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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Annie Hayes

Exploring the wide world of British rum

Whether they’re fermenting and distilling molasses from scratch, adding spices or botanicals to imported distillates, or blending and bottling ready-to-drink rums from overseas, Britain’s diverse, dedicated and highly experimental rum…

Whether they’re fermenting and distilling molasses from scratch, adding spices or botanicals to imported distillates, or blending and bottling ready-to-drink rums from overseas, Britain’s diverse, dedicated and highly experimental rum brands are carving their own niche. Keen to find out what the future holds for the burgeoning British rum category, we spoke with distillers, blenders, spicers and bottlers from across the UK…

While Britain has a long (often very dark) tradition of importing rum, because the UK’s temperate climate is inhospitable to sugar cane, few have attempted to make it from scratch. The first British distiller to make rum on a commercial scale was English Spirit Distillery back in 2011. From its Essex base, the team produces the widest variety of spirits and liqueurs in the UK – all under one roof, all distilled using raw ingredients under the trained hand of head distiller Dr John Walters.

When the distillery first opened, Dr Walters “started making a whole slew of spirits at once,” explains general manager James Lawrence. “He dived in headfirst to see what kind of vodka he could make, what kind of malt he could make and so on, and realised nobody had commercially produced rum in the UK before – everything before that was imported from elsewhere.” At the time, all the well-known famous brands – “Pussers, Lambs, all the ones with the Union Jacks on” – consisted of rums sourced from the Caribbean and other rum-making, which were transported to the UK and blended together, sometimes with spices added.

John Walters in the thick of it at the English Spirit Distillery

English Spirit has released three rums since – Old Salt Rum, English Spiced Rum, and St. Piran’s Cornish Rum – all distilled from 100% sugar cane molasses from across the globe. “A lot of the larger commercial rum distilleries will use sugar cane juice or sugar cane syrup, which is a lot easier to work with, cheaper, and less messy,” says Lawrence. “But using pure molasses gives a Golden Syrup-y, treacly consistency that makes a really great base for rum.” After a long fermentation – around two to three weeks – and a triple distillation in copper pot alembic stills, around 200 litres of molasses wash has been transformed into approximately 20 litres of rum.

Despite pioneering rum distilling in the UK almost a decade ago, English Spirit remains the exception rather than the rule, illustrating just how time-consuming and expensive the process is, and the difficulties in sourcing and transporting the raw ingredients. Just a handful of distillers have followed in their footsteps – including Dark Matter, a Scottish distillery that makes spiced rum; BrewDog Distilling Company, which last year released botanical rum Five Hundred Cuts; and unaged rum SeaWolf, created by bar owners Mike Aikman, Jason Scott and Craig Harper and made at Ogilvy Spirits distillery. 

Of course, that’s not to say blended rums are any less authentic. In the south west of England at Devon Rum Company, founder Dave Seear worked closely with a Caribbean rum blender and importer to create his take on a premium ‘English style’ spiced rum. “English style rum is categorised by heavy and powerful rum types – mostly pot and column-distilled from molasses and sourced from previous British colonies of Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica and St Lucia,” he says. 

Devon Rum Company Spiced Rum combines two pot-stilled Jamaican rums – a column-still rum and a pot-still rum from Guyana – which are imported at 80% ABV. “Once landed in the UK, we infuse the base Caribbean rum in vats with natural Devon spring water to reduce the ABV to 40%,” Seear explains. The rum is then steeped in a secret blend of spices and citrus zest, with the latter being sourced from local businesses. “Unlike many alternative spiced rums, we add no vanilla, sugar or colouring and have concentrated on the quality of our base rum, our carefully crafted recipe and sourcing quality natural ingredients,” he adds.

Just some of the spices in Rumbullion

Rather than masking low-quality spirit with punchy spices, today’s spiced rum producers seek to create harmony between the base liquid and botanicals. “[Our founders] were frustrated by the lack of respect for the base spirit exhibited by established spiced rum brands, where spices were dumped into poor quality base spirits,” says Hannah Burden-Teh, brand manager at Kent’s Rumbullion. To create their small batch spiced rum, the team layers “carefully blended natural spice tinctures” of Madagascan vanilla, orange peel, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom into their “top quality” Caribbean rum. “Although some of the process finishes in Kent, we want to champion our original locale where the sugar cane grows and is fermented,” she adds.

Honouring the base components is an ethos shared by Devon-based independent blender Hattiers. To create his flagship sipping rum bottling – Hattiers Premium Reserve Rum – founder takes a blend of eight-year-old double retort pot and twin-column coffey still rums distilled from sugar cane molasses in Barbados and combines them with pot still rums from Guatemala, Panama and The Dominican Republic before adding water drawn from a well in the nearby village of Beesands. 

