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Master of Malt Blog

Alan Gray, Scotch whisky industry expert – obituary

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review. Here at Master…

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

Here at Master of Malt, we were greatly saddened to note the passing of Alan Gray. Alan Gray – ‘who he?’ some of you might ask. 

Alan may not have been well-known outside the industry, and he is unlikely to have been recognised by the whisky drinker, but he was widely respected by industry insiders for his insightful commentary on the Scotch whisky business.

Born in Lanark in December 1939, he trained initially as a chartered accountant, became a financial journalist in London and, on his return to his native Scotland, a stockbroker. Bear in mind that in the 1960s there were still very many more independent whisky companies and thus stocks quoted on the market. But whisky became his great love and, in 1977, he launched the first edition of his Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

As he developed his contacts and networks (which were extensive, for he was a clubbable man), this came to be seen as the most credible independent source of information and commentary on the industry. Each issue went into meticulous depth on production, stock levels, shipments, brand and marketing activity, frequently covering 300 pages or more of closely packed argument.

Alan Gray (photo credit: The Keepers of the Quaich)

His reputation grew with the publication of a monthly newsletter and he was valued for his discretion and his respect for the many ‘off the record’ conversations which added such depth to his commentary.

Alan was recognised as a Keeper (later Master) of the Quaich, an honour which he greatly valued. He was not afraid to challenge some of the industry’s conventions or to debunk the myths and spin that he detected from time to time in marketing. During his long life, Alan recorded the whisky industry moving from the depression of the ‘whisky loch’ to today’s current prosperity and expansion, always with sharp wit and a keen intelligence.

Think of him as a latter-day Alfred Barnard – a chronicler and enthusiast who has left an invaluable and unrivalled record. He had only recently completed work on the latest Scotch Whisky Industry Review 2019, remarkably the 42nd edition (photo in header from this publication). Its 284 pages will be a lasting memory of an impressive lifetime’s achievement.

Alan Gray died on 20th February 2020 and is survived by his wife of 56 years, Margaret, his three sons Barry, Colin and David, his brother Jim and by six grandchildren.

 

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Virtual pub quiz: 27 March

Think you know your booze? Then you should enter our new and improved virtual pub quiz. All entries will get a discount code and one winner a £25 off voucher….

Think you know your booze? Then you should enter our new and improved virtual pub quiz. All entries will get a discount code and one winner a £25 off voucher. All must have prizes!

It’s the return of the Master of Malt pub quiz. We’ve made it slightly easier this week as well as put it in a snazzy format so it’s easier to enter. We do like to make your life easy. For those bamboozled by last week’s quiz, here is a link to the answers. Remember, strict pub quiz rules, no looking at Google.

 

Fancy your chances?! Go to the quiz by hitting ‘click here’!

CLICK HERE

(And remember, no cheating. We might not know, but it is not in the spirit of quizzing!)

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The Nightcap: 27 March

It’s another bitesize Nightcap this week, but there’s still plenty of booze news to enjoy – as well as the answers to last week’s pub quiz! Staying in this Friday? Well,…

It’s another bitesize Nightcap this week, but there’s still plenty of booze news to enjoy – as well as the answers to last week’s pub quiz!

Staying in this Friday? Well, what are the chances – so are we! In fact, plenty of us have been staying in quite a bit and getting involved with various projects. Some DIY, learning a few new cocktail recipes, that sort of thing. Our Sam has been trying to listen to every Neil Young album. Turns out there are loads and it’s taking him ages. If you’d prefer a project that’s just a bit easier to tick off your list, we’ve got a brand new edition of The Nightcap right here!

On the MoM blog this week, Ian Buxton returned this to discuss the implications of agave casks being used in Scotch whisky before we helped you explore the drinks world in lockdown-mode by picking five of our favourite drink books. Adam continued the theme by taking you on a distillery tour of Glenglassaugh and Wolfburn without leaving the house. You can thank virtual reality for that. Annie, meanwhile, enjoyed five classic spirits made in non-traditional places and gave us 10 pointers from the pros about how to DIY your G&T. Elsewhere, Henry made an Old Fashioned, but slightly better, and recommended a new bottling that would work particularly well in that serve, as Jess rounded up the best of the best from the World Gin Awards 2020 winners.

And after all that excitement, it’s on with The Nightcap!

The Nightcap

Look, it’s Ardbeg Wee Beastie!

