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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Annie Hayes

Five expert rules for BBQ drinking

The mercury is rising across the northern hemisphere, which means one thing: donning a novelty apron and firing up the barbie. While beer is a valid and worthy barbecue hero,…

The mercury is rising across the northern hemisphere, which means one thing: donning a novelty apron and firing up the barbie. While beer is a valid and worthy barbecue hero, we reckon you can go one better this year – just follow our drinks pairing rules, as told by the experts…

Whether it’s the Australia ‘barbie’, or the South Africa ‘braai’, barbecue cooking is ubiquitous. However, the ways in which different cultures approach the grill – in terms of meat types, sauces, marinades, rubs, and other flavourings – varies wildly from one country to another. Variables like smoke, equipment, fuel, cooking temperature and cooking time (as anyone who has eaten an over-charred, bitter burger patty will know all too well) also have a massive influence on the final flavour of the food. 

“Humans have been cooking over live fire all around the world for hundreds of years, so you can imagine there are thousands of techniques alone, without even getting into sauces, marinades and so on,” explains Helen Graves, editor of Pit Magazine. “In recent years, we have become more aware of the ‘low and slow’ style of cooking associated with American barbecue, but barbecue cooking is so much more than that. It may take the form of skewers such as kushiyaki in Japan, it may be buried in a pit in the ground as with Mexican barbacoa or it might be cooked in a tandoor in India.”

Pit magazine, well worth a read

With so much flavour potential, deviating from the classic ‘beer and a burger’ combination might seem daunting. Fret not. Whether you’re an amateur ‘cue-er or a barbecue legend, we’ve cobbled together five drinks-pairing rules, as recommended by those in the know… 

  1. Choose light – but not delicate – cocktails

“Typically speaking, you want flavours that have a like-for-like quality with the barbeque food,” says Joe McCanta, global head of education & mixology at Bacardi. “I try to avoid anything too acidic and look to pair barbeque food with cocktails such as the Grey Goose Le Grand Fizz,” he says – 35ml Grey Goose vodka, 15ml fresh lime juice, 25ml St Germain, 60ml cold soda water built over ice in a wine glass and garnished with two lime wedges. 

Drinks with bitter, herbaceous notes also work well, says Graves. “This isn’t the time to bring out a drink on the more delicate end of the spectrum,” she explains. “You want something big, gutsy and honestly, quite alcoholic. The spirit needs to come forward to stand up to the ‘cue.” 

Try a  vermouth-spiked take on the G&T – the Rose Spritz combines 50ml Bombay Sapphire, 100ml elderflower tonic, 25ml Martini Rosato vermouth and two orange wedges in a balloon glass over ice. “If you can’t find elderflower tonic, you can opt for a regular tonic with a splash of honey,” says McCanta. “For a less zesty, sweeter serve, try raspberries in place of the orange wedges to garnish.”

It goes without saying that long, refreshing whisky-based serves are a barbecue dream. “Elderflower cordial is such as a simple ingredient that works well with whisky cocktails, such as a whisky highball with soda – so refreshing for summer,” says Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and The GlenDronach distilleries. 

Drop your preconceptions about what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing with a spirit. “We always encourage people to step outside of ‘the classics’” says Quinzil de Plessis, master of wood and liquid innovation at Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey. “BBQ should be an experience, not just a process, so look for a mix of versatile, new and different flavours to add to your experience.”

Le Grand Fizz from Grey Goose

  1. Alternatively, opt for bold – or spiced – serves

Bright and bold flavours stand up and complement the smoky char of a BBQ, says James Chase, director at Chase Distillery. This could be a flavoured gin, for example – Chase recommends his Pink Grapefruit and Pomelo Gin “mixed with Mediterranean tonic and a fleshy slice of grapefruit to garnish”.

Alternatively, you could try a spiced rum. As part of a partnership with London restaurant Berber and Q, Bacardi has explored different ways of using Bacardi Spiced as a key ingredient for cocktails and meat marinades. Something like a Bacardi Spiced & Ginger Ale – using a ratio of 50ml rum with 100ml ginger ale – is a match made in heaven.

Mezcal, too, shines in a barbecue setting. “We have a preference for long, refreshing drinks with a bit of a punch,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto, “so we’d be sipping on a great Mezcal Margarita, a Mezcal Paloma or a Mezcal Collins, using citrus and bubbly effervescence to complement the smoky agave notes of mezcal.”

Whatever you do, just don’t confuse ‘bold’ with ‘rich’ when it comes to drink pairings.Something like a Bloody Mary may be a little too heavy,” says Chase. “A BBQ is all about the food, and the drink needs to complement and not be another meal in itself.” 

  1. Stock up on ice

Temperature is everything in the grill – and the same goes for your glass. “Avoiding anything that is served straight up, as it will become warm in the hot sun,” says Metinee Kongsrivilai, brand ambassador for Bacardi UK. You can never have enough ice, so make sure you’ve got plenty in the freezer. Which leads me nicely to our next tip…

Try making your Margaritas in advance so you can concentrate on the grill

  1. Get your prep work in

A little bit of preparation can go a long way, says Shepherd. “Pre-batching your mezcal Margarita and keeping it chilled in the fridge means you can effortlessly get your guests into the vibe on arrival,” he says. “Marinade your meat overnight to let all of those flavours really sink in.”

Always use the best quality ingredients available to you, suggests Liz Baker, marketing manager at Wilkin & Sons Ltd (creator of the Tiptree spirits range) – and don’t forget the smaller details. “Why not invest in some lovely glasses and take time to think about garnishes,” she says, “this could be a slice of lemon or lime, a sprig of mint or a fresh strawberry or plump raspberry.”

Make sure your guests have a drink in hand on arrival because you might be busy on the grill, and have no time for small talk, adds Chase. “Prop up a table and lay a selection of spirits out, with some random bottles that have been in your drinks cupboard for too long, with pre-cut garnished and cups – preferably red cups!”

Helen Graves’s awe-inspiring goat shawarma

  1. Keep the ‘cue simple

This is meant to be fun. You’re not going to enjoy yourself if you’re trying to cook eight different things at once to perfection, says Paul Human, founder and head chef at We Serve Humans and The Collab in Walthamstow. “You’ll also fail, especially once you’ve had a few beers in the sun,” he says. “Do one thing and do it really well. Try and keep to a theme – do a shoulder of lamb and some flatbreads, tzatziki, a little Greek salad. Summery, simple, all stuff you can prep a day ahead. Sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on it, pass around a glass of retsina or iced rosé and bathe in the glory.” 

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Tarquin’s: Cornwall’s gin pioneer

Tucked away in converted cow sheds by the rugged coast of Cornwall lies Southwestern Distillery, an independent spirits company established by classically-trained chef and self-taught distiller Tarquin Leadbetter back in…

Tucked away in converted cow sheds by the rugged coast of Cornwall lies Southwestern Distillery, an independent spirits company established by classically-trained chef and self-taught distiller Tarquin Leadbetter back in 2013. We shine a light on the distillery as his latest creation, a Caribbean spiced rum called Twin Fin, hits the shelves…

By the age of 25, Le Cordon Bleu alumni Tarquin Leadbetter had founded Cornwall’s first distillery in more than a century, developed his flagship Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, and created the UK’s first commercially-distilled pastis (named Cornish Pastis, of course). All in all, a pretty impressive spirits CV. What started out as a relatively modest aspiration – “go surfing in the morning and make gin in the afternoon,” Leadbetter says – has evolved incrementally into a vibrant small-batch distilling operation with four stills, three flagship spirits, and a 40-strong team. 

