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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Annie Hayes

Flor de Caña: rum and adversity in Nicaragua

Nestled at the base of the tallest and most active volcano in Nicaragua lies rum distiller Flor de Caña, a fifth-generation family business whose 130-year history is peppered with political,…

Nestled at the base of the tallest and most active volcano in Nicaragua lies rum distiller Flor de Caña, a fifth-generation family business whose 130-year history is peppered with political, personal, and environmental crises. Today, the FairTrade-certified operation is a force for change that utilises 100% renewable energy to create a sustainable rum range in every sense of the word. We spoke to global brand ambassador Mauricio Solórzano…

Having weathered a civil war, a revolution, hyperinflation, distillery fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – the distillery is located along the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, which has the most volcanic activity in the world – Flor de Caña has experienced more than its fair share of strife. And yet, despite all the odds, it has remained in family hands for five generations (for context, only three in every 10,000 family-owned businesses make it that far).

The brand’s story begins 1890. The distillery’s location – at the foot of the San Cristóbal volcano – was decided by founder Alfredo Francisco Pellas. The Italian entrepreneur left his hometown of Genoa in 1875 to construct the Grand Interoceanic Canal, a proposed shipping route through Nicaragua to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project never came to fruition, but Pellas remained in the country and bought a sugar mill in Chichigalpa, where the distillery remains to this day.

Originally, Flor de Caña was made in limited quantities for friends and family but in 1937 the business became Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua in 1937, and the brand was commercialised for the Nicaraguan market. Safe to say, it hasn’t been an easy ride. “As a brand and as a country, it’s been very hard to get to where we are now,” says global brand ambassador Mauricio Solórzano. “Nicaragua through history has been through natural disasters, civil war, hyperinflation. Right now we just are getting out of two monster hurricanes. We’ve been through a lot.”

Flor de Caña Distillery

The distillery in the shadow of the San Cristóbal volcano 

One of the most striking events in Flor de Caña’s history is a devastating plane crash involving fourth generation family member Carlos Pellas and his wife Vivian. “Miraculously, they survived,” says Solórzano. “But when Mr Pellas went to rescue his wife from the plane, it exploded.” The couple suffered burns that covered 80 percent of their bodies. The accident, which killed 148 people, is considered the greatest air disaster to occur in Central America. In 1991, Vivian set up an NGO, Aproquen, to provide child burn victims in Nicaragua with free medical services.

Flor de Caña: the rum

While historic distillers are sometimes slow to embrace and prioritise sustainability, the same can’t be said for Flor de Caña, which 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 liquid is also gluten free and certified kosher.

Its sugarcane fields – all 35,000 acres of them – are located five miles from the active San Cristóbal volcano, which has erupted some 30 times since the 16th century. Both the soil and water are enriched by minerals and organic material from the volcano, lending a “volcanic character that is very different from other producers of rum,” says Solórzano, while the unique microclimate in this region means wood interaction ageing process is “more intense and more dynamic”.

The distillery follows a sustainable model throughout production. Excess material from the sugarcane harvest is used to power a turbine that powers the entire facility. When the molasses from the sugarcane is fermented with Flor de Caña’s own yeast cultivar, the CO2 emissions that are naturally released during this process are captured, repurposed, and sold to the brewery industry in Central America. 

Maestro Ronero of Flor de Caña

Flor de Caña’s current maestro ronero

The wort is distilled five times in stainless steel columns and the distillate aged in charred ex-bourbon barrels “from four to 30 years,” says Solórzano. The rum is free from added sugar and additives. “If you put a little bit of Flor de Caña into the palm of your hand and you rub your hands together, you won’t have a sticky sensation at all. That’s because we don’t add any caramel or anything artificial.”

Fascinatingly, Flor de Caña is home to the most bountiful reserve of aged alcohol in the region. In the 1980s, foreign trade was nationalised by the socialist Sandinista government. Rather than turn over their stocks for a meagre profit, they decided to age them in neighbouring Honduras, “which is very close to our facility, because we are located on the north side of the country,” says Solórzano. “When the government changed a few years later, we brought back those reserves of alcohol.” By the early nineties, Flor de Caña had the largest reserve of aged rum in the world.

As well as stock, sustainability of people is also key to Flor de Caña’s operation. The company has provided free schooling for the children of all employees since 1913 – including the current maestro ronero, a third generation distiller who went to primary school, secondary school and university through that model – and free healthcare services for employee’s families since 1958. “I like to say that we grow with our people,” says Solórzano. “They’re our biggest asset.”

For a distiller that has already endured so much, 2020 has not been without its own unique challenges; the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, plus the brutality of Hurricane Iota and Storm Eta. But Solórzano remains unrelentingly positive. “These things give us the strength to build our character for the future,” he says. Make no mistake: for Flor de Caña, the only way is up.

Flor de Cana

Flor de Caña 12 year old is great neat or in simple cocktails

Flor de Caña 12 Year Old tasting notes:

Nose: Toffee apple and buttercream, with notes of vanilla pods and honey. A second whiff reveals crisp, tart citrus.

Palate: A huge hit of dark brown sugar and cocoa evolves into caramel, brandy and plums on the mid-palate.

Finish: There’s spicy oak and a touch of dryness, followed by long, lingering stewed fruit notes.

The Flor de Caña range is available from Master of Malt.  

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Shaken vs stirred: the science behind mixing a cocktail

Margaritas are shaken, Martinis are stirred, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been since time immemorial. The question is: why? For the definitive on when cocktails should be stirred…

Margaritas are shaken, Martinis are stirred, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been since time immemorial. The question is: why? For the definitive on when cocktails should be stirred versus shaken, we asked two bartenders to divulge the ‘rules’ behind each method, offer technique tips, and share four lip-smacking recipes to try at home…

Chances are, unless you’re a bartender – or James Bond – you’ve rarely given much thought to the technicalities of cocktail methodology. If the recipe instructs you to “shake”, you shake, and if it says “stir”, you stir, without ever really pausing to consider what the process brings to the drink, or why you’re doing one rather than the other. 

“Both shaking and stirring will ensure the individual ingredients are well-mixed, and so the overall cocktail has the right balance from start to finish,” says Patrick Pistolesi, founder of Drink Kong in Rome – one of the World’s 50 Best Bars – and head of mixology at NIO Cocktails.

Opening a bar during the COVID-19 pandemic

The team from Swift in Shoreditch

Both processes also cool the cocktail, Pistolesi continues, although shaking gets the job done slightly quicker. “Shards of ice break off and melt faster as the surface area of the ice is increased,” he explains. “Aside from cooling, the other main purpose of either shaking or stirring with ice is to dilute the cocktail to deliver the perfect drink.”

