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The changing role of the whisky distillery manager

With news of the constant churn of distillery manager jobs in Scotch whisky, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the history of the role, and how it…

With news of the constant churn of distillery manager jobs in Scotch whisky, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the history of the role, and how it has gone from job for life to gun for hire. 

Lagavulin Distillery has found a new distillery manager, and whilst wishing him all the best in his new role, it has to be hoped that he lasts a bit longer there than the last two incumbents. Time was when a distillery manager’s role was a posting for life, or at least for seven to ten years. And in larger companies with multiple malt and sometimes grain distilleries too, it was unusual for managers to leave the corporation, even if they might rotate around its sites. 

Not it seems any longer. In 2018 Diageo announced it had ‘appointed three of the most coveted jobs in the Scotch whisky industry’ at Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Brora, and yet within a few years each of the successful candidates had moved elsewhere, leaving these ‘dream jobs for any whisky-maker’ behind. What is it about the role of today’s distillery managers at large companies that might makes some turn their backs on dreams in order to embrace a preferred reality? Single malt marketeers used to like to put distillers at the heart of their brand stories, but are they still at the heart of the whisky their distilleries produce? What’s changed in the role of a distillery manager, when, and why?

pierrick Guillaume

Pierrick Guillaume left his dream job on Islay to make whisky in France

A short history of distillery managers

The large, complex, and highly capitalised Lowland distilleries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often with absentee owners, quickly adopted strictly hierarchical management structures. However, in the Highlands the newly-licensed distilleries of the 1820s, often former illicit operations, worked by early proprietor-managers (like John Cumming at Cardhu) struggled to achieve both quality and consistency as they sought to commercialise their pre-industrial operations. Cumming’s spirit was of such a variable character that his agent in Edinburgh (his brother) complained bitterly about his inability to manage the production of whisky properly. It was so poor, he said, that he had to ‘cover it’ with other makes before it could be sold (an early origins of blending story). Distilleries such as these only slowly transitioned into management by a new and highly accomplished managerial class by the middle of the century.

Accomplished though they were, these men were first and foremost practical distillers, with skills and secrets learned on the job, very often from fathers, uncles and brothers. Few could match the family of John Smith, who worked on his father’s farm in Glenlivet before following his brother to George Smith’s Upper Drumin Distillery, where he learned the trades of malting, mashing and fermenting. This ‘far famed brewer’ had six sons who ‘seemed to possess naturally the distilling faculty of their father’. The most famous were John Smith, like his father a graduate of Glenlivet distillery and later head brewer and manager there, and his younger brother George who also began his career under the tutelage of his father. John was a giant of a man (‘he turned the beam at 26 imperial stone’) famed for Cragganmore Distillery which he established in 1869, but it was George who was the giant of distilling. Having honed his craft at distilleries from Aberdeen to Argyllshire, he was appointed brewer and manager at Royal Brackla in the late 1860s where the owner Robert Fraser ‘gave him carte blanche powers as to the improvement of the buildings and machinery’. When George Smith died [in 1927] one obituarist wrote ‘his lifelong experience in distilling gave him a knowledge of the art which few men possessed’.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla Distillery

Masters of their own destiny

Men like Smith, who transformed the production of malt whisky in the second half of the nineteenth century, were masters of their own destiny with wide-ranging responsibilities that would gradually be diminished for most distillery managers, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. They led the expansion of an industry where output increased from around 14 million proof gallons in 1870 to over 30 million at the turn of the century. They also pioneered the introduction of technology like pneumatic maltings, mashing machines, refrigerators, steam-heated stills, and condensers and purifiers (the last two of which would have a profound impact on spirit character) in new distilleries and old. They were responsible for purchasing raw materials, and very often for selling (on a commission basis) their yearly output. They would have been known from the barley fields of Banff to the breweries and blending rooms of Britain’s major cities, making annual sorties south at the start of each distilling season.

‘Everything’ said one critic of the management of late nineteenth century distilleries, ‘is entrusted to the workmen, the head of the establishment who generally has no scientific knowledge giving directions’. But what these managers may have lacked in scientific knowledge they made up for with their practical experience and learned technical skills. To proprietors they were indispensable. 

At the end of the first world war, John Walker & Sons was desperate to have two men returned to them from wartime service. One was marketing director Sir James Stevenson who had worked in the Ministry of Munitions, the other was Cardhu distillery manager William Fraser, who was serving in the Royal Corps of Signals. “There is a great deal to be seen to which Fraser alone knows about’ wrote John Cummings to Stevenson, who while unable (and quite possibly unwilling) to quit working for Winston Churchill was able to employ his considerable influence to get Fraser back to Cardhu, and the distillery back in operation in the autumn of 1919.

Mortlach 47 Year Old

The famous Mortlach stills

Demoted to the lower decks

Fraser remained as manager until 1933, when he spent a further seven years as ‘overseer’ of both Cardhu and Mortlach distilleries. His career was to witness the start of the emasculation of the traditional all-encompassing role of the distillery manager, brought about by the rationalisation of malt whisky production within the newly expanded Distillers Company (DCL) under the oversight of Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD), which by 1935 owned or managed 51 distilleries. 

At the helm of this unwieldy fleet of over fifty distilleries in the 1930s and 1940s was Stuart Hastie, war hero, chemist, fermentation expert and passionate advocate of an interventionist centralised control of malt whisky distilling where science was to rule over the waves of tradition. And with Hastie at the helm, with an officer’s mess of regional distillery inspectors, scientists and technocrats, distillery managers found themselves demoted to the lower decks. Raw materials (barley, yeast and casks) were purchased centrally, upgrades and expansions were determined and managed from the SMDs office in Edinburgh in conjunction with the DCL’s General Works Department, and the final arbiters of quality were the blending departments of the main brand-owning companies within the DCL. Distillery managers were still figures of considerable local importance in the communities in which they worked and lived, and their general managerial and technical skills were still highly valued but in this new corporate structure they were mere ciphers compared to their late Victorian and Edwardian whisky-making predecessors.

The changing industry

Nor was this approach confined to the DCL. Whilst few turned their backs on the company’s generous pension scheme, DCL trained managers were best in class, and the few who left took the production philosophy championed by Hastie with them wherever they went. After the second world war as new capital and new holding companies began to challenge the DCL’s supposed pre-eminence, the centralised distilling operating model it had developed, with specialists back-rooms attending to all the technical, scientific and quality issues, was adopted by all. One leaver was John McDougall, who turned his back on ‘the nannying culture of the DCL’ to manage Balvenie for William Grant & Son’s before joining Long John Distillers in 1970 to manage Laphroaig, where he was told, he would be ‘king of your own domain … you can go walking or shooting, or you can take the afternoon off and play golf when you want’.

Long John Distillers was owned by the expansionist Schenley Industries of New York. The distillery, ‘a series of ramshackle old stone buildings’, ‘certainly wasn’t hi-tec in fact … it wasn’t even low-tec, more no-tec at all’; it had suffered from a lack of investment, had very low spirit yields, but ‘did have that magical ingredient of the personal touch’. A highly invested workforce however, made change particularly difficult to effect. At the end of the day it was neither McDougall nor his workforce, but the engineers and accountants at Long John who determined the distillery’s destiny. When the stillhouse was upgraded in 1972, rather than pay for two new spirit stills they installed one double-sized spirit still, very much against the manager’s wish. ‘From the point of view of the traditionalist’, wrote McDougall, ‘what emerged was not the Laphroaig of old’. ‘Economic considerations’, he continued ‘mattered more than maintaining the quality and tradition of one of Scotland’s finest and most distinctive whiskies’, and certainly mattered more than the opinion of the enervated distillery manager.

Laphroaig John Campbell

Laphroaig on a rare sunny day

Manufacturing excellence processes

Ask a distillery manager employed today by one of the large distilling companies about his or her day job and you’re more likely to hear about manufacturing excellence processes, health and safety regulations, permits to work, efficiency improvements and boiler breakdowns than you are whisky making. 

That’s not to suggest that these companies don’t care about quality – quite the reverse. They are obsessed by quality. Everything they do is to deliver precisely defined and specified spirit characters, and to ensure consistency. And whilst the manager has some responsibility for this, like a process engineer manufacturing Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers, it’s all determined, assessed and ultimately managed elsewhere. It’s the blenders and the boffins who call the shots. The totemic distillery manager of yesteryear, still much beloved by marketing departments, PR agencies and gullible consumers, is no more, and has been no more for a long time.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

The Stirling Brothers, the brains behind Arbikie, one of Scotland’s new wave distillers

Distilling disruptors

Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are new distilleries the length and breadth of the kingdom where the onus is on the distillery manager and distiller (not always the same thing) to deliver innovations through grain varieties, yeasts, and distillation and maturation regimes. And they are often being asked to bring palatable products to the market at ages that turn category norms upside down. They are distilling disruptors. It’s almost wilfully reckless: anything goes (within the Scotch Whisky Regulations) in the pursuit of an eye-catching story that might tempt a punter to open their wallets. Why, some distillers are even being given the chance to design and build their own distilleries from scratch, just like they did in the good old days.

Where once there were few opportunities for people to enter the distilling industry, challenging opportunities for creative distillery managers to spread their wings are almost endless. Consequently, the lure of the big name ‘dream jobs’ at larger companies is correspondingly diminished. The days of distillery managers being lifers are long gone.

