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Master of Malt Blog

Fenjiu, baijiu for beginners

Despite being one of the bestselling spirits in the world, baijiu has not had much commercial success outside Chinese markets. But one state-owned producer, Fenjiu, has its eyes firmly on…

Despite being one of the bestselling spirits in the world, baijiu has not had much commercial success outside Chinese markets. But one state-owned producer, Fenjiu, has its eyes firmly on Western markets with an accessible, cocktail-friendly spirit. We spoke with Qiqi Chen, MD at the UK distributor, to find out more.

Whenever the subject of baijiu comes up, someone will pull a face and say how disgusting the Chinese spirit is. It seems like one of those things, like the rotten shark flesh that’s popular in Nordic countries, that will always struggle to cross cultures. But, as I learned at an event at the Excel in London, baijiu (pronounced ‘buy Joe’) is a very broad church. The occasion was the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention: there were western companies like Aston Martin, Barratt Homes and Lindores Distillery looking to sell to the Chinese, and Chinese companies looking to sell into western markets. At one point a crowd of dignitaries interrupted my tasting, apparently Liz Truss had arrived. I got excited thinking it was the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but apparently she’s the business secretary or something, and was showing around the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming.

Team Fenjiu: QiQi Chen on far right, next to her, Andrea Dionori

Aiming to change people’s perceptions of baijiu is Qiqi Chen, MD of Cheng International, the distributor of Fenjiu in the UK. She trained with William Curley, the chocolatier, and speaks excellent, London-accented English. Before we did any tasting, she explained a little about baijiu. There are four main types with different production methods: light aroma, rice, strong aroma and sauce aroma.. The last two are particularly funky and may be to blame for people’s prejudices against the spirit. “Some categories of baijiu available in the west are very heavy, very soya,” she told me. “There’s a big culture clash. Maybe you’ll be ready for them in 20-30 years, but that’s not something you start with.” She compared it with starting your Scotch whisky journey with Islay single malt.

Another reason some might be wary of baijiu is because many people, particularly journalists, have only tried it as guests at a Chinese feast and had a bit too much to drink. It’s the local hospitality: “We want to make you happy so we encourage you to drink,” she said. “We don’t drink like that every day.” 

She works with Fenjiu, a state-owned enterprise with a long history. It is based in Fenyang in Shanxi province in northern China. Apparently, the company and the spirit date back 6,000 years, though there is no evidence that the Chinese were distilling alcohol much before the 13th century AD. But what is clear is that alcohol has been made from local grains here for a very long time. 

Sorghum

Preparing the Sorghum for Fermentation

Production methods:

The techniques used to make Fenjiu are worth explaining. It is made from sorghum. First the grains are steamed for eight hours until they form a sort of jelly. Then they are fermented using a starter culture called daqu. This is made from a mixture of peas and barley which are formed into bricks and left to mature for three months. Fermentation takes place over 28 days in pits which are never cleaned and waste from distillation is added to them. So, rather like the dunder pits used to make high-ester Jamaican rum, you’re going to get lots of yeast and bacteria, and lots of wild flavours. 

Distillation takes place in a stainless steel pot still. At Fenjiu, two batches are made. Solid fermented sorghum is layered in the still and the first batch is distilled once. The heads are added back for redistillation. The heart is then kept aside. Then more fermented sorghum is added to any undistilled mash and re-fermented. This is then distilled with the tails from the first batch. The two batches are blended together and aged in clay jars to mature. The colour doesn’t change with age but the spirit does mellow, becoming more acidic. The spirit is then diluted with spring water and marketed under age statements such as 30 years old (not a minimum age, more like an average).

Tasting the baijiu:

We tasted the baijiu out of traditional bamboo (actually made from china) cups. Gingerly, I took the first sip of the 30 year old Fenjiu. And you know what? It’s not half bad. There was definitely a funky edge with earthy notes, vinegar and some acetone, but it had the most delicious umami texture and is incredibly complex. The flavour builds with each sip. I tried some other age statements too, and they varied in intensity and ABV but all had wonderful aromatic notes of jasmine, eucalyptus, and that texture. Chen said: “Light aroma baijiu is similar to what western people have been drinking, but at the same time different.” 

The Fenjiu range

Next we moved on to the flavoured baijiu. There was a honey one that had something of the Drambuie about it, and then two bamboo-flavoured ones: a ten year old, with grassy funky flavours akin to a rhum agricole and an intensely-flavoured 30 year old which came across like Green Chartreuse

In China, these are all drunk neat but, in May last year Fenjiu announced a cocktail competition in order to open up western markets,. The winner was Italian bartender Andrea Dionori from Milroy’s of Soho. He now works as a brand ambassador for Fenjiu and gave me some cocktails to try. Baijiu can be tricky to mix, according to Dionori. That creamy texture comes from ethyl lactate; dilute it too much and you lose the creaminess and just get acetone, but “add water and you make it harsher,” he said. One cocktail made with 10 year old Fenjiu blended with Cocchi Americano and lychees was odd but not unpleasant with the tang of the baijiu coming through strongly. More successful was a blend of five year old bamboo-flavoured spirit with bitters and ginger ale.

The aim with the cocktail competition and food pairing initiatives, such as a collaboration with her former employer William Curley, Chen told me, is to change baijiu’s hard-drinking image to make it “more sophisticated and appeal to younger, trendy consumers.” It’s clearly the work of years but baijiu is not going to go away, so it might be time you lost your fear. Fenjiu is the perfect place to start.

In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fenjiu will be taking over Harry Gordon’s Bar at Selfridges in London until 2 February offering baijiu tastings and cocktails.

 

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Why you should embrace draft cocktails with Black Lines

Cocktails on tap are coming to a bar near you. We take a look at this burgeoning phenomenon with Black Lines co-founder Casey Sorenson. You may have ordered a cocktail…

Cocktails on tap are coming to a bar near you. We take a look at this burgeoning phenomenon with Black Lines co-founder Casey Sorenson.