Philip Everett-Lyons from Hattiers

“We typically blend at 62% to 70% ABV, then marry with our local Devon water to bring each blend down to bottling strength,” says Everett-Lyons, who explains that traceability is paramount. “We are completely transparent on all components, which are stated on the label along with full details including still type, maturation, location and cask,” he continues. “We only blend rums with no additives or colourants and choose not to spice or use botanicals in our blends. In our opinion, the quality of the rum shouldn’t be overshadowed by these things.”

Some distillers take this approach further still by bottling single estate rums – East London Liquor Company, for example, which made its first foray into rum with the release of Demerara Rum from Guyana. “What you’re drinking at your local in Bethnal Green is exactly what the locals in Georgetown are appreciating half a world away,” says founder Alex Wolpert, “delicious molasses-based rum made from sugar cane grown along the Demerara River, distilled in the world’s last working wooden Coffey still, aged in ex-bourbon barrels until you get notes of caramel, baking spices and toffee. Basically, perfection. And we’re not about to mess with perfection, so other than proofing the rum down to 40% ABV, we haven’t touched it.”

Their latest release East London Rum from Jamaica is similarly unadulterated. “We’ve developed a blend of three of the most famous rum distilleries in Jamaica to come up with a funky, ester-led white rum that is my new favourite in Daiquiris,” Wolpert says – an 80:20 blend of medium to high-ester rums, with 80% coming from column and pot distillation, and 20% from funky Jamaican pot still. “As a huge rum fan, I’m loath to mess with a good thing,” he continues. “And as a distillery, we understand the amount of thought and hard work that goes into making these distillates, and trust that we can’t make them better than they already are.”

No messing about, the latest bottling from the ELLC

Industry folks regularly refer to the runaway success of the gin category when forecasting the burgeoning interest in rum. Will rum be the ‘next gin’? The answer might be less about the liquid, and more to do with the practicalities of production – especially if, like English Spirit Distillery, you have designs on making the liquid from scratch. “Everyone in the UK was able to pile into making gin quite quickly as opposed to importing it,” says Lawrence. “Whereas with rum, there’s such a massive capital investment needed. You need a lot more room, a lot more experience. You need more time to perfect your product before it’s ready to sell. There is a completely understandable reticence to completely investing, finding a distiller who’s willing to put in the work, and affording someone the time to practise over and over again, as we know full well that you have to do to make a decent rum.”

That British rum consists primarily of independent spicers and blenders is a trend that’s set to continue, at least in the short term. But regardless of whether brands import rum or raw molasses, future-proofing the sector, as Everett-Lyons, points out, brings benefits for everyone. “We believe that there is absolutely room for all, and that either adopting an international definition of rum classification or developing a British standard on labelling would be the next step,” he says. “As other rum-producing nations seek to adopt their own guidelines, now would be a great time to mirror the Scotch Whisky Association and bring some accountability and compliance to our trade. For this to happen, the industry would need to tread ensuring not to ostracise but instead to unite all sub-sectors of British rum.”

It’ll also support the immense creativity already bubbling away within the category. There are so many different directions you can take rum in, as Lawrence rightly points out, by playing with botanicals, barrel-ageing, and even the distillation process. When English Spirit Distillery produced Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum, they added three wood varieties – date palm, pine, and sequoia – to the still, which pulled “all that really interesting wood complexity into the spirit” without the need for maturation. A dark rum called Daymark 1683, produced for a company based on the Isles of Scilly, is infused with hand-picked samphire and Cornish sea salt. The British rum revolution really has only just begun. “Give it a few years, there’s going to be some absolutely amazing rums out there,” says Lawrence. “It’s really exciting.”

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Five minutes with… the Schofield brothers

Internationally-renowned bartenders Joe and Daniel Schofield have amassed more than 25 years’ experience tending the world’s best bars, including American Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London, Singapore’s Tippling Club,…

Internationally-renowned bartenders Joe and Daniel Schofield have amassed more than 25 years’ experience tending the world’s best bars, including American Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London, Singapore’s Tippling Club, and Little Red Door in Paris. Now, with the ink still drying on their first cocktail book, the brothers are gearing up to open a place of their own in their hometown of Manchester. We took five with the duo…

Bartending brothers Joe and Daniel Schofield have spent more than a quarter of a century working in some of the world’s top cocktail venues, and they have the industry accolades and acclaim to show for it. In 2018 alone, Joe was recognised as International Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards and Bartenders’ Bartender at The World’s 50 Best Bars. At the very same awards ceremonies, with Daniel as assistant bar manager, London’s Coupette scooped Best New International Bar at the former, and Best New Opening at the latter.

