Once upon a time all whisky was moonshine, really. I find that rather pleasing. After spirit distillation had shrugged off the earnest, pioneer, alchemical academics (God rest ‘em) and the po-faced monasticals with their ‘bolls of malt’, what was left – be it in heathery Scottish glen, heathery Irish glen or whatever it is they have in America – were handfuls of chance-yer-arm bibulants cooking up something lethal in home-made kettles. Before lobbing in sundry herbs and spices and (depending on your level of cynicism/choice of modern drinks writer) clinking clannish quaichs in dignified conviviality or getting riotously blotto. (Recently uncovered documents unearthed near the Easter Elchies suggest that much of the spirit of antiquity was also “botteled in ye chalice Lalique and hawked by craftie merchante-menne for ye profitte moste goodlie”. Who knew?)
Apparently it’s now high time we cast an eye over moonshine again. Or rather, over new make spirit, which is really just its snooty ‘come-good’ sibling. There’s certainly a lot of it about. Bottled new-make seems to be a symptom of the modern pandemic of new-build distilleries. The alternative being gin, which, however you spin it, is just neutral alcohol, artificially flavoured, and therefore far more boring.
Much digital ink has been spilled and social spleen vented over the bottles of wholly-unwooded aqua vitae sitting on shelves at the same price as 12-year-old Kilkerran. I dare say it’s not wholly unjustified. On the other side of the trenches, bar-folk are practically levitating with excitement at the proffered possibilities for niche, wonkish cocktails which no normal person would ever dream of ordering. Men in badly-judged hats are leaping to make spectacles of themselves; awarding cricket scores to hot-off-the-still firewater. And more professional websites than this one are bulging with on-trend Next-Big-Thingery.
The positive (and we like positives on Malt, contrary to what you might read on twitter) is that bottled new make necessarily draws attention to what happens before the spirit is put into wood. You know – the stuff that actually makes the whisky, rather than the (albeit very important) bit that ameliorates it. It’s noticeable that bottling new make spirit is the one bandwagon onto which none of the big players appears to be leaping, even though they’ve the capacity and financial muscle to spaff out a load of it and undercut the crafties on price. And there’s a fairly surmisable reason for this, which is that their cut-the-corner, get-it-done-lads, pile-it-high, job’s-a-good’un still-juice would pale by comparison to the new make being distilled by those who aren’t in the shadow of a global corporation’s rigid bottom line. It’s far easier for the colossi to turn a blind eye, rehash the knackered old “wood and time are all that matter” line and point out how pretty their glen of residence is.
Bimber doesn’t have a glen of residence. It certainly isn’t pretty. It skulks on an industrial estate in London, which for international readers is one of England’s larger municipalities, best described as the love-child of the Cave of Wonders and Pandora’s Box. Bimber definitely sits within Pandora’s postcode. If London is the nation’s beating heart (and a poll of Londoners overwhelmingly suggests that it is) then Bimber is lodged in one of its most clotted, sclerotic ventricles. We’re talking air you can use as chewing tobacco and architecture that would make the ‘70s shudder. The sort of place where “undergone recent development” means they’ve swept up the used prophylactics and “home to colourful characters” means at least they’ll be smiling when they nick your phone. A billboard of surpassing optimism announces “vibrant offices to let”. The mind boggles at what “vibrant” might be euphemistic for. The Whisky Exchange, as it happens, sites its HQ somewhere nearby.
It’s not without a soupçon of trepidation that I took my rabies shot, donned my “if found, return to” badge and schlepped over to North Acton. And not just because, as a born and raised Merseysider, my skin starts hissing within the M25. I have a little history with Bimber. Back in October I wrote a piece in these pages bemoaning their old pricing strategy (now changed, and the piece wasn’t specific to them anyway). Our particular style of delicately-worded diplomacy on Malt occasionally raises a hackle or two and inevitably (and fairly enough) one sometimes finds oneself facing one’s castigatees. (I’ve previously visited a distillery after describing their whisky as “a thwarted, arrogant paean to cynicism for which I cannot offer a single redeemeing feature”.)
I was only diet-splenetic about Bimber, mind you, and in my standard brand of authorial frottery I described their two year old spirit as “eyebrows-on-trampolines, stardusty tingle-tingle, purringly, shiveringly terrific”. So perhaps I wouldn’t be fed into a grain mill after all. (It turns out that Bimber don’t use one anyway.)
Bearing all this in mind it’s doubly important that my impressions of the distillery, and of the whisky that they have made and are making, should be considered and objective. I also discovered that their director, Farid, is a Malt patron, and I’d hate to be found in want of neutrality. So here goes:
It is this critic’s opinion that Bimber’s spirit is equal to the best being distilled anywhere in England and, with a smattering of exceptions, anywhere in the world.