You may have ordered a cocktail in a bar recently and been surprised to see the bartender make their way to a draft tap. But it’s a sight that you’re sure to see more and more of in the future. While draft cocktails are not a recent innovation, the popularity of them is rising and the trend shows no sign of slowing down in 2020. The quickfire service previously solely associated with events and festivals is featuring in highly-regarded venues such as Fare Bar & Canteen, TAYĒR + ELEMENTARY, Duck and Waffle and Amsterdam’s Super Lyan.

Some argue, however, that cocktails on tap compromise the craft and the theatre of bartending, while others simply fear that taste and quality of ingredients will suffer. So, we decided to talk to somebody from a company that has made kegged cocktails its business to give his side of the story. Enter Casey Sorenson, co-founder of Black Lines, a company that specialises in providing cocktails on taps for pubs, bars, festivals, events and more. 

Black Lines

Say hello to Casey Sorenson!

Along with Kuleen Khimasia, the duo founded the company in 2017 having met and become friends the year before. “Kuleen was running his own street food business and was looking at developing house cocktails on tap in his first permanent site. I was at Soho House, doing the drinks development there and had already done on-tap internally,” Sorenson explains. “We realised there was no one actually providing cocktails on tap commercially to pubs, bars, festivals, events. Nobody at the time had a platform people could buy from like they’d buy a keg of beer in the UK. It was a lightbulb moment”.

The duo understood not only that there was a gap in the market, but plenty to be said for draft cocktails as a drinks delivery system. “The clear benefits are speed of service, accessibility and price. But consistency is one people don’t often consider,” says Sorenson. “If you go into a pub without cocktails on tap and they don’t have that skilled bartender or cocktails is not at the forefront at their drinks offering, then you can order a cocktail from a different bartender and get a different drink.”

There’s a clear environmental benefit to draft cocktails too, with the need for less ice, energy and the reduction of beverage wastage often cited as factors.  It’s an aspect that Sorenson was conscious of when founding Black Lines. “The environment has been a big focus in the last five, ten years. When Kuleen and I set up the business we wanted to reduce our impact where we could,” Sorenson explains. “By working closely with some of the best independent British distilleries, we arrange for most of our spirit supply to be delivered pre-bottling in large containers that are later returned and refilled, meaning no waste packaging whatsoever and a heavily reduced carbon footprint”.

Black Lines

Part of the Black Lines range

Sorenson makes it clear, however, that the focus at the centre at Black Lines is one of quality. It’s a concern for those who are sceptical of draft cocktails that it’s an easy way for bars to utilise cheaper ingredients or water down their drinks. For Sorenson, that’s the biggest misconception about cocktails on tap. “When I host tastings with people or a customer might have one of our drinks for the first time they often say that they can taste the booze in there. There’s no reason why you should water a drink down just because it’s on tap and it doesn’t mean that we’re making a cheaper product,” he says. “Quality is ultimately what’s really important for us. We only work with good quality juice companies or spirit companies, like Chase Distillery or the East London Liquor Company”.  

Sorenson is not blind to the criticism and understands people’s fears of what you may lose by imbibing a draft cocktail. “We completely respect the craft and the theatre that goes into making cocktails at the bar. Seeing a bartender make a drink is really important. But there are certain places, like a rooftop bar, where you’re not going there to look at the bartender making a drink are you?” says Sorenson. “If you look at the studies that have been done on the most sold cocktails in the UK, there’s not a lot of those drinks that involve a lot of theatre. Take an Aperol Spritz – how much theatre can you really go into combining Aperol, soda and prosecco? The cocktails that we do haven’t retracted a lot of theatre.”

Black Lines

Could you tell the difference between a draft cocktail and a regular cocktail?

In fact, Sorenson makes a convincing argument that draft cocktails facilitate the best bartenders to make more signature drinks as it lightens their burden. “What we have done is imagine a bartender has an order for eight Aperol Spritz, one Manhattan and one Vieux Carré. They have time to focus on the latter drinks because with the Aperol Spritz on tap they can just pour them in ten seconds each,” he explains. “If you go to places like TAYĒR + ELEMENTARY, Fare, Duck and Waffle, they’ve got cocktails on tap because they’re still made with quality ingredients, they provide a consistent serve of the cocktails that they make a lot of and it means they can focus their love and attention on the really cool and classic cocktails that need it”.

The reaction within the industry is becoming more welcoming and this understanding of how cocktails on tap benefit bartenders as well as consumers is a key reason why. “When we started in 2017 it was a challenge, winning over the bartenders. Every place we went into, operationally it made sense to have a cocktail on tap but the bartenders sometimes feared that we were trying to replace their expert knowledge,” says Sorenson. “But they’re starting to realise that it’s actually there to work in synergy with them and can really work to their benefit. The industry reaction has really picked up in the last six to 12 months. The bartenders are really getting behind it and seeing our point of view. How many bartenders complain about making 30 Mojitos in a night? When you put a Mojito on tap they realise you’re doing them a favour”.

Perhaps another factor that makes bartenders accepting of draft cocktails is that the process of creating them is very similar to creating a drink in a bar. Along with quality spirits, Black Lines works with fresh ingredients: “An important part for us is we work with a local London juice producer. They juice their juice at about 4 am in the morning and then it gets to us at about seven. We’re really not having that juice out for very long, so the quality of the juice is kept,” Sorenson says. “We also don’t pasteurise our products, we use filtration because pasteurising cocktails will change the flavour. Filtration allows you to keep that flavour profile”. 

