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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Annie Hayes

Eight category defying spirit drinks

Established distilleries are increasingly embracing the title in the name of innovation – but what does ‘spirit drink’ actually mean for the liquid within? To answer this question, MoM explores eight…

Established distilleries are increasingly embracing the title in the name of innovation – but what does ‘spirit drink’ actually mean for the liquid within? To answer this question, MoM explores eight bottlings that colour just outside of the lines of traditional category boundaries…

It’s easier to explain spirit drinks by highlighting what they aren’t, rather than list all the potential things they could be. Spirit drinks are alcoholic beverages that fall outside of classic category boundaries. This could be for a number of reasons, i.e. the ABV is too low, the liquid is too young, the category has a geographic indication (which means production is tied to a specific region or country) and so on and so forth. 

Where once this might be seen as a detractor – most regulations are, after all, devised as a commitment to preserving the quality of the spirit – today, experimental producers are using the term as a means to deviate, albeit slightly, from the trappings of a given category. Below, you’ll find eight spirits that err on the side of ambiguity, and are no less delicious for daring to do so.

Martell Blue Swift

The oldest of the big four Cognac houses, Martell, launched Cognac-based spirit drink Blue Swift back in 2018. The bottling, which sees its VSOP Cognac finished in Kentucky Bourbon casks, celebrates the brand’s historic ties with the US – Martell became the first house to ship its barrels to America in 1783. Combine Blue Swift, sugar syrup, Peychaud’s bitters and Pernod Absinthe to make a top notch Sazerac.

Distillerie de Paris Agave Spirit Drink

The first distillery to open in France’s capital city in more than a century, Distillerie de Paris has released more than 90 unique and unorthodox spirits, including this non-Tequila, non-mezcal agave spirit drink, made with agave nectar from Mexico. J’adore. Sip neat, stir into a Tommy’s, or go rogue with an agave twist on a Negroni  – whatever floats your boat.

Bacardi Oakheart Spiced Rum Spirit Drink

Even the most dedicated rum drinker will admit that the category, while compelling, is hardly known for its conservative regulations. And yet, this spiced Bacardi bottling still doesn’t fit the bill. How so? It’s all in the ABV – at 35%, Oakheart isn’t boozy enough to be called rum, but that’s no barrier to a cracking Cuba Libre. Some of the rums within have been matured in ex-bourbon oak casks, giving inviting brown sugar, honey and burnt vanilla notes.

Luxlo

Luxlo Spirit

At first glance, herbaceous Luxlo is a gin in every conceivable way. Juniper-led? Check. Plenty of botanicals? Check. Pairs perfectly with tonic? Check. ABV? Ah, right – at 20%, it’s a lower-alcohol alternative to traditional gin styles. Sub your full-strength favourite for Luxlo in any gin tipple (though you can’t go wrong with a classic G&T).

Absolut Extrakt No.1

Billed as a modern interpretation of traditional Swedish “snaps”, Extrakt sees Absolut’s signature spirit combined with cardamom and a few secret ingredients. Since it’s no longer vodka and lacks the sugar content to be considered an herbal liqueur, it’s eligible for this list.

Ketel One Botanical Peach & Orange

To make this delectable Peach & Orange creation, the team at Ketel One redistilled their signature spirit and infused it with white peaches and orange blossom – bringing vodka and botanicals together in a category-defying 30% ABV bottling. Serve spritz-style in a wine glass, topped with soda water.

Whyte & Mackay Light

While Scotch whisky and sherry has long been a match made in heaven, now Whyte & Mackay has taken the concept one step further with its 21.5% ABV Light bottling, which sees the two blended together before marrying in former sherry casks and bourbon barrels. Enjoy neat, over ice, or stirred into your favourite mixer. Lovely stuff.

Nc’nean Botanical Spirit

Scotland’s first 100% organic distillery Nc’nean redistilled its light, fruity new make with 10 botanicals – including juniper, coriander, sorrel, heather, and bog myrtle – to create, well… Not whisky, not gin, but in our humble opinion something altogether more special. Pair with tonic and a dash of Angostura bitters, then garnish with a slice of grapefruit.

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Five modern twists on traditional spirits

As some pioneering producers peer into the future for creative inspiration, others have chosen to look to the past, revisiting beloved booze categories favoured by previous generations. We look at…

As some pioneering producers peer into the future for creative inspiration, others have chosen to look to the past, revisiting beloved booze categories favoured by previous generations. We look at five traditional spirits bottlings that have been reloaded for the modern palate…

Whether it’s through reviving regional ingredients or resurrecting long-lost production practices, the spirits industry certainly enjoys indulging in a little nostalgia now and then. Perhaps because it’s a visceral display of human ingenuity that allows us to marvel at how strikingly different our world is now – and how far we’ve come since the dawn of distilling. Or, maybe we’re just pretty fascinated by old stuff. Whatever it is, all the innovation going on in the drinks industry has always been underpinned with a sense of reverence for the past.

However, humans are fickle and trends are cyclical, so we’re lucky that a handful of producers have been busy reimagining traditional spirits for our modern drinking preferences. Through them, the likes of absinthe, brandy, genever, and more, have been presented a path to the future. You might scoff at the idea of, say, brandy being a forgotten spirit, but without a little producer ingenuity and inventiveness, such categories are destined to continue their slow retreat from the back bar before they’re inevitably condemned to the history books. Without further adieu, we present five contemporary twists on traditional spirits…

Bobby's Schiedam Jenever

Bobby’s Schiedam Jenever

Another cocktail hero lost in time, genever fell out of favour in the early 20th century when light, bright drinks became the order du jour. It was a blow that gin’s malty cousin never quite recovered from, but fast-forward to today’s cocktail renaissance, and bartenders are slowly rediscovering the unique flavour profile of ye olde ‘Dutch Courage’. Made in the Netherlands, the veritable birthplace of genever, Bobby’s Schiedam Jenever contains a blend of Indonesian spices – including cubeb pepper, lemongrass and cardamom – that have been infused in traditional malt wine. A truly fresh take on a timeless classic that pairs perfectly with tonic.

