine. This leftover skin, pulp, seeds and stems is collectively known as pomace.

In the UK grappa can have an unfair reputation as rough-edged firewater. We’ve probably all been handed a complimentary glass of cheap spirit following a meal in the sort of Italian restaurant that hasn’t changed since 1971. We hope this premium Cocchi grappa goes some way to improving that perception. Salute! 

Sipping Liquor box with Cocchi grappa and Blighty coffee
January 2018's Selection - Kilkerran Single Malt

For January we’ve selected a single malt from the newest distillery in one of the oldest whisky-producing areas of Scotland. Kilkerran's 12 Year Old Single Malt was produced at J&A Mitchell & Co.’s Glengyle distillery in Campbeltown, which only reopened in 2004 after a hiatus of nearly 80 years.

Kilkerran 12 Year Old

 The Kilkerran 12 is a mix of spirit aged in barrels that used to hold bourbon and sherry — 70% ex-bourbon and 30% ex-sherry. All water used in production, from steeping the barley to diluting the whisky before bottling, comes from the local Crosshill Loch.

While most Scottish distilleries are controlled by giant multinationals such as Diageo or Pernod Ricard, J&A Mitchell is a family-owned company. It also operates the larger Springbank distillery, just over the road from Glengyle in Campbeltown. Mitchell’s Glengyle facility produces whisky under the Kilkerran brand because it no longer owns the trademark to the Glengyle name. The brand comes from the Anglicisation of Campbeltown’s Gaelic moniker, Kinlochkilkerran.

The original Glengyle distillery produced whisky from 1872 to 1925, before Prohibition in the U.S. and an economic downturn forced its closure. Hedley Wright, chairman of J&A Mitchell, is the great-great nephew of William Mitchell, founder of the first Glengyle distillery. 

December 2017's Selection - Frapin VS Cognac
Frapin VS Cognac

This month we’ve selected a bottle of Frapin Cognac for our lucky subscribers. This French brandy is produced from grapes grown in Frapin's 240 hectares of vineyards in Grande Champagne, an area considered to be Cognac’s top appellation.

Brandy production, like Scotch whisky, is all about blending a large number of batches of differing age and character into a product of quality and consistency. This Frapin VS should taste much like one produced 20 years ago. That requires a wide variety of flavours that the blender can use as a palette. Because Frapin’s raw material – the grapes – all comes from one estate, they get creative with the ageing process to help create that variety. Cellar master Patrice Piveteau splits his cellars into two levels of humidity to accentuate differences during barrel ageing. See an interview with him below. 

The family-owned Frapin company can trace its origins all the way back to the 13th century. The current owner, Jean-Pierre Cointreau, is a direct descendent of the founder. The 16th century writer François Rebelais was the son of ­Catherine Frapin, inspiring the quill-pen imagery in Frapin’s branding.

November 2017's Selection - San Cosme Mezcal
San Cosme Mezcal bottle

To counter the November blues we’ve headed back to the Americas in search of a fine, exotic spirit to share with you. Our chosen drink is San Cosme Mezcal, all the way from Oaxaca, Mexico.

Founded by four friends in 2011, San Cosme takes its name from the patron saint of doctors and pharmacists, based on folklore about the drink’s healing properties. Mexicans have a saying which translates as “For every ill, mezcal, and for every good as well”. Sounds good to us!

San Cosme is produced on an old hacienda estate in Santiago de Matatlán -- the self-professed world capital of mezcal -- and everything from agave plant cultivation to bottling and sealing occurs here. It is a truly artisanal product, capturing Oaxacan craft and tradition in a bottle. 

San Cosme Mezcal Sipping Liquor
October 2017's Selection - Kuro Gin
Kuro Gin bottle

What could be more pleasant on a cosy autumnal evening than a glass of aromatic, Japanese-inspired gin mixed with a fine tonic? Introducing Kuro London Dry Gin, Sipping Liquor's October selection. 

Following a snowboarding trip to the Hakuba region of Japan, British founder Craig Fell and his business partner John Thompson wanted to create a distinctive London dry gin that captures the essence of the Japanese Alps. After many iterations they achieved this by adding to the base recipe an earthy selection of botanicals (natural flavouring ingredients) not usually associated with gin: silver birch bark, bamboo and spruce needles.