Ardbeg unveils new whisky: Wee Beastie

The folks at Ardbeg Distillery clearly understand that at a time like this we need good news and things to look forward to. That’s why it was a welcome surprise to be told this week that the Islay whisky producer is set to launch a new permanent expression. It’s called Wee Beastie, presumably because it was matured for just five years in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks. The press release explains that Wee Beastie is a “feisty and intensely powerful smoky whisky that’s untamed by age”, with “intense aromas of cracked black pepper, sappy pine resin and sharp tangs of smoke”, and an explosive mouthfeel that “bursts forth with chocolate, creosote, tar and savoury meats”. We do love a young, raw and bold Islay bottling here at MoM Towers. Ardbeg’s director of whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, said of Wee Beastie: “I’m in no doubt that Ardbeggians will love this tongue-tingling expression. The casks chosen for its creation make it ideal for enjoying neat or as the mouth-watering main ingredient in a powerfully smoky cocktail.” Soon-to-retire distillery manager Mickey Heads added: “A new permanent expression in the core range is always momentous for the distillery, but Wee Beastie is a particularly special dram. As it’s a younger whisky, it means we’re able to get as close to the still as possible. So it’s safe to say this is a ferociously good wee nip!” Wee Beastie will be available here from May.

The Nightcap

The 52 year-old Karuizawa ‘Zodiac Rat’ 1960 sold for £363,000, a new record

Karuizawa expression sells for £363,000 and sets new record

In these dark times, it’s good to know there are still people with tonnes of money prepared to splash out on whisky. You may recall on a previous Nightcap we previewed an upcoming sale of fine and rare wines and spirits by Sotheby’s and expected big things from Macallan and Karuizawa (as always). Well, they didn’t disappoint. The 52-year-old Karuizawa ‘Zodiac Rat’ 1960 sold for £363,000, a new record for a bottle of Japanese whisky. It’s the oldest expression ever released from the distillery and the bottle is one of only 41 produced, each packed with a netsuke (a miniature sculpture) carved from the oak cask that once held the whisky. Macallan also had a good auction as a complete vertical of The Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection was sold for £423,500, while The Macallan Lalique Genesis Decanter 72-year-old was bought for £84,700. The present global situation didn’t appear to disrupt much for Sotheby’s, which sold £3.7 million worth of booze. A substantial proportion of lots exceeded their high estimates and 50% of winning lots were made online. “Against a backdrop of extraordinary circumstance, the persistence and commitment of collectors came through in yesterday’s sales, where a bottle of Japanese whisky became the most valuable ever sold, accompanied by strong prices for Scotch whisky, led by the Macallan in Lalique Decanters,” said Jamie Ritchie, chairman of Sotheby’s Wine. “Collectors also continue to compete for the world’s greatest wines, and when there is an opportunity to acquire the very best the market has to offer, as with the two cases of the legendary Cheval Blanc 1947, they are willing to stretch to the highest level.”

Michael Broadbent in action in the (judging by the haircuts) 1980s. Photo courtesy of Christie’s

Industry pays tribute to Michael Broadbent 

Tributes poured as the wine world lost one of its most eminent figures, Michael Broadbent, at the age of 92. Jancis Robinson MW described him as “a towering figure in the history of wine.” Born in 1927, Broadbent had a varied career in the wine trade, becoming a Master of Wine in 1960 but it was his time at Christie’s, the auction house, where he was most influential. He joined the firm in 1966 and almost single-handedly revived the auction market for fine and rare wines (and later spirits). He was famous for taking notes on (nearly) every wine he tried, and the most notable was published in The Great Vintage Wine Book. He retired from Christie’s in 1992 but remained a consultant with the firm until 2009. In addition, he was chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, president of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and chairman of The Benevolent. He was particularly revered in France where he was made Chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite in 1979. Au revoir Monsieur Michael!

The Nightcap

It’s the final batch of While We Wait!

Isle of Raasay Distillery releases its final While We Wait

For what seems like about 30 years, the Isle of Raasay Distillery has been releasing an annual single malt under the While We Wait banner (it’s actually only been five years but we’re so impatient it seems like longer.) Now, the wait is almost over as the last batch of WWW whisky has just gone on sale. Appropriately enough, this last batch is called The Last Orders and it’s made up of peated and unpeated spirits matured in bourbon barrels and finished in first and second fill Tuscan red wine French oak casks for 18 months. It will be available only direct from the distillery. Co-founder Alasdair Day commented: “This fifth and final release of our While We Wait series is a highly significant step forward for our distillery. Our team are constantly looking to push the boundaries of whisky making, exploring the effect that different finishes and casks have on the flavour profile, and this spirit is the perfect embodiment of our ethos.” Later this year, the Isle of Raasay’s first single malt distilled on the island will be released which is extremely exciting. Watch this space!