Bertoux Brandy

Bertoux Brandy

Once the cocktail world’s darling, brandy was forced to retire from the back bar after the phylloxera outbreak devastated vineyards in the late 1800s. Now Bertoux Brandy co-creators Jeff Bell, from New York bar Please Don’t Tell, and Thomas Pastuszak, sommelier at The Nomad trio of hotels, hope to return the spirit to its fabulous former glory. A blend of pot-distilled Californian brandies aged for three to seven years in French and American oak, Bertoux seeks to pave the way for a brand new generation of brandy-based cocktails (and, of course, reinvigorate the classics that made the spirit so beloved in the first place). Sidecar, anyone?

Ballykeefe poitin

Ballykeefe Poitín

It’s taken more than 20 years for distilleries to embrace Ireland’s original ‘illegal’ spirit after the ban was lifted back in 1997, but poitín is making a comeback. Notorious for its potency, today the spirit still carries an ABV of anywhere between 40 and 90% – such is the magic of what was once known as Irish moonshine. The team behind eco-friendly County Kilkenny spirits producer Ballykeefe sought to encapsulate this rebellious essence and repurpose it for a contemporary audience (that’s you and me), and we think they’ve done a rather stunning job. Bottled at a palatable 40% ABV, serve Ballykeefe Poitín long, with plenty of ice and lashings of ginger ale.

Copper & Kings Absinthe

Copper & Kings Absinthe Alembic Blanche

In true Copper & Kings style, the Kentucky-based producer has given the classic Swiss absinthe recipe a delightful American overhaul. Traditional botanicals like wormwood, anis and fennel macerate in Muscat low wine for around 18 hours before undergoing a double distillation in alembic copper pot stills and bottled at a reasonable 65% ABV (no green fairies to be found here, thanks). The resulting liquid makes a cracking Absinthe Julep – all you need is crushed ice, simple syrup and mint. The team has also created an barrel-aged iteration, pictured above, that has been lovingly matured in ex-wine and ex-brandy casks.

Avallen Calvados

Avallen Calvados

Made in Normandy according to some rather strict regulations, brandy’s hipster cousin, Calvados, is also enjoying a revival. Sharing a passion for traditional spirits and sustainable products, Avallen co-founders Tim Etherington-Judge and Stephanie Jordan sought to create the most eco-friendly spirit they could. Described as fresh, fruity and apple-forward, the resulting bottling, made at Domaine du Coquerel, has injected new life into the languishing category. Try pairing with tonic and plenty of ice or alternatively get super-creative with a Calvados Sour.

 

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New Arrival of the Week: Teeling Single Pot Still

Our New Arrival of the Week, Teeling Single Pot Still, is one for the history books – the first Dublin-distilled whiskey to come out of the city in nearly 50…

Our New Arrival of the Week, Teeling Single Pot Still, is one for the history books – the first Dublin-distilled whiskey to come out of the city in nearly 50 years (and be on sale in the UK).

Whiskey lovers and dram fans, we invite you to cast your mind back to October 2018. All being said, it was a pretty memorable month. Banksy shredded his £1 million artwork at auction in front of hundreds of onlookers, astronomers discovered the first moon outside of our solar system, and the world’s oldest intact shipwreck was found at the bottom of the Black sea. 

But far more memorable for us (sorry, ancient shipwreck) were the moves made within the drinks sphere. In Ireland, the Teeling Whiskey Distillery released its very first commercial whiskey, Teeling Single Pot Still. Being the first Dublin-distilled dram to hit shelves for almost 50 years, it marked the beginning of a bright new chapter for the city, which was, at one time, at the forefront of the golden era for Irish whiskey.

Now one of Dublin’s top visitor attractions, the magnificent Teeling Distillery!

The very first bottle from Batch One made history the month prior, when it sold for a whopping £10,000 at auction, breaking a world record for the most expensive bottle of whiskey sold from a new distillery, with the proceeds donated to local charities. Last year, the arrival of Teeling Single Pot Still – released in three batches – was a landmark occasion for Ireland’s whiskey industry. Now it’s a landmark occasion for the UK, as the final resulting liquid reaches our shores for the very first time. 

In homage to Dublin’s historic distillers, Teeling Single Pot Still is made from a traditional mash bill of 50% unmalted barley and 50% malted barley. The heritage, however, ends there. “We dialled up the innovation by making a fruit-forward distillate – the wash going into the stills is quite fruity because we use our own bespoke yeast,” explains Stephen Teeling, co-founder of Teeling Whiskey Distillery. The new-make has then been matured “50% in ex first-fill bourbon casks, 25% in virgin American oak, and the last 25% in sherry casks.”

The next step, he continues, is to make a case for single pot still as a modern Irish whiskey category. “Our Single Pot Still isn’t trying to be a Redbreast imitation,” Teeling says. “It’s a Dublin Pot Still whiskey for our generation – something we feel reflects the DNA of Teeling Whiskey. “Because [Redbreast] has been the only real Single Pot Still out there, because nobody’s been challenging it, everyone just expects a Redbreast 2.0. We wanted to do something different.”

Teeling Single Pot Still whiskey is here

So, what can you expect flavour-wise from Pot Still liquid? Robust, spicy flavours akin to a rye whiskey, Teeling says – away from the mellow, sweet, easy-drinking flavours Irish whiskey is synonymous with. “That’s what Pot Still is all about, it’s a big spice ball,” he explains, “when you taste it side-by-side with [Teeling Single Grain] or [Teeling Small Batch], it is very different, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”

You’d forgive the team for resting on their laurels in the wake of such a momentous launch, but it isn’t the Teeling way. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to be five years making whiskey in January’, and I thought, ‘Wow’ – just looking back on it, so much has happened, it’s all a bit fast and furious,” he says. “We’ve got a good bit of momentum behind our premium and super-premium products – our 24 Year Old won World’s Best Single Malt in March, which was a great accolade. This year we had a pretty ambitious target to sell a million bottles globally, and we look on track to do that.”

