Beer conversations with John Pemberton

Whiskygeeks went to the Heart of Darkness taproom at Keong Saik Road to have a chat with Founder & CEO John Pemberton to talk about everything under the sun!
Heart of Darkness is a Vietnam based brewery that has taprooms all over Asia, and has landed in Singapore in 2019! As Singapore is opening up, I was first curious about their strategy for surviving COVID because the F&B scene underwent many hardships due to regulations.

Before COVID, John focused on their taprooms to sell craft beer and the B2B sale of kegs. However, in the last 2 years, when the pandemic hit the local F&B scene, Heart of Darkness moved towards canned beers for better distribution. This helps to maintain sales revenue rather than F&B B2B sales. This amongst other internal changes, John explains, helped Heart of Darkness ride through COVID.

Singapore and Stouts

I got into craft beer with a Russian Imperial Stout, so I have a soft spot for stouts and other dark brews. John remarked that Singapore has an unusual thirst for the dark stuff. He almost could not believe his team when they told John that Singapore needed more kegs of dark beers! I also asked John about his collaboration with Teeling he did for St. Patrick’s Day 2022. The Ghost is Barrel-Aged Stout that aged in whiskey casks from Teeling, at a whopping 12% abv! John spoke about how open Teeling distillery is to collaboration and sent them barrels, and even sherry butts! So the Ghost will not be the last cask-aged beer from Heart of Darkness anytime soon!

The Ghost: Barrel-aged stout, a collaboration between Heart of Darkness and Teeling Whisky

Recently, they released Eloquent Phantom Imperial Stout, which is oak conditioned using oak chips. Sure, oak chips get a bad reputation; but many distinguished winemakers use them and keep it hush like a family secret in Encanto. Speaking as someone who has played with oak chips for fun and party tricks, I reckon oak chips offer better control. Especially in this tropical climate.
So please put away the prejudice and try this dark beer if you see it!

Nuggets of Philosophy in running a brewery

John Pemberton emphasises that he wants to make a beer people would come back again for. His team strays away from one-and-done, night-ender beers that may be majestic but could destroy the palate after a pint.
Heart of Darkness wants to break away from the snobbishness and pretentiousness they see in other areas of craft beer. They want to be innovative, break the norms and try unconventional beers. This could be in terms of flavour like the Cucumber Pilsner and Pomelo IPA; or in terms of method in beers such as the Phantom using oak chips. John also gives his brew team a good measure of creative control. He usually doesn’t veto a decision on a brew unless he knows it’s a brew that is going to sell.

When it comes to his taprooms, John tells us that he does not care about the 1 and 2-star reviews, stating that they weren’t going to like it anyway. He is more concerned about the 3- 4 star reviews. John remarks that this represents people who want to enjoy what Heart of Darkness has to offer, but there are a couple of pointers holding them back. It is much easier to find constructive feedback in 3 and 4-star reviews to better improve his taprooms. And honestly, this way of thinking could also be useful for many of us.

The man himself

I was surprised to learn that John was a vegetarian growing up as well and that he still is. So vegetarians, rest assured that there will be some fantastic dishes/tapas on the menu to pair with their craft beer. John has also spent quite a lot of time in Hong Kong and China, and his Mandarin is definitely better than mine.

John Pemberton with everyone else there, including Enya and Panda!

I would like to thank John Pemberton for his time out of his busy schedule, the Heart of Darkness team at Keong Saik Road and Mikki for the invite!

A chat with Jérôme Tessendier

Ever wondered what it’s like to be an owner and Master Blender of a Cognac distillery? Whiskygeeks got to interview the CEO and Master Blender of Distillerie Tessendier et Fils (Tessendier & Sons Distillery) that makes Cognac Park! Cognac Park is from a smaller sub-region of Cognac called the Borderies, and known for their Mizunara matured Cognac. His reply has also been edited for clarity. Let’s dive straight into the interview!

Jérôme Tessendier, CEO and Master Blended of Distillerie Tessendier et Fils Source
For people who aren’t familiar with Cognac Park, could you introduce yourself and how you started Cognac Park with Mr Dominic Park back in 1993?