The growth has been both organic and sustainable. On a liquid level, the bottles are individually filled, corked, sealed, labelled, numbered and waxed by hand – thankfully not just by Leadbetter these days, who reckons he personally labelled around 50,000 bottles in those formative years – and the distillery has never had any investment other than the money he used to start the business, which was inherited from his grandparents. With no outlandish budgets to hire a consultant or “buy shiny German copper stills”, Leadbetter set up the distillery on a shoestring. He bought a 0.7 litre still off the internet, heating it on a cooker at home.

Tarquin Leadbetter with one of his little stills

“I went to the cash and carry to buy magnums of cheap vodka – which was my neutral grain spirit – and macerated lots of jars of single botanicals overnight,” he reflects. “Then I’d do these turbo batches, distilling 100 single botanicals on my cooker, which would take about half an hour to an hour each, labelling them up and blending them together. I’d add two botanicals, then three, then four, five, six, and went on this extraordinary journey of exploration.” 

The more distillates he experimented with, the clearer his vision became for his eponymous gin. “I realised that one person isn’t necessarily better at smelling or tasting than another,” Leadbetter continues. ”It’s just their vocabulary; being able to articulate the flavours that they come across. By distilling everything on its own, I was able to remember those flavours, which made it a lot easier to decide where to head in terms of final flavour. It also made me a lot better at tasting other gins and working out what I liked and disliked.”

While blending skills are certainly crucial, mastering the technical aspect of distilling is of equal importance, if not greater. After all, it’s little use describing how you’d like your gin to taste if you can’t actually create those flavours. Back then, “free knowledge was generally thin on the ground”, Leadbetter explains. “Primarily, it’s been three multinationals creating this stuff for the past 20, 30, 40 years – the market’s consolidated and all of their research is proprietary”. 

“The best resources for recipe ideas, cut points, temperatures; they were very much found on home-brewing sites or forums for craft distillers,” he continues. “There was this crazy journey of reading everything I could on the internet to cobble together enough knowledge, and then applying it through practice and then through trial and error to come up with the recipe.”

Arrrrrrr! Seadog Navy Gin

“On my journey distilling from botanicals, when it got to things like aniseed, liquorice or star anise, and they louched [went cloudy] when I diluted them down, it instantly clicked, I was like ‘oh my god, this is so familiar to pastis in France or the ouzos from Greece from holidays’ that it opened my eyes into making something else alongside gin, another botanical-flavoured spirit.” This was the genesis of Cornish Pastis.

With his gin recipe perfected and a pastis in the pastis in the works, Leadbetter acquired a 500sqft unit in north Cornwall and bought a 250-litre still to start distilling on a commercial scale. He approached gastro pubs, wine specialists, hotels and farm shops across the county, and sold the first batch on 30 July 2013 from the boot of his car. 

At the end of the first month, Southwestern secured its first export order, and by the end of the first year, Tarquin’s had won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). Even so, his mum was still signing each bottle. “We have these hand-written batch character tasting notes, so my mum was writing those on the bottle, my sister was helping me stick the labels on, and for the first two years I was still hand-labelling and doing lots of the bottling myself,” Leadbetter says. “It took us about 18 months to make our very first employee.”

Today, Southwestern has four stills which are spread across five units at the same converted cow sheds. “Three are exactly the same type as I first started on, where we can do small batches and be really creative, and the other is a bigger custom-built Italian still made by a company called Green Engineering, which made the stills for Bombay Sapphire’s Laverstoke Mill,” Leadbetter says. 

“We’ve very much got that blend of old and new,” he continues. “We’ve still got these incredibly rustic stills sealed with bread dough*, and then on the other side of the distillery we’ve got this modern, high-tech still with its fancy flow metres that can spit out all these digital readings. All it’s really designed to do is give us information to help us mirror and copy what’s going on with the smaller stills, but on a larger scale. It’s been an interesting evolution.”

Twin Fin, a spiced blend of Jamaican and Dominican rum

A variety of limited edition gins have been added to the range over the years – including blackberry and Cornish honey, rhubarb and raspberry, strawberry and lime – and now, after two years of development, a spiced rum that goes by the name of Twin Fin is the latest spirit to expand the line-up. To make Twin Fin, a secret spice recipe is distilled in Southwestern’s copper pot stills and combined with two Caribbean rums. Then, the liquid is married with charred oak chips before bottling.

“It’s a blend of Jamaican pot still rum, which is lovely and banana-y, and Dominican Republic column still rum, which almost tastes a bit like coconut,” Leadbetter explains. “We wanted to spread our wings a little bit and use our knowledge and experience of distilling botanicals and create a rum, and the best way for us to start is by putting our own twist on a spiced creation. It’s got lots of citrus, lots of vanilla. We soak our oak chips in Pedro Ximénez sherry to add this almost Christmas cake fruit sweetness to the spirit.”

There’s no question that rum seems to finally be having its moment in the spotlight, and it appears to be led by the botanical success seen in gin. Could we see another spiced rum from Southwestern going forward? “In terms of further experimenting we might go down more of a fresh fruit approach as our gins have done, natural fruit flavours potentially, there’s space for some really fun tropical ingredients – or we might do some completely off-the-wall, wacky limited edition one-offs,” says Leadbetter.

“Traditionally rum has been quite an on-trade heavy spirit,” he continues. “Lots of people drink it in bars, but it’s never quite been the hero of the home cocktail bar, and there’s definitely more scope for that. Gin is the most popular spirit that people are buying to drink at home during lockdown, and I think rum could follow in its footsteps over the next few years – with the right products and some British experimentation also helping to drive the category.”

*A tried and tested technique whereby bread dough is used to seal the top of the still in place of a gasket. “It’s been around for probably 1,000 years, since they were using a very similar style of alembic still in north Africa,” Leadbetter says. “It’s super effective.”

Tarquin’s Gin is available from Master of Malt. Find the full range here

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Easy guide to blender cocktails

Your kitchen blender is a lean, mean cocktail machine, and it’s time you started treating it as such. Quit churning out bland hummus and flavourless smoothies – below, you’ll find…

Your kitchen blender is a lean, mean cocktail machine, and it’s time you started treating it as such. Quit churning out bland hummus and flavourless smoothies – below, you’ll find eight blender cocktail recipes to make at home, plus bartender-approved tips and tricks to help you master those slushie-style serves…

The blender cocktail isn’t the technicolor toothache it once was. With artificial flavours swapped for fresh produce, lurid liqueurs replaced with natural syrups, and all from-concentrate juices ditched for freshly-squeezed, these (often) slushie-style drinks have been reimagined and premiumised by modern bartenders, with their sense of fun very much intact. 

“Nothing says ‘summer in a glass’ better than a frozen tipple,” says Sebastian Stefan, head bartender at London’s Jim and Tonic. “Rising alongside the craft cocktail movement, frozen drinks have merged into gastronomy. These fun concoctions have made their way not only onto cocktail bar menus but in fine-dining establishments as well as a multitude of boozy desserts and sorbets.” 

There’s some debate about the origin of the first blender cocktails – as there is about most aspects of booze history – depending on how you define them. However, it was the introduction of the Waring blender in 1937 that really brought mechanically blended drinks to the masses for the first time, with the Daiquiri and Piña Colada among the first to receive the frozen treatment.

