Copper & Kings: The Next Big Thing Is Here
I am often weary of people just getting into distillation these days. There's too much opportunism guiding the motivations towards the spirits business and unfortunately not enough passion. Ironically, most of that money hungry desire to cash in on the current demand for aged booze usually gets set straight quickly because few people are getting rich. You talk to almost everyone who's started a distillery in the past few years and they'll tell you the same thing: "If I'd have known how much this was going to cost, I never would have done it." Simultaneously, the exact opposite problem can also be true of newcomers to the industry: too much passion, not enough street smarts. I get samples in the mail almost every day for some of the strangest distilled spirits you've never heard of. "Why would anybody want to make this?" I think to myself sometimes when I see the crazy concoctions people send me. It's that exact weariness that crept across my mind when Copper & Kings Distillery owner Joe Heron emailed me a year ago to ask if I would be part of a brandy panel with him at Tales of the Cocktail. "Why me?" I asked.
"Because your writing and insight has heavily-influenced our brandy endeavors," Joe wrote back. Apparently this guy had started distilling brandy somewhere in Kentucky and read my blog quite frequently—the latter of which made me even more nervous. Anyone who would base serious business decisions on my drunken ramblings must be totally nuts! While the brandy panel never came to fruition, Joe would continue to email me periodically with thoughts about the industry and questions about K&L, and his messages were always friendly and courteous. However, when I started writing live from Louisville this past September Joe noticed immediately and sent me an invitation, saying he would love to show us around if we had the time. We were on a pretty tight schedule and I wasn't sure if visiting some "craft" upstart was a good idea in lieu of our Bourbon hunt. But on our first night in town, while sipping Bourbon at a well-stocked local restaurant, I noticed a Copper & Kings brandy bottle on the back bar. "Excuse me," I asked the bartender, "Can I get a pour of that?" Thirty seconds later, after having tasted the standard American brandy, I was fiddling with my iPhone trying to get Joe on the horn. I had gone from weary to wanting in the span of two quick sips. We needed to check this place out.
Joe said he'd be at the distillery the following day, so we made plans to come by. The next evening after having finished our Kentucky Bourbon rounds we decided to walk to the facility, so as to get a sense of the neighborhood. Copper & Kings is located in what's known as Butchertown—an old industrial section of Louisville with classically-midwestern architecture and an Americana atmosphere that seems almost frozen in time. Amidst the charmingly rundown buildings and empty warehouses sits the impeccably-remodeled distillery—half of it refurbished brick from the site's original foundation, and the other half a modern making of steel and glass. It blends into the general construct of the area, while simultaneously standing out like a beacon of light on the corner of Washington Street. "Wow," I thought to myself as we approached, "these guys are not kidding around."
Joe met us out front, shook our hands, and immediately took us up the walkway into the main courtyard where the stills stood underneath the open hangar doors—three gigantic pots that were cranking away, just coming to the end of a late-evening run. Not just any type of stills, mind you, but real, hand-crafted copper Vendome stills—the top of the line, created by the local Louisville brassworks company (and neighbor to Copper & Kings); the Cadillac of distilling equipment. "Who paid for all this?" I asked Joe with a huge smile on my face. "We did," he answered. "no investors, no outside interests. It's just Lesley and me." The brandy was delicious, the distillery itself a revelation of tasteful design with artistic accents, and the owner a seemingly nice guy who loved reading my blog. Where in the hell did this place come from? Thin air? Was I walking into the spirits industry version of Brigadoon? No, it was real and here's the story:
Joe Heron and his wife Lesley came to the U.S in 2002 from South Africa—via England and Sweden—settling into Minnesota before diving right into the drinks business. They founded a soda company called Nutrisoda which they sold to PepsiAmericas in 2006, then Crispin Cider in 2004 before eventually selling off the label to MillerCoors in 2012. "We lost our minds and decided to start another business," Joe told me later on. So why Kentucky brandy and not Kentucky Bourbon? "We were interested in the romance of what a definitive American brandy could be," he said. "We wanted to do something inspired by American whiskey and it seemed brandy was less crowded. But brandy distillates are not conductive to the smaller, accelerated techniques being used by some of the smaller, newer distilleries today, so we knew we would have to source some of our product to get up and running." There were plenty of aged stocks available for the company to source while waiting for their own spirits to age—from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Ohio, Michigan, and New York. They were selective, however, choosing only brandies distilled from pot stills—never from column. And what did they do with all those mature stocks? They made a gigantic solera system, what Joe likes to call the "DNA base". The new make spirit distilled onsite is slowly blended into the aged blend to create an expression based upon brandies created all over the country. When you read "American brandy" on the label, it's truly that.
