There is a not so obvious reason why I love the world of food and beverage, many would assume it’s the fancy restaurants, the seemingly luxurious lifestyle, being in all the newest or trendiest spaces, but for me it is so much deeper than that. I often try to keep my beverage write-ups upbeat and…simple, but what I love most about this world is the incredible complexities and nuance. I am not just talking about tasting notes that quite frankly mean nothing if the drinker has no frame of reference, what I am referring to is the layers of culture, history and lore every spirit possess.
The everyday person rarely gives thought to the where, why and how a spirit came to be, but just like the esoteric, alcohol spirits have a deep and sorted history full of traditions, practices and in some cases sanctity, and that is what I love. I often say that if I didn’t have to work to make money I would spend my life studying anthropology. I’m a total nerd if I’m being honest. If there was a food and beverage focused Jeopardy-style show, I would be a religious viewer.
It is well known and I have written about this before from the perspective of a marketer that consumers select their beverage in large part based on the packaging. I too fall into that category. If I am experimenting with a new bottle be it wine or liquor, branding plays a huge role. However, beyond just attracting a buyers attention, some brands use their packaging to tell a story, to pique your interest. Granted the majority will be pleased to just have the pretty bottle as ornament on their bar, but then there are those that will accept the invitation to dig a bit deeper.
About two month ago I received a package filled with a variety of beautiful bottles, many of which I have written about already. I was impressed by the general presentation of the package, it was sent in preparation for a virtual tasting that I was to attend the next day. In the package however was one bottle that stood out among the rest. To be honest, before I did any research on the bottles contained in the package, this one bottle seemed like a particular treat, that’s to say it seemed expensive and rare. Its dark, heavy, intricately carved bottle with copper details felt like it held an ancient secret. There was more to this one.
It took me about a week and a half to open the bottle, in part because I was working my way through the others in the package but also because I wanted to preserve it, again, it felt special. At the top of the cork was an image I was familiar with, that excited me immensely. I have spent the last few years recreationally digging deeper into African Caribbean spirituality and spiritual archetypes so seeing the Baron carved into the cork of an Irish whiskey really got me stirring. I have always seen the clear similarities between Irish culture and that of the Caribbean however I always just dismissed it as an islander thing. The Sexton was my confirmation that there is much more.
When I finally tasted this whiskey I instantly became a fan. The thing about whiskey is there are people that are fanatics; it is their spirit of choice, drinking it neat, on the rocks (with ice), then there are those that flirt with whiskey only consuming it in a cocktail, finally there are those that are wine drinkers that can’t imagine indulging in such a firm spirit. The Sexton, just like its name suggests, is the gatekeeper. It is a marvelous introduction into the whiskey world. That is not to say it’s basic, actually it is far from basic, but it is gentler, sweet, smooth and aged. Funnily enough to bring us back to the Caribbean, when I was trying it with my uncle and dad who are die-hard rum drinkers, we all agreed that The Sexton was a perfect crossover for rum drinkers with the spice, vanilla and dark fruit notes.
Beyond the delicious whiskey inside the bottle, I wanted to know the meaning behind the bottle design because it was clear to me, this is more than just a marketing choice. The bottle looks like a vintage apothecary elixir bottle, all black, hiding a potion inside. On the side of the bottle is the Sexton riding his horse and carriage. It is mystical, the kind of bottle you would discover in the remains of a shipwreck from the 18th century. I got on a call with Jared Boller, the brand ambassador, who is equally impassioned by the story behind a product as I am; he let me know that I was correct in asserting that The Sexton was the best-kept secret. Alex Thomas, the creator of The Sexton was a once in a lifetime talent who has dedicated herself to creating something that pays homage to her culture and ancestors. If I wasn’t already sold, this sealed the deal.
Before I get into the one-on-one conversation I had the honour of having with Master Distiller and Blender Alex Thomas I want to offer a bit of context for those that may not be familiar with Baron Samedi or the Sexton and the roles they play in the “spirit” world. I hope I do a passable job in explaining these “characters” as I’m new on the journey of exploration. In Haitian culture (derived from West African Yoruba) there is a Loa (spirit or deity) who governs the passageway between the realm of the living and dead, the steward of the graveyard. Should one wish to converge or communicate with their ancestors Baron Samedi is the one that allows that to happen. In Haitian culture, he is depicted and a sharply dressed Black man with a top-hat who smokes cigars and drinks rum (liquor). He loves to sing, dance and is said to be on the vulgar side and rather mischievous. It is said if Baron Samedi does not dig your grave you can not die. Baron Samedi is also said to be a healer and can cure any disease or injury no matter how… grave (pun intended), once again reaffirming that he is the guardian of the underworld and there is no getting in without his say so, even if you are on your deathbed.