I’m Jérôme Tessendier, born and grew up in Cognac; a pure “production” from Cognac! I have been working in the family business since 1992 and my passion is to create beautiful blends of Cognac. I met Dominic Park in 1993, he had already purchased small batches of cognac from a middle man and wanted to meet the distillery and the makers behind it. We were the source and after our first meeting, the chemistry was instant. Our goals aligned and we decided to cooperate. I created his first range of cognac from VS to XO Grande Champagne.

Growing up in a family of Cognac producers must have been really unique, what are some memories you have with Cognac growing up as a child?

I didn’t realise that this is a unique position because I was used to it. One of my first memories was hearing my parents talk over dinner about their day of distillation, then was this very particular smell in the distillery, this special atmosphere while it was cold outside and warm in the distillery.

Do you remember the first time you tried Cognac?

When I was 14, I played tennis tournaments, and some prizes would be miniature bottles of Cognac. So my best friend and I were in our room. And I brought some orange juice and mixed it with Cognac. So we did it in increments with 90% orange juice and 10% cognac, then 80% orange juice and 20% Cognac, until we were drinking Cognac neat. I felt ill the next day.

What does a typical day consist of as the CEO and master blender of Cognac Park?

The mornings start mostly with the questions and problems of production. Then start the tastings: approvals of blends, quality before bottling or shipping. Afterwards comes creating primarily blends with trial and error. The afternoon and evening are reserved for management, commercial and other company-related tasks.

How has COVID impacted the Cognac Industry and how is it coping with in this new COVID era?

During the first lockdown, of course, it has impacted because a part of employees couldn’t come to work. But after several weeks it returned to a tough but stable situation. Now we see that people still buy cognac in liquors stores instead of bars and restaurant as they are closed.

Is the practice of petites eaux (the practice of reducing Cognac with Cognac diluted with water rather than pure water) done in Cognac Park? If so, what advantages does it give?

The “faibles” or “petites eaux” is a practice that helps to reduce the alcohol content. It has to be done very carefully. On the one hand, it helps to give some roundness. On the other hand, it might reduce the aftertaste and make the blend a little flat. Therefore, it’s a practice that has to be done with a lot of care.

Could you talk about chill filtration in Cognac in general, and the extent of chill-filtration in Cognac Park (Distillerie Tessendier et Fils)?

Chill filtration became standard practice to ensure the long-term stability and clear appearance of the Cognac. The process chills the cognac at -5°C for 4 to 5 days before filtering. (With temperatures around -3°C at the exit of the filter). But of course, chill-filtering reduces the aromas of the Cognac. The key is to have a stable cognac before filtration, then the lightest one the after. We decided, first to control the stability of the cognacs before making a decision on whether chill-filtration is necessary. And for some of our cognacs, we prioritise the aromas by not chill filtrating, like the Mizunara range.

What are the defining qualities of eau-de-vie that deem the cask ready to transfer into Mizunara casks?

Cognac has to be delicate, straight, with depth, and very pure. It has to achieve a level of maturity before being over-oxidised to let the flavour profile of mizunara “wrap” the eaux de vie. That is the general philosophy.

Mizunara casks are known to be very leaky. Do the makers at Cognac Park find it to be true? If so, how do you deal with this leaky problem?

It was ok. Only one cask so far had this issue but it was on the top of the barrel so we didn’t face any lost of cognac, fortunately!

Casks of Cognac. Source: Distillerie Tessendier et Fils
In Chichibu, they used a hybrid cask with American White Oak staves and Mizunara heads. This achieves the best of both worlds: Flavour from the Mizunara, whilst reducing the leakage. Is there any possibility of a hybrid cask of Limousin oak and Mizunara oak?

Our current practice is not to get a hybrid cask but to have a double maturation or a finishing. The using a hybrid cask is still being researched now but we are not ready to announce anything… yet.

Post Interview Commentary

This was a really enlightening interview. I also appreciated how transparent Jérôme was with chill-filtration and when it is necessary and when it is not. I was particularly interested in the practice of faibles or petites eaux because it’s such a foreign concept to me as a whisky drinker. He later explained in a zoom tasting that the staves of the mizunara casks he orders are much thicker, which explains why the Mizunara casks at Distillerie Tessendier et Fils are so sturdy and less prone to leaks!

We would like to thank Jérôme Tessendier for taking time out of his busy schedule to enlighten us about what goes on behind the scenes at Distillerie Tessendier et Fils and Distillerie Tessendier et Fils for the photos!