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Master of Malt Blog

Behold: Fancy Brora 40-Year-Old 200th Anniversary incoming!

Hold on to your tasting glasses: closed Scotch whisky distillery Brora is about to release something very special indeed. With just one year to go until its highly-anticipated revival, Brora…

Hold on to your tasting glasses: closed Scotch whisky distillery Brora is about to release something very special indeed. With just one year to go until its highly-anticipated revival, Brora 40-Year-Old celebrates 200 years of the Highland distillery – and it’s one to get whisky fans salivating.

The new expression is the first commercial release since Brora’s Special Releases 2017 appearance, and it’s also one of the distillery’s oldest. Drawn from 12 American oak hogsheads with liquid distilled in 1978, just 1,812 bottles will be available (a nod to the year the distillery was founded). And expect the 49.2% ABV whisky to be fairly heavily peated, too.

“Of all the stories of Brora, there is one that seemed particularly fitting to tell on its 200th Anniversary,” said Diageo master blender, Dr Craig Wilson. “From 1969-83, there was a new experimentation phase in production and the Brora distillers created a smoky malt used heavily-peated Northern Highland barley. Used primarily in blends at the time, the few casks that are left from this Age of Peat, matured remarkably well and what remains is a multi-layered and complex single malt of astonishing quality.”

It all came about by working closely with the Diageo Archive team, who helped Wilson identify when the smoky Brora style was at its peak. The archivists discovered original production records during the distillery’s restoration work. “Little did the craftsmen at the time know, they had created a masterpiece,” he continued. “It is emblematic of the varied past of the distillery that makes it so special to all that know it: a humble story of experimentation, craft and happy coincidence.”

The celebratory bottling is one the oldest ever released by Brora

What does it taste like? According to Diageo, expect a whisky clear amber in appearance, with long, fine beading. On the nose, there’s sweet, smoky peat wafts, treacle toffee, ripe figs, raisings, and with water, sacking and tweet notes come through. On the palate, there’s a waxy texture with sweet and savoury smoke, dates, white pepper, and a minty note with a dash of water. The finish? “Long, rich, and sweetly warming”.

Brora 40-Year-Old: 200th Anniversary Limited Edition will retail at £4,500, and is on its way to MoM Towers as I type!

 

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5 minutes with. . .  Dr. Don Livermore from Hiram Walker

We don’t talk enough about Canadian whisky on the MoM blog. To remedy this, we spoke with the master blender at Hiram Walker, Dr. Don Livermore, on Canadian distilling history,…

We don’t talk enough about Canadian whisky on the MoM blog. To remedy this, we spoke with the master blender at Hiram Walker, Dr. Don Livermore, on Canadian distilling history, some cask finishes that went wrong and why Canada is the most creative place in the world to make whisky.

Look back through old cocktail books (I have lots of them) and they always say that there are four major whisky producing countries: Scotland, Ireland, America and Canada. This blog covers the first three extensively – it seems that not a day goes by without exciting news from the American, Irish and, especially, Scottish industries. And that’s not all, recently we have run features on distilleries in Sweden, Australia and Israel. But what about poor neglected Canada?

It’s not like Canada doesn’t have the heritage. It’s been producing whisky since the 19th century. Canada has the numbers too. According to these figures, it produces around 189m litres of whisky a year, less than the Scots (700m) and the Americans (333m), but far outstripping the Irish (63m). That’s a lot of whisky. Until recently, most of it was used to make mega-blends like Canadian Club and Crown Royal; some of it went into American brands. But the world is waking up to the treasures that lie north of the 49th parallel, whiskies with character like Pike Creek, Lot 40 and Wiser’s 18 Year Old.  So, to tell us more about this under-the-radar giant of whisky, we talk to master blender at Hiram Walker, Don Livermore. And don’t forget, there’s no ‘e’ in Canadian whisky. 

Don Livermore

The doc (centre) in action

Master of Malt: How long have you been working in whisky for?

Don Livermore: I started 23 years ago. My background is microbiology so the distillery here, which I work at, the Hiram Walker Distillery, in Windsor Ontario, hired me as their microbiologist in the quality control laboratory. The company has been fantastic to me. They spent their investment on me and they sent me to school where I did my Masters of Science at Heriot Watt. I finished that in 2004 and then I finished my PhD in 2012 at Heriot Watt as well. Along the way they promoted me in different jobs in and around the distillery, and today I’m the master blender for Hiram Walker. 

MoM: If people asked you, ‘what makes Canadian whisky different from American whisky’, what would you say?’

DL: Canadian whisky, I always like to say this, it’s the most innovative, creative, adaptable style of whisky there is. All we have to be is fermented, aged and distilled in Canada. Aged in a wooden barrel, less than 700 litres for a minimum of three years. And a minimum of 40% alcohol, and first it’s got to come from grain, like any whisky category. And that’s about it, so they give us a lot of latitude, on what we can do with Canadian whisky. They don’t tell me how to distill it so we here have the ability to just column distill it, like a bourbon. Or we can also pot distill it like you’d see in the single malt batches. So we do have those capabilities here, they don’t tell us barrel types either. I mean we can use new wood, we can use used wood, we can finish in wine barrels, or whatever. The latitude is pretty wide open and that leads to creativity. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want be a blender anywhere else. Now, traditionally Canadian whisky is lighter, if you go back early days in Canadian whisky, in the early 1800s, we would have been just a moonshine-style whisky. It would have been done just by pot stills or single pot distillations. But along the way, Canadian distilleries started double-distilling through two column stills. So they were making like grain whisky, that’s what’s Scotch would call it, we call it ‘base whisky’ but it’s similar. Our whisky ended up being very light because that’s what people wanted but at the same time, the way we would make our whisky was we would separate our ingredients so we would make double-distilled grain whisky from corn. But they’d also single distill or pot distill rye whiskies and then they would blend that in as their flavour type of ingredient we used to call them ‘flavouring whiskies’. So that’s traditionally how we are made because rye is really the grain that traditionally grows in the Canadian climate. The moniker in Canada is usually ‘give me a rye and Coke’ or ‘a rye and ginger’ and it’s understood as a Canadian. It means ‘Canadian whisky and coke’. Ryes are ingredients, just like Irish whiskey will use barley for their flavouring ingredients. 

Hiram Waker

The giant Hiram Walker distillery at Windsor, Ontario

MoM: Do you have a view of these aged Canadian flavouring whiskies being sold south of the border and being bottled under American labels?

DL:  I don’t have any issues with that. I think in the whisky industry, we’ve been buying and selling and trading barrels with each other for 300 years and I don’t see it as any issue for me, blending whiskies and buying ingredients to go into our whiskies. I think to be upfront in what you’re doing, for the consumer, is important. We’ve been doing it for 300 years. You could probably point at the Scotch industry they buy barrels from one another and make their blends right? There’s a rich history between Canada and the United States of selling and buying whisky. 