If both approaches mix the ingredients, dilute the drink, and cool the liquid – albeit at different speeds – when does one method take precedence over the other? It’s all to do with the tiny air bubbles that form during the shaking process.  “Shaking aerates the cocktail, which changes both its texture and its taste,” says Pistolesi.

Those bubbles are the reason a stirred drink will be crystal-clear, while a shaken drink will be cloudy, or at least opaque. Therefore, drinks made with ‘clear’ ingredients, like neat spirits and liqueurs, are typically stirred, while those with already ‘cloudy’ ingredients – such as citrus, syrup, fresh juice, egg whites, cream or milk – ought to be shaken. 

One of the most important (and oft-forgotten) ingredients? Ice. “Put simply, high quality ice delivers a better-tasting cocktail,” says Pistolesi. “Experience with different types of ice is important, as the quality of the ice can also affect the time required to shake or stir.” Good ice (very good blog post on the subject) starts with quality filtered water. You don’t want your ice to melt too quickly or it will have too much dilution, so use it straight from the freezer and avoid that ready-made ice with holes in.

The shake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’re going to need a shaker. But which one? “The Boston shaker is the classic two-piece, one part usually stainless steel and the other glass,” says Pistolesi. “This is really great for a sour drink that needs a lot of froth, as the shaker is pretty large and can contain more liquid.”

Alternatively, you could opt for the classic three-piece or ‘continental’ shaker. “This holds a smaller amount of liquid than the Boston shaker, will cool faster and deliver the right amount of air in the drink,” he continues. “I use it mostly for three-ingredient cocktails, for example a White Lady or a Daiquiri.”

In terms of technique: add ice into the shaker first, don’t overfill the vessel with liquid, and opt for a longer, harder shake when using viscous ingredients or those that don’t mix easily, Pistolesi says. Remember, you don’t need to shake as long you would stir – “anywhere between 15 and 20 seconds should be about right,” he adds.

Whatever you do, don’t risk an overshake. “It could make your cocktail watery and gritty with ice shards,” explains Mia Johansson, managing partner of London’s Bar Swift – also one of the World’s 50 Best Bars – and creator of cocktail delivery platform Speakeasy At Home.

“There is no way of perfectly timing it because it has to do with what is in your tin – and how much, more precisely,” she continues. “Make sure you fill your tin with plenty of ice and try to listen to the sound of the shake, when it goes from clunky to broken up it should be just perfect.” 

Ready to give it a crack? You’ll find two shaken classics from Johansson below:

Adnams Rye Malt Whisky Sour cocktail

A Whisky Sour made with Adnams Rye Malt and served on the rocks

Whiskey Sour 

3 parts whiskey (Black & Gold bourbon)
1 part lemon
1 part simple syrup or honey
1 egg white (or 25ml aquafaba)

Give it a good shake with plenty of ice in your tin. Serve straight up in a glass or over ice if you prefer. Garnish with a lemon wedge or cherry. For an extra touch, try adding a dash of Amaretto – 0.5 parts is enough.

French

The French 75!

French 75: 

3 parts Bathtub gin
1 part lemon
2 parts simple syrup
Sparkling wine to top

Shake in a tin with plenty ice, double strain into a coupe or flute and top with the sparkling wine. Garnish with cherry or lemon twist. For a twist, add 0.5 parts of elderflower cordial.

The stir

For this method, you can use your cocktail shaker or a stirring glass – either works fine. “Again, make sure you have plenty of ice, as you want to be able to control the dilution,” says Johansson. “The more ice you have, the more time you’ve got.” Give it “a good stir until you feel the ice has lost its edges and feels smoother,” she says, “usually around 20 to 30 seconds”. Pause and taste it to see if it is cold enough. Texture-wise, it should be “silky but still packed with flavour.”

Pistolesi, meanwhile, advocates for a longer stir. “You’d need to spend upwards of a minute and a half stirring a cocktail to achieve the same cooling and dilution as 15 to 20 seconds of shaking,” he says. In terms of method, “the simplest way is to dunk the spoon in and out of the drink – once the ice and ingredients have been added – while twirling the spoon.” Alternatively, you could use a Japanese method called the Kaykan stir. “The objective is to move the ice and the liquid as a single body and hence to avoid aerating the drink,” Pistolesi explains.

The perfect stir requires a little common sense, so keep an eye on the drink to make sure it doesn’t dilute too much. Get your stir on with the recipes below, again from Johansson:

The classic Boulevardier

Boulevardier

2 parts whiskey (Black & Gold bourbon)
1 part Campari
1 part sweet vermouth 

Stir over ice and serve on the rocks. Garnish with an orange peel. For an extra touch, add a dash of cherry brandy, no more than 0.5 parts.

Stinger made with H by Hine Cognac

Stinger

4 parts H by Hine Cognac
1 part Giffard crème de menthe 

Stir and serve straight up in a coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist. Perfect classic for a Christmas tipple. 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Popcorn Old Fashioned

This week’s cocktail is the Popcorn Old Fashioned, a long-time favourite at Sexy Fish. The London hotspot has sold over 12,000 of them since it opened five years ago. Bar…

This week’s cocktail is the Popcorn Old Fashioned, a long-time favourite at Sexy Fish. The London hotspot has sold over 12,000 of them since it opened five years ago. Bar manager Jérôme Allaguillemette explains how to recreate the drink at home…

Tucked away on a corner of Berkeley Square lies Sexy Fish – no, you’re not hard of herring, that’s its real name – which toasted its fifth birthday with a book of its most beloved serves, titled Surrealism. Set in a split-level building that boasts seascape-inspired Damien Hirst art in the main restaurant and two of the world’s largest live coral reef tanks in the private dining space below, the opulent hotspot is known for its wildly inventive Asian-fusion food and drink offering.

If you’re into celeb spotting, it’s the plaice to be. The venue flung open its doors in October 2015 with a star-studded opening party – Rita Ora performed a medley of hits (dressed as a glittery gold mermaid, obv) while the likes of Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan sipped cocktails and snacked on rainbow-coloured sushi platters. Ever since, a revolving door of big names has been spotted inside its glitzy lair, including Katy Perry, Hugh Jackson, Kendall Jenner and Joan Collins.

If you can tear your eyes from the venue’s theatrical artworks for long enough – among them a 13-foot mirrored crocodile (by architect Frank Gehry), a waterfall wall, and an illuminating shoal of fish hovering above the bar (also Gehry) – you’ll find the largest collection of Japanese whisky in the world. Sexy Fish even has its own single cask bottling, Sexy Fish Whisky, made at Chichibu Distillery in the central Saitama Prefecture. As well as having a huge selection of spirits within easy reach, the bar team also has a fully-stocked kitchen to draw from – and they make full use of this unique set-up, as Allaguillemette explains.