The barriers to movement, particularly the very generous pensions offered by some large companies, have also been removed as schemes have been closed and potential retirement benefits significantly reduced. With the handcuffs unlocked, and with all the noise, energy and excitement in distilling in Scotland apparently coming from these newly established businesses, it’s hardly surprising that people are on the move, trying to turn their dreams into reality.

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Battling Baileys: the brands redefining Irish cream liqueur

A recent tasting of Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur got us thinking about the way the Irish cream liqueur is changing and growing, and why that’s a good thing. For a…

A recent tasting of Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur got us thinking about the way the Irish cream liqueur is changing and growing, and why that’s a good thing.

For a small country, we have an enviable amount of diverse and charismatic food and drink products in Ireland. There’s the whiskey, as well as quality meat, fish, and dairy products. There’s also all that whiskey, as well as poitín and cream liqueurs. Then there’s the soda bread, and Taytos. Plus, loads of great whiskey.

Helping to spread the good word is Bord Bia, an Irish state agency that promotes the country’s food and horticulture sector. One of the ways it does this is with trade events, and an annual gathering in February at the Irish embassy in London has become a regular gig for me as lots of drinks producers use it as a platform to debut new products. 

It’s always a fun and illuminating night, with new distilleries, interesting products, and plenty of stories surrounding you. There’s also enough run-of-the-mill, loveless third-party liquid that will probably be gone in five years, but I’m focusing on the positives here. This year, in the midst of all the good company, whiskey, gin, mixers, and even a VR set (distillery tours from afar? Been there, done that) it was hard not to notice one stand in particular that had a big plastic cow on its table. 

It belonged to Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur. I immediately asked for a sip as a) it looked delicious, b) the clever marketing of having a miniature cow on the stand absolutely worked on me, and c) I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the category. What our parents drink sticks with us, and cream liqueur is something of a favourite for my mum. I was also keen to pick their brains, as I’ve noticed a renewed interest in the category recently, with new players making a case that it’s time to rethink how we define the spirit, and that there’s room enough for them amongst the obvious big names. Which means Baileys. Let’s not skirt around that, we all know it and I’ve already put it in the title of the blog. 

Five Farms Irish cream liqueur

Look, it’s Five Farms Irish cream liqueur!

Five farms, one goal

It’s an opportunity that McCormick Distilling International Ltd, the brand behind Five Farms, is keen to take. Peter Martin, who handles business development for them, tells me they feel the potential is there to remind people what a unique and tasty drink Irish cream liqueur is and do something different. “It’s a category that has lost much of its charm and elegance through price fighting strategies and one that lacked a good point of reference at a higher premium level,” he says.

“Five Farms is a product that brings back the magic of a category that can be traced to farmer’s wives and grandmothers making traditional drinks for the family to enjoy. Five Farms boasts the provenance of Cork, which has a unique fertile soil, as well as the traceability of its cream down to the five family herds. It is a truly regional product steeped in quality and tradition.”

In order to trade on the notion that you’re premium booze, you need a production process that backs it up. For Five Farms, this begins at five family-owned farms on the coast of County Cork in Ireland (I think I’ve figured out where the name comes from). There, single batches of cream are collected each week in liveried vans, before being blended and bottled within 48 hours. The blend includes triple distilled Irish whiskey, but they’re not allowed to say which. You know how it is. While the category of Irish cream liqueurs demands only 1% of the alcohol content to be Irish whiskey, at Five Farms it’s a minimum of 10%, which is a costly choice but, as Martin says, the reward is added depth and warmth to the blend. “And not only is our Irish whiskey content high, but the cream concentration of butterfat is many times higher than the mass-produced products,” he adds.

Five Farms Irish cream liqueur

My measures were poured that quickly and full too

Redefining Irish cream liqueur

For Five Farms, talking about process is an important way to distinguish itself. The brand seems to be relying on the notion somewhat that everybody understands that product provenance, original packaging (I love that early-1900s bottle design and swing-top cap), and quality liquid are indicators of premium standard spirits, and those have these will help refocus the identity of Irish cream liqueur. Which seems fair, really, doesn’t it? “We all know the category is currently dominated by seasonal price fighting brands that tactically embrace volume and market saturation,” Martin says. “This has established the category in the mind’s eye of the consumer and the chase for low price volume denies them the ability to stretch their brands into the growing premium spirits arena.”

This is where we come to category leaders like the aforementioned giant that is Baileys. It’s one of those brands that has the dual distinction of ensuring there is a category to enjoy at all, but also defining and potentially limiting it. We’re good at that in Ireland, just take a look at the whiskey category. Five Farms are attempting to redefine Irish cream liqueur, and according to Martin, one way of doing this is to establish a different price sector for the category. “Therefore we compete more horizontally across a range of other premium liqueurs and spirits and not necessarily less expensive cream liqueurs,” he explains.

Demonstrating the right credentials to grow the category is one thing, making sure people understand it is another. As Martin says, the rules around Irish cream liqueur can be confusing and even misleading, “especially when you throw in low price country creams into the mix which have different rules but very similar iconography to that of the brand leaders,” he explains. “The category is mainly defined by the content levels of Irish whiskey which is low in most other cases, but the consumer tends to believe it is all Irish whiskey. We go to the level of our content not governed by the rules, but by the final taste profile which we want to be firmly Irish whiskey but not overpoweringly to the point that takes the blend away from Irish creams”.

 Irish cream liqueur

Is it time you reconsidered how you think about Irish cream liqueur?

Hitting the sweet spot

Early indicators suggest Five Farms is getting it right. The brand holds the world score for a drink of its kind at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge with 97 points from 100, and even more impressively, my own bottle was gone in an instant. Seriously, I can’t recall how many times I’ve brought out something to share with my friends and it’s been emptied that quickly. People were comparing it to boozy caramel, commenting on how nice it would be in a hot chocolate or over ice cream (there are some great recipes here), and trying to hide the bottle when I wasn’t looking. 

We forget sometimes when we’re very serious drinks lovers being very serious that this is supposed to be fun. One of the things Irish cream liqueur has going for it is that it’s really bloody tasty and instantly accessible. If you’re tempted to treat Irish cream liqueur as the brash, cheap cousin of whiskey, it’s time to think again. It’s always been delicious, but with brands now emerging that can add real stories and provenance to the mix, you can see exactly how this industry can begin to soar.

This isn’t to say that the tale Five Farms is telling is a new one. Ireland’s agricultural identity is well-trodden ground. You might worry all those green fields you can see in the pictures in this blog (and that miniature cow) means we’re dangerously close to Paddywhackery territory. We’re not alone in being cautious of this kind of presentation. Just look at how hard many within Scotch whisky are working to ditch the tartan and tweed imagery that once served it so well. Ireland has its own well-curated brand rooted in shamrocked countryside filled with folksy farmers. Brands like Baileys have played with this ideal, but there’s no actual provenance to them. It’s a creation of collaboration between boardroom and laboratory, not farm and table.

But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can champion products that present and reflect an honest version of our vital agricultural industry. For example, a liqueur made using cream sourced solely from the family-owned farms. And quality Irish whiskey. That’s something to embrace. Especially if what they make it tastes like boozy caramel.

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Whisky heroes: the architects who made the mould

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton celebrates three architects who defined how a distillery should look, Charles Doig, William Delmé-Evans and George Darge. There was a…

As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton celebrates three architects who defined how a distillery should look, Charles Doig, William Delmé-Evans and George Darge.

There was a fascinating article here at the end of March by my fellow contributor Lauren Eads on new distillery architecture. She highlights a number of distilleries where producers are ‘breaking the mould’ of the familiar style of white buildings, pagoda roofs and predictable rectangular forms. But who was responsible for creating this ‘mould’ originally? In this part of my Whisky Heroes series we meet the three Scottish architects principally responsible for the look that is now being so vigorously challenged with a new visual language.

Balblair Distillery

Balblair Distillery, remodelled by Doig in 1895. Note his pagoda.

Charles Cree Doig

First up, of course, has to be Charles Cree Doig (1855 – 1918), the inventor of the Doig Ventilator and thus responsible for the distinctive pagoda roof. This was a technical improvement to the malting process, enabling more efficient dispersal of peat smoke and, in the days when virtually all Scottish distilleries operated on-site maltings, rapidly became the ubiquitous signature of a distillery. Fortunate to be working at a time of a production boom he’s credited with working on more than 50 sites in both Scotland and Ireland though sadly many have since been swept away by ‘progress’ in subsequent redevelopment, such as at Craigellachie, or lost altogether such as at Gerston, Lochside, Auchinblae, Stronachie, Breadalbane and Killowen distilleries.

The design for the ventilator evolved through a series of sketches for Dailuaine distillery, which had commissioned Doig to make alterations to its maltings. He succeeded brilliantly, with a design both functional and elegant and, in an industry not noted for its ready acceptance of innovation, his pagoda was swiftly adopted. The trade press praised the new look Dailuaine and other commissions swiftly followed. Indeed, his competitor John Alcock immediately developed the idea for the striking twin pagodas at Strathisla, and later worked with Doig at Glentauchers. Doig’s influence on the great Japanese distilling pioneer Masataka Taketsuru (founder of Nikka Distilling) in the design of Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido is also clear at a glance.

