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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Royal Brackla rediscovers its regal form

The first royal Scotch whisky is once again having a crack at the core range game, introducing three new aged single malts, all finished in sherry casks. We tasted and…

The first royal Scotch whisky is once again having a crack at the core range game, introducing three new aged single malts, all finished in sherry casks. We tasted and were very impressed. Royal Brackla may just have found the winning formula.

Last week we headed to Berry Bros. and Rudd in St. James’s, London to taste the new Royal Brackla core range. The revamped selection is made up of three age statement whiskies matured in sherry casks: a 12-year-old matured in Oloroso, an 18-year-old in Palo Cortado and a 21-year-old in a combination of Pedro Ximénez, Oloroso and Palo Cortado. 

A relaunch of a relaunch

The range was first announced in October 2019 but the launch has only just taken place, possibly because of that pandemic thing. But it’s not the first time Royal Brackla has attempted to relaunch. Owners John Dewar & Sons LTD, itself part of Bacardi, introduced a core range as part of ‘The Last Great Malt’s’ initiative it created back in 2014 along with other distilleries under its wing. Former owners United Distillers Vintners (which later formed part of Diageo) had a crack too with the Flora & Fauna range in the early 1990s, consisting of a 12, 16 and 21-year-old, and there have been other single malt releases over the years.

None have ever truly made a mark, however, for a brand that could be argued as being the least known of Dewar’s five distilleries. Throughout its history, Royal Brackla has mostly been used in blends. Is it simply the case that this is a distillery destined to always play a supporting role? Well, not on the basis of what I’ve been tasting this week. 

Royal Brackla

The new range in all its at the launch event

The first royal whisky

And not if you know your history too. What most Scotch whisky fans could tell you about Royal Brackla is how it got its name. The distillery was the first Scotch whisky producer to be granted a Royal Warrant, and to do this day is one of only three to ever hold the title (there’s a pub quiz question for you – can anyone name the other two?). What’s really remarkable is this seal of approval from King William IV in 1833 came just over 20 years after the Highland distillery was founded by Captain William Fraser of Brackla House on the estate of Cawdor Castle (fans of the Scottish play will recognise this), near Nairn in 1812. 

Capt. Fraser was a controversial man. As a campaigner for a change in legislation, he helped pave the way for the introduction of the Excise Act of 1823, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky for a license fee, and paved the way for the modern whisky industry. This made him deeply unpopular with the vast network of illicit distillers, of course, and history hasn’t always been kind to him. That position has been revised recently and Matthew Cordiner, global brand ambassador for single malts at Bacardi Global Brands, says he was known as warm-hearted and generous with friends and employees, and was “just not a big fan of extortionate taxes on ageing stock, which I’m sure any Scotsman would attest to even today”. 

Changing ownership

His pioneering ways led to some early success for the distillery, not least with royalty but also with the London elites who bought his whisky readily. Capt. Fraser would ship orders of his whisky down frequently, which is pretty neat as William IV was known as the ‘Sailor King’. In 1846, however, Fraser died and by 1879 his family’s connection with Royal Brackla came to an end. Like most distilleries, Royal Brackla has since spent much of the next century and more passing through a number of hands. Mitchell & Leict of Aberdeen, John Bisset & Co, and DCL all previously owned Royal Brackla until Bacardi got involved. At one point Andrew Usher, famous for helping to establish Scotch a global drink, was an agent for Royal Brackla and became a director in 1887, using its whisky in the first commercialised blend: Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla Distillery

An undercover single malt

But for much of the modern era, the distillery has been something of a secret, despite its history, spectacular surroundings, and distinctive spirit. Things only really took a turn in the right direction for Royal Brackla when savvy marketing manager Stephen Marshall realised about a decade ago that nowhere near enough of this interesting and varied whisky was being bottled as single malt. 

Fortunately for Marshall, he was able to call upon the impressive Stephanie MacLeod to help set things right. Having joined the company in 1998, the same year Bacardi-Martini bought the distillery from Diageo, she became master blender in 2006. It’s in the last few years, however, that she’s made her biggest impact, revitalising the likes of Dewar’s, Aberfeldy, and Craigellachie to such as standard that MacLeod recently became the first person to be named master blender of the year at the International Whisky Competition three years in a row.

What she’s working with at Royal Brackla is a distillery that’s all about clear wort, long fermentation (70 hours), long foreshots (20mins) and a slow distillation in two stills that emphasise copper contact and have angled, ascending lyne arms. The process and equipment are designed to capture esters and increase reflux to create the signature house style, one that’s elegant and fruity, with a crisp acidity that global brand ambassador Matthew Cordiner describes as a “summer breeze”.

The right sherry casks

This fresh and fragrant profile may sound delicate, but it’s a deft combination that cuts through the powerful, distinctive flavours you get when maturing whisky in ex-sherry casks. MacLeod spent several years of trialling and exploring different varieties, eventually choosing three from Bodegas Jose y Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain: Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez and the considerably rarer Palo Cortado. MacLeod says these styles were chosen to “complement the distillery’s signature character, not mask it”, adding that the secondary maturation phase gives “an extra dimension to the whisky – like a layer of icing on a cake – it adds the finishing touch”. 

But that’s not the biggest change that will interest hardcore whisky fans. No, that’s the decision to ramp things up with no more 40% ABV, chill-filtration or additional colouring. The new Royal Brackla core range is full of big, bold 46% ABV drams that are bottled au-natural, baby. Rejoice, whisky geeks. Several times in the launch event the statement “you spoke and we listened” is said, referencing the number of times the brand was chastised at whisky shows for committing the sacrilege of bottling its whisky in any kind of adulterated fashion.

By prioritising quality single malts with an understanding of which casks elevate its spirit and doing away with post-maturation adulteration, Royal Brackla has managed to do something really impressive. The distillery has changed its spots. The whisky before was always enjoyable, but simply put the old core range always felt too safe and ultimately uninspiring. Which is why Royal Brackla continued to under the radar.

Royal Brackla

This is a return to form for Scotland’s first royal distillery

Tradition and innovation

Cordiner says a common misconception of a brand like Royal Brackla is that, because it’s an old distillery, it’s bound to be stuck in its ways. “But I think this new range proves that whilst we have an amazing history and legacy which we are immensely proud of, we are progressive in our approach to whisky making”. 

I agree. And the reward is a really genuinely compelling and worthy core range fit for a king. The only misstep is pricing, which is pitched too high when compared to some drams of a similar quality, and the fact that the 12 Year Old does lose some subtlety and finesse in the bid to add more personality. The slight discovery you lose, however, is redeemed by the fact that what you will find is a host of full-blooded Oloroso goodness that means the 12 Year Old still manages to be a rewarding sipper that will be a treat for fans of uncompromising, no-fuss sherried whisky. 

Where’s there more intrigue, complexity, and personality to be found in the stately 21 Year Old, which exemplifies MacLeod’s “exceptional ability to create balance” as Cordiner puts it so well and more so in the standout 18 Year Old. It’s one of my highlights of the year, with a bright, bold and evolving profile full of citrus zing, spice, and fruit. MacLeod is evidently a woman on form and she’s done a sublime job here for my money. Good thing the whiskies have all just recently arrived here at MoM Towers. 

You can purchase the new Royal Brackla core range here

Tasting notes from the Chaps at Master of Malt

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla 12 Year Old

Nose: There’s a wave of Oloroso goodness initially with nutmeg, orange marmalade, marzipan and black fruit compote. Caramel, toasted almonds, musky oak and overripe banana are then joined by sweet pear, apples and peaches as well as that bright, elegant Royal Brackla freshness, this time characterised by cut green grass and pine needles. 

Palate: The texture is delicate but carries rich flavours of dark chocolate, walnut and black cherries. Black tea, toffee, orchard fruit and cinnamon are present throughout alongside some bright acidity carrying Brackla DNA.

Finish: The finish is long, spicy (star anise, black pepper, ginger) and possesses more hints of fruit and chocolate.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla 18 Year Old

Nose: Lemon peel, dried apricot, salted caramel and almond flakes atop cherry Bakewells lead in a fresh, fragrant and complex nose. Sour apple cubes, acacia honey, rich fruit and a touch of pencil shavings develop with sherried spice (cinnamon mostly), subtle leather and tobacco as well as plenty of that grassiness in tow.

Palate: Orange sherbet, raisins and a flicker of aromatic baking spice is balanced by Conference pears, vanilla, rhubarb and apple crumble and herbal tea. In the backdrop, there’s some hazelnuts as well as honeyed, waxy and grassy undertones. 