“Our kitchen fridges and pantry are our main inspiration,” he says. “Over the last five years we’ve used some interesting ingredients, including Wagyu fat, smoked salmon, bonito flakes, Shiitake mushrooms, codonopsis and Galangal. We use a lot of techniques borrowed from chefs: sous vide cooking, blending, centrifuging, and additional ‘scientific methods’ such as vacuum distillation, which allows us to extract very delicate and unusual flavours using laboratory equipment.”

Sexy dish, swanky bar

There are, indeed, plenty of unconventional flavour combinations on the menu. In the savoury, herbal serve Neonach – which is presented in a red coral glass – you’ll find salmon-infused Hendrick’s gin, basil, fennel and chilli oil. When designing a cocktail at Sexy Fish, bringing ingredients together is only half the story. After all, the owners didn’t spend (an estimated) £15 million on eye-catching art installations from the biggest names in architecture and art to serve your lavish cocktail in dull glassware.

“The visual aesthetic is the guest’s first contact with the drink, it needs to be appealing and to some extent sexy and intriguing,” says Allaguillemette. “We’re always looking to excite as many senses as possible when it comes to our serves, using textures, shapes, colours and scents. Some [vessels] are unique, bespoke pieces that we designed in collaboration with brands, such as our Neonach coral glass, which is 3D-printed.”

Unsurprisingly, putting each menu together requires plenty of work. The first menu followed Marco Polo across Asia; the second, called Haute Couture, took inspiration from the catwalk; the third, Whet, was designed to whet all appetites; and the most recent edition Travel was inspired by the team’s global bar tour. Each has typically taken around nine months, from the first meeting to the launch, says Allaguillemette, with all hands on deck. “The menu creation is most definitely a team effort, from the concept to the drinks and serve design,” he continues.

With each menu so vibrantly different to the last, how would he sum up the cocktail offering at Sexy Fish in three words, I ask? “Sexy, accessible, yet complex,” says Allaguillemette. That’s four – but then, surreal Sexy Fish is hardly known for following convention, so we’ll it slide.

Right that’s Sexy Fish, now let’s make a Popcorn Old Fashioned. It’s described by the bar like this: “An all-time favourite, this Old Fashioned is a cocktail that really pops. All the classic ingredients report for duty, alongside popcorn-infused Chita Whisky. Over the years, we’ve taken 110kg of popcorn to take this old favourite into new territory”.

50ml popcorn-infused Chita Whisky*
5ml sugar syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters 

Stir all ingredients over ice and strain onto a large chunk of ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

*To make the popcorn-infused Chita Whisky, mix 200ml whisky with 20g popcorn, leave in a freezer overnight, and strain through a coffee filter the following morning.

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Five minutes with… cocktail trailblazer Julie Reiner

A trailblazer in the modern American bar scene, Julie Reiner is credited with shaping New York City’s booming cocktail culture. She’s the brains behind some of the city’s finest watering…

A trailblazer in the modern American bar scene, Julie Reiner is credited with shaping New York City’s booming cocktail culture. She’s the brains behind some of the city’s finest watering holes – Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club and Leyenda, to name just three. We took five with Reiner to discuss mango Margaritas, longevity in the bar world, and making tonic water from scratch…

Julie Reiner has been changing the way New Yorkers drink since the late 1990s. The Hawaii native began her bartending career in San Francisco before making her way to the Big Apple in ‘98, where she founded Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan back in 2003. From there, Reiner opened Pegu Club in 2005 as a silent partner, before co-founding Clover Club in 2008 and Leyenda in 2015. All closed their doors having amassed prestigious awards during their time.

When she’s not opening hugely influential bars, Reiner can be found imparting her knowledge as a drinks author – The Craft Cocktail Party: Delicious Drinks for Every Occasion is a home bar staple – and as a judge, mentor, or consultant (her business goes by Mixtress Consulting). Her work has influenced a generation of bartenders; Reiner is one of a handful of people to scoop the title of Best Bar Mentor at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards.

Most recently, Reiner released a line of craft canned cocktails, Social Hour, with legendary bartender and Clover Club co-owner Tom Macy. She’s worked closely with many big names over the years, including her mentor Dale DeGroff – known as the King of Cocktails, the bartender and author is widely credited with laying the foundations for the craft cocktail revival we’re enjoying today – plus Pegu Club founder Audrey Saunders, and the ‘Modern Mixologist’ Tony Abou Ganim. 

Julie Reiner in action behind the bar

From memorable serves and creative influences to canned drink development, Reiner answers our burning questions below – and shares a cocktail recipe to try out at home:

MoM: Thanks so much for your time, Julie! When and where did your love of hospitality begin? 

Reiner: I grew up on Oahu in Hawaii and as a kid my house was a revolving door of visitors. It was as if we were running an AirBnB for our extended family and friends. Hospitality was in my blood, I helped my mom pass hors d’ oeuvres and blend up mango Margaritas and loved it. We had a limousine van so that we could tour the island all together. It was a big part of my childhood and really solidified my future in the hospitality industry. 

MoM: What are your biggest creative influences in terms of shaping your bartending style? 

Reiner: Early on in my career, tropical flavours were my biggest influence as I had a lychee tree in my front yard and a mango tree in the back. I naturally gravitated towards those fruits and island flavours. I met Dale Degroff, Audrey Saunders and Tony Abou Ganim early on in my career and discussed cocktails and flavour pairings with all of them in the early stages of my career. They all had great influence on me and my bartending style, as did the chefs I worked with at various restaurants.  

MoM: To fast-forward to 2020 – how has the coronavirus pandemic changed your working life? 

Reiner: In terms of how it has affected business: we were originally scheduled to launch Social Hour in April, just in time for the spring/summer season… and then Covid hit. We lost some of our funding, and had to regroup before we could launch. We also had to shut down Clover Club and Leyenda, which was very stressful. 

And enjoying a well-earned drink

MoM: How did the development process for Social Hour compare to designing cocktails for a bar setting? 

Reiner: It was similar in some ways and very different in others. The biggest difference is we had to create ingredients like tonic water or ginger beer from scratch so we could adjust variables like sweetness, acidity, spiciness, etcetera. It was great to have that flexibility but it took a while to get it all right. The end goal was the same as it is in a bar, but the road we had to take to get there was different.

MoM: Could you share a story about a memorable drink you’ve made over the years?

