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Meet the Brewers Trying to Disrupt the Scotch Industry with a Hunter S. Thompson-Inspired Whisky

BrewDog's previous flirtations with high-octane alcohol involved a 55 percent ABV beer packaged inside of a dead squirrel.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Dec 25 2016, 5:00pm

Photo courtesy of BrewDog.

What makes a whiskey a bourbon? There's an actual law for that: For starters, according to the Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon it has to be at least 51 percent corn and spend at least three years in a charred oak barrel. It also needs to be made in the United States. The guys at iconoclastic Scottish craft brewery BrewDog are hoping that pure attitude can turn a Scotch into a something resembling a bourbon, launching what it describes as a "schizophrenic hybrid" of American whiskey and Scottish whisky (without the "e").

Uncle Duke's is the first distilled spirit from BrewDog, whose previous flirtations with high-octane alcohol involved brewing a limited edition beer with a 55% ABV (and a $20,000 price tag), packaged inside of a dead squirrel. The inspiration for Uncle Duke's is Kentucky, U.S.A., both for its bourbon heritage and because it was the birthplace of writer Hunter S. Thompson. BrewDog co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie said that the late Gonzo journo provided as much flavor for their whisk(e)y as the new oak barrels it was aged in.

The tastes of rebellious Americana—think guns, motorcycles and a foul mouth—are implied but, according to BrewDog, its single-grain scotch officially has the flavors of honey, vanilla, "sticky toffee and candy-ass fruits." It's available for purchase on BrewDog's website and in their own pubs. We talked to Watt about bourbon, barrel aging and why he's sick of the Scotch scene in BrewDog's own backyard.

MUNCHIES: What made BrewDog decide to go in this direction and distill a scotch? Being in Scotland, we're both massive fans of scotch whisky and we're up in the northeast of Scotland, which is in the heart of the Highlands. We're surrounded by whisky, but we've always loved American bourbons so we wanted to take inspiration from both Scotch whisky and American bourbons and make a new type of Scotch. We like to think that Uncle Duke's is a Scotch whisky that thinks he's American.

What do you mean by that? A key part of the process of making bourbon is using new oak, and conventionally, with Scotch whisky, it's almost always oak that's been used for another aging purpose before, so they sometimes use ex-bourbon casks, ex-sherry casks, ex-cognac casks, ex-wine casks, ex-rum casks. We love the flavors that new oak imparts into whisky and we also like a light, clean base spirit, so as opposed to malt, we used a single base spirit which is more akin to bourbon. Technically, it's a scotch whisky, but a lot of the things that we've done during this process make it more like a bourbon. It takes from the traditions of Scotland and America.

And from Hunter S. Thompson, apparently. Yeah, he's a bit of a hero to myself and Martin. His kind of rebellious, counter-to-everything-that's-going-on attitude and his whole positioning is what we took inspiration from, for the packaging and the design.

And the name too. Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing, right? Yes, well spotted.

A little about the aging process: Uncle Duke's was aged for four years? Yes, and it was aged in new oak, so you can age spirits slightly faster than in older oak. For the kind of flavor profile we were looking for, it made sense to go for a shorter aging period.

Do you have some of the same batch that is still aging, that you'll release in the future? No we don't. We thought it was perfect as-is. For us, it's not about a big age statement and having loads of old whisky. It was just about doing something exactly the way we wanted to, and at that age, it was tasting exactly how we wanted it to taste, so we bottled all of it.

Perfect. Why wait another 12 or 14 years if you don't have to? Exactly. For us, four years is a lifetime.

To have had this ready at four years, you must have known for a while that BrewDog was going to be much more than just beer. Yeah, definitely. We've been working on this one since about 2011. It's something we've had in the pipelines for quite a long time. We've kept it quiet, but we've been working on it for quite a while. For us, the beers that we made kind of focused on disrupting the market and challenging the status quo, and we wanted to do exactly the same with the whisky.

Will you be launching other spirits as well? You have another distillery that's opening soon, right? The other spirits are going to be under the Lone Wolf umbrella, and we're launching a gin and a vodka soon, as well.

What about the facility in Ohio? Do you think you'll do some distillation there and make a true American bourbon? There could be something quite cool about Scottish people making whisky in the Midwest. In the moment, we're just so focused on getting the beer-making equipment up and going there, but we've got plenty of space on the site, which is just outside Columbus [Ohio], so a little bit of time down the line and it's definitely something we'd like to do.

I did see a quote from you that said that you guys were just tired of the whisky scene in Scotland. What about that scene makes it so exhausting? We're so excited to be part of the beer scene, and the beer scene for us means taking inspiration and taking advantage of your heritage, but then putting your own spin on it, and taking it into the 21st century. The whisky industry in Scotland is fantastic, but it's all about tradition and heritage without that kind of innovation or forward-thinking component in there, and that's why we got a bit tired. That's why we're keen to do something a little bit different, both with Uncle Duke's and then the Lone Wolf spirits too.

Do you think that's a hindrance in the industry, that people look too much toward the past and are afraid to innovate? Yeah, I think when you're looking at heritage—and when the heritage that you've got is amazing—you can either be constrained by it or inspired by it, and we chose to be inspired by it. But, at the moment, the vast majority of people seem to be sort of shackled by the past.