Finish: Refined, citrusy and delicately spicy with a teaspoon of cacao powder thrown in for good measure.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla 21 Year Old

Nose: Caramel, blackcurrant jam and stewed fruits kick things off with demerara sugar, dark chocolate, antique wood and manuka honey close behind. Rich and sherried but still supple and delicate, the nose also reveals soaked sultanas, Christmas cake, orange peel, dried grass, walnut, star anise and a touch of peppermint.

Palate: A breezy start, with dried, syrupy fruits, fragrant citrus and pine needle freshness taking hold initially before things become deeper and bolder as the palate develops. The fruits are ripe but darker, there’s chocolate ice cream, treacle toffee, liquorice and some salinity too. Throughout there are hints of fruit cake, apricot, black tea and some of that bright acidity keeping the energy going. 

Finish: More stewed fruits, sherried fruit and a dusting of muscovado sugar. 

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Ken Grier on what makes an investment-grade spirit

After a recent tasting of Dictador’s latest 2 Masters release, MoM caught up with affable marketing mastermind Ken Grier to find out just what makes a spirit ‘investment grade’.   “I help people…

After a recent tasting of Dictador’s latest 2 Masters release, MoM caught up with affable marketing mastermind Ken Grier to find out just what makes a spirit investment grade.  

“I help people do cool stuff,” says Grier, explaining his job. “I did it for Macallan for 20 years and I had a lot of fun. Now I do it for other people. These are not just vanity projects, it’s about connecting with consumers in a highly distinctive manner: telling stories, making people dream, helping people to feel smarter, cooler and giving them more status. A moment of really special enjoyment where you go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’ve opened that’.

Grier helped to put The Macallan on the world stage. After retiring from the Scotch mega brand’s parent company, Edrington in 2018, he set up his own consultancy firm, De-Still, where he helps brands to reach their potential. A potential that often includes becoming an ‘investment grade spirit’. He describes investment-grade spirits as having a particular cocktail of ingredients, including provenance and often some history.

The second thing we can say is that they would normally carry some degree of distinctiveness in terms of liquid. Whether that be a rarity, a complexity within that. These things make something collectible. There is definitely something about scarcity and genuine rarity.

Investment-grade spirits also have a certain aesthetic, Grier explains, whether that’s simple elegance or an activation such as the £50,000-a-bottle Bowmore and Aston Martin collaboration.

You either want something that gives an incredible user experience or something that makes people feel there is some arbitrage there – that they feel they bought smartly, they have the respect of their friends, they feel good about it. And they might make a small return on it.

Ken Grier

Ken Grier in his Macallan days (photo courtesy of Macallan)

Beyond whisky

While whisky is firmly on the investment-grade radar, Grier says there are other categories that are interesting. Though he also suggests it’s often more about the brand than the category.

Rather than rum per se, if we look at Dictador in particular, and the cocktail we talked about, it ticks a lot of the boxes. It has been around since 1913, third-generation master blender and the remarkable cache of very old rum that they’ve carefully curated in good wood is amazing.

He also points to collaborations such as the latest Dictador 2 Masters Niepoort. The ultra-premium limited edition is the work of Port winemaker Dirk van der Niepoort and Dictador’s master blender Hernan Parra. The £800 rum is made from four vintage Columbian rums from 1971, ‘74, ‘78 and ‘80 aged for 12-16 months in Port pipes.

Innovation in 2 Masters has created something unique. This idea of having real friendships, real collaborations in different terroirs, different climates is really exciting,” Grier adds.

Elsewhere, he mentions Mezcal and his client Amores’ Logia project, which makes use of wild agave. “The limit on the production is the amount of agave a donkey can carry,” he says. “It goes into the areas of scarcity and it’s a very different product experience because the agaves are very different.

Both Cognac and baijiu – and the Martell and Moutai brands in particular are on Grier’s investment-grade radar. But baijiu aside, he says it’s a tough area for white spirits. White spirits are more difficult,” he says. Some of them do have some provenance – Beefeater for example – but they don’t have rarity.

Ken Grier investment

It’s not just whisky that makes for a sound spirit investment

Secondary market

Now we know what makes an investment grade spirit, what’s in it for the drinks companies that make them? Well, Grier agrees “100%” that selling spirits on the secondary market is a good PR exercise for the producers and he speculates that The Macallan is now 39% of the entire Scotch whisky market at auction.

“I’m a big, big fan,he says of the secondary market, which can build caché for a brand and establish price points, “which can be helpful”. He also says the secondary market helps to expose brands to a wider category of people and in a different way.

Whether people use auctions to find liquid that will create a special connection with friends or as alternative asset classes, Grier says the secondary market is “very, very useful”. “Places like Sotheby’s do a great job,” he adds. “The way that they actually publicise brands, bring them to more people, tell interesting stories… and very often that raises good money for charity.” He mentions a Macallan that raised $460,000 for Charity: water.

Ken Grier investment

The Macallan Masters of Photography

To drink, collect, or both?

While there are benefits to the secondary market, there are some that believe spirits should be consumed – and not traded.

To me, it’s both,” says Grier. The liquid in the bottle is always at the centre. When I did the stuff at The Macallan, like Masters of Photography, the M Decanter, they were beautiful and interesting objet dart, but the liquid was also superb. It was put together for a specific purpose; it was aligned to the story and part of the whole objet d’art. And I’m proud of that.

“Ultimately, all of these things should be capable of being consumed and enjoyed. Because the purpose of alcoholic beverages is to consume and enjoy them,” he adds.

Grier says people chose to keep some products back because they are beautiful and because of the scarcity and intrinsic value.

“People see a value in them which is fine. And if people want to do that, that’s great. It’s when people buy them and flip them very quickly that I get worried for the industry because that means people are trying to make a very quick profit without really understanding.”

He highlights the many approaches to investment grade spirits, including the love, care and knowledge displayed by collectors as well as smart purchasers and those that open and enjoy the liquid.

“I’ve seen all sorts of things,” he says, “but if you specifically have in your mind to buy today and sell tomorrow, I’m not sure what that necessarily does for the industry.

Ken Grier investment

Casks are a tricky market to get right

The potential perils of casks

At this point in our conversation, talk turns to casks. There has been a lot in the press lately about the perils of buying casks as an investment opportunity.

“If you have a wonderful cask from a great make – a Balvenie, a Bowmore, Laphroaig, then that’s to be applauded, bottled carefully, enjoyed, and savoured. I think it’s a lot of the casks from no-name companies – ‘whisky 568% growth! Outstrips any other index!’ That’s when you’ve got to be a bit worried.

Grier reminds us that good wood is the basis of good whisky – and he says that if you’re careful about the type of wood, the type of spirit from a reputable brand, and the way it’s matured, then a cask is something that can be a legacy.

He also reveals his own legacy: “I’ve got a cask of Macallan that I laid down and I prize that.” He says it will be for his own consumption with his friends and family. (Ken, can we be your friend?)

Ken Grier

Ken Grier at the recent launch for Dictador 2 Masters Niepoort

How to get into investment-grade spirits

When it comes to offering advice on buying high-value booze, Grier has some wise words. “The first thing is: be clear on what your budget is, then look at the character of the liquid – it’s got to be something that is interesting. I’d certainly look at the brand – what do you know about it? Its heritage? Then I’d ask myself what character am I looking for from that liquid and over what time horizon? Do I want to enjoy it or keep hold of it and hope for future appreciation? Am I collecting? Be clear with your objectives. If you do that, it’s very difficult to go wrong.

Our chat winds down with a look at Grier’s own investments, which include a bottle of the 1972 Macallan Fine and Rare, which was bottled in 2002.

“I paid £500 for it, there were only 100 bottles in the cask… I saw one come up recently and it was £26,000, so that was decent,” he says.

And we part with one last story, a tale that suggests even the experts aren’t immune to the odd ‘accidentally-opened bottle’.

Grier tells the story of when his mother-in-law came to stay a few years ago, to look after the children while he went away.

“I left her a bottle of Famous Grouse – she was a Famous Grouse drinker. I came back and to my horror, my blue box bottle of 30-year-old Macallan was almost empty. That’s probably three and a half grand,” he says. Though he was happy there was a thimble left to try.

Nevertheless, an expensive babysitter.

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Return to the Copper Rivet Distillery

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of…

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of a fancy new restaurant. But that’s not all! There’s a grain whisky coming soon too. We took a trip to Chatham to find out more.