Reiner: When we were preparing to open Clover Club, I created a cocktail called The Slope named after my neighborhood of Park Slope [see below]. It was meant to be our house Manhattan variation and became an instant classic at the bar. It is one of the only cocktails that has never left the menu. The Slope is a fan favorite with our regulars and has been featured on menus all over the world. It was even featured in a Brooklyn-themed cocktail box in France.  

MoM: What key qualities does it take to forge a career in the bar industry? And, how do you foster longevity and prevent burnout?

Reiner: It’s not an easy path to be sure. In my experience, which includes many highs and lows over the years, the most important thing is pick the right partners. Also, continue to innovate and look ahead, don’t rest on your laurels. Hire well. Give people the opportunity to grow… and keep your consumption in check!  

We asked Reiner to share a cocktail you could recreate at home – so below you’ll find the recipe for The Slope, a twist on the classic Manhattan. Enjoy!

The Slope

70ml Rittenhouse Straight Rye whiskey 100% proof
20ml Punt e Mes
5ml Giffard apricot liqueur
2 dashes Angostura Bitters 

Stir all ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled coupe.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Caipirinha

This week we’re whipping up the Caipirinha, a Brazilian classic. This light, refreshing drink emerged in São Paulo in the early 19th century and has been a national treasure ever…

This week we’re whipping up the Caipirinha, a Brazilian classic. This light, refreshing drink emerged in São Paulo in the early 19th century and has been a national treasure ever since. Morgana Toro, bartender at London’s Artesian, shows us how to combine the holy trinity of cachaça, sugar, and lime…

There’s much debate about the origins of Brazil’s national drink. One theory claims the Caipirinha was invented by farmers in the countryside region of Piracicaba, which was the epicentre of cachaça production at the time. Elsewhere, it’s believed the drink was a medicinal tincture used to treat the Spanish flu, initially containing garlic and honey in place of sugar and ice. Another theory suggests scurvy-riddled sailors invented it when they docked at the Port of Santos, mixing citrus with cachaça in the absence of readily-available rum. 

One thing’s for certain: to be called a Caipirinha today, it has to be made with lime, sugar, cachaça and ice, says Morgana. “You could use lemon if you like, but then it’s not traditional. You can use brown sugar, unrefined sugar, any type of sugar,” she says. “And the cachaça can be silver or aged. Usually in Brazil we make it with ice that isn’t cubed or crushed; it’s something in-between. It’s like a crushed cube of ice, but not like the crushed that we know here.” Faced with the limited options in the supermarket, Morgana suggests using cubed ice, because fully crushed will dilute the drink too fast. 

Morgana Toro with three cocktails, none of which is a Caipirinha

Once you’ve got these simple ingredients prepared, you’re ready to start making the drink. First, cut a lime into wedges and add to a tumbler or rocks glass with sugar. Muddle until the sugar – and it has to be powder sugar, not sugar syrup, says Morgana – is dissolved in the lime juice. Then top the rest of the glass with ice and add around 50ml cachaça. “Then you stir slightly but not like you’re stirring a built drink,” she says. “It’s more like, you put the spoon inside and do a little movement to mix it from the bottom. It’s not supposed to be completely mixed together.”

We’re using Abelha Cachaça, made from 100% organic sugarcane grown in the protected national park of Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, Northern Brazil. Crafted by master distiller Marcos Vaccaro – an expert in organic agriculture – Abelha Silver is rested for six months in stainless steel tanks, while the Gold bottling is aged for three years in casks made from an ash wood native to Brazil called garapeira. We know Vaccaro is devoted to the cause, because he takes care to reused and recycle the by-products of every distillation of Abelha elsewhere on the farm, even running his car on the stuff. Plus, he lives in a treehouse.

The traditional Caipirinha – made with lime – isn’t the only version of the drink. “In Brazil, we say that we are very creative people,” says Morgana. “We make everything in a thousand different flavours.” A common twist on the cocktail is the Caipifruta, which consists of cachaça, crushed fresh fruits, and ice. “You can do strawberry, lime and passionfruit… You just change the fruit,” she continues. “I’ve tried a mango and pink peppercorn one before. That’s super good.”

Now that looks more like a Caipirinha

Whether you choose to keep things traditional or switch up the recipe, you’ll need little in the way of equipment. “Making a Caipirinha at home is really easy because you don’t need any equipment,” says Morgana. “You can muddle with anything, even a rolling pin. There’s no shaker. You just need a spoon, it can be a teaspoon. As long as you have good cachaça and good limes – and you muddle until the sugar has dissolved – that’s all you need.”

50ml Abelha Cachaça
1 tbsp sugar
1 lime, sliced in half lengthwise and cut into quarters or eighths.

In a double rocks glass, combine the lime segments with the sugar and use a muddler to gently crush and squeeze the limes. Add the cachaça and stir well. Add crushed ice and stir. Serve immediately with a slice of lime to garnish.

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Your guide to the emerging New World whisky category

Where once whisky was solely the product of Scotland, Ireland and the US, today more than 30 countries produce the amber nectar. Free from the ties of tradition, New World…

Where once whisky was solely the product of Scotland, Ireland and the US, today more than 30 countries produce the amber nectar. Free from the ties of tradition, New World distillers are treading new ground with customised yeasts, heirloom grains, and alternative oak species to boldly take whisky where it’s never been before. With insight from industry accelerator Distill Ventures, we take a fresh look at the global category…

From Australia’s wine cask-matured whiskies to Scandinavia’s wholegrain rye bottlings, our tasting glasses have gone global in recent years. In turn, our cupboards are fuller, too; the whisky category grew by 7% to 440 million nine-litre cases in 2018, according to the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis Global Database (one case is typically 12 x 750ml bottles, FYI. So, more than five billion bottles). While the projected forecast – 581m cases by 2023 – is likely to be rattled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, whisky’s meteoric rise is only set to continue, with New World producers ‘setting the stage for a new defining era’, as The New World of New World Whisky, a whitepaper by Distill Ventures (Diageo’s venture capital arm), described it.

To be clear, the New World category doesn’t just encompass distillers in regions not typically associated with whisky production – such as Bolivia, South Africa and Russia – but also unconventional whisky made in established whisky-making countries. The report defines New World Whisky as: 1. A whisky not produced in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the US or Japan OR 2. A whisky made in a style not traditionally associated with the country that it is made in – for example, American single malt or Scottish rye. With flavour development the ultimate goal, producers are ‘manipulating raw materials and processes in ways that reflect their own locality and cultural identity’, it states – and that’s true whether they’re in Scotland or South Korea.