Since then, the Schofield’s have been busier than ever, launching their eponymous Schofield’s Dry Vermouth in collaboration with Asterley Bros – which sees 28 English botanicals blended into a British Bacchus, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc base – traversing the globe doing guest shifts in bars, and speaking at seminars and masterclasses. Most recently, they released Schofield’s Fine and Classic Cocktails: Celebrated Libations & Other Fancy Drinks, in which you’ll find out why you should ‘throw’ Bellinis, discover the perfect Spritz ratios, and update your classics repertoire using subtle tweaks and adjustments favoured by high-end bartenders.

The Schofield brothers, outstanding in their field

Now, the brothers have set their sights on what could quite possibly be their greatest challenge yet: the launch of Schofield’s Bar in their hometown of Manchester later this year. As we await news of the grand opening with baited breath, we took five with Joe and Daniel to find out more about the unique journey that brought them here. They were even kind enough to share a cocktail recipe (a Scotch libation called the William Wallace) for us to try out at home – scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

Master of Malt: Thanks for chatting with us, guys! As people who are constantly travelling for work, how has this year been from your perspective? 

Daniel: This is undeniably an incredibly tough time for our whole industry globally, but as with all situations like this, we always try and focus on the positives. We’ve both spent the last five to six months working on all the admin and logistical aspects ahead of our bar opening – time that we wouldn’t have had normally due to the travel. From a personal perspective, it’s actually been quite nice to spend so much time in our home city after living away for so many years! Even though we’ve been based here for the past two years, we have spent so much of that travelling.

MoM: You’ve amassed years of experience working in some of the best bars in the world. Which of your past cocktails – or menus – do you look back most fondly on, and why? 

Joe: For me, I have a couple of moments that really stand out. Placing a cocktail on the menu at The American Bar at The Savoy was very special to me. As were the Sensorium menus I created with chef Ryan [Clift] at Tippling Club in Singapore. We created two menus, the first was about triggering memory with aroma, and this was followed by a completely edible menu in the form of gummy bears. Each bear took on the main flavours of the cocktail and the dream or desire it represented.

The brothers out standing in the street

MoM: What would you say are your biggest creative influences?

Joe: Inspiration can be found anywhere! I love looking to different industries for inspiration. Food is a very obvious choice. Whenever I’m overseas, I love eating local street food and flavours.

MoM: Tell us more about the book. How would you describe it to someone who’s never read it?

Joe: Daniel and I have always loved classic cocktails and we wanted to create a book that a bartender and a home enthusiast could pick up and have the tools they need to make great drinks at home. Explaining why we do things, how we do things and featuring recipes from our collective 25 years in the industry.

MoM: Having worked independently in different venues across the globe for much of your careers, what’s it like when you get to work behind the bar together?

Daniel: Most of the different bars we have worked in have all had similar core values to hospitality, and we cut our teeth in several of the same bars, so we have the same attitude to hospitality. We both have slightly different strengths which lend themselves to different aspects of the operations, which we feel is going to be beneficial for the bar opening.

MoM: You’ve also worked with some key figures in the industry. What’s the best bartending advice you’ve ever been given? 

Daniel: We’ve both been very lucky to work with some hugely inspirational people in our industry, and I believe that we’ve definitely learnt something from every single person we’ve worked with. I think the most important thing to always remember is that good work ethic, a positive attitude, and being nice to people will get you very far in this industry.

MoM: Aside from being your hometown, are there any other reasons you chose to open a bar in Manchester?

Daniel: Not many people know this, but Manchester is currently the quickest-growing city in Europe, the rate that the city is expanding and developing is unlike anything I have seen before. There are many great operators moving here from other major cities in the UK such as Edinburgh or London, which makes us incredibly excited. The drinks scene is rapidly developing too, there are many great bars here and we both believe that Northerners have a natural sense of hospitality. For personal reasons, it’s great to be so close to our family. After so many years of living away, it’s good to make up for some lost time with them!

MoM: We’ve seen immense innovation in cocktail culture over recent years – are there any bars or bartenders that you feel have really pushed the scene forward, or whose work you admire?

Daniel: What Max and Noel Venning and the team at Three Sheets [in east London] are doing – and have been doing since they opened – has influenced a huge shift in the industry towards simplicity in drinks. I really respect that they make some of the best drinks in London, yet they have a fun, relaxed atmosphere. I have the utmost respect for the team at Satan’s Whiskers [in east London], there aren’t many bars that I go to and want to try every single drink on the menu.Now, here’s that cocktail from the book:

William Wallace 

50ml Blended Scotch (we love Hankey Bannister)
10ml Asterley Bros. Estate Vermouth (or Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino, if you can’t get hold of it)
10ml Gonzalez-Byass Pedro Ximenez Sherry
3 Dashes Orange Bitters

Method:

Stir all ingredients together with ice. Strain and pour into a frozen coupette, and garnish with an orange twist.