The Nightcap

Get involved, if you’re in the US, of course.

And finally…  Bardstown Bourbon are looking for ‘world’s’ top whiskey taster 

The Company has partnered with Moonshine University to create an exciting contest that calls on whiskey lovers, enthusiasts, fans and connoisseurs alike in the search for the World’s Top Whiskey Taster. Sounds amazing, except it’s not open to the world. It’s just for legal residents of the fifty United States (and District of Columbia). Unless self-isolation has turned my brain to mush, I’m pretty certain there’s a distinction between the US and the world. Might want to reconsider that name. The winner will be awarded a cash prize of $20,000 with a contract to represent Bardstown Bourbon Company as an ambassador, as well as a scholarship to Moonshine University’s Executive Bourbon Steward certification programme, and a trip to Bardstown, Kentucky to blend a custom product with Bardstown Bourbon Company master distiller Steve Nally. Frankly, I don’t know why I’m not entering for goodness sake. Oh, right. I can’t. The competition consists of three phases, starting with an invitation to submit an audition video, followed by regional qualifiers and national finals. “Entrants are encouraged to be creative and have fun,” said Bardstown Bourbon Company vice president of sales & marketing, Herb Heneman. “Tell us what makes your palate as good as it is. Show us things like your favourite bourbon cocktail, your most impressive or underrated pairing, or pick the most amazing bottle in your stash and geek out on it. But most of all, tell us what representing Bardstown Bourbon Company as a distillery ambassador would mean to you.” The full contest rules, terms and conditions are here. To upload your audition video or for more information, you can do that here. But only if you’re in the US, remember?  

The Nightcap

That’s it for the Nightcap this week, now here are the answers to last week’s pub quiz. We appreciate it was a tad on the tough side so today’s edition (coming soon) should prove more accessible:

1) Which much-admired Islay distillery manager announced his retirement last week? 

Answer: Mickey Heads

2) How many distilleries are there on Skye?

Answer: Three: Talisker, Torabhaig Distillery and Isle of Skye Distillery.

3) How many times is Mortlach single malt distilled?

Answer: 2.81 times according to the distillery.

4) Where would you find boisé? 

Answer: In Cognac.

5) Which cocktail does the Polish agent drink in John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War?

Answer: The White Lady

6) What’s bigger, a British pint or an American?

Answer: A British pint. 

7) What sport is the carraway-flavoured schnapps kümmel commonly associated with?

Answer: Golf.

8) What whiskey does Sylvester Stallone’s character Jimmy Bobo request in the 2012 movie Bullet to the Head?

Answer: Bulleit Bourbon

9) What do both the glass Gatsby raises and Tom Buchanan’s car have in common in The Great Gatsby film? 

Answer: They are both a couple (or coupé).

10) Which bourbon whiskey brand inspired a Billy Idol single?

Answer: Rebel Yell

11) Evan Williams originally hailed from which country?

Answer: Wales

12) Which drink brand did the first-ever cinema advert?

Answer: Dewar’s Scotch whisky

13) There are more barrels of bourbon than people in the state of Kentucky, true or false?

Answer: True (two barrels of bourbon for every person)

14) In which wine region would you find ‘the dogs’ teeth’?

Answer: Burgundy

15) How many monkeys are there on a bottle of Monkey Shoulder?

Answer: 9.

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Take a VR tour of Wolfburn Distillery!

Thanks to wonders of VR technology, you can now tour the wonderful Wolfburn Distillery from the comfort of your own home! Just because you’re self-isolating or on lockdown, it doesn’t mean…

Thanks to wonders of VR technology, you can now tour the wonderful Wolfburn Distillery from the comfort of your own home!

Just because you’re self-isolating or on lockdown, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good distillery tour. How is this possible? Thanks to the power of VR, of course. In this series we’re going to take you around some of the finest distilleries across England, Wales and Scotland from the comfort of your own home. This week we see what it’s like inside Scotland’s most northerly mainland distillery. Enjoy!