Black Lines

A Negroni being poured from a tap

The Black Lines drinks list covers much of the best selling cocktails in the UK, from the Aperol Spritz to the Mojito, as well as popular options such as the Negroni. “They’re the ones that cause an operational issue for a lot of venues in terms of keeping up with the demand when they have their peak periods of service as these are the drinks that consumers are going for,” Sorenson explains. 

The product development of recent additions such as the Pink Grapefruit Spritz and the Elderflower Collins and the Rum Punch demonstrates that Black Lines is conscious of emerging trends, however. The latter is interesting with so many expecting rum to have a huge 2020 on the back of a promising 2019. “The Rum Punch has been insanely popular, we weren’t expecting it to take off the way it did. In Boxpark it sells more Rum Punch there than we sell Mojito, which is quite interesting,” says Sorenson. “Then you’ve got The Pink Grapefruit Spritz, which is one of our vegan cocktails and also it’s lower alcohol than most cocktails. When you compare it to a beer, 8% ABV it’s not low alcohol, but for a cocktail it is. We do try and to keep in tune with trends when we develop cocktails. We know people are more health-conscious, we know more people that are vegan/vegetarian”. 

Black Lines benefits from a signature look, with intriguing artwork on each of the labels. The name of the brand actually comes from an abstract painting from 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky. The branding is unsurprisingly black and white, given the name of the company, which was chosen to contrast the overtly colourful nature of artwork you’ll see on taps typically in bars, particularly with craft beer. “We worked with eight emerging young artists to develop artwork for each drink and gave them a brief to come up with their own influence and style for each serve. We gave the history and flavour profile for each drink and then let them take their own view of how they wanted to put it across,” says Sorenson. “It really allows us to stand out and with more people coming into the space, we want to stand out. We wanted our artwork to be the opposite of what you would expect. If you saw a Mojito you’d expect to see like a highball with mint etc., and that’s great but we wanted to have something more eye-catching with more identity and character for each drink”. 

Black Lines

Black Line’s branding is based on signature artwork

Ultimately, Sorenson outlines that the ambition of Black Lines is to make fantastic cocktails accessible to more people in more locations. He stresses that part of his role is to be an educator and advocate for how cocktails on tap can help the drinks industry. “Our drinks really speak for themselves,” he said. “I could confidently say that if I put a drink in front of someone that didn’t know that it was from tap, they wouldn’t know the difference from a good quality cocktail being made by a skilled bartender. We’ve really got to get people to understand that they can have cocktails that are accessible, quality and consistent from tap. That’s what we at Black Lines need to get across”. 

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When Burns Night goes wrong

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews,…

Burns Night is now an international institution with events celebrated all over the world. Ian Buxton should know, he’s hosted a few. But now he’s hanging up his ceremonial trews, so it’s the perfect time to share the highs and lows of honouring Scotland’s national poet in some decidedly unScottish environments. 

After many months of reflection and internal discussions, I have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. I intend to step back from Burns Night to focus on a new chapter.

Over the past decade it’s been my pleasure and privilege to attend Burns Night celebrations, often acting as fear an taighe (that’s master of ceremonies to you), at gatherings as far-flung as San Diego in the west to Budapest in the east; Lisbon to the south and Helsinki in the north.  Not every one of these would be recognised as an entirely conventional Burns Night in Alloway, the birthplace of the great man.

Burns Night, for those of you unaware of the event, is the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar (well, apart from Hogmanay, possibly, and the Scottish Cup Final, but Celtic generally win that and it’s getting quite boring to be honest).  It commemorates the 25th January 1759, birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. He’s noted, apart from the verse obvs, for collecting traditional songs, authorship of a book full of dirty ditties that his admirers tactfully forget to mention and for siring twelve or possibly thirteen children with four different women.  Frankly, in the world of #MeToo, Burns would be in the dock as a sex pest.

But back to the party, which involves the consumption of haggis and whisky; a set pattern of speeches and sometimes songs, and the consumption of haggis, not forgetting the whisky which greatly assists getting the haggis eaten up.  Not everything runs smoothly on these occasions (did I mention the consumption of whisky?)

Now that is what a haggis is supposed to look like

At one event in the rather glamorous setting of Lugano in Switzerland, I was deputed to give the Address to the Haggis and all eight verses were requested. No difficulty there as I learned this at my mother’s knee and other low joints (sorry). I instructed the kitchen and requested a sharp knife for the theatrical third verse:

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

They obliged with something close to a bayonet. Again, no difficulty as I fondly imagined this could only add to the fun.  What I did not expect was that the kitchen, having been strictly enjoined not to cut up the presentation haggis, had also neglected to cook it.

The result: a greasy, rugby-ball shaped beast that resisted all my increasingly frenzied attempts to break through its skin and which proceeded to bounce off the magnificent platter and across the table. My Italian audience applauded with vigour, believing this to be a regulation part of the proceedings; the Scots in the room were generally helpless with laughter, though their enthusiastic consumption of whisky may have played some small part.

In Oslo, the distinguished chef took great offence at the idea that the haggis should be shipped from Scotland and insisted that he was more than capable of preparing the dish himself. The result looked like cheap dog food, which I then spent some anxious minutes wrapping in cling film wrap to give some resemblance to an actual haggis. “So you eat this in Scotland,” enquired one politely curious guest. I fear that I may have prevaricated somewhat and that they can only be disappointed if ever they encounter the genuine article.

Ian Buxton with Hungary’s finest piper

On piping in the haggis in Budapest the locally-engaged piper, allegedly the finest in Hungary and it must be conceded splendidly arrayed in full Brigadoon mode, appeared to have indulged not wisely but well in the drams that I had arranged. As a result he was unable to inflate the bag on his pipes and marched in an unsteady manner, swaying somewhat as I attempted several a cappella verses of ‘Flower of Scotland’ while we presented the haggis to the assembled guests, now somewhat bemused by proceedings.   No more, I may add, than I was. The piper made his excuses and left shortly afterwards

And, at a prestigious London venue, the kitchen staff made such a mess of cooking the haggis that the host for the evening dragged them out in front of the guests and made them apologise to the company for their inept presentation. If nothing else, it certainly made for an unforgettable evening.