I have been to distilleries who are obsessive about fermentation or distillation. Goodness knows I’ve visited gaffs who nerd on about casks (though many do so in a slightly misleading, box-ticking, ‘wood-wood-wood-no-questions-thank-you’ fashion). But I can’t think of a distillery I’ve visited which digs into the minutiae of every individual process with such rigour and relish as Bimber. (It should be noted that I’ve not visited Waterford, Chichibu, Wilderness Trail, Zuidam or Smögen.)
Let me give you a couple of examples. Bimber don’t mill their grain. Instead they have it crushed, which preserves the husks, as distiller Darius doesn’t want them interfering with the sweetness and clarity of his wort. Their grain comes from a single farm, chosen after a couple of dozen had been rejected, and both Darius and Farid make regular visits to check how the harvest is coming along. “Good job we’ve had some rain recently,” commented Farid. Their barley is malted on a single floor at Warminster Maltings, set aside for Bimber so as to avoid cross-farm contamination. (Though the peated barley is malted at Darius’s house. He built his own kiln, à la Pete Bignell at Belgrove, though since Darius’s other business is construction, his kiln looks rather smarter than a repurposed tumble dryer.)
Mashing only sees two waters; they don’t want to eke out every bit of sugar here, they’re more interested in a richer, more concentrated wort. Peering into the tiny mash tun I spotted a miniature rouser. It reminded me of Tasmanian distilleries, and I said so. “That’s the sort of feel we’re after” was the reply. It turns out they’re fellow fans of Overeem.
Fermentation, you ask? Purpose-built washbacks, again to Darius’s design. Five at the moment, but two more are on their way. The process itself takes a whopping seven days, using two in-house strains of yeast, specially cultivated after much trial and error on Darius’ part. We’ve explained unto death the flavour benefits afforded by long fermentations and yeast strains, but Bimber get a little nerdier still. Cooling plates are fixed to the side of their washbacks, preventing the fermentation temperature from rising above 28 degrees. Fermentation temperature is discussed in whisky about as much as solar eclipses, but once they rise into the mid thirties Celsius (as they do at almost every other distillery) yeast start to die or ‘switch off’. By maintaining a constant 26-28, Bimber’s yeasts can be more productive; can create more esters, more fruitiness, more flavour.
The stills are Portuguese alembics, increasingly the apostrophe of the teacup distillery, but once again Darius has fiddled with his to taste. He removed the shell and tube condensers and packed them with more piping. In English, that means more copper contact for the spirit; lighter, fruitier flavours, preserved esters. (This is going to get repetitive). Stills are direct fired with gas; distillation is slow; spirit is tasted as it comes off the still and unwanted foreshots and feints (heads and tails) are thrown away. Chronic waste to most distilleries; preservation of flavour to accountant-nightmare Darius.
But what you really want to hear about are the casks, right? (No matter how much we bleat about everything else on Malt.) Well, unusually for a modern distillery, you won’t find any Shaved, Toasted, Recharred (STR) wine casks at Bimber. What you will find is mostly ex-bourbon, supplemented by American virgin oak and ex-sherry. But not ‘ex-sherry’ as the modern whisky industry tends to know it. Not made-to-order wood sloshed through with mewling, miserly, never-to-be-bottled pseudo-sherry vinegar. Bimber use casks that have served their time in a proper Jerez solera. Casks whose sherry has been fit to drink and has been drunk. This stuff makes a difference. This stuff matters.
And fusspot Darius isn’t done with his bean-counter-bothering yet. “We saw a batch of two hundred casks the other week,” says Farid. “Darius took a look at them, checked out four or five, rejected the lot. Not good enough.” The advantage of having a construction business is you have a lot of mates who – no sniggering at the back please – know their wood. One of Darius’s does Bimber’s coopering. There’s no room for bad casks to hide. (They even make their spirit’s wooden presentation boxes in-house!)
I could go on, but I’m into broken record territory, and I think you get the point. Let’s talk about the liquid. Bimber was founded too late to get involved with the indecorous hoo-hah of last December, when the PR teams of The London Distillery and East London Liquor Company grappled to shoehorn the most convincing “London’s First” into their press releases. They’ve only just passed the three-year flagpole, and they’re still figuring out how to go about presenting and releasing their first bottlings. The fun part.
They’ve sincerely reached out to a number of writers and bloggers in the name of getting a genuine opinion on the shape their whisky ought to take. Which is tremendously flattering, and no one likes their ego fluffing more than I do, but to be honest I don’t think it’s necessary. I mean for goodness sake: these guys are distilling and maturing some of the best young spirit in the world. Their vision, their effort, their creativity, their endeavour. The hell with what some karaoke hack reckons; if I’d made spirit that good I’d say “sod you all and whatever you think; I know better than you do and I’m calling the shots.” (I might not say it aloud. Although, then again, maybe I might.)
The only grubby tuppenceworth I’d throw Bimber’s way is that I know Farid and Darius are seriously considering a single-cask-heavy range, and I would gently point them towards this article by my editor, every word of which I agree with. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good single cask. But the creation of something greater than the sum of its constituents is where a whiskymaker really earns her stripes, in my book.