Over the last five years Teeling Whiskey has welcomed half a million people through its distillery doors, a number that will surely rise year-on-year after the Irish government awarded the site a €200,000 grant to further develop its existing facilities. “We’re always looking at ways we can bring things to life in the distillery,” explains Teeling, who will use the funds to introduce a warehousing experience to the Liberties-based site this coming winter – giving visitors the opportunity to get to grips with the ageing process through cask sampling and live maturation.

When it comes to liquid plans, a few single malt projects – including a certain peated number – are in the pipeline. A follow-up to The Revival series, aptly titled The Renaissance, will hit shelves, beginning with an 18-year-old single malt finished in a former Madeira cask. All being said, 2020 looks set to be a sterling year for both Teeling Whiskey and the wider Irish whiskey category. “We’re at the stage where we have our own whiskey, we have a pipeline of innovations, and we’ve very, very good partners,” Teeling says, “we’re excited to keep pushing the bar up and driving things forward.”

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Five minutes with… Alex Wolpert, founder of East London Liquor Company  

East London Liquor Company has graced our shelves with a trifecta of fascinating new whisky releases, including the distillery’s very first single malt – cause for celebration if ever we’ve…

East London Liquor Company has graced our shelves with a trifecta of fascinating new whisky releases, including the distillery’s very first single malt – cause for celebration if ever we’ve heard one. As we blow up the balloons and scatter the confetti, founder Alex Wolpert talks us through the tasty trio…

Those already familiar with East London Liquor Company’s spirits-making philosophy will know they don’t do things by halves. These are the people who, when presented with the opportunity to release the city’s first distilled whisky in more than 100 years, released a London rye made in a combination of pot and column stills and matured in three different cask types. Whether it’s ageing gin in Moscatel casks or distilling 100% English-grown Chardonnay brandy, we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Wolpert and his team.

The east London-based distillery has just launched three new whiskies, each as compelling as the last. The first, East London Single Malt Whisky, is double pot-distilled and matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and rye casks from California’s Sonoma Distilling Company and ex-bourbon casks from Kentucky for a minimum of three years. Bottled at 47% ABV, given tasting notes include ‘peanut butter, bitter almond and biscuits, developing into a vegetal finish of green tomatoes and light tar, with a delicate and slightly oily mouthfeel’. 

Alex Wolpert looking happy in his distillery, and with good reason

There’s also a fresh batch of London Rye, matured first for a year in virgin oak before being rested in ex-Sonoma and Kentucky Bourbon casks for two years, with six months’ maturation in an ex-peated cask before it was finished in ex-Pedro Ximénez. Another 47% beauty, this bottling boasts ‘a big, umami hit of leather, peat, bouillon, porridge and peanut butter on the palate, with a chewy mouthfeel, wrapping up with notes of candied ginger and light tar to finish’. 

The third and final release goes by the name of ELx Sonoma, a blended whisky made in collaboration with Sonoma’s owner and whisky maker Adam Spiegel. Bottled at 45.5% ABV, the liquid contains London Rye whiskies aged in a variety of casks (including ex-peated, Pedro Ximénez and oloroso casks, as well as ELLC’s own barrel-aged gin barrels) along with Spiegel’s own blend of Sonoma bourbons. Here, spice and fruit lead on the palate, with notes of black peppercorn, dried apricots, candied cherries, corn silk and oatmeal.

Thirsty for more details, we called ELLC’s Wolpert for a chinwag. Here’s what he had to say…

Master of Malt: You’ve just released three brand new expressions, including your very first single malt whisky. Talk us through that project…

Alex Wolpert: From our point of view, it’s always been about experimentation – we never set out specifically to make single malt. Our London Rye last year was about, ‘how can we celebrate rye as a grain? How can we get that into a whisky that showcases us as a distillery? How do we find our character as a whisky producer?’. And at the same time we were – and are still – experimenting with single malt, so Andy Mooney, who is responsible for our whisky production, has really taken this approach to its limits. You’ve got extra pale malted barley, double pot distilled and matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and rye casks. We talk about it being a balance between nutty bitterness, a sweet, fragrant note, and then a vegetalness which really makes it incredibly moreish. It’s really special. But obviously I’m completely biased. 

The three new whiskies. We can’t wait (but we’ll have to because they’re not here yet)

MoM: It’s been a year since you launched London Rye. How was it received by drinks aficionados? What do the barrel finishes in the new bottling bring to the spirit?

AW: It went better than we could ever have dreamt. We allocated a couple of bottles to 40 of our key accounts, I hand-delivered the London accounts on the Friday and by the Monday most of them were out. It was really rewarding to see that not only were people prepared to take the juice and try it, but actually people came to the venues, asked for it by name and it sold. The whole production team were really very happy and it gave everyone a big spring in their step in terms of how we progress and what we work on. The new bottling feels like a development of what we did last year and it’s really tasty – that peated note adds to the fruity flavours of the Pedro Ximénez in such an incredible way.

MoM: You guys have collaborated with Sonoma Distilling Company in the past – could you talk about your relationship with them and the creative process behind ELx Sonoma?

AW: We’ve been importing Adam’s rye, bourbon and wheated whiskey for almost four years now. I never set out to have an import arm, I guess it was driven by finding amazing liquid, and his stuff is truly exceptional. Earlier this year I was out in California, I guess I had a bit of our liquid with me, he had a little bit of his and we just thought, why not see what might happen? In the end we made a few different samples, developing it and having conversations about ABV and blending. To end up with a liquid on this level was slightly unexpected, it’s amazing. What I love is that it proves we’re in pursuit of great liquid. If Adam’s high-rye bourbon adds something to what we’re doing, then why shouldn’t we bring them together? There’s a danger in any category that people have tunnel-vision, so it’s lovely to break that up and say, ‘We want to elevate rye – what better way to do that than to work with other great rye producers?’. Plus, Adam’s a lovely guy and we get along well, so any excuse to sit down with him and drink whisky is always gratefully received.

East London Liquor Company founder, Alex Wolpert, with distillery team

Team East London Liquor Company with founder Alex Wolpert second from right

MoM: When you first opened the distillery, your aim was to “produce spirits that are accessible in flavour and price, while being of the highest quality”. So far, are you happy that you’ve achieved what you set out to do?

