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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Scotch Whisky Association – guardian or bully?

We reported a few of weeks ago on the legal action the Scotch Whisky Association is taking against a Canadian whisky producer in Vancouver for violating Scotch whisky’s geographical indication….

We reported a few of weeks ago on the legal action the Scotch Whisky Association is taking against a Canadian whisky producer in Vancouver for violating Scotch whisky’s geographical indication. Now here’s Ian Buxton with the full story.

What is the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) up to?

The more grey-haired of my readers may recall that in June 2009, after a nine-year legal battle, the SWA retired somewhat bloodied from its battle with Canada’s Glenora Distillery and its Glen Breton Canadian single malt. Their long-running attempt to stop the use of the tiny operation using the term ‘Glen’ ended with ignominious defeat in Canada’s Supreme Court and the award of some costs to the company.  You can buy Glen Breton to this day and Scotch whisky doesn’t seem to be suffering too badly.

SWA vs Macaloney

But despite this rebuff, they’re at it again and, earlier last month, in a joint action with Whyte & MacKay, filed a civil suit against MacMhaol‐onfhaidh (Macaloney) Brewers & Distillers, the owner of Macaloney’s Caledonian Distillery & Twa Dogs Brewery in British Columbia, Canada. 

Objecting to the use of the words ‘Caledonian’, ‘Macaloney’, ‘Island whisky’, ‘Glenloy’, and ‘Invermallie’ on the distiller’s products, the SWA claims that Macaloney is violating Scotch whisky’s geographical indication (GI) by using words that are associated with the country on its Canadian whiskies.

Caledonian Distillery Canada

Scottish not Scotch, from left Graeme Macaloney, the late Jim Swan and Mike Nicolson

Let’s put to one side the curious but undeniable fact that Macaloney Brewers & Distillers is in fact largely owned by its founder, president & whisky maker Dr. Graeme Macaloney who, not unreasonably you might think, wants to put his name to his products. These, as it happens, include whisky, which is distilled and bottled at the distillery’s Victoria Island home – ‘island whisky’ perhaps, in acknowledgement of the fact that, along with another twenty or so small distillers, it’s actually produced on a piece of land completely surrounded by water. So proud of this fact is Macaloney that a map of Vancouver Island appears on the cartons and both front and back labels of the bottles proclaim them to be Canadian.

Scottish not Scotch

Macaloney is both hurt and confused by the SWA’s actions, claiming to have “reached out to them five years ago to ensure our indie-bottled Macaloney’s Twa Cask vatted Scotches were fully compliant, from which they were aware I was using my name Macaloney and also the local regional name Caledonian”.  Further, he says, they have “responded to SWA’s request in late 2019 to describe our master distiller [ex-Diageo Scot Mike Nicolson] not as a ‘Scotch master distiller’ but as a ‘Scottish master distiller’. We also agreed to prominently display ‘Canadian’ on our whiskies. Our labelling and packaging identify our products as Canadian, and our distillery [location] in Victoria, British Columbia.”

For their part, a SWA spokesperson issued a statement confirming the action, saying: “The SWA consistently takes action in our global markets to prevent the use of Scottish indications of origin on whisky which is not Scotch whisky. This is vital to protecting both Scotland’s national drink and to ensuring that consumers across the world are clear about whether or not they are buying whisky that is produced in Scotland.  It’s critical to us to ensure that spirits producers in other countries do not take advantage of the quality reputation of Scotch whisky that our industry has built up over decades. It is important that anyone who wants to purchase a bottle of Scotch whisky can do so with the confidence that what they are buying is authentic, and that products which aren’t Scotch whisky are clearly differentiated.”

On The Nightcap: 26 March edition we learn not to mess with the SWA

A bottle of Mac Na Braiche single malt from the Caledonian Distillery (in Canada)

Is there room for compromise?

And that seems reasonable enough if Macaloney were claiming to produce Scotch whisky. However, while clearly proud of his Scottish heritage and links to Scotland, including a Scottish distilling team and equipment sourced from Scotland, he maintains his company, brand and whisky are 100% Canadian. “We do not, and never have used the geographic indicator ‘Scotch whisky’ on our Canadian products”, he says “and strongly disagree with the SWA lawsuit’s assertion that our use of ‘Caledonian’, ‘Macaloney’, and other terms including ‘Glen’ ‘Inver’ and ‘island whisky’ are alternatives synonymous with Scotch whisky.”

The lawsuit is already attracting unfavourable publicity in Canada but it’s clear neither party is ready to back down. But, with the legal precedence already set in the Glenora case and with his army of loyal small investors behind him it’s hard to see why Macaloney wouldn’t fight this.

Well, as 19th century French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote “Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government.” The SWA seems to have got rather tangled up this time.

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The myths and marvels of the Prairie Oyster

Hangover remedy, cocktail, or both, the famous egg yolk-based concoction was once the go-to for the enthusiastic drinker. Millie Milliken looks into the history of the Prairie Oyster and asks…

Hangover remedy, cocktail, or both, the famous egg yolk-based concoction was once the go-to for the enthusiastic drinker. Millie Milliken looks into the history of the Prairie Oyster and asks why we don’t drink/ eat more of them. 

“There wasn’t a week went by but that on at least one day I couldn’t eat anything for breakfast but a couple of aspirins and a prairie oyster.” The words of Ian Fleming’s James Bond in his 1961 novel Thunderball. No doubt silly, suave James had had one too many vodka Martinis the night before and was indulging in the infamous hangover cure, the Prairie Oyster (not to be confused with Rocky Mountain Oysters – I’ll let you Google that one).

When you’ve had an oeuf

In its simplest state, the Prairie Oyster combines a raw egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce/vinegar and salt and pepper. The origins of this peculiar remedy are mysterious, although most think it had its origins in the Wild West during the 19th century.  Since then, the down-in-one hangover remedy has featured in countless books, films and TV shows (P.G.Wodehouse’s short story Jeeves Takes Charge, Cabaret, Pillow Talk and – my favourite – Addams Family Values) as a way of nursing the effects of a night on the sauce.

I was introduced to the peculiar joys of the Prairie Oyster after a recent Tasting Online cocktail masterclass, led by bar industry pro and once head of London Academy of Bartenders , Shiv Lal. We had just used egg whites to make a Ramos Gin Fizz and so had yolks left over. 

“My first Prairie Oyster was given to me in the first bar I worked in by a senior member of staff. We used fresh egg white for our sour cocktails, so having leftover egg yolk was best consumed rather than binned,” he explained. And so down the hatch it was and I have to say that it worked wonders on my rather fragile constitution. 

What do the eggsperts think?

Some experts, however, have poo-pooed its revelatory effect on a stinking hangover. In a 2015 BBC Future article, head of Keele University’s Alcohol Research Group, Richard Stephens accredited its apparent easing of the fuzzies to the distracting “unusual and piquant” flavours of its ingredients.