Copper & Kings not only sourced a variety of grape-distilled brandies, but apple as well, creating a number of distinctive expressions that rival the quality and value offered by any other small producer in the states. We tasted the soft and delicious American brandy, the powerful and energetic Butchertown 124 proof edition, the pure and fruit-forward apple brandy, and a number of other creations that had me impressed beyond words. Lesley had begun the search long before the distillery was ever built, taking a page from Utah distiller High West—a producer that presciently purchased vast stocks of various American rye whiskies before the market eventually took off. "The solera will carry on for about four more years, as we continue to blend old back into new," Joe said, "using the DNA to move backwards continually to maintain the integrity of our American brandy. We manage consistency, we don't manufacture it."
As Joe took us down to the cellar, I was able to get a better perspective on exactly how much mature brandy Copper & Kings had been able to lay down. "People were happy for us to take it off their hands. You have to remember, David, " Joe continued, "up until very recently the only legitimate person actively writing about brandy in America has been you. That's part of the reason we're excited to have you here!" As the visit kept getting more fantastical by the minute, I wasn't sure who was actually more excited: Joe, or me. After loading up the warehouse, Joe began distilling on site in the Spring of 2014 with unfiltered wines sourced and trucked in from California. "We distill muscat, colombard, and chenin blanc," Joe told me. "They're classic brandy grapes—lovely, aromatic varietals with high acidity. Muscat is the fun and forward girl who dances on the bar. Chenin blanc gives you length and finesse—she's the girl in the elegant black dress. Colombard is the glue that holds them both together—she wears the black dress and may occasionally dance on the bar."
"Our goal," Joe would later say, "is to establish brandy that is on an American paradigm. We're trying to provide the spice and the rambunctious nature that we love about American whiskey. We want full structure. We want drums, bass, and guitar—the whole fucking band". You can see that influence in the incredible Butchertown expression—a full-throttle 62% ABV blast of brandy flavor that straddles the line between Four Roses at cask strength and something like Germain-Robin's pureness of fruit. And who's to say you can't make brandy like American whiskey? "I hate dogma," Joe went on to tell me. "Dogma is the root of all evil, especially when it comes to alcohol. We choose grapes based on what they deliver to the final spirit, not because of where they're grown. We age in Bourbon barrels. We don't dilute. We don't add boisé or caramel coloring. We want to extract that new American oak flavor, that beautiful vanilla note that can come out from there. We're very much about pure pot distillation and no adulteration. We don't chill-filter. Our brandy comes out of the cask with its full integrity intact. Without sounding sycophantic, your blog helped to lead us down this path."
As we walked out of the distillery, the warm Louisville evening in full bloom, I strolled into the street and took a few more shots from the exterior. Joe had made it clear he was interested in working with us, and I had made it clear that I really wanted to sell his stuff. Since then I've been sitting on my thumbs, trying to keep this incredible story to myself, wondering if I could keep my enthusiasm from bubbling over prematurely. The deal is long done. The booze is being delivered this week. Copper & Kings will be sold exclusively at K&L in California and we'll be working with Joe and company directly to bring their fantastic brandies to your home bar. My weariness has worn away, replaced with sheer exhilaration and excitement. I can't wait for you all to taste these! I'll be back with a full breakdown as soon as we're ready to launch.
The next big thing is here.