 

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New Arrival of the Week: The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel…

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel Barrie to coincide with the upcoming release of The King’s Man. Ahead of the GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage hitting shelves this week, MoM took a moment to sample the liquid. Here’s what we thought…

The folks at The GlenDronach certainly know their way around a sherry cask, and this latest release is no exception. Created in collaboration with the Kingsman film franchise director Matthew Vaughn – and also MARV films and Disney – The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage has been exclusively matured in oloroso casks before a delicious finishing period in Pedro Ximénez casks from Spain. Because, well, why not?

For those unfamiliar with Kingsman, the action-comedy film franchise is centered on a fictional secret service organisation of the same name (it’s also a screenplay of a comic book series, but we digress). Set during world war one, the latest instalment – The King’s Man – delves into the origins of the intelligence agency. While most of the plot details remain under wraps, here’s what we do know: There are tyrants. There are criminal masterminds. They have nefarious plans that involve inciting some kind of war that will wipe out millions. Saving the world is down to one man and his protégé, who must figure out how to stop them in an exhilarating race against the clock.

It’s proper fancy…

A combination of six casks distilled in 1989, the new release is said to be inspired by the oldest bottle of whisky housed at The GlenDronach Distillery – a 29 year-old whisky bottled in 1913, just before the outbreak of the first world war. The story behind it goes like this: three friends bought a bottle each before the war, promising to open them together once they came home. Only one returned. Having never opened his bottle, his family donated it to the distillery, where it’s displayed in remembrance of fallen friends. What a tragic tale.

Master blender Rachel Barrie commented: “This expression is deep in meaning, paying homage to ​fallen friends who bravely fought during WWI, and the depth of character and integrity shared by both The GlenDronach and the Kingsman agency. This is none other than a whisky truly fit for a King’s Man.”

There are just 3,052 bottles available, all labelled, numbered and wax-sealed by hand, and signed by Barrie and Vaughn – who also shared his thoughts on the release. “There is an important line which says, ‘Reputation is what others think of you, character is what you are’,” he said. “Strength of character and dedication to upholding the highest values perfectly encapsulates the true spirit of both the Kingsman agency and The GlenDronach Distillery.”

The packaging is quite smart too

So, what does it taste like? Flavour-wise, Barrie described “smouldering aromas of dark fruits and sherry-soaked walnuts, vintage leather and cedar wood”. On the palate, “dense autumn fruits meld with date, fig and treacle, before rolling into black winter truffle and cocoa”. Throughout the “exceptionally long” finish, she said, you’ll find lingering notes of “blackberry, tobacco leaf and date oil”. 

Sounds rather tasty, doesn’t it? So, without further ado, here’s our take on The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage:

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage tasting note:

Colour: Pouring the whisky into a glass, you’re instantly struck by how dark it is – almost a mahogany brown. There’s no colouring added, we’re assured. Spending 29 years in Sherry casks is a heavy enough influence on the colour, with no need for any extra ‘assistance’. Ahem.

Nose: Dark brown sugar, cherries, plums and salted caramel with a touch of aniseed. Another whiff and you’ll find raisin, vanilla and a hint of citrus peel.

Palate: Thick waves of juicy dark fruits give way to tart pluminess that evolves into powerful and pronounced dusty oak spice.

Finish: Incredibly rich and long. Rum-soaked raisins, leather and tobacco dryness, rounded off with dates and a touch of clove and cinnamon.

Overall: Sweet and intense. Remarkable how it transforms on the palate. Like Willy Wonka made his Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum in an orchard.

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage is now sold out. That went fast!

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The history of Chivas Regal

When Chivas Regal made its debut as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, not only was it the oldest blended Scotch whisky of its era, but it was also…

When Chivas Regal made its debut as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, not only was it the oldest blended Scotch whisky of its era, but it was also the world’s first luxury whisky. Navigating a tumultuous geopolitical landscape in the years that followed, Chivas weathered the storm, establishing its home in Strathisla, Speyside, from where it continues to influence and shape the Scotch whisky industry today. Chris Brousseau, archivist at Chivas Brothers, talks us through the brand’s fascinating history…

Chivas Regal may have hit the market at the turn of the 20th century, but its history can be traced back to a grocery business established in Aberdeen back in 1801, which sold “quality provisions, wine and spirits” – and also with the birth of brothers James and John Chivas. Born into a family of tenant farmers in 1810 and 1814 respectively, they left their rural home in 1836 to work in the city; James as a partner in the grocery business, John at a wholesale firm. 

“A royal warrant was granted by Queen Victoria to James Chivas in 1843, as Purveyor of Grocery to Her Majesty,” says Brousseau. It would be the first of many. “They were supplying the Queen of Balmoral with food, with spirits, with wine – just about anything,” he says. “She even asked for a quiet donkey that she could have to pull her around the ground.”