By the time the seventies rolled around, Frozen Margaritas were iconic; even spawning the creation of the Margarita Machine, a purpose-designed blender, says Stefan. “It was around this time that merchants started adding bright colourings as a marketing strategy,” he says. This sparked a surge in “sugary, almost glow-in-the-dark drinks”, that eventually saw frozen cocktails fall out of favour.

This is not what you’re aiming for

Today, bartenders across the globe are looking beyond those founding frozen trio to create new blender drinks. As well as experimenting with blender versions of other classic serves (G&Ts, Negronis, Sazeracs), they’re also “playing about with less common spirits such as herb liqueurs, amaro and eaux de vie to create a new palate of flavour,” says Stefan. 

“There are no clear rules on what to mix and not, so this is where a bartender’s skill and knowledge can shine through,” he says. “Tiki drinks can easily be turned into a frozen, as the packed fruity flavour allows a lot of water dilution – but with the right adjustments you can twist any classic cocktail.”

Before you wipe down the blades and give the jug a rinse, read through the following five tips for making top-notch blender cocktails at home:

1. Start from scratch

Avoid pre-mixed products and choose fresh ingredients where possible. “Make your recipe from scratch instead of buying a ready-made option from the supermarket,” Stefan says. “This way you avoid using stabilisers, colouring, preservatives and it also allows you to calculate and control the amount of sugar that goes into your drink.” And try to only use fresh fruits, ideally in season, as they tend to have more flavour and aroma, he adds.

2. Be picky

Even though you’re blending it with other flavours, be sure to choose a high-quality base spirit. “This will give body and influence the character of your drink,” Stefan says. “Don’t think you can get away with cheaper options by masking the flavour.”

3. Lay the foundations

“Pre-chill your ingredients beforehand, as this will slow down water dilution in your glass,” Stefan says. You could also rinse your glasses and pop them in the freezer (or fill them with ice and leave them to stand) for a few minutes before you make your drink.

4. Don’t fear DIY

“Make your own sugar syrup,” Stefan says. “Most cocktails require a sweet element to balance out the acidity. If you want to avoid sugar altogether, you can use honey or agave nectar.” 

5. A word on ice

Most – but not all – blender cocktails are made with ice. Avoid using large cubes, and opt for crushed if you can, suggests David Indrak of The Cocktail Service. If you are using crushed ice, don’t blend for too long. “The final drink should be blended into a fine vortex of liquid folding over itself and not sloshing,” he says.

When it comes to ice quantity, as a rule of thumb, double the amount of the serve, he says. “For example, the Margarita contains 75ml of liquid in total, therefore you need 150g of ice.” But you should always add ice slowly.

Here, we’ve picked out eight blender cocktail recipes to take for a spin, from frozen classics to brand new serves:

Frozen Daiquiri

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
50ml Mount Gay Eclipse gold rum
25ml lime juice
20ml simple syrup

Method: Blend all ingredients with 190g cubed ice. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with a lime wedge.

The Pineapple Express

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
50ml Jamaica Cove pineapple rum
25ml lime juice
40ml pineapple juice
10ml simple syrup

Method: Blend all ingredients with 250g crushed ice. Serve in coupe glass, garnish with pineapple leaf and pineapple wedge.

Frozen Braemble 

By Glasshouse Whisky

Ingredients:
40ml Glasshouse Whisky
10ml Braemble Liqueur (sic)
5ml honey
10ml lemon juice
100ml ginger beer

Method: Blend with 4 ice cubes. Garnish with star anise.

Cherry-Boozy Milkshake 

By Remy Savage, of Bar Nouveau and Le Syndicat, in association with Love Fresh Cherries

Ingredients:
30ml Ephemeral vodka
5 fresh cherries (pitted)
30ml milk
1 large scoop of vanilla ice cream 

Method: Blend all ingredients in a home blender for 30 seconds or until thick. Pour milkshake into a tall glass, and garnish with a cherry.

Strawberry & Watermelon Slushie

By Black Cow Vodka

Ingredients:
180ml Black Cow Vodka & English Strawberries
1 small watermelon
1 punnet of strawberries
Juice from 2 limes
Half a chilli (optional)

Method: Cut watermelon into cube sized pieces, taking care to remove the seeds. Remove the stems off the strawberries and cut in half. If adding chili, deseed it first. Add all ingredients to the blender with 1 cup of ice and blend. Garnish with 1 sprig of mint.

Tin Can Cocktail

By The Highland Liquor Company

Ingredients:
50ml Seven Crofts gin
1 tin of peaches
Tonic water

Method: Chill all the ingredients. Blitz half the can of peaches (with syrup) to form a puree. In a large wine glass, combine 25ml peach puree with gin. Top with tonic water and garnish with a mint sprig and orange slice.

Frosé 18

By Timeless Drinks Ventures

Ingredients:
1 bottle of Nine Elms No. 18
1 punnet of strawberries
2 teaspoons of sugar or sugar syrup (optional)

Method: Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Fill a shallow, wide pan with the liquid and place in the freezer for 1 hour. Break up the freezing liquid with a fork, and refreeze for another 20 minutes (up to 1 hour if necessary). Break up the contents again with a fork to achieve a slushy granita consistency, and spoon into a glass. Garnish with a fresh strawberry.

Frozen Cosmopolitan

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
35ml Ephemeral vodka
15ml Cointreau triple sec
40ml cranberry juice
5ml simple syrup
5ml lime juice

Method: Blend all ingredients with 200g crushed ice. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with expressed orange peel.

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Yeast: the unsung hero of distillation

Until relatively recently, conversations around yeast tended to be entirely functional, centred on efficiency and yield. But a handful of distillers have taken an altogether more experimental approach, treating yeast…

Until relatively recently, conversations around yeast tended to be entirely functional, centred on efficiency and yield. But a handful of distillers have taken an altogether more experimental approach, treating yeast as a flavour tool in its own right. We speak to the distillers, researchers and industry experts unlocking the potential of this single-celled fungus…

Yeast is one of three essential ingredients used to make our favourite spirits. From a purely technical perspective, fermentation is the process by which yeast converts sugar into alcohol; it turns wort to wash. But thanks to a vast array of funky little compounds created during this process – known as ‘secondary metabolites’ – fermentation has a far greater influence on the final flavour of the new make than spirits marketing will have you believe. 

Yeastie boy, Ryan Chetiyawardana

“Think about tasting a small-batch lager vs a commercial one, or a mass Pinot Grigio vs a wild-fermented one – the yeast produces the precursor flavours, which you’re simply concentrating when you distill them,” explains award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan), owner of Lyaness. “Not always for the best – there are many notes that are faults caused by ‘dirty’ fermentation and unwanted microbes – but it gives more variety, and more opportunity for a more diverse selection of aromas, textures and flavours.”

Having been “playing around with microbes for a decade now”, Chetiyawardana is familiar with the magic of yeast – even launching a range a whole range of ‘biologically aged cocktails’ including the Champagne Gin Fizz (made using Champagne yeast), one simply called ‘The Living Cocktail’ and a Manhattan that was “made using fermentation, akin to a port”. 

“The thing I always loved about working with microbes is the lack of control,” he says. “You can give a nudge, but you’re working with a living organism that does what it wants. The parameters that aid or hinder them can be controlled though, so you can make their life easy, you can stress them out – all lead to interesting results. Replicability, consistency and certainty removed yeast’s freedom historically, but with better science and understanding, we can hopefully balance these out and give us more diversity in the products we can create.”