Indeed, long after on-site maltings were largely abandoned, distilleries as far-flung as Kavalan have incorporated the pagoda roof detail as powerfully symbolic of the building’s purpose. And the mould has not been completely broken: note that just this month in proudly announcing substantial investment in upgrading their site, Dalmore stressed that “a beautiful pagoda, sat elegantly atop the Old Dalmore Kiln, will mark the heart of the reimagined distillery”.

Doig himself famously prophesied that after Glen Elgin (1898) no distillery would be built on Speyside for fifty years. That was not perhaps as prescient as it sounds, as whisky went into a decline as catastrophic as the dot com fiasco of recent memory, but it’s a curious fact that he was right, it being 1958 before the construction of Tormore saw new distillery construction by the Spey. Sadly, Tormore’s ventilators are squat and functional.

The winner of a VIP trip to Jura Distillery is...

Jura distillery, it’s functional!

William Delmé-Evans

But a new generation of architects were now about to leave their mark as whisky entered a new period of expansion. Chief amongst these was William Delmé-Evans (1920 – 2003) who was responsible for Tullibardine, Jura (1963), Glenallachie (as advisor, 1968) and probably much of Macduff (home of The Deveron single malt), though he left partway through that project following a dispute with the client team.

Like Doig, Delmé-Evans was a technical innovator, working at a time when distillery tourism was far from anyone’s mind. He was greatly concerned with production efficiency, concentrating on gravity flow where possible and advocating the use of shell and tube condensers, then relatively unusual.

Apart from Jura, which has gone on to great success – arguably as much through location as by moving on from Delmé-Evans’ blander style of whisky (it was designed to make spirit intended for blending, not a distinctive single malt) – his projects are relatively little-known but he was nonetheless at the forefront of Scotland’s whisky revival in the post-war years and, in his concern with efficiency and conservation, anticipates many of today’s concerns.

Caol Ila distillery

The still house of the Caol Ila

 George Leslie Darge

More recently, the work of George Leslie Darge (1919 – 2001) can be seen as creating an unconscious and unintended bridge between distillery as efficient production unit and visitor attraction. He worked for 28 years in Scottish Malt Distillers (think today’s Diageo) in-house design team in Elgin, mainly as chief architect responsible for remodelling some 46 distilleries at many sites including Lagavulin, Talisker, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Cardhu, as well as maltings, bonds and workers’ housing.

Darge’s great and lasting contribution was the then-radical use of curtain glass walls on stillhouses, which can still be seen today – for example, at Aberfeldy, Royal Brackla and spectacularly in the remodelled Caol Ila (1972-74), his final project. Like his two predecessors, the original aim was to improve efficiency – the glass walls allow easy access for maintenance or the replacement of stills plant and control of excess heat from the stills. But, unintentionally, the glazing permitted the heart of the distillery to be opened to public view, thus speaking to today’s concerns with ‘transparency’ and providing an alluring aspect to seduce the passing tourist into the lucrative visitor centre.

Today’s technical development in glass production permit architects ever more radical approaches to the curtain wall, as seen at The Macallan, Dalmunach, Kentucky’s New Riff and a number of other new projects.

But all owe something to these earlier pioneering whisky heroes – the mould we might conclude has been more remade than broken.

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Wild spirits: three bottles that help the environment and taste great

This week we’re looking at three brands that help the environment and taste great too featuring delicious rums from Barbados and Nicaragua, and superb gin from Venezuela. These are wild…

This week we’re looking at three brands that help the environment and taste great too featuring delicious rums from Barbados and Nicaragua, and superb gin from Venezuela. These are wild spirits.

For many spirits brands, it’s not enough these days just to produce delicious liquids to put in cocktails or sip neat. They want to put something back, do some good and help protect the environment. So we’ve rounded up a few of our favourites from the Americas which taste superb but have a commitment to sustainability that goes beyond a PR exercise. Introducing three wild spirits that help protect the natural environment and, most importantly, taste incredible. 

Wild Spirits Flor de Cana

Flor de Caña 12 

Flor de Caña doesn’t do sustainability by halves. It has planted 50,000 trees annually across Nicaragua since 2005. Distilled with 100% renewable energy, its rum is the only spirit in the world to be both certified FairTrade and carbon-neutral, meaning all carbon emissions during its entire life cycle, from field to market, are offset. The firm also provides free schooling to the children of employees. In fact, the current maestro ronero Tomás Cano was put through university by Flor de Cana. The rum is made from local sugar cane, fermented with a local yeast and then distilled in a column before ageing in ex-bourbon casks. As with Scotch whisky, the age statement is the age of the youngest component. No sugar or other additives are added before bottling to create a rum of great elegance.

How does it taste?

The nose has orange peel and menthol with grassy freshness on the palate with a touch of tobacco and fudge. Sip this neat with one of Nicaragua’s fine cigars or make a decidedly superior Palmetto

Wild Spirits Canaima Gin

Canaïma Gin

The brand is dedicated to protecting and preserving its Amazonian environment and the local communities within it. Named after Canaïma National Park, 10% of the sales from each bottle of the gin goes towards the reforestation of the Amazon as well as preserving the culture and heritage of the indigenous people. The concept of using a spirit brand to aid conservation began with bartending legend Simone Caporale. His trip to the Peruvian Amazon gave him a troubling insight into the destruction of the rainforest’s fragile ecology. The result was Canaima Gin made in conjunction with Diplomatico. The team uses 10 unique Amazonian botanicals which are sustainably harvested alongside more traditional botanicals such as juniper, grapefruit, and orange. They distil each one separately in a 500-litre copper pot still before blending them into the final gin

How does it taste?

Tangy fruity notes of passion fruit and grapefruit citrus, with a herbaceous backdrop, black pepper heat and an earthy, grassy undertone. Try it in a G&G mixed with grapefruit soda. 

Wild Spirits_Neptune Rum

Neptune Rum

Proceeds from every bottle of Neptune Rum sold go to cleaning up the ocean through charities including Surfers Against Sewage, Seabin Project and Our Only World. Happily, the rum itself is absolutely superb which is no surprise as it’s distilled and aged at Barbados’s great Foursquare distillery. The blend consists of a mixture of pot and column still rum, created from a blend of eight, five and three-year-old rums made from pure sugar cane molasses. Since its launch in 2017, Neptune has been picking up awards left, right and centre including two gold medals in the Luxury Masters 2021 Awards. It’s also proved a hit with Master of Malt customers. Check out all those five-star reviews. 

What does it taste like?

Maple syrup, fresh apricot, vanilla, nutmeg, warm bourbon oak, sherried peel, ripe peaches,  shredded coconut and green banana. Try it in a rum Old Fashioned

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New Arrival of the Week: Hendrick’s Neptunia

A brand new creation from the mind of Hendrick’s Gin master distiller Lesley Gracie has appeared. It’s called Neptunia and it aims to capture the Scottish seaside in a bottle……

A brand new creation from the mind of Hendrick’s Gin master distiller Lesley Gracie has appeared. It’s called Neptunia and it aims to capture the Scottish seaside in a bottle…

We’re sure most of you are aware of Hendrick’s Gin. It’s a pioneering brand that was launched before gin became terribly on-trend and started appearing absolutely everywhere. You probably know that it’s got a signature taste, thanks to infusions of cucumber and rose petals alongside a blend of 11 botanicals. If you’re a big fan, you’ll be familiar with the fact that the gin is distilled in batches of only 500 litres at a time using two completely contrasting stills, a rare Carterhead and an antique Bennett copper pot still.

You might not know, however, that all this gin creation happens in a Scottish seaside town called Girvan. It’s home to a distillery that is one of the largest spirit making facilities in Scotland and is also where Ailsa Bay whisky is made. Given Girvan is Hendrick’s home (say that with a mouthful of Skittles) it’s hardly surprising that master distiller Lesley Gracie has made a gin inspired by the rugged coastline she sees every day. 

Hendrick’s Neptunia is full of seaside botanicals like sea kelp, coastal thyme, and lime – though fear not, the cucumber and rose combo that we all know and love is still alive and well in this coastal creation. You’ll also be delighted to know that Hendrick’s has taken the opportunity provided by the launch of Neptunia to partner with Project Seagrass, protecting the place it calls home with the environmental charity that’s devoted to the conservation and restoration of seagrass ecosystems. Delicious and sustainable? Win-win.


Hendrick’s Neptunia is our latest arrival

The master

As she’s the mastermind behind this new gin, we thought it was about time to shine our MoM-branded spotlight on native Yorkshire-woman Gracie, who is one of the most distinguished producers of gin around. With a background in chemistry, Gracie’s big break came in 1999 when she was approached by the great-grandson of William Grant, Charles Gordon, to create an ‘ultra-premium’ gin. What she made became Hendrick’s, and Gracie was subsequently appointed master distiller. 