James Chivas outside King Street shop in 1862 (only existing pic of him)

When James’ business partner Charles Stewart left the grocery in 1867, John took his place, and Chivas Brothers was born. Three years later, the Spirit Act of 1860 came into force, allowing whisky from different distilleries to be blended without payment of duty. “That allowed people like Chivas Brothers to start buying from different distilleries – both grain whisky and malt whisky – and start blending for the first time,” says Brousseau. “It really opened the door. And this is when we think James and John started creating what we’d call branded whiskies.”

Their first blended malt Scotch whisky was a no age statement (NAS) bottling called the Royal Glen Dee. It would be followed by six others over the course of the next 40 years, including Royal Strathythan, a 10 year old whisky, and Royal Loch Nevis, a 25 year old. Over the course of their whisky career, the brothers had amassed extensive knowledge on ageing and blended whiskies, and they’d also built up vast stocks of maturing whisky.

Fast-forward to 1895, and both James, John, and James’ son Alexander – the last of the Chivas lineage – had died. Chivas Brothers was bought by Alexander Smith, said to be the ‘right-hand man of Alexander Chivas’ and then-master blender, Charles Stewart Howard. “The youngest whisky that they were producing in 1895 was five years of age, which is quite amazing when you didn’t have to age whisky until some 20 years later,” says Brousseau. 

Chivas Brothers price list front cover 1890s

Howard decided to pay tribute to the founding brothers with a malt-heavy recipe and launched Chivas Regal as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, primarily for the North American market. “We call this the world’s first luxury whisky, because when you look at what was going on in the market at that time, there was nothing like it; nothing of that age,” says Brousseau. “There were a few branded whiskies, maybe 10 years old, something like that. This was really something very special.”

Just five years later, World War I begins, signalling the beginning of a global downturn that would last decades. Few distilleries would emerge on the other side. “We had Prohibition in the US and Canada,” says Brousseau. “We had the Great Depression for several years. Then World War II comes along, which had a huge impact on the Scotch whisky industry. Chivas Regal went from 25 years, to ‘of great age’ on the label. Then it went to NAS for a while, until it was resurrected in the 1950s,” joining Chivas Regal 12 Year Old, which had launched in 1939.

In 1949, Canadian businessman Samuel Bronfman, head of Seagrams, took a trip to Scotland. He left as the owner of Chivas Brothers, having bought the business from whisky brokers Morrison & Lundie for £85,000. “He always had this vision that there would always be a special market for aged Scotch whiskies,” says Brousseau. “One of the reasons some people think he bought Chivas Brothers as opposed to other companies was not only because it was a great company with great whisky stocks, but because he was a keen royalist.”

Bottling whisky – mid to late 1800s

When Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father George IV on 2 June 1953, Bronfman launched Royal Salute blended Scotch whisky in tribute on the same day. He was even invited to the coronation. Shortly after taking over Chivas Brothers, Bronfman hired Charles Julian – “the best Scotch whisky master blender at the time,” says Brousseau – and paid £71,000 for Milton distillery, renaming it Strathisla, which remains the home of Chivas Regal to this day and produces a key malt component of a blend.

When it comes to telling the story of Chivas Regal, Strathisla is the final piece of the puzzle. Built in 1786 at Keith, Moray in Speyside, it’s the oldest continuously operating distillery in the Highlands. “Just recently, we found an accounts book for the very first year,” says Brousseau. “Because it was built by two people, they listed everything they bought and how much it cost, so at the end of the year they could split it 50/50.” 

What would you buy if you were going to start a distillery in the late 1700s? “On June 22nd 1786,” he reads, “two shovels, a wheelbarrow, a sand harp – which is a sieve – some advice, and some stones. It began operation with a 40 gallon still, and a capacity of 28 tonnes of malted barley per year. They were licensed on the amount of barley they could use. Grain lorries today hold 29 tonnes, so we do in a day what we used to do in a year.”

Chivas Brothers price list inside 1890s

Today, the core range comprises Chivas Regal 12, Chivas Regal 18, and Chivas Regal 25. There’s also Chivas Regal Extra, which contains a higher proportion of sherry casks; Chivas Regal Ultis, a blended malt containing no grain whisky; Chivas Regal Mizunara, which is the world’s first Scotch whisky to be aged in Japanese oak; plus a wealth of limited editions and market exclusives – for example Chivas Regal XV, a 15 year old blend finished in casks that previously held Grande Champagne Cognac.

From a small Aberdeen grocery to the pride of high-end back bars across the globe, the story of Chivas Regal is a lesson in weathering adversity. Now owned by Pernod Ricard, the brand sells more than 4.2 million cases every year, and has retained the sense of grandeur Howard instilled when he launched the world’s first luxury whisky back in 1909. In the words of his business partner Smith, writing in 1904: “The name Chivas may be carried down to posterity as meaning the best service, the best quality, the best value – in short, the name Chivas shall be the equivalent to the hallmark of excellence.”