MoM: Does Canada have as long a whisky heritage as the States? 

DL: From what I’ve read about Jim Beam, Jack Daniel and some of the old whisky barons from the United States, I think they probably started a little bit before Canada. You see those date from the late 1700s, but you start seeing the distilleries in Canada mid-1800s. So we’re probably about 25-50 years behind. Canada was settled later and our population is a little less. Most people will say ‘what made Canadian whisky is the American prohibition in 1920-1933’ and that really isn’t true. What actually grew the Canadian whisky category was the American Civil War from 1861-1865. So you’ll see a lot of the Canadian distilleries have their inception dates around the late 1850s. Because if you think about it, the American North was fighting the American South right? And if they’re going to war with one another, they’re shutting their distilleries down. And who took advantage of that situation was the Canadian distillers. 

Inside Hiram Walker distillery

Inside Hiram Walker distillery

MoM: When did the revival of drinking strongly-flavoured rye whiskies start?

DL: We launched Lot 40 in Canada and the US in 1998, originally, and it failed. It had a little bit of a following but at that time you were starting to see the single malt Scotch craze take off and it was just about timing and what consumers were looking for. I give this analogy, I’m older, I’m in my forties, I grew up on a meat and potato diet I’m from the country in Canada and I think a lighter style of whiskies was what suited our palettes. My kids today are growing up on sushi and you’re seeing a lot of diversity within Canada and the United States as well. And they’re experiencing foods from around the world that are very rich and very spicy. A lot of flavour to it. And I think that’s what has happened I think people’s diets have changed and I think in the year 2019 we are starting to see rye whisky as big, bold, spicy and that’s what people are looking for. Similarly, I think peated Scotches, they’re taking off as well.  

MoM: I just wanted to ask you about cask finishes because I know you do some interesting things with Pike Creek. What are we likely to see in terms of innovative finishes from you?

DL: We actually had an innovation summit with our marketing department about a month ago. And there’s a pipeline of things I’m working on with finishing and various types of woods or wine barrels, or spirit barrels. I think you’re going to see some things come out of Canada in the next one to five years that are going to be exceptional. I’m already very excited about it. I mean, I think this is a rebirth of Canadian whisky and excitement to our category. I’m already seeing some of the other Canadian whisky competitors I work with are doing it as well, so I mean, we’ve done some French oak finishing, we did some Hungarian oak finishing, and there’s some wine barrels I’m playing with. We don’t have a release yet but the Pike Creek 21 year, that’s going to be released this fall will be finished in an oloroso sherry cask. I haven’t heard of anybody using oloroso sherry casks in Canada before. There has been failures here, I’ll be quite honest with you, I’ve played with finishing in some beer barrels, that didn’t work out too well. I finished some in some Tequila barrels which I’m unsure about. I think it would be a very niche market. If I’m not playing and looking at different things, I’m not doing my job.

Hiram Walker

Whisky maturing with little labels to remind workers that it is flammable. Safety first!

MoM: What other things are you playing with apart from barrels?

DL: Grain is another one. It’s reading the consumer. I think it’s very important for master blenders to get out from behind their desk or their laboratory. Go to these whisky festivals, talk to the consumers and understand what they’re looking for. And I’ve come to realise that consumers today understand and get a barrel. I think the barrel-finishing thing is the exciting thing today but the other thing is, what’s tomorrow? I think the next thing that consumers are going to be asking about is grain. They’re already asking about rye, I think the next evolution is variety of rye. We started putting away a very specific variety of rye that is very spicy. We’re actually asking our growers to plant a specific variety. My dream some day is yeast! Because I told you my background is microbiology but yeast probably makes more flavour in your whisky than any other thing that we add to it. You can do lots around brewing. Yeast has a huge impact. I got the actual original yeast strains from the whisky barons of Canada in a dried state. They’re in in little test tubes. From 1930 and I can crack them open and they can grow. But if I’d sat in the corner barstool at your local pub and talked about yeast and whisky, I don’t think your consumer will care. But I think some day they will. I just think it’s about timing and when consumers get more and more savvy, I can see it happening at some point. Some day I’m going to crack those vials and make a brand of whisky out of it, but not yet!

MoM: Which of your whiskies that you blend is your ‘end of the day’ favourite when you get back from work?

DL: It’s a brand that is no longer made to be honest with you. It’s a brand called Wiser’s Legacy. But I’ll tell you this, Wiser’s Legacy is basically two thirds Wiser’s 18 year and one third Lot 40, so I can blend it myself! I love doing that at whisky festivals and people ask me ‘what’s your favourite whisky?’ ‘here, I’ll blend it for you!’ so I take those two brands and blend them together. Again, that’s my sweet spot for the rye level. I do adore the 100% rye whiskies but I do like blending and I like a certain level, just like putting salt on your French fries, there’s a level that you want.

MoM: And then finally, do you have a favourite whisky cocktail?

DL: I like Manhattans made with Lot 40. I think the 100% rye balance is nice with a sweet vermouth. I do get specific about it: it’s hard to find but I like my Manhattan made with rhubarb bitters.

 

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Missing in action? The forgotten blends

When was the last time you read about Label 5 Scotch whisky? Or William Peel? Or Teacher’s? Ian Buxton looks at the blends that still bring in the money, if…

When was the last time you read about Label 5 Scotch whisky? Or William Peel? Or Teacher’s? Ian Buxton looks at the blends that still bring in the money, if not the column inches. 

Imagine if you will that you live in a fine country house. It’s well-appointed with many delightful rooms, a range of useful outbuildings and extensive grounds. All in all, it’s perfectly agreeable. What’s more, thanks to your aunt’s endowment and some shrewd investments, there’s a steady flow of income to keep the whole place running. The problem is that the old girl’s more than slightly batty so you have to keep her out of the public’s curious view. It’s the classic problem of the mad aunt in the attic and I’ve been thinking about her quite a lot recently. That’s because I’ve been drinking some blended Scotch whiskies and, for an article I’m writing, trying to get the distillers to talk about them. To summarise: they don’t have a lot to say.

Now my email in-box overflows on a daily basis with news of different single malts.  A constant stream of eager PR agencies and their clients vie for your attention with ever more exotic, expensive and esoteric releases of rare single malts. Often they’re limited to a few hundred bottles and, all too frequently, with a price tag running into four figures.

Dewar's White Label

They don’t make adverts like this any more.