AW: Absolutely, yes. Nothing leaves the building without us collectively saying, ‘This is really good’.  And for every new release, there’s so much in the background that isn’t ready or doesn’t quite work. So much work goes into finessing every release and making sure it’s of that standard. At the same time, sometimes you have these moments of panic where you think you’re in a big echo chamber – you release something, like our Grape Scott, where you think, ‘Will people like this? Does this work?’. And then you get great feedback and it acts as a sense check. So I’m really excited to hear what people think about these whiskies. Democratising good booze is always going to be at the forefront of what we do, it really informs how we develop and grow as a business, so that’s always going to be what we come back to.

MoM: ELLC’s momentum is super inspiring – what’s the distillery’s next goal?

AW: I feel immensely privileged, we’ve come so far and the team is a real testament to that. We’ve got such an incredible team who make it happen – without amazing product, we’re nothing. I guess our next goal is getting more whisky out and growing our gin footprint. We don’t call ourselves craft, but in an environment where ‘craft’ is perceived as justifying a £35 price tag for a bottle of gin, we want to get more of our £21.50 gin into people’s cupboards so they realise that price tag doesn’t equate to quality. We’re not shy about experimenting, so there will be some new releases on the horizon. It might be a bit unfair to say that without saying what will come, but when we think they’re ready, they’ll get airtime. We’re not standing still, and we’re not shy of pushing the envelope and developing what we do. 

These fabulous whiskies should be arriving at the end of October, keep an eye on our new arrivals page.

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Not whisky, not gin – an introduction to Nc’nean Aged Botanical Spirit

If you want to know what the future holds for Scotch whisky, look no further than Highlands distiller Nc’nean. We sat down with Annabel Thomas to chat about her latest…

If you want to know what the future holds for Scotch whisky, look no further than Highlands distiller Nc’nean. We sat down with Annabel Thomas to chat about her latest creation – a trio of cocktail-inspired aged botanical spirits – and unearth the story behind Scotland’s first 100% organic distillery…

“My mission when we founded Nc’nean* was twofold,” Thomas says, addressing the room at the distillery’s Aged Botanical Spirits launch. “One was around sustainability: to create a Scotch distillery that pioneered the very highest environmental standards to show what could be done in that area. The second was to bring some fresh thinking to the Scotch whisky industry, both in terms of the products we create and also the way we communicate and behave.”

The distillery was established in 2013 on the Morvern peninsula, after a life-changing trip to Islay prompted Thomas to take action. “There are lots of distilleries in a small space so it’s easy to do a quick recce,” she explains, “after a few tours, a theme emerged: we’re doing things the traditional way – the way they’ve always been done. I have no problem with that, tradition is the rock upon which Scotch as an industry has been built, but we also have to move with the times.”

Inside the Ncn’ean, sorry Nc’nean, Distillery

Building a distillery from the ground up meant the entire site could be engineered for sustainable production, from the biomass boilers that generate renewable energy to the waste products that feed local cows and fertilise the nearby land. That’s not to say it’s been a walk in the park. Far from it. “Getting a 40-ft by 60ft biomass boiler – that’s like two shipping containers stacked on top of each other – down a narrow single track road with bridges that go around corners, taking it off the lorry, and getting it into a barn, was one of the challenges,” she says.

Then there was the small matter of buying, processing and distilling organic barley. “We were told horror stories when we were thinking about doing it – that it would be hard to find or impossible to work with and give us terribly low yields, but it’s been absolutely fine,” Thomas says. “There are 10 organic malting barley farmers in Scotland and all of their harvest is collected together and malted for us by Muntons. They send us five tonnes a week.”

In 2018, Nc’nean released its inaugural Botanical Spirit, which sees its light, fruity new make redistilled with 10 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, sorrel, heather, and bog myrtle. The three new aged iterations that recently followed – which sees the liquid matured in bourbon, vermouth and Mondino casks – came about quite by chance. 

“I was chatting to a bartender in London about our Botanical Spirit, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about ageing it,” Thomas explains. “And the answer was no. Despite the fact we’ve got over 1,000 casks of whisky maturing in the warehouse, it hadn’t actually occurred to us. We had a little bit left over from the last batch that hadn’t yet been bottled, so we took one of the bourbon casks that we normally mature our whisky in, filled it with Botanical Spirit, and left it for four months to see what would happen.” 

The aged botanical spirits in all their glory

The resulting liquid was so delicious, they decided to experiment further using different casks. “That was where the cocktail link came in,” she continues, “we were trying to decide what barrels to start with and the cocktails that we like drinking the Botanical Spirit in seemed like a good place to start. Mondino, a German organic bitter liqueur, is a favourite pairing of ours, and they happen to do an aged variety so they had some casks. The Botanical Spirit also makes an amazing Martini, so we got a vermouth barrel. Each barrel brings out different aspects of the spirit, it’s quite fascinating to see.”

You’d forgive the team for resting on their laurels, but these products mark the beginning of what promises to be an exciting chapter for Nc’nean and also Scotch whisky. “We’ll have our first whisky out in June, so we are working very hard on that: designing the bottle, creating the recipe, all those things,” Thomas says. “It’s very exciting after what will have been seven years of work. We have some other ideas up our sleeves too, other products based on our new make. But they’re not very far progressed at the moment – just a twinkle in the eye.” 

*A little note – Nc’nean is the correct spelling, it was previously ‘Ncn’ean’ but apparently everyone found it too hard to pronounce, so the apostrophe has moved. If that’s still no help to you, it’s pronounced something like ‘nuck-nee-an.’

 

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New Arrival(s) of the Week: That Boutique-y Whisky Company X Balcones Distilling

This week, we’re tempting you with not one but three (soon to be four) extraordinary bottlings from Texas’ trailblazing Balcones Distilling, released in collaboration with our good friends at That…

This week, we’re tempting you with not one but three (soon to be four) extraordinary bottlings from Texas’ trailblazing Balcones Distilling, released in collaboration with our good friends at That Boutique-y Whisky Company. You’ll want to taste them to believe them, but until then, we’ve captured their essence in four words: upside-down cask maturation…

Hello, curious whisky drinker. We thought the words ‘upside-down cask maturation’ might just lure you in. Those clever folks at That Boutique-y Whisky Company are back at it again – and by ‘it’, we mean bottling the contents of compelling, rare, and/or downright bizarre casks from across the globe, this time from the Lone Star state: Texas. 

