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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Decoding your bottle

The world’s biggest booze producers often deploy impressive-sounding phrases like ‘award-winning’ and ‘special edition’ to shift their signature spirits, but what do those terms actually mean? Join us as we…

The world’s biggest booze producers often deploy impressive-sounding phrases like ‘award-winning’ and ‘special edition’ to shift their signature spirits, but what do those terms actually mean? Join us as we harness decades of industry know-how in a bid to shake up spirits marketing and, well, decode the label of your favourite dram…

Ever pondered how those mysterious ‘forgotten casks’ – containing precious whisky worth thousands of pounds – managed to somehow elude the meticulous warehouse inventories of some of the biggest drinks corporations in the world? At the risk of getting blacklisted from every brand-led ‘masterclass’ going, it all sounds a little bit… far-fetched.

With that in mind, we decided to analyse a selection of words and phrases that crop up time and time again in drinks marketing (and, we hold our hands up here, occasionally booze journalism. Ahem) and attempt to decipher what the brands are really saying beneath all that advertising waffle. 

Award-winning

What they say: Don’t just take our word for it, taste our award-winning Tequila for yourself…
What they actually mean: We paid a lot of money to enter a spirits tasting competition and the majority of the judges didn’t hate it

Heritage/tradition

What they say: We’re proud to celebrate 380 years of distilling heritage…
What they actually mean: The original distillery was bought out by our multinational company decades ago. Also, when the anniversary rolls around we will inevitably attempt to make money out of it

Appeal to your senses

What they say: Complex yet elegant, this beach pebble-infused gin will appeal to all your senses…
What they actually mean: We’ve run out of interesting ways to describe how it tastes

So that’s what the new generation of drinkers looks like

New generation of drinkers

What they say: Distilled from barley and recycled credit card receipts, our vodka seeks to attract a new generation of drinkers…
What they actually mean: The liquid is inoffensive and the head of our marketing department wants to target as many people as possible

Progressive/pushing boundaries

What they say: Made with the literal tears of our master blender, our bitcoin-infused whisky pushes the boundaries of innovation
What they actually mean: We’ve noticed smaller distilleries doing something similar and have decided to capitalise on this emerging trend

Shake up

What they say: By sourcing the very finest jambon blanc that France has to offer, we aim to shake up the staid ham-infused rum category…
What they actually mean: We’ve noticed smaller distilleries doing something similar and have decided to capitalise on this emerging trend

Forgotten cask

What they say: One fateful night, our master distiller stumbled across a forgotten cask tucked away in a quiet corner of the warehouse…
What they actually mean: This spirit is relatively old and we’re looking for a reasonable excuse to charge an absolute fortune for it

Reimagined/turned on its head

What they say: To create our London Wet Gin, we took the classic London Dry style and turned it on its head
What they actually mean: We’ve completely ran out of ideas 

Oak barrels

Our master distiller tasted these casks fairly recently 

Resting

What they say: After resting in a barrel for more than 30 years…
What they actually mean: We stored it in a warehouse

Slowly maturing

What they say: Having slowly matured in a barrel until it reached perfection…
What they actually mean: Again, we stored it in a warehouse

Inspired by

What they say: With its flavours of expensive tyres and unadulterated horsepower, Finish Line Vodka is inspired by the Hungarian Grand Prix…
What they actually mean: We invented a plausible backstory in a futile attempt to make the brand stand out

Special edition

What they say: This special edition Day of the Triffids bottling is completed with a free ‘herbicide’ branded flask
What they actually mean: We’ve put our core spirit into slightly different packaging for some reason. Also, here’s some junk you’ll eventually donate to a charity shop

Limited edition

What they say: Just 70,000 bottles of this limited edition whisky have been made available…
What they actually mean: We’re pretending that we haven’t made very much of this so we can up the price and create a buzz around the launch

Mmmm, authentic

Pay homage

What they say: By adding fresh olives to the recipe, we pay homage to Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the Sea, who, according to legend, created the mystical tree in ancient Greece
What they actually mean: We needed an excuse to add a random flavour to this otherwise fairly generic spirit

Personally selected/hand selected

What they say: Drawing from our vast archive, our master distiller personally selected these distinctive casks to release to the delight of rum fans across the globe…
What they actually mean: Our master distiller tasted these casks fairly recently 