They do, of course, provide easy copy for whisky magazines and bloggers and the proud brand manager is more than happy to see the column inches that result. They don’t, however, really mean terribly much in the grand scheme of things – while they’re the glamorous Spitfire pilots of whisky, the blends (the crews from Bomber Command if you want to keep this rather tenuous analogy going) do the grunt work.  They still account for more than 90% of all the Scotch sold around the world and without them, as I never tire of reminding folk, quite a number of single malt distilleries would have shut years ago.

The volumes of some of these brands are quite remarkable.  You know about Johnnie Walker, of course, and probably realise that blends such as Ballantine’s, Grant’s and Chivas Regal still sell impressive quantities (for the record, they each move considerably more than 4 million cases annually – that’s a lot of hooch).  But what about Passport, Buchanan’s, White Horse or Sir Edward’s? Well, any one of those sells more than 1½ million cases, leaving even the best-selling single malt gasping in their wake. 

In fact, brands that have been more or less forgotten on the UK retail scene such as VAT 69 and even Teacher’s still comfortably break the 1 million club barrier. And the ‘value’ brands that grace French supermarket shelves can clock up some remarkable numbers. Label 5 for example, which you’d be forgiven for not calling to mind, is a powerhouse performer selling close to 3 million cases.  Even more remarkably, the William Peel brand does even better.

So what’s the problem?  Why don’t we hear more about these whiskies? Well, some of it is pure snobbery – especially in the UK and US markets, blends are rather looked down on (not least, it has to be said by whisky writers and bloggers). The rot started with one of my personal whisky heroes, the author Aeneas MacDonald, who back in 1930 with his marvellous polemic Whisky (still in print, incidentally, and still well worth reading) chastised blended whisky drinkers as “the swillers, the drinkers-to-get-drunk who have not organs of taste and smell in them but only gauges of alcoholic content, the boozers, the ‘let’s-have-a-spot’ and ‘make it a quick one’ gentry and all the rest who dwell in a darkness”. Other writers have followed his lead.

Dr Jim Beveridge

Softly-spoken and unassuming, Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker

Then there’s the undeniable fact that selling lots and lots of the same whisky day after day makes for rather less compelling copy than a stream of new releases.  There’s only so often that story can be written.

But there are stories to tell about blends and blending, even if blenders by inclination seem to be quite a modest breed, preferring the quiet sanctuary of their blending room to the stage at a large public whisky event. To their credit, Diageo did try some years ago to bring blending to the fore, holding a series of educational seminars for trade and media and releasing late in 2012 an elegant and erudite little pamphlet on The Art of Blending.

What’s more, their signature Johnnie Walker blend has proved adept at stealing malt whisky’s PR clothing. For proof, look no further than the recently released John Walker Last Cask.  There are just 330 bottles available worldwide (that’s if the Chinese leave us any, as it’s released there first) at approximately £2,500 each. 

So come on whisky marketers!  Let’s hear it for the engines of whisky’s success!  Let’s hear it for the mad aunt in the attic!

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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New Arrival of the Week: St. Patrick’s Moonshine

This week we are mostly drinking a traditional Irish spirit made to an old family recipe from St. Patrick’s Distillery in Cork. The Walsh family have been distilling a long…

This week we are mostly drinking a traditional Irish spirit made to an old family recipe from St. Patrick’s Distillery in Cork.

The Walsh family have been distilling a long time, though in the past they had to keep quiet about it because it wasn’t always strictly legal. Walsh’s great grandfather Patrick Walsh was involved in the illicit production of poitín and had some run-ins with the law. “My late father, also Patrick Walsh, often reminisced about hiding bottles in the cabbage patch as a child whenever a raid was rumoured”, said Cyril Walsh from St. Patrick’s Distillery. It now produces a spirit that is made to the old Walsh family recipe from Croagh Patrick mountain in County Mayo. “He [Walsh’s father] would have been immensely proud to see the family tradition acknowledged and finally legal”, Walsh went on to say.

The family-inspired spirit is a blend of pot-distilled malted barley and potato spirit. The result is sweet, rich and spicy with a creamy texture from the potato, and bottled at a punchy 45.7% ABV. It’s like drinking fine new make whiskey. As you might guess it makes a cracking Martini but it’s really designed for sipping on its own. According to Walsh it “is eligible to be sold as poítin [but] we have chosen to call our signature spirit Moonshine as the largest markets for St. Patrick’s Distillery are currently the USA and China, and this is much easier to understand and pronounce”. But in future they do intend to release some limited edition bottlings labelled poítin.

St. Patrick's Moonshine

Moonshine, it’s easier to say than poitín

Moonshine is just part of a range of spirits produced by Cyril Walsh and partner Tom Keightley. Walsh looks after the technical side of things and Keightley, who has an MBA (from Harvard, no less) runs the business. The company’s first releases in 2015 were a gin and a vodka, both potato-based. These have been joined by a range of gins, an Irish cream liqueur, and both blended and single malt whiskeys (which really impressed me when I tried them at the Irish embassy in London a couple of years ago). As well as the US and China, the company exports to Germany, Canada and the UK.

St. Patrick’s Distillery has picked up so many gongs from the IWSC, Irish Whiskey Awards, and C2C Spirits Cup in Germany, that the website looks like a Soviet officer’s uniform. The name of the company is a bit of a misnomer because, though it does have a still, at the moment the team buys in all its spirits.

They plan to start distilling at some point but at the moment Walsh and Keightley’s skills lie in buying, blending and maturing spirits distilled to their specifications. Something they seem to be very good at. 

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High end cannabis-infused spirits are here

While industry tastemakers have been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning CBD oil trend, relatively few producers dare to blend the tincture with booze. But then, the folks behind…

While industry tastemakers have been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning CBD oil trend, relatively few producers dare to blend the tincture with booze. But then, the folks behind CBD-infused spirits company Top Beverages are hardly your average distillers. We chatted with attorney-turned-entrepreneur Nick Pullen, the company’s co-founder, as their inaugural gin and spiced rum bottlings hit the market…

“We wanted to really pioneer something that’s never been done before,” explains Philadelphia native Pullen, who established Top Beverages with business partner Saf Ali back in January 2019. “A lot of folks out there have an existing range of alcoholic beverages and just throw in a [CBD-infused variant] to catch a fad or trend. Our core business is CBD spirits and that’s what’s really going to set us apart within the industry.” Pullen met English music industry and property Saf Ali at their childrens’ school bus stop in Barcelona – the city they call home – and the duo made it their mission to disrupt both the spirits and CBD industries.