The Chivas Regal range is available from Master of Malt.

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A spotlight on Storywood Tequila

The brainchild of Scottish chef, whisky lover and bona fide wood expert Michael Ballantyne, Storywood Tequila takes Mexico’s national spirit and treats it to a full maturation in former Speyside…

The brainchild of Scottish chef, whisky lover and bona fide wood expert Michael Ballantyne, Storywood Tequila takes Mexico’s national spirit and treats it to a full maturation in former Speyside Scotch whisky barrels. Here, Ballantyne shares the story behind his creative Tequila range and describes the magic that happens when Speyside meets San Miguel…

Born in Scotland and raised in Texas from the age of eight, Ballantyne – a chef by trade – returned from overseas at 22. “I was trying to get back into the restaurant industry, but being in Aberdeen, there are so many oil companies, I fell into oil and gas,” says Ballantyne. “I started from the bottom, sweeping floors in the workshop and packing boxes, and within six years I was writing up a sales team for oil and gas tools across the world. The problem was, it didn’t really matter how much my salary increased, I just wasn’t happy doing what I was doing.”

He started spending a lot more time over in Mexico, visiting his mum who lives in San Miguel de Allende. Disenchanted with working in the oil and gas industry, Ballantyne resolved to open a whisky bar in San Miguel, and set about planning the venue. His research led him to La Cofradia distillery in Jalisco, which has been producing and bottling Tequila for more than 50 years. There, he met master distiller Luis Trejo.

“We got to speaking about Tequila and whisky production, and what we realised is the process of making Tequila is very much the same as whisky, the only difference is the roles are reversed,” Ballantyne says. “With Tequila, agave is aged in the ground for long periods of time and then aged in barrels for short periods of time. And with whisky, that rule is reversed, so it’s shorter grown, longer aged. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring our national spirits together somehow?’.”

Storywood Tequila

Say hello to Storywood Tequila founder Michael Ballantyne!

He bought some bottles from La Cofradia and upon returning to Scotland, shared them with his friends – serving the liquid in some fancy shot glasses he’d procured on his visit. “Everybody was asking me where the salt and lime was,” Ballantyne says, “I was trying to convince them that that wasn’t how you were to drink it. You have to drink it like a malt. It wasn’t until my wife said, ‘you know, if you’re telling people to drink it like a malt, you should put it in a whisky glass’. I did this and gave it to a friend of mine. He said, ‘Wow, that’s a really good whisky. What is that?’.”

This was Ballantyne’s lightbulb moment. “I thought, ‘if I can change somebody’s perception of Tequila by changing the glass, what can I do if I put it in a single malt whisky barrel?’.” This interaction occurred in April 2015, and by September, Ballantyne had handed in his notice to go “all in” on the project. “In October, I found out we were having our first baby,” he laughs. “All this crazy stuff was happening. That’s why our tagline is ‘live free, sip slow’. You have to enjoy what you do, that’s the living free aspect of the brand. And ‘sip slow’ is to communicate that Tequila should be treated with respect, just like any premium spirit.” 

The next step was sourcing spent casks from Speyside distilleries, which was easier said than done. “A lot of them were reluctant to work with me because it was such a different idea,” Ballantyne says. “I think they worry that when they give barrels out to people, they might use the distillery names, so it can be very closed off and confidential.” He started working with Speyside Cooperage in Dufftown, which supplies all the barrels for Storywood Tequila. “I go there and hand-select all the casks that we want to use,” Ballantyne says. “We try to make sure we get the freshest casks that have just been emptied. We’re looking for ones that are a little bit sweeter because the Tequila is made from lowland agave, which is quite earthy.”

Storywood Tequila

The 100% Blue Weber agave Storywood Tequila is made from

The entire Storywood Range is made from 100% Blue Weber agave harvested from the lowland region of Jalisco. The piñas are roasted in traditional brick ovens for 72 hours before being crushed using a corkscrew mill. The juice is fermented using the distillery’s wild yeast strains and then double distilled using copper pot stills. The water used in distillation is sourced from a stream that runs through the distillery, which comes from Volcán de Tequila. The new make goes into the barrel at 55% ABV, which is the maximum strength permitted by Tequila production regulations, says Ballantyne. “By barreling right at the top end of the alcohol percentage, you draw out a lot of flavour from the barrel,” he says.