Distilleries often come with spectacular views but on a sunny day, it’s hard to think of a better one than Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery and its surroundings. It’s housed in a beautifully restored Victorian Italianate pumping station on the River Medway with boats sailing by, and historic Rochester with its castle and cathedral across the way. 

If it was in Sydney or Porto, there would be hoards of Instagrammers trying to get the perfect shot but because it’s in a rundown bit of Kent, nobody bats an eyelid. 

We visited back in 2018 but since then the team has released two single malts whiskies, a column and a pot still, and opened a restaurant overlooking the river. Plus there were rumours of an exciting new whisky which might be released in time for Christmas. How could we resist another invitation?

Copper Rivet Distillery

They built some beautiful things did the Victorians

Steeped in alcohol 

As distiller Abhi Banik was on holiday we were shown around by his number two, Aaron Fayose, a former engineering student from the University of Greenwich, and Bob Russell from the family who founded the distillery.

The Russell family have been, as Bob put it, “steeped in alcohol since the 1980s.” The business began with a wine bar in Rainham progressed to a group of off-licenses, and then supplying boozy gift packs to supermarkets and department stores.

But they always wanted to create their very own drinks brand. Eventually, after much searching, they found the perfect site for a distillery, the old pumping station in Chatham Dockyard. They needed a building with a high roof as they had to have space for a column to make their own neutral alcohol – something very rare among gin distillers. 

They bought the derelict building in Chatham dockyards in 2015. It was first used to pump water in and out of dry docks, the giant cast iron pump is still in place, and then later as a training venue for the sailors. The town’s economy had for 400 years been built around the ships, and it suffered greatly when the Royal Navy pulled out in 1984.

Much of the dockyard’s infrastructure was left to decay. There was no gas, electricity or water when they were allowed in the pump house in November 2015, and according to Russell, what is now the car park was a quagmire. They managed to get it operational by October 2016, ready for the official opening by Princess Anne in December 2017. It is named the Copper Rivet Distillery as a tribute to the town’s rich shipbuilding heritage. 

The Banik still

Photo of a man taking a photo, with Banik still in the background

The Banik still

The Russell family, Bob and his sons Stephen and Matthew, put their dream in the hands of Abhishek Banik, a young Indian distiller who graduated from and was teaching at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh.

He designed the entire set-up from scratch and it was built using local engineering works. According to Russell, there’s still a lot of skills around from when Chatham was the dockyard to the Navy. 

At Copper Rivet, there’s a single pot still, a 40 plate column still and a very special gin still which recently received a patent. Called a Banik still after its inventor, it can macerate heavier botanicals and infuse lighter botanicals at the same time, while protecting the more delicate ones from the heat source.

Bananas all the way

One entering the still room, the first thing I could smell was a distinct banana note from the wort. It’s a flavour that carries through into Copper Rivet’s final products. 

The gin, vodka and grain whisky are all made from a mixture of 40% wheat, 25% malted barley, 25% barley 10% rye. All the grain comes from one farm on the nearby Isle of Sheppey.

On our last visit, Banik told us that at the mashing stage, the aim is to create a clear wort for a fruitier new make. This is then fermented slowly, over the course of about seven days, using two different yeast strains. In order to make sure it happens slowly, Banik uses about half the normal amount of yeast.

This multi-grain wash then goes through a pot still followed by the column where it comes off as neutral alcohol at 96% ABV. I say neutral but when you taste the spirit diluted in the form of Vela Vodka, there’s no shortage of flavour: that banana note, a creamy mouthfeel and a hit of rye on the finish. Bring on the Baltic snacks! No wonder it won double gold in the San Francisco Spirits Competition.

You can taste the sheer quality of the spirit in Dockyard Gin, a beautifully balanced citrus-led classic dry gin. We also tried a strawberry gin, made by macerating Kentish strawberries in Dockyard for around 10 days – and that’s it. No flavours or colouring. With its subtle yet pronounced taste of fresh strawberries, I can imagine it would work wonders bolstering a Pimm’s and lemonade.

Masthouse whiskies

The two Masthouse whiskies with Bob Russell in the background

Whisky business

Most excitingly, since our last visit, Copper Rivet has released two Masthouse single malt whiskies, a pot still and a column. Both are made from Isle of Sheppey barley, malted at Muntons in East Anglia. The Russell family has issued something called the Invicta charter, a set of rules for how whisky should be made and labelled. 

The main points are that grains have to come from within 50 miles of the distillery, all operations after malting but including fermentation must take place under one roof and it includes a system for labelling whisky that is clear to the consumer stating the grains and type of still used.

The same slow-fermented malted barley wash is the basis for both single malts. Following distillation in a column or pot, they are aged predominantly in ex-bourbon casks with some virgin American oak. The ageing is interesting, with all casks spending one year in the distillery where it gets very hot in the summer, up to 40 degrees Celsius, but goes down to 6 degrees in the winter. So not dissimilar to bourbon ageing. They then send the casks to a temperature-controlled bonded warehouse in Liverpool. So far they have filled around 600 barrels.

Bob Russell told me that an unnamed Scots distiller had said that the three-year-old Masthouse malts had the maturity and balance of eight-year-old Scotch whiskies. 

Tasting Masthouse whiskies

This focus on quality and precision every step of the way has really paid off. You can read what I thought of the pot still malt here in detail. To summarise, I’d say it was about the best young single malt I’ve ever tried: fruity, harmonious, packed with flavour but not overworked, the use of oak is just perfect. Banik has avoided the two pitfalls of young malts: trying to get too much flavour in from different cask types and making the resulting whisky rather hard work, or just creating something pleasant but a bit bland.

Both are bottled at 45% ABV (there is also a cask strength pot still which I didn’t try) but the column tastes noticeably different. There’s less oak on the nose with oaty cereal, spicy rye and lots of fruit such as peaches, and oranges. When you taste it, the body is lighter, you don’t get the rich mouthfeel and it is a little spirity. Perhaps not as harmonious as the pot still but then flavours of toffee and caramel come in at the end, with a long lingering sweet finish. It’ll make a great Highball. 

Coming soon…

Finally, Fayose had a treat for us, a cask sample of the forthcoming single grain whisky. This comes off the column at a lower ABV than the neutral grain, Russell said around 80%, before going into cask. There’s that banana note on the nose, custard, baking spices and tropical fruit with no raw spirit notes. Then in the mouth, it’s spice city with chilli, black pepper and a feel like popping candy on the finish. Masses of character –  this will be a killer mixing whisky. I think bartenders will love it.

Russell also mentioned, tantalisingly, Banik has been over to Jerez to source some sherry casks from a small producer. Nothing has been filled yet but the thought of a sherry cask Masthouse is extremely exciting. I’d love to see a blended whisky when they have enough casks filled. Wouldn’t that be great?

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery, with THAT view behind

Appreciating that view

Following the tasting, Russell took us through to the terrace overlooking the river. During the lockdown, the team turned this part of the distillery into a restaurant and tapas bar called the Pumproom. The original cast iron pump is still there, in the wine store. They’ve hired chef Will Freeman who makes full use of Kent’s great produce. Bob Russell is a big seafood fan.

I had some beautifully-seared scallops served with cured trout, followed by a minute steak with chips. All around, people were enjoying the food, drinks and that incredible view. Chatham becoming a tourist destination? Why not?

The Copper Rivet is available from Master of Malt.

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Unconventional cocktails for National Tequila Day

Día Nacional del Tequila (or National Tequila Day) is on Saturday 24 July and there’s no better way to celebrate than with Tequila-based cocktails. But why go conventional when you…

Día Nacional del Tequila (or National Tequila Day) is on Saturday 24 July and there’s no better way to celebrate than with Tequila-based cocktails. But why go conventional when you can seriously mix things up and make some unique serves?

National Tequila Day is a brilliant opportunity to celebrate one of Mexico’s finest exports (the other being mezcal. Well, any agave-based spirits. Also all the food. Actually, Mexico has loads of amazing things. I’m not going to list them all). Booze made from agave is really having a deserved moment in the sun in recent years so now is the perfect time to embrace this wonderful, diverse, and interesting world.

Part of which entails broadening your horizons and trying something new. You see, perceptions of Tequila have evolved past the previous mistaken understanding of it being purely a shot-fodder party spirit. This is a cultural, sophisticated, and magnificent spirit that you can sip neat or enjoy in classic cocktails. 

Or, cocktails that aren’t so classic. Serves you might associate with other spirits or bespoke creations from elite bartenders. Ever had a Tequila-based Negroni or Old Fashioned? Well, you should. Because they’re fantastic.