But what about the yolk? According to Healthline, the fact that eggs are rich in cysteine (an amino acid that your body uses to produce the antioxidant glutathione) is its secret hangover-busting weapon. “Drinking alcohol decreases the body’s stores of glutathione. Without it, your body has a hard time breaking down the toxic by-products of alcohol metabolism. Eating cysteine-rich eggs is a great way to increase glutathione in your body and possibly improve hangover symptoms.”

It’s no yolk

The Prairie Oyster, however, isn’t always as virtuous. The addition of alcohol to the mix brings with it an alternative name (Amber Moon), more flavour nuance, a greater appreciation of its peculiarity and the opportunity to elevate it from hangover cure, to hair of the dog and beyond. “I find this cocktail to be quite rare in terms of offerings in cocktail bars,” says Lal, “however you might get lucky if the bartender is willing to make you one having the ingredients to hand.”

If you are lucky, the addition of tomato juice (and almost a riff on a Bloody Mary or a Red Snapper) is a common theme. Lal makes the Bloody Mary comparison too: ‘It’s not too dissimilar to a Bloody Mary which has a mix of savoury, umami and tart flavours, [and is also] often used as a hangover cure.’ 

Prairie Oyster 69 Colebrooke Row style

Prairie Oyster 69 Colebrooke Row style

The Prairie Oyster cult

Star bartender Erik Lorincz (now owner of Kwant) created a Prairie Oyster during his tenure at The Savoy’s award-winning American Bar. It combined 40ml of gin infused with herbs of Provence, 5ml house Bloody Mary mix, a mini jar of tomato ketchup (30ml), 5ml of softer vinegar such as balsamic, a pinch salt, a pinch pepper, all stirred together at room temperature and poured into a coupe. Then, the egg yolk was carefully dropped in.

Other alcoholic renditions include that from Black Cow Vodka using 25ml Black Cow, two dashes of Worcestershire sauce, three dashes of Sriracha sauce, a sliver of slightly melted salted butter and on free range egg yolk served in an eggshell. Over in Islington, 69 Colebrooke Row’s signature serve incorporates tomato yolk, horseradish vodka, Oloroso sherry, shallots, pepper sauce, celery salt and an oyster leaf. It’s tomato yolk replaces that of the egg, using clarified tomato juice, dyed orange, frozen- and dipped in vege-gel. When it’s time to serve (in an oyster shell) it will be solid on the outside and liquid on the inside. The original recipe (from 2007) even included shochu rather than vodka for that extra hit of umami.

Lal suggests adding anything from gin to sherry, vermouth, brandy and Cognac. Personally, I’m partial to the latter, namely a Frapin 1270 for its creamy vanilla, white pepper and tobacco notes, or Remy Martin 1738 if you fancy something a little fruitier. I wouldn’t uncork the special bottles you’ve saved for when the Queen visits though – the folks at Hermitage might not be impressed with you downing a shot of its 1893 Paradis with an egg yolk sitting in it

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Shinjiro Torii and the philosophy of Suntory

This week we’re celebrating all things Japanese at Master of Malt. To kick things off, we talk to James Bowker, Suntory UK brand ambassador, about Shinjiro Torii the founder of Suntory Spirits…

This week we’re celebrating all things Japanese at Master of Malt. To kick things off, we talk to James Bowker, Suntory UK brand ambassador, about Shinjiro Torii the founder of Suntory Spirits and the philosophy behind Toki Whisky, Haku Vodka and Roku Gin.

Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, “was the first person to start making Western style spirits in Japan,” Bowker says, “and that didn’t just come out of nowhere.” Due to the isolationist foreign policies enforced during the Edo period – which ended a little over a decade before Torii was born – the island country had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world for more than 250 years, and the effects of this were felt long after Japan opened its borders.

Whisky comes to Japan

“Those 250 years coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the development of so many modern spirits we enjoy now; the invention of whisky, rum, gin and vodka,” says Bowker. “There was a period between 1850 and the turn of the 20th century where lots of people in Japan were trying to recreate these spirits, in particular whisky. But no one knew how to make them. They were taking saké, shochu, and neutral spirits and infusing them with herbs and spices to try and capture the same flavours that you would find in Western booze.”

Master distiller Shinji Fukuyo

By 1899, their efforts had captured the attention of Torii, then a pharmaceutical wholesaler, who identified an opportunity to quench Japan’s thirst for Western spirits – around the same time as chemist Masataka Taketsuru, it should be noted, who went on to establish Nikka – by creating a style of spirit that complemented the country’s palette. Ramen and sushi are far lighter and more delicate than heavier dishes common in Western cuisine, and his liquid reflected that.

“This also applies to drinks,” says Bowker. “In Europe, our wines are big, bold and tannic if they’re red, and big, bold and acidic if they’re white. In Japan, they have sake. Think about tea – British tea tends to be far more bitter than the light green teas we see in Japan.” Influenced by the atypical Japanese palate, Torii and Taketsuru created whiskies and spirits that “tend to be much lighter and more delicate,” guided by three Japanese philosophies specifically.

It’s all about balance

The first is In-Yo, which means balance. ‘In’ tends to refer to that which is gentle and tranquil and delicate, while ‘Yo’ refers to that which is exciting and vibrant and powerful, says Bowker. The two main religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto, “and in both of those faiths, the idea of balance is paramount,” he explains. “You should be living a balanced life. All good things in the universe exist in balance. The universe is constantly divided in some light and dark, rich and poor, happy and sad, and all of these dichotomies must exist in balance.”

The second is Kaizen, which means ‘change for better’. “It’s about finding the person who has truly mastered that skill,” says Bowker, “getting a complete and thorough understanding of how to be the best of the best, and then asking yourself – only when you’ve mastered it – how can I take this further? How can I ensure that the next generation of craftsmen receives a better set of instructions than I have received?”

The third and final philosophy is Yūgen, which refers to a sense of indescribable beauty underlined by the ethos: show, don’t tell. “When you see those incredible Japanese ink paintings, there’ll often be sections that are obscured or faded or unclear,” says Bowker. “The idea is that your brain will fill in the gaps… There’s a big belief in the idea of show, don’t tell. Don’t give everything away at once, allow people to explore in their own time.”

Only sushi rice goes into Haku Vodka

Japanese craftsmanship

The tradition of craftsmanship in Japan is called Kōgei, which translates as ‘engineered art’. In order for a product to be officially recognised as craft, it must meet five government-mandated requirements: be practical enough for regular use, predominantly handmade, crafted using traditional techniques, crafted using traditional materials, and crafted at its place of origin.

For Suntory, the first and fifth elements came relatively easy – so long as they’re reasonably priced, spirits are practical enough for regular use. And since Tokii’s Yamazaki distillery was the first of malt whisky distillery in the country, he’d created the ‘place of origin’. As for the other three?