The current Wolfburn Distillery was founded in 2013 in Thurso, the most northerly town on the British mainland. It’s just 350 metres from the site of the original Wolfburn distillery, which dates back to 1821 and closed its doors back in 1860. The burn from which the distillery took its name remains the water source to this day. Both peated and unpeated whisky is produced at Wolfburn in two Forsyths copper pot stills, a 5,500-litre wash still and 3,600-litre boil ball spirit still. Fermentation times range from 70-92 hours in the four stainless steel washbacks and the distillery has a single 1.1-tonne semi-lauter mash tun, while the whisky is matured in ex-bourbon hogsheads, quarter casks and ex-oloroso sherry butts. Despite being a relative newcomer, the distillery is already building quite a reputation for its light, sweet and complex whiskies.

a VR tour of Wolfburn Distillery

 If Wolfburn seems like your kind of distillery, then I’d recommend you help yourself to a bottle of Wolfburn Northland Single Malt (above), the first single malt released by the distillery back in March 2016. Some of the whisky was matured in quarter casks that previously held peated whisky from Islay, but this is no Islay imitation. It’s very much got its own character. Best of all, we’ll deliver straight to your doorstep, so if you’re self-isolating or on lockdown, then we’ve got your back. No, wait, that’s not the best part of this. If you order now, you can save a whopping £7 on this bottling! There’s also 10% off Langskip, Morven and Aurora. 

Wolfburn Northland Single Malt Tasting Note:

Nose: Orchard fruits, apple pie, a fresh maltiness, almonds, magnolia and a suggestion of smoke.

Palate: Honey Nut Clusters breakfast cereal, sweet spices, chocolate croissant, more honey towards the end, and a subtle earthy peatiness.

Finish: Long and fresh, with even more rich honey notes

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Top 5 drink books (and a jigsaw)

A good drink has transporting qualities. One sip of Lagavulin and your senses will tell you that you’re on the storm-battered coast of Islay, a chilled glass of Santorini wine…

A good drink has transporting qualities. One sip of Lagavulin and your senses will tell you that you’re on the storm-battered coast of Islay, a chilled glass of Santorini wine is almost as good as a trip to the island itself, and shut your eyes while sipping a good strong Martini and you could be in New York City. The magic is even stronger if you add a good book into the mix which is why we’ve picked five of our favourite drink books in stock at Master of Malt. So, you can explore the world, drink in hand, while maintaining social distancing. If there are any that we have missed, do let us know in the comments or on social. Oh, and we’ve stuck a jigsaw in at the end because you can never have too many whisky-based games. 

 

The Home Bar Henry Jeffreys

If you can’t go out to the bar then why not bring the bar to you? That’s the premise of The Home Bar written by MoM’s very own features editor. It features tips on how to get the right look from an old fashioned pub bar to turning your room into a tiki wonderland, the basic kit you need, and cocktail recipes from the top bartenders. You might never need to leave the house again.

 

Whisky: The Manual Dave Broom

As experienced drinkers you probably think that you don’t need a whisky manual. It’s not a piece of flatpack furniture, just open the bottle and pour. Well, put your scepticism aside because this book from one of the country’s best loved and most majestically bearded whisky writers will take your appreciation of whisky to the next level. 

 

Distilled Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley

The dynamic duo of Harrison and Ridley have written quite a few books but we like this one because it distills (pun fully intended) what the duo do best: insatiable curiosity about drinks, and an amusing style that belies a deep knowledge and understanding of the wide world of booze. Taking in whisky, Calvados, baijiu, Armagnac, gin and more, it’s all here. There’s even a tasting set to go alongside it.

 

 

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2020

Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubt that Murray has mastered the art of setting the whisky agenda. When Murray made a Japanese whisky, a Yamazaki sherry cask, his whisky of the year in 2014, it made the front page of the papers around the world. Most whisky writers would sell their grannies for that kind of clout. So find out who’s up and who’s down in Murray’s view in this year’s guide, just don’t take it all too seriously.

 

The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace Tristan Stephenson

If you’re serious about cocktails, then you need to read Tristan Stephenson aka the Curious Bartender. He’s been in the industry since his early twenties, won all kinds of awards and he’s a great writer. You almost want to dislike him. We stock a few of his books and they’re all brilliant but we’ve highlighted this one as we know how much our customers love gin.