For the uninitiated, CBD or cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, so it doesn’t make you feel “high” (that’s down to THC, one of 113 known cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant). Research suggests it offers a range of health benefits, from reducing chronic pain and inflammation to easing anxiety and epilepsy. You can buy ‘CBD isolate’, a pure, concentrated form of CBD with no other cannabinoids present, or opt for ‘full spectrum CBD’, which includes other naturally-occurring plant compounds, and it’s the latter Pullen and Ali chose to use in their range.

Top Beverage

No, not a new Calvin Klein advert, it’s One CBD-infused rum and gin

After months of research and trial-and-error testing, Top Beverages has bottled its first products, a gin and a spiced rum, each available in a limited run of 500 x 100ml bottles at a punchy 54.5% ABV. The RRP is pretty punchy at £30 a bottle, the equivalent of £210 for a standard 700ml bottle. One gin is distilled with juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, elderflower, lemon peel, lime peel, and a fresh Valencian orange, while One spiced rum is made with cassia bark, orange peel, ginger, and Indian vanilla pods. Both variants contain 10mg of full-spectrum CBD, which injects “a little bit of flavour, but not much,” Pullen says. 

“It all comes down to finding the right CBD,” he outlines. “A lot of what people are calling CBD products are really hemp oil, which has a different flavour profile. We had to do a lot of research and tried dozens of CBD types from different suppliers from the UK, Europe and the US. It took us a long time to identify the best water-soluble product out there and then experiment with when to add it, how to blend it, how to filter it – getting to the end result was a labour of love.”

Top Beverages is working with legal and food safety professionals to guarantee the quality of its CBD, but aside from EU standards that regulate CBD and THC content, no industry-specific regulations exist. This is uncharted territory after all, which means there’s no lower or upper limit to the amount of CBD a producer is required to add to a given spirit, wine or beer. Where some companies may seek to capitalise on this by adding as little as possible, Top Beverages has “a more concentrated approach,” Pullen says, with every 10ml of spirit containing 1mg of CBD. 

Top Beverages

The thing that looks like a slug is actually a vanilla pod

“We view more regulation as a benefit because it’s going to weed out a lot of the potential bad actors,” he adds. “Compliance regulation is ultimately a good thing and the people that adhere to it end up becoming the cream of the crop because ultimately consumers want a trusted brand. It’s really important to communicate that you’re getting what you’re paying for, especially in this virginal market.”

One area there are regulations, however, are in regards to advertising. Communicating how a CBD-infused G&T might compare to a ‘regular’ one in terms of mood-altering effects is, well, a little tricky. I’m not a doctor or a medical professional,” Pullman clarifies. “We’re not allowed to make any kind of medical claims relating to CBD and alcohol, but here’s what I can say personally: About three to four weeks ago I had terrible back pain, I was really struggling. I opened up my gin to make a G&T and afterwards my wife said, ‘Wow, you’re almost dancing now’. 

“There’s a calming aspect and pain relief aspect for me,” he continues. “Obviously, people respond to it differently, and like all spirits, it should be consumed in moderation. But for our focus group, the reaction has been one of, ‘This is an amazing spirit and I feel really good after drinking it’. Whether that comes from the CBD, the alcohol, the natural flavours, or the whole combination, it makes people feel great.”

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The Nightcap: 9 August

Artificial tongues that can taste whisky? Vodka made from Chernobyl rye? The gin boom is still going?! These aren’t tales from 2054 – these stories all appear in this week’s…

Artificial tongues that can taste whisky? Vodka made from Chernobyl rye? The gin boom is still going?! These aren’t tales from 2054 these stories all appear in this week’s Nightcap!

Behind the scenes sneak peek at how The Nightcap comes together right here: sometimes this intro is written after the all the stories have been finished. Having a look at all the futuristic stuff in this edition of The Nightcap, you might think that time travel is real and MoM Towers has slipped through a dimensional rift and ended up in the year 2054. Stranded and working purely on instinct, we notice on the future calendar it’s a Friday, so we write up a new edition of The Nightcap, regaling the masses with tales of artificial tongues that can taste whisky and spirits made from crops in Chernobyl stories that these future folk see as perfectly normal, but to our minds are wildly out of this world. But it’s not. It’s today and stuff is just becoming more impressive by the day!

So, good people of 2019, what’s been happening on the MoM Blog? Henry kicked off the week with a gem of a rum from the Diamond Distillery for New Arrival of the Week, made a Pink Lady for Cocktail of the Week and spoke to Peter Lynch from WhistlePig about an oloroso-finished rye exclusive to MoM. Annie chatted to Bimber’s founder Dariusz Plazewski about where people can go wrong (and right) when starting a craft distillery, and then asked a very important question to us all: how do you make alcohol-free beer delicious? Guest columnist Nate Brown has opinions about drinks industry folk who RSVP for events then don’t turn up.

We also launched a new competition where you could win a trip down to Deven to visit Salcombe Distilling Co.! Take a look, pick up a bottle of excellent gin, and cross your fingers!

And now, the news of the future today!

Cardhu

How Cardhu will look when it’s been refurbished

Johnnie Walker gets the green light for Cardhu redevelopment

The final piece in the jigsaw is now in place. That jigsaw being Diageo’s £150m plan for whisky tourism in Scotland based around four key distilleries. As we have reported previously, developments at Glenkinchie, Caol Ila, Clynelish, and a Johnnie Walker HQ in Edinburgh have all been granted planning permission. Now it’s the turn of Cardhu in Speyside. This was the first distillery acquired by Johnnie Walker in 1893 and since then has been a key component in the blend. David Cutter, chairman of Diageo in Scotland, said: “Together these locations will create a unique Johnnie Walker tour of Scotland, encouraging visitors to the capital city to also travel to the country’s extraordinary rural communities.” Laura Sharp, brand home manager at Cardhu, added: “This announcement is very exciting and we want to thank Moray Council and all our neighbours for their continued support.” We love it when a plan comes together.

That’s what an artificial tongue looks like

Boffins baffle counterfeiters with artificial whisky-tasting tongue

Who can forget the story from 2017 when a Chinese businessman spent $10,000 on a glass of Macallan that turned out to be fake? Well, such occurrences might be a thing of the past thanks to a team of Scottish engineers from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. A paper titled ‘Whisky tasting using a bimetallic nanoplasmonic tongue’ published this week in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Nanoscale describes a metal ‘tongue’ that can be used to analyse whisky. The ‘taste buds’ are made up of gold and aluminium in a checkerboard pattern. It identifies whiskies from the statistical analysis of minute differences in how the metals absorb light. The device was tested on a series of single malts – Glenfiddich, Glen Marnoch and Laphroaig – and was able to tell the difference between them, as well as different expressions of the same malt with greater than 99% accuracy. The paper’s lead author, Dr Alasdair Clark (above), of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, said:  “We call this an artificial tongue because it acts similarly to a human tongue – like us, it can’t identify the individual chemicals which make coffee taste different to apple juice but it can easily tell the difference between these complex chemical mixtures. In addition to its obvious potential for use in identifying counterfeit alcohols, it could be used in food safety testing, quality control, security – really any area where a portable, reusable method of tasting would be useful.” So next time you’re splashing out on the Macallan, don’t forget your artificial tongue. 