But, stepping outside your comfort zone can be intimidating. Like the first time you tried olives or ventured onto the London Underground. So we’ve made it easier by giving you some cracking recipes to get started. 

Now, let’s get ready to raise a glass this National Tequila Day!

cocktails for National Tequila Day

Every Rose Has Its Thorn (a.k.a Love Potion)

An original creation by Juan Coronado for the exciting new Mijenta brand, this serve is a romantic short drink that pairs vermouth, bitters, and creme de cacao with Blanco Tequila to create a refreshing and rewarding, yet simple cocktail. 

50ml of Mijenta Tequila Blanco 

75ml of Lillet Blanc

50ml of Martini Bitter

25ml Bols Creme de Cacao (White)

Stir all ingredients with plenty of ice, strain into a rocks glass with a large ice cube. Garnish with a rose petal.

cocktails for National Tequila Day

Storywood Train Line Collins 

The Collins is an easy but effective serve that has been a favourite in the gin world for some time. But it’s no bother at all to ditch the juniper in favour of a tasty Tequila twist on the classic, as this beauty from Scotland’s own Storywood (yes, you read that right) demonstrates.

50ml Storywood Añejo

10ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

10ml Maraschino Liqueur

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Soda water

Shake the lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, and Storywood Tequila in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Strain into an ice-filled Highball glass and top with soda water and add the bitters on the top. Garnish with a wedge of lemon and a Maraschino cherry.

cocktails for National Tequila Day

Mojito Blanco

Leave regular Mojitos in the past and create the ultimate summer refresher with this easy and tasty recipe from Tequila giant Don Julio. Fresh mint and lime, please. We’re doing this right.

45ml Don Julio Blanco 

30ml simple syrup

30ml lime juice 

8-10 Mint leaves

Soda water

Muddle fresh mint in a cocktail shaker. Add the rest of the ingredients except club soda. Pour into a highball glass filled with ice. Shake vigorously and pour into the glass. Top with soda water and garnish with a sprig of fresh peppermint.

cocktails for National Tequila Day

Patrón Añejo Old Fashioned

This simple Tequila Old Fashioned cocktail recipe is enhanced with sweet, oak-aged Patrón Añejo. Whisky isn’t the only spirit to shine in this serve. Feel free to experiment with your choice of bitters.

60ml Patrón Añejo

7.5ml simple syrup

A dash of Angostura Bitters

Over a double Old Fashioned glass, use a vegetable peeler to take off two strips of orange zest, making sure to express the oil into the glass. Add Patrón Añejo, simple syrup, and bitters. Add ice and stir. 

cocktails for National Tequila Day

VIVIR Negroni 

The classic Negroni cocktail is made with three balanced components: gin, Campari, and vermouth. But this simple formula can be customized to different tastes and the right Tequila will shine in this serve. Hence why we’ve used the outstanding VIVIR. For an added twist, garnish with a cucumber instead to bring out the vibrant fresh notes of the Tequila.

40ml VIVIR Blanco Tequila

30ml Campari

30ml Sweet Vermouth

Orange peel garnish

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with loads of ice then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

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What to expect from: O’Shaughnessy Distillery

Whiskey fans are always excited about the arrival of a new distillery. But the opening of the doors at the O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company in August is more hotly anticipated than…

Whiskey fans are always excited about the arrival of a new distillery. But the opening of the doors at the O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company in August is more hotly anticipated than most. Why? We spoke to Irish whiskey legend and master distiller Brian Nation to find out.

“What you can expect from the O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company is innovation. Whiskies, and flavour profiles, that you may not have tasted before. I really feel that this is going to be a great success from a point of view of bringing whiskies to market that have not necessarily been seen before”. 

Most whiskey fans will know Brian Nation for the 23 years he spent at Irish Distillers, most notably as master distiller overseeing the production of Redbreast, Powers, Midleton and Jameson whiskey. There he established a reputation as a distiller who made whiskey to an exceptionally high standard and put his infectious personality to good use as an ambassador for these brands. But in 2020 it was announced that Nation was swapping, err… nations and heading to Minneapolis, the USA to join the O’Shaughnessey Distilling Company. It was a big shock in the whiskey world and the man himself recognises it’s a significant change.

“If you said a couple of years ago that I would leave Irish Distillers to work in a new distillery being built in Minneapolis I’d have said you were mad!” Nation says. “My family have never lived outside Cork. It’s a huge move. But when the founders reached out back in November 2019 they offered me an opportunity to be involved in building a brand from the ground up. It was a chance to develop a new distillery in a new country. And to both bring my expertise and my experience to American whiskey and add to it”. 

O'Shaughnessy Distillery

Brian Nation in his new American home

Making American whiskey in an Irish tradition

The chance O’Shaughnessy Distillery was giving Nation was to be involved at the inception of an intriguing and ambitious brand that aims to marry the best of Irish and American whiskey-making traditions. Founded by cousins Patrick and Michael O’Shaughnessy, they came up with the idea of an American whiskey brand that would honour their Irish heritage after a family reunion. “They’re proud of their Irish-American background and thought ‘why not build a distillery in America that’s inspired by traditional Irish production methods and style. A home-away-from-home?’ What they have created is a distillery capable of producing whiskies with a DNA inspired by Irish single pot still as well as triple distillation in copper pot stills,” Nation says.

In order to achieve this lofty goal, the brand has made a number of high profile appointments, including hiring former Diageo executive Mike Duggan as CEO and David Perkins, the founder of High West Distillery. But it was the luring of Nation from the biggest Irish whiskey brand in the world that really made the whiskey-appreciating public stand up and pay attention. If you’re going to create American whiskey using traditional Irish processes, then there’s surely no better man for the job.

“I’m very fortunate when you consider the experience and the training that I got in my previous life. To be part of Irish Distillers was something that I was, and always will be, proud of,” Nation says. “There was pressure there and now there’s a different type of pressure here. But the way I look at it is it’s an exciting opportunity”. 

A range of different products are already planned, but we understand the brand’s flagship whiskies will be made from 100% American grains with a single pot still-influenced mash bill that includes malted and unmalted barley, which will be triple-distilled and the resulting spirit then matured in virgin American oak casks. “The whiskey should make for an interesting departure from the key American styles of bourbon and rye whiskey,” Nation says.

The distillery will also produce those more classic styles too, “some of which are in that pot distillation style and using the triple distillation process in order to maintain a consistent profile,” Nation explains. He adds: “The key is to get the correct balance of flavours from the distillate and enhance it with that lovely stronger wood contribution from the use of virgin American oak”. 

O'Shaughnessy Distillery

Three impressive copper pot stills is an unfamiliar sight in an American distillery

The O’Shaughnessy Distillery process

This means we should be seeing pretty unique whiskey flowing off the O’Shaughnessy stills. Column still distillation is more common in American whiskey and you’d be hard-pressed to find many brands using triple distillation. In order to retain flexibility, however, Nation had an input in the distillery’s construction, ensuring the pot stills were versatile enough to switch between triple and double distillation as he pleased.

There’s also a column still to produce more classic bourbon whiskey, as well as a dedicated gin still and a vodka still. The branding for both the distillery’s gin and vodka has already been teased and they will be called Guard & Gate and Tower Hill respectively.

Explaining the production process of O’Shaughnessy Distillery’s whiskies in full, Nation says “we start by bringing whole grains into different silos, which will then go through a four-roller mill into a grist case which will pneumatically send the grain over to our mash cooker. Then we mix our water and our grain into our mash cooker. For the column side, we will do our high-temperature cooking, while the batch or the pot still we will do different temperatures for our conversion as required by what we’re making in that run”.

He continues: “Currently, we have four fermenters, with the capacity to go to six. After fermentation, the liquid will go either to the column or the pot stills. We have three copper pot stills, a wash still, a feint still, and a spirit still for our triple distillation process. A five compartment vessel will take each of the intermediate products and our final distillate. Once we collect the heart of the distillate we will then reduce that down to casking strength and send it off into our barrels”. 

As far as the brand’s wood programme goes, right now all Nation can confirm is that the bulk of maturation will take place in virgin American barrels, with some refill barrels also being put to good use. He does add, “Who knows, over time we might start using some other seasoned oak barrels as well. There’s a great flexibility that we will have at the distillery, in relation to using different cereal types, using different yeast types, producing different distillate styles. I think we’ll develop a matrix of whiskies”.