Since then, she’s been spearheading all of Hendrick’s liquid innovations. It might not seem so innovative or out-there in today’s gin landscape, but you have to remember Gracie was pushing the spirit’s boundaries back when there were about three choices of gin in any bar and a bartender’s response to being asked for a G&T would have been “A what? Oh… hang on. I think have some Schweppes here…”

The brand says her genius lies in her “fascination with flavours and how they work together”, adding that she “visualises flavours as shapes and strikes to create a round, balanced flavour in all of her elixirs”. This approach has helped Gracie amass an array of botanicals, distillates, and experimental liquids over the course of two decades, which are housed in a locked cabinet in her laboratory named the Cabinet of Curiosities, which is also the name of the range Neptunia belongs to (you might know previous editions like the floral Midsummer Solstice, or the quinine-loaded Orbium).

In January 2022, Gracie was named by Walpole as one of the top 50 most influential people in British luxury who, despite enormous challenges throughout the past two years, have continued to steer their sector to success. In 2021 alone, she received Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spirits Business Awards, the title of Grand Rectifier of the Gin Guild, and was inducted into the Gin Magazine Hall of Fame, while in 2018 she won the ‘Gin Distiller of the Year’ at the World Gin Awards. So many plaudits!

Lesley Gracie

Look, it’s Lesley Gracie!

The creation

Speaking of how she made Neptunia, Gracie says that most of her creations are based on memories. “Hendrick’s Neptunia, for me, is that freeing feeling of the sea bottled in a gin – the wind in your hair and the salty sea breeze on your face,” she explains. “You have that distinctive fresh character of coastal herbs, depth of flavour from the sea botanicals and an unmistakable clean, bright citrus finish that lifts and lightens in a round, refreshing way that makes it Hendrick’s.”

To my palate, this isn’t the most radical of creations, but instead, a tasty, accessible bottling that represents a delicate deviation from the classic expression. Citrus sweetness, herbal savouriness, and those rose petal, floral elements that make up the recognisable Hendrick’s house style are all present, with a sprinkling of sea salt throughout and a hint of seaweed bringing the coastal flavours. The thyme is also detectable and more earthy, while there’s a well-measured resinous juniper note that isn’t lost despite all the extra botanicals. I can see this being an excellent Dirty Martini base.

Hendrick’s, however, has actually been kind enough to whip up a signature serve for this drink, commenting that “this fresh and crisp take on Hendrick’s house style makes for the perfect Neptunia Fizz cocktail”. Here’s how to make it: Combine 50ml Hendrick’s Neptunia, 25ml fresh lime, and 25ml simple sugar syrup, in a Highball glass filled with cubed ice. Stir gently. Top with soda water and garnish with three sliced rounds of cucumber. Easy right? Almost as easy as entering our latest competition…

Hendrick's Neptunia

Fancy your chances at winning prizes? You know what to do.

Competition time:

That’s right, to mark this launch we’re giving you the chance to win a 70cl bottle of Hendrick’s Neptunia, Hendrick’s Lunar, and Hendrick’s Amazonia, as well as a Hendrick’s Tea Set and basket, and a Hendrick’s Giraffe Pourer. What a haul!

To enter, just like this competition post on Instagram; follow @MasterofMalt on Instagram and follow @hendricksgin on Instagram; and tag a friend you would like to share the prize with in the comments section of the same post by 10am UK time on 23 May 2022. T&Cs are below. Good luck, and don’t forget you can buy Hendrick’s Neptunia right here!

MoM Hendrick’s Gin Competition 2022 open to entrants 18 years and over. Entries accepted from 10:00 UK time on 16 May 2022 to 10:00 UK time 23 May 2022. Winners chosen at random after close of competition. Prizes not transferable and cannot be exchanged for cash equivalent. See full T&Cs for details.

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The Nightcap: 13 May

Guess who stars in The Nightcap this week? If you said top pop singer Paul Heaton, Ryan Reynolds’ mum, and the Fortnum and Mason’s Drink Writer of the Year 2022,…

Guess who stars in The Nightcap this week? If you said top pop singer Paul Heaton, Ryan Reynolds’ mum, and the Fortnum and Mason’s Drink Writer of the Year 2022, then give yourself a pat on the back.  

This week on the blog we were discussing the resurgence of flavoured vodka, which was all the rage back in the ‘90s. It got us thinking about which trends we’d like to see resurface. Pokemon never really went away and Tamagotchis were too hard to keep alive. Your favourite girl power and/or Britpop records live on every time you play them. As does The Macarena, which we all remember how to do. Seinfeld is on Netflix and Friends is literally everywhere all of the time. It’s hard to pick just one thing, but what we miss most might be just walking around Blockbusters on a Friday night and visually picking one film from every movie ever, all in one place. You can’t really stumble upon a random movie you end up falling in love with now, not with a load of faulty and/or cynical algorithms. It’s either that, or reviving Iced Gems. 

Anyway, aside from whipping up a flavoured vodka-based cocktail, it was a week of whisky on the MoM blog. We found out what makes distilleries like Knockdhu, Teeling, and the Cotswolds so great, recommended some out-of-this-world bottles, welcomed the arrival of a certain Wise Owl, pointed out the best places in Scotland to enjoy a wee dram, and fondly remembered the Spirit of Speyside festival.

But there’s always room for more stories. Let’s crack on with The Nightcap: 13 May edition!

Henry Jeffreys


Our Henry wins Fortnum and Mason’s Drink Writer of the Year 2022!

You might recall that we mentioned that our editor Henry Jeffreys was up for Greatest Writer of all Time at the annual Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards recently. Well, he won! Recognising his work in the Fence magazine and his platform World of Booze (the mighty Master of the Malt blog goes without saying, of course), our Henry scooped up the Drink Writer award ahead of stiff competition from last year’s winner Will Hawkes, nominated for his work in Tonic and Pellicle magazines, and Felipe Schrieberg from Whisky Magazine. If you’re unaware, the awards are like the Golden Globes, only far more glamorous, and aim to celebrate the best writers and publishers working in food and drink. In its 10th year, the ceremony was co-presented by Claudia Winkleman alongside chef and judging panel chair, Angela Hartnett OBE, while judges included Alice Lascelles, Freddy Bulmer, Georgina Hayden, Jaega Wise, Mark Diacono, and Tara Wigley. Impressing them is no mean feat. But Henry did just that and posted some words on his Instagram in response to the award. He said that he was “about 60% blanc de blanc Champagne” last night, and thanked the judging panel “for their wisdom in giving me this peculiar looking award”. He also thanked The Fence Magazine for “letting me write whimsical things” and his wife Misti “for encouraging me to enter more personal articles”. We’re proud as punch, and will insist you refer to him by his proper title in all future communications (that’s Henry Jeffreys, Fortnum and Mason’s Drink Writer of the Year 2022, if you’re having trouble keeping up).

Ryan Reynolds and his mum star in Aviation Gin ad 

Nobody sells his spirit quite like Ryan Reynolds and for Mother’s Day (in the US it was on 8 May, don’t panic, our one was ages ago) he managed to rope his mum, Tammy, into the latest Aviation Gin advert. Together, they create a Punch recipe to celebrate Mother’s Day. By which we mean Reynolds tries to make some Mother’s Ruin Punch while being mothered. The Canadian actor invested in Aviation Gin in 2018, and Diageo acquired the brand in 2020, but part of the deal meant they secured the services of his incredible ability to actually sit and make you watch an advert. If you want to actually make the Mother’s Ruin Punch, just mix together half a cup (eight-ish tablespoons) of sugar and 180ml of soda water soda, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add 350ml of grapefruit juice, 180ml of lemon juice, 180ml of sweet vermouth, and 350ml of Aviation Gin, and stir. After the mixture has chilled for an hour, top up the punch with Champagne. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit and there you have it. A drink only a mother could love.


Don’t miss out on this one

Ardbeg returns to London for Ardbeg Day 2022

If you’re lucky enough to be going to Fèis Ìle this year then you’ll surely be heading to Ardbeg Day on the final Saturday of the festival. But for those who need an alternative Ardbeg fix, the Islay whisky brand is hosting a punk-themed event (see our Ardcore coverage in a previous Nightcap) on 21 May in London. In celebration of the first physical festivities since 2019, Ardbeg is calling “all rabble-rousers” to join them between 2-7pm at Strongroom Bar, London, where attendees will have a chance to try their hand at all kinds of punky activities, like at the supervised live graffiti wall and ‘Punk your look’ stations, to the Ardbeg Fling, or ‘welly wanging’ (no idea) and rebel portrait artists. Food will come in the form of BBQ smoky burgers and sweet treats from the customisable donut station, made to complement the smoke of Ardbeg whisky. Which includes this year’s festival bottling, Ardcore, and plenty of ‘Rock-tails’ to savour as you pogo to a live punk band to end the day. Tickets are priced at £40 and include 3 cocktails, canapes, all activities, and an Ardcore tasting session. You can find them here.


Welcome to Port-nah-truan. Say it with us. Port. Nah. Truan. Got it?