For one, whisky-makers are looking beyond yield to create a wider spectrum of flavour through their grain selection. “This is part of a trend of distillers wanting complete traceability of their ingredients and working with farmers,” says Frank Lampen, Distill Ventures’ CEO. “If your grain is being grown next door, you don’t want to send it hundreds of miles away to be malted – so we’re seeing more distilleries like Stauning [in Denmark] taking control of the whole process and doing 100% of their own malting” (see photo in the header.)

Stauning whisky

The nine founders of Stauning distillery in Denmark

There’s a focus on diversity – exploring local, heirloom, and non-traditional grains – and the concept of terroir. “Diversity is about going beyond single varietals of grain to harvest fields that contain multiple varietals, as pioneered by [England’s] Oxford Artisan Distillery with their Oxford Rye,” Lampen says. “Terroir is about seeing how the same varietal grown in different places produces different results, and preserving those differences in flavour through distillation, as Waterford Distillery [in Ireland] is doing.”

New World producers also tend to be big on brewing techniques; customising their own yeasts or cultivating wild strains, and often roasting and smoking their malts with locally-sourced plants, wood or peat. They’re passionate about the ‘beer’ they produce, says Lampen, and utilise longer fermentations and different yeasts “to create something that is delicious and full of flavour before it goes into the still”. American single malt producer Westward Distillery is a great example of this, he adds.

In terms of maturation, producers are looking beyond French and American oak to explore alternative oak species and woods – including acacia, mizunara, chinquapin, and garryana – as well as collaborating with local beer, wine and spirits producers in cask exchange programmes, and toying with new maturation techniques. “Casks which might previously have been used for a short ‘finish’ are being used for the full maturation of the whisky,” says Lampen, “such as the red wine barrels used by Starward [in Australia] to house their spirit from the moment it comes off the still to the moment it’s bottled.”

Starward Nova

David Vitale from Starward in Melbourne

However, as the whitepaper aptly points out, with greater choice can come greater confusion – New World Whisky can quickly go from exciting to overwhelming. “The strength of the category – and what makes it so exciting – is the diversity and range of what’s on offer,” says Lampen. “But this is also a challenge, as it can make it hard for whisky drinkers to navigate and find things they’re going to love, unless they’re prepared to do lots of research themselves.”

That’s where we come in, of course. Below, we’ve picked out 10 New World Whiskies that we think you’ll love. Not only are these distillers bringing something new to the category, but better yet, they’re really only just getting started on the long road to whisky greatness. Behold!

Mackmyra Grönt Te

A Swedish single malt from Mackmyra Distillery finished in casks seasoned with Oloroso sherry and green tea leaves (!!) sourced from Japanese tea specialists Yuko Ono Sthlm.

Yushan Blended Malt

A Taiwanese blended malt from Nantou Distillery matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks (and named after the highest mountain in Taiwan).

The ONE Orange Wine Cask Finished

An English blended whisky from The Lakes Distillery that sees its single malt combined with single grain and malt whiskies from Scotland and finished in first-fill American oak casks seasoned with orange wine.

Amrut Madeira Cask Finish

An Indian single malt whisky from Amrut Distillery – the first of its kind to be finished in Madeira wine casks from the Portuguese island.

Langatun Old Deer Classic Cask Proof

A Swiss single malt from Langatun Distillery, matured in an unusual pairing of sherry casks and Chardonnay casks before being bottled as cask strength.

The Cardrona Just Hatched – Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish

A Kiwi single malt from Cardrona Distillery, aged in ex-bourbon barrels before a finishing period in Oloroso sherry casks and, again, bottled at cask strength.

Teeling Stout Cask Finish

An Irish single malt from Teeling Distillery, aged in former stout casks that first aged its own Teeling Small Batch (caskception!) in collaboration with Galway Bay Brewery.

Sonoma Distilling Co. Cherrywood Bourbon

A US bourbon from Sonoma Distilling Company made from corn and rye from California and Canada and Cherrywood smoked barley from Wyoming.

Starward Solera

An Australian single malt from Starward Distillery, made entirely from Australian barley and matured in re-coopered Apera (Australian fortified wine) barrels.

Millstone 100 Rye Whisky

A Dutch rye whisky from Zuidam Distillers, made from 100% rye with 100% small pot still distillation and matured for 100 months in 100% new American oak barrels.

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An introduction to Spanish vermouth

In Spain, vermouth is a cultural institution, meant to be sipped and savoured during la hora del vermut – ‘the vermouth hour’ – with a few cubes of ice, a slice…

In Spain, vermouth is a cultural institution, meant to be sipped and savoured during la hora del vermut – ‘the vermouth hour’ – with a few cubes of ice, a slice of orange and an olive. The category may be steeped in tradition, but it’s ripe with innovation, as MoM discovered…

Spain’s love affair with vermouth first began in the early 19th century. Aromatised wine first found its way into the country from Italy during this period, and it wasn’t long before a number of factories began local production in Catalonia – starting with vermouth-maker Augustus Perucchi, who established his company in 1870, says Federico Sánchez-Pece Salmeron, director of communications for sherry producer Lustau .

The region quickly became the epicentre of Spanish vermouth production, specifically the small town of Reus, which boasted some 30 different producers by the time the 20th century rolled around. “Following pioneer Perucchi, small local producers multiplied throughout the territory due to the increasing demand for this drink,” says Sánchez-Pece Salmeron. “The original Italian recipe was adapted by Spanish producers, who used local wines, spices and production methods to elaborate their vermouths.” In terms of grape varietals, this often meant Albariño and Macabeo.

The labels on Gonzalez Byass vermouths are replicas of 19th century originals

The second-oldest vermouth-producing region of Spain might surprise you: Jerez. Martin Skelton of González Byass – a historic sherry bodega located in the heart of the city – says the company’s archives “show vermouths on the inventory between 1896 and 1926,” with records showing bottling “at the bodega from 1909” onwards. Vermouths from Jerez are essentially aromatised sherries, usually made from Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez, and aged in a solera system. “Mature Fino or Oloroso sherry, with their savoury, spicy and nutty notes, makes a fantastic product for the making of vermouth as the infusion of spices helps to accentuate the natural characteristics of the sherry,” says Skelton, whose firm produces a range of vermouth today, La Copa, based on 19th century family recipes.

