Brother Justus pioneers cold-peated whiskey
Minnesota-based distillery Brother Justus has produced the world’s first cold-peated American single malt whiskey using a patent-pending finishing process.
The Brother Justus Whiskey Company has submitted patents in several countries, including Scotland and Ireland, for a new whisky-making process that uses peat in the finishing process, instead of smoking the malted barley prior to distillation.
When used in finishing, the cold-peating process filters out the impurities while infusing the flavours of the terroir.
As the peat isn’t burned, the resulting flavour is not smoky, but rather offers the whiskey a ‘delicate peat expression’, which is said to be unlike anything on the global market.
Speaking to The Spirits Business, the founder and CEO of Brother Justus, Phil Steger, explained that his fascination with peat dates back to his participation in a foreign exchange programme located in Manchester, England, during his senior year of high school.
“I started to notice references to boglands and peatlands and all these different places. I was 17, so I wasn’t really interested in whiskey at that time, but I was becoming really interested in peatlands and boglands, and the place that they hold in the imagination. I’ve done a lot of traveling since then, and human beings live everywhere, but no-one lives in the bog. We can’t settle there. So they’re this completely inaccessible landscape, tinged with danger, and folktales and fairy-tales,” he said.
“I carried that fascination back home to Minnesota, which is a unique place because of the Great Plains, the eastern Hardwood Forest and the Boreal Forest. It’s the only place in North America where these vast continental ecosystems or bio-regions all come together in one space, and I love that about this land. In some places one-third of the land is bogland or peatlands. So that was always in the back of my mind.”
With this fascination already in place, Steger explained that it was on a distillery tour as an adult in Kentucky that he got the initial idea to create a whiskey in Minnesota.
“The tour guides were taking me through the tour and we’re talking about the water coming from the limestone aquifers. I’m was like, I’m from Minnesota – we have 10,000 lakes. We have the headwaters of the Mississippi or the western shore of Lake Superior, I’m sure your water is great, but I’ve got some suspicions our water is better.”
Steger explained that the tour guide went on to share that it sourced its grain from Indiana and Illinois rather than from Kentucky, while the oak for its barrels came from Missouri. “In my head I’m thinking well, Minnesota could provide the water, it could provide the grain. We have a native white oak forest, the northern most native white oak forest in the country. Instead of corn we grow barley for single malt, and then I thought what I know we have that Kentucky doesn’t: six million acres of peatlands. Minnesota has more peatland within our borders than Ireland or Scotland,” he said.
Steger explained that it was the realisation that these four key ingredients could be sourced from Minnesota that drove him to create Brother Justus, though he noted that “if it had just been the barley, the water, and the oak, I don’t think I would have done it because that’s not enough”.
“There are lots of great whiskey makers in the world, it’s a little arrogant to say we can do something so well with the same ingredients everybody else has been using for 200 years,” he continued.
“But the peat, and the fact that this is Minnesota peat, and we could be the first to make whiskey with peat from these ancient bogs – that is what motivated me to start the distillery.”
However, Steger said he wanted to take the opportunity to be a pioneer of something new in the whiskey industry: “It made me really confront the question, well, what legacy do I want that to make? If I’m going to be the first I have a choice, whatever we do will be the precedent.”
Aitkin County Process
The distillery has produced the whiskey using the Aitkin County Process, a patent-pending process of infusing Torv Rök peat, a first-of-its-kind granular peat product for finishing spirits manufactured by American Peat Technology (APT) in Aitkin County, Minnesota, using peat harvested from a prior-converted peatland (peat deposits that were drained before 1985 and no longer exhibit the characteristics of a wetland).
This infusion is done during the final stages of the ageing process, and is said to transform distilled spirits into ‘rich, flavourful products’ that evoke the timeless and unique character of the northern Boreal landscape.
“The APT has figured out how to stabilise peat without altering it chemically or burning it, which allows the peat to stay solid when we’re doing the process.
“We worked with APT to develop this, and it’s a homage to the Lincoln County Process in Tennessee, which uses maple charcoal filtration,” Steger said. “That was literally the simplicity of my thinking about this – what if we take a traditional whiskey ingredient – peat – and a traditional whiskey process such as the Lincoln County Process, and just put the ingredient into that process, and see what happens? That’s the Aitkin County Process.”
James Jefferson, director of production at Brother Justus, explained to The Spirits Business how the Aitkin County Process has affected the flavour of the resulting whiskey.
“Flavour-wise, instead of tasting the heat, we like to say you taste the peat. It’s very herbal, it’s earthy, has a minerality to it. I like the umami quality, kind of like mushrooms.”
Jefferson continued: “It’s a duel-filtering process; by taking a finished product out of the barrel and then treating it with the peat, it infuses flavours but also removes flavours.
“Peat is really absorptive, so it removes heavy metals, like iron, which is really going to help the sweet flavours from the wood and the barley shine. It is really fun to watch people taste it because it really is unlike anything else.”
Jefferson explained that in the early days of production, the company was trying to find the best way of using the peat product.
“We were figuring out how best to filter it, because you will have sedimentation and it ends up looking kind of mucky dirt. And so the early challenges were figuring out what the best way to infuse it. And we landed on post barrel ageing.
“So all my barrel stock, which is 29,000 gallons and growing, is all unpeated single malt. We have a number of products and are developing special releases, but we have our standard American single malt, our flagship, but this cold-peating is where we really think the potential is. But instead of having to commit half of my stock to peated whiskey and just relying on the blending of the end, we can let it age, blend it, and then add the peat at the end. So it’s very customisable, very flexible, and super powerful for the industry in that regard,” he said.
“It’s always an ongoing process, but we’re really excited about the flavours we’ve been able to get into the bottle.”
Brother Justus cold-peated American single malt is bottled at 43% ABV, and is currently available to purchase in 375ml and 750ml bottles from the distillery, and at retailers throughout Minnesota.
In January, we shared our spirits industry trends to watch in 2023, including whisky brands turning to alternative methods of imparting taste into their liquids in 2023.