Elixir Distillers announces name of new Islay distillery

Just over six months after breaking ground, and after much speculation from whisky enthusiasts around the world, Elixir Distillers has confirmed its new Islay distillery will be called Portintruan. It’s pronounced ‘Port-nah-truan’ and not ‘purring’ or  ‘puree’ or ‘portakabin’ as Irish journalist Bill Linnane joked on Twitter, and takes its name from the historic farm estate where the distillery is located and means ‘place of the stream’. The site promises to be home to both old-style production techniques and modern technology with a focus on sustainability. There’s also going to be an experimental distillery within the site – so it will be two distilleries in one. This will enable the team to produce not only different Scotch whisky styles but also rum. Plans for the distillery site also include 14 houses for Islay families working at the distillery, a visitor’s centre, a bar and restaurant, a tasting room bothy overlooking the sea, and a multi-purpose educational facility that will serve as a base for an apprentice programme to train the next generation of distillers. Work on the site is well underway and Portintruan is anticipating starting distilling from early 2024.

The Dalmore Distillery

The Dalmore Distillery will look quite different soon…

The Dalmore unveils new investment programme 

It feels like nearly every week there’s a distillery expanding and this week it’s Highland stalwarts The Dalmore who have outlined a new investment programme. It proposes a new whisky-making facility and visitor experience featuring the classic Charles Doig-style pagoda sitting atop The Old Dalmore Kiln at the heart of the reimagined distillery. Parent group Whyte and Mackay’s sustainability strategy The Green Print, which set the objective to become net-zero by 2040, is said to be right at the heart of this reimagining, thanks to an exacting set of standards that will transition the site to a green energy solution. The brand also promises to preserve the Dalmore DNA, which has been a key factor in it becoming the fastest-growing single malt (according to them, anyway). Formal planning application has been submitted, while whisky industry authority Forsyths are consulting on the process and the whisky-making aspect of the development. We’ll keep you posted on any key updates.

Macallan New York

Want a bottle? Register your interest now

Macallan’s Distil Your World New York arrives

You may have noticed that The Macallan Distil Your World series, which aims to transport whisky enthusiasts on a sensorial trip across the globe, was bolstered by the addition of a new bottling recently. This one takes us on a trip to the Big Apple (that’s New York, if you’ve never watched any TV or films in your life) through a spirit aged in a combination of American and European oak casks, selected to reflect the flavours and ingredients that define New York. “We really looked towards the quintessential tastes of New York – sweet candy, waffles, peanut brittle, chocolate, and pecans. The city’s thriving street food scene was a great source of inspirations,” says Macallan whisky maker Polly Logan. Given this is a  range made in collaboration with the Roca brothers, who own the three Michelin-star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, we’re confident they’ve hit the flavour mark. The news of this launch was actually shared a couple of weeks ago, but we held off reporting it then because we can add another exciting layer to the story. Only 1,000 bottles were produced and we’ve been lucky enough to get our hands on some. As there’s likely to be a mad scramble for these, we’re setting up a dedicated shopping page where you can register your interest in a bottle. We’ll be in touch once we have dates for the private auctions we hold. Just head here for more info.

The Kraken Roast Coffee

The Kraken Roast Coffee is here!

Kraken Rum launches first flavoured rum: The Kraken Roast Coffee

When we told you that Guinness was making a coffee-based creation, you all got very excited. So you might also like to know that The Kraken Rum is launching its first new product since its inaugural launch in the form of The Kraken Roast Coffee. And we’ve already got some (hence the link on the name). Kraken Roast Coffee is described as a “fusion of spiced Caribbean rum and fine Arabica bean coffee,” and drinkers can supposedly expect “a rich, dark, and smooth taste of coffee that balances perfectly with the variety of spices in Kraken rum”. Yummy. The press release also has a perfectly reasonable story about sailors harnessing the dark aroma of roast coffee to ward off Krakens. You can have a good hearty laugh at that while making an Espresso Rumtini if you like, using a recipe the brand provided. Just shake up 50ml The Kraken Roast Coffee, 40ml cold-pressed coffee, and 10ml sugar syrup for up to 10 seconds and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with cinnamon powder and three coffee beans. Lovely. No promises it will ward off any Krakens, however… 


Picon lovers, rejoice!

Campari acquires cult French aperitif Amer Picon

Big news for fans of bitter drinks as the biggest name in bitterness, Campari, has just acquired one of the smallest, Amer Picon. The Italian drinks group paid Diageo €119 million for the Picon brand and related assets. The brand dates back to its invention by Gaétan Picon in 1837 and blends oranges and herbs into a deliciously bitter concoction. It comes in two varieties: Amer Picon Bière which is somewhat bizarrely used for mixing with beer; and Amer Picon Club which is essential for making cocktails such as the Brooklyn. The only trouble is that while it is widely available in continental Europe, it’s not so easy to get hold of in Britain and not sold at all in North America. Meaning that Brooklynites are unable to make a proper Brooklyn. Pity the poor people of Brooklyn! But the press release states: “With the acquisition of Picon brand, Campari Group aims to further enlarge its brand offering in its core bitter aperitifs category in international markets and increase its critical mass in France and Benelux.” We asked for further clarification about whether this means that Amer Picon will be coming to America but as yet have not had a response. American bartenders have their fingers crossed.

La Piñata Tequila & Mezcal Festival

For fans of Tequila and/or mezcal, this festival was a real treat

La Piñata Tequila & Mezcal Festival brings agave awesomeness to London

Last weekend we paid a visit to La Piñata Tequila & Mezcal Festival at London’s Tobacco Docks, and had an agave-filled adventure! With over 20 brands exhibiting, it was a fab opportunity to hear their stories and, of course, sample some products. It would be impossible to mention them all, but we particularly enjoyed trying the small-batch, one-off, single-agave expressions from brands like Sin Gusano and Pensador. The QuiQuiRiQui gang was there showing off its new range of pechuga mezcal (which was incredible!), whilst The Lost Explorer Mezcal team showed us how pairings such as olives and salted chocolate really enhanced the character of the agave in its different expressions. We ducked into a splendid masterclass with Jesse Estes from Ocho Tequila, who enlightened us on the fascinating subject of terroir in agave – it’s definitely a thing! The turnout looked good and there was a fair bit of buzz around some of the stands, so patience was required at times, but overall, this probably allowed a sensible bit of time between all those neat samples. Food stalls were on hand serving up Mexican street snacks for those who did need some extra sustenance (but queuing skills were a must here), with some additional Mexican stalls adding to the atmosphere and selling some extremely fetching alpaca patterned jumpers (yeah we bought one), an unexpected, but treasured souvenir from the day. Overall much fun was had, and our takeaway fact, which we were reminded of throughout the day – there is so much more to mezcal than just smoke.

Paul Beautiful South

Nice one Paul, mine’s a Courage shandy

And finally… Beautiful South singer is buying the drinks for his birthday

Drinkers at various pubs in Britain and Ireland are celebrating as top pop singer Paul Heaton, of Beautiful South and Housemartins fame, is buying them a pint for his birthday. He announced his intention on Twitter earlier this week: “To celebrate my 60th birthday (on Monday 9th May) I’d originally intended to do another bicycle tour, visiting & performing at 60 pubs across the UK & Ireland. However, due to recording delays caused by the pandemic, I’ve had to shelve these plans for the time being. Instead, I’ve decided that the next best way to celebrate this coming of age is to handpick 60 pubs across the UK and Ireland and put a given amount of money behind the bar of each one.” Go to Heatons’ Twitter feed to see if one of the pubs is near you. But you’ll have to hurry as you’ll see that people around the country are already getting stuck into their free beer. Cheers Paul! And happy birthday!

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The Cotswolds Distillery: how a New Yorker captured the spirit of the Cotswolds

How did a New Yorker get into the spirit of the Cotswolds and create some of the finest English whisky around? Here’s the story of the Cotswolds Distillery. There are…

How did a New Yorker get into the spirit of the Cotswolds and create some of the finest English whisky around? Here’s the story of the Cotswolds Distillery.

There are some distilleries that have long, romantic histories, and others that started with passion after a ‘what if?’ conversation in a bar between old friends. Something of a red flag when it comes to distillery origins is the tale of a person leaving behind the corporate world to create whisky, making an unimpassioned stop on the way to create white spirits to balance the books and cash in on a thriving industry. Particularly when they try and fluff it up with some nonsense about heritage because their great uncle bumped into Johnnie Walker at Kilmarnock station or something.

The Cotswolds Distillery was founded by Dan Szor, a native New Yorker who spent 25 years in Europe, eight in London as an investment banker, before moving to the Cotswolds in 2011. A single malt lover, he was inspired to leave it all behind and make whisky, thinking his new idyllic English countryside home was the perfect place for it. While the whisky matured, he created a range of gin, as well as numerous other spirits that don’t have such commercially prohibitive ageing laws. Uh oh. The red flags are waving all over the place like it’s Chinese New Year. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a distillery that would fill us whisky-lovers with confidence.

And yet, Szor’s creation, The Cotswolds Distillery, is without doubt one of the leading lights of the English whisky boom. Its beautiful site receives nearly 100,000 visitors a year, who are treated to a host of excellent spirits, including a clearly lovingly-made selection of gin, and a superb early core range of whisky. Success has been so relentless that Jeremy Parsons, a 30-year industry veteran formerly at Diageo, has recently come on board as CEO, and a significant expansion is taking place at its site near Shipston-on-Stour. Plans include a whole new distillery that will make the Cotswolds Distillery the largest producer of English whisky with an eventual 500,000-litres of pure alcohol per year. 

The Cotswolds Distillery

Welcome to The Cotswolds Distillery!

