Blazing a trail: A voyage of discovery that is steeped in history: following the journey of the racehorse named Never Say Die
Written by Phoebe Calver
Sometimes in life we come across a piece of information that is far too intriguing to simply digest and move on from; towards the end of last year, Never Say Die Bourbon had that very effect on me. A Kentucky straight bourbon that was matured in the UK? One moment, can you explain that to me again?
The question to ask in this scenario is, “Well, why not?” There is a good argument to say that I feel an affinity to this brand, as a UK resident that edits an American publication, but either way the question posed is still valid and something to consider when your future self is selecting which whiskey to try next.
Firstly, it is worth noting that this bourbon is a love letter to an important piece of heritage that ties together Kentucky, USA and Derbyshire, England. Secondly, no whiskey rules are being broken here.
Never Say Die is the brain child of Kentucky native Pat Madden and Englishman David Wild, who shared a drink or two at the Kentucky Derby and pondered a rather wild idea. The inspiration for the bourbon came from the legendary racehorse, of the same name, who was born on Madden’s family farm in Kentucky. The horse was revived as a sickly newborn foal by a lucky shot of whiskey (how fortuitous), and just three years later, in 1954, he became the first American-born horse to win the Epsom Derby for 70 years.
Just like the story of the racehorse, Never Say Die Bourbon is a unique creation, made, in part, due to serendipitous moments. Alongside Madden and Wild, the founding team also includes Pat Heist and Shane Baker (known for their work at craft distillery Wilderness Trail); UK-based strategists Martha Dalton and Fran O’Leary; and Brian Luftman of American Farm Investors. As Wild explains, “There are no outside investors… the people that own the firm are the people that put it together.”
The creation of this brand truly is a labor of love, and an ode to whiskey and its ties to history. Never Say Die Bourbon was taken from an idea to reality in 2017, showcasing the versatility of a traditional Kentucky bourbon made with a mash bill of 75 per cent corn, 21 per cent rye, and four per cent malted barley.
The long-awaited launch of the whiskey was only made possible when the 25 per cent whiskey tariffs on US imports, imposed during the Trump administration, were reversed in 2022 as a result of the campaigning efforts of the Bourbon Alliance, which was co-founded by Dalton.
She elaborates on this, “Never Say Die is our interpretation of the American dream and a celebration of the namesake racehorse’s trailblazing journey across the Atlantic. By following in his ‘hoofsteps’ we are creating a bourbon that is unique in both flavor and narrative.
“The process of bringing Kentucky straight bourbon in original barrels across the ocean to further mature in England has never been done before and we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved, creating a world-class whiskey that is rooted in Kentucky provenance but with an undeniably English character.”
Once the tariffs were lifted and all systems were go on shipping the liquid over to the UK, it was time to join forces with the team at Derbyshire-based distillery White Peak. The two brands united on their combined sense of adventure and likeminded love of experimentation with spirits.
Leading up to the great voyage of the liquid itself, the bourbon spent around six years in a rickhouse, patiently waiting for the moment it was ready to head to the UK for its finishing stages. The whiskey was loaded into shipping containers and, although it was perhaps not the most efficient way of doing so, it remained in barrels to allow the whiskey to follow the same journey as the horse: made in Kentucky, shipped overseas to find a great success in the UK.
Heist, Never Say Die’s master distiller, says, “Our philosophy is to only produce the best and most interesting whiskey possible for drinkers around the world. As such, Never Say Die is made using only the finest ingredients. Our custom mash bill has been designed to highlight the essence of the small grains with consistency, using carefully selected local grains. It is a pioneering sweet mash which results in a smoother, more flavorful whiskey. We also use high-quality, mineral-rich limestone-filtered water sourced from the deepest aquifer in Kentucky. We add our bourbon whiskey to well-seasoned charred American oak barrels and tuck them away to mature to perfection for up to four years in Kentucky, before [the whiskey] embarks on the final leg of its journey across the ocean to the White Peak Distillery in Derbyshire to finish.”
The team explain that shipping by sea takes approximately six weeks, allowing time for what effectively becomes accelerated interaction of the whiskey with the wood. When you consider that the majority of barrels aging rely on changes in the climate for the whiskey to gain its interactions, this is an intriguing approach.
Dan Priseman, consulting whiskey ambassador for Never Say Die Bourbon, explains, “For relatively young whiskeys – these are coming up for six years old – for it to have this color is pretty remarkable and that is as far as we can tell… from talking to other experts in the industry, is largely because of that ocean journey.
“There’s another benefit. When we bring it here it’s shipped into Liverpool, to the docks there, and brought down to our good friends here at White Peak Distillery, and it then sits in a colder climate than it normally would. In Kentucky you get really hot summers and a lot of humidity, Derby [is] not quite so hot
and not quite so humid. But that has its advantages.”
When you consider that whiskey aging in higher temperatures allows both water and alcohol to escape, it will more often than not create a higher-ABV liquid, with more of that Kentucky hug-style warmth to it. On the flip side of that, at a low temperature the liquid only gets warm enough for the alcohol to escape, creating a slightly lighter whiskey. The combination of the two maturation processes on the Never Say Die liquid creates something special and fun.
Priseman continues, “That six weeks at sea has given it a deeper and fuller flavor, and having that chance to rest in a colder climate, it gets a chance to mellow. You can feel the tingle.”
It is already very interesting to see the variation being created within the first few releases, something that the team is striving to achieve. This is highlighted perfectly in the Barrel 2 and 3 releases (Barrel 1 was a private release); the latter is a much sweeter take on the whiskey on this flavor voyage of discovery. Priseman adds, “It is the same liquid, almost certainly made at the same time, so the only difference will be where it was stored in the warehouse in Kentucky and on the boat.”
As the brand moves on to its next big race, as it were, and looks to the future, it seems the possibilities are endless. At the heart of this whiskey is a collective paying homage to craft and creativity, joining together two sides of the pond in whiskey matrimony. In years to come Wild mentioned his hope to bring the liquid back across to the US, and it is absolutely something to keep an eye on. Trust me when I say that this brand and the fun it is having are infectious in the best possible way.