Individually Blended with Master Distiller Liam Costello
Name: Liam Costello
Born in: Brisbane, QLD
Currently living in: Ballarat, VIC
What you do: Master Distiller/Blender for the Rum Co. of Fiji
Strange times such as these call for even stranger measures. Lockdowns have required all of us to think on our feet, not to mention digging deep to execute big projects over email and video calls. Throughout last year’s early 2020 lockdown, our co-creators Blake and Steve found themselves nearing the finish line of liquid development. Our initial plans of in-person sample tasting with our friend, mentor and award-winning Master Distiller, Liam Costello, were ultimately derailed—and so, we had no choice but to take it online.
What unfolded over the coming weeks was what we like to call, “the virtual liquid development postal service.” The distillery would send a batch of samples to Liam Costello, who we’d brought on board to help us shape, refine and perfect our way from sample to Batch No.1. From there, we’d dial in for 10am virtual tastings over Zoom, making notes, discussing improvements, before starting the process all over again.
For this month’s Individually Blended, we brought Blake and Liam together (again, from lockdown over Zoom) to rehash what it takes to make a great spirit, creativity at 3am and the distiller’s most important tool: repetition, repetition, repetition.
Blake, how did you initially reach out to Liam to work on crafting the liquid?
Blake Vanderfield-Kramer: I was lucky enough to work with Liam at the RUM Co. of Fiji where we worked together on brand, liquid development and execution. I loved his ability to always try something new and different, to see how we could push the boundaries in crafting and creating products.
Liam and I have stayed in touch and he has been a valued mentor and a friend. For getting our botanical eau de vie to the best place it could be, I brought him up to speed with what we were creating in Feels, the direction we were going in. Then off the samples went! From there, it took numerous virtual tasting sessions to refine the shape of flavour, botanical ratio and sensorial flavour journey.
Over to you Liam, you’re known as a stalwart in the rum game. What was your gut reaction when you were asked to work on a new gen eau de vie?
Liam Costello: I felt it would be interesting and it would challenge my thinking on flavour profiles. After all, the mother of all skills is repetition, to try new things is to learn new things, and expand your ideas and thinking.
Your journey as distiller—how’d you get into the business in the first place, and what did it take to get to where you are now?
LC: I always say I came into the business either by pure chance or predetermined fate, divine intervention. I think Rum found me more than me finding Rum as I started out as a 20-year-old boy knowing nothing about it other than it was good to drink...but a key blessing in my attitude was I was prepared to listen and learn.
Is there a person, artist or spirit maker that first inspired you:
LC: There have been more than a few people that have helped to shape me and my ideas along my journey in the liquor Industry. Some shaped my work ethic, some my determination, some my attitude and willingness to look at things from all directions and through other people’s eyes. Each one seemed to arrive with the right lesson at the right time. The reality is there are too many to name. I am still meeting them! And Blake is included in that list.
What role did you play in crafting Vivify, Revel, Rouse and Bask?
LC: My part in the process was making sure that the spirit and the botanicals all came together seamlessly. It was all about ensuring the final product had a good mouthfeel and flavours that were readily identifiable in the mix, without fighting each other in aroma or taste. Ultimately, my job was to satisfy the vision of Blake and Steve, the two-co-creators of Feels.
Over to the technical details. What went into making this grape-based eau de vie, from liquid to brand development?
BVK: We were after a point of difference to what was out in the market in terms of both shape of flavour and positioning. So, eau de vie really was the logical place to land for our base spirit. It all came down to an abundance of quality wine grapes within Australia. You’d be hard-pressed to find much use of it here in the spirit world, which Steve and I always found surprising. As a spirit, it just delivers the most velvety, creamy mouthfeel, which makes for an amazing drinking experience.
Technically, in short, our botanical eau de vie is made from Australian grapes, which are then fermented and turned into wine. We ‘column distill’ the wine into a high proof eau de vie spirit. To finish it off, that spirit base is then ‘pot distilled’ with our combination of three sustainably-sourced botanicals.
Blake, could you tell us about the eau de vie ‘postal service’ and virtual development tastings that went on during last year’s lockdown?
BVK: Ah, product development during COVID- lockdowns, border closures and the repeat of that process numerous times was a challenging one—still is! The distillery would make a batch of product and send it to Liam and I. Then on Friday mornings (10am when the palate is primed for tasting), the virtual tastings would kick off. I was working from home and would have my son—who was about one and half at the time—continually trying to get into the room. Throughout the year, he eventually learnt how to open the door. In all, this was a long, repetitive but ultimately enjoyable process to get it right.
After more than a few trials, how do you know when you’ve finally got that blend right?
LC: When the aroma and taste come together in harmony, when each component compliments the other and does not detract but support. When the taste is soft and smooth and enjoyable and gives a desire to take another sip.
BVK: We gradually progressed and we knew we were heading in the right direction, continually refining the flavour journey. At one point, I think Liam’s comment was along the lines of, “Oh yeah, mmm that’s it”.
The most memorable moment working with Blake and Steve so far:
LC: Seeing how quickly Blake picks up the understanding of balance and shape of flavour.
Blake, how’d you find that experience of working with a master of his craft? What did you learn along the way?
BVK: As I mentioned, I’d worked with him for about four years in a previous role, developed brands and liquid with him, travelled the country a number of times hosting educational rum sessions together, so there are a lot of experiences that I enjoyed and appreciated along the way. The list of learnings is long, but a couple of key ones are: work ethic, keeping an open mind to the new and “what gets measured, gets done”.
How has working on this project inspired, challenged and pushed your approach to your work?
LC: To always have an open mind to all experiences, to not predetermined or exclude yourself from a potentially enjoyable experience by having a closed mind. That applies to keeping your tastes open too: never define yourself to be a drinker of only one or two particular styles.
I feel most creative when…
LC: At 3am in the morning when ideas and thoughts appear and come together, when I am alone and things are quiet or when I am around enthusiastic like minded people—to feed off their energy and learn to harness it. You also need to pay attention to negative people and make sure you take note of what not to do. You can learn just as much from failures as you can from successful people.
Blake, what are you whipping up to drink with Liam when you can eventually get together in person, and what playlist are you spinning to set the mood with this song...
BVK: Vivify Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned Revel while listening to J.J Cale’s ‘Cherry’ on the Bask Vol 1 playlist.
The person (dead or alive) I’d most like to drink it with...
LC: Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation Rum and of course Blake.
BVK: Alexandre came to Fiji and we all had some rum together. However, we are well overdue for a trip to France to visit him once international travel opens up.
Something you may not know about me…
LC: During the busiest period of my working career, I was able to become a 2nd Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. So the saying is true: they know how to make time and get things done. Sometimes it pays to give a job to a busy person.
Advice to those wanting to break into your field:
LC: Pay attention, learn, try, stay, care. Learn all you can about what you do. Try, now you have learnt it–there’s no point sitting on knowledge and doing nothing about it. Now you may make mistakes but learn from them and keep on trying. Now you have started, stay to the end. If you don’t like it you can always leave but at least stay to the end to see what can happen. Care a little and see what happens. Care a lot and watch the miracle.