Cotswolds from start to finish 

The whisky made here begins life as local barley, farmed just a few miles from the distillery. Right now they grow the Odyssey strain, but a switch to Concerto is on the way as it’s an advised grain for rotation. The only part of the process that doesn’t happen in the Cotswolds is that Warminster Maltings do the malting, but even then they’re only a short distance away in Wiltshire.

My host is Rob Patchett, global whisky ambassador at The Cotswolds Distillery, who tells me they haven’t experimented much with grain here because consistency of flavour is the priority. “As soon as you add anomalies you can compromise that. Experiments are great, but we’re all about establishing quality first”. There is, however, a barrel of rye whisky maturing in the warehouse, which a local brewery assisted with the mash, and distilled in both pot and column (the advantage of having a gin set up on-site).

This is one of many distilleries to have sought Dr. Jim Swan’s advice, and that’s seen in the creation of a clear wort when mashing. “It accentuates the fruit element in your mash. You let it rest for half an hour at the end of the cycle and the grain sifts to the bottom, which obviously reduces the grainy element and lets the fruit shine. We have clear perspex element in our pipe to monitor it,” Patchett explains. They use floor-malted barley which is fed with hot water recycled from the last run into a 0.5-tonne mash tun.

The Cotswolds Distillery

A new distillery is en route!


Fermentation runs for 90 hours in eight 2,500-litre, stainless steel washbacks, which are filled with two yeast strains: Anchor for efficiency and Fermentis to build esters. The first two days of fermentation are about yield, while the next two days are about letting those fatty acids and fruit compounds (where flavour lives), develop. This was one of Dr. Swan’s trademarks, loading the wash with esters to impart as much fruity complexity as possible early on in the process.

As I’m admiring the incredible tropical fruit note emanating from them, Patchett points out a knob of butter sitting atop the liquid. “We couldn’t afford switchers, the blades which stop the foaming element of fermentation, when we started. Jim Swan advised against any chemical compound that could knacker the copper in the still and, this is the beauty of working with someone whose been in the whisky industry for 50 years, said a nob of butter will have the same effect. Anybody whose made jam before will know this is true. The new distillery will have switchers, but I love that this doesn’t compromise the wash or distillation. It’s an old trick to combat a classic old school problem”.

There’s no temperature control here as the Cotswolds is very much a manual distillery. Everything is operated by hand through a network of valves, and the distillers here could now almost run the distillery blind. Walk past the washbacks and you’re greeted by a 2500-litre copper pot wash still called Proud Mary (love the Creedence reference, because she keeps on burning) and a 1600-litre spirit still, Janis (“thusly named because we take a little bit of her heart,” Patchett says). They’re made by Forsyths, who is also equipping the new distillery with its revolutionary pre-assembled kit. The cut points are very narrow here and the distillers will switch from foreshots to hearts (cut at a high 69%-76% ABV) after only a few minutes and similarly cut to feints quickly to preserve those fruity esters from fermentation and reduce the interaction of any heavier, rougher compounds.

The Cotswolds Distillery

Say hello to Daniel Szor! Image credit: Lorentz Gullachsen 

Szor, Swan, and other spirit masters

The pre-maturation part of the process was one that Szor was determined to get right, according to Patchett, who describes him as a “spirit fiend” with a love of fruit spirits like Grappa. “He really wanted to create a new make spirit that would stand up by itself. The first few runs we did, Jim Swan said was too feinty and that we should be inspired by the rolling fields and fruit orchards around us to create something light, bright fruity, and accessible style”. That’s the Cotswold’s distillery DNA, something you can see in its White Pheasant expression, which is new make bottled at the casking strength of 63.5% ABV. It’s delightful, full of raspberry chocolate, grape pulp, pear drops, banana foam sweets, digestives, and a little wet grass. I’d happily drink this neat (although I am a new make fiend myself), and it’s very encouraging that this is what is going into cask.

Speaking of which, that’s all happening in the Cotswolds now. The barrels used to be in Liverpool, but everything is moving within ten minutes of the distillery. That gives them full control of the production process, a surprisingly impactful temperate climate (the angle share is more greedy here than in Scotland), and the confidence to truly call this Cotswolds whisky.

Dr Swan hasn’t been the only spirit master to lend his expertise. “Whether it Emmanuel Camut assisting in apple brandy creation, Michael Delevante, Jamaican rum expert and former distillery manager at Wray & Nephew, or Harry Coburn, a former general manager of Bowmore, we want to learn from people who have been in the industry for a long time,” Patchett says. Dr Swan has been the most influential, however, and for maturation purposes, his little black book of cooperages saved the Cotswolds from going through the pain of sourcing casks from inconsistent sources. 

The Cotswolds Distillery

There’s all kinds of interesting casks here

Maturation marvels

Miguel Martin supplies the sherry casks. “He owns sawmills in America and Spain, a cooperage in Spain, a sherry bodega, a winery, and a sherry vinegar manufacturing process. He can control everything from the forest until the end. You can go to him and ask for an American oak hogshead seasoned with Oloroso and PX to create a cream sherry style and he’ll go, ‘ok’”, Patchett says excitedly. “Jim also got us in touch with a broker in Kentucky who gets really good bourbon casks, as well as Alter Ego to do all the ‘exotics’, like all the fortified wines, Sauternes, rum, Tequila, vermouth, sake, Islay quarter casks…” 

The three primary casks here, however, are ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and STR (shaved, toasted, re-charred) casks, the latter sourced from J Dias in Portugal. These are Dr Swan’s most recognisable signature, but are often derided by some in whisky circles for being seen as quick-fix casks that mask negative attributes rather than mature them. Patchett is not having that. “STR is best of all words. You’re taking American oak, which already has such a distinctive profile, you’re adding red wine which is removing bad tannins, then you’re taking out the red wine which has amino acid that can cause a sulphuric reaction, making it almost a virgin oak cask after you’ve shaved, that has five-to-six litres of red wine seasoning in the pores,” he explains.

“You’re then toasting to caramelise all the sugar from the American oak and the wine, then applying an alligator char to seal it all in, which also soaks out any remaining sulphur. When you think about all the elements: American oak, red wine, sugars, filtration, it’s a remarkable cask. And the colour can develop in about 18 months. Dan used to have a party trick of taking 4-year-old STR whisky and giving it to friends who would guess it’s 15-year-old Speyside whisky”.

Cotswolds whisky

Cotswolds whisky: one of the shining lights of the emerging English whisky category

Creating the Cotswolds character

Look across the core range and you’ll see these casks well represented, while the rarer styles are saved for special releases. Of all of them, I think my favourite is the classic Single Malt, all though the Sherry Cask runs it close. What’s really striking though is that, regardless if you’re tasting the Reserve Single Malt, the Peated Cask Single Malt, the Bourbon Cask Single Malt, or one of the Founder’s Choice expressions, you always know where you are. The Cotswolds distillery character runs through the range, typified not only by those new make notes I described earlier but by this beautiful oily, creamy texture that flavours and aromas like vanilla and chocolate glide across.

It’s a joyful thing that people are giving more and more of a damn about distillery character. Wood may still take the lion’s share of headlines in whisky, but people are becoming increasingly interested in what happens before a whisky goes into cask. It’s one of the reasons why unadulterated presentations (whiskies bottled with no chill-filtration or colouring, often at cask strength) are so prized. And it’s been a persistent plus for independent bottlings, which are often a window into distilleries whose whiskies usually end up in blends. A fine fate, but who are they? We can’t tell unless we can get a chance to taste that distillery character.

For a new distillery, this profile is gradually revealed, and of course, the goal is to create something so individual and remarkable you attain the lofty heights of Springbank status. There’s a pressure to maintain it, one the Cotswolds distillery will be wary of when building its new site, because when you tamper with the formula your reward will be the ire of the loyalists who have become attached to that certain character. Because the more you sample a great spirit with a defined profile, the more you create a connection with the producer. You see which casks accentuate or muddle the profile you love, you witness how it progresses with age, and how subtle adaptations in fermentation or barley strain alter things. It’s the kind of detailed, nerdy aspect that drives whisky geekery, a term we mean wholly positively here (because we’re big whisky geeks, obviously). 

It’s this above all else that makes The Cotswolds Distillery so compelling for me. As Patchett and I sat in a tasting room discussing the range, that texture and taste kept reintroducing itself. Then there’s the frankly bargain prices, and the clear love and transparency the whisky is made with. At one point, Patchett tells me about a “very nerdy conversation as I was having with our distiller Nick about thermal degradation versus acetate and acetone degradation of the spirit….” There wasn’t a question that went unanswered on my tour, a detail hidden, a press-release paraphrase in sight. There’s no doubt to me that Szor’s love of single malt was genuine, and what it’s led to is a spirit that dutifully represents his adopted home. 

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anCnoc: the single malt from Knockdhu distillery

It’s not the best-known or the easiest to pronounce but anCnoc makes an extremely delicious Speyside single malt which you should get your tongue around. We talked to distillery manager…

It’s not the best-known or the easiest to pronounce but anCnoc makes an extremely delicious Speyside single malt which you should get your tongue around. We talked to distillery manager Gordon Bruce to find out more. 