The liquid is aged for between seven and 14 months, depending on the expression – there are three bottlings in the core range, scroll down for details – and the entire process takes place in Mexico. “We buy the barrels here in Scotland and then we ship them in containers to Mexico,” Ballantyne says. “Everything’s aged and bottled in Mexico.” So… how does spending time in a Scotch whisky cask shape the taste of the Tequila? “As soon as you put the Tequila in those barrels, it really changes the earthiness of the agave,” he says. “It becomes very sweet initially, and starts moving into oakier flavours the longer you leave it.”

Take Speyside 7, Storywood’s first expression. “It has a real sweetness to it, with honey caramel notes,” says Ballantyne. “As soon as you take that liquid and age it twice as long, you get a really different style of liquid. It starts to develop toffee toasted oak-style flavours. Just a little bit more time can totally change the liquid. That’s what I’ve been experimenting with since the beginning – ageing the liquid in different barrels for different lengths of time. Roasting agave longer, roasting it shorter. That’s why it’s taken about five years to get a really diverse style of liquids.”

Storywood Tequila

Every barrel has a story to tell

Compiling the range – which has expanded to include two limited edition oloroso sherry cask-aged Tequilas – hasn’t been easy, but that’s part of the fun, says Ballantyne. “I like the challenge of having to wait and experiment,” he says. “The biggest thing has been having the right people around me. When you go through this journey, you meet so many people, from the guys at the cooperage who put the barrels together, to the people at the distillery who make the Tequila. With Jeremy Hill, the former owner of Hi-Spirits, and James Patterson, who was also working for Hi-Spirits, we’re starting to really build a great team. Especially with Proof Drinks, they’ve got some fantastic brands. We’re lucky to be in such a good portfolio.” 

That Storywood’s journey is ultimately a team effort is reflected in the name, says Ballantyne. “Every barrel has a story to tell, and it has this crazy journey before they even get to us,” he says. “The barrels are American oak, so they’re crafted in America and filled with bourbon. Then those barrels are sent to Scotland, where they’re used for whisky. By the time we get them, they’re second fill barrels – then we fly them to tequila. It’s almost like you’re getting a slice of three different spirits in one bottle: bourbon, single malt and Tequila.”

The Storywood Tequila Range

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside 7 Reposado

Aged for seven months in Scottish Speyside whisky casks. Tasting notes include caramel, oak, vanilla and honey on an earthy agave base. Delicious served neat or mixed with ginger beer or coca-cola in a highball glass with ice and lime wedge.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside 14 Añejo

Aged for over 14 months in Speyside whisky casks. Tasting notes include toasting oak, roasted nuts and treacle toffee. Can be served neat, on ice or in an Old Fashioned Cocktail.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside Cask Strength 7 Reposado

Aged for seven months in Speyside whisky casks with hints of oak, vanilla and honey. Perfect neat, on ice or in a Tequila Sour.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Sherry Cask Strength 7 Reposado

A limited-edition expression aged for seven months in oloroso sherry casks, it’s bold and full-flavoured with sweet cherry and jammy dark fruits. Can be enjoyed neat, on ice or in an Old Fashioned.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Double Oak Cask Strength 14 Añejo

Another limited edition expression aged for 14 months in oloroso sherry casks and single malt Scotch whisky barrels. Tasting notes include honey and caramel with cherry and dark fruit notes.

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Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available….

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available. As Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery launches its custom cask programme for 2020, inviting buyers to tailor every aspect of the process – from yeast varieties to distilling cut points – we take stock of the evolution of cask ownership…

Laying claim to your very own cask of whisky is a dream shared by many. But what if you could choose the precise type of malted barley you’d like, and pick out the yeast used for fermentation? What if you could tinker with the distillation process – cut points and flow rates – choose the cask type, oak species, size and previous fill? What if you could tailor the whisky from start to finish, becoming involved in every stage of the production process to create your ultimate personalised dram? 

At Edinburgh-based Holyrood, you can do just that. “We thought, rather than just making hundreds of the same cask, why don’t we ask people what they would like to make?,” says distillery co-founder David Robertson. The process starts with an in-depth consultation and sample tasting, in order to identify exactly which flavours you’re looking for. From there, the team will come up with several recipe suggestions based on your preferences. “You might say, ‘I’d rather have an extra yeast in it,’ or ‘I’d rather pick that wood rather than this wood’, and eventually we’ll land on a recipe,” he says.

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

Got your heart set on rare Japanese oak, barley from a bygone era, or a cask that previously contained beer? Whatever the request, the team will help you make your dream into reality – but they’ll also guide you to make sure it tastes good. “If someone said, ‘I want you to have a cut point from 75% down to 42%, I want you to put it into a Tokay cask, and I want you to mature it for 247 years, we’d be going, ‘Yeah… That’s probably not the best idea’,” Robertson says. “We want to be there to guide, make recommendations and make sure there’s no mistakes.”

