Cool Hunting — Interview: Lost Lantern Whiskey Founders Nora Ganley-Roper + Adam Polonski

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In 2018, Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski embarked upon what they refer to as their “great whiskey road trip.” The couple (now married) toured 50 distilleries across dozens of states in the US for eight months straight. This was more than passionate immersion into a hobby; it pertained to an idea they had that stemmed from their professional backgrounds: Ganley-Roper as a sales manager at NYC’s Astor Wine & Spirits; Polonski as an editor at Whisky Advocate. From this experience, the duo launched their own bottling brand, Lost Lantern Whiskey, that same year.

To be a bottler means selecting liquids produced by others and presenting them in new light or bound by a common denominator. It happens regularly in several spirits categories, with scotch (where Polonski took inspiration) of greatest prominence. Many brands try to conceal this, but Ganley-Roper and Polonski place their business model front and center. “There are so many American craft distilleries out there that people do not know yet,” Polonski tells us. “I thought this independent bottler model would work really well as a way to introduce people to these whiskies.”

For their debut, Lost Lantern released one limited edition bourbon, rye, corn whiskey and American single malt whiskey. Each expression underscores transparency and authenticity. “We only buy whiskey from places we’ve visited,” Ganley-Roper says. “We feel that it’s important that we have an understanding of who is making the whiskey, why they’re making it, and all the details that whiskey nerds care about: do they climate-control their warehouse, what type of still do they use.”

In addition to the four single cask releases, Lost Lantern bottles a show-stopping blended whiskey—named the American Vatted Malt—that incorporates liquid from six distinct distilleries across the US (all of which are listed on the bottle, including CH favorite Westward Whiskey from Portland, Oregon). This is a tremendous cross-brand feat and, in many ways, it’s a snapshot of the state of American whiskey today. It’s also something no one has ever done before.

“As we visited distilleries, we found people who were really excited about what we were doing,” Ganley-Roper says. “We decided to bring some of these people together and create a blend. It was surprisingly easy to get everyone on board.” Master Distillers from the six brands hand-picked a total of 30 barrel samples from their own stores. Everyone convened in Denver. There, over the course of one day, they evaluated every sample and made their own blend.

“No one blends in one day,” Polonski says, “but this was the way that we could all do this together.” 12 barrels went into the final blend—three of which are smoked (one is peated and two are smoked with mesquite). “Before we made the American Vatted Malt, we needed to be sure that peated whiskey and mesquite whiskey could be blended together because no one has ever done that before,” Ganley-Roper says. It works, and in fact, the combination lends a wreath of smoke to the final product, which was slow-proofed down to 105.

Of the single casks, our favorite originates with the New York Distilling Co. “This is a good example of something different than the brand’s core style,” Ganley-Roper says of the 119.2 proof liquid. “It’s finished in an apple brandy cask for a year, so it’s a twist on their rye.” This finishing adds a bright and full fruitiness to the whiskey, reminiscent of calvados. New York Distilling Co was the first distillery Lost Lantern approached to be a part of the program and only 202 bottles were produced.

Only 111 bottles were released of a bold, spicy Ironroot Republic single cask whiskey from the young Texas distillery—and it was the first bottling to sell out. This 100% corn whiskey iteration resulted from a remarkable on-site experience. “We did not know them well before we went on the road,” Polonski says, “because they’re primarily available in Texas and Oklahoma.”

Ganley-Roper adds that “a lot of these distilleries are not known outside of local places. We want to be sure to bring people whiskies consumers would not be able to find themselves, either because of access or because it takes too much money to taste something from the thousand distilleries that exist.”

Such is the case with their Cedar Ridge bottling. “Outside of Iowa, you cannot get their whiskey cask strength. We think the real magic is at its higher proof,” Polonski says. “The climate of the Great Plains is really unique and it influences the whiskey. All of the corn in the mash bill [the grain recipe of a whiskey] comes from their family farm; there’s also a portion of malted rye. They’re aging in open warehouses, where the temperature swings wildly.” All of these attributes yielded 213 bottles of a light, creamy liquid that’s rounded out with a bit of baking spice.

For anyone who perked up at the mention of mesquite whiskey earlier, Lost Lantern’s bottling from Santa Fe Spirits delivers a deep-dive into this smokey development with 30% of its barley mesquite smoked. “It’s the peating process [but] turned into an American one—and it provides unique flavors you will not get anywhere else,” Ganley-Roper says. It’s their smokiest offering, and hearty, but it’s surprisingly delicate on the nose so the flavor truly comes as a surprise. In addition to being a sought-after bottle (limited to 211), it’s an indicator of advancements in whiskey categories.

Highlighting these extensive differences in Lost Lantern’s debut products calls to attention their knowledge, commitment to discovery and creative capabilities—as well as the diversity in American whiskey. And their blend, which they hope to reimagine each year, seems like an articulation of the industry itself.

Fortunately, Ganley-Roper and Polonski have different palates. “Which we actually think is very valuable,” Ganley-Roper says. “I like more subtle whiskey. I generally find things that are highly peated or sherried can overwhelm, whereas Adam likes some of the bigger, juicier liquids.” Their rule is that they both have to agree fervently on the liquid. “Every so often we both love a distillery, but we can’t agree on a cask so we pass,” Polonski says, “so when we do agree and we get to the point where we are buying, we are pretty confident that it will appeal to various types of whiskey lovers.”