 

And finally. . .  The Whiskies of Scotland Jigsaw Puzzle 

Here’s the perfect thing for when you can’t go outside, a whisky jigsaw! Produced by the cleverly-named Bamboozled, it’s a map of Scotland market with famous distilleries. It’s the brainchild of Rebecca Gibb, an actual Master of Wine (she knows a thing or two about whisky as well), so you should learn something while you puzzle. 

 

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Five classic spirits from unusual places

Until fairly recently, beyond international stalwarts like vodka or whisky, there were certain native drinks that were not made outside their home countries. Now, however, this is beginning to change….

Until fairly recently, beyond international stalwarts like vodka or whisky, there were certain native drinks that were not made outside their home countries. Now, however, this is beginning to change. From Canadian aquavit to Australian vermouth, we lift the lid on five classic spirits made in non-traditional places…

The French have Cognac. The Scots have Scotch whisky. In Mexico they make Tequila, and the US boasts bourbon. There are rules and regulations that tie these spirits to their geographical location. But some spirits aren’t bound by such legalities. And with a bit of distiller ingenuity, they can be made anywhere in the world – and often with interesting results. Here, we look at five classic spirits made in unusual places…

Gin from Japan

Holland is widely credited as the birthplace of gin. Following the creation of genever – the region’s beloved malt-based spirit – gin is thought to have been invented by Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, who used it for medicinal purposes back in 1550. By the time the 1600s rolled around, there were hundreds of gin distilleries in the city of Amsterdam alone.

Around the same time, gin started to emerge in England in various forms, giving way to a rather bleak period dubbed the ‘Gin Craze’ until production was eventually licensed and tamed. Today, the juniper-forward white spirit is produced in countless western countries the world over, but rarely in the east, which is one of the reasons we were particularly excited to see Ki No Bi Gin launch back in 2016. 

The inaugural release from the Kyoto Distillery – and the first Japanese gin produced in Kyoto – Ki No Bi is made from a rice spirit base and flavoured with locally-sourced botanicals that include yellow yuzu, green sansho and gyokuro tea. The botanicals are split across six flavour categories – base, citrus, Tea, spice, fruity & floral and herbal – and these groupings are distilled individually before being blended together to make the final liquid.

Shochu from California

Historians believe shochu first originated in Persia (or possibly China or Korea) but it’s best known as Japan’s national spirit, having made its way to the rural south of the island country sometime in the 16th century. While it’s typically made from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar, Japanese distillers have been known to use chestnut, sesame seeds, potatoes and even carrots to make the clear white liquor – so flavour-wise, it’s super diverse.

Generally speaking, shochu is little-known outside its east Asian home, with confused westerners sometimes referring to the spirit as ‘Japanese vodka’. However in recent years, a handful of experimental distillers, such as those at St. George Spirits, have sought to create their own regional take on the traditional spirit – in this instance, “a full-flavoured shochu from California rice that would complement a hearty bowl of ramen”. 

To create St. George California Shochu, steamed Calrose rice is inoculated with koji spores and fermented (known as ‘sake lees’). Once the rice starch has been transformed into sugar, yeast is added, and the mix is fermented cold. It’s then blended with non-GMO neutral grain spirit and distilled in a copper pot still. On the nose you’ll find cashew, pistachio, sweet mushrooms and dried cocoa, they say – with the latter developing on the palate as bittersweet chocolate.

Absinthe from Scotland

Unlike other spirits categories, we know precisely when and where absinthe was created: the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, 1792. It was the handiwork of French doctor Pierre Ordinaire, who set out to capture the powerful healing effects of wormwood in a potable form. Fast-forward 70 years or so, and this potent anise-flavoured spirit had become the alcoholic drink du jour among bohemian Parisian writers and other arty types.

Where traditional absinthes are bottled anywhere up to 74% ABV – and modern variants up to an eye-watering 90% – Hendrick’s Absinthe stands at an altogether far more reasonable 48%, somewhere in the region of your typical single malt. In a step away from the stereotypical green-tinged liquid we’re accustomed to seeing, this spirit runs clear.

Crafted by master distiller Lesley Gracie at the gin brand’s headquarters in Girvan, Scotland, this variant is flavoured with Hendrick’s signature rose and cucumber botanicals, as well as traditional wormwood and star anise, making it an approachable introduction to absinthe.

Aquavit from Canada

Distilled from grain (or sometimes potatoes), this herbaceous tipple has been produced in Scandiavian countries since the 15th century. Aquavit is characterised by its predominant flavours of caraway or dill or both – the style varies depending on whether you’re in Sweden, Norway or Denmark – and may be matured in a barrel or bottled unaged.