Now, the team behind Balcones Distilling aren’t shy about “testing the waters of what’s possible”, as head distiller Jared Himstedt so eloquently puts it. They’re the creators of the first Texan whisky since Prohibition, the pioneers of blue corn whisky, and the only distillers bold enough to create a smoky whisky by smoking the distillate, rather than the grain. If they can’t find a space for these barrels in their existing range, the contents must be – and we mean this as the highest possible compliment – extraordinarily weird.

Of the four Boutique-y releases, three are single malts made from Golden Promise malted barley from Scotland – aged for various timescales in Tequila, oloroso sherry, and Balcones’ own Brimstone casks – while the final spirit is made from blue corn and finished in Pedro Ximénez barrels. Each one spent more time in the finishing cask than it did in the original – hence ‘upside-down cask maturation’.

“We haven’t really released anything like these on our own,” says Winston Edwards, brand ambassador at Balcones Distilling. “We haven’t done a Tequila cask single malt at the distillery, we haven’t done a Brimstone cask at the distillery – we have done a sherry release, but not with our blue corn spirit. They’re unique to Boutique-y.”

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

 

Balcones 3 Year Old Batch 2 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

Well, well, well, what have we here? A Tequila cask-aged Texan single malt whisky; bold and vegetal, with a glorious dried fruit sweetness. “I don’t know what distillery this Tequila cask came from,” says Himstedt. “[Cask] Brokers can be weird – sometimes they don’t want you to know because then you can just start calling the distilleries and bodegas on your own. 

The team has always used Tequila casks, right from the beginning, in the mix for Baby Blue Corn Whisky, he continues. “We’d buy all the Tequila casks that were about to break down and they would make them into smaller barrels for us – they’d get shaved and re-charred and all that. I wanted to see what big Tequila casks would do for Baby, and when we got our first truckload in, we probably had 14 or 15 different isolated spirits recipes, so we threw everything in one – just to see.”

After 12 months ageing in a virgin French oak barrel, the single malt was scooted across to the ex-Tequila barrel, where it remained for 37 months. “I don’t know what you call it when you reverse the process,” says Himstedt. “We didn’t ‘finish’ it – we started it in one barrel and then it really matured in another.”

Balcones 2 Year Old Batch 1 (That Boutique-y Malt Company)

The more astute among you might’ve noticed something unusual. That Boutique-y Malt Company? Eh? “We’re not allowed to call it whisky in the UK if it’s under three years old,” Dave Worthington, global brand ambassador at That Boutique-y Whisky Company explains. “This is just two years old, so we’ve put a little flag over the whisky logo and renamed it ‘That Boutique-y Malt Company’.” 

After 14 and a half months ageing in an ex-bourbon barrel, this single malt was switched to a Balcones Brimstone cask for a further 16 and a half months’ ageing. The name Brimstone refers to a corn whisky of the same name, which is smoked using scrub oak. “It’s actually not a different species of oak, but in Texas where it’s really dry the tree grows twisted, almost like a Bonsai version of what an oak tree would be,” Edwards explains. “It’s so dense, we’re talking about something that has spent 60 to 80 years just to grow four feet tall, so lot of the compounds and aromas are really concentrated.” Think: smoky bacon and campfire deliciousness.

Balcones 2 Year Old Batch 2 (That Boutique-y Malt Company) 

The third single malt – again, bottled as a malt spirit rather than a whisky – spent 11 months in ex-bourbon casks before maturing for a further 14 months in an oloroso sherry cask, with all the rich plum fruit and mouthwatering spicy treacle you’d expect. Fun fact: This will be the joint-third Balcones release that has spent time in a sherry cask – the other two being the distillery’s 10th anniversary single malt and a dark rum finished in a Pedro Ximénez cask. *Italian chefs kiss* 

We say joint third, because soon (quite how soon is still under wraps) there will be another spirit joining this experimental line-up: a 100% blue corn spirit finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. If your whistle has been thoroughly wetted, you’ll need to get a move on – a very limited number of bottles are available, priced at £69.95 per 500ml bottle. Hey, we told you they were extraordinary. 

 

 

 

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A lesson in blended whiskey at London’s smallest Irish pub

If there are two things Ireland is exceptional at, it’s whiskey and hospitality. And when it comes to combining the two, nowhere on earth does it better. We squeezed into…

If there are two things Ireland is exceptional at, it’s whiskey and hospitality. And when it comes to combining the two, nowhere on earth does it better. We squeezed into London’s smallest Irish pub, tucked away in Islington-based neighbourhood bar Homeboy, where co-owner Aaron Wall gave us a masterclass on the Emerald Isle’s greatest exports…

You really, really ought to see it for yourself. With seating for just eight, Hop House 13 on tap, and its very own miniature snug, London’s smallest Irish pub is every bit as magical as it sounds. You’ll find it nestled in the back of Homeboy in Islington, which opened its doors back in December 2018 with one overarching mission: to become the home of modern Irish hospitality in London.

But Dublin-born co-owner Wall – who the bar is named after; his passion for his home country earning him the nickname ‘homeboy’ – has another, more ambitious mission up his sleeve. And to achieve it, he’s taking a fresh approach to the category. An approach that involves whiskey highballs.

“We want to make Irish whiskey exciting and fun, and for me, that starts with the blended Irish whiskey category,” he says. “There’s so much diversity there, the sky really is the limit. Irish whiskey was once the top-selling spirit in the world, and if it’s shown in the right light, marketed right, and brought to people’s attention in the right way, then it can be again.”

Homeboy

Homeboys Ciarán Smith and Aaron Wall

Homeboy’s new Irish Whiskey masterclass series brings the two together: combining convivial hospitality together with Wall’s enthusiasm for and extensive knowledge about the wider Irish whiskey category. After a welcome Guinness in the main bar, we’re led to the pub for a preview of the blended masterclass, which begins – from a historical perspective – pre-temperance, accompanied with a welcome tot of Tullamore D.E.W.