Any attributes that might make a yeast strain particularly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for spirits production really depends on the style you want to create, Chetiyawardana says. “You might want a meaty, sulphury make for long ageing, or you might want a super fruity spirit to give brightness to your blend. I think it’s more about knowing what style you want to create, and realising that them little yeasty bugs can help you achieve that.”

Magical yeast turning sugar into booze

Some yeast strains have been handed down through generations – Maker’s Mark uses a 150-year-old heirloom strain; Jim Beam’s yeast dates back to the end of Prohibition – while others reflect the local terroir (the team at Herradura Tequila, for example, use 100% wild yeast to spontaneously ferment their agave mash). Some distilleries, like Japanese whisky-maker Nikka, cultivate their own strains from a wide variety of sources from yeast strain libraries to local breweries. A great many more simply buy distillers’ yeast from professional suppliers.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, these kinds of commercial yeasts are reliable, consistent, and optimised for the job. For New York Distilling Company, they’re an ideal stop-gap. “While we are taking the time to experiment with yeast strains that could, in the future, be proprietary, we use a commercial distillers yeast to ensure consistency in our production,” says co-founder Allen Katz. “As young distillers, with our oldest barrels now approaching eight years old, we’re constantly learning about our whiskey on a seasonal basis.

“Our specific varieties of rye – Pedersen Field Race Rye and an 18th century variety called Horton – tend to result in honeyed floral and stone fruit notes,” he continues. “As we contemplate specific yeast strains for the future, or even propagating a ‘Brooklyn rooftop yeast’, we will look to experiment with attributes that either compliment or enhance these natural and recurring characteristics, or that provide interesting contrasts. For now, our approach with regard to yeast has been to focus on yield.” 

Yeast beyond yield

Across the pond, a two-year research and development programme between Edinburgh’s Port of Leith Distillery and Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing & Distilling (ICBD) is drawing to a close. Together, they have experimented with a range of yeast varieties, “including Belgian brewing strains, German ale strains, lager strains and a number of wine strains to name a few”, says Victoria Muir-Taylor, distiller and head of whisky research at Port of Leith.

Victoria Muir-Taylor from the Port of Leith distillery loves having her photo taken while she is working

Despite the yeast strain being the only variable – fermentation, distilling and so on remain constant – during in-house sensory sessions, the panel has actually been able to identify characteristic differences between the new make. “With some, the new make spirit may have more fresh stone fruit notes, for example, whereas other strains are more on the dried fruit end of the spectrum,” she says.

Identifying the key characteristics of influence of each strain means it’s far easier for distillers to create their own bespoke blend. Sutherland-based Dornoch Distillery has used more than 30 different strains over the last three years, and experimented with countless more. Today, the team uses spent brewers’ yeast sourced from local breweries (a process that has a historical precedent).

“Sometimes we’d pitch in multiple yeast varieties together,” says co-founder Simon Thompson. “Or we’d blend new make made from three or four different yeast varieties to try and combine elements that we liked. Maybe one yeast variety was giving us really good fruity esters, and another really nice phenolics, so we would combine the two bills to try and blend those flavours.”

Adding yeast solution to wooden washbacks at the Dornoch distillery

On top of the individual yeast strains, other variables such as temperature, PH levels, oxygen and nutrient levels and bacteria all influence the flavour of the spirit. “Fermentation time is quite a big one as well, because the longer you leave it in the washback, the more room you’re giving for the influence of bacteria and wild yeast,” says Thompson. “We’ve got wooden washbacks that we leave open, and earlier this week we didn’t pitch any yeast for about 36 hours to allow a natural fermentation to start. The results flavour-wise were outstanding. I suspect the yield will be significantly decreased, but there were some really interesting things that happened. After the 36 hours the wash had soured, it smelt really sulphuric. And then 24 hours after the addition of the yeast, the sulphur had been cleaned up and transformed into some extreme tropical fruit.”

This is because most of the flavours that we perceive from a spirit (excluding any interactions with wood) are due to the formation of esters – a combination of ethanol and acid, Thompson says. “Your yeast will form esters in order to try and clean up its own environment. So the more acids and the more complexity of acids you have in your wort, the higher you can potentially drive your levels of ester formation.” 

As to whether these effects are detectable after a spirit has been barrel-aged – well, the answer may surprise you. “Fermentation creates the chemical complexity for further evolution within the cask,” Thompson explains. “Given the chemistry of the cask and the ethanol solution, you’ll have spontaneous ester formation over time as well as other compounds,” he says. “The more chemical complexity you can pack in at that front end, the more potential for evolution – and variation within that evolution – you have over time.”

While there’s much scope for experimentation, it comes at a price. “Whisky is already a very inefficient process, but it’s within the inefficiencies that the flavour lies,” says Thompson. “By any measurable metrics we’ll be the worst performing distillery in Scotland by a very large margin, because your cost of production skyrockets. But it’s a trade-off in exchange for infinitely greater variation on flavour.”

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Five minutes with… Simon Rucker, co-founder of Nine Elms

Tannic and full-bodied like red wine, aromatised like vermouth, Nine Elms No.18 is the first in a range of alcohol-free drinks specifically designed to complement good food. Here, we speak…

Tannic and full-bodied like red wine, aromatised like vermouth, Nine Elms No.18 is the first in a range of alcohol-free drinks specifically designed to complement good food. Here, we speak to co-founder Simon Rucker to find out the story behind his game-changing creation…

Nine Elms No.18 is unlike any other low-and-no alcohol option on the market, having been developed specifically to complement gastronomy. Initially modelled on the characteristics of wine – “acidity, tannins, fruit, flavour, body, length; the retronasal smell,” says co-founder Simon Rucker – it has evolved into a wine-vermouth hybrid that’s delightful served as a straight pour, stirred into a cocktail, or simply enjoyed with a splash of tonic, ice and a slice of citrus.

You might not know Rucker’s name, but you’ll likely recognise his work. A product designer by training, he’s designed shoes for Paul Smith and Caterpillar, worked on the Ford Fiesta, shaped Diageo’s provenance-led approach to Guinness, and helped transform Samsung into the premium consumer electronics brand it is today. “I had some ability to spot trends and understand what they meant in terms of changing consumer needs,” Rucker says. “And because I was a product designer, I was also able to conceive what the new products that would fit into that demand space would be.”

His biggest and lengthiest project came about when the company Rucker worked for was asked to “solve the smoking problem”. He spent almost 15 years working on e-cigarettes – and e-cigarette-type products – and became fascinated by the “supertanker of death” tobacco industry. It was there he met future business partner Zoltan Szucs-Farkas, who was head of strategy and insights at British American Tobacco. “We bonded on this interest in, ‘How do you turn around a massive supertanker of death like the cigarette industry and deviate it to something more sustainable?’,” he says. 

It was in a corporate dining room on the eighth floor of British American Tobacco’s vast London office building where the duo first identified the need for a non-alcoholic drink designed for upscale dining. The tobacco company was among the first to frown upon boozy business meetings and banned alcohol outright early on, so lunch and dinner guests were offered cans of Diet Coke and bottles of J2O instead. “It was incongruous,” says Rucker. “It’s a bit like going to a fine dining restaurant and eating with a plastic fork. The conversation came up between us, ‘Why isn’t there anything that fits in this space?’, but it was always just out of intellectual interest. There was no, ‘What if…?’.”

Nine Elms works as a cocktail ingredient as well as a standalone drink

The ‘what if?’ would come five years later, when Rucker and Szucs-Farkas – working for different companies and ready for a career change – met for lunch in Shoreditch one afternoon. “We were both at a stage of our lives, middle-aged white men – the classic ‘male, pale and stale’ – slightly jaundiced by 20 to 30 years of suckling from the corporate teat, but with a bit of money in the bank,” he says.Normally I’d have a glass of wine or two if we had lunch, but Zoltan couldn’t because he had a client call, and the conversation popped up again. We decided to go for it.”