The spirit has found favour outside its Nordic home in the likes of Iceland, Germany, the US, and Canada – the birthplace of Long Table Långbord Akvavit. Produced at Vancouver’s first microdistillery, Long Table Distillery, the liquid is made in small batches according to traditional Scandi style.

Långbord Akvavit is flavoured with six botanicals including caraway, fennel, anise and Seville oranges, and it’s bottled unaged, so there’s no cask influence. Expect ‘complex licorice and orange notes’, ‘a smooth, sweet finish of lingering marmalade’ and ‘prevailing herbal notes on the palate’, the team say.

 

Vermouth from Australia

While it’s more commonly associated with Italy, the history of this fortified wine is rooted in 16th century Germany. In fact, the origin of the word ‘vermouth’ comes from the way French people would pronounce ‘wermut’, the German word for wormwood (an original ingredient that remains a staple to this day). Modern vermouth – as we know it today – was first produced in the 18th century in Italy, with French and Spanish producers creating their own iterations not long after.

Australia may be renowned for its outstanding vineyards, but even so – when Regal Rogue debuted its inaugural new world vermouth, the brand caused a bit of a stir. The four-strong range sees 100% Aussie wines – from Barossa Valley shiraz to Hunter Valley semillon – married with native aromatics including anise myrtle, quandong, pepper berry and more.

This Wild Rosé bottling introduces pale, dry Barossa shiraz rosé from Adelaide Hills to native illawara plums, rosella and strawberry gum, and rhubarb and kina, resulting in a semi-dry vermouth characterised by tropical fruit and fruit spice notes. Delightful.

 

 

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Agave cask Scotch whisky: what fresh madness is this?

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first…

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first agave-aged whiskies are here (or nearly here , the UK market will have to wait a while), and Ian Buxton wants to know: what came first, the new rules or the whiskies? 

Well, that didn’t take long.

Back in January 2018, you might recall excited commentary around a story that Diageo had a ‘secret working party’ suggesting new rules expanding the types of casks that could be used to finish Scotch whisky. The Wall Street Journal broke the story but it soon led to much speculation on social media, with some commentators having a minor fit of the vapours at a proposal considered shocking, radical or heretical (insert your adjective of choice – you get the general idea). If you believed some of the responses, the whole future of Scotch was at stake.

Diageo’s secret jungle HQ. . . allegedly

At the time industry leader Diageo played the predictable dead bat. Speaking quite possibly from a hidden lair in an extinct volcano while stroking a white cat, an anonymous spokesman offered these priceless words to a breathlessly waiting world:

“Scotch is the most important category for Diageo and we have an unwavering commitment to the integrity, long-term success, history and tradition of the category. As champions of Scotch, we are always looking at ways to innovate to both protect and secure the future success of the category. In doing so, we work with the Scotch Whisky Association [SWA] on a range of ideas that seek to strike a balance between tradition and innovation, in a way that ensures consumers get the great products they want. We will never compromise on the quality and integrity of Scotch.”

And so matters remained until June 2019 when the SWA, previously reported to be unenthusiastic about the changes, quietly announced an amendment to the prosaically-named Scotch Whisky Technical File.  This permitted Scotch whisky to be matured in casks previously used to age agave spirits (such as Tequila and mezcal), Calvados, barrel-aged cachaça, shochu and baijiu, as well as some other fruit spirits. Discreet industry lobbying had evidently persuaded the SWA to revise its position. However, as an industry-funded body, it had little choice if larger members insisted on the change which had been duly approved by the SWA Council in the previous December.

In any event, it’s now clear that much surreptitious activity had been going on anyway in warehouses across Scotland.  Unsurprisingly, Diageo was very quick off the mark with the low-profile announcement of Buchanan’s Two Souls in Mexico in May 2019 (before the SWA amendment). The blend is finished in Don Julio Tequila casks, a brand that Diageo owns, and which happens to sell a Tequila finished in old Lagavulin barrels.  

With this timing a pedant might consider that in its enthusiasm – how shall we put this politely – Diageo’s Mexican team were sailing close to the wind in promoting a still illegal whisky. Mexican press coverage refers to a “launch” on 16 May, yet the rules did not come into force for another three weeks. On investigation though, it transpires that this was a media pre-launch briefing for influencers and Two Souls was not publicly available until 1 July.  That could have been embarrassing but we may, of course, safely assume that not a drop was served.