Clouded Leopard Gin bottle

This is gin, it’s still very popular in Britain

Gin still booming according to the WSTA 

There have been articles recently in the Spectator and the Financial Times saying that the gin boom is over, but figures just released by the WSTA seem to contradict this. As a trade body, the WSTA has an interest in bolstering the industry but nevertheless the stats make interesting reading. Retail sales up to March 2019 were up 43% by value on the previous year, worth nearly £1 billion. The off-trade is up 56% by volume on last year’s sales with nearly 6 billion bottles sold between March 2018 and 2019. Combining domestic and export sales, the British gin market is worth over £3 billion. WSTA chief executive Miles Beale commented: “It’s been another phenomenal 12 months for gin and, despite recent reports suggesting the gin bubble may have burst, our numbers suggest the exact opposite. Gin’s continued domestic popularity, and the growth in the spirits category overall, has no doubt been helped by the decision to freeze duty on spirits in the last Budget. We need further supportive action from the Government as we approach Budget time once more. Looking at the popularity of British gin overseas is also cause for celebration. £350 million, or around 46% of all British gin exports head to the EU, and so it is imperative that the Government works with the European Union to secure trade that is as seamless in the future as it is now.” What could possibly go wrong?

Firestone & Robertson TX whiskey, now just a tiny bit Frencher

Pernod Ricard bets on American whiskey with Firestone & Robertson buy

French drinks group Pernod Ricard, which owns the likes of Beefeater Gin, Absolut Vodka, The Glenlivet Scotch and Jameson Irish Whiskey, this week bolstered its presence in American whiskey by snapping up Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. The Texas-based producer makes TX-branded whiskey and bourbon, and the deal includes its Whiskey Ranch distillery too. “This is an exciting day for all of us at Firestone & Robertson,” said Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, who co-founded the business. “Building our company and producing award-winning whiskeys has been a truly remarkable experience. We are so proud of our team, and grateful to the many people that supported our efforts over the years. It is an extraordinary opportunity to partner with Pernod Ricard, and we are confident this relationship will accelerate the growth of our brands while preserving our roots and shared core values.” Pernod chairman and CEO, Alexandre Ricard, said the (undisclosed) transaction was a “very promising venture” that “strengthens our portfolio and footprint in the United States”. If it means more tasty American whiskey to go round, we’re all for it. 

You can swap a tin of beans for one of these!

The Alchemist tackles food poverty with cocktail exchange

Foodbank use is soaring in the UK (charity the Trussell Trust recently reported a 19% increase in food supplies it’s donated in the last year). Loads of us are both donating to and accessing our local food banks (there’s a list on the Trussell Trust’s site), so when news reached us that UK bar group The Alchemist is encouraging people to bring supplies in return for a cocktail, we whooped and cheered. On 29 August, any customers who bring non-perishable donations (unopened and in date; tinned, dried and packaged foods) into one of the bars with them will get vodka-based serve The Colour Changing One for free! All collections will be donated to local food banks. “These are truly fantastic local charities tackling food poverty across the UK, which is an issue we’re particularly passionate about at The Alchemist,” said Hannah Plumb, head of restaurants at The Alchemist. “This activity is a fun and engaging way to encourage customers to donate to their local food banks, who are in need of donations now more than ever.” You can find The Alchemist in Birmingham, Cardiff, Chester, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Oxford. You know what to do on 29 August!

Bruichladdich's Bere Barley

Bruichladdich’s bere barley

Bruichladdich reinforces barley focus with Exploration Series trilogy

Remember earlier this year when we checked out Bruichladdich’s trial barley plots? Well, the Islay distillery’s long-running focus on the grain has continued with new flavour-focused expressions, which will form a Barley Exploration series. Its focus on barley has become a bit of a USP for the distillery, which works with different local producers, and is currently trialling up to 60 different varieties. There are also plans to open its own maltings by 2023. So what does this new range look like? First up, Bruichladdich The Organic 2010 was distilled in 2010 (obvs) and made using barley from Mid Coul Farms harvested in 2009. It was matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks for at least eight years, and was bottled sans chill-filtration or caramel colouring at 50% ABV. Bruichladdich Bere Barley, made from Orkney-grown Bere, a variety considered “obsolete” by many distillers, was likewise distilled in 2010 and bottled at 50% ABV just as it is. Rounding off the trio is Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2011, made from Islay-grown barley, which spent 75% of its six-year maturation life in American ex-bourbon casks, and 25% on European ex-wine casks. “We want to support people who grow for flavour, those champions of heritage and natural crops,” said Bruichladdich head distiller, Adam Hannett. “By partnering with them we can find new and forgotten flavours, reconnecting our whisky with its vital raw ingredients.” Sounds great to us! 

Doesn’t it look jolly in Fentimans’ Secret Spritz Garden?

Fentimans kicks off Secret Spritz Garden

If The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of your favourite books as a child, AND you now like refreshing summer sippers, then we have news. The Venn circles have officially crossed, courtesy of tonic brand Fentimans. Tucked away behind ivy-covered walls, away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Farringdon is (for the next three weeks, anyway) a little oasis of tranquility, aromatic plants, and a Spritz menu of dreams! The garden itself is overflowing with trailing greenery, herbs, and a 200-year-old olive tree, while Fentimans has added a lemon-filled fountain, highly-Instagrammable swing seat and the all-important bar into the mix. The menu (developed with the likes of Lillet and Martini Fiero) was created by Dino Koletsas (from The Langham, Bourne & Hollingsworth and Callooh Callay) and showcases the wonder of low- and no-alcohol cocktails, including the Rose Spritz, made with Fentimans Rose, lemonade, Martini Prosecco and fresh strawberries; and the Valencian Spritz, with Fentimans Valencian Orange Tonic Water, with Belsazar White Vermouth and peach liqueur. Head on down (you might even find yourself in a free guided workshop, from the Art of the Aperitivo to watercolour classes) Wednesday to Saturday up until 29 August to enjoy!