On Burns Night, in the words of the poet: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Truer words have seldom been written!

 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Bobby Burns

It’s Burns Night on Saturday, so we’re making a cocktail named after the bard himself using a blended Scotch that you might not have tried before.  First of all, we…

It’s Burns Night on Saturday, so we’re making a cocktail named after the bard himself using a blended Scotch that you might not have tried before. 

First of all, we have to say that Robert Burns never got to try the cocktail named after him. He died in 1796, before the word ‘cocktail’ was even coined. According to Simon Difford, the first mention of the Bobby Burns cocktail is in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. It’s a variation on the Rob Roy, a cocktail named after Scotland’s second most famous writer, Irvine Welsh. No, sorry Walter Scottt. The Rob Roy, a Manhattan made with Scotch in place of bourbon or rye, was named after a musical version of Scott’s novel that ran in late 19th century New York.

Craddock’s Bobby Burns calls for half Scotch whisky and half Italian vermouth with three dashes of Benedictine. Very nice it is too, but also very sweet and rather overpowers the whisky. It’s much better made with two parts whisky to one part vermouth. Other recipes call for different additions: some people use absinthe or absinthe-substitute ie. pastis; David A. Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks recommends using Drambuie which has the benefit of making an already very Scottish drink even more Scottish. 

‘You want to get that seen to’

The big question is, what kind of whisky to use? Scotch can be difficult in cocktails, especially the smoky varieties, but I think I may have found the perfect blend for mixing. It’s called Hankey Bannister. An odd name, it sounds like the sort of thing an Aberdonian builder might say when looking round your old house. You can imagine him sucking his teeth and saying, “it’s going to be expensive, you’ve got a hankey bannister.” But like Cutty Sark and J&B, it was actually created by a London firm of wine and spirits merchants, which was founded in 1757 by Beaumont Hankey and Hugh Bannister.

Despite having a low profile, at least in this country, it has in its long life picked up some illustrious fans including such famous booze enthusiasts as Evelyn Waugh and Winston Churchill. The brand is now in the safe hands of Inver House which owns Pulteney, Balblair, Speyburn and Knockdhu distilleries. There’s certainly some quality spirits in Hankey Bannister – it’s fruity, with flavours of toffee and vanilla with a voluptuous mouthfeel. It tastes like there’s some well-matured grains in with the malt. In short, it’s just the sort of blend that isn’t either going to dominate or get swamped in a cocktail. Best of all, it’s not expensive either. 

Bobby Burns

It’s the Bobby Burns!

Now we’ve found our perfect whisky, back to the Bobby Burns. After some experimentation, I found that just a dash of pastis made it spicy without overpowering it with aniseed, while if you’re using Drambuie add a little more, a teaspoon full, to give it a herbal sweetness. Both are delicious. The final question is what to garnish it with: a strip of lemon or orange peel would be nice but a maraschino cherry is even better.

So, there we have the Bobby Burns, not a lot to do with the great bard, but a delicious cocktail nonetheless. Here are the ingredients:

50ml Hankey Bannister whisky
25ml Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino vermouth
A dash of Ricard pastis, or more to taste (or a teaspoon of Drambuie)

Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled shaker, stir well and strain into a coupe or Nick & Nora. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. 

 

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An introduction to Australian wine

With its vast land mass and varied climate, it’s little wonder Australia’s wines are some of the world’s most diverse – which can make navigating a wine list rather taxing. Here,…

With its vast land mass and varied climate, it’s little wonder Australia’s wines are some of the world’s most diverse – which can make navigating a wine list rather taxing. Here, three experts delve into the fundamentals of Australian wine-making and share the grape varieties and regions to look out for…

Australia is absolutely huge. In fact, with a land mass of more than 7.5 million square kilometres, it’s positively gargantuan. And if you’re thinking, ‘Well, yeah, duh’, let us be clear: it’s probably a lot larger than you think. You could fit the entire UK into Australia 30 times and still have some left over.

Not only does this mean the country produces an eye-watering amount of wine – 1.29 billion litres in 2018 according to Wine Australia, the government authority that promotes and regulates the industry – but also that the liquid is incredibly varied, with wines in each key region inextricably influenced by their local microclimate. 

Since the country enjoys year-round sunshine, the majority of Australia’s wine-producing regions are located in the cool(er) south, across Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Sunshine ripens the grapes and increases their sugar content, explains Daniel Sanna, sommelier at 28°-50° Wine Bar & Kitchen in London. 

Yalumba

The historic Yalumba winery in South Australia

“Too much sunshine and you can end up with over-ripe grapes, which is not good for quality wine,” he explains. “For this reason, vines are planted close to bodies of water or at higher altitudes – this helps moderate the temperatures.” With that said, a little stress on the vine can be a good thing. 

“A great example of this is in the famous Barossa Valley, where Shiraz vines experience increasing temperatures and droughts during the growing season,” Sanna says. “The diurnal temperature range allows the grapes to retain and concentrate flavours during the night and ripen during the day. Wines from this region are plummy, rich, velvety, spicy and able to age for long periods.”

Not only is the South Australia valley one of the country’s most prominent wine-making regions, but it’s also home to some of the oldest vines in the world. When phylloxera all-but-wiped out Europe’s viticulture in the late 19th century, it also wreaked havoc on almost all of Australia’s crops too, explains Desiree Russo, wine manager at Humble Grape, Fleet Street, in London. 

Phylloxera decimated almost all the viticulture in Australia, but it was contained to New South Wales and Victoria – they were able to put a stop to it in South Australia,” she explains. “Barossa Valley has some of the oldest vines in the world, because they have not been touched by phylloxera. As a result, South Australia essentially became the wine capital of Australia.”