Jerez aside, the majority of production is still based in Reus. “It’s the home of Spanish vermouth,” says Marta Vaquer Llop, third generation of the Casa Mariol winery, based in the Terra Alta region of Catalonia. But that doesn’t mean all Spanish vermouth tastes similar – far from it. “There are hundreds of brands of vermouth, and each has its own style, wherever it comes from,” she says. “One winery can produce different vermouths with very different profiles.” While there’s a huge array of styles to choose from – dry, semi-sweet, sweet, white, rosé – the most prevalent is sweet red vermouth, a.k.a vermút rojo. Many producers also create reserva bottlings, which typically means the vermouth has been left to rest in old oak barrels (though there are no regulations that specify this). One thing Spanish producers have settled on, however, is when – and how – their vermouth should be drunk.

There’s no better way to wake up your appetite than a glass of vermouth and some salty snacks

“People in Spain drink vermouth before eating to ‘wake up’ the appetite and prepare the stomach for lunch,” explains Alex Virgili, co-founder of El Bandarra, which has just launched new aperitif Al Fresco. “Most vermut bars in Spain – called vermuterias – pair it with small, free tapas, which might be olives, bread and cheese or anchovies,” he continues. “Vermouth in Spain is always served in a glass with ice, a slice of orange and one olive. I recommend asking for two olives.” You’ll also likely be offered a dash of sifón – club soda – which can open up the aromatics, like adding water to a whisky. But you don’t have to drink them the Spanish way, according to Skelton from González Byass, “they are equally delicious with tonic or as a perfect Negroni ingredient.”

Virgili and twin brother Albert produce El Bandarra at their family-owned winery, the 19th-century Casa Berger in Barcelona. Despite the provenance, the production process is anything but stuffy. “El Bandarra is blend of Xarel·lo and Macabeo, our indigenous white grapes, macerated with 50 herb extracts such as wormwood, clove, cinnamon and bitter orange,” says Virgili. “After fortifying the wine, it’s given a touch of caramel while we play disco-funky-rumba music at the winery.”

If disco-funky-rumba music sounds like a far cry from the Catalonian vermouth producers of old, that’s because the category is undergoing a 21st century revamp. It’s just one of the ways Spanish producers are repurposing their products for a modern drinker. “Renewing old formulas, adapting them to the current taste, making them less medicinal, softer and more balanced,” says Vaquer Llop, when I ask how producers are innovating. “And of course, reinventing the image of vermouth – making it a fresh, young and trendy product”. 

A splash of spritz wakes up your vermouth

Vaquer Llop has first-hand knowledge of the burgeoning vermouth revival in Spain – her late brother, Miquel Angel Vaquer, played a leading role in the vermouth revival, having opened one of Barcelona’s very first Vermuterias and, more recently, co-authored Teoría y Práctica del Vermu (The Theory and Practice of Vermouth). The category is a constant state of evolution, she says, with emerging trends that include “vermouths made with red wine, vermouths made with cider or mistela instead of wine, or with gin touches – non-traditional botanicals, such as violet, jasmine or peppers.” Most recently, organic and biodynamic bottlings have found their way into production.

For the most part, however, few producers stray too far from tradition. The vermouth resurgence “recovers the tradition of a centenary product, but improved, both in its preparation and in its image,” observes Maarten Van Dam, area director at Osborne, an historic bodega that makes vermouth from its sherry. “In general, we find a more careful, gourmet and gastronomic vermouth. In the premium segment, which is significantly the one that grows the most and where new launches and innovations of Spanish vermouth are produced, it is innovating with grape varietals, packaging, and labels.”

Whatever you opt for a traditional bottling or fancy something off-the-wall, in Spain, the tastiest vermouths typically come de grifo – from the tap – rather than a bottle. And as Virgili attests, they’re best enjoyed on a sun-kissed terrace. “For us, the best Spanish innovation is the terrace – the hustle and bustle with friends and the good vibes,” he says. “Vermouth has become a popular drink because it’s delicious, it’s easy to drink and it’s made to be shared in a happy mood. This is our philosophy of what this is all about. Vermouth is an attitude!”

A wide range of Spanish vermouth is available from Master of Malt

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The story behind Northwest Passage Expedition Gin

A team of ocean explorers is hoping to become the first to row the Northwest Passage – the treacherous Arctic route that links the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. To…

A team of ocean explorers is hoping to become the first to row the Northwest Passage – the treacherous Arctic route that links the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. To raise money for the historic endeavour, known as the world’s Last Great First, they’ve created a one-of-a-kind gin in collaboration with Orkney Distillery. We spoke to crew member Jack Hopkins to find out more about the record-breaking voyage…

The European history of the Northwest Passage began in the 15th century; the goal was to find a direct route to China that bypassed the Silk Road. For hundreds of years, western explorers braved the ice-bound passage to find a trade route to Asia, eventually abandoning the endeavour when the brutal conditions made it impossible to continue. “It reads like a who’s who of famous explorers,” says Hopkins, “you had Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher, Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook…”,

By the 1800s, he says, “the value of a trade link through the Northwest Passage to China is no longer really there, because sufficiently fast and reliable travel had been established,” and the challenging route instead became “a symbol of prestige”. Victorian explorers across the globe set out to chart the passage, most famously Sir John Franklin, whose voyage ended with icebound ships, pneumonia, and cannibalism. 

As Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company began mapping out the surrounding areas, people started to question whether the route even existed at all. Then, in the 1860s, Orcadian explorer Dr John Rae identified a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific hiking overland. The Northwest Passage was finally traversed in the following century by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who navigated from Greenland to Alaska over the course of three years between 1903 and 1906.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!

“There was a fundamental shift in the culture of exploration,” explains Hopkins. “Prior to the 1900s, indigenous people were treated in an adversarial manner – as though they couldn’t provide any value to sophisticated Europeans.” Roald Amundsen’s expedition was successful because he learned Arctic survival skills from the local Netsilik Inuits. “He incorporated their approaches, and learned to hunt, for example, in the Inuit way,” says Hopkins. 

Fast-forward more than 100 years, and records are set to be broken once more. A team of 15 rowers will attempt to navigate the 2300m Arctic route by human power alone, embarking from Baffin Island – the most northerly point of the expedition – and rowing in continuous shifts (three hours on, two hours off) for around two months in perpetual half-light. It’s incredibly tough going by anyone’s standards.

“You get off shift, allow a 15-minute period to have some grub, have a drink and wash yourself with wet wipes,” says Hopkins. “You go and have a nap for an hour and a half, which is the minimum amount of time necessary for a REM sleep cycle, and wake up with 15 minutes left to go – you might go to the toilet or brush your teeth. And then you get on the oars and row for two hours. 

“After you’ve finished rowing, you’re on ice watch for an hour,” Hopkins continues. “You stand near the bow of the boat and make sure we don’t run into any ice, because there’s going to be a lot of it.”  After you’ve done the ice watch, you’re free to go and sleep again. It’s a gruelling schedule, he says, made all the more challenging by the bitter cold, hostile wildlife – hungry polar bears, for one – and psychological demands. “It’s unrelenting, there’s no days off.”