However, we’re now seeing a number of new cask finishes joining the party. As of this month Diageo’s Buchanan’s offering has been matched by Chivas Extra 13 finished in Tequila casks and Dewar’s Ilegal SmoothIlegal being a fashionable Mezcal brand in which Dewar’s ultimate owner Bacardi has a share. The Chivas Extra 13 forms part of a small range, also including Oloroso Sherry, Rum and American Rye finishes.  Not to be outdone, Dewar’s brought its Caribbean Smooth (it’s a rum finish, as if you hadn’t guessed) to North American markets in September last year though it should be noted that these other finishes had been permitted for some years prior to the new regulations.

Ewan Gunn in action on Islay

Wondering what Diageo will do next? Predictably, they’re pretty tight lipped about future plans. This is what senior global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn (above) had to say:

“Whilst we never reveal any of the hundreds of ongoing experiments our whisky makers are constantly engaged in, you can rest assured that we will continue to be at the forefront of making great whisky and pioneering new and exciting expressions. Watch this space…”

Nothing, thus far, on how Buchanan’s have got on in Mexico, so it remains to be seen how markets will accept products such as Two Souls, Dewar’s Ilegal Smooth and Chivas Extra. Traditionalists should hold onto their hats though as the marketing folks undoubtedly aren’t done monkeying around with Scotch whisky. One thing I suppose is clear. We may not have seen cachaça, shochu or baijiu finished whisky yet (though we assuredly will) but the world hasn’t ended. Scotch will survive which, given we’re all likely to be in lockdown soon, is a reassuring thought.  (Note to self: better lay in a few bottles).

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

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Cocktail of the Week: The Improved Whiskey Cocktail

What’s better than a Whiskey Cocktail? A Fancy Whiskey Cocktail. And better than that? Why, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, of course. It’s an Old Fashioned but slightly better.  Back in…

What’s better than a Whiskey Cocktail? A Fancy Whiskey Cocktail. And better than that? Why, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, of course. It’s an Old Fashioned but slightly better. 

Back in the good old days, a cocktail was a specific type of drink rather than a generic term for an iced mixed drink. The Cocktail Book from 1900 lists pages of drinks called ‘cocktails’ that are variations on the spirit (or wine) plus bitters, sugar and ice theme. But you can also see new drinks creeping in involving vermouth like the Manhattan and early versions of the Martini. Therefore, in the book, an old timey Whiskey Cocktail is called a Whiskey Cocktail Old-Fashioned to differentiate it. There’s also something called a ‘Fancy’ version made with maraschino liqueur as a sweetener. So fancy!

The Old Fashioned may have been old fashioned but doesn’t mean that it stopped evolving in 1845. It’s an endlessly versatile drink, which is why bartenders love coming up with new versions of it. Jerry Thomas, of the Eldorado Hotel in San Francisco, is usually credited with the invention of the Fancy Old Fashioned. Though more likely it was something that was around at the time and he was the first person to write it down in his Bartenders Guide: How to Mix all Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks (1887). There’s that word again, fancy.

Adding maraschino liqueur to a drink that was often garnished with a bittersweet cherry is not such a leap. It’s just a twist on a classic. But Thomas’s next step was more extreme: to turn a ‘Fancy’ into an ‘Improved’, he added absinthe taking the Old Fashioned dangerously into Sazerac territory. For the many who loathe aniseed this is not so much improved as ruined. 

Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Looks fancy. Sorry, I mean improved

Even as an aniseed lover, I will concede that a little goes a long way, so rather than add a teaspoon as with most recipes, you can add a few drops as a wash to the glass and shake it out before adding the rest of the ingredients. I’m using Ricard instead of absinthe as it’s what I’ve got in the house. It provides just a background note of aniseed. If you’re using proper absinthe which is drier instead of pastis then you might want to add more sugar. Then it’s a question of which whiskey to use. Well, it’s got to be American. Thomas would probably have used a rye but I’ve chosen a classic all-rounder bourbon, Woodford Reserve. It’s a really complex, well-balanced drop made, unusually for Kentucky, in a pot still. I’m serving it on the rocks but you could stir it over ice and serve it straight up. Oh and don’t forget the bitters. I’m using a mixture of Angostura and just a drop of orange which really lifts the whole thing.