Motivated by the concept of “a non-wine product that behaved like wine”, they spent 18 months talking with universities about the intricacies of hydrocolloids (gums that stop drinks from separating) and liaising with drinks innovation specialists who were hell-bent on creating a slightly fancier version of Shloer (a sparkling grape juice drink). Not only does alcohol trigger your brain’s reward system to release dopamine, the ‘feel good’ hormone, but it’s also an excellent flavour carrier with a mouthfeel that’s nigh-on impossible to recreate. Unless you add heapings of sugar, of course, which didn’t fit with their vision.

Eventually the duo met a former technical developer from Diageo, who found the solution in plant form. “When you break wine down into its components, you want something fruity, spicy, and a bit bitter – and that basically means botanicals and fruit juices,” says Rucker. “Grape juice is pretty boring until you ferment it, and then the yeast creates all these crazy natural chemicals, which is why wine tastes so good. And typically what yeast is producing is often replicated by a plant somewhere else in a different form.”

After much experimenting they settled on the 18th recipe (hence the name), which married the juice of four types of berry with distillates and extracts of 20 different flowers, herbs and spices. A gastronomy journalist and Master of Wine were among the first to sample Nine Elms No.18, paired with a medium-rare steak (plus a glass of house Pinot Noir and house Merlot for comparison’s sake) at private members’ club Soho House. It went down a treat. In fact, both experts preferred Nine Elms to the wine options they were served. 

Nine Elms answers this question of what to drink when you’re not drinking

After years of research and development, Rucker and Szucs-Farkas had realised their goal: to create a viable non-alcohol alternative for high-end eating occasions. “Rather than trying to regulate away – or prohibit – problematic behaviour, my approach has always been to come up with a product that encourages people to make better choices,” Rucker explains. “It’s a truism in life, the carrot and the stick. You need to persuade people, and the best way of persuading people is by providing a better alternative.”

They finally had the liquid. But what about the name? “We realised that the past is a good starting point,” Rucker says. “Most creativity is looking back on what’s been done before and imagining it differently, so we started looking at the history around Vauxhall and the Pleasure Gardens.” Set against the backdrop of the gin craze, Jonathan Tyers’ gardens, adjacent to the Nine Elms area south of the river, defined the city’s nightlife in the 18th and 19th centuries. “He created a walled garden of delights where entertainment was the alternative stimulation versus alcohol,” Rucker says. “Tyers was one of the first people to publicly display art and sculpture, one of the first to put an orchestra in public on a dais. There was food and music. He basically invented mass entertainment, and it was all because he was trying to get Londoners off the booze.”

We’ve come a long way since the rampant alcoholism of the early 18th century. But even in 2020 – whether we’re in a high-end restaurant or enjoying dinner at home – a rich and indulgent meal can feel incomplete without a glass of something-or-other in-hand. And it’s this mealtime occasion where Nine Elms really shines.

Nine Elms no. 18 is available from Master of Malt.

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Bartender 101: simple syrups

If you’ve ever found yourself Googling ‘how to make sugar syrup’ halfway through a cocktail recipe, this guide is for you. Here, you’ll find instructions for six home-made ingredients, from…

If you’ve ever found yourself Googling ‘how to make sugar syrup’ halfway through a cocktail recipe, this guide is for you. Here, you’ll find instructions for six home-made ingredients, from sour mix to orgeat…

For every fruit, vegetable, spice, herb or unassuming shrub, there’s a potential syrup to be made. Beets, celery, allspice, mint, ginger, blackberry, fig, rose, pine – whatever it may be, bartenders have the skills to capture their essence in liquid form, and we applaud them for it.

As amateur bartenders, however, we prefer to leave the balsamic vinegar-laced tinctures to the pros – partly out of respect for the craft, but mostly because we’ll use them once and leave them lingering at the back of the fridge until we notice they’ve turned mouldy. Whoops.

With some recipes, though, there’s no skirting around the basics. Below, you’ll find the prep time, ingredients, method, storage and suggested cocktails for six well-known cocktail syrups and tinctures. The ingredients are measured in parts, so you can make as much or as little as you need.

Sugar syrup

Also known as simple syrup, this staple cocktail sweetener is found in a huge array of cocktail serves, and it couldn’t be easier to make at home. Pro tip: The longer you boil it, the thicker the resulting syrup will be. For a richer syrup, use a 2:1 ratio of caster sugar to water.

Prep time: 5 mins

Ingredients: 1 part caster sugar, 1 part water 

Method: Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to the boil. Then turn the heat low and stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid turns clear. Leave to cool before bottling.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one month.

Suggested cocktails: There are so many to choose from – light, fresh serves such as the Tom Collins and Mojito, as well as richer cocktails like the Old Fashioned.

Honey syrup

Similar to simple syrup, this process allows you to add honey to cocktails with ease. For a vegan-friendly version, switch the honey out for agave nectar.

Prep time: 5 mins

Ingredients: 1 part honey, 1 part water

Method: Bring the water to the boil, either in a saucepan, taking care to remove it from the heat afterwards, or just by boiling the kettle. Then add the honey and stir until it dissolves. Leave to cool before bottling.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one month.

Suggested cocktails: Try the Bees Knees, Penicillin, or AirMail.

You’ll need orgeat if you want to make a Mai Tai

Orgeat

A Tiki cocktail staple, orgeat tastes like liquid marzipan. You can make orgeat by steeping raw almonds in water if you’d prefer – the process is a little laborious and requires more kitchen kit – but we’ve chosen to use almond milk for ease.

Prep time: 5 mins

Ingredients: 2 parts unsweetened almond milk, 1 part caster sugar, orange flower water to taste

Method: Heat the almond milk and sugar in a saucepan over a low to medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the orange flower water. The amount you add really depends on the quantity of syrup you’re making, but you won’t need much – 1/2 tsp per 250ml water. Allow to cool before bottling.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one week; longer if you add brandy.

Suggested cocktails: The Mai Tai is a classic, but there are a whole host of contemporary recipes that rely on orgeat’s almond deliciousness.

Sour mix

Citrus is a key ingredient in a huge array of cocktails, but squeezing fresh lemons and limes for every drink takes time. Homemade sour mix is essentially simple syrup cut with lemon and lime juices, and it’s super handy to have in a pinch.

Prep time: 10 mins

Ingredients: 2 parts sugar, 2 parts water, 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice

Method: Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to the boil. Then turn the heat low and stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid turns clear. Leave to cool before adding your freshly squeezed citrus juice. Shake to combine.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one week.

Suggested cocktails: Amaretto Sour, Whisky Sour, Margarita, Sidecar… They’re all a breeze with home-made sour mix.

The Nightcap

Upgrade your Espresso Martini with vanilla syrup

Vanilla syrup

Super easy to make and a dream addition to dessert-style cocktails, vanilla syrup is worth adding to your bar basics arsenal. It’s also delicious in your morning coffee. For a warming spice kick, try adding cinnamon sticks to the saucepan.

Prep time: 5 mins

Ingredients: 1 part caster sugar, 1 part water, vanilla extract to taste

Method: Add the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to the boil. Then turn the heat low and stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid turns clear. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla extract, and then leave to cool. The amount you add really depends on the quantity of syrup you’re making – a handy guideline is 1 tbsp per 200ml water.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one month.