“Firstly, we must begin with the perfect raw material,” says Bowker. “Secondly, we should respect that perfect raw material – and that means using the best tools. The third is knowledge and technique; the mastery that comes from generations of master and apprentice applying Kaizen.”

Let’s take a look at how that approach plays out across Suntory’s flagship spirits, Toki Whisky, Haku Vodka and Roku Gin:

Haku Vodka

Haku is made using Japanese sushi rice (considered the purest form) which is polished until nearly half of the grain is gone, much like daiginjo sake, and then fermented with koji. It’s distilled in a cube-shaped stainless steel shochu pot still – “a super old school distillation method in Japan, and a very rustic style of still,” says Bowker – and then the batch is split into two. Half is sent to Osaka, where “it goes through a traditional vodka still, making a very pure, clean, delicate spirit,” and the other half heads to Chita, to be redistilled in a bespoke column still, which has “four tiny columns” to create an “indulgent, rice-forward vodka”. The two distillates are blended together, diluted with water and filtered through bamboo charcoal, and voila! Haku is complete.

Roku Gin

Roku means ‘six’, after the six Japanese botanicals used in the recipe: sakura flower, sakura leaf, sencha tea, gyokuro tea, sanshō pepper, and yuzu peel. Each is picked, transported and distilled fresh in Osaka during its prescribed ‘shun’ season, where the botanical is thought to be at its peak. Depending on the botanical, this could be as little as two days. Suntory has four different copper pot stills for making gin, one of which is coated in stainless steel and fitted with a pump to create a specially-designed vacuum still. Each botanical is distilled in the optimum still and then Suntory’s five blenders travel to Osaka to set about blending the various distillates into a London Dry-style gin called Suntory Pallet Gin; this is the basis for Roku gin.

Toki Japanese whisky

Toki whisky

Toki means time in Japanese. A delicious light blend that was specifically created for making that most Japanese of cocktails, the Highball. It’s a blend of YamazakiHakushu and Chita, with the main components being Hakashu single malt and Chita grain whisky. Toki is all about fruitiness, sweetness and balance with none of the elements standing out prominently. The result is a subtle whisky with orchard fruits, herb-laden honey and a little mintiness on the nose. While in the mouth there’s green apples with pink grapefruit and then richer notes of toasted almonds, vanilla, white pepper and ginger. It’s an extremely versatile blend and a great introduction to the magic of Japanese whisky. Isn’t it time you tried Toki?

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A spotlight on… Black Cow Vodka Distillery

How do you create flavourful, sustainable vodka from cow’s milk? We meet the forward-thinking producers at the Black Cow Vodka distillery to find out… This might seem almost impossible to conceive…

How do you create flavourful, sustainable vodka from cow’s milk? We meet the forward-thinking producers at the Black Cow Vodka distillery to find out…

This might seem almost impossible to conceive of now, but you might recall there were a couple of months in the summer and autumn of 2020 when we were allowed to venture out a bit. In September, I got the chance to head down to the rolling countryside of West Dorset to learn all about Black Cow Vodka. It was all very exciting for a couple of reasons. One, I got to go somewhere else. A place that wasn’t just the park by my flat. On a train. The other reason is that Black Cow is a brand with a story worth telling.

It’s the world’s first vodka made from milk. More specifically, using the whey leftover from cheese production (whey being the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained). It’s a brilliant bit of innovation that predates the recent trends in vodka to focus on raw materials and more flavour-led products. And it’s sustainable. Whey has long been regarded as a problem child in the dairy industry. Often times it’s just fed to pigs. But Black Cow Vodka made this by-product the backbone of its spirit.

The brand’s founders are Jason Barber and Paul “Archie” Archard. The former is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, the latter is an artist who has spent time in California. They ended up becoming neighbours and good friends, where they realised they shared a love of vodka. The duo decided to bring together their farming and creative expertise after a few drinks one evening. “It all happened quite naturally. We both share a love of vodka so almost dared ourselves to give it a go. It was never about making vodka out of milk just for the sake of it; the milk had to make the vodka better. And it does,” Archard explains.

Black Cow Vodka

Black Cow Vodka founders Jason Barber and Paul “Archie” Archard

It all begins with milk

Black Cow Vodka is being made by people who know their dairy products. Barber’s family are the country’s oldest surviving cheddar makers. Their farm, which is just a mile or so up the road from the distillery, was where he headed first on our trip. If you’re on the lookout for a distillery tour now that things are picking up again, I highly recommend it. It’s a stunning area filled with great local restaurants and pubs, while Barber has endless insight into farming practices and really all things dairy. At one point he was telling me all about Araka, a beer-like drink made from fermented mare’s milk used by Genghis Khan and his armies, which was something of an inspiration for him.

The process to make Black Cow Vodka is decidedly more modern and begins with the farm’s cows, who are milked twice a day. Once the whey is obtained it’s spun to take out any excess butter, sieved out and then the leftover whey protein is used to make baby powder. What Barber really wants is the lactose, from which he can extract sugar to make the alcohol. A special form of yeast is added to create a milk beer that is then distilled in a giant copper still from German company A. G. Holstein. A fitting choice, given that the milk comes from a cross-breed of Holstein cows. It’s all designed for maximum copper contact.

Once it’s distilled, the spirit is treated with what Barber describes as “magic water”. Which comes from – you guessed it – milk. “Everything we use is milk. We don’t add water from a bubbling brook. There’s no minerality or that brittle, flinty hardness you get from other vodkas because we don’t add mineral water. It’s soft. And it makes for a great frothy head to an Espresso Martini. Anyone who’s ever washed their hair with soft water will know you get a good lather. It’s the same principle”.  

Black Cow Vodka

The Devonshire farm where Barber’s family have produced milk and cheese for generations

At the forefront of vodka’s flavour revolution

The vodka is triple filtered using charcoaled coconut shells and then bottled by hand with no additives or flavourings. And, with less than six parts per million of lactose, it’s actually suitable for those who are lactose intolerant because all the milk sugar has been converted into alcohol. It doesn’t say lactose-free on the bottle purely because regulations on what you can state differ from country to country.

What you may see on new bottles is a recently obtained gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition. The brand has a raft of medals from award shows and has become one of the most notable vodka producers in the country. But what Barber is most proud of is how the vodka was received in Poland. “I went there and had to stand up in front of fifty bartenders and sell it. But they loved it. They said other vodkas are like counterfeit vodkas and this is a new style”.

The vodka world has come on a long way since they launched Black Cow in 2012. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there’s an increasing appetite for spirits with terroir, brand identity or sustainability. Barber likes to think that Black Cow Vodka had a little something to do with this shift. Take a look at the brand’s commitment to the latter, for example, and you can see his point.