Today, Australia is known for growing a huge range of grapes all over its vine-growing areas, but certains varieties are synonymous with certain regions:

Barossa valley in South Australia, home to the oldest shiraz vines in the world

Barossa Valley, South Australia

Speciality: Shiraz

“Shiraz is the most widely planted grape variety in Australia, responsible for over a quarter of all production, and Barossa is the benchmark region for the country’s signature wine,” McVeigh-Whitaker from Peckham Cellars explains. “Although often thought of as ‘new world’, viticulture in the Adelaide hills started life in the 1800’s. The vine cuttings brought by the settlers mean that Adelaide hills has a rich heritage of super-old vines. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Barossa valley, where these old vines, and long, hot, dry summers produce rich, powerful and textured Shiraz that are among Australia’s most iconic wines,” he continues. “The wines are always full-bodied, rich and powerful although in recent years there has been a move towards fresher, and more elegant winemaking.”

Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia

Speciality: Riesling

In Australia’s warm climate, finding cool sites in which to slowly ripen grapes is key,” says McVeigh-Whitaker. “In the Clare Valley, the elevated altitude helps the wines retain freshness due to the cold nights. Add in the Gulf breezes and you have a cool climate region, perfect for growing Riesling. Brought from Germany in the late 1800’s, Riesling has a long, distinguished history in the Clare Valley and has built a style unique to the region,” he continues. “Riesling from Clare is more-often-than-not bone dry, with intense lime and floral notes. The region has varied soils, but the best wines come from the limestone rich “terra rossa” or slate soils, both of which lend a beautiful minerality to the wines.”

Grapes ripening in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 

Speciality: Pinot Noir

“The wines of Mornington Peninsula are arguably some of the best examples of Pinot Noir in the world,” says McVeigh-Whitaker. “The region, which pays homage to the great wines of Burgundy, doesn’t go in for the large volume production or grape buying that is prevalent in much of the Australian wine industry. Rather, grapes are all harvested and produced by small, quality-focused producers. The top wines have cult-like followings and sommeliers and wine collectors fight it out for allocations of the top wines, which are produced in very small quantities,” he adds. “Mornington enjoys long, cool summers which enables Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to slowly develop its elegant fruit flavour. The constant sea breezes from Port Philip bay also play a vital role in keeping the fruit cool and help to preserve freshness in the wine.”

Other noted regions include the Margaret River in Western Australia, as well as Victoria’s Yarra Valley. In New South Wales, the Hunter Valley is highly celebrated for its Semillon wines, while in South Australia, Coonawara specialises in Cabernet, McLaren Vale is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Shiraz, and Eden Valley produces cracking Riesling and Shiraz. 

“These quality regions will make a small percentage of Australia’s overall production, much of which will be labelled South Australia, for example, and will be large scale blends from many vineyards,” adds McVeigh-Whitaker. 

While these well may be the most-prized varieties, a wealth of exciting bottlings are being produced with lesser-known grapes. The country’s producers are incredibly entrepreneurial and love to experiment, explains Russo. Not only did Australia develop the screw cap, but we have the country to thank for bag-in-a-box, too. With innovation on the brain, it’s not uncommon for producers to cultivate unusual vines. She points to Verdejo, a Spanish grape variety currently being grown in New South Wales, as well as a Yarra Valley producer who is making a solera system Sangiovese. Producers are experimenting with Greek grapes like Assyrtiko, lesser known Italian varieties like Fiano and even ones from Georgia such as Saperavi. “You’re seeing all these new and unique styles coming out, which is what makes Australia so exciting as a wine producer,” she adds. And we couldn’t agree more.

 

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Behind the scenes at the UK’s first sake brewery

Through the strapline, ‘brewed like beer, enjoyed like wine’, Peckham sake brewery Kanpai is introducing British drinkers to the magic of fermented rice. Crafted according to Japanese tradition and moulded…

Through the strapline, ‘brewed like beer, enjoyed like wine’, Peckham sake brewery Kanpai is introducing British drinkers to the magic of fermented rice. Crafted according to Japanese tradition and moulded by modern London, the debut range has a distinct style of its own. We chatted with co-founder Lucy Wilson to find out more…

A sake buzz is building in the UK. It’s happening slowly – very slowly – but gradually, us Brits are increasingly showing interest in Japan’s beloved national beverage. Established in Peckham by Lucy Wilson and her husband Tom, the country’s first sake brewery (complete with upstairs taproom) marks a tipping point for the fermented rice spirit.

“It was born from a trip to Japan originally,” Wilson explains. “We went for a holiday – not specifically on a sake quest, we were there for the amazing Japanese food and culture and all the sights of Tokyo and the main cities. We ended up drinking a lot of sake, which led to us visiting breweries in some of the smaller towns that we went to. We really liked it and brought bottles and bottles back with us. So it stemmed from this inherent love for the drink.”

Lucy Wilson making sake

By the time they returned home to the UK, the Wilsons were hooked. Keen homebrewers, they turned their hands to sake and began making their own creations, practising initially with sushi rice – sake rice is tricky to get hold of, Wilson says, and sushi rice isn’t a dissimilar style grain. Unwittingly, they were laying the foundations for what would one day become Kanpai. 

“We used to have sake parties with friends and serve them our sake and other sakes and people really liked it,” she continues. “It grew into something that couldn’t quite fit in our flat anymore, and so we got a little lock-up in Peckham, because that’s where we live. It started out as something to do at the weekend and then before we knew it Tom could quit his day job to make sake full time.”

Today, the duo has three sakes in their core Signature range, available all year round, and as well as a limited edition trio of ultra-premium sake bottlings dubbed No Evil. Generally, Kanpai’s style is typically a little drier than than your average Japanese sake, Wilson explains, taking inspiration from the familiar flavour notes found within craft beers and dry white wine. From inoculating the rice to bottling the liquid, every aspect of production happens in-house. The entire process takes, on average, around three months.