In partnership with

What they say: We partnered with a world-famous dog walker to produce our new tennis ball-infused gin…
What they actually mean: We paid someone well-known a lot of money to endorse our brand. They may or may not have actually tasted it

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Casoni x Gibson savoury liqueurs are here

Considering liqueurs and bitters are the cocktail equivalent of ‘seasoning’, the bar world is surprisingly short on savoury modifiers. Until now. We discover how to elevate our favourite classic cocktails…

Considering liqueurs and bitters are the cocktail equivalent of ‘seasoning’, the bar world is surprisingly short on savoury modifiers. Until now. We discover how to elevate our favourite classic cocktails with Marian Beke, owner of London bar The Gibson, as he rolls out a trio of contemporary liqueurs in collaboration with family-owned Italian distillery Casoni…

When it comes to superior savoury flavour knowledge, we can’t think of a better mind than Beke’s. For the unacquainted, his bar – The Gibson, in east London’s Old Street – is named after the Martini variant, which combines gin, dry vermouth and a pickled onion. “We make all of our drinks with a focus on savoury notes, even if it’s a fruity drink for example, there will always be a touch of savoury, whether it’s smoke, salt, vinegar,” he says. 

At first, this touch came entirely from non-boozy ingredients, though mostly through necessity rather than choice. With few decidedly savoury spirits to choose from, Beke first created a gin – The Gibson Edition – in collaboration with Belgium’s Copperhead Distillery, containing 15 botanicals that are normally used for pickling, including mace, bay leaf, ginger, allspice, fennel and dill seeds. Around two years ago, he came across Casoni’s balsamic vinegar barrel-aged vermouth, and a light bulb went on.

Marian Beke from the Gibson

Marian Beke from the Gibson

“If you go into any bar, the liqueurs are orange, coffee, maybe elderflower; they’re usually artificial colouring and flavour,” he explains. “We thought it would be great to create something real and natural but not just a sweet liqueur as always. It’s not just about making ‘my’ recipe – it’s all connected with Casoni’s history.”

The creations acknowledge the historic distillery’s Italian home, Modena, which you’ll recognise from supermarket aisles the world over since the region is renowned for its balsamic vinegar. Each variant, developed over a two-year process – Wild Berries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Figs and Cherries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, and amaro-amaretto hybrid Amarotto – has been infused, distilled and bottled according to ‘the protected traditions of the Casoni family’ (which, FYI, has been busy crafting liqueurs since 1814).

The concept of a savoury liqueur is intriguing in and of itself. According to EU regs, a liqueur must contain minimum 100g sugar per litre and a strength of at least 15% ABV. Incidentally, the Amarotto has the highest ABV at 29%, followed by Figs and Cherries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena at 21%, and Wild Berries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena at 17%. Achieving the desired flavour profile while adhering to the minimum requirements was no easy task, Beke admits. “It’s a vinegar, you know, so we had to balance it many times,” he says. “We added it in small amounts and used older balsamic, which has less acidity.” 

While balsamic liqueur isn’t a new concept, many bartenders are cautious about incorporating it into cocktails “because it has a really strong flavour of balsamic and nothing else,” he says. Through his collaboration with Casoni, Beke sought to break down these barriers by replicating flavours people were already familiar with.

Casoni savoury Liqueurs 220719

Casoni savoury liqueurs with their very fetching retro labels

“I can easily go to the bar and say, ‘are you using raspberry, strawberry, or blackberry liqueur?’ and they say ‘yes, of course’ and make something like a Bramble or Russian Spring Punch or Kir Royale,” he explains. “And I can say, ‘ok, great, now try it with [Wild Berries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena] and you’ll see it has more complexity and texture and a savoury note’. It can be used in place of any of these fruity liqueurs.”

His Figs and Cherries and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, for example, makes a great replacement for Heering Cherry in recipes like the Blood and Sand [Scotch whisky, sweet vermouth, Heering Cherry and orange juice], to bring “more complexity and extend the length,” says Beke. “It’s like in food if you add salt, smoke, or something like aged old cheese, the savoury notes prolong the flavour. That’s the beauty of savoury.” 

The Amarotto, meanwhile, emulates a savoury almond snack flavour, combining “real amaro, a little bit of smoke and a pinch of salt,” he explains. It makes for an exceptional twist on an Amaretto Sour – “just add a splash of lemon and egg white and you’ve got a great drink straight away,” Beke says – as well as with tonic, ginger beer, cola or coconut water.