Black Cow Vodka

The brand’s latest release is a bottled Negroni

Black Cow’s sustainability initiatives don’t begin and end with whey. Throughout my trip, Archard and Barber make it clear how important it is to them that Black Cow is made in a way that is sensitive to the environment. The packaging is plastic-free. The bottle is produced by Yorkshire-based Allied Glass, in order to support UK businesses and lower the carbon footprint, and incorporates a metal pilfer-proof cap, which allows for the entire bottle to be recycled easily and reduces the need for a plastic security cover. Even the cheese is housed in wool offcuts.  

This outlook led to Black Cow Vodka’s first line extension, English Strawberries, which was made as a means to use local strawberries deemed too wonky to make it to supermarket shelves. The fruit is pressed and then infused in Black Cow vodka over four days, which means that flavour and colour are all-natural. Nothing artificially sweet here.

This is true also of further innovations such as Christmas Spirit, which takes its inspiration from Christmas pudding and the new release, Black Cow Negroni, the brand’s first ready-to-serve cocktail. It’s a blend of vodka, Campari and Spanish vermouth, as well as a secret mix of natural bitters. It was developed during lockdown so it naturally became an expression of what Archard and Barber found themselves missing: British summertime, with a Negroni in hand, good company and a view.

Black Cow Vodka

Black Cow Vodka is sustainable, innovative and tasty. That gets a thumbs up from us.

Making mooves

The innovation won’t stop there, however. The duo says there’s plenty of plans in place and, while they’re sworn to secrecy about any other new products, “this won’t be the last you’ll hear from us in 2021!” 

While there’s lots to enjoy from the newer expressions, at its core the brand is all about vodka. But if you’re picturing a cloudy, overly creamy spirit, however, you’d be wrong. Black Cow Vodka is clean, crisp and versatile, but also full-bodied with an uncanny depth of flavour. White chocolate, floral vanilla, desiccated coconut, a little lemon mousse and white pepper spice are the predominant notes.

There’s enough character to enjoy it neat but as you expect, it makes a beautiful Espresso Martini (use the Strawberry edition for a neat little twist) as well as the kind of strong, salty and sweet Dirty Martini that I’ll go back to again and again. The most fun I had with it, however, was tasting Black Cow Vodka with Black Cow Cheese. That’s truly a match made in heaven. I mean Devon. Sorry, that was cheesy. Wait, no. Please forgive me. The vodka is definitely better than my jokes.

You can purchase the full Black Cow Vodka range from here now.

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Amanda Garnham: Lady Armagnac

With the news that Amanda Garnham is ‘stepping back’ from her role at the Armagnac Bureau, we talk to the woman who for the past 18 years has been the…

With the news that Amanda Garnham is ‘stepping back’ from her role at the Armagnac Bureau, we talk to the woman who for the past 18 years has been the face of the spirit for the English-speaking world and beyond.

In what sounds like the plot of a film, Amanda Garnham left England with four children between the ages of five months and seven years, two labradors and a husband, and moved to the Gers region in south west France. She had fallen in love with Gascony on a previous visit, so in 1997, speaking very little French, she upped sticks and moved.

They found a derelict farmhouse to renovate, but with her husband returning to England frequently to earn a living, the marriage quickly fell apart. Most people would have given up and returned home, not Garnham. She worked picking fruit, grapes, and maize, and doing some freelance journalism before spotting an opportunity with Armagnac.

Armanda Garnham Armagnac

Garnham in her element

Spirit guide

Her background in England was in PR and she noticed that “they have a fantastic product but nobody knows about it.” Initially, she submitted a proposal to Janneau, one of the biggest producers, which didn’t work out. A few years later in 2003, when she had built up her French sufficiently, she met with the late Jean Castarède, president of the BNIA, the trade body that represents the region and became press  attaché to the UK. “They took me on and had confidence in me,” she said.

In production terms, Armagnac is tiny, and there’s not a lot of money, so Garnham ended up doing a lot more than handling press. With her deep knowledge of the region and its produce, she was in demand globally to give masterclasses travelling to China, Australia, Hong Kong, and America, as well as regular visits to Britain. She ran Armagnac Academies, training bartenders and journalists in this most fascinating of spirits. Our own Jess Williamson attended one and loved it.

Leaving the BNIA

I spoke with Garnham earlier this month via Zoom. Naturally, she was surrounded by Armagnac samples for a spirits competition she was judging. She was full of excitement about having recently been inducted into the Worshipful Company of Distillers in London, one of only three honorary liverymen. Which means that as a freeman of the City of London, she can drive sheep across London Bridge, should she ever want to. She is also an Armagnac musketeer, the highest honour in the region.

But she was also sad to say that she will be leaving her current role at the BNIA after 18 years. She told us she was “boxed into a corner and didn’t agree with the way they were doing things. It had become very political. We’d grown apart in many ways.”

Amanda Garnham Armagnac Academy New York

Teaching an Armagnac Academy in New York

Falling in love with Armagnac

I first met Amanda in 2016 when I was a freelance journalist. We were introduced by MoM columnist Ian Buxton who suggested I might like a trip out to visit to learn about the spirit. I travelled with my wife and due to striking French taxi drivers, we had to get a train from the airport in Toulouse to Condom, the capital of the Armagnac region.

She picked us up from the station in a hire car, apparently her own car was much too rustic for guests. Nevertheless, she looked every inch the stylish English lady, dressed head-to-toe in tweed. Without time for coffee or a rest, we sped towards our first producer Janneau for a tasting. What followed was one of the most intense and enjoyable tasting trips I’d ever been on, visiting six or maybe more producers in two days, learning about and falling in love with the wonders of Armagnac. 

At each stop on the packed itinerary, the distiller or owner would come out, usually followed by many dogs, and greet Amanda with huge affection. She was clearly a lot more than just a PR lady for hire. Most of them spoke English but for those who didn’t Amanda would translate with immaculate but charmingly English-accented French. 

Peggy the pot-bellied pig

When not visiting and tasting, Garnham would regale me with stories about her children, her love life, or her Vietnamese pot-bellied pig Peggy. Now sadly deceased. And no, she didn’t eat her.

On my return to England, I wrote an article on Armagnac. But that is not where it ended. Every couple of months, Garnham would be in touch saying, ‘so-and-so publication wants an article, could you write it?’ It turned out to be a lucrative two days for me, and the BNIA also got their money’s worth.

It wasn’t just me, everyone she meets she turns into an Armagnac ambassador. “They become friends or like family”, she said. When the news came in that she was “stepping down”, as she puts it from the BNIA, over 250 people commented on Facebook with their support.

Armagnac Academy

You can see why people fall in love with the Armagnac region

A peerless ambassador

I emailed a few notable people in the drinks world for their views:

Spirits journalist Joel Harrison described her as: “a peerless ambassador for the world’s oldest spirit. The true embodiment of the spirit, Amanda has always been welcoming, warming and full of passion, qualities which will see her future bright, and her legacy long.” 