Suggested cocktails: Add to dessert-style serves, such as the Espresso Martini and Irish Coffee.

Grenadine

Possibly the most widely-recognisable cocktail syrup – although not always for the tastiest of reasons (cough, Tequila Sunrise, cough) – grenadine is made from the juice of pomegranates. It’s a tart, sweet, red syrup that forms the backbone of a host of classic serves.

Prep time: 5 mins

Ingredients: 1 part pomegranate juice, 1 part caster sugar

Method: Add the pomegranate juice and caster sugar to a saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Wait to cool before bottling.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately three weeks; longer if you add vodka.

Suggested cocktails: Endless options – from the punchy El Presidente to the tart-sweet Pink Lady, (and that retro non-alc classic, the Shirley Temple).

The Tequila Sunrise,

Nothing wrong with a Tequila Sunrise

Oleo Saccharum

You can make oleo-saccharum with nearly any citrus fruit; lemons, grapefruit, oranges, take your pick. Don’t be put off by the fancy name, it’s just a way of accessing the intense flavour locked inside the peel. Pro tip: avoid the pith when zesting, or it’ll turn bitter.

Prep time: Min 4 hours

Ingredients: 2 parts citrus peels, 1 part caster sugar

Method: Remove the zest from your citrus in wide strips using a vegetable peeler. Add the sugar and mash well with a muddler. Leave for between 4 and 24 hours – the longer you leave it, the stronger it’ll be – and then ‘strain’ the peels by pressing down on them with a sieve to extract the oil. Bottle and chill in the fridge.

How to store it: Store in the fridge. It’ll last approximately one week.

Suggested cocktails: Perfect for Punches, such as the Milk Punch and Fish House Punch. 

And if this all sounds like far too much work, you can always buy syrups from Master of Malt

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Three gins made to historic recipes

While never-before-seen bottlings are launched seemingly every week, sometimes you can’t beat a classic. And considering distilled spirits date back to the 13th century, there’s no shortage of recipes to…

While never-before-seen bottlings are launched seemingly every week, sometimes you can’t beat a classic. And considering distilled spirits date back to the 13th century, there’s no shortage of recipes to choose from. We interviewed three distillers making modern gin according to ye olde recipes from days of yore – or at least, closely modelled on them – to find out how they came to be the guardians of flavour history…

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to come across centuries-old hand-written artefact –  letters, diaries, notebooks, ledgers –  perhaps at a museum, in the visitors’ centre of a distillery, or as part of an antiques fair, you’ll understand the remarkable feeling of seeing a relic from the past with your own two eyes. These documents are the raw material of history, Irish Distillers archivist Carol Quinn told MoM back in April. “There’s nothing like a handwritten letter to really give you a connection with an individual,” she said. “They’ve touched that page, they’re folded it with their hands. It’s a very different experience and I find it very visceral.”

Recipe number XXXIII

Searching for the world’s oldest gin recipe: Gin 1689

For the spirits industry’s creative minds, such artefacts can be a unique source of inspiration. Other times they bring an historical spirit back to life, as Patrick van der Peet, co-creator of Amsterdam-based Gin 1689 – said to be the world’s oldest gin recipe – attests. “The story behind our brand starts over 300 years ago, when William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary II came to the throne in the United Kingdom during the Glorious Revolution and introduced gin-making to the broader public,” he explains. “Soon, production started to exceed the volume of wine, ales and beers.”

Co-founder Alexander Janssens came across a reference to an original recipe dating back to that era in a book about gin history. Determined to locate the full recipe, he uncovered snippets in the rare book section of the British Library. But the original 17th century recipe book, The Distiller of London, was nowhere to be found. After 18 months of searching, “it turned up in a private collection of a wealthy American book collector who resided in Los Angeles, long since dead,” van der Peet explains. “With permission of the trust we bought the copyrights of the recipe and went to work.”

Compiled and licensed under the command of the Dutch King, the book was published in 1698 for the explicit use of the Company of Distillers of London. “The recipe we used, number XXXIII, made use of a number of very special botanicals – especially for that time,” he continues, since spices were expensive. To recreate the recipe, Van der Peet enlisted the expertise of one of Holland’s oldest distilleries, Herman Jansen, which has made gin in Schiedam since 1777. They launched Gin 1689 (named for the year William III took to the throne) in 2018.

Bringing a family legacy to life: Bashall Spirits

Among many other distillers, the historic link is especially close to home. Lancashire-based Bashall Spirits, established by Fiona McNeill, creates its range of gins using family cooking recipes from a set of books that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. Her family have lived in the village of Bashall Eaves for more than 200 years, and so bringing these old recipes to life is a true labour of love. 

“The first book is dated 1750,” says McNeill. “There’s no name written in the book, but the family has always related that it was written by Anne Taylor, who is my great*8 aunt. Her and her husband John were the first of the family to move to Bashall. The second book was written by Jennet Worsley, my great*5 grandmother, around the middle of the 19th century. In those days there were no commercial recipe books, so women would gather the recipes that they and their friends used to pass on through the family. 

“Some of the recipes are quite topical – for example, Jennet has one inspired by the Great Exhibition – and they tend to focus heavily on locally-growing produce and things that could be foraged for, which gives them a lovely local flavour. They used a lot of the same sort of ingredients that we use now, but a lot of other ingredients which are not used so commonly, many of which are easily available.”

McNeill picked 12 recipes from the books to experiment with, whittling down the selection to create nine flavoured gins. At present, there are three gins in the range, two of which hail from the 1750 recipe book. “Orange & Quince Gin, inspired by a marmalade recipe – or ‘marmalet’ to use 18th century terminology – Damson & Elderberry, which is inspired by a fruit wine recipe, and Parkin Cake Gin, a rich Lancashire and Yorkshire cake flavoured with treacle and ginger,” she says.

Resurrecting national history: Diplome Gin

For other distillers, resurrecting a forgotten recipe provides a unique opportunity to celebrate hyper-local history. When World War II ended, the US army remained in Europe to provide security and assist with rebuilding allied countries. Among them, 62,000 American soldiers and 1,250 civilians were stationed in France.

“The US army contracted distilleries across France, Italy and Great Britain to provide gin to its GIs,” explains Betegnie. “A distillery in Dijon won the exclusive French contract to supply gin to the US Army.” When the American forces were asked to leave France in 1966, the distillery stopped producing the gin – but they kept the original recipe safely in their archive, he says.,

In the 2010’s, Betegnie set out to find the distillery and bring the gin back into production. To his delight, he was given express permission by the owners to recreate the recipe using identical tools and methods. “The recipe they made in 1945 remains the exact same to this day,” he says. “Time is very important for the process – it takes more than four days to make it. Most new gins are made in less than one day. That is a big difference, and the taste shows it.”

From hand-written family cookbooks to historically-significant spirits, these modern distillers have captured flavours from the past and made it possible for everyone to enjoy a taste of spirited history. And what’s more, they’re far from the only distillers to do so. Next time you order a bottle of something delicious, take a look into the brand’s past – it might just surprise you. 

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The Rum with No Name needs you

After a record-breaking nine months circumnavigating the world on a tandem bicycle, George Agate created a spiced white rum inspired by flavours he came across on the historic Silk Road….