There’s a received opinion in the wine world that certain French wines are popular because they are easy to pronounce for English-speaking people. Which is why people order Sancerre instead of Menetou-Salon or Chablis instead of PernandVergelesses.

You say potato

This is rather turned on its head by Scotch whisky which proliferates with Gaelic names like Craigellachie, Glen Garioch, and Bunnahabhain which non-Scots whisky fans have to learn to pronounce. In fact, it’s part of the initiation into whisky having your pronunciation gently corrected when visiting distilleries. Even the Scots sometimes get it wrong. I remember the visible wince from Dr Bill Lumsden when a brand ambassador pronounced Glenmorangie with the emphasis on the third syllable. Such a faux pas!

Despite years of whisky drinking and associating with Scottish people, there’s one whisky whose pronunciation I’ve never quite got my head around: anCnoc. In fact, I struggle to spell it most of the time. Distillery manager Gordon Bruce told me that some “people might be embarrassed about ordering it because they don’t know how to pronounce it.” But alternatively, it does make it a “talking point.” It’s the unexpected mixture of upper and lowercase letters that really throws me. The correct pronunciation is ‘a knock’, just ignore the ‘c’ in the middle, Bruce advised me.

Gordon Bruce from Knockdhu

Gordon Bruce, distillery manager, tea boy, dog walker, and tour guide

I can’t go for that, no can do

anCnoc single malt comes from Knockdhu distillery in Speyside. It changed the name of its single malt in the 1990s to differentiate it from nearby Knockandhu (which I used to pronounce ‘no can do’ like the Hall & Oates song but is actually pronounced ‘knock AN doo.’)

Knockdhu means black hill in Gaelic, it’s situated not far from Elgin in the north of the Speyside region and was founded in 1894 by John Morrison. It was mothballed from 1983 until 1989 when it was reopened by Inver House Distillers. It’s one of those absolutely perfect looking malt whisky distilleries especially on the sunny day when we visited. When the sun shines, there’s no more beautiful place on earth than Speyside. But because it’s out of the main cluster of distilleries around Dufftown and Aberlour, Knockdhu is not much visited.  

Loads of fruit and wee bit of cereal

Which is a shame because it’s a real treat for whisky nerds. The production process at Knockdhu is unusual and worth looking at in detail. It’s all geared up to producing a “damn decent new make spirit with loads of fruit and a wee hint of cereal”, according to Gordon Bruce. It starts in the mash tun where the team are obsessive about removing solids from the wort. They do a very slow mash, eight hours, and a coarse filter and hydrocyclones help to keep things clear.

Gordon Bruce has been with Knockdhu for 16 years and describes his job as “distillery manager, tea boy, dog walker, and tour guide”. Before that he spent 12 years at Balblair and before that in his hometown distillery of Pulteney for six years. Both are now in the Inver House group with Knockdhu but weren’t when he worked for them. The distillery runs seven days a week round the clock. It’s fully manual and operated by a small permanent staff of six people. 

anCnoc process - fermentation

Washbacks at Knockdhu

A long ferment

The very clear wort is then fermented for around 44 hours in Oregon pine washbacks before being pumped into separate wooden vessels. The movement stirs up the yeast cells and gets things going for another 16 hours. This is aided by a yeast strain called Mauri MG3 which is able to work at high temperatures to produce a wash that’s high in esters and alcohol, over 9% ABV. 

There are two stills with boil balls in the neck to increase reflux. They have worm tub condensers but unusually both worms share the same tub. “It’s a nightmare in the summer”, according to Gordon, as the heat means the spirit won’t condense easily. To combat this, they have a shell and tube condenser on the wash still before it goes into the worm tub. Gordon thinks it’s the only distillery in Scotland with such a system. This produces more reflux but also, “all hot water needed for mash houses comes from condensers,” Gordon explained. Knockdhu was doing sustainability long before it became a buzzword.

Knock on wood

Most of that fruity new make goes into bourbon casks with some sherry casks and then it will disappear into blends including Inver House’s excellent Hankey Bannister – for my money about the best value Scotch on the market. About 20% is sold as single malts with Britain, China and especially Scandinavia being important markets. “Sweden has paid to feed and educate my children. Thank you Sweden!” joked Bruce. But on the whole, it’s a pretty under the radar brand. The lion’s share of the group’s marketing budget goes into Old Pulteney, according to Bruce. 

Most of the whisky matured at a massive site at Airdrie, home to some 600,000 casks, but there is a racked and small dunnage warehouse on site. There used to be two dunnage warehouses but they were both destroyed during a snowstorm on 8/9 January 2010, “dates tattooed on my memory,” Bruice said. The sheer weight of snow caused the roofs to fall in. Warehouse one was reopened in 2012 with a celebratory ceilidh. 

Knockdhu distillery

Knockdhu distillery, gorgeous on a summer’s day

anCnoc and a hard place

You can taste that delicious fruitiness of Knockdhu from the 12 year old right up to the 24 year old (some tasting notes below). But it’s not the only trick up the distillery’s sleeve. In the past, when Knockdhu had its own maltings the barley would have been dried with a mixture of coal and peat. The maltings closed in 1969 but in 2005 the team reintroduced a peated anCnoc and it’s become an annual tradition.

They use Aberdeen peat, “it’s not like island peat. Terroir in peat is so important,” Bruce explained. It majors more on the woodsmoke rather than the seaweed/TCP type notes. The result is a beautifully harmonious melding of the classic Knockdhu sweet fruitiness with bonfires and meaty notes. Bruce said “there’s more to peat than Islay peat.” It’s perhaps my favourite of the range.

These great single malts from anCnoc are worth getting your tongue around. Altogether now say: “a knock!” Now that wasn’t so hard was it?


Some of the anCnoc range

Tastings notes for anCnoc

anCnoc 18 Year Old

16 years in American oak followed by 24 months in Spanish oak sherry casks, and bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Floral and fruit on the nose, peaches and pineapple, touch of toffee. Water brings out the floral notes.

Palate: Honey, vanilla and apricots.

Finish: Very nutty with walnuts and chestnuts. 

anCnoc 24 Year Old

Aged in a mixture of sherry and ex-bourbon casks before bottling at 46% ABV.

Nose: Very rich, Christmas cake, malty notes with tinned peaches and orange blossom.

Palate: Sweet, almost a bit like bourbon, with dried fruit, marmalade and honeyed cereal notes. 

Finish: Long and layered finish with leather and vanilla a hint of orange peel.

anCnoc Peat

Made with 40 ppm peat, this is matured in American oak casks before finishing in Spanish oak sherry butts and bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Bacon Frazzle crisps on the nose, with wood smoke and a smell like cold ashes from the morning after a fire.

Palate: Lovely sweet fruit and toffee bolstered by gentle notes of bonfires and cured meats.

Finish: Earthy peat and citrus peels. 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Strawberry & Lemongrass Blush

Today, we’re putting some new flavoured spirits from Grey Goose through their paces. Called Grey Goose Essences, they come in three flavours and we’ve picked one in particular to make…

Today, we’re putting some new flavoured spirits from Grey Goose through their paces. Called Grey Goose Essences, they come in three flavours and we’ve picked one in particular to make a Strawberry & Lemongrass Blush.

Do you remember flavoured vodka? If like me you grew up in the ‘90s you wouldn’t have been able to move for the stuff: strawberry vodka, bison grass vodka, vanilla vodka, and fiery chilli vodka that would make you cry when you had a shot. Ah, happy days!

Some flavoured vodkas were delicious but many were sickly sweet and decidedly unpleasant. The sort of things that you would only drink because of the effect, not the taste. Flavoured vodkas gradually went out of fashion while all the excitement in spirits moved over to gin with the great gin explosion of 2009.

Vodka is back, apparently

Now, however, the gin boom is over and vodka is back! Now as I am sure many people will point out, vodka has never gone away. It’s the world’s most popular spirit and in Britain only very slightly less popular than gin. 

What has changed, however, is there are lots of new brands coming to the market either from small producers or from the big boys looking to exploit vodkas’ new-found fashionability. Enter Grey Goose Essences.

Grey Goose is the original cult vodka. It was created by New York booze tycoon Sidney Frank who saw how successful Absolut was and thought he could easily sell something more premium (read the full story here). But rather than make his vodka in the US, or in more obvious countries like Finland, Sweden or Poland, he decided that Cognac in France would be the home of his new brand. After all, they do know a bit about distillation there. 

Grey Goose Essences

Enter Grey Goose Essences

Today, Grey Goose is made from winter wheat grown in Picardy and distilled in Gensac by maître de chai François Thibault. He’s the man behind this latest product, Grey Goose Essences. “Grey Goose Essences has been a labour of love for both me and the brand. The freshest ingredients were meticulously searched for and a unique distillation process is used for each fruit and each botanical to ensure we captured the purest flavour in every bottle,” he said. 

Rather than just add flavour to vodka as in the past, Thibault uses techniques from gin production to make Grey Goose Essences. Some of the botanicals, which come from countries including France, Spain, Thailand and Sri Lanka, are infused while others are cold-distilled. And here’s the big change from flavoured vodkas of old, no added sugar. 

At the moment there are three varieties: Strawberry and Lemongrass, White Peach and Rosemary, and Watermelon and Basil, all bottled at 30% ABV which means they are spirit drinks rather than vodka. A good way to think of them is as a cocktail in a bottle, just add tonic or soda water, and a garnish. Perfect for entertaining this summer. 