And drinks writer Jessica Mason said: “Amanda was one of the first people to remind me that Armagnac was quite cool. And I don’t mean cool in a fad-laden trend-setting way that so many drinks try to be. I mean cool in that timelessly creative, interesting and stylish way. The Armagnac category has thrived because of her. And I’ll wager there isn’t a drinks journalist who hasn’t been warmed by her character or intrigued by her intellect.”

Meanwhile, Evening Standard drinks writer Douglas Blyde captured the magic of the full Garnham experience: “A tour led by her would take in picturesque, ancient open air laundries, herds of restaurant dish-bound cattle, handsome abbeys and dilapidated chateaux as well as the warm distilleries in the otherwise bleakness of winter. She was also marvellously indiscreet in sharing details of the feuds between locals. Her descriptions of produce and producers were vivid and her generosity with her time and knowledge notable. She made the region come to life for outsiders.” 

So what next?

Garnham still has a business organising private tours of Gascony called Glamour and Gumboots so she’ll continue doing that. But she clearly wants to keep working with the spirit she loves so much. She told me that she may be representing certain grower producers, “to help put them on the map. There’s still lots to be discovered,” she said.

But also as the person who probably knows more about Armagnac and its producers than anyone else in the English-speaking world, someone should snap her up to find and bottle rare casks. The farmhouses of the Gers region are crammed with vintage casks being kept for a rainy day or the right person to persuade the farmer to sell. There’s treasure in them there hills, and Amanda Garnham knows where.

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Five minutes with… Scott Davidson from Glencairn Crystal

From swanky decanters to the famous tasting glass, crystal and glassware manufacturer Glencairn is synonymous with the whisky industry. And as the family-owned East Kilbride company celebrates its 40th year,…

From swanky decanters to the famous tasting glass, crystal and glassware manufacturer Glencairn is synonymous with the whisky industry. And as the family-owned East Kilbride company celebrates its 40th year, new product development director Scott Davidson tells us about that eponymous glass, competing with Rolex and the time he lent his brother a car.

Glencairn Crystal was founded by Raymond Davidson in 1981. Over the years the company has created decanters for pretty much all of the major drinks companies – from ruby-encrusted whisky vessels to decanters housing the world’s oldest port. And in 2000, Raymond created The Glencairn Glass, described as “the world’s favourite whisky glass” with 3.5 million per year going to around 140 countries.

Today, the company is run by Raymond’s sons, Paul and Scott. And Scott is here to tell us more about the business and his latest projects…

Glencairn Glass

The famous Glencairn Glass

Master of Malt: Everyone uses the famous Glencairn tasting glass. How did it come to be so widely used? And what makes it so good for tasting?

Scott Davison: Three things come to mind: there was nothing generally being used as a standard before – that was the big thing for my dad.  Secondly, it was an evolution of how people would want you to consume it – we got the master blenders and people like Michael Jackson to help us create that shape. But probably the best thing is that it’s quite simple to engage with as a product, both for a novice or an experienced taster. It is easy to use. Whatever a master blender is talking about, you can get those aromas and flavours really quickly. And it encourages you to nose while you drink, which is what we wanted to do.

And with nothing else out there, it was the right glass at the right time.

MoM: You’re in charge of NPD – can you tell us what you’re working on?

SD: Consumers don’t often know the products we are involved with, so we’re doing some podcasts at the moment to interview some of those people we developed products with. We just did Michael Urquhart from Gordon & MacPhail – and the Mortlach 70 Generations project – the teardrop shaped decanter with the silver on it, made to look like a slight pagoda. That decanter took about two years from the initial concept.

In terms of recent launches, we worked on two 50-year-olds for Edrington – Highland Park and The Glenrothes. We did Brugal’s [Dominican rum] decanter last year…

Ruby Pagoda Glencairn Decanter

‘A really complex bloody thing’

MoM: In the wine world, there seems to be a different decanter for different types of wine. Is it the same for spirits? 

SD: It goes back to the ‘80s and generally if you wanted a whisky decanter, people just thought ‘square decanter’ and that was it. You know when you see the metal name tags around them – they would just put their name on the tag because there wasn’t anywhere to engrave it. Whereas today, everything is more driven by the brand – so we’re doing more from scratch to fit in with the profile of the brand. Companies are investing in custom shapes.

When a company comes to us, they say ‘we’re going to do something much higher end, how far can we push the brand identity’. For example, when Loch Lomond relaunched Littlemill, they picked a nice flat-ended oval decanter shape for the 25-, 27- and 29-year-olds. But they also had a 40-year-old and they said they wanted the same shape crystal but with fancy patterns. It follows the brand identity, but at a different level. That seems to be the driver – companies spend more time and resources because they get a better return if they do it at that level.

MoM: What’s the most elaborate commission you’ve ever worked on?

SD: Have you seen the Pagoda Series for Glenfarclas? Basically, it was an angular crystal decanter with copper finish, a silver finish and a gold finish and a special injected resin. It was a really complex bloody thing. And then they went from that to the Ruby – which was a 62-year-old whisky. And they asked for solid instead of plated silver and to set the ‘62’ with rubies. Then they did a Sapphire release – we’re talking £1500-2000 just on the crystal and the sapphires. It probably sold for $60-70,000 a bottle for the magnum size.

MoM: I bet that weighs a fair bit…

SD: Yeah – with whisky in it, it’s probably four or five kilos.

Royal Brackla

No, not holy hand grenade of Antioch, it’s the Royal Brackla 35 Year Old The King’s Own Whisky

MoM: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever made?

SD: One of the most difficult things I’ve made is the Dewar’s Legacy decanter. And The Royal Brackla 35 Year Old The King’s Own Whisky. For Dewar’s, they wanted it to pour through the silver. The whisky pours from the crystal, through a gold-plated lining tube which is part of that silver bit on the side. Never been asked to do it before – it was really complicated. It was not just blowing it and engraving it and getting the perfect shape, it was actually joining that piece of metal to the glass without the seal breaking on it and without it coming apart. If the seal weakened at all, then it might leak, and we couldn’t have that. The testing on it was unbelievable.

For The Royal Brackla, that’s a complete sphere of crystal, suspended on four points, 5mm x 5mm. And it wasn’t allowed to come apart so we had to ‘drop test’ it from about a metre to make sure it wouldn’t split. 

The products we are making are generally a limited release – The Royal Brackla was about 120 pieces. It’s not like we’re manufacturing loads of these bottles a year. And they are competing against products that are being sold in duty free, for example. It’s going up against Rolex, against similar products at a similar value. But if you buy a Rolex watch – they make a hundred thousand of them. I’m being asked to manufacture a product of the same standard for just a short time. And that’s what we do. That’s what gives us the niche. For example, I have a team of eight people who are just dedicated to assembling metal ware on decanters by hand. And a team of 15 engravers and decorators. That’s our DNA.

MoM: How long have you been working in the family business?