Right, let’s improve a whiskey cocktail!

60cl Woodford Reserve bourbon
1 tablespoon Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1 tablespoon sugar syrup
1 tsp Ricard pastis (or absinthe)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Fee Brothers orange bitters

Add a teaspoon of pastis to an Old Fashioned glass, swirl it around and then shake it out. Add lots of ice cubes, all the other ingredients and give it a good stir. Express a piece of orange over the top and then serve. 

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Announcing the ‘Save the Pubs’ Alliance

Master of Malt and Beer Hawk to place £1 for every order into a fund to help support those in the hospitality industry suffering from the COVID-19 crisis, and invite…

Master of Malt and Beer Hawk to place £1 for every order into a fund to help support those in the hospitality industry suffering from the COVID-19 crisis, and invite all others to join the scheme. 

Over the past few days, we’ve been thinking about how we can best help our brothers and sisters in the hospitality industry who have been severely impacted by the events of the last week.

Today, we’re launching the Hospitality Support Alliance to help those left in dire financial need because of the impact of COVID-19.

Over the next month Master of Malt and our friends at Beer Hawk will be putting £1 for every order placed through any of our sites into a fund to help people who have lost their jobs because of this crisis. We’re partnering with hospitalityaction.org.uk to administer the fund, and make grants to impacted individuals.

Together, we’re going to try and support as many people as we can through this challenging time, and we’re going to do it in the way which people need most by providing cold hard cash so they can buy the things they need and pay rent.

Our goal here is to help people from the hospitality industry meet their basic needs until national governments are able to step in and provide more long term support.

We invite all other online retailers to join our alliance, and help support our friends in the hospitality industry when they most need it. Please drop us a line at JoinTheAlliance@masterofmalt.com and be part of the fight back against COVID-19.

I would like to thank the good people at Budweiser Brewing Group for their support in making this happen so quickly.

Together, we will get through this.

Cheers,

Justin
CEO

PS: You can also donate directly to Hospitality Action by going to hospitalityaction.org.uk/donate/ (although you can’t currently buy any whisky from them).

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Take a VR tour of Glenglassaugh Distillery!

Take a tour of the delightful Glenglassaugh Distillery, thanks to the wonders of virtual reality! Just because you’re self-isolating or on lockdown, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good…

Take a tour of the delightful Glenglassaugh Distillery, thanks to the wonders of virtual reality!

Just because you’re self-isolating or on lockdown, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good distillery tour. How is this possible? Thanks to the power of VR, of course. In this series we’re going to take you around some of the finest distilleries across England, Wales and Scotland from the comfort of your own home. We begin at a distillery with a real phoenix-from-the-flames tale. Enjoy!

The history of Glenglassaugh distillery has been tumultuous, to say the least. It was founded by James Moir and Thomas Wilson in 1875, who sold it to Highland Distillers 18 years later. A downturn in the market forced it to close in 1907 for 53 years (aside for a couple of years in the ‘30s). In 1960 it reopened to cater for increased demand for Scotch whisky before another downturn in the market forced it to close again in 1986. At this point, it may have looked condemned to many, but not to former William Grant & Sons distillery manager Stuart Nickerson, who purchased the distillery with Russian-backed firm Scaent Group in 2006. Two years later the takeover was complete and they got the distillery back on its feet. So much so that Billy Walker’s The BenRiach Distillery Co. bought it in 2013, before he sold all three of his distilleries (Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and Glendronach) to Jack Daniel’s producer Brown-Forman in 2016. Its loyal following, pioneering marketing and delicious and intriguing spirit should ensure we get to enjoy Glenglassaugh for some time.

Has all this given you a taste for Glenglassaugh? Then let us deliver a bottle (or indeed a dram) right to your door! How about Glenglassaugh Revival, the first chance to try whisky made at the re-opened distillery?  All three core expressions from the distillery, including Torfa and Evolution, are now available with a 10% discount!

Glenglassaugh Revival

It’s Glenglassaugh Revival!

 

Glenglassaugh Revival Tasting Note:

Nose: Loads of sweet caramel, a sherry nuttiness, honey, chocolate, toffee, red berries, and fresh orange. There’s a charred oak earthiness, too.

Palate: Big and mouth-filling with a creamy texture, the honey becomes more mead-like, along with red cherries, walnut and a soft spice.

Finish: Medium-length with more of that sherry character, plus caramel and some mulled wine-like spice.

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