“It’s a really slow build up at the beginning,” Wilson says. “You inoculate a portion of the sake rice with Koji mould spores, then you steam pressurise it and build it up with sake yeast. Then it’s just a long, low slow ferment. We do ours extra low and slow because the water in London is a lot harder than in Japan – the ferment would go wild, because the yeast actually loves the minerals in hard water.”

Pretty labels

“We press it, separating the rice solids from the liquid with a machine that replicates really old school sake breweries in Japan, bottle by hand in a little bottling machine, and then leave it to rest,” she continues. “It doesn’t really need to mature as such – we serve unpasteurized fresh sake from the tap room, which is quite spritz-y – but in the bottle we’d leave it for around a month to settle before we release it.”

The need for a lower, slower ferment gives the sake those signature dry flavours, and it’s this that Wilson feels most prominently embodies the London style. That, and the fact that everything is done by hand. “All the koji is turned by hand, the rice is washed by hand, we take it out of the steamer to cool by hand,” she explains. “The presidents of Japanese breweries come and visit us and they’re amazed that we’re still doing it this way. We’re very small scale!”

Growth is happening, albeit slowly. Last year, Kanpai hired its first employee, an assistant brewer, to cope with increasing production demands. The main focus for 2020 is growing the taproom, which is currently open on Fridays and Saturdays. “We’re really working on our tap range,” says Wilson. “We can do more small batch sakes and maybe experiment with flavours to see what people think – tea flavours and natural infusions, things like that.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here is the core range. There’s some technical information for sake nerds. The Sake Metre Value measures how sweet your sake is, the higher the number, the more dry it is.

Kanpai!

Sumi –  clear Junmai
  • Off-dry +6 Sake Metre Value (SMV)
  • Gohyakumangoku Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #701 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 15.0% ABV

Sumi is Kanpai’s clear, classic Junmai sake. “Very versatile, you can have it hot or cold,” explains Wilson. “It’s quite fruity but savoury at the same time. It’s your safe bet sake that you can pair with loads of different foods.”

Kumo – cloudy Nigori
  • Off-dry +7 SMV
  • Gohyakumangoku Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #701 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 15.0% ABV

Kanpai’s Nigori-style sake, which means ‘cloudy’ in Japanese. “This has a little bit of the finalised sediment in the sake, so it’s got some texture to it,” explains Wilson, “it’s a bit more banana-y, a bit punchier in flavour. It’s our Marmite one, it splits the room – you either want loads more of it or it wasn’t quite for you. 

Fizu  – sparkling sake
  • Dry +9 SMV
  • Calrose Rice, 70% Polishing Ratio
  • #901 Japanese Sake Yeast
  • 11.5% ABV

Kanpai’s “most playful sake,” says Wilson. “It’s dry-hopped with Mosaic hops, which gives it blueberry notes. It has a natural secondary fermentation, so it’s got really fine bubbles like Champagne. That makes it quite versatile for cocktails.”

 

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Brilliant Burns Night bottles? We’ve got them!

For Scotch whisky fans, Burns Night is the ultimate celebration of the drink they love. Find the perfect bottle to mark the occasion from our line-up. It’s not long until…

For Scotch whisky fans, Burns Night is the ultimate celebration of the drink they love. Find the perfect bottle to mark the occasion from our line-up.

It’s not long until we raise a glass to honour the Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns, on his birthday, 25 January. Maybe you’ll fancy donning a kilt. Maybe you’ll carry out an Address to a Haggis with an appropriately theatrical cutting of the haggis with the ceremonial knife. Whatever you do, I think we can all agree the highlight of the night is a hearty dram of the good stuff.

Burns Night is perhaps the best excuse we get all year to splash out on a seriously good bottle of Scotch, which is why we’ve rounded up this delightful range of festive fancies. 

Happy Burns Night all.

Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!!

 

Robert Burns Single Malt

What better to mark the night than with a whisky that bears the name of the man himself. The Robert Burns Single Malt was produced by the Isle of Arran Distillers, who are patrons of the ‘Robert Burns World Federation’ and as a result, are able to officially carry his name. The single malt was produced at Arran Distillery in Lochranza and matured in ex-bourbon casks. 

What does it taste like?:

Pear juice, coconut, custard, vanilla, panna cotta, lime peel, apple strudel and cinnamon.

Aerolite Lyndsay 10 Year Old

If a whisky of mystery and intrigue sounds right up your street you then you’ll be more than happy to get stuck into this bottling from The Character of Islay Whisky Company. The peaty whisky has been sourced from an undisclosed distillery on Islay where it was matured for 10 years in a mixture of bourbon barrels and Spanish oak sherry quarter casks. The name is actually an anagram of the words ‘ ten-year-old Islay’, which is something you feel like Burns himself would appreciate.

What does it taste like?:

Maritime peat, iodine, honey sweetness, paprika, salted caramel, old bookshelves, mint dark chocolate, espresso, new leather, honey, liquorice allsorts, bonfire smoke and toffee penny, with a pinch of salt.

Timorous Beastie

Even casual Burns fans will know of his classic poem To a Mouse, which features an unfortunate field mouse he describes as a “tim’rous beastie”. Douglas Laing has paid tribute to this unlikely hero with this expression which has a distinctly Highlands profile thanks to a marriage single malts from the region, including whisky from Blair Athol, Dalmore, Glengoyne and Glen Garioch.

What does it taste like?:

Acacia honey, creamy boiled strawberry sweets, dried apricots, white grapes, coastal air, dried fruits, green apples, anise, sweet grist, malt loaf, pebble beaches, hot cinnamon and classic Highland heather, too.