Or, alternatively, drop by The Gibson in Old Street, where Beke has developed a range of low-ABV serves to highlight the complex notes of each liqueur, from the light, sweet Amarotto Pickled Manhattan to that aforementioned aromatic Blood & Sand with Figs and Cherries.

 

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The hell of airport drinking

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown…

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown asks why drinks have to be so hellish when bars have a captive audience.

Here’s a classical depiction of Hell. Numerous descending circles, each floor a deepening depiction of depravity and retribution, hot pokers and all that jazz. However, at the bottom is no lake of fire, no burning pits. Instead, the devil is a three-headed monster encased in ice, frozen and incapacitated. 

I have a different interpretation of Hell. It is about an hour south from St Pancras station. It is a place where frivolous hope comes to die. At least in a hellish fire pit, you could cook sausages. At least among the ice, you could make a decent Dry Martini. In Gatwick airport, however, such simple pleasures are forever out of reach. 

Plymouth Martini

Imagine getting a Dry Martini like this at the airport, you’d want your flight to be delayed

On my latest adventure, I found myself thirsty, peckish and soon to be depressed in the departures hall. Bacchus and the other gods of food and drink have certainly never blessed this land. This is a place of hunger and want of every kind. Foolishly, I thought that a visit to one of the last remaining Jamie’s Italians would at least be mediocre. But my safe bet was a mule. Immediately, I became aware that the hostess’s lack of lust for life is contagious. Boy, if terrorists could bottle that, they could be done with us all by lunch. 

There’s an irony in this one remaining smouldering ember of an empire being the worst of the bunch, like a cockroach that just won’t die. I was sent to the bar to order. I watch the bartender (and I use that term loosely) make a deplorable Bloody Mary: a single of Smirnoff, visibly fizzy tomato juice, bubbling like a witch’s cauldron, a single dash each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, two ice cubes and a withered, malnourished lemon slice. I prayed for her to add more Tabasco to save whatever wretched soul was about to be served this crap. Mind you, all the hot sauce in the world would not be enough. The whole thing was put together at a snail’s pace, with absolute zero fucks given to the drink, or the guests impatiently waiting at the bar. She stops halfway through to complain about Barney the manger to her colleague, how he’s always hiding in the office. He’s hiding from you, Medusa.

The presence of a captive audience should stimulate the bars and restaurants that feed and water the endless arrival of inquisitive travellers. The hardest part of operating a venue is getting willing punters through the doors. Not focusing on that means more energy spent on perfecting the product. If only! Instead, the absence of a need to draw in punters transforms these venues into cesspits of hospitality excrement. What does it matter to them if the beer smells like cheese, or the mixed drinks are watered down with decomposing ice, or if the fruit garnish was cut last week? There’ll still be another wave of suckers to inflict this torture upon. 

Nate Brown showing us how to make a proper drink

The lounges are no better, stocked with horrendous spirits. Nor is there any relief to be found after boarding. Why is the journey a penance and not part of the pleasure? I think about becoming teetotal when I travel. Or hijacking the plane. And airports are not the only criminals. All arenas of captivity are the same. Theatres offer (bizarrely) acidic Merlot, bought by the bar for £5 a bottle and flogged for £30 to mugs like me. No, I do not want a Bell’s while watching Pinter. I’m close enough to the edge as it is. I’d kill for a Redbreast. Literally. On trains, it’s a choice between tins of London Pride or Carling? Give me strength. Why is there not a Beavertown? Or some partnership with one of the thousand independent breweries this country supposedly has to offer? Instead, I’m left with a choice between having my throat burned or my stomach assaulted. It’s part of the reason why I don’t go to festivals, either. I do not want to have to pay £9 for a horrific Heineken in a plastic pint. I don’t want to pay an extortionate amount for the worst Bacardi and faux-fruit slushy imaginable. Why is it so hard to offer a decent Highball? Is this why people take drugs?

There’s a certain destitute acceptance of being in a captive audience, one that will consume any old crap at any old price, and one that I refuse to partake in. When the demon Mephistopheles in Marlow’s Doctor Faustus is asked why aren’t you in Hell, he responds, “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” I know what he means. 

