Michele Reina is a busy person. At Luxco, it’s his job to represent two distilleries in Kentucky, one in Indiana, one in Washington DC, two in Mexico, and even a production line in Ireland. He is also a brand educator and one of the kindest people in hospitality.
We caught up with Michele to talk about his career and all things Luxco.
How did it all start?
I guess I should start by saying my parents met behind a bar in London 35 years ago, but I don’t want to talk about how I learned to open a wine bottle before I could walk. I’ll talk a little about my hospitality experience before I moved to the UK 15 years ago and how everything started with Luxco.
It’s like I was in the right place at the right time. In 2017, I got to go to Kentucky thanks to the Rebel cocktail competition. At the time Luxco only had one distillery in Kentucky, Limestone Branch, which made Yellowstone 1 barrel a day. Lux Row Distillery, which makes Rebel, Ezra Brooks, Davies County, David Nicholson, and Blood Oath Bourbon hasn’t been built yet. During construction, the Lux family would be invited to add the distillery’s name as a golden brick to Court Square’s Bourbon Capital Compass. It was a twist of fate that I was there for the most important whiskey ceremony ever.
Five years later, the company has grown so much. I’ve grown up with them. As of today, Lux Row Distillers have filled six Rickhouses with 20,000 barrels each, and they produce 50,000 barrels of whiskey a year. We then merged with MGP, the world’s biggest rye whiskey producer. I’ve been to Kentucky about five times and shadowed master distillers at Lux Row Distillery and Limestone Branch Distillery. As well as shadowing our master blender in Northern Ireland, where we make Quiet Man Irish Whiskey, I even led a barrel project with the Soho Whisky Club, where members picked a barrel of bourbon that’s now on display. Our portfolio is huge and there’s almost nothing we don’t cover.
Tell us about some of the brands you look after at Luxco and what makes them special.
I’ll only mention our focus brand and keep it short and each brand has something unique. We specialise in American whiskey. We’ve got two distilleries in Kentucky. There’s Lux Row Distillers, where we make Ezra Brooks, which is named after the guy who drafted the first law in American whiskey in 1897, Rebel, a wheat-based bourbon dating back to 1849 that uses wheat instead of rye and The Blood Oath Bourbon, a limited-release bourbon with a special cask finish every year. Also including David Nicholson, a whiskey named after one of the first people to sell bottled bourbon in St. Louis nearly two centuries ago, and Davies County a bourbon that uses all four grains.
The Limestone Branch Distillery is a small pot-still-operated distillery producing only 8 barrels of whiskey daily. Here is where the 7th generation master distiller Stephen Beam produces Bowling & Burch Gin, a gin produced with botanicals grown at the distillery. Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey finished in Meier’s #44, which was the favourite cream sherry of former President John F. Kennedy. And of course, Yellowstone Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the flagship of the distillery, a 150-year-old brand named after Yellowstone National Park, and the official sponsor of the London Bourbon Experience.
We even have a distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. The Destiladora González Lux, producer of 100% agave tequilas, El Mayor a premium tequila sold in Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, Extra Anejo, Cristallino, and even special finish barrels, Exotico Tequila and Dos Primos Tequila, a premium tequila produced in collaboration with Thomas Rhett the famous American singer and songwriter.
After the merge with MGP, we have the historic distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Ross and Squibb. Here we produce Rossville Union Straight Rye Whiskey and George Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey, named after the person who inspired the movie, The Great Gatsby and the book Bourbon King. The Green Hat Distillery in Washington, D.C. is named after a bootlegger who for 10 years secretly delivered booze to the majority of Congress.
What is it about whiskey and Bourbon in particular that you love so much?
The first tasting I attended in Milan when I started my career was a whiskey tasting. This sparked my curiosity and led me on a journey to embrace the culture of craft spirits. My first stop was the UK, where I visited local distilleries to start my whiskey journey. Thanks to a cocktail contest, I won a trip to Ireland. This resulted in learning, tasting, and seeing Irish whiskey up close. As I visited distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, I realised they had a lot in common. They make the same five styles: Single Malt, Blended Malt, Single Grain, Blended Grain, and Blend Scotch/Irish Whiskey. I even spent a month in Japan, where they produce one of the most popular whiskeys in the world. Since the Irish also makes single-pot whiskey, I spent more time in Cork and Dublin taking distillery courses.
After I figured out the production, law, and taste of those whiskey styles, I thought it would be easier to learn about whiskey from around the world. I was wrong. Whiskey from the US seemed easier to understand. Aside from Rye and Bourbon, I didn’t think there was much to explore. I was wrong again. I started going to whiskey tastings and masterclasses. All the events I’ve been to haven’t covered everything there is to know about American whiskey. Especially when every type of whiskey in the US has different standards of identity. And even more so when they have 41 kinds of whiskey instead of six. I visited over 15 distilleries between Kentucky and Indiana, where most whiskey is produced. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know.
I love whiskey because it still makes me feel like a student. The whiskey drinkers I love are listeners, courageous people with the enthusiasm of a child for flavour and stories.
What is the best place in London for exploring Bourbon and why?
