For all the barrels of craft liquor being produced in America, so much of it tastes the same. Crisp but relatively flavourless gins crowd bar shelves next to atomic whiskeys as pleasant as molten lava and rows of bourbons hitting the same caramel notes. So it is a great source of relief to discover Darek Bell and Andrew Webber, co-founders of Corsair Distillery, sitting in a shack-like structure on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, with enough imaginative bottles in front of them to fuel a hearty bender.
Webber and Bell, both bearded and boldly attired—Webber in a floral-print shirt and whitewashed jeans, Bell in a blue striped suit and flowering handkerchief—have made peculiarity the defining characteristic of Corsair spirits. It’s what pushed them to create Triple Smoke (made with Scottish peat and American cherry and German beech woods), their first whiskey and still their bestseller. The duo is now trying to unleash another blend with the same amount of originality. As Bell explained a few minutes earlier: “Our ethos is, if it’s been done before, we don’t want to do it.”
They pour six 100-proof single-malt whiskeys into tulip-shaped glasses, calling out what they taste as they sample each one. The first is an unsmoked single malt (“Grape-Nuts cereal,” says Bell), then five malts smoked, respectively, with hickory (“Like a barbeque,” declares Webber), maple, pecan (“Floral, lighter and a nutty finish,” he continues), apple and finally black walnut, an acrid mouthful. “You wouldn’t want that to be the only thing in a bottle,” Webber explains. “But it’d be a very good one to build a multi smoke whiskey on because it provides a deep background.”
It’s a whiskey that many distillers might pour straight down the drain, though it’s perfectly in character for Bell, 41, and Webber, 41, to admire it. Seven years into the launch of Corsair the two rebels are still gleefully flaunting every alcohol convention they can—from creating a quinoa whiskey and a barrel-aged gin to hiring a woman as their head distiller. Today, Corsair spirits are available in 39 states and seven countries for about $50 a bottle and have a passionate following, selling roughly 14,000 cases a year, up from, well, nothing a few years ago. They have also piled up awards, including gold and silver medals from the closely watched Wizards of Whisky industry event—most notably its American Craft Distiller of the Year in 2014.
Corsair’s creation occurred in a place where many entrepreneurial recipes are first concocted: The garage. In this case, the one attached to Bell’s suburban Nashville home, in which he and Webber brewed beer before moving on to moonshining. In 2008, after a few successful experiments and failed pitches to investors, they broke out their credit cards and opened a distillery in nearby Bowling Green, Kentucky, because it was illegal to operate one commercially in Nashville. They soon released a well-received red absinthe (ruby-hued and floral-tasting after adding red hibiscus) and a gin made with classic botanicals such as juniper and coriander suspended in a basket above the still rather than directly steeping them.