“Me and my business partner opened the bar up with the change in our pocket, and we couldn’t have all the whiskey we wanted at first – we could only have the whiskey that we could afford,” explains Wall. Much of that, he says, was blended Irish whiskey. “Having that conversation was fantastic, it gave a great foundation for where Irish whiskey is now and how it can build, in particular where these flavour profiles sit when it comes to cocktails.

“There are a million and one gins out these days – we decided when we opened the bar that we’d stock six and we’ve got 17 at the moment – but when I sit down with [brand owners] and say ‘tell me about your product, tell me why it’s better [in a cocktail] than another gin’, a lot of people don’t really know where to go with that conversation.”

Homeboy

Homeboy, London’s smallest Irish pub

Wall, who has tended the bar for years at London stalwarts London Cocktail Club and Callooh Callay, decided to take that approach with his Irish whiskey offering – exploring how each flavours pair with other ingredients and cocktails. Tullamore D.E.W., he says, suits drinks that might usually contain a medium-aged rum. “Drinks that can handle robust flavours, even down to coconut and pineapple, Coca-Cola. It doesn’t overpower the drink, it doesn’t cut through everything else, but isn’t overshadowed by it either.”

This attention to detail is reflected across the entire menu. Even Irish cocktail classics have been given a carefully-considered reboot. “People think your Irish coffee is such a basic drink, and it is at its essence, but it can be messed up so easily,” says Wall. “If you use espresso or instant coffee, or really good craft coffee in a drip coffee machine, the whiskey just cuts through.” Instead, the team combines commercially roasted coffee with Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey – “because it’s a bit punchier” – and a Demerara syrup, “which has all these biscuity notes and gives a lot of richness and body”.

To inject the fruiter flavours found in coffee from craft roasters, the team created their own Irish coffee bitters “made with a neutral grain spirit from the Teeling Distillery,” says Wall, “loads of spices, cacao, star anise but also orange peel, lemon peel, to give it a little bit of brightness”. The cream on top, he says, is whipped in very minimal batches. “Irish coffee shouldn’t be about eating through the cream to get to the coffee – it should be sipped through, like you would a pint of Guinness, I suppose. Good Guinness is like good coffee.”

Homeboy

The bar is home to rebooted classic Irish cocktails

You won’t find many stirred-down drinks on the menu at Homeboy. “Whiskey doesn’t get too many of those light, crisp drinks,” says Wall, who points to a drink on the menu called Emerald Collins. “We use Slaine Irish Whiskey because that Sherry cask finish brings out that sweetness from the American virgin oak casks, a little bit of Cynar to give it a bit of earthiness, a little bit of St Germain for floralness, lemon, a touch of sugar, and then it’s topped with soda,” he explains. “It’s just a great-tasting highball – Irish whiskey can live in so many different spaces.”

As we ricocheted through the past, present and future of Irish whiskey, it soon becomes clear why Wall’s industry peers have nicknamed him “the Irish ambassador”. The man is Irish hospitality in human form. He knows more about Irish whiskey than we could ever hope to know. And, perhaps more importantly, he’s excellent at sharing his expertise. As we depart, we’re handed an envelope containing, among other things, two teabags. They’re Barry’s, an Irish brand, he explains.

“About a year and a half ago I was back in Dublin, and myself and my father went out for a few pints,” says Wall. “In Ireland, when you get back from a night out, it’s more likely the kettle goes on than a bottle of whisky comes out, so we stayed up and had a couple of cups of tea. It was amazing to have that time with my dad and I wanted to give that opportunity to our guests, so we always give two teabags with every bill, so when you get home you can have a cup of tea and talk about the night you had. For me that night was special, he gave me the encouragement to [open Homeboy] and ended up coming over and helping us build the bar, so it’s been a massive journey.”

Homeboy

A fab Irish whiskey masterclass awaits!

The next Irish whiskey masterclasses will take place at Homeboy on 15 and 16 October and 12 and 13 November. For more information, visit the website.

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The relationship between booze and brews

A great cup of coffee is a beautiful thing, and it has far more in common with your favourite tipple than you might think. Ahead of World Coffee Day on…

A great cup of coffee is a beautiful thing, and it has far more in common with your favourite tipple than you might think. Ahead of World Coffee Day on 1 October, we look at the parallels between roaster, distiller, bartender and barista with some of London’s top coffee producers.

The worlds of coffee and alcohol collide now more than ever, as multinational coffee companies like Starbucks and Costa marry booze and beans in select stores. Meanwhile, the Espresso Martini has settled into bar menus as a modern classic cocktail. Whether it’s beans or booze, most of us are willing to shell out a little extra cash on quality liquid – in return for information about when, where, and how it was made. Transparency is key for coffee aficionados, who covet ‘single source’ or ‘single origin’ beans.

“When you come into our cafe and buy a drink or buy some beans, each coffee will state the country, the region and the specific farm it’s from,” explains Kane Statton, head roaster at Nude Coffee Roasters. “It’ll also have the farmers’ name, the altitude the coffee is grown at, the specific variety of arabica; there are three or four thousand varieties. It’s very, very detailed and very, very transparent.”

Various influences dictate the final flavour profile of a given coffee on its journey from farm to cup. “Broadly speaking, coffee is like wine,” explains Simon Humes, quality Control and production manager at Origin Coffee Roasters, “the variety of the plant, the terroir of where it is grown, how it is processed, and subsequently roasted all have an impact on the coffee’s flavour profile.”

coffee

Nude Coffee Roasters, one of London’s top coffee producers

Certain flavours are typically associated with certain regions, he continues, and botany has a role to play, too. Blackcurrant, for example, is commonly linked with Kenyan coffee; the Caturra varietal is associated with citrus flavours. “The combined impacts of geography and variety lead to a vast array of flavour notes, and is ever-expanding as industry leaders are continuously discovering or creating new profiles to explore.”

Once harvested, the coffee cherries (yes, cherries) are processed to reach the seeds within. There are several methods, each of which is pivotal to the final flavour of the cup. “A coffee that has been subjected to the ‘washed process’ – where water is used to dissolve the fruity layer surrounding the seeds – will have a lighter, more delicate, more acidic profile than a coffee that has been ‘naturally processed’ – where the coffee is essentially picked and left to dry in the sun,” explains Humes.

