A few years back, we reported on the launch of UWA, a tequila brand that made waves by ageing the agave spirit in scotch whisky casks. Now, UWA co-founder Michael Ballantyne is taking his idea a step further with a new range of tequilas called Storywood. Kate Malczewski caught up with Ballantyne to taste through the collection and learn more about his plans for this latest incarnation of tequila and scotch fusion
Next month, Michael Ballantyne’s new brand Storywood will introduce its first tequila expressions to the on-trade, each aged in either ex-sherry or ex-scotch casks.
Yes, Storywood is billed as ‘Scotland’s only tequila maker’; no, there’s no need to call the Consejo Regulador. Master distiller Luis Trejo crafts the agave spirits from lowland agaves at La Cofradia distillery in Mexico, then ages them in the Speyside barrels that Ballantyne ships over from Scotland.
If the concept sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it’s not Ballantyne’s first go-round when it comes to tequila experimentation. In 2015, he co-founded UWA, a tequila company with a range that included a reposado and an añejo aged in Speyside whisky casks, as well as a blanco.
The idea of this experimentation excited him immensely, as it seemed to encapsulate his own experiences in liquid form: Though Ballantyne was born in Scotland and now lives in Aberdeen, he was raised in Texas and came to love agave spirits on his travels in Mexico.
But, he says, something about UWA wasn’t quite what he was going for. First of all, it didn’t make sense to him to have a blanco in the range when he really wanted to concentrate on aged spirits. ‘If you’re going to focus on something, you should just do it well,’ he tells Imbibe.
Second, Ballantyne felt he was contributing to tequila’s notorious image as a drink meant to be slammed. ‘The bottle itself looked good in a nightclub and those kinds of settings, and I wanted to make something you’d sip and enjoy slowly,’ he confesses.
The only way forward, in his mind, was to start from scratch – so he left behind UWA and its blanco expression to create Storywood.
The best of both worlds
Ballantyne built on the concept of the whisky cask-aged añejo and reposado for Storywood’s core range, ditching the nightclub-friendly bottle for one inspired by scotch.
At launch, the range will include an añejo, aged in single-malt Speyside whisky casks for 14 months, with an abv of 40%, and a reposado, aged in single-malt Speyside whisky casks for seven months, also sitting at 40% abv.
‘Speyside casks are generally sweeter [than casks used in other scotch regions], which works really well with lowland agave,’ Ballantyne explains, noting that the casks’ sweetness would be too much for highland agave.
With no point of comparison, we have to take his word for it – but the combination of Speyside casks and lowland agaves in the añejo and reposado is, indeed, successful. In the reposado, the kiss of the cask makes itself known first with subtle hints of caramel, vanilla and dried fruit, rounded out by the grassy, vegetal and saline notes you’d expect from a tequila. In the añejo, the flavour deepens, with slightly darker toffee notes layered atop.
Ballantyne has also taken the opportunity to explore other expressions. In the coming months, he’s planning to unveil three cask-strength (53% abv) tequilas as part of the core range.
Two are seven-month reposados: one aged in single-malt Speyside casks, the other in oloroso sherry barrels. The third is called Double Oak, a 14-month añejo blend of both the scotch- and sherry-aged tequilas.
These cask-strength spirits are ones to get your hands on. We tried the reposados: The Speyside-aged expression has a deep, explosive palate full of sticky dates and raisins, hints of almond and marzipan, rounded out by earthy, vegetal notes. But the oloroso-barreled tequila, also boasting a nutty, savoury quality that marries beautifully with the lingering saline note of the agave, is Imbibe’s favourite. Both are dangerously smooth for their abv.
Of course, the concept of category fusion has enthralled brewers, winemakers and distillers for a good long while now. Beer and cider hybrids have turned heads; bourbon barrel-aged wines have caught the eyes of somms and consumers alike; rums matured in nearly every kind of cask imaginable have made headlines in this very publication.
But more than any of these category crossovers, Ballantyne says he takes his inspiration from the producers eschewing classifications altogether. ‘I love what the guys at Empirical Spirits are doing,’ he says, referencing the distillery run by ex-Noma head of R&D crafting unique spirits from kombucha, koji and beyond.
It's yet to be seen if Ballantyne's passion for experimentation will lead his spirits away from their classification as tequilas entirely, but he is continuing his experimentation with agave in increasingly esoteric ways. Next year, Storywood is slated to release a blanco rested in ex-red wine barrels for 30 days, which Ballantyne says gives the spirit a rosy colour. He also mentions that aged mezcals could be in Storywood’s future.
‘What is a spirit aged in? How will that change its flavour? We’re looking at scotch whisky and tequila [in particular], but ultimately we want to explore flavour through oak.’
Storywood Speyside Añejo, 40% abv, £40/70cl; Speyside Reposado, 40% abv, £29.90/70cl; Halewood International, halewood-int.com