Nation is also excited to experience a different maturation climate. “I’m actually looking forward to having this thing I believe are called ‘seasons’. We don’t really get those in Ireland. In Minneapolis, you have very cold winters and then you have lovely summers. It’s going to be interesting to see the impact that it has on maturation”. 

O'Shaughnessy Distillery

The upcoming Keeper’s Heart brand

Gin and vodka won’t be the only thing to occupy Nation while he waits for his innovative new whiskey to mature. O’Shaughnessy Distillery is going down the familiar route of launching a brand of whiskey made by blending various imported liquids to create a flavour that comes close to what they want the eventual O’Shaughnessy distillate to taste like. It’s called Keeper’s Heart and will launch this summer, with the Keeper’s Heart Cask Society, a members-only society, getting the first chance to get their hands on it. Other perks include behind-the-scenes access at the distillery, personal meetings with Brian Nation, as well as personalized bottles, tastings, and an official Key to the Keep. 

Keeper’s Heart Whiskey will very much set the tone for O’Shaughnessy Distillery. The upcoming blends will feature Irish pot still whiskey, Irish grain whiskey and rye whiskey, a combination I can’t recall ever seeing. It’s a challenge for Nation to get the balance right, but this is exactly the kind of thing he signed up for and he’s incredibly enthusiastic about how the team will make it work.

“Pot still whiskey can be robust with all the spice and fruit, but it has a lovely creamy mouthfeel. Grain whiskey is generally lighter in flavour but can take on more of the wood contribution, giving you a lot of vanilla sweetness, coupled with the fragrance and the floral flavours from the distillate itself. American Rye is a very vibrant whiskey with lots of spice. Putting the blend of those flavours together and getting right contributions of all of these aspects into one whiskey has been a magnificent learning curve,” Nation explains. “But it’s also setting the kind of marker for the types of flavour profiles that we’re trying to develop in our distillates going forward as well. It will be a good indicator of what’s to come. 

The distillery itself is an impressive sight. Multiple bar areas (one called the Potato Bar, which I just can’t get behind I’m afraid), private spaces for events, outdoor patio seating, and food service will be available. But the gleaming copper pot stills are the star of the show, a relatively uncommon sight in the States and the centerpiece of the extensive tours the distillery will run. Education about the mission to bring new flavour profiles and showcase American whiskey with an Irish slant using the traditional, quintessentially Irish method of triple-distillation and pot stills is very important to the brand, so the distillery was built with tours in mind.

One of the things that I have always been really interested in my whole career is education. Getting people to understand a little bit more about what goes into the craft of whisky-making. For us, it will be important to let people know what sets us apart and why that distillation and copper pot stills are so important. I would describe this as a unique selling point for us.” 

O'Shaughnessy Distillery

The doors open soon and some truly interesting whiskey will follow…

It’s clear speaking to Nation why The O’Shaughnessy Distillery is generating so much hype. It has the investment, ideals and personnel to create something truly interesting. And with Nation at the helm, it’s hard not to feel confident that the brand will attain its goal of creating unique whiskies that marry the best of Irish and American. Some purists might take issue. But Nation has no qualms himself. “I’m all for authenticity. For heritage. For tradition. But there’s no problem with actually marrying two traditions and cultures or taste profiles, as long as it’s done right. In such a way that you’re getting the best of both, with balance and complexity. What matters most is that you’re getting a good whiskey at the end”.

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What’s the T?: Using iced tea in cocktails

As the weather heats up, Millie Milliken takes a closer look at her favourite soft drink – the iced tea – and asks the experts how to incorporate it into…

As the weather heats up, Millie Milliken takes a closer look at her favourite soft drink – the iced tea – and asks the experts how to incorporate it into your cocktails.

Did you know that it wasn’t until 2012 that ‘iced tea’ appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, along with other new entries such as ‘ice wine’, ‘bike courier’ and ‘Darwinic’? Neither did I, and yet long before then I’d enjoyed the cold tea beverage in Florida, Malaysia and all across Europe – in fact, I’d go as far as saying that when it comes to soft drinks and cocktail lengtheners, it’s my numero uno.

In Australia, they call it ‘sun tea’, leaving an infusion of tea and water in the sun to brew over time before chilling it down with ice. Some countries sweeten it, others don’t. In Thailand, they include condensed milk to make it creamy. And let’s all take a moment to hail bubble tea, an iced milk tea traditionally served with tapioca pearls that originated from Taiwan.

Despite its surprisingly recent acceptance into official English parlance, the iced tea dates back to as early as the 1700s, where English and American cookbooks feature cold green tea in boozy tea punches. According to Revolution Tea, one such version was the 19th-century Regent’s Punch named, of course, after George IV.

Fast forward to today and bars across London and beyond and the appetite for using iced tea in cocktails seems to be mounting. From whisky specialist Milroy’s using it in one of its pre-batched cocktails, to a signature serve at Black Rock; a mezcal serve at Silver Linings and a peachy number at FAM Bar, fans of iced brews have never had it better.

iced tea

The iced tea has more boozy applications than you might think

Time for a brew

Perhaps iced tea’s most traditional guise is that of the sweetened cold black tea, most associated with the southern states of the USA. One of the earliest recipes for this iteration – and one that originated outside of the southern States – was from Mrs Mary Lincoln, the head of the Boston Cooking School in 1884. Her recipe called for cold black tea to be poured over cracked ice, lemon and two sugar cubes.

Methods of making iced tea have somewhat evolved since then. I started making iced tea for David Chang at Momofuku, we’re talking 12 to 15 years ago,” says Henrietta Lovell, arguably the doyenne of tea and the founder of Rare Tea Company, a specialist in loose-leaf premium teas sourced from all over the world. Frankly, what Lovell doesn’t know about tea isn’t worth knowing. She had just started selling tea in America and was focusing on hot tea, but Chang had other ideas. “He said, ‘I understand what you’re doing and I love your tea, but I don’t want to serve hot tea, I want to serve iced tea – and not shit iced tea’.”

So, they started work on a serve to go with a pork bun. They worked for a long time using an oolong tea and discovered the best way in which to get the flavour stability was through cold extraction (essentially extractive a substance or flavour using cold water). Why not just make a hot brew and let it cool? “When you put hot water on tea, you break down the cell structure [of the leaves] so within 20 minutes the flavour is dissipating… With cold extraction you get complete flavour stability as you don’t break down the cell structure,” explains Lovell. The same can be said of alcohol extraction and Lovell has been working hard since to encourage bartenders to adopt this proven and successful method ever since.

Lovell’s go-to recipe is to take 5g of Rare Tea Company’s loose leaf Early Grey per litre of cold water and leave it overnight. Strain it off in the morning and you’ll get a really refreshing, stable iced tea. If you want to mix it in cocktails, take the quantity up to 7g-10g per litre – “you’ll get a really intense rich flavour which you need to build more body into it for a cocktail”.

iced tea

Few people know their tea like Henrietta Lovell

Feeling peachy (and the rest)

When it comes to tea, spirit and flavour combinations, the options are endless. For Lovell, there are some favourites, like Jasmine tea and gin or rooibos with mezcal. Kuba Korżyński, general manager at whisky den Black Rock cites rooibos’ deep and rich aromas as to why it works especially well with smoky whiskies. Philip David, one half of bottled cocktail company Distill + Fill, “tequila is phenomenal with tea, bringing out those green and grassy notes.”

Having spent time in New Zealand and tended bar, David has always been fascinated with using tea in cocktails – most recently in the company’s new Afternoon Tea (which combines gin, rose vermouth, Monin raspberry iced tea syrup, fresh grapefruit juice, water and bitters). For David, having that tea flavour in a syrup is the easiest way to ensure consistency and balance.

There does seem to be one flavour that regardless of the spirit used reigns supreme: peach. According to the recipes that flurried in from bartenders on request on an industry Facebook group, peach was undoubtedly the star of the show, whether as the flavour of the iced tea or a standalone ingredient (as evidenced in two of the recipes at the end of this piece). “I essentially spend a lot of time trying to make things that taste like peach iced tea,” admits Tatjana Sendzimir of FAM Bar. “One of my favourite things is Snapple Peach Iced Tea – although I also like Lipton Peach Iced Tea too.”

A current cocktail on the agave-specialist bar’s menu is the Peachy Keen, a mix of Metaxa, Peche, camomile iced tea and soda. Sendzimir tried it with black tea but the flavour was too harsh, with the lighter more floral camomile being the more balanced option. Iced green tea and matcha is another favourite, while she is also experimenting with trying it in a shorter, Martini-style serve.