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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A botanical white rum? Brilliant! Why has no one done this before?

Sound the innovation klaxon and ready your tasting glass, because last week Amsterdam’s Spirited Union Distillery debuted what it believes to be the world’s first botanical white rum. Here, founder…

Sound the innovation klaxon and ready your tasting glass, because last week Amsterdam’s Spirited Union Distillery debuted what it believes to be the world’s first botanical white rum. Here, founder Ruben Maduro gives MoM the lowdown on his lemon and blue eucalyptus-spiked agricole bottling and explains why flavour innovation and transparency are crucial in the mission to broaden rum’s reach…

When it comes to deciphering the meaning behind a distillery name, there’s no ambiguity when it comes to Spirited Union. At the Amsterdam-based site, the team brings rum and botanicals real ones, no artificial flavours in sight together in one pioneering bottling, ‘til drinks do them part. The most recent nuptials? Union Lemon & Leaf Rum, launched just last week, brought together in holy matrimony by founder and rum aficionado Ruben Maduro.

“We started about three and a half years ago on a mission to add a new approach to the rum category,” explains Maduro, who grew up on the Caribbean on the island of Aruba. “I’ve always been disappointed with the amount of sickly-sweet and artificially-flavoured rums, and really wanted to combine flavours with rum in an honest way completely transparent, with real botanicals, so I started looking for rums from specific distilleries and regions that have certain flavour characteristics.”

Spirited Union

Spirited Union HQ: where botanical magic happens

By adding botanicals, Maduro wanted to evolve those flavours and shake up the category by creating an entirely new rum style. With Union Lemon & Leaf Rum he sought to create a “fresher drinking experience” and set about pairing vegetal, earthy rhum agricole from Mauritius made by distilling sugar cane juice with citric, herbal botanicals. “We infused the agricole with Amalfi lemons and then redistilled it to create a citrus rum distillate,” he outlines. 

They did the same with Blue Mountain eucalyptus from Australia, which introduces menthol notes, and again with Uva Highland black tea, a Sri Lankan tea grown at high altitudes. “It’s very similar to white tea in terms of flavour and it’s a great flavour conductor,” Maduro continues. The mix was rounded out with kina bark, sarawak pepper and sarsaparilla root, to “bring a bit of that robust spiciness you want and expect from an agricole”.

The bottling follows the launch of Union Spice & Sea Salt (originally known as Union 55 Rum – same recipe, but recently rebranded) earlier this year, which sees cask-aged rum from Barbados macerated with Madagascan vanilla and cloves, Guatemalan cardamom, raw Peruvian cacao and mineral-rich Añana sea salt for 55 days. Regardless of whether they’re experimenting with dark, golden or light varieties, allowing the rum to shine is key, he says.

Spirited Union

Smell those lovely botanicals!

When formulating the recipe, the team starts by picking out the most prominent characteristics of the base spirit. “Rum is very diverse, there’s a lot of different styles, so we look at the flavour notes and aim to amplify those with the botanicals,” says Maduro, as opposed to working towards a designated botanical profile. Since no single standard exists for what constitutes rum – the category is revered for many reasons, but consistent rules and regulations certainly aren’t among them – there aren’t any definitive legislative hurdles for Spirited Union to overcome. Instead, “the challenge for us is, like any start-up brand, going against the status quo established by the bigger brands,” he adds, “being creative about the category and introducing new approaches to broaden rum’s reach.”

In moving away from the traditional spices and ingredients associated with flavoured rums, the team hopes to tap into a different drinking occasion, he continues. “Most rums are dark, heavy, indulgent and rich, so we’re trying to add some excitement to the white rum end of the category,” says Maduro. “There’s a lot going on already in terms of ageing and traditional authentic rums but not much in the lighter segment.”

This, in turn, will no doubt broaden the category’s appeal for rum newbies. For the devout G&T drinker, a botanical white rum and tonic will taste far more familiar and appealing than a neat finger or two of its oak-aged counterparts. Speaking of serves, how to imbibe Union Lemon & Leaf Rum? Maduro suggests grabbing a copa glass, filling it with plenty of ice and topping a measure with your favourite tonic. Alternatively, try mixing with a botanical soda, or get creative with a cocktail: Highballs, Sours, or any refreshing long drink you fancy – just don’t forget to raise a toast to the happy couple.

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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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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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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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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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