London’s creative young professionals have a well-documented fondness for artisanal, craft alcohol, so it’s no shock that the so-called ‘beer mile’ in Walthamstow, north-east London, is thriving as the area becomes increasingly gentrified. The breweries and bottle shops may be predictable, but a brandy distillery promising to transcend the traditions of Cognac is, perhaps, more of a surprise.
Burnt Faith distillery officially opened in Walthamstow this summer, after three years of behind-the-scenes prep work. Behind it are Simon Wright, founder of successful (and now BrewDog-owned) cider brand Hawkes, master distiller Oliver Kitson and Jean-Dominique Andreu, renowned for his involvement in popular spirits such as Citadelle Gin, Plantation Rum, Ferrand Cognac and Camus Cognac.
It’s from Cognac that Burnt Faith obtained its authentic Charentais still, which it claims to be the only one of its kind used for brandy in Britain. The still is revered for its ability to yield the rich flavours of any alembic pot still while increasing the efficiency of the entire distilling process through a unique design, which facilitates the two-stage process that’s come to define high-quality brandy. ‘We have also taken on board a lot of advice [from experts in Cognac] on how to blend, proof, and marry spirits together,’ says Kitson.
While welcoming valuable input from the world’s most respected brandy-producing region, the team is equally determined to infuse its own unique approach into the craft. ‘We want to do everything you can’t in Cognac,’ says Wright. ‘We aren’t bound by appellation rules, which is good. We don’t want to be an “English Cognac”. We are free to experiment and this is going to be our strength.’
The distillery’s new take on brandy starts with a few tweaks – and a bright purple coat of paint – to their still. ‘We use steam for heating,’ Kitson explains, ‘which isn’t permitted under the Cognac appellation. It’s more favourable for avoiding burnt and cooked flavours and preserving citrus and floral notes. It’s also far more energy efficient than open-flame heating and better for the environment.’ The still also has a high-tech monitoring system which, along with the steam heating, allows Kitson to better hone the spirit’s quality, character and balance.
We want to do everything you can’t in Cognac – Simon Wright
Unlike Cognac, which is produced from specific grapes such as Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche and Sémillon, the Burnt Faith team embraces its creative freedom by exploring a broader range of varieties. The recently released inaugural Batch 001, for instance, is a blend of Trebbiano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Blanc.
The resulting brandy shows distinctive aromas of maraschino cherry and cola, with underlying hints of nectarine and apricot, as well as chestnut honey and vanilla notes. On the palate, it has an exceptionally velvety texture, with overlaying flavours of caramel, dark chocolate, toffee and freshly ground coffee.
The Burnt Faith team is considering different avenues for sourcing grapes for their future releases. ‘Something I’m looking forward to is working with commonly grown English varieties, such as Bacchus, which has great flavour and acidity,’ says Kitson. He explains the distillery is in talks with British vineyards and will soon start experimenting with local raw material – particularly lees, which can ‘contribute depth to the distillate that can’t be replicated in any other way’, as he puts it.
Experimentation extends to the choice of wooden barrels. Batch 001 was matured in four different woods: ex-Pineau des Charentes, ex-Bourbon, ex-Spanish brandy and ex-cherry liqueur from Ukraine, each lending a specific character to the final liquid.
‘We have a few dozen ageing barrels at the distillery and the rest in our warehouse in Oxford,’ says Kitson. ‘We intend to continually expand our range of barrels as we experiment with new expressions.’
Burnt Faith’s innovation will extend to redefining the perception and image surrounding brandy itself by breaking away from conventional practices, including traditional age statements such as XO and VSOP. The team is also planning to open a bar in the distillery to promote brandy drinking as a key cocktail ingredient and, with the distillery conveniently located at a stone’s throw from Walthamstow’s renowned ‘beer mile’, it will actively engage with the neighbourhood’s vibrant craft drinks community.
In line with its innovative ethos, Burnt Faith is embracing a dynamic approach to production and releases – a new expression might be unveiled before the end of the year. As English whisky distilleries increasingly break free from the constraints imposed on Scotch whisky production, Burnt Faith is embracing emancipation from Cognac’s conventions, paving the way for a new wave of brandies defined by creativity and exploration.