For Lovell, one of the biggest benefits of using iced tea as a mixer though is that it doesn’t have any sugar in it, so you can decide what other part of your drink can bring the sweetness.

iced tea

Afternoon Tea

Take a leaf

Black Rock’s Korżyński took me through two iced tea serves on the menu at Black Rock Tavern. First up was Toki Mizuwari(ish), inspired by the ‘mizuwari’ method of cutting whisky with water, which mixes Toki whisky, blueberry liqueur, green tea, sugar and acid. “We infused the green tea in overnight for six to eight hours as a cold brew to bring out the more delicate flavours in the tea,” explains Korżyński. The result? “This cocktail is quite clean with the green tea, while the flavours of the whisky ad the fruitiness of the blueberry brings it all together.”

The bar’s signature serve though is the East London Iced Tea slushie, combining Johnnie Walker Black, Rinquinquin peach liqueur, cold brew black tea, sugar and acid. Where green tea is delicate, the backbone of a black tea was necessary to match the flavours in the Johnnie Walker Black. “Cold-brew black tea is richer and deeper in flavour and goes nicely with the smoky flavours in the Johnnie Walker as well as the peach flavours – this is just a really nice, boozy peach iced tea.”

Whichever way you use iced tea in your drinks at home, Distill + Fill’s David is an advocate of using it as often as possible, for one simple reason: “What is tea? Essentially an extraction of flavour into water – everything we do in cocktails is essentially that.

Three recipes from the experts

iced tea

Peach, Max Hayward, Lab 22

Using Assam tea and local peaches, Hayward has created this serve that brings peach Melba and Aperol spritzes to mind 

12.5ml Grey Goose Vanilla

25ml Martini Fiero

50ml homemade peach iced tea*

75ml prosecco

75ml soda

*Peel 500g of fresh peaches, chop and add to 750ml water in a pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour on low heat with the lid on. Take off the heat and crush the peaches in the water. Give it a stir and leave for an hour. Strain the mixture and add sugar (2:3 ratio sugar:water) and stir until dissolved. Steep Assam tea (1g per 100ml) in cold water for 30 minutes. Add the tea to the peach syrup at 1:1 ratio).

Build first three ingredients over ice and top with prosecco and soda.

iced tea

Instant Georgia, Gergő Muráth, Trailer Happiness

While working with some fellow bartenders on some simplified versions of classic cocktails using easily accessible ingredients, Muráth took the Georgia Julep as a starting point to create this fun little number

50ml VSOP Cognac
125ml Lipton Peach iced tea
Sprig mint

Build in a highball glass with cubed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint.

iced tea

AMBER, Alex Farrow and Zoé Donadio, Silver Lining

Part of the orange wine bar’s monthly changing cocktail menu, ECHO, which sees every cocktail designed to mimic the experience of drinking different styles of wine, AMBER was created by the duo to mimic an orange wine

50ml mezcal blend
40ml peach and rosemary cordial
60ml cold brew green tea*
1 dash gentian liqueur

*Add two green tea bags to 1L of filtered water and brew in the fridge for 24 hours

Build over ice in a highball glass and top with green tea. Optional garnish of powder made from leftovers of cordial productions (dehydrated and blitzed with 1:1 sugar).

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The charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh

After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh, a distillery that he has…

After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh, a distillery that he has a fair bit of history with. Here he explains why. 

Well, that didn’t take long. Only last month here I was criticising the trend to ever-older and more expensive whiskies and along comes another one.

My problem, if you can’t be bothered to look it up, is simply stated: all too often, in my opinion at least, they really don’t taste terribly nice. But that’s because they’re trophies, wrapped in increasingly lavish and frankly vulgar packaging and designed to be looked at, admired, possibly flipped for some inflated profit but never, perish the thought, actually drunk.

However, ever the optimist, I concluded with a note to the PR industry, “do keep sending those tiny little samples,” I wrote. “One day I’ll find one that I like.”  Social media wasn’t impressed, with one Instagram keyboard warrior, outraged but anonymous, suggesting that I required “a palate mature enough to appreciate it”. Ouch.

Glenglassaugh releases 50 year old “coastal treasure”

Glenglassaugh 50-year-old, note relatively modest packaging

The charms of a 50-year-old Glenglassaugh

However, the spinmeisters took me at my word and what I have in my glass today is 3cl of Glenglassaugh’s latest release, a 50-year-old single cask, finished in Pedro Ximénez and coming in just over the legal minimum at 40.1% ABV. It’s about £235’s worth apparently or just under £200 for a single pub measure with change for a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.

Sorry if that strikes you as flippant but it’s a great deal of money for a small glass of whisky.

Here’s the thing though: I’ve emphasised the price (it’s £5,500 for the full bottle and sadly there are only 264 of them) because, by the standards of these things, it’s actually remarkable value (not words I ever thought I’d write) not least because, Dionysus be praised, it comes in remarkably modest packaging.  

Yes, there’s a nice bottle and a wooden box but that’s about it. No crystal decanter and matching glasses, no enormous display cabinet, no silver stopper, and no leather-bound, letterpress printed volume of sycophantic drooling praise from some tame whisky hack (I’m available, though). 

However, I hope the oligarchs won’t be put off because they’d be missing a treat.  Yes, this is actually very, very enjoyable whisky.

Glenglassaugh

Inside a warehouse at Glenglassaugh

There’s treasure in those old dunnage warehouses

At this point, one of those sanctimonious disclosure statements: I’m familiar with the background to this whisky (hallelujah, you may say, he’s writing about something he actually knows about) because from 2008-2010 I acted as a sort of semi-detached interim marketing director for Glenglassaugh which was then undergoing the first phase of its revival.  Subsequently, I then wrote a book about it (it’s now hard to find but I’m told the distillery may have copies).

I vividly recall nosing old casks with then-MD Stuart Nickerson and the late Dr Jim Swan, then wood consultant to the distillery, in the warehouse at Sandend Bay. We were, frankly, astonished by the quality and found it hard to believe that the previous owners hadn’t appreciated these unsung gems.  

“These are gold medal winners in any competition,” said Swan and, of course, he was right. We bottled some as a 40-Year-Old and it swept the board at the 2009 IWSC awards, collecting the relevant gold medal, declared ‘best in class’, and lifting the blue-riband IWSC 40th-anniversary Trophy. 

However, even then, the potential for further aging was evident and stocks were reserved for future extra-aged releases. Fortunately, though the distillery has changed hands, subsequent owners have seen the merit in this plan and now it has come together.

Dr Rachel Barrie, Glenglassaugh

Your whisky is in safe hands with Dr Rachel Barrie

The merits of refill casks

But those old casks had aged remarkably slowly for one principal reason. While the Glenglassaugh warehouse is dunnage style and has a micro-climate unique to its coastal location the original distillers had used refill casks. Expecting the spirit to be quickly required for relatively young, mass-market blends they didn’t use the finest of casks – frankly, the barrels were showing their age when first used. But that meant extended, slow, undisturbed aging for the whisky and that, in turn, meant that Glenglassaugh’s distinctive tropical fruit character was maintained even as a richer, deeper character developed.

So, when I received details of this latest release I had just one concern, which was the finishing in a Pedro Ximénez cask which, on occasion, can overwhelm. However, my fears were unjustified: this is nothing short of a triumph.  The last Glenglassaugh casks have been under the watchful eye of master blender Rachel Barrie who has judged to perfection the balance of distillery character and the contribution of the finishing cask.

I rang her to discuss and her enthusiasm and belief in Glenglassaugh was a pleasure to share. “This is the most luscious and silky single malt elixir I’ve ever known,” she told me.  Simply check out her stellar career (SWRI, Glenmorangie, Morrison Bowmore, and now BeamSuntory) before you dismiss that as simply part of the PR.

It really isn’t. A decade or so ago I had my nose in this cask and the promise was clear back then. Since then, it’s just got better and better and better. I seriously doubt if I will taste a finer whisky this year.

So, note to the PR industry, do keep sending those tiny little samples of very old whisky. One day I’ll find another that I like.

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Ten great British booze destinations 

As most of us won’t be going far this summer, we’ve picked some great British booze destinations around the country for you to visit. From vineyards to gin distilleries, these…

As most of us won’t be going far this summer, we’ve picked some great British booze destinations around the country for you to visit. From vineyards to gin distilleries, these are some of our favourite places to enjoy whether the sun comes out or not. 