After a record-breaking nine months circumnavigating the world on a tandem bicycle, George Agate created a spiced white rum inspired by flavours he came across on the historic Silk Road. Unfortunately, a trademark conflict forced Agate to abandon the brand name – Silk Road Distillers – mere months after launching. Now, he needs your help choosing a new one…

Having designed his rum specifically to pair with tonic, Agate’s intention behind Silk Road Spiced Rum – temporarily dubbed Rum with No Name – was to breathe new life into white rum. It’s a category he knows plenty about; prior to setting off on the ride that would raise more than £13,000 for charity and earn him a Guinness World Record, Agate worked as a bar manager.

George Agate resplendent in lycra

Around that time, the gin boom was kicking off. “It started off with Hendrick’s as a premium and Gordon’s as a house, and then you started getting your Silent Pools and your Sipsmiths,” he recalls. “And I was watching that and thinking, ‘Wait a second… There’s nothing happening for rum, especially white rum’. We had Koko Kanu and a few cachaças, maybe a bottle of Wray & Nephew. The rest was mainly dark spirits.”

Not long after, Agate set out on the bike trip with cycling buddy John Whybrow, covering 18,000 miles over nine months. Unassisted and carrying all their equipment, they started in Canterbury and headed to Istanbul through Europe. “From there we took the Black Sea and headed to Georgia, and then through Azerbaijan,” he says. “We couldn’t get visas for Iran, so we had to fly down to India.”

The duo cycled the coast of India, through south-east Asia and onto Australia and New Zealand. “One of the rules is that you have to go through opposite points on the planet,” he explains. “Two cities where, if you were to drill through the earth’s core, you’d come out at the other city. And so ours were Wellington in New Zealand and Madrid in Spain.” 

They flew to San Francisco and cycled through central America and Mexico to Panama. A flight to Morocco saw them cycle back up to Canterbury for the final stretch. Back home, Agate began working on his rum, inspired by the journey the duo had taken following the Silk Road eastwards from Istanbul.

Rum & Tonic coming right up

“That was my favourite part of the journey,” he says. “Everyone was so friendly. Locals put us up in mosques some nights, they would take us in and allow us to camp in their gardens. You go through a town and the locals would call you over to have tea with them and play dominoes. It was endless.”

Agate travelled the UK speaking to craft distillers – about 50 in total – before he found a partner that shared his vision for bringing the botanical elements of gin together with the flavours found in traditional spiced rum to create a spiced white rum that pairs beautifully with tonic. “Drinking rum with Coca-Cola as a standard mixer can really drown out the flavour and depending on what ginger drink you drink, that can hide the rum, too,” he explains. “But tonic works really well.”

Together, they imported rum from Guyana to be redistilled and vapour-infused with spices commonly found along the Silk Road trading route: lemongrass, ginger, pink peppercorns, rosehip, hibiscus and cinnamon. “Our rum is 42% ABV, so it’s got a little bit of heat afterwards if you drink it neat,” says Agate. “When we serve it with tonic, we add a little bit of lemon or hibiscus as a garnish. They both work really well. It’s a really refreshing drink.”

Less than six months after applying for the British trademark and launching the brand as Silk Road, the European trademark holder got in touch. Due to Brexit, European trademarks are being converted into British trademarks, so the two businesses faced a battle over who would retain the rights. Reluctantly, Agate decided to change the name – and he’s asking rum fans to rename the brand. 

There are only three rules. Firstly, it has to be three syllables or shorter. This is for simplicity, but also because the signature serve is tonic, so it needs an ‘and tonic’ bar call e.g. Silk Road and Tonic. The second rule is that it can’t be rude in another language or offensive in another culture, for fairly obvious reasons. And the third rule? “It can’t be Rummy McRumFace,” says Agate. 

Got a great idea for a name? To submit yours, all you need to do is donate between £5 and £500 on the Rum with No Name crowdfunding page – and you’ll even bag some rum goodies in return. Be quick, the campaign ends on Monday 8th June at the oddly specific time of 9:24am.

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Master of Malt tastes… whiskies made with different peat varieties

Peat is frequently used as a catch-all term for ‘smoke’, but this essential whisky ingredient is far more nuanced than we give it credit for. Here David Miles, senior whisky…

Peat is frequently used as a catch-all term for ‘smoke’, but this essential whisky ingredient is far more nuanced than we give it credit for. Here David Miles, senior whisky specialist at Edrington-Beam Suntory, talks MoM through three distinctly different drams made with peat sourced from all over Scotland…

The trinity of partly-decomposed vegetation, dank weather, and a layer of rock close to the earth’s surface are the natural phenomena responsible for creating peat – the soil-like deposits that impart a deliciously smoky flavour into our favourite Scotch whiskies. With the country’s weather on the cooler, wetter end of the spectrum, it’s little surprise that Scotland’s many bogs, mires and moors are packed with the stuff.

“Most of the peat used by the whisky industry is somewhere between 1,000 to 6,000 years old,” says Miles. “The vegetation that creates the peat will have an influence on the flavour of the finished whisky. If you go back that far in time on mainland Scotland, it was basically covered by the Caledonian forest. This means mainland peat has a woody quality; it’s decomposed trees and huge bushes.”

David Miles in action resplendent in a burgundy jacket

Jump north to Orkney or head south-west to Islay and the peat has a very different quality indeed. The Orkney Islands are located at a point where two huge weather systems collide, Miles explains. This means the weather is pretty consistent all year round, with little fluctuations in temperature between winter and summer and near-constant rain. Oh, and the wind blows at around 40mph.

“This means nothing grows tall,” says Miles. “There are no trees or big bushes, the only thing that really grows there is heather.” As such, Orkney’s heather-rich peat gives off very different flavours and aromas when burned. And like Orkney, there are very few trees growing and quite a lot of heather on Islay too – but here, seaweed is the largest influence. “It makes up a much bigger part of the rotting vegetation that becomes our peat,” says Miles. 

To demonstrate his point Miles gave us three very different drams that showcase the uniqueness of mainland Scotland, Orkney and Islay peat respectively using their very own floor maltings:

Highland Park Twisted Tattoo 16 Year Old

Every bit of peat burned at Orkney’s Highland Park is sourced from the island’s RSPB-protected Hobbister Moor, resulting in “a very distinctive peat smoke reek” in its whisky, Miles says. “It’s the only whisky in the world that is peated with Orkney peat,” says Miles. “Every expression of Highland Park has this distinctive quality.”

The distillery produces partially-peated whisky – that is, it only peats 20% of the barley it uses; the remaining 80% is unpeated. Being the sister whisky of the Macallan, Highland Park typically ages its whisky in sherry casks. “They’re what give Highland Park a huge amount of its characteristics and flavour,” says Miles. 

This is where Twisted Tattoo deviates from the norm, having spent its first 14 to 15 years of maturation in old bourbon barrels, before being transferred to Rioja casks. “It gives a very different twist to a classic Highland Park,” he continues. “Red berry fruits on the nose; there’s a dryness to this whisky – it doesn’t have that heather honey sweetness we so often associate Highland Park with. 

“It has a lovely warmth to it, and there’s a creaminess to the mouthfeel. That peat note is quite restrained – it usually is with Highland Park anyway – but it’s almost as if the wine cask has smoothed a few more of those notes out of it. [Peat] is one ingredient in the whole recipe here, and not dominant at all in any way.”

Bowmore 15 Year Old

Established in 1779, making it the oldest distillery on Islay, Bowmore produces fully peated whisky. “We peat 20 to 25% of the barley at the distillery ourselves using Islay peat,” says Miles. “The other 75 to 80% comes from the mainland and it peated on the mainland, so that woody influence has more of an impact on the flavour of Bowmore.”