Aecorn range

Aecorn, a range of non-alcoholic aperitifs, has just been launched by Seedlip

Diageo acquires majority stake in Seedlip

In a move that will surprise no one, it was announced this week that Diageo has taken a majority stake (mmm, majority steak) in alcohol-free ‘spirit’ manufacture Seedlip. The brand was launched by Ben Branson in 2015 and created a new category of non-alcoholic drinks flavoured, packaged, and priced to rival premium gin. Distill Ventures, Diageo’s venture capital arm, took a minority investment in June 2016. Since then, Seedlip has gone global: it’s sold in top bars and restaurants in 25 countries, and comes in three varieties. It has also inspired legions of imitators such as Ceder’s from Pernod Ricard. Earlier this year, Seedlip launched Aecorn, a range of non-alcoholic vermouth-style aperitifs. We have been informed that Branson will still be involved with business. He commented: “We want to change the way the world drinks and today’s news is another big step forward to achieving this. Distill Ventures’ and Diageo’s shared belief in our vision has enabled us to build a business that’s ready for scale and I’m excited to continue working with Diageo to lead this movement.” John Kennedy from Diageo said: “Seedlip is a game-changing brand in one of the most exciting categories in our industry. Ben is an outstanding entrepreneur and has created a brand that has truly raised the bar for the category. We’re thrilled to continue working with him to grow what we believe will be a global drinks giant of the future.” And Shilen Pate from Distill Ventures added: “Supporting the vision of founders is what Distill Ventures was set up to do, and we’re proud of the impact Ben has had on our industry in such a short period of time.” With all that Diageo cash behind it, expect Seedlip’s upward trajectory to continue. 

GlenDronach

Mouth-watering malts

The GlenDronach’s new Cask Bottling releases will have whisky lovers salivating 

Prepare yourselves, The GlenDronach has just announced the seventeenth batch of its Cask Bottling series! It contains whisky drawn from fourteen casks ranging from the years 1990 to 2007, all of which have been selected by none other than master blender, Dr Rachel Barrie. What to expect? Each Highland expression has been bottled from a single cask from a selection of the distillery’s signature Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks alongside two Port pipes. Particularly special is a bottling from a rare vintage 1995 cask, one of the last remaining casks from that year still at the distillery. “The batch seventeen cask selection truly celebrates The GlenDronach house style; robust, elegant, fruity and full-bodied,” said Barrie. “Each cask individually explores the sophistication, powerful intricacy and rich layers of Spanish sherry cask maturation found in every GlenDronach expression; from layers of crème brûlée, treacle toffee and over-ripe banana in 1990 […] to toasted pain au raisin and butterscotch simmering beneath the surface in 2007.” Is your mouth watering as well? Then keep your eyes peeled for your favourite online retailer (us, duh) over the next few weeks.

Atomik Vodka

Don’t worry, it isn’t radioactive

And Finally… anyone fancy a Chernobyl Martini?

We’re no strangers to far-out spirits at Master of Malt, after all, we sell a gin distilled using botanicals that have been into space, but a new spirit might be the strangest thing yet. It’s called Atomik Vodka and it’s distilled using rye and water from the contaminated area around Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear energy disaster in 1986. Just this week, London bar Swift on Old Compton Street made the very first Atomik Martini with it. But before you start calling for Soho to be cordoned off, and send in the men in yellow suits, this vodka, despite its name, isn’t radioactive. The man behind it, Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth, told the BBC that though the rye was “slightly contaminated”, distillation has removed any impurities, and radioactivity levels are “below their limit of detection.” Only one bottle has been made so far but the Chernobyl Spirit Company, consisting of Smith, Ukrainain scientist Dr Gennady Laptev and others, plans to make 500 bottles per year. The team still has some legal hoops to jump through before production can start but when it does, 75% of the profits will go to help people in the region. Smith commented: “I think this is the most important bottle of spirits in the world because it could help the economic recovery of communities living in and around the abandoned areas. Many thousands of people are still living in the Zone of Obligatory Resettlement where new investment and use of agricultural land is still forbidden.” Sounds very worthwhile and, according to Sam Armeye, the vodka tastes good too. Atomik Martinis all round!

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5 minutes with. . . Peter Lynch from WhistlePig

We talk to the master blender at WhistlePig about a very special oloroso cask whiskey exclusive to MoM, a cocktail so secret that we can’t diverge the ingredients and how…

We talk to the master blender at WhistlePig about a very special oloroso cask whiskey exclusive to MoM, a cocktail so secret that we can’t diverge the ingredients and how nobody can fill Dave Pickerell’s enormous shoes.

The drinks world lost one of its greats last year when Dave Pickerell from WhistlePig died at the age of 62. Pickerell set up WhistlePig in 2009 and was instrumental in the revival of the original American style of whiskey – rye. We feel very fortunate to have met and tasted with him last year when he was over in London. Pickerell has left behind quite a legacy in WhistlePig, not least in the form of barrels and barrels of delicious maturing rye whiskey.

The buyers here at Master of Malt persuaded WhistlePig to sell us one of these barrels: an exclusive oloroso butt of 12 year old whiskey, which has been bottled recently and is on sale now. To tell us a bit more about it, we managed to get some time with master blender Peter Lynch.

Whistle-Pig-landscape

Behold! The WhistlePig 12 Year Old oloroso cask finish, exclusive to MoM

Master of Malt: Hello! What can you tell us about this oloroso-finished rye whiskey?

Peter Lynch: It’s one of my favourite projects that I’ve been working on. It’s an extension of our 12 Year Old Old World, aged in Port, Madeira and sauternes casks. We took that one step further and at the moment we’re trialling 15-20 different finishing casks which could range from a specific wood or, on the other side of things, a couple of different olorosos from different soleras. Last summer you guys purchased an old oloroso sherry butt [around 550 litres] that had been in a solera for 10-15 years. As it didn’t see that much life in there it has kept keep those sweeter, fruitier, more vibrant notes with a little less of that rancio character, and some oak extracts too. When it comes to finishing barrels with American whiskey, I’m worried about extracting the fresh oak component. Because the way these casks are heat-treated for wine, less aggressively than for whiskey, I’m at risk of pulling all these tannin and other compounds, which isn’t a worry for the winemaker. These sherry butts are about three times the size of a regular cask, so we were able to let it sit for longer, so it finishes for about two months. Typically with regular barrels we would finish for two to four weeks. It has sweet fruity notes but it’s very much a rye whiskey. You’ll see that with all our whiskeys, we are trying to push the boundaries but we’re not trying to turn it into something different. We’re just adding a top note. 

MoM: How long have you been working with WhistlePig for?

PL: I started with them back in 2015. I started as a distiller. I then moved into distilling and blending in about 2016.

MoM: How did you get into distilling?

PL: I had been a home brewer for a while. A love of whiskey has been instilled in me for quite a few years. I was working on sales and retail side of things and got to know spirits quite well. Then I saw an ad on Craigslist, of all places, for the position at WhistlePig.

MoM: Did you learn on the job then?