Last week we showed you how you can go on holiday without leaving the comfort of your own home. Today we’ve picked some of our favourite drinks destinations around Britain, from ancient breweries to modern vineyards, and not forgetting the wealth of distilleries found all over the country. There’s something here for everyone. 

Great British booze destinations

Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Burrow Hill Cider, Somerset

Anyone who has been to the Glastonbury festival will have tried Burrow Hill’s delicious produce at the famous Cider Bus. At his farm in Somerset, cider master Julian Temperley (above) produces a broad range of traditional West Country ciders ranging from delicious summer sippers to complex bottle-fermented products made from single apple varieties. But that’s not all, he’s also the man behind the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, making, since 1989, England’s answer to Calvados. Truly this place is a booze wonderland. 

Hush Heath estate, Kent

Hush Heath Estate, Kent

Hush Heath has to be one of the most gorgeous vineyards in England, set among the rolling Kent hills. Here the father and son wine making team of Owen and Fergus Elias make a superb selection of wines under the Balfour label. They are justly famous for their sparkling wines, particularly, the rose but the still wines are coming on strongly with some increasingly good Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Take a walk in the vineyards and then soak up that view from the terrace with a few glasses of wine and some food. 

Tillingham

Tillingham vineyard, East Sussex

I’ve learned from bitter experience that children find wine tasting very boring which is why I’ve picked this place. While you taste and practise your best wine speak, they can eat pizza and run around. There are rooms and bell tents to sleep in in the summer. It’s run by a maverick called Ben Walgate (seated above) who makes delicious idiosyncratic wine and cider using Georgian amphora and the like. There’s a real sense of fun about Tillingham.

Chase Distillery in Herefordshire

Chase Distillery, Herefordshire

The Chase family is all about potatoes. First it was crisp, Tyrell’s. Then they sold that business to do something a bit different, make vodka. And they turned out to be rather good at it winning awards left, right and centre. The distillery, set in the heart of Herefordshire cider country, now produces a range of spirits including gin, apple brandy and liqueurs. The distillery itself with its huge column still (once the tallest in Europe) at the centre looks spectacular and it’s worth a visit even if you’re not a booze nerd.

The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria

The Lakes Distillery, Cumbria

One of the perennial questions for tourists in England is what to do when it’s raining in the Lake District, which is often. Well, instead of sitting in a tea room reading Wordsworth, you should instead visit the Lakes Distillery, makers of first class single malt whisky. It’s really set-up for tourism with a fine restaurant and cafe on the site. Take a guided tour and then sample some of the sherry-cask whiskies created by ex-Macallan whisky maker Dhaval Gandhi. You won’t want the rain to stop. 

Shepherd Neame Faversham in Kent

Shepherd Neame Brewery, Kent

There’s something magical about towns like Faversham in Kent that are dominated by a large family brewer. The sprawling Shepherd Neame site sits in the centre of this beautiful medieval market town and permeates the whole place with the sweet smell of malted barley. The company dates back to the 17th century and is still in family hands.It’s the home of perhaps Kent’s most famous beer, Spitfire, as well as great strong beers like Bishop’s Finger and 1698.

Adnams Copper House Distillery

Adnams Brewery and Distillery, Suffolk

Another two for the price of one visit here as Adnams not only produces a delicious selection of Suffolk ales, but there’s also a distillery. The company was a pioneer of English whisky when it began distilling in 2010, so they have some properly mature whisky now for you to sample. Our favourite is probably the malted rye. Adnams also has a wine merchant arms, so they’ve got the booze business pretty well covered. It all takes place in Southwold, one of the prettiest seaside towns in the country so we’d recommend staying for a couple of days. In a pub owned by Adnams, naturally. 

Haymans Gin

Hayman’s Gin, London 

If you love gin then you have to visit Hayman Distillers in south London. The family has been distilling for generations, they are descended from James Burrough who created Beefeater gin, but the name Hayman’s only appeared on a bottle in 2004. Then in 2018, they opened this gin palace in Balham to produce a range of true London dry gins. Visitors can learn about the history of distilling in the capital,  admire the gleaming stills, and find out how gin is made. Or if that sounds a bit too strenuous, you can just enjoy the best gin and tonic in London at the bar.

Glenfarclas Distillery, mountain background

Glenfarclas Distillery, Speyside

Whisky fans are spoiled for choice in Speyside, the home of Glenlivet, Macallan and Balvenie, but there’s something particularly special about Glenfarclas. It might be because it’s one of the very few single malt whisky producers that is family owned, by the Grant family since the 19th century. Or it might be because the old ways are preserved here, like direct-fired stills, long-ageing in sherry casks and damp earth-floored warehouses, not because they look picturesque but because they make whisky with character. 

Ramsbury Distillery/ Brewery in Wiltshire

Ramsbury Estate, Wiltshire 

The Ramsbury Estate is a mecca for food and drink lovers. Covering nearly 20,000 acres of beautiful Wiltshire countryside, the farm raises cattle, pigs and deer, and grows wheat, barley, rapeseed, and other crops. Best of all, you can visit the on-site brewery and distillery which makes first-rate gin, vodka, and beer all made from scratch (no bought in grain alcohol here) largely using estate-grown produce. Nothing is wasted: leftovers from gin distillation are even used to cure venison to make charcuterie!

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Ice ice baby – why ice is the vital element in your drink

Not all ice is created equal, as it turns out. So we turned to the experts at London’s Crossroads bar to help explain why ice is the vital element in…

Not all ice is created equal, as it turns out. So we turned to the experts at London’s Crossroads bar to help explain why ice is the vital element in your drink.

If you had told me before I joined the world of drinks that I would care at all about the quality of an ice cube, I would probably have taken a sip of my vodka and squash (forgive me) and laughed you out the door. Now, a near-invisible, slow-melting ice cube brings me unparalleled joy, and vodka and squash remains exactly where it should – deep, deep in the past. But my knowledge of what makes ‘proper’ ice proper, why it’s better, and how on earth to recreate it at home, was limited. So I turned to the experts for help.

ice behind a bar

The ice station at Crossroads

What makes good ice?

Ice isn’t just frozen water. (Well, it technically is, but bear with me.) You’d do better to think of it as a cocktail ingredient in its own right. You’ve invested in fabulous spirits and mixers – why scrimp on the final stage? “A cocktail is only as good as the weakest ingredient, and ice is one in the vast majority of them,” Bart Miedeksza of Camden’s Crossroads bar tells me. 

The one thing you absolutely do not want in your ice is air. Well, there are lots of other things you don’t want in your ice, but air is the most likely foe to sneak its way in there. The clearer the ice, the less air it has in it, which is why a good ice cube will be almost invisible when it’s in your drink. “It’s like the bass player of your drink,” he says, “rarely noticed, but keeps the whole band together.”

Ice: the bass player of your drink

Something Miedeksza mentioned was that your ice straight out of the freezer might actually be too cold. It sounds counterintuitive, but ice behind a bar actually sits waiting to get to exactly the right temperature (between -2ºC and 0ºC) and acquires a certain amount of surface water, which will then dilute and cool the drink it’s put into. “In bars we not only consider the amount of ice, but also it’s temperature, shape, purity and volume.”

ice cubes

Clear ice – the dream

Yes, ice helps with dilution, but Miedeksza makes an interesting point for the contrary, too. “The amount of ice in a Highball helps regulate the ratio between your gin and your tonic – if you put less ice, you tend to top up the glass with a mixer all the way to the top resulting in a glass of gin-flavoured tonic.” And, obviously, the more ice you have, the cooler it stays and the slower it melts. Stronger drinks all around!

Bad news: the ice you’ve been grabbing from your local supermarket is less than ideal. “Common bagged ice that we find at supermarkets tends to also be impure, with plenty of cloudiness and cracks,” Miedeksza confirms. It’ll melt before you can say “cheers”!

Shaken or stirred?

It’s not just the ice itself, but how to use it. We hope you haven’t been shaking your Old Fashioned, or stirring your Daiquiri. Miedeksza gave me some helpful tips. “As a general rule of thumb a drink containing fresh juice – such as lime juice in a Margarita – will be shaken while one consisting of only (or mostly) alcoholic components is stirred.” Yes, there are always exceptions to the rule – Gimlets and Vesper Martinis just love to make things complicated. 