Will they look quite so friendly after three months together in a rowing boat?

You might wonder why anyone would choose to embark upon such a trip. The reasons are as varied as the people that are doing it, says Hopkins. “Some people are motivated by the tradition of exploration – for example, we have a couple of people on the crew whose ancestors were explorers.” [Crew member] David Fletts’ ancestor was with John Rae when the Northwest Passage was geographically discovered, while the father of fellow shipmate Mark Agnew mapped out Greenland and South America.  

For Hopkins, the expedition offers the opportunity to make a statement about the changing environment in the Arctic. The only reason this once impassable route has become marginally possible during July through September is due to retreating levels of sea ice. “This is the expedition that we shouldn’t be able to do,” he says. “And consequently, if we are able to get a row boat through the Northwest Passage, then it’s hopefully evidence to everyone that something has gone terribly wrong.”

As part of the endeavour, the team will collect data for climate scientists at the Big Blue Ocean Cleanup and New York University along the way – using salinity measurements and microplastic readings to gauge the water quality, and hydroponic listening devices to examine how the wildlife distributions are changing. “We’re going to be interviewing the local communities to try and find out how they’re dealing with the changing environment,” says Hopkins.

Now, with little more than a year until they set sail, the crew has launched Northwest Passage Expedition Gin to fund the expedition, with every penny of profit going towards provisioning the boats and covering the logistics. They partnered with The Orkney Distillery to create the historic bottling and pay tribute to the explorers that came before – specifically local man John Rae, the Hudson’s Bay Company member who discovered the route.

Profits from gin sales go towards this epic journey

“Around 80 percent of the people who became a member of the Hudson’s Bay Company and did all the early exploration work came from Orkney,” says Hopkins. “The ships would travel north from London, stopping in Kirkwall or Stromness to pick up supplies before heading over the Atlantic. And so because of this, there’s a really strong connection between Orcadian history, northern Canada, and the Northwest Passage.”

To link the three together, the gin combines botanicals found on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay with those found on the shores of Orkney, including sugar kelp – which brings a mild maritime saltiness to the liquid – angelica archangelica, ramanas rose and burnet rose, plus lemon peel and calamondin. It’s also made from water sourced from the very same spring that supplied the ships of the early explorers.

“It was closed 100 years ago, when the Hudson’s Bay Company stopped sending ships over the Atlantic, but we had it reopened” says Hopkins. “The water in the gin is from the same source that provided water for the ships of luminaries like Captain Cook and Sir John Franklin. Not only are we trying to establish provenance with the history of the Northwest Passage, we’re also trying to write the next chapter of it. Every bottle harks back to the past and propitiates the future.”

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New Arrival of the Week: Nikka Tailored

When a brand new Japanese whisky lands at MoM Towers in the midst of a global Japanese whisky shortage, it’s pretty special. But learning a second is soon to follow?…

When a brand new Japanese whisky lands at MoM Towers in the midst of a global Japanese whisky shortage, it’s pretty special. But learning a second is soon to follow? Well, that’s cause for celebration. Here, we toast the arrival of brand spanking new blend, Nikka Tailored – and share details of a follow-up bottling you may be familiar with…

Cast your mind back to the good old days (February 2020), when times were precedented*, hand sanitiser was reasonably-priced, and you could hug your grandmother without risk of repercussions. The same month, we shared word of the sudden – although sadly unsurprising, given the Japanese whisky shortage – discontinuation of Nikka 12 Year Old and Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt.

Unbeknown to us, Nikka’s whisky blending team were busy tinkering away, conjuring up replacement bottlings to meet ongoing demand for Japanese nectar without draining their stocks. And now, like a tasty phoenix rising from the ashes, two new whiskies – permanent bottlings, we might add – are emerging in their place. The first is Nikka Tailored, now available on MoM, closely followed by Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt (okay fine, it has the same name. But it’s a new recipe).

Miyagikyo Distillery

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the blends, let’s take a look at the distilleries that make them. Nikka Whisky Distilling Company was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, often referred to as ‘the father of Japanese whisky’, after a two-year trip to Scotland spent working at a number of distilleries. His business started out with the Yoichi distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaidō. Taketsuru’s aim? To make as many styles of whisky as possible for his blends.

Using four different peat levels – unpeated, lightly peated, medium peated, and heavily peated barley – five different yeast strains, and a huge variety of casks, Taketsuru could make more than 600 different whiskies, explains Stef Holt, head of education and whisky ambassador at Speciality Brands (Nikka’s UK distributor). However, Yoichi’s coastal location lent its own influence to the whiskies, so three decades later, in 1969, the company built Miyagikyo distillery in Miyagi Prefecture, Northern Honshu.

Like Yoichi, the inland distillery uses non-peated, lightly peated and medium peated barley (no heavily peated here, though) and five yeast strains to create its whiskies. Miyagikyo is also home to two Coffey stills, which are used to distil the grain whisky according to a recipe of 95% corn, 5% malted barley, before ageing the distillate in used American oak barrels. Speaking of, not only do both distilleries have their own cooperages, but they also share a third cooperage halfway between the two, which makes brand new casks from virgin American oak.

The cask programme follows Scottish tradition – American oak and sherry casks – but with plenty of different options to maximise flavour. Once an ex-bourbon cask has been used a couple of times, the coopers will remove the ends and replace them with new oak, says Holt. “That’s called a remade cask,” she says. “So you get a combination of old and new casks. And then what they’ll also do is re-char casks – scrape the insides out and re-char them.” When it comes to sherry, Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez reign supreme. Occasionally, Nikka will create finishes with Japanese oak (Mizunara) though none have made it to the UK.

While production is now a 24-hour operation at both Nikka distilleries, there still remains a huge shortage of matured whisky in both warehouses, which is why so many blends – particularly those with age statements – have been culled in recent years. Like the 12 Year Old that came before it, Nikka Tailored is mostly made up of Miyagikyo and Yoichi malts aged in re-made American oak and sherry casks, Holt says, with a touch of grain whisky to bring the recipe together. Flavour-wise, it has “a very similar flavour profile that the 12 used to have, but using whiskies from a much wider variety of ages,” she says.