Owing to this heavy mainland peat influence, the distillery’s whiskies aren’t a homage to Islay terroir. “That classic Islay peat reek – medicinal notes, TCP, Iodine – is a result of the seaweed being part of the equation,” says Miles. With Bowmore, because [Islay peat] is only one fifth to a quarter of the peat influence, it’s a background note. It’s a subtlety and a nuance.” As for the briney, salty quality found in Bowmore? It’s a result of its location, he says.

“The distillery is right on the waterfront in the village of Bowmore in Lochindaal,” Miles explains. “Our No.1 vaults, the oldest continuously-working warehouse in a distillery in the world, sits right on the seafront. Of course, not all of our casks and barrels are maturing in there, but a number are. When the wind’s kicking up, the waves are breaking right over the walls of the vault. The air has a briney quality, so with quite a lot of Bowmore you do get a slightly salty note to it.” 

Bowmore 15 is matured for 12 years in bourbon barrels before being transferred to oloroso sherry casks for a further three years. While this approach isn’t unheard of, it’s unusual for the distillery. “Every Bowmore expression is a combination of bourbon barrels and sherry casks, but they mature separately for the whole time period and then get blended together [at the end],” says Miles. 

This process contributes to the unique character of the 15 Year Old, “a glorious expression of what Bowmore can do”, he adds. “It combines the sherry cask richness, the smoke influence, vanilla sweetness from the bourbon barrels – it’s all in there but it’s balanced and held together. It’s not going off like crazy in different directions.”

Laphroaig Lore

The self-confessed love-it-or-hate-it dram of the whisky world, Laphroaig is all about that Islay peat influence. The distillery cold smokes 20 to 25% of its own barley – the remaining 75 to 80% is peated at neighbouring Port Ellen maltings – all using Islay peat. “You do not see a flame in the Laphroaig kiln,” says Miles. “When a flame appears, it’s damped down. That cold smoking process helps to give Laphroaig its very distinctive flavour and aroma.”

When you get past Laphroaig’s initial smokiness, it’s actually quite a delicate whisky in some ways – and this is because of its distillation process. One of its seven stills has a unique size and shape, and this brings a different flavour and quality to the new make distillate. The distillers also take “relatively-speaking, a very late cut”, says Miles. “The peaty smoky flavour in the distillate comes through later on in the distillation process.”

Lore is described by the distillery as ‘the richest expression Laphroaig has ever produced’. Where Laphroaig’s flagship bottlings are very much bourbon barrel-matured, Lore incorporates a variety of casks. “There are sherry butts, sherry hogsheads, puncheons…,” says Miles. “We’re using a much wider range of casks than we would use for anything else, and the sherry cask influence on this is much more noticeable, much stronger than in any other Laphroaig bottling.”

There are also a huge variety of ages in each batch, ranging from six to 23 years old. “Those older casks give us the weight, the gravitas, the dryness, while the younger casks give vibrancy and lightness,” he continues. “On the nose, there’s a very distinctive Laphroaig smokiness but it doesn’t have the bite you’d associate with, say, a 10 Year Old. There’s creaminess first, then you get smoke on the roof of your mouth. You’re almost thinking, ‘where’s the Laphroaig?’ and then bang: there’s the Laphroaig!”

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Westerhall Rum: Grenada’s best-kept secret

Grenada’s Westerhall Estate has produced rum since the late 1700s, but it only ever supplied neighbouring Caribbean islands. That all changed in 2014, when entrepreneurial rum lovers Annabel Kingsman and…

Grenada’s Westerhall Estate has produced rum since the late 1700s, but it only ever supplied neighbouring Caribbean islands. That all changed in 2014, when entrepreneurial rum lovers Annabel Kingsman and her father Nick set out to share the phenomenal liquid they discovered on this laid-back island – dubbed the ‘Spice Isle’ – with the rest of the world. We caught up with Annabel to find out more…

Located between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean on the West Indies archipelago, Grenada is similar in size to the Isle of Wight – and has a population to match, with just 100,000 inhabitants. Thanks to the bountiful nutmeg and mace crops grown there, it’s known as the ‘Spice Isle’. “When you walk off the plane, you just get that hit of spice straight away,” says Annabel Kingsman, co-founder of Westerhall Rum. “It’s in the air. Grenada really is such a fragrant island, so it’s pretty unique.”

St. George’s, the island’s capital. Looks alright

The Westerhall Estate lies in the south eastern corner of Grenada, and has been owned by the Williams & Wells families since the early 1940s. The estate has long been bottling its own rum – indeed, its distilling history dates back to the late 1700s – but its liquid had only ever been enjoyed by locals and a few neighbouring islands. Until the Kingsmans came along, no one at Westerhall Estate had ever considered exporting it elsewhere.

“We used to go to Grenada a lot on holiday as a family, and fell in love with the rum,” says Annabel. “On one trip, we went to the distillery to chat with the owner about getting hold of it in the UK. When they said they don’t ship it anywhere, we thought, ‘We really love it. Maybe other people will too?’ We had zero experience in the drinks industry between us – I was fresh out of university and my dad has a background in construction – but we ordered 50 cases and said, ‘Let’s see what happens’.”

Loving a specific rum so much you start an entire business dedicated to it? That’s dedication folks. We couldn’t approve more. You might be wondering what makes Grenadian rum – specifically Westerhall’s creations – quite so alluring. Is there something in the water? And the answer is: yes, literally. The waters of Grenada are naturally infused with the spices and flavours of the island, and during the blending process, these are filtered into Westerhall’s rums.

Everyone loves Westerhall rum

“They’ve got a lot of nutmeg and mace, real flavours of the island, but they’re very subtle because they come through in the water,” Kingsman explains [referring to the water used to reduce the ABV of the rum before bottling]. “There’s a stream that runs through the estate, where they grow all these spices and limes, and the water picks up all those flavours. It’s all natural spring water, so they’ve got naturally-infused spices.”

When it comes to production, the Kingsmans leave the technical process to the professionals. And by ‘professionals’ we mean ‘the owner’ – who also happens to be the master blender – and his family. At present, each rum recipe is a closely-guarded secret composed of carefully-source distillates from across the Caribbean. However, thanks to a new initiative, these recipes may be about to evolve.

“For the past couple of hundred years, they’ve been sourcing the raw product from various other Caribbean distilleries – finding the best, blending them together, and then using their barrels and water to create this unique product,” Annabel says. “They’ve just started planting sugarcane on the island and so it will soon become a completely Grenadian product from cane to bottle, which is going to be really great.”

Mojito made with Westerhall Rum No. 2

When the Kingsmans first launched the brand with those initial 50 cases, they had mixed results. While the liquid was well received in spirits tastings, the packaging wasn’t quite right. After 18 months of hard work, they re-branded and re-launched the range in late 2016. The master blender and his family liked the new design so much, they rolled it out in Grenada, too. 

Westerhall Rum relaunched with five bottlings in the range: No.2, No.3, No.5, No.7, and No.10, which denote the ages of the liquids within. There are still a few first-release bottles lingering, including the seriously punchy Jack Iron, a 69% ABV overproof rum that scooped up a Master medal at The Spirits Business’ awards. 

By the end of the year, a (deliberately) spiced liquid will join the fresh line up. “We’ve been working on that for a while, but because it’s coming from the Spice Isle, we want it to be absolutely perfect,” she continues. “We’ve been going back and forth trying to get the perfect balance. Hopefully that’ll launch by the end of the year. That’s the plan.”

 

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