When ice is shaken, it cracks and dilutes “balancing the acidity of juices versus sweetness of syrups, liqueurs,” he tells me. Shaking a cocktail brings the temperature down to a lower temperature much faster, as well as aerating it. Generally, if you want a creamy or a frothy, fluffy cocktail, you’ll want to shake it. But bubbles in a Manhattan or Negroni? No, thank you. 

crossroads cocktail bar ice

These shorter spirit-forward serves don’t benefit from being too cold, or from the extra dilution of shaking, either. You want to stir these because “you still want your cocktail cold, but not as cold as to dull all the flavours of a beautiful bourbon.” That’s why the temperature for each serve differs: around -6.75°C for shaken cocktails and -4°C for stirred.

Going back to the idea that not all ice is created equal, Miedeksza gave some intriguing insight into the inner ice workings of Crossroads. “We’re quite geeky about our ice and we use different ice as our service ice (the one we use to make drinks) and as our dispense ice (the one that ends up in your drink).” Smaller ice cubes from a machine are used to bring the ice down to the right temperature (depending on whether it’s shaken or stirred), and then block ice cubes almost double the size are used to actually serve it. 

ice block bar

Serious kit for serious ice cubes

Ice at home

This is all well and good, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have any snazzy ice machines in your kitchen. Back in 2014, we even wrote a step by step guide on how to create that wonderful clear ice at home, so if you have some time on your hands you can give it a whirl. Once you have your ice, Miedeksza is here to give us some home-friendly tips on how to use it! Turns out, it’s all about balance. “In a drink, glass should be so full of ice that it’s resting on the bottom at all times. It prevents the ice movement and stops the drink from being overdiluted.” On the flipside, “putting too much ice in your shaking or stirring vessel has the effect of under-diluting a cocktail.” If it’s packed in too tightly, it won’t be able to move around in the shaker and dilute the drink. Simple thermodynamics, duh. 

Of course, if this all sounds like too much faff, you can always pop into your favourite bar and get the professionals to do all the hard work for you.

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What’s the deal with infinity bottles?

When it comes to DIY in spirits making there is one thing that nearly everyone can do: infinity bottles. Millie Milliken explains what this phenomenon is and asks hobbyist writers…

When it comes to DIY in spirits making there is one thing that nearly everyone can do: infinity bottles. Millie Milliken explains what this phenomenon is and asks hobbyist writers how they fill theirs

There aren’t many downsides to being a drinks writer: woe betide the booze journo who complains they’ve got yet another Champagne dinner in the hottest new restaurant in town. Trust me, it doesn’t go down well on the group Whatsapp.

If I had one occasional whimper though it would be the amount of 50ml sample bottles that literally fill drawers, cupboards and shoeboxes in my flat. Between tastings, product launches, and research for features, they somewhat stack up, and in lieu of drinking them all (be responsible, kids) or pouring them (never) there’s only one thing for it: an infinity bottle.

An infinity bottle is the method of gradually blending a category of spirit (usually whisky) in an empty bottle over time in your own home – in other words, decanting your leftover samples into one bigger bottle. It can be done with any spirit, with no limit to the method or formula and over any given time. It’s a hobby embraced by whisky professionals and non -pros alike. Indeed, in 2017 writer Aarson Goldfarb (an infinity bottle fan himself) wrote a piece for American publication Punch titled: ‘How the Infinity Bottle Became a Whiskey Nerd Obsession’. So, which of our UK scribes are doing some DIY blending?

Humble beginnings

“I’ve been doing it a long time, before it was a thing,” says author and whisky consultant, Blair Bowman. He started buying demijohns, tinkering with several at a time, including one using only malt (never peated) and only Scotch, which he used as a so called ‘mother’ bottle to start new blends off – each year, he syphons off half to bottle up and give to friends and family for Christmas, and starts again.

Since starting he now has a smoky one, one that is a fusion of world whiskies and one which lives inside an old-school Johnnie Walker bottle. For Bowman, the hobby is a fun way of sharing his love of whisky with other people: it’s a really nice thing to do and explain to people… If I was doing a tasting at a wedding, that was something I would bring and share it out of a quaich with them. People would almost always say it was their favourite of the tasting.”

Infinity Bottles

Just some of David T. Smith’s many infinity bottles

Not just whisky blending

Spirits writer, consultant and gin expert David T. Smith is no stranger to the infinity game, but he’s gone much further than whisky. He’s got ones for Scotch, bourbon-style whiskey, Cognac, aged rum, white rum, spiced rum, white agave, vodka, gin (one floral, one citrus), baijiu and one just for Johnnie Walker all on the go.

Smith sees the magic of infinity bottles as two-fold. “The approach I take is if someone wants a drink I can ask what spirit they want and I don’t have to get too into the nitty gritty of what about this one what about that one. I also find it is a good way of getting rid of bottles with two or three inches left – it’s like having one biscuit left in the packet, just finish it!” It’s also a nice way of using those bottles that are just too nice to throw away, he adds.

Fellow Master of Malt contributor Lucy Britner has just recently started to get some skin in the game. I’m new to infinity bottles. I started mine this year after judging the International Spirits Challenge brandy category. I was left with about 120 bits of samples. The great thing about having tasted them all is that I used my tasting notes to make my first ‘house blend’. 

She began by choosing all of the samples from the Cognac category in the VSOP and above section and looked for ones with similar flavour profiles. Then she tipped them all into my decanter. When it gets down to about a quarter full, she’ll take the VSs and do the same.

Method madness

Britner’s approach to her first infinity bottle may have some method behind it, but others are slightly more laissez-faire in their approach, occasionally manipulating the blend to steer it a certain way, but generally just adding to them as and when they have a bottle to get rid of. As whisky writer Alex Mennie says: “I suppose there are two schools of thought: whether you try and correct your blend or not.”

I was doing it for fun for such a long time I never properly started with a record,” says Bowman who, in hindsight wishes he had done – from memory his mother bottle contains whiskies that date back to the 1940s and 1950s.

Smith is similar in that his approach is ad hoc, with no written record of what goes into the bottles, and with only the odd bit of steering: “[With whisky] I am usually more inclined to make it heavier on the sherry or the wine [cask], but it’s not written down, it’s all in my head.”

Mennie, on the contrary, likes to know what’s in his bottles – although he isn’t sure why. “I keep quite anally retentive notes down to the millilitre – although saying that I have lost the notebook, a mystery at the minute but one will hopefully be solved. Other than that, no real rules…I don’t really know why I’m tracking it. There are whiskies I’ll never get again, but there is something of the nerd in me which makes me feel like there is a process… After all, I’m never going to recreate it.”

World Atlas of Gin

Neil Ridley (right) with Joel Harrison

To infinity… and beyond!

There are some ways in which you can manipulate the liquid outside of the bottle however. Author and Sunday Brunch regular Neil Ridley, one half of World’s Best Spirits, has recently invested in a 5-litre cask to mature his blend in: “I’ve actually taken it a step further and bought a cask which I seasoned with Port first. It’s a really fun experiment: the key is to make sure the cask isn’t too active first, as in too raw – otherwise it just ruins the whisky.”

Another fan of cask-ageing his blends is Smith who’s played around with Port and Madeira seasonings and while he leaves most of his bottles relatively undisturbed, the barrels are where he does most of his infinity monitoring.

And while their methods may all be different, there is one thing they definitely all agree on: the extra layer of respect for blenders. “You very quickly realise the challenges of blending and it makes your mind boggle that they create that level of consistency in their blends,” said Bowman. A sentiment echoed by Britner: “I don’t think I’ll ever get a job at Hennessy, but it’s a lot of fun – and a great way to ensure you enjoy every drop of a sample. It also highlights just what an incredible job blenders do – I can tell you now that there is absolutely no hope of consistency in this house!”

Fun, experimental and endlessly evolving, the art of the infinity bottle is, ultimately, something to just enjoy. For Smith though, it may be fun, but he’s taken precautionary methods to make sure the fruits of his labour aren’t at risk of extinction: “This might sound funny, but I’ve actually decanted off some of the whisky and cognac, sealed it in bottles and keep them off-site – if the house burns down, at least I have my soleras!”

1 litre cask

One of these bad boys will take your infinity bottle to another level

Tips from the experts

Want to start your own infinity bottle at home? We asked our interviewees for their top tips:

-Your blend doesn’t have to be the best thing to drink on its own, but if you wouldn’t drink it on its own don’t put it in a cask. David T Smith

-Maybe start with a 50:50 ration blend and see how adding that changes it and that could be an interesting way to start. Blair Bowman

-Decide on the type of blend you want to make, ie super sherried or smoky then try and balance everything around that. Neil Ridley

-Don’t ever mixed flavoured things with unflavoured things. David T Smith

-Don’t be too precious about it – the fun is experimenting. Blair Bowman

 

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