There are several bars that claim to specialise in Bourbon, but only a few have a selection that reaches beyond the brands that dominate the market. Ideally, a whiskey shelf should include every category of whiskey and each flavour profile before going into an extended range of the same brand just because it’s popular. That narrows down the list to just a handful, but considering that the question is about the one “best place in London for exploring Bourbon” I’ll settle for Block Soho. They have an incredible selection of American whiskeys and are reasonably priced (as Bourbon should be), with unique bottles and rare gems by the dram. The menu offers over 300 bottles, and if you’re not sure where to start, they even have whiskey flight options. There are options for everyone at their restaurant, and they specialise in steak, which goes so well with Bourbon.
Tell us about The London Bourbon Experience and how we can get involved?
Bourbon isn’t always appreciated outside the US, despite being a proud American product. My goal was to spread awareness, interest, and knowledge about American spirits among adults, buyers, and influencers with an event that would combine my hospitality experience and everything I learned in Kentucky.
So, two years ago, I founded and launched the London Bourbon Experience. As part of Cocktails in the City, we launched the LBE on September 8th and are continuing it until December 5th (Repeal Day). We featured the American whiskey category in seven free tastings and master classes during this period. Bringing together some of London’s best bars and specialised whiskey shops. In honour of Yellowstone Select’s 150th anniversary, I asked every bar to make a signature cocktail menu with 3 drinks based on Yellowstone Select. In one of those venues, we had the 7th generation master distiller Stephen Beam from Kentucky, who took part in London Cocktail Week with Yellowstone Select as a premium partner.
The information about the venues, cocktails, and bourbons is all in a pocketable ‘passport’ you can carry with you. You’ll get a stamp every time you order a Yellowstone cocktail, which gives you a 20% discount in any shop or a welcome drink in any bar on the map. Get 6 stamps and you’ll win a prize. For the first passport, we’re giving away a barrel top. Every completed passport gets you a t-shirt, a jumper, and a band baseball cap, and we’ll enter you into an epic prize draw. Thanks to George Michie, one lucky winner gets one-year membership at the Soho Whisky Club plus 50 complimentary whiskey tastings. There’s no way I could have done this without the support of all venues who were a part of this incredible journey. I’m deeply grateful.
Can sustainability in mixology ever become the norm?
It’s great to see more and more bars using biodegradable straws. In a bar, sustainability can be achieved in many ways that aren’t complicated. Pre-mixing drinks and storing them in the fridge can increase service speed and reduce ice usage. Dehydrating your fruits to extend their shelf life is another common practice today. We’ll need to learn more about the ingredients used in cocktail bars though, to make a real difference. In fact, distillation is the most energy-intensive part of the life cycle of a bottle of spirits, and shipping gets most of the carbon footprint. Many brands are now shipping spirits in big, reusable containers, and some even make labels out of fruit skins.
Sustainability and waste reduction are big selling points for some bar owners. However, consumers want fresher, better ingredients and expect to pay less for zero-waste drinks. Instead, cocktail bars justify the price with countless hours spent repurposing kitchen scraps to create interesting ingredients. It also takes time and sometimes expensive equipment to prepare those ingredients.
A time-consuming technique is homemade brewing. There are different types of fermentation being used in cocktail bars, from lactic to alcoholic. Bars sometimes serve homemade wine or beer using leftover ingredients and recycled garnishes, but many things can ruin fermentation. Fermentation needs a sterile environment to prevent bacteria from proliferation and maintain consistency. Among the expensive machines used in cocktail bars for sustainability is the Rotovator, a device used to evaporate solvents from samples in chemical labs. It’s a handy tool for extracting flavour, as long as it’s from a reliable source of alcohol.
Which mixologists and bartenders inspire you and why?
Bartenders like Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich used to be my bread and butter, but I knew them mainly for their knowledge and speaking skills, not behind the bar. My inspiration today is people like Harry Gerakis and Tommaso Cicala for organising and delivering amazing events every single day.
If you could award a Michelin star for mixology right now, who would it be to and why?
I like old-school bartenders. The one that knows all about classic drinks and products, but still cares about hospitality. Bartending is evolving toward the chemistry and science of creating bespoke ingredients, but it can also confusing for customers.
Throughout my career, I have only met a few people that I would describe as a ‘balance’ between the classic of the past, the methodology of the future, and dedicating the present moment to the customer. Simone Rossi, Director of Bars at Rosewood in Hong Kong, is one of them. Another is Dr. Georgia Billing, the only doctor I know in this industry, an actual doctor with a PhD in nutrition from Cambridge. But my Michelin star goes to a man I was lucky enough to meet at work, Alessandro Palazzi, a man who has been serving good times and delicious martinis for 46 years with consistency and a big smile.
What will the London bar scene look like in 5 years?
Things have changed a lot in London. Due to inflation and Brexit, people are just desperate for staff, which has lowered the standard of service. We learned the importance of solidarity and connection during those hard times. It’d be awesome to create a network of menu ideas around the world connected by the same concept. The future of bartending will be more active in helping the planet and bringing people together. This industry is already working to reduce waste and help the industry, and in times like this, London can be the place where the two come together.
What is next for you? What projects are you working on?
I bought a house, I’m getting married and I’m becoming a father. This is probably the most exciting time of my life. I’ve reached the peak of happiness. In case that wasn’t enough, I started my own website and I’m writing a book about American whiskey that’ll be out in 2023 if all goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t, I will publish it later. A wise person once told me, take your time my friend… you can’t rush a good thing.
To discover more, visit: michelereina.com and luxco.com
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All imagery courtesy of Luxco / Michele Reina.