A little conventional wisdom can be a dangerous thing. That’s one of the reasons we love mavericks. The more obvious reason is that mavericks are taking the chances we’d like to take, if only we had the courage. Enter Karl Loepke, founder of Chicago’s Skeptic Spirits.
Ever since the copper pot still replaced the alembic in the 15th century, it has been the vessel of choice for distilling quality spirits. There are many reasons for the use of copper over other metals, but the simplest one is that it makes whiskey taste better. During distillation, copper reacts with sulfurs emitted by the fermenting yeast and cancels them out, resulting in a smoother product. Over the years, it has become both a status symbol and the status quo for distilleries around the world.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the end of the evolutionary scale. Loepke utilizes a method called cold vacuum distillation, currently employed by only a handful of distilleries in the U.S. The principle is relatively simple: the higher the vacuum, the colder the distillation temperature, and the raw materials are consequently less cooked and bitter (cold distillation, of course, has been around for thousands of years). He uses a hand-built, continuous-column vacuum still to preserve the freshness of his ingredients.
Loepke first contacted me to offer a sample of his latest product, GinQuila, which is described as a reposado gin finished in tequila barrels. I refused, assuming (incorrectly) that it was simply gin infused with fruit juice and spices before being subjected to brief cask aging. He responded with a long, passionate manifesto on the process of cold vacuum distillation, and I was intrigued: you have to embrace your mavericks when you find them.
According to him, GinQuila ($35) was inspired by the cantarito, a paloma-style cocktail served in clay pots. The nose is high-toned and floral, with aromas of juniper, menthol and citrus rind. When tasted neat, it enters the mouth with a crisp, spicy edge; the botanicals and peppers (chipotle and arbol) are muted by the brief time the spirit spends resting in those tequila barrels. You’re not likely to drink it neat, of course, and GinQuila would lend itself to an assortment of interesting cocktails, ranging from classic martinis and long drinks to margaritas and palomas, not to mention the cantarito itself.
As you might suspect, GinQuila is far from the finale in Loepke’s bag of tricks. He’s currently working on a series of whiskeys distilled from craft beer, once again using cold vacuum distillation and finishing them with a unique, accelerated barrel-aging process. “At the intersection of craft and science,” he says, “the possibilities are endless.”
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.