PL: Effectively speaking, yes, plus all the resources you can find in books and online publications. I was learning everyday. I have spent quite a bit of money on whiskey throughout my life but the amount I have spent on literature pertaining to whiskey and spirits dwarfs that. One of the things about building a distillery is there will always be growing pains, no matter what. A great way to learn is when things break down, you learn how to fix them. Whether it’s new machinery having issues or different yeast strains giving you trouble, you learn as you go. When it comes to something like premium rye whiskey, you are almost, if not quite making it up as you go, we’re defining this category. We’re trying to set the stage here quite deliberately, so all eyes are on us. 

Peter Lynch WhistlePig

Peter Lynch helping himself to some whiskey

MoM: What’s it been like trying to fill Dave Pickerell’s enormous shoes?

PL: I’m not trying to fill the shoes because they are very big shoes. People wonder what the line of succession is. They think, ‘oh my God, Dave’s gone, there’s a void’ but in reality that’s because people see Dave, they’ve met Dave, Dave had a huge personality, but they don’t see the everyday people on the farm, the warehouse guys who are grabbing the actual barrels, the distillers trouble-shooting on a day-to-day basis. We have a team who work on new products. It’s not something that we ever thought we had to prepare for, of course, but at the same time, we’ve got the infrastructure in place. But we definitely don’t have that kind of larger-than-life personality anymore. They’re definitely going to be tough shoes to fill. 

MoM: Which other distilleries do you think are doing interesting things with whiskey?

PL: That’s a tough one. I could give you 50 examples. People like Balcones or Corsair, pushing the boundaries with grains that we wouldn’t think of as whiskey grains. Balcones using different corn varieties: who cared ten years ago that 99% of bourbon whiskey was made from the same corn variety? If we change that one simple ingredient which is making up the bulk of that whiskey, you can get a totally different flavour profile. Balcones corn-forward whiskeys are going to be earthier than you might imagine, spicier with more herbaceous notes. That idea of terroir, and speaking of terroir, look at my buddies over in New York at Hillrock. They’re breaking it down even further, and focusing on different fields. They distill and mature it all in the same way, how is it going to taste in four years time? 

MoM: And finally, do you have a favourite rye cocktail?

I have a favourite cocktail but if I told it to you you would a) laugh in my face b) the person who told it to me would kill me for revealing the secret. It’s a two ingredient cocktail that has Farm Stock Crop 001 and another ingredient that I can’t tell you but it’s a very silly ingredient. Because it’s summer, I’m grabbing a highball right now. Nice and refreshing, it brings out a lots of different notes in the whiskey. If you try a highball with Whistlepig 10 Year Old or 12 Year Old or 15 Year Old, if you put them side by side you will notice incredible differences. It’s really the perfect summer drink. 

Thank you Peter! And we promise we won’t divulge the secret cocktail recipe only to say that it is surprising, and delicious too.

 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Pink Lady

This week we’re shaking up the pinkest thing in the known universe. Pinker than the Pink Panther, pinker than a pink shirt from Thomas Pink, Pinker even than the Pink…

This week we’re shaking up the pinkest thing in the known universe. Pinker than the Pink Panther, pinker than a pink shirt from Thomas Pink, Pinker even than the Pink herself, it’s the Pink Lady!

It has nothing to do with the Pink Ladies from Grease, but the Pink Lady is named after a musical. A show called The Pink Lady ran on Broadway before the First World War and it must have been a hit to have a cocktail named after it. The Pink Lady cocktail, however, would have to wait until Prohibition before is became a certifiable hit. The key ingredient, grenadine, is not only a pinking agent but it’s useful for disguising the taste of bad gin. Since its 1920s heyday, the Pink Lady has has fallen out of fashion. It’s seen as a rather kitsch drink. Jayne Mansfield, famous for her luridly decorated Los Angeles home known as the Pink Palace, was a fan. 

Originally, a Pink Lady would have been a very gin heavy cocktail. In Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, it’s basically neat gin (he specifies Plymouth) shaken with a tablespoon of grenadine and an egg white. Fierce! But by the 1940 and ‘50s it had evolved into something extremely sweet and somehow cream had crept into the recipe. That’s a step too far but nevertheless a properly-made Pink Lady should slip down a little too easily.

The Pink Lady

None more pink

The perfect version should fall between Craddock’s (too) basic recipe, and the more baroque constructions that came later. In David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the Pink Lady comes under variations of the sour. The key thing is the lemon juice which freshens it up and stops the grenadine becoming cloying. Embury includes applejack (American apple brandy sometimes made with the addition of neutral alcohol) in his recipe, something taken up by later drinks writers including Eric Felten and Richard Godwin. Very nice but today I’m just sticking with gin. In this case Bathtub to give it a bit of Prohibition glamour. If you want to do a light Charleston while shaking, then that’s all to the good. 

The results are absolutely delicious. Pink is having a bit of a moment, what with pink gins, pink wines and, err, all the other pink things. If it’s pink, it sells. So, I think the Pink Lady is long overdue a revival, don’t you? Here’s how to make it. 

50ml Bathtub Gin
15ml lemon juice
10ml grenadine

1 egg white

Dry shake all the components hard, add ice and then shake again. Double strain into a chilled coupe or Martini glass and serve with a maraschino cherry or a raspberry.

You can always make your own grenadine, see this recipe.

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How do you make alcohol-free beer delicious?

Britain’s pioneering brewers have made it possible to enjoy a flavourful sip without unfavourable ill-effects the following morning. But how, exactly, is alcohol-free beer made? We chatted to the brains…

Britain’s pioneering brewers have made it possible to enjoy a flavourful sip without unfavourable ill-effects the following morning. But how, exactly, is alcohol-free beer made? We chatted to the brains behind a handful of innovative booze-free breweries…

Let’s get right into it. There are two ways to brew an alcohol-free beer. “Firstly you can brew to a very low alcohol using a small amount of malt, extracting a small amount of fermentable sugar, and therefore creating a small amount of alcohol,” explains Luke Boase, creator of alcohol-free lager Lucky Saint. “Secondly, you can brew a full strength beer and remove the alcohol at the end of the process.”

Made with Bavarian spring water, Pilsner malt, Hallertau hops and a bespoke strain of yeast, Lucky Saint is brewed according to the latter. Rather than use a single-infusion mash, the team has opted for a more labour-intensive step-mash, whereby the temperature is progressively increased through 60 to 75 degrees celsius. “This gives us greater control over the creation of fermentable sugars and, importantly, allows us to produce a wort with minimal non-fermentable sugars,” Boase outlines. 