Bowmore 18 Year Old

A legendary Islay dram that’s every bit as distinctive and delicious as you would expect it to be. Bowmore 18 Year Old is a perfect indulgence for Burns Nights for those who enjoy the peatier things in life.

What does it taste like?:

Stewing fruit, hints of damp wood, very soft smoke, perfume, plum jam, grapey, Seville marmalade and blossom.

Robert Burns Blended Scotch Whisky

Robert Burns Blended Scotch Whisky is a delicious blend that was made with a high percentage of the Arran Single Malt. It’s light, sweet and fruity profile make an ideal mixing whisky, perfect for long drinks and cocktails.

What does it taste like?:

Fresh apple peels, vanilla cream, juicy pear, custard and warm pastry, some tart citrus.

The Dalmore 12 Year Old

Few can boast an entry-level single malt as good as this beauty from the historic Dalmore Distillery, with its instantly recognisable stag’s head logo on the bottle. The Dalmore 12 Year Old was matured in American white oak ex-bourbon casks and finished in rare and aged oloroso sherry casks.

What does it taste like?: 

Coffee beans, oily nuttiness, malt, cereal, butter, Seville marmalade, triple sec, winter spices, zesty cocoa, milk chocolate and fruitcake.

 

The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak

Sherried Macallan’s are a favourite around the world for good reason and The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak is no exception. Part of the Sherry Oak range, this 12 Year Old its entire maturation in sherry-seasoned oak casks from Jerez before it was bottled at 40% ABV.

What does it taste like?: 

Sultanas, fresh apple blossom, calvados, tropical fruit, golden syrup, hot pastries, marmalade and barley sugar.

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New Arrival of the Week: Yellow Rose Outlaw Bourbon

There has been much wearing of chaps and yee-hawing at MoM HQ because this week we’ve chosen bourbon from the Lone Star state for the coveted New Arrival slot. You…

There has been much wearing of chaps and yee-hawing at MoM HQ because this week we’ve chosen bourbon from the Lone Star state for the coveted New Arrival slot.

You may have heard of nominative determinism: people doing jobs that are amusingly well-suited to their names. There are top urologists A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon, Israeli tennis player Anna Smashnova and, best of all, a Dutch architect called Rem Koolhaas. Perhaps not quite in this league but still pretty funny is that the head distiller at Houston’s Yellow Rose distillery is called Houston Farris. A Texan native, he wasn’t born in Houston, but something drew him to the city. Can’t think what.

Outlaw Bourbon

Outlaw Bourbon, it’s completely legit

Houston moved to Houston in 2002 and joined the Yellow Rose Distillery in 2014 as ‘brand mixologist’. He learned the intricacies of distillation before assuming his current role in 2017. There’s some serious booze heritage in the Ferris family: “My great-grandfather, Vance Raimond, ran the first legal moonshine still in the state of Texas since Prohibition,” Ferris writes on the website. “This was at the Texas Centennial Expo in 1936. He set up on the Midway of the state fairgrounds and attracted a great deal of attention. Unfortunately, that included the IRS, who wasted little time in shutting his operation down!”

You will be relieved to know that the Yellow Rose distillery, despite making a bourbon called Outlaw, is completely legit.  Founded in 2010, it claims to be the first legal distillery in Houston since Prohibition. The first whiskey was released in 2012 and the distillery opened its doors to the public in 2014. You won’t be surprised to hear that it is named after the 19th century American folk song: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (which, oddly enough, we used to sing in music class in my primary school in Buckinghamshire).

Houston Farris

Houston Farris, born to do it

The set up consists of 600 gallon (2700 litre) mash tun, two 600 gallon fermenters and a 600 gallon whiskey still. It produces over 10,000 cases a year. Currently the company produces three products, a rye, made with 95% rye in the mash bill, a blended whiskey and the award-winning Outlaw Bourbon which is double pot-distilled. The bourbon could not be more Texan if it was wearing a cowboy hat and firing a couple of revolvers in the air Yosemite Sam-style: it’s made from Texas yellow corn and aged in Texas in American oak. Anyone who has been to Houston will know how hot and humid it can get so the whiskey matures quickly. The distillery loses about 15% a year to those pesky angels demanding their share. Following maturation, it’s bottled at a punchy 46% ABV.

Yellow Rose is just the sort of smaller player who is being badly affected by the trade war between the US and EU that Ian Buxton wrote about recently. So help out an independent distillery and fill your cowboy boots.

Tastings note from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: A hint of floral oak, with a drizzle of caramel and oak char in there too.

Palate: Buttery caramel, toffee popcorn and vanilla with a hint of marshmallow.

Finish: Treacle and more of that lingering oak char.

 

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#BagThisBundle – Win a bundle from The Glasgow Distillery Company!

Check it out, it’s our first #BagThisBundle competition of 2020! Getting into the spirit of Burns Night, we teamed up with The Glasgow Distillery Company to bring you all kinds…

Check it out, it’s our first #BagThisBundle competition of 2020! Getting into the spirit of Burns Night, we teamed up with The Glasgow Distillery Company to bring you all kinds of delicious treats, all through the power of social media!

Now, these folks up in the largest city in Scotland have been up to some pretty cool business. It was named for one of Glasgow’s original distilleries, The Glasgow Distillery Company, which was founded in 1770 at Dundashill. Alas, it closed at the beginning of the 20th century, though in 2014 The Glasgow Distillery Company reopened, becoming the first single malt whisky distillery in Glasgow for over 100 years! 

So, what’s in this fabulous bundle? Well, we’re glad you asked, dear reader. There’s two bottles of smashing Glasgow single malt whisky, with a bottle of the 1770 Peated – Release No.1, as well as the 1770 Original 2019 Release. Then, for when you’re on the go, there’s a 1770 Hip Flask, as well as a handcrafted stave pen (actually made from 1770 Whisky staves!), a hand-blown glass whisky dropper, and for when you’re hosting, six tulip-shaped Glasgow 1770 Glencairn Whisky glasses.

