Somewhere in a mushroom farm in Oxfordshire sit 170 or so barrels that will make or break the future of London’s only dedicated brandy distillery — one of the most intriguing startups the city has seen for a while.
Burnt Faith is the first brandy house to fire up its still in the capital for two centuries or more. That’s a long wait, but Londoners will have to hold on just a little longer to taste their newest local spirit.
Master Distiller Oliver Kitson (formerly at Sipsmith) ran Burnt Faith’s imported alembic Charentais for the first time on 30 March this year but the resulting eau-de-vie needs to mature for another two or three years before it’s ready.
That’s a long time to make booze and stick it away in barrels rather than selling it. So founder and CEO Simon Wright (who used to run Hawkes) is left with a gap to plug.
Two and a half years ago, Wright took a leap of faith and bought eau-de-vie from Cognac distillers to age here in the UK. It was distilled from wine not permitted under the Cognac AOC rules, and aged in similarly verboten barrels. It is this store of maturing non-gnac that Wright is relying upon to plug the gap and keep Burnt Faith going until he can release his first fully homegrown brandy sometime in 2026 or so.
His aim is not to recreate Cognac. (What would be the point?) Instead Wright wants to explore what brandy could be if not restricted by the AOC rules.
To this end, Burnt Faith has just released Batch 001, the first blend taken from its reserves, which comprises eaux-de-vie from four grape varieties — Trebbiano, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Muscat Blanc — aged in four different casks.
On a visit in June I tasted Batch 001 plus each of its component spirits. The first was aged in a Pineau des Charentes cask and mixed a custard nose with lemon and herbaceous top notes.
The second was aged in a bourbon cask — Jim Beam, I think it was — and gave flavours that were mostly down to the wood: butterscotch, vanilla and toasted coconut.
The third came out of a Spanish brandy cask. (Brandy de Jerez to be precise.) Kitson uses this one to “fill the gaps in the blend”. There’s all sorts going on: dried fruit, dates, gooseberry, honeydew melon, custard cream, tamarind, tea… It was light, slightly nutty and fruity.
The fourth casks had held a cherry liqueur from Ukraine and gave tart cherry, brambles and fruity berry crumble notes.
Put together, they made a harmonious blend. There was a biscuit nose with gentle grass and citrus. The palate had citrus, apricot, nectarine, melon, biscuit, shortbread and butterscotch, plus milk chocolate on the finish.
It’s a delicious brandy but not as interesting as the real stuff that Burnt Faith will have made from start to finish. Particularly given that this will be based on English wines — Simon already has agreements in place to take the rebêche from some English wine makers after this year’s harvest. We should see the fruit of all that in, say, 2027 or so.
Burnt Faith also takes its name in part from the fact that it occupies the site of a former Pentecostal church in Walthamstow, just around the corner from the Blackhorse Beer Mile, where you’ll find the likes of Wildcard, Renegade Urban Winery, Signature Brew, Hackney Brewery and a few others. It’s not open to the public yet, but I’m told they hope to be ready for visitors in the autumn. (For the sake of clarity and future readers, I mean autumn 2023.)
A nerdy note on barrels: Burnt Faith’s bourbon casks are largely second or third fill and kept in their original American Standard Barrel format, at c. 200 litres, rather than being remade into c. 250-litre hogsheads, as is commonly done by Scotch whisky distillers. This means the ratio of surface area to volume is slightly higher, giving the wood a somewhat greater influence on the spirit inside.