How the coffee is roasted – light, medium or dark – also affects the flavour. “As roastery, we roast everything pretty light, because we’re trying to showcase the natural terroir of the coffee,” explains Statton. “Whereas traditionally in Italy you might aim for a really robust, strong, sweet but bitter flavour, and that’s from roasting the coffee for a longer time and exposing it to higher temperatures.”

coffee

These little beauties are coffee cherries. Yes, you read that right.

Then, finally, there’s the skill of the barista. “There is a number of brew methods available in coffee shops today and each has their own tendencies,” says Humes. “A good barista will have the ability to manipulate each method for pleasing results, reacting the coffee’s inherent flavour profile which is an accumulation of the efforts at each step of the journey from farm to cafe.”

There are huge similarities in the ways bartenders approach cocktails and baristas approach beverages, not just on a day-to-day basis but also in terms of career aspirations. Global competitions provide a platform for the world’s best baristas to get technical across all aspects of coffee service, Humes says, from brewing to drink presentation and tasting. “The competition scene is more rigorous and professional than ever, with dedicated competitors investing many hours and a lot of money into their routines,” he says.

Take the following excerpt from a London coffee contest, which sounds almost entirely like a cocktail competition brief: ‘Judged by a panel of industry figureheads, the fast-paced knockout battle format of Coffee Masters saw 16 baristas showcase their skills head-to-head across a broad range of disciplines. With a prize of £5,000 on the bar and the prestigious title of Coffee Master, the stakes are high’. There are usually three main challenges, explains Statton: an espresso course, a milk course, and then a signature beverage made against the clock.

coffee

Innovation is occurring across the globe, something coffee shares with craft distilling

“They’re normally cooking on the stage, matching their espresso with certain ingredients too,” he continues. “So if it tastes like chocolate, caramel and blackcurrant you might see someone making a compote or a syrup with those ingredients.” Using technical kitchen kit, for example – a sous-vide – baristas conjure “the sort of theatre that you might see in a Heston Blumenthal restaurant,” he continues. “They’re partly inspired by cocktails, partly inspired by Michelin-starred chefs.”

As in craft distilling, innovation is commonplace among speciality coffee producers. Over the past two years, Origin has pioneered a ‘frozen natural process’ with Carlos Pola, a producer from El Salvador, “whereby the coffee cherries are frozen as they are removed from the trees,” Humes explains, an idea that stemmed from ice wine. Some are even barrel-ageing their beans in former wine casks – ageing is a divisive topic within the coffee industry. “Some businesses are investing in it as a prestige product, however, it is also true that the flavour notes produced by the ageing process are systematically regarded as negative in the grading of coffee,” he says.

Others are trialling unique fermentations, inspired in part by the wine industry, says Statton. “They might add brewer’s yeast or wine yeast or ferment the coffee using an anaerobic fermentation, or they might use carbonic maceration, which is a technique taken from Beaujolais wine in France,” he explains, which results in fruitier and more complex flavours. “Let’s say we’re in El Salvador, and our coffee usually tastes slightly chocolatey – with a carbonic maceration you can get flavours like blackcurrant, mango, and orange. People are really experimenting with processing and fermentation to try and affect the final flavour, or at least have more control over it.”

coffee

There’s more parallels between booze and brews than you might imagine

Next time you sip your morning pick-me-up, take a moment to consider the similarities it shares with your favourite dram – both are rich, complex liquids with myriad stories to tell.

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Five eco-friendly distilleries

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car…

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car journey), according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. The second part of environmental series this week, we shine a light on five eco-friendly distilleries that take sustainability seriously…

Distilling is an art. It’s an expression of nature, creating complex flavour patterns – from delicate floral to powerful smoke – using little more than some combination of raw ingredients, yeast, water and occasionally wood. And yet, despite being au naturel in spirit, the production chain is liable to wreak havoc on mother nature. Generally speaking, the higher the ABV, the higher a product’s carbon footprint.

There’s the environmental impact of farming the base ingredient, be it sugarcane, grain, agave, grapes, or potatoes. This includes fertilising, watering, harvesting, processing and transporting the crops, as well as the impact on local wildlife and biodiversity. Distilling, as you’ll know, requires lots of energy (and creates plenty of waste) as does bottling, packaging and storing the resulting booze. Then, that precious liquid is freighted by air and sea across the globe – usually heavy glass bottles wrapped in plastic and cardboard boxes – for our drinking pleasure. Yikes.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. From multinational companies to fledgling distillers, spirits producers of all sizes are busy taking steps towards a greener future. Looking across renewable energy, water use, philanthropy and more, we’ve highlighted five spirits distilleries that are going above and beyond to make sure their craft is kinder on the planet without compromising on taste. That’s the spirit.

The absolutely lovely Absolut distillery in Sweden

The Absolut Company, Sweden

One of the most sustainable spirits-makers in the world, Absolut Vodka’s Åhus-based site only uses green energy generated by hydro power, and its entire distillation process is carbon neutral. The Absolut Company works with local farmers to ensure minimal amounts of fertilizers and pesticides and little-to-no irrigation. Wheat stillage, a byproduct of production, is sold to local farmers and feeds 250,000 pigs and 40,000 cows a day. The site aims to be entirely zero-emissions, zero-waste and 100% recycling by 2040.

Belgrove Distillery, Tasmania

Not only is Belgrove Australia’s first dedicated rye whisky distillery, it’s also home to the only biodiesel-powered still in the world (a type of biodegradable fuel made from waste cooking oil – in this case, sourced from a local chip fryer). Owner Peter Bignell grows his own grain, ferments, distills and barrel ages on-site. A reclaimed laundromat tumble dryer is used for malting and spent mash is fed to his sheep (apparently he’s thinking of using sheep dung instead of peat in the malting process – watch this space). The water used to cool his still is sourced from an on-site dam, while any waste water is either recycled or used for irrigation.