#BagThisBundle Glasgow Distillery Company

You could win all these fabulous Glasgow Distillery Co. goodies!

We’re sure you’re raring to go, so here’s how you can enter! 

  1. Follow @masterofmalt Instagram account.
  2. Follow @glasgowdistillery Instagram account.
  3. Tag a friend you’d like to share the bundle with on our Competition post.
  4. Like the post!

Simple, isn’t it? Complete those steps by midnight on Thursday 23 January, and you’re in with a chance to win! 

MoM ‘Bag This Bundle’ Competition 2019 open to entrants 18 years and over. Entries accepted from 20 January to 23 January 2020. 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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Five interesting facts about Archie Rose Distillery

When Archie Rose Distilling Company fired up its stills four years ago, it pledged to honour Australia’s rich spirit-making history and at the same time shape its future. We peered…

When Archie Rose Distilling Company fired up its stills four years ago, it pledged to honour Australia’s rich spirit-making history and at the same time shape its future. We peered behind the scenes at the innovative Rosebery site, Sydney’s first independent distillery since 1853. Here’s what we found… 

With master distiller Dave Withers at the helm, the team has gradually built an eclectic range of sustainably-produced whiskies, gins, vodkas and rums that showcase Australia’s native ingredients – and the country’s unique microclimate – in all their glory. 

Whether they’re crafting Chocolate Rye Malt Whisky (the only whisky of its kind in Australia),  melting huge blocks of ice in a wood-fired oven to create Smoked Gin, or combining Vegemite, freshly churned butter and Sonoma sourdough toast to make an unapologetically Aussie unaged spirit, seemingly nothing is off limits.

When we dropped by over Christmas, Withers kindly showed us around the Rosebery site, soon to become a dedicated research and development distillery as the team moves their main operations to nearby Botany. Trust us, if you think smoked ice is a stroke of genius, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Until then, here’s five reasons to keep Archie Rose on your radar…

It’s Dave Withers!

1. They make spirits with a sense of place

At Archie Rose, indigenous ingredients are key. Australia is one of the largest malting grade barley producers in the world, says Withers, with many varieties being unique to the country – as such, Archie Rose works with an array of NSW farmers to get hold of malts that demonstrate regional terroir, as well as ancient and heirloom varieties. 

It’s not just about barley, of course. A limited run of Virgin Cane Rhum – the first of two cane spirits that were released under the distillery’s experimental ‘Concepts’ label – saw the team distill freshly cut and pressed sugar cane from Condong, northern NSW as a nod to Australia’s distilling heritage. 

The same homegrown ethos applies to the team’s extensive botanical selection. Their Distiller’s Strength Gin, for example, combines sixteen individually distilled botanicals, including fresh pears from Orange in NSW, rose petals, elderflower, juniper and honey from local beehives.

Unsurprisingly, this approach is extended to the ageing process, too. The country’s history of winemaking grants the distillery access to a vast array of wine casks, including ex-Apera (essentially Australian sherry) within which they age their whiskies. 

Archie Rose

The unique still set-up at Archie Rose

2. Quality over quantity is paramount

The recipe for their single malt whisky is a prime example. While most single malts typically feature one or two malt mash bills, Archie Rose’s new make is made from six distinct malts: pale, amber, caramel, aromatic roasted, chocolate and peated.

“Each of these malts offer a distinct flavour, the combination of which provides complexity and a depth of character rarely seen,” Withers explains. “Many of these malts are incredibly inefficient, some offering up to ten times less alcohol per tonne that a traditional malt, but it is important for us to put the flavour of the final product ahead of yield and efficiency.”

The team is always looking at ways to maximise flavour, Withers adds. “Our whiskies are the result of countless trials and hours of research and development,” he says. “They are boldly different in flavour as well as in philosophy to the majority of more traditional Australian whiskies.”

3. They’re big on transparency

Want to find out exactly where the barley in your bottle came from, and the grain treatment? Perhaps you’d like to know the type of cask was used, or get technical about the distillation process? Archie Rose has made it super easy for spirits geeks (ourselves very much included) to dig into the fine details.

“We love to show you everything that went into the creation of your bottle,” says Withers. “That is why we started the ‘Spirits Data’ section of our website. In essence, it is a tool for whisky drinkers to learn more about the bottle in their hand. Drinkers can use their batch code to explore all of the details of their bottle all the way down to the variety and origin of the malt that went into their whisky.”

Archie Rose

These babies mature fast in Sydney’s humid climate

4. They work with Australia’s distinct weather

Safe to say, the climate in Sydney is pretty unique. Being situated on the coast, Archie Rose enjoys year-round high humidity and temperatures, Withers says. As such, the climate is an important ingredient in Archie Rose’s aged spirits.

“In Sydney, we have some fairly warm stretches of the year which means that the casks work hard,” he explains. “It also means that the liquid should not stay in cask for an extended period or it may be prone to becoming over-oaked. We have specifically sought to ensure that the new make spirit enters the cask with enormous amounts of flavour while still being clean and refined. It does not have, nor need, decades to develop flavour or remove impurities. As soon as it hits that oak, the environmental and regional clock is ticking.” 

5. A hands-on approach from the very beginning

When building the distillery, Archie Rose founder Will Edwards enlisted Peter Bailly – then Australia’s only still maker – to handcraft three copper pot stills, all steam heated by a gas-powered steam boiler. 

“Our equipment is not akin to what you would find in many of the well known distilleries of Scotland; it’s a hands-on process of producing,” explains Withers. “Our current still was made in Tasmania and refurbished in New South Wales. It now sports a chiller jacket which increases the copper contact and reflux, providing us with the ability to control and accentuate the unique flavour compounds we are looking for.” 

 

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