Lucky Saint beer

Lucky Saint bottles cast long shadows

Then, the beer is fermented and conditioned for six weeks, during which time any sediment naturally separates, allowing the team to “retain as much flavour, body and character as possible”. The final stage before bottling is vacuum-distillation. “There are a couple of technologies available,” he continues. “We selected vacuum distillation, which changes the atmospheric pressure and reduces the evaporation point of the alcohol.

“Typically, alcohol evaporates at almost 80 degrees Celsius, but beer doesn’t survive those kinds of temperatures too well,” Boase explains. “Within the vacuum, we can lower the evaporation point to around 40 degrees Celsius, removing the alcohol without affecting any of the delicate flavours of the beer.”

Beer alchemy at its finest, you’ll agree. But while the team has spent time honing the process, they aren’t precious about experimenting when it comes to future bottlings. “Different technologies can work better for different products,” Boase says. So, what about the alternative? How exactly do you go about brewing a beer that barely registers above 0.5% ABV at full strength? 

To find out, we tapped up the folks at Big Drop Brewing Company. “We use a ‘lazy yeast’, which is bad at converting sugars to alcohol; a smaller-than-usual mash bill, which has fewer sugars to convert; and we control the temperatures at various points to control how quickly everything ferments,” explains director Nick Worthington. “We use a wider variety of grain, up to 20 different kinds everything from wheat, oats, barley, rye to give that depth of flavour and pack a punch.”

Big Drop Brewing Co 02

Just some of the delicious Big Drop range

Of course, for every craftsman there’s a multinational conglomerate willing to cut corners and make a buck from the masses. It’s worth noting that the bigger breweries – the household names on the periphery of alcohol-free alchemy – are often more economical, shall we say, in their endeavours, opting to add a malt extract after brewing and chemically extracting the booze to boost certain flavour notes, for example. Still, for the most part, the burgeoning industry remains a hotbed of authentic innovation balanced with reverence for the wider beer category.

“It’s a really interesting and exciting challenge for brewers,” says Chris Hannaway, who co-founded Infinite Session brewery with his brother Tom, “to create a great tasting beer without the main ‘ingredient’ that usually helps them to do this. It takes more precision, more research and more skill to make a great alcohol-free beer.” 

When brewing their beer, the duo uses a variety of different malts to achieve the desired mouthfeel, complexity, sweetness, colour and head for each bottling. So far as alcohol-free brewing is concerned, “this really is only the start,” he continues. “As the taste and quality improves across the board, any stigma that remains will become almost non-existent.”

Ultimately, breweries are trying to offer more choice, adds Worthington, and that can only be a good thing. “Many brewers now offer a variation of one of their most popular styles in an alcohol-free format,” he says. “They recognise people might not want to drink beer all the time but may still want to drink one of their products. They still want an adult-tasting drink.” There’s plenty of chatter about Generation Z eschewing alcohol and staying sober in the age of social media, but Worthington believes booze-free beer is beloved by a different demographic. “People say one in three 18 to 25 year olds aren’t drinking, but it’s not necessarily them – we don’t think they’ve ever drank beer, so they’re unlikely to pick up an alcohol-free one,” he says. “It tends to be the generations above who are looking to put some balance back in their lives. They like the taste of beer, but they don’t necessarily want the alcohol with it.”

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RSVP crimes 

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping…

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping mad. . .

Not so long ago I attended an event in Shoreditch. It was a snazzy affair in terms of organisation. Five sets of bartenders from all over the world were shaking up different interpretations of a similar brief, and it was fascinating. 

Each team produced widely different end products: some thought-provoking, some bloody good fun, all delicious. There was music, dancing, canapés, smoke machines, laser lighting, the works. It had just the right amount of glamour and good vibes for an epic, inspiring party. 

But one thing was lacking: guests. The room was sparsely populated. There were a few of the usual suspects, press, bloggers, bartenders associated with the brand, and not even a huge amount of those. Sneakily, I managed a peek at the guest list. It was long. There were dozens and dozens of names all expected to turn up at any point. But as the evening progressed, the numbers dwindled like a wake. Most of those no-doubt-enthusiastic would-be revellers simply didn’t show up. This is an epidemic in our industry. And that’s a terrible thing. 

ELLC

Now this is how a party should look (5th birthday bash for East London Liquor Company)

Firstly, a lot goes into organising and hosting an event. From a brand’s perspective, there’s finding the perfect location, and if that’s bar, then choosing a date that won’t detract from the usual trade will be a challenge. There’s always Monday nights, as almost no bar in London loves Monday’s ghostly trade, but this has to be balanced with when the target demographic actually want to go out. 

Print materials, such as menus, need to be designed and paid for. This will probably mean sourcing logos, typefaces, colour palettes etc. Stock, the currency of the events market, will need to have been requested, justified and shipped. 

As for bars, there are always obstacles. Team members aren’t always receptive to change, and all too often diminishing initiative is the price paid for moving them out of their comfort zone. Drinks have to be written, high volumes of glassware need to be on hand and playlists need tweaking. All this before the dreaded invite list is constructed.

And, after all, it’s worth remembering why these events are happening in the first place. Maybe a brand is launching a new expression. Maybe a master distiller is in town. Maybe the latest vintage is out. It almost doesn’t matter, for all the shapes and sizes a brand event may take, they are almost without exception a celebration. A celebration of achievement, an anniversary, a celebration of the industry, a salute to be honoured and respected.

You got the drinks, but where are the people?

Escapism and experiences are the tools of the hospitality trade. I’ve heard it said that ‘we sell the life of a millionaire, one drink at a time’. This is what good events offer: glamour, celebrations, appreciation. So it is amazing to me that we, as so-called experts of empathy, don’t show up when we say we will. 

I’d go as far as saying that we have developed a culture of false kindness. Of saying ‘Yes, I’ll be there’, without bothering to attend. We click ‘Going’ on Facebook, unaccountably making online promises that the analogue self has no intending of upholding. The attendance rate amongst those that RSVP yes can be 10%.

This false enthusiasm is hypocritical. If we feign enthusiasm, we are hypocrites. We create and offer worlds expecting guests to flock to and embrace, and, importantly, to play their part. And yet, we don’t reciprocate in our turn as role of guest.

I get that hospitality workers have long hours. I get that evenings off are precious. What I don’t get is the easy “yes” when the answer is no. Say you’ll try, say I can’t, say ‘if it suits’, but don’t make false commitments. It affects those who have worked hard to put it on. It goes beyond bad manners. It’s nasty.

So next time your phone pings with a new Facebook event, or an invite enters your mailbox, spare a thought for the organiser. Think twice before hitting yes. I know I’ll be making an effort to attend more celebrations, some to improve my knowledge, some to garner insight, but most to have a blast and celebrate our industry done well. I’ll see you there. Or not.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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