Square One Organic Spirits, US

From wind-powered energy to carbon-neutral labels, every aspect of Square One’s Wyoming-based distilling operation is organic and eco-friendly. Founded in 2006 by environmentalist Allison Evanow, each of its various spirits is made from 100% organic American-grown rye and water from the Teton Mountains, with no GMO yeasts, chemical additives or synthetic de-foaming agents used in the production process. Not only are the bottle labels paper-free – made with bamboo, sugarcane and cotton – but the ink is soy-based too.

Jimador harvesting agave for the Patron distillery

Patrón Tequila, Mexico

Hacienda Patrón is big on sustainability, being the first distillery to use a natural gas pipeline as its proprietary energy source in a bid to reduce its carbon emissions. The Jalisco-based site uses a reverse osmosis water treatment to recycle 70% of the stillage from the distilling process – used in its cooling towers and for cleaning – and creates more than 5,500 tons of compost every year in agave fibres, which it donates to fertilise agave fields and green spaces in the surrounding community. Oh, and since 2015, the distillery has reforested around 16,000 trees.

Greensand Ridge Distillery, UK

The UK’s first carbon neutral distillery, Greensand Ridge, works with local farmers to transform surplus produce rejected by supermarkets into delicious rums, gins and fruit brandies. They’re big on ‘reuse or recycle’ – the team’s total non-recyclable waste output is one bag every six to eight weeks, a remarkable feat – and pride themselves on using non-biodegradable chemicals. Any plastics used are plant-based. From heat recovery systems to chemical-free production, environmental savviness is a top priority. And they make some cracking spirits, too.

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Drinks industry eco-myths

This week, we’re looking at environmentalism in the drinks industry. We all want to do more to take care of the planet, but when it comes to imbibing, certain ‘green’…

This week, we’re looking at environmentalism in the drinks industry. We all want to do more to take care of the planet, but when it comes to imbibing, certain ‘green’ solutions are in danger of causing more harm than good. We talk greenwashing with award-winning bar owner Ryan Chetiyawardana – whose low-waste, ingredient-centric ethos can be felt across the entire drinks industry – and attempt to sort sustainability fact from fiction…

The booze world may not have a reputation as the greenest of industries, but over the course of the last decade bars and brands have made some serious in-roads in containing their carbon footprint. Ever since Ryan Chetiyawardana flung open the doors to his former London haunt White Lyan, with its strict ‘no perishables’ policy, the cocktail scene has been awash with environmental initiatives, from foraged botanicals to closed-loop drinks.

And not without good reason. Countries and communities across the globe are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, be it through droughts, floods, or more intense and frequent natural disasters, with the poorest and most vulnerable being hit the hardest, according to the World Bank Group, a cooperative made up of 189 member countries. The stakes are high. Climate change could push more than 100 million additional people into poverty by 2030, it says, so keeping global temperatures below 2°C requires coordinated action at an unprecedented scale and speed. 

Ryan Chetiyawardana aka Mr Lyan

In the face of an ecological disaster, doing something is (usually) always better than doing nothing. But we need to consider the environmental impact of knee-jerk sustainability solutions before we take them on board. “The really difficult thing about the topic is that it’s a Hydra,” says Chetiyawardana. “You cut off one head, and two more appear.” He highlights California’s almond industry. “The American dairy industry is one of the most fucked things in the world, it’s horrific, and from whatever perspective – health, environmental, cost, welfare for the farmers, welfare for the animals – people realised it wasn’t good, so they went, ‘Cool, we’ll switch to almond milk, it’s high in protein and it behaves like milk’. All of a sudden they’re pulling out crops in California and planting almond trees, because they want to satiate that demand or maybe get a quick buck, and almond milk becomes an issue in itself.”

At least part of the problem is that we aspire to adopt an absolute approach where none can exist. Climate change isn’t one problem, it’s millions of small ones. And each region has its own unique backdrop of challenges, says Chetiyawardana, who points to Belvedere Vodka’s bartender training roadshow tour, on which he and other London bartenders collaborated. “It wasn’t about sustainability per se, but being inspired by nature and delving into ‘natural’ food systems to increase deliciousness and creativity,” he explains. “In certain parts of the world, our stories were super-applicable, but in India they don’t have monoculture or industrialised crops in the same way, so that same ethos needed to be pivoted to their conversations. It was really fascinating.”

We’ve all got a part to play in tackling climate crisis, and a little extra knowledge can help to make your efforts meaningful. Below, you’ll find five misguided green initiatives along with their planet-friendly solutions…

Cub's Ardbeg Americano, made with Ardbeg 10, English cassis, Somerset pommeaux and soda

Ardbeg Americano served at Cub in Hoxton Street, London

#1 Locally-sourced produce

Reducing food miles seems like an obvious way to cut emissions, but the reality is more nuanced. We may frown over tomatoes trucked hundreds of miles from Spain to the UK, but their carbon footprint is less than a third of those grown in heated glasshouses over here, a study by the UK government revealed. Plus, there are serious discrepancies in food miles among different modes of transport. A single air food mile is the equivalent of almost eight road food miles and more than 75 shipping food miles, New Scientist reported.

#2 Paper straws

There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. But straws make up just 0.025% of total plastic waste in the ocean, and  the microplastics our clothes shed during washing are far bigger an issue. When it comes to sipping our drinks, the battle isn’t between paper and plastic (there’s an argument that producing paper products is more harmful, requiring more energy and water, and emitting more pollution) but against single use items. Just say no.

#3 Foraged produce

Wild ingredients look cool on the menu, but for most bars, foraging is best kept to the confines of the farmer’s market. Reckless foraging damages soil and vegetation and disturbs wildlife, throwing off the equilibrium of the ecosystem and threatening the future of the very habitat you’re trying to interact with. Either leave foraging to the professionals or forgo the hand-picked garnish entirely.

#4 Zero-waste

Achieving zero waste is seriously commendable, but it isn’t a realistic goal for every bar (not without government-enforced changes across, for example, food packaging regulations and waste disposal infrastructures). Using clever kitchen kit to make waste products last longer might make your compost heap smaller, but if the machines are heavy on electricity it’s doing more harm than good. The entire process needs to be sustainable to be worthwhile.

 

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