Click here to see the full range from Grey Goose.

How to make a Strawberry & Lemongrass Blush

50ml Grey Goose Essences Strawberry & Lemongrass
100ml soda water
Cloudy apple juice

Add the first two ingredients to an ice-filled Highball glass, stir gently and top up with apple juice. Garnish with a twist of lemon. 

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Teeling: challenging the norms for Irish whiskey

We visited Teeling Distillery recently to see how it’s attempting to make Irish whiskey that’s different from what you have experienced before. Here’s what we learned.  The Teeling distillery can…

We visited Teeling Distillery recently to see how it’s attempting to make Irish whiskey that’s different from what you have experienced before. Here’s what we learned. 

The Teeling distillery can be traced back in some form to 1782, but history wasn’t on the agenda when brand ambassador Robert Caldwell was hosting a tour of the distillery recently. He says any brand can tell the story of Ireland’s distillation heritage or its soaring revival. The liquid is the focus here, and there’s an ambition to make people reconsider what they know about Irish whiskey, in particular, that it’s all a derivative of or indistinguishable from Jameson.

“It was for years, and it was hugely successful and saved Irish whiskey, but it also ended up defining Irish whiskey. We have blends but also single malts, the underutilised single grain, peated whisky, and single pot still, with a huge cask variety and our own personality,” Caldwell says. 

The Dublin-based distillery, which was officially opened in 2015 by brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling three years after the brand was founded, is trying to do it all. There’s a focus on everything that happens pre-maturation, with a detailed and distinctive production process, as well as a plethora of cask types in its wood programme. Its Dublin distillate is progressing all the time, but there are plenty of expressions featuring sourced stock. To dig through all the detail and understand how Teeling plans to challenge the norms for Irish whiskey, we have to start at the beginning.

Teeling Distillery

Say hi to Jack and Stephen Teeling!

Freedom and flexibility 

The distillery is operating with a three-tonne mash, and is distilling seven days a week, making about half a million litres of pure alcohol per annum. The malt and grain arrive from Irish farmers, with single malt (100% barley) and pot still spirit (a straight 50% malt and 50% unmalted split), grain and even some rye being produced. Some of the draft is sent to become cattle feed, while a portion becomes a syrup for use on the distillery’s bar. Teeling conforms to a lot of modern sustainable practices, such as its replanting of acres of oak in Wicklow. 

The wet malt mill is the kind of tech to get a whisky nerd excited, as it’s a neat bit of innovation. It injects water while grinding the grain, ensuring no dust emanates into the atmosphere, making it safer than the typical milling process and allows the mill to sit on an open-plan distillery floor, which is great for tours. It also provides production flexibility as every grain has a different composition, even malted and unmalted barley, so adapting to each strain requires just a simple adjustment of input.

About a third of the production cycle is dedicated to running experiments, and flexibility is the name of the game in this production space. A two-stage fermentation takes place first in two 15,000-litre Oregon pine washbacks for two days, before being transferred into two 30,000-litre stainless steel washbacks for a minimum of five days, merging the best of old and new practice. Distillers yeast, great for yield, is paired with natural white wine yeast which creates more esters and flavour compounds. Work has begun on different yeast strains, the results of which we can expect to see in the future. 

Teeling Distillery

The glorious Teeling pot stills

A fluid flavour DNA

Distillation takes place in three custom-built stills from Frilli Impianti in Monteriggioni. These are Alison (the 15,000-litre wash still), Natalie (the 10,000-litre feint still), and Rebecca (the 9,000-litre spirit still), named after Jack Teeling’s three daughters. The distillation starts in the wash still which converts the 8% ABV wash into 30% ABV low wines, which are then transferred to the feint still to produce strong feints at around 65% ABV before a final refining in the spirit still, which creates a new make between 80% and 88% ABV. The traditional tripe distillation is favoured predominately, but double distillation also takes place, for example in trials to preserve more of the smoky profile in a peated single malt. The shape of the pot stills is very flat, wide and with a conical shape at the bottom, a style that’s both a bit of a throwback to the glory days of Dublin whiskey production and one that produces a full-bodied spirit as it’s not being hit with relentless copper contact.

There’s a maturation showroom on the tour to show people the variety and styles of casks Teeling uses, although the actual ageing takes place about an hour north in a small town called Greenore. The casks are positioned upright on pallets in the warehouses where the maritime climate, cool summers and mild winters create conditions ideal for steady, characterful maturation. Teeling is taking full advantage of the cask freedom Ireland has, with its Wonders of Wood series alone featuring wood types such as mizunara, chestnut, cherry wood, acacia, and amburana. The latter is a Brazilian hardwood that Caldwell was pleasantly surprised to see be chosen as the favourite over a series of tastings during the lockdown(s), and he says it tastes like liquid carrot cake. It does.

Some distilleries very much trade on the idea that they have a defined distillery profile, but not here. “Our flavour DNA is fluid. We’re not trading on an ancient recipe. You can taste a range of our whiskies blind and be amazed that they all come from the same place,” says Caldwell. “For the most part Irish whiskey is characterised as approachable and fruit-forward. We can hit that mark, but also have the capacity to make full-bodied, rich spirits that go against the norm”. 

Teeling Distillery

It’s quite the core range, and that’s just a snapshot of the whiskey this distillery has…

Taking stock of Teeling’s whisky

The ethos is driven by what he describes as a team of whisky nerds, where the founders and master distiller/blender Alex Chasko play with lots of creative freedom. “Alex is very passionate about his craft and comes from an American craft brewery background. He brings that level of experimentation to Irish whiskey,” Caldwell explains. “We have so much variation. One range will demonstrate the way the distillate reacts to different wine types, but then our pot still is all about showing off the first mashbill of its kind made in the capital for over 50 years. We’re excited by the rapid growth in the Irish whiskey category and finding new ways to surprise ourselves, and it really comes from all of us”

Take a look at the core range and you’ll see this approach vindicated. The Teeling Single Malt Irish Whiskey features no less than five wine-cask-finished-whiskeys including sherry, Port, Madeira, white Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon. In contrast, the Single Pot Still is all about its rather traditional Dublin mash bill. “We’re supremely excited to see people drinking this unique style,” Caldwell says. “We’re aware changes are coming to the legislation, but we were always just delighted to have a classification and there’s plenty of room to innovate within the current framework when it comes to fermentation and yeast strains etc.”  

I get the impression that the Teeling single grain whiskey is a particular favourite of Caldwell, and he’s right to be proud. There aren’t many elite Irish single grain whiskies out there, but Teeling’s is sweet and fairly light but full of flavour, which is elevated by clever use of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon casks. The Small Batch Irish whiskey shows blends aren’t forgotten here too, with malt and grain whiskeys, initially aged in ex-bourbon barrels and then casks that had previously held Central American rum, making this expression both ridiculously moreish and pretty singular in style. We’ve already had a good chat about Teeling Blackpitts Peated Single Malt before, so here we’ll just point out that it, like the rest of the core range, is bottled at 46% ABV without chill-filtration, a neat reminder of what comes first here: flavour.

Teeling Distillery

Cocktails are all the rage at the distillery, another example of the modernity Teeling embraces

A different kind of Irish whiskey?

Teeling also has a large number of limited-edition expressions and boasts a wealth of well-aged whiskies, some over 30-years-old, a rarity for Irish whiskey. It’s always had unbelievable access to stock, as the Teeling brothers had the advantage that their father is a veteran of the business. He founded the now Beam Suntory-owned Cooley Distillery in the 1980s, while he has been operating the Great Northern Distillery since 2015, a serial supplier of whiskey to much of the country’s newcomers today. 

The duo, who learned their craft at Cooley, will be aware that this has been greeted by some raised eyebrows; the kind of scepticism anyone gets when it bottles whiskey it didn’t produce but has the distillery name on the label. There is more stock of Dublin-distilled whiskey in its warehouses than Teeling ever had of sourced whiskey, however, and the core range is now made-up of whiskey solely from there (an updated bottle design makes reference to this). Deep roots and a family anchor aren’t exactly a disadvantage either, as anyone who’s ever been on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky will know. Access and expertise are one thing, not being part of a larger brand and having the chance to control your own destiny is another.

There’s a sense walking around this distillery that Teeling is a brand really hitting its stride as it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Getting a foothold in the industry pre-boom certainly gave it a head start on a lot of other Irish whiskey distilleries, and it has not shied away from making expressions. In fact, you could argue there’s been too many to keep up with. Caldwell jokes if they progressed at a slower pace they would have NPD (new product development) until 2080. But then it’s all in the pursuit of making something different. There’s been plenty of swings, and few misses. This is whiskey that is Irish in nature, but across its wide portfolio, you’ll find something you love that’s unlike what you have experienced before in Irish whiskey. 

Teeling was the first new whiskey distillery to have opened in Dublin in over 125 years when it popped up in the heart of The Liberties, once an epicentre of Irish whiskey production, close to the original 18th-century site. It’s a tourist destination that pre-pandemic was pulling in 100,000 visitors a year. There were plenty there when I visited. But there wasn’t much talk about history. Why bother when you could be making it?

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