SD: Since the ‘80s when I was still at university. I started before then but that wasn’t official.

MoM: You’re celebrating your 40th anniversary this year with the opening of a newly expanded studio – what’s new?

SD: We’ve been on the same site for over 25 years, but we have slowly bought all the factories around us and now we’ve just finished joining them all together. We have added capacity for warehousing and doubled our production space. We’ve always run out of space every five years, so we’ve more than doubled up to try and give us some longevity. We’ve upgraded everything as well and we’re introducing solar panels, so we’ll be independent of the grid.

Scott Davidson from Glencairn Crystal

Scott Davidson – ‘mine’s a JD and Coke’

MoM: How do you get on working with family members? Any funny stories you can tell us?

SD: I work with my brother! It doesn’t get worse than that. Here’s a story that we still laugh about now: I like cars and in the ‘90s, I’d got myself a new BMW. I loved it. My brother asked to borrow it to go and visit a distillery. He drove away and came back, said it was great. That was that. I went outside and anyway, it turns out Paul had been in the queue at a roundabout, trying to figure out the stereo, and he went into the car in front!

I’m into cars and he’s into his music, so that just about sums us up. Let’s just say we’re always challenging each other.

MoM: What’s your favourite dram to sip from a Glencairn glass?

SD: That’s a tricky one. I like that I can run through them all. I do hark back to Hibiki 21. I’ve got two or three I jump between – Hibiki, Benromach 10-year-old and I do like Ben Nevis. Oh, and Craigellachie 23 and Glenmorangie Signet.

My default drink is Jack Daniel’s and Coke, from my uni years. I might go for a premium version now, but I still enjoy the original.

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‘The death knell for the bar is premature’

As England’s on-trade starts to open up, we chat to cocktail historian Jake Burger about how bars have changed, drinks archives, and his new book, An Anthology of 12 Classic…

As England’s on-trade starts to open up, we chat to cocktail historian Jake Burger about how bars have changed, drinks archives, and his new book, An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails.

Joy abounds! Today in England, drinks are back on the menu. Pubs, bars and restaurants are open again for outside service. Much rejoicing in the streets!

It’s a moment that coincides with the release of An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails, written by cocktail historian and Ginstitute co-founder Jake Burger, in collaboration with distributor Hi-Spirits. It’s a beautiful hardback tome filled to the brim with vibrant cocktail photography, the rich tales behind each of the drinks, and advice and anecdotes on how to best make them. It’s designed to be genuinely useful as well as a joy to read.

“I’ve been an amateur cocktail historian and writer for many years. In my spare time I’m more likely to have my head buried in an archive than to watch Love Island,” Burger says when we discuss the book over the phone. “I’ve got all this research I’m not quite sure what to do with. And when this opportunity came along I thought it would be perfect to get my own research out there.”

With traditional and modern versions of each serve (from the Old Fashioned and Negroni, right through to the Espresso Martini), An Anthology… has an obvious purpose as a guidebook. But it’s also Burger’s chance to “set the record straight” and bust some of those cocktail myths.

“The classic one that keeps popping up in loosely written histories of the drink is the one about the Manhattan being created by Churchill’s mother at a party in New York,” he laughs. “With the aid of modern research tools available these days, it was fairly easy to work out that when she was supposed to be in New York she was giving birth to Winston.”

classic cocktails

It’s time for classic cocktails like the Negroni to shine

Classic cocktails: ‘The right time’

There’s no doubt it’s been a tumultuous year for everyone, perhaps especially so for those working in hospitality. In the UK, like elsewhere, there have been long periods of closure. How does Burger think it’s changed the trade?

“I noticed after the first reopening that it seemed among the general public, a slight regression is probably the wrong word to use… in terms of their taste.” By this, he means people were getting less adventurous in what they were ordering. The upside? More classic cocktails. 

“Perhaps they’d lost that spirit of adventure. Or were more modest in spending their money and didn’t want to take a risk on something they might not like. Classics offer reassurance on what you’re going to get, and if you’re going to like it or not.” As such, “I think the time probably is right for a revisiting of the classics.”

Another major change has been in the rise of cocktail delivery and at-home consumption during lockdown. “People have got used to the idea that they can have great drinks at home. But people never came out to the bar just for great drinks, right? It’s for the atmosphere, for the sociable nature of it. But people’s habits may change, but I think the death knell for the bar is premature.”

classic cocktails

An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails is available now!

Classic cocktails competition

As well as the easing of England’s lockdown, the launch of An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails is also in tandem with Hi-Spirits announcing a new UK-wide cocktail competition. The Classic Cocktail Masters UK will see bartenders compete with two interpretations of classic serves, and will triumph based on the look and taste of their drinks, plus their classic cocktail knowledge. After eight regional finals, the final eight (if restrictions allow) will be jetted off to Italy to visit the Branca distillery in Milan and tour the Italian Lakes. If you’re a bartender reading this and you want in (quite frankly, why wouldn’t you?), chat to your Hi-Spirits contact for more. 

“None of us have a crystal ball and we’re not quite sure what will happen,” Burger continues as conversation turns to 12 April. I can almost taste the Old Fashioned. Things have changed. For him, with the uncertainty, there’s been a lot of cutting back on perishables, reducing the number of open bottles on the back bar, and just being a little bit more sustainable. But there’s a lot of optimism. “We’re fairly certain people are itching to go out – that when we reopen [the outside area] on the 12th, people will quite quickly be back at it.” See you there!

An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails by Jake Burger is available as a digital book or to as an audio book on Anchor and Spotify.

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Is the living room the new tasting room?

For the drinks industry, as with almost everywhere else, virtual has become the new reality. But as restrictions begin to lift, will it last, asks Lucy Britner. Is the living room…

For the drinks industry, as with almost everywhere else, virtual has become the new reality. But as restrictions begin to lift, will it last, asks Lucy Britner. Is the living room the new tasting room?

Let’s face it, over the past year, the living room has become the new everything. The new gym, the new meeting room, the new hair salon and the new destination for after work drinks, weekend drinks, virtual drinks and all other drinks (except kitchen drinks).

The question is, will it stay that way when we are released back into the wild? Will Zoom be trampled into the dirt as we stampede back to the bar? Or will the lure of the living room (and the mute/turn camera off buttons) be too great?

A virtual panel discussion

In a recent (virtual) event facilitated by incubator fund Distill Ventures, whisky experts from around the world joined a panel to discuss whether the living room had become the new tasting room. The consensus is that virtual tastings aren’t going away. And besides the mute button, they have brought with them a load of other benefits.

For panellist Samara Davis, founder and CEO of the US-based Black Bourbon Society, the pandemic brought a surge in new memberships as locked down drinkers sought new hobbies. She describes ‘bourbon curious’ consumers who want to discover what their palate is and buy whiskey accordingly.