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt, meanwhile, sees re-made American oak casks from Miyagikyo blended with sherry cask-aged liquid from both Miyagikyo and Yoichi. “So it’s still predominantly Miyagikyo, but they’ve upped the Yoichi quantity to add a bit more body and smoke,” Holt says. The sherry cask influence is also a little lower than the previous recipe. “The last Taketsuru was quite heavily sherried, and it didn’t have much Yoichi in it,” she explains. “The Yoichi was almost like seasoning, just a tiny hint of salty oiliness. They felt that that was a bit of a departure from the original Taketsuru flavour profiles, which were a little bit more equally balanced.”

Enough chit chat. Let’s taste them!

*Here in the UK, at least.

Tasting notes for Nikka Tailored (you can buy it here)

Nose: Thick syrupy honey, stewed apple and candied orange, with warming cinnamon and nutmeg.

Palate: Creamy and buttery, with toasted barrel char and bittersweet plum. More honey and raisin.

Finish: Fades into soft malt and vanilla oak, with a slight nuttiness.

Tasting notes for Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt (you can buy it here)

Nose: Lemon tart, honeysuckle and peppermint up front. A second whiff reveals mellow peat, ginger, dried twig and walnut. 

Palate: Incredibly soft and delicate. Milky chocolate develops into lightly toasted cereal notes and fresh grapefruit and cardamom, all underlined with light smoke.

Finish: Menthol and alpine herbs, with lingering smoke. A touch of salt and sandalwood.

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How to get the best out of overproof spirits

From barrel proof bourbon to navy strength gin, it’s hard to know how – and when – to use punchy overproof spirits in cocktails and mixed drinks. Here, we explain the…

From barrel proof bourbon to navy strength gin, it’s hard to know how – and when – to use punchy overproof spirits in cocktails and mixed drinks. Here, we explain the different ways you can incorporate these high-octane sippers into your cocktail repertoire without overpowering your palate (or doing yourself a mischief)…

Before we get into the spirits, let’s tackle the etymology of overproof. The term was coined in the 18th century, when sailors would mix their spirits with gunpowder and light it with a match. If the booze caught alight and burned steadily, it was ‘proof’ the spirit was of adequate strength and hadn’t been watered down. They were often paid partially in alcohol rations, and after all, no one likes being short-changed. 100% proof corresponds to around 57% ABV in new money.

We may no longer feel the need to set our spirits on fire before accepting a booze delivery, to the relief of postmen and women everywhere. But potency pyrotechnics aside, our obsession with ABV remains otherwise unchanged since the 18th century. Whether we’re sipping cask strength Cognac, overproof rum, or navy strength gin – or exploring the emerging no- and low-alcohol category – the potency of booze remains a key talking point among drinkers, distillers and bartenders to this day.

The just-released Highland Park Cask Strength was bottled at a mighty 63.3% ABV

The vast majority of our favourite spirits are diluted with water before they’re bottled, settling somewhere around 40% ABV. This isn’t necessarily a negative – if you have a preference for cask strength Scotch, there’s a solid case for diluting the dram with a touch of water before you drink it – but it does mean boozier bottlings, typically from 50% ABV upwards, are fewer in number. Beyond upping the alcohol content in the bottle, less dilution with water means a greater concentration of esters, fusel oils and other compounds – collectively known as congeners – in the final spirit, which carry through as flavour and complexity.

Not only does a great overproof spirit bring flavour by the bucketload, but it also makes the other flavours in the drink “more concentrated and intense”, says Georgi Radev, owner of London bar Laki Kane. “When you add high-ABV spirit to a cocktail, you are adding more flavour and viscosity to it,” he says. Up to a point, of course. Overproof spirits are notoriously difficult to enjoy neat, and can be extremely challenging to work into short cocktails, “because the high volume alcohol numbs our taste buds, so we can feel only the strength of the alcohol,” he says. “The flavours are there, but we can’t enjoy them.”

However, overproof spirits are perfect for “long drinks with more ingredients using multiple strong syrups,” says Radev, with “Tiki-style tropical cocktails,” being a prime example. For example, the Piña Colada. “Overproof rum makes a perfect Piña Colada,” he says. “The cream balances the high alcohol content. In a normal Piña Colada, the rum is almost undetectable. The main flavours are pineapple and coconut. With overproof rum, it’s a different game.” These kinds of drinks need flavourful spirits to stand out, and they’re one of the few circumstances where such powerful sippers ought to be used as a base.

The Piña Fumada

The Piña Colada tastes even better when made with overproof rum

If you’re set on shorter drinks, though, you don’t necessarily have to steer clear of overproof spirits. You can use such tipples as a modifier by incorporating a little into the body of the recipe, rinsing the glass before you pour, or floating a small amount on top of the finished cocktail. Adding just a few meagre millilitres will turbocharge the flavours in the drink and also add texture, as Radev alluded to earlier when he mentioned viscosity. A higher ABV cuts through citrus and syrups to bring a rich, almost oily mouthfeel to a cocktail that’s near-impossible to replicate with any other ingredient (just ask any lab-weary alcohol-free producer). 

Indeed, the difference a handful of extra ABV percentage points can make, even to the same spirit, is fascinating. “On a trip to Guatemala I was introduced to an aged rum that was 46% ABV, in comparison to its regular counterpart at 40% ABV, and it completely transformed the experience,” says James Shearer, global beverage director for London restaurants Oblix, Zuma and Roka. “In my opinion, a higher ABV is the distiller’s way of perfecting the product for the drinker.”

However, what overproof giveth, poor bar technique taketh away. In exchange for flavour by the bucketload and money-can’t-buy mouthfeel, you have the challenge of adapting your drink to accommodate the extra punchiness. Overproof spirits – especially at the higher end of the ABV spectrum – redefine the character of a cocktail, so it’s not just as simple as subbing your usual gin choice for a Navy strength sipper. You’ll likely need to rethink the proportions of the drink, and potentially your ingredients. For example, if you’re making a Manhattan with barrel proof rye whiskey, choose a robust, powerful vermouth to pair with it and drop the pour size of both.

A Negroni is a great foil for navy strength gin

If you’re stuck for classic recipe recommendations, Shearer recommends balancing navy strength gin in a Negroni, “to bring out the citrus and bitter notes”. Overproof Tequila “can add a slap of flavour to a Zombie,” he says, while high-strength Cognac works well when utilised with overproof rum in a Between the Sheets. Overproof rum shines in a Nuclear Banana Daiquiri or classic Mai Tai, and cask strength whisk(e)y goes down a treat in a Prescription Sazerac.

With a bit of planning, overproof booze is nothing to shy away from, providing you treat it carefully and use a delicate hand. “You need to start working with overproof spirits to get to understand them,” says Radev. “Most people think that overproof is mainly for lighting up cocktails, but it’s so much more than that. Start using it in drinks and you will grow to love it.”

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