The Sexton in a modern-day context is a church custodian, a keeper of the cathedral, or as Alex puts it, “the caretaker of precious things” and what is more precious than life itself. A Sexton similar to Baron Samedi is a caretaker of the cemetery (which are often on church grounds). Here’s an interesting note to add which may connect the coat and tails wearing half skeleton god of African-Caribbean to the Irish; it is said that Baron Samedi’s wife/consort who is often depicted as a black rooster, her human form is a woman with red hair and emerald green eyes who goes by the name Maman Brigitte or as the Irish would call her Brigid. Maman Brigitte being syncretized to the pre-Christian Celtic Brigid, goddess of life and fertility, or St. Brigid as the only Loa that is said to not originate from Africa could be considered the bridge that connects the two cultures.
Alex Thomas, Master Distiller and Blender is one of two women in the Bushmills family of brands that carries such a prestigious title. When I spoke with Alex about her creation, The Sexton, she dove into full orientation. Alex at her core is the epitome of a teacher and student. The reverence she displays for each and every step that goes into the making of her whiskey is palpable. Whiskey in Ireland is “heavy on the culture, it is our heritage, a part of the community, it connects us,” she said.
Alex joined the Old Bushmill Distillery in 2004 and 2012 she became a Master Distiller and Blender having worked alongside Colum Egan she not only grasped the mechanics of making whiskey but also further seeded the cultural relevance of it all. She shares with such conviction that every seemingly minuet detail is paramount to what goes into the bottle. Her whiskey is built on the legacy, wisdom and experience of those that came before her such as Watson the cooper, of whom she speaks so affectionately. Watson taught Alex the importance of the wood she uses in making her whiskey and how to select the right oak to give that gently roasted aroma. Alex chose sherry cask as a tribute to her grandmother and sourced her sherry barrels from a multigenerational supplier Antonio & Sons. A sweet anecdote shared by those at the Bushmills Distillery as an explanation as to why what you put into the barrels at the beginning of the aging process is never equal to what comes out is the angel’s and devil’s share. The angel’s share is the whiskey that evaporates into the air and the devil’s share is the whiskey that is absorbed by the wood cask.
Every step of the way Alex pulls from the past to inspire something new, modernizing the whiskey experience to attract a new audience. Even further considering the bottle design, it turns out my comparing it to a lost treasure from a shipwreck isn’t entirely off. The shape of the bottle beacons to the Irish tale of the Giants Causeway, one of Europe’s great wonders; the hexagonal rocks were said to be formed by two warring giants who built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland.
Another tradition shared between the Caribbean and Irish cultures are how we regard special occasions. Alex remembers as a child her father and grandfather always having a bottle of whiskey on hand for the birth of a baby, a wedding, or when someone would pass away. Now I know this is not unique to these cultures but this summer while visiting with my parents, they, as they tend to do, were telling stories of their childhood in the islands. I asked about a ritual I heard the elders speak of, but personally, never experienced, called Nigh Night or Nine Night or Dead Yard. The short version is, on the ninth night after one has died (this is often after the funeral) the family gathers in the deceased’s home and engages in a ceremony to usher that person into the afterlife. A few of the practices include drinking rum, singing songs led by The Watcher, telling stories about that person, and eating particular foods. It is believed that in order for the spirit of the deceased to pass on these rituals must be followed. It is not a coincidence that many of the rituals and “offerings” during Nine Night are the same as those enjoyed by Baron Samedi. With the Sexton, it is the conviction of believers that one must live life well before the man comes to take you to rest.
All this work goes into creating The Sexton, it really is a premium whiskey. Alex beams with pride as she shows me the barley she uses, explaining that barley with low protein means it is a better quality “easier access to the sugars.” It all starts with the barley, grown in the south, distilled in the north. The water that is used flows through limestone rocks of Bushmill. All of it is Ireland. I too would be incredibly proud to have created such a masterpiece. The Sexton launched in North America in 2017 and I was shocked by the price of this bottle, retailing for only $49.95 in Ontario. Alex’s reasoning behind the price is she believes, “we deserve good quality at a price we can afford.” The rite of passage Alex has embarked on to be in herself a caretaker of precious things, to welcome the next generation of whiskey drinkers and makers certainly awards her her very own Sexton top hat.
By the way Baron Samedi’s birthday is said to be the fourth day of the solstice!