And while in-person tastings will be back, the benefit of virtual ones is that people in far-flung places can still join in. She also says that people feel comfortable asking so-called ‘silly’ questions in a virtual setting.

“Our Facebook Group has 22k members and it’s a safe space to ask questions and research,” she explains as the group discusses going back to bars. “You never know what reception you might get from a bartender, but we do encourage people to go to bars to try whiskies without having to buy the whole bottle.”

Billy Abbott, author and whisky educator at the Whisky Exchange also points out that real-life events work for some people while for others an in-person festival, for example, just doesn’t appeal.

Billy Abbott

Look, it’s Billy Abbott!

Level playing field

Meanwhile, an undeniable plus to lockdown has to be that brands big or small can lay on a virtual event.

Panelist – and  founder of JJ Corry Irish Whiskey – Louise McGuane says: “Nobody can travel, but everyone has an internet connection so we can now do five events in one night – the explosion of online experiences has been a great leveller for small, founder-led brands such as ours.”

McGuane also points out that JJ Corry has developed two new whiskeys as a result of virtual events: a crowdsourced blend created in conjunction with online communities, as well as a whiskey made specifically for a group on Facebook.

Of course, there was a bit of work to do at the start of lockdown and panelist Tess Syriac, marketing director at Starward, says the team had to turn everything they knew 12 months ago on its head, in order to reevaluate how they used their social channels, and how they connected with consumers to create “meaningful conversations”. For Starward, bringing in-home experiences to life was a key component in allowing consumers to connect with the brand.

“The last year has unlocked all these new channels – including direct to consumer – which has put small brands in a great position, but making sure experiences are customised is essential. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and the more tailored the approach, the more brands will connect. In our view, at-home tastings will now have a place forever,” she says.

Mini adventures

There was also talk of bottle sizes – and miniatures. Sending samples is a lot of work and since single malt Scotch has to be bottled in Scotland, for example, minis don’t regularly make it across the pond. But both Syriac and Davis say this is changing, predicting we will start to see a variety of pack sizes. And McGuane confirms she’s looking at miniatures as an “actual strategy” whereas before the pandemic and at-home tastings, they wouldn’t have been a big consideration.

Luckily Master of Malt is a seasoned pro at breaking down expensive bottles or setting up tasting sets, with its Drinks by the Dram series.

#MissedMoment competition

Very handy for those online tastings

Beyond the living room

So far, it all looks pretty rosy for the living room Zoom boom, doesn’t it?

But there is something missing. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to being in a room full of people, all tasting the same booze together. Abbott calls it the “overall feel of the collective experience”. After all, interacting virtually ain’t easy – see: the stunted conversations, the pauses between sentences and the weird smiles we adopt while waiting for someone to terminate the meeting.

A bit of both, actually

The truth is, we are likely to see a future of both living room and bar room tastings. And the panelists seem to agree that more personalised and tailored tastings will be popular as brands and clubs get to grips with a growing audience.

While this might mean thinking about the styles of whisk(e)y or cocktails on offer, it could also mean thinking about whether a particular group would prefer a virtual or an in-person event.

I can also foresee a sort of hierarchy appearing for new launch tastings, whereby an ‘A list’ gets invited to sit at the table, while others are invited to sit in their own living rooms and look on with their sample packs. 

And so, as we step back into the light of the day and not the glare of the screen, there will be a bit of a stampede to socialise – we’re only human after all. But as the novelty of the last train home wears off, those virtual meet-ups will once again appeal.

In, out, in, out… It’ll be like the whole world is doing the Hokey Cokey. Maybe that IS what it’s all about.

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Mixto Tequila: time for a reappraisal?

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask…

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask the experts if it’s time to reevaulate this maligned category. 

In her book, Spirits of Latin America, New York-based agave spirit expert and bar owner Ivy Mix categorically tells her readers not to drink mixto Tequilas. It’s no secret that this style of Tequila has its haters (so much so one Tequila and mezcal expert declined to be interviewed for this piece).

Yet as new and previously unavailable brands start to make their way into the market, it’s time to take another you at this oft-slated style of the Tequila category.

Hacha agave bar in London

Hacha agave bar in London

What is mixto Tequila?

Since the 1970s, when the rules changed, Tequila only has to be distilled with 51% agave. The rest of the alcohol can be derived from any type of sugar, most commonly piloncillo, a type of unrefined Mexican sugar. Mixto is a term, often used disparagingly, for Tequila that isn’t made from 100% agave. Its reputation has plummeted as consumers become more knowledgeable and move away from drinking Tequila in shots.

“When I started my career the majority of house Tequilas were mixtos because people didn’t really have that understanding of luxury agave spirits,” explains owner of agave-focused bar Hacha, Deano Moncrieffe. How times have changed – sales of premium tequilas have rocketed in recent years and many customers can now tell their añejos from their reposados. So, what will it take to put mixtos back on the map?

Quality control

“I think we need to reframe them as regular Tequila – the term ‘mixto’ is one we’re moving away from,” says Hannah Lanfear, spirits educator and director of The Mixing Class. For Lanfear, what is more important is quality. And what’s the most important factor in a Tequila’s quality? The maturity of the agave. “You can make a proper shitty 100% agave Tequila if you’re using bad-quality agave,” Lanfear says.

It was this very point that got Paul Hayes, co-founder and CEO of premium Tequila brand Vivir, and a new mixto brand called El Sueño, into Tequila 16 years ago. Having spent years believing an allergy to Tequila was a reaction to certain, cheaper styles (ie. mixtos), it was only after further investigation that he was in fact allergic to underaged agave. “Tequilas that came from diffusers were my main problem. They don’t cook the agave but can extract sugars from much younger agaves – that’s the allergy I had. So I can drink cheaper Tequilas as long as they’ve gone through the proper process.”

To make El Sueño, 70% agave and 30% locally-grown cane sugar is used. The latter is an important factor for Hayes as it carries a slight flavour, is sustainably grown and representative of the local community and environment. The agave is cooked in hornos and autoclaves, while he uses natural volcanic water (which is also used to clean the equipment). Hayes says he and co-founder Navindh Grewal like to know where every single part of their Tequila comes from.

VIVIR Tequila

The Blue Weber Agave used in VIVIR Tequila 

Good basic Tequila

Bringing a mixto to market was actually not what Hayes and Grewel had in mind. “When we were creating Vivir, we went through the same process of developing a quality mixto, more for selfish reasons as I live in Somerset and I thought it would be great if we could produce a high quality, entry level Tequila.” When pub buyers tried Vivir, they loved it, but wanted to have a more accessible Tequila in order to upsell to their customers. After winning blind taste tests, El Sueño became part of the range.

Lanfear namechecks El Tequileño as another brand going to “extreme lengths to get good quality, sourcing top quality, slow-grown agave.” 2021 saw El Tequileño enter the UK market, bringing its 70-year-old history as well as one of Mexico’s most famous mixtos with it.