Sipping Liquor box with Kuro Gin and Double Dutch Gin

Curbing the usual sweetness found in modern, citrus-focussed gins these ingredients create a very smooth, fresh, aromatic note which expects a lot of the palate but very much rewards it.

The name Kuro means “black” in Japanese and was inspired by the colour of the bamboo activated charcoal used in production. 

Our members also found in October's box two bottles of Double Dutch Pomegranate & Basil Tonic Water which superbly complements this unique gin. 

September 2017's Selection - Bimber Oak Aged Vodka
Bimber Aged Vodka bottle

Our mission to bring the world’s finest spirits to your doorstep has led us ­closer to home this month: the Park Royal neighbourhood of West London. 

The Bimber Distillery was founded in 2015 by Dariusz Płażewski, a ­London-dwelling Pole who had already set up a successful construction and home renovation ­business. Dariusz learnt to distill at a young age using small equipment with his friends in the woods of Poland. This history inspired the name ­Bimber, which means moonshine in Polish. The distillery, whose ­eagle-head logo is a flipped version of the one on the Polish flag, bottled its first ­vodka in early 2016. 

Sipping Liquor box with Bimber Vodka

Bimber’s Oak Aged Vodka is inspired by a traditional Polish vodka variation called starka. For at least 400 years, people in Poland and Lithuania have been taking rye-grain vodka, ageing it in oak barrels and infusing it with the leaves of fruit trees. Like whisky, rum or brandy, the spirit darkens over time as it draws colour and flavour from the oak.

Dariusz wanted to put a modern spin on starka. Bimber takes a wheat ­vodka and matures it in old Woodford Reserve bourbon casks for six months. While ageing, the spirit is also infused with cinnamon, vanilla and dried cloves, the sorts of ingredients more usually found in a spiced rum.

August 2017's Selection - Avuá Amburana Cachaça
Avua Cachaca bottles

This month's delivery has come all the way from Brazil to our subscribers' doorsteps, more than 5,000 miles. In the U.K. you’re most likely to have come across cachaça (pronounced “kah-shash-ah”) as the base spirit in a caipirinha cocktail. This cachaça is a little special ­however. It’s aged in a local Brazilian wood called amburana, from which it takes on flavours very different to the ones whisky or bourbon drinkers will know from oak. It’s perfect to sip on a warm evening. Here's Nate Whitehouse from Avuá (pronounced “av-wah”) to tell you more:

Avuá was born out of the melting pot of New York City. When ­American Nate Whitehouse moved to the city he fell in with a crowd of ex-pat ­Brazilians and was introduced to their music and culture, including cachaça. With their interest piqued, Nate and co-founders Peter Nevenglosky and Mark Christou flew down to Brazil in 2011 to learn more. After meeting dozens of producers and tasting hundreds of samples they discovered Katia Espírito Santo and her cachaça estate in Carmo, four hours north of Rio de Janeiro. 

The farm has been in Katia’s family since 1923, producing cachaça all that time. Katia learned to distill from her father, who thought she would be better at it than her brothers. Katia grows sugarcane and ­distills cachaça on the farm, using a water wheel to crush the harvested cane to extract the juices. The juice is fermented for less than 24 hours with yeast found in the local environment, before being distilled in a copper pot still. 

Avuá aims to "challenge the perception of the cachaça category as a one-trick caipirinha pony." Sounds good to us!

July 2017's Selection - Koval Bourbon
Koval Bourbon Bottle

Sipping Liquor subscribers have received our first ever delivery this week. We're very proud to feature Koval bourbon, all the way from Chicago. Here's an interview we conducted with the president and co-founder of the Koval distillery, Sonat Birnecker Hart. 

Koval's bourbon is single-barrel and organic. It contains an unusual mash bill of 51% corn and 49% millet. Husband and wife co-founders Sonat and Robert Birnecker pioneered a technique of only using the heart cut of the distillation in their whiskies, following the tradition of Austrian brandy makers.

Sipping Liquor box with Koval Bourbon