I imagine you want to know what the spirit tastes like? You’ll find my scrawlings below, but as is our tradition with unbottled grog, I’ve not attached scores. So here’s the takeaway: these people are exceptional. In my highly personal, not-at-all-scientific league table of English distilleries I’d place them only behind the Cotswolds. And I’ve loved Cotswolds for years. This is whisky that, once released, you should buy on sight. (Assuming the price is fair. Farid hinted it might hover in Cotswolds airspace. If it does, fill your boots.)
Bimber Test Batch 001 3 years old ex-bourbon 51.2% – review
On the nose: A wonderfully fresh, clean, fruity nose dusted with black pepper. Stone fruits present themselves in ripe, estery form, beside apricot and orange zest. Just a smear of honey binds it all together.
In the mouth: Instantly luscious, voluptuous, oily and far more intense in flavour than the nose was in aroma. Still the same fruity esters, but much more honey, golden syrup and caramel. Peachy finish leading to a drier alcohol. Just a little fire from the alcohol’s youth. Gorgeous.
Bimber Test Batch 001 3 years old US virgin oak 53.1% – review
On the nose: Instantly woodier, as you’d expect (not too woody) with cereals (branflakes), ginseng and nutmeg alongside those stone fruit esters. Though here the peaches of the ex-bourbon are joined by deeper mango and blood orange. A little higher-note apple and peardrop too. Pencil shavings and leather.
In the mouth: Still a very plump palate and the alcohol is calmer (despite a slightly higher abv). Sweeter – vanilla and pecan pie and maple syrup more than honey. A little less fruity initially, then those esters buzz their stone-fruited way back through on the finish, flecked with raspberry.
Bimber Test Batch 001 3 years old ex-sherry cask 51.9% – review
On the nose: That sherry isn’t messing around, though it’s fresh rather than dark and swampy. It’s very intense, clean, sweet and balanced by ester and spice. Sultanas, treacle, cooked apple and muscovado face off clove and leather and cured meat.
In the mouth: The lushest palate yet; teeth-stickingly oily and rich. Golden syrup, raisins, apple strudel. An overt smokiness emerges with time alongside a touch of woodiness and balsamic. Bitter chocolate. Already gorgeous but one to leave for more depth by my measure.
Bimber Test Batch 001 3 years old ‘Recharred’ – review
(These are casks that another distillery had bought as Virgin Oak and filled without first having charred them. Oops. Their no-doubt-heinously woody whisky removed, Bimber took the casks, charred them, and filled them up with spirit. Hence ‘recharred’. Though really only charred once.)
Colour: Lord of the Rings letters
On the nose: Well, you can’t have ‘recharred’ without ‘char’, and this one has plenty. Smoke and hickory and walnuts and cinnamon. American whiskey lovers gather round … Jason can probably sit this one out. Those stone fruits just won’t go away though …
In the mouth: Probably the closest nose-to-palate match of the four, though the fruits have intensified and been joined by red berries. Perhaps a shade less voluptuous than the others, though definitely still on the full-bodied end of the whisky spectrum. A good whack of wood and nuts to finish – don’t think this one wants leaving in cask much longer.
These are the sort of big-flavoured, clean, unctuous whiskies that get me excited. I’ve been a bit jaded by a lot of the whiskies I’ve tasted in the last few months; these four have really slapped my palate awake again. Further proof that the ‘the older a whisky is, the gooder it is’ line is nonsense. As with the whiskies from Cotswolds, Smögen, Chichibu and goodness knows how many other young distilleries I’d stick these up against any fourth-fill, quick-job-production twenty year old Scotch and watch the Bimbers smash it out of the park.
What I love about these is that all four set off in completely different directions of flavour, but are anchored by a confident, characterful base spirit that isn’t overwhelmed at all by oak. And the quality of the casks couldn’t be clearer. No weak or off notes whatsoever. Just think what a wonderfully complex whisky they could make with some good vatting.
My personal favourite (just) is the ex-bourbon, but stick any of these four in my glass and I’ll be very happy indeed. Worth going to London for. And I can’t offer much higher praise than that.
Bimber started as moonshine. Indeed ‘Bimber’ translates as moonshine. Darius learned distilling in his native Poland, where he’d watch his grandfather make spirit; dipping his finger in the vat as he went, tweaking the processes, tweaking the taste. They’re still tweaking now; still fine-tuning and learning and improving, and if you give a damn about the liquid you put in your mouth you should go there and watch them do it. If you think I’m gushing; if you think I’m over-egging the praise pudding, you should go and see and smell and taste for yourself and then you can tell me I’m wrong. As Mark once said of the Cotswolds, “Lord knows how much fun this place is going to be”, this moonshiner’s shed in North London’s Glen Grunge; this bothy for industrial alchemists.
(Many thanks indeed to Darius and Farid for taking the time to show me around the distillery. Samples were provided, but such things never make any difference to our write-ups on Malt.)