For Becky Davies, owner of Ten Locks which imports the brand, bringing in high quality mixtos is important for the Tequila category as a whole. “There’s a risk that an influx of poorly made mixtos and diffuser Tequilas, made to deliver at a price point some grocers demand, will undermine the true, high quality nature of the spirits. This is not good news for Tequila, where producers have spent such a long time trying to re-establish how wonderful the category is.”

EL Tequileño

El Tequileño line-up

Mixing with mixtos

During a tasting with bartenders and journalists on Margarita Day, Steffin Oghene, vice president of global marketing and business development at El Tequileño, was keen to impress that mixtos have a place in the Tequila market.

The brand dates back to 1959 when it was founded by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo. It is the Tequila of choice at the famous World’s Top 50 La Capilla Cantina. The bar’s signature La Batanga cocktail uses El Tequileño.

Mixto’s place as a cocktail ingredient has been its primary use compared to more sippable 100% agave liquids. There are some cocktails that can carry a mixto – larger formats like big batch Margaritas – while others need more body or flavour. “To make a Tequila Manhattan or Martini, then you may not have the body of flavour you’d need with a mixto,” admits Lanfear, but she sees ABV rather than the style of Tequila as a more important factor when it comes to cocktail structure. To use a lower ABV Tequila in a cocktail, she says, is “like using your finishing salt to season your pasta water.”

Is mixto more sustainable?

Conversations around sustainability also bring mixtos into the mix. Agave takes a minimum of seven years to mature – if mixtos use less agave, surely that makes them more sustainable? While Ivy Mix doesn’t see the need to make mixtos due to the sheer abundance of blue agave in Mexico, Hayes thinks the growing agave crisis is an important factor to take into account when we think about the future of the category. Lanfear agrees – anything to slow down the industrialisation of Tequila – but Moncrieffe isn’t so convinced. “It is maybe more sustainable, but what if you’re using twice the amount? It depends on the size of your operation. I understand the argument, I’m not 100% sure it’s legitimate.”

Mix instead is far more interested in hybrid Tequilas that use less agave. “I think there could be ways for sure to make a product that was interesting. Imagine if I took some sort of ideally Mexican product, for instance some of the amazing rums coming out of Mexico, and made a 51% lowland tahona-milled excellent Tequila then made the other bit an amazing Mexican rum. As far as I know nobody is doing that.”

Changing perceptions

When it comes to looking at the future of mixtos, Hayes is not unaware of the challenges his brand faces, but early interest is quelling some of those fears. “We’ve been inundated, two or three request a week, with people wanting to import El Sueño. They’ve just taken on ex-bartender and mixto cynic Jo Wilde on board as an ambassador (“he used to be that guy, – I think he actually had a T-shirt saying ‘No mixto’ on it), while a NYC distributor of Vivir recently took on El Sueño too. It’s just launched in 1,000 venues in Australia as well.

Mixtos may still have a way to go to change its image – but it looks like the tides might (slowly) be turning. Pass me a lime juicer.

El Sueno

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China’s baijiu giants: the most valuable drinks companies in the world

Looking for a hot share tip? Ian Buxton looks at whether you might be best off investing in China’s rapidly growing national spirit baijiu. The top three most valuable drinks…

Looking for a hot share tip? Ian Buxton looks at whether you might be best off investing in China’s rapidly growing national spirit baijiu. The top three most valuable drinks companies in the world are all Chinese, relegating the mighty Diageo to fourth place. Most of this growth is based on the domestic market but now baijiu is slowly taking off in the West.

Have you ever heard of Wuliangye Yibin Co. Ltd? No? Then perhaps you’re more familiar with the Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery Joint-Stock Co. Ltd.

As you’ve probably realised, they’re Chinese. What you may not know is that these companies are very large – some might say, huge. We’re hearing a lot more about Chinese businesses these days, whether it’s their impact on global supply chains, employment or environmental practices or their effect on their Western competitors and our economies.

Baijiu production at Ming River

Baijiu production at Ming River

The most valuable drinks companies in the world

In fact, if we look at the ten largest drinks companies in the world, ranked by market capitalisation, then remarkably three of them are Chinese. What’s more, they would have proved a great investment over the past year. Shares in the Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery have more or less doubled in the last twelve months, while investors in Wuliangye Yibin are toasting an increase of more than 130%.

By comparison, good old Diageo – well known to all readers for its Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, Gordon’s and a cluster of single malts, to name just a few of its brands – appear in a modest fourth place in the global ranking and its shares have managed to grow by less than 15%. Actually, considering what’s been going on recently, that might have been thought a reasonable performance until compared to the Chinese cohort.

A booming market

And I haven’t mentioned the world’s number one drinks business yet. Showing an annual growth in value of just over 100%; a market capitalisation of around US$450billion and assets of US$25.6bn, please give a big Master of Malt welcome to Kweichow Moutai Co. Ltd., with its headquarters in Renhuai, China. Even more remarkably, it’s not even located in a major centre: Renhuai is comparatively sparsely populated by Chinese standards, with fewer than 750,000 inhabitants in the relatively poor and economically undeveloped province of Guizhou.

Despite this, and despite the fact that around 97% of its sales remain within China, high-end bottles from Kweichow Moutai can and do sell for over $40,000. That’s Macallan pricing, serious money by any standards. A 1935 vintage bottle of Moutai, a brand that’s collected by investors and reportedly produced in small batches to maintain its air of exclusivity, has sold for £1.2 million ($1.7 million) at auction according to reports in Forbes.

Cocktail making with Fenjiu 10 Years Old

Baijiu companies like Fenjiu are using cocktails to appeal to Western drinkers

It’s baijiu!

So what’s going on? Well, it’s baijiu – the biggest-selling spirit you’ve may not have even heard of, let alone tried. For those who don’t know, baijiu is a clear, pungent high-alcohol liquid distilled from fermented sorghum, rice or other grains. It’s China’s national spirit, typically purchased by the bottle and drunk as shots. It appears in the home, at business dinners and state banquets and is widely employed in the Chinese tradition of gifting. Some adherents also hold that it has medicinal properties and can strengthen the immune system – handy right now, though not a view endorsed by conventional medical science.

Sales have rocketed recently. And while Western drinks companies try to build their small foothold in China, leading Chinese brands are now trying to take baijiu onto the international stage. Take Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, already available in European markets and launching soon in two dozen US states in a partnership with Sazerac. Others will surely follow – in fact, Master of Malt already offers seven different brands at prices from £30 to over £160.

Just as Indian beers and single malt whiskies initially gained a foothold in Indian restaurants and then expanded their reach to the wider market, expect to encounter baijiu first in Chinese restaurants where it can be enjoyed with food and shortly afterwards anticipate it on specialists’ shelves. But whether you develop a taste for baijiu’s unique charms or not, you might want to call your stockbroker.

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