Besides offering more choice for whisky fans, there are other benefits to offering such tailored cask choices. Giving whisky fans control over the whisky-making process provides a unique jumping off point for learning and experimentation. “It’s a real two-way collaboration,” Robertson says. “We might have ideas and suggestions, but we won’t be smart enough to come up with all the best ideas and suggestions. The people we meet through this programme give us stimulus, inspire us and push us in different ways that we maybe hadn’t thought of ourselves.”

It also presents an opportunity for distilleries to engage with fans and expand their community. “I love getting a request from a potential customer to source a unique cask,” says Elliot Wynn-Higgins, cask custodian at Lindores Distillery, which has one of the largest and most diverse private cask offerings in Scotland, and allows buyers to choose from metrics such as cask size and flavour profile. The ownership scheme is seen as “an experience, rather than just a sale,” he says. “Each year we host exclusive cask owner’s events at the distillery, and they also get exclusive early bird offers on our whisky releases in the years to come.”

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

It could be argued that an element of personalisation acts as a deterrent to those viewing cask ownership solely as a money-making endeavour – the type of buyer David Thompson, co-founder and director of Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, is keen to avoid. There, the team offers buyers a choice of first fill ex-bourbon and various ex-red wine casks. “The secondary market worries me to an extent,” he says. “If someone said to me, ‘how much money am I going to make?’, I probably wouldn’t go any further with [the sale], because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’d much rather someone bought a cask because they wanted to get involved in our business, our philosophy, the people.”

While distilleries selling private casks is nothing new – “this was quite a big deal in the nineties,” John Fordyce, director and co-founder of the Three Stills Company, informs me – today’s interested buyers have more say than those in previous decades when it comes to the final liquid. At Borders Distillery, Fordyce and his fellow directors have released 1,837 private whisky casks for sale by invitation only, allowing buyers to choose their preferred filling date and cask type across rum, bourbon, rye and Douro wine. “Not every distiller wants to do this, and those that do tend to engage in an quite intimate way,” he says. “One of the great things about the drinks industry is that you’re always in a position of moving with the times. And these waves sweep across us all, and some react and some choose to stay out. And that’s what provides all the variety and choice for the consumer.”

Having only been distilling for a year, the Holyrood team can afford to be more experimental than most. “We’re lucky in that we’re new and we’re small, which means that we can be as flexible as we want to be,” says Robertson. “If you’re a large, established distillery, you probably have a style of spirit that people expect you to produce. We don’t have that kind of heritage or history. We don’t have a core range that we’re known for yet. Now, that might be different in three, four, five years’ time, because we’ll have to start putting out whisky that defines Holyrood Distillery’s style. But at the moment, we are playing at the edges.”

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

As distilleries become more established, and their spirit comes of age, the custom cask market will inevitably change again. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, many current distilleries offering cask ownership will no longer be doing so, or at least be offering a reduced variety,” says Wynn-Higgins. “The reason being because their whisky will have hit the market, and the majority of their spirit will be required to satisfy customer requirements in bottles on shelves rather than entire casks. This makes now an even better time to buy a cask, as opportunities to do so will become ever rarer.”

It’s a delicate trade-off, acknowledges Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery. Each year, the team offers up 60 casks for sale, allowing buyers to choose which type of cask you want and which of their two new make recipes they’d like to fill it with. “The cask sales are important, obviously, for cash flow,” she says. “And also, we end up with an amazing community of cask owners around us, which is a really important part of that whole process for us. On the other hand, we can’t spend the whole year producing private casks, because we have to actually have whisky to put into bottles at the end of it!”

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Exciting times for Sliabh Liag Irish whiskey

It’s been a momentous few months for Ireland’s Sliabh Liag Distillers. Husband and wife team James and Moira Doherty filled their first cask, bringing legal whiskey distilling back to Donegal…

It’s been a momentous few months for Ireland’s Sliabh Liag Distillers. Husband and wife team James and Moira Doherty filled their first cask, bringing legal whiskey distilling back to Donegal for the first time in almost 200 years. Weeks later, having turned the turf at their future distillery in the historic town of Ardara, they launched a €1.5m crowdfunding campaign to fuel the next phase of their expansion. MoM took five with James to find out more…

When the time comes for distillery founders to fill their very first cask, we can only imagine how magical and poignant that moment must be. And when said cask will incubate the first legal whiskey distilled in the region for almost two centuries – the same region your poitín-producing ancestors distilled in – well, it must be a feeling like no other. “There’s a lovely sense of coming full circle,” said co-founder James Doherty, whose grandfather “was creating a smoky, double-distilled spirit under the authorities’ radar” long after the last legal producer, Burt Distillery, ceased production in 1841. “I think my grandfather would approve,” he added.

Looking happy in their distillery, it’s James and Moira Doherty!

Made from Irish Craft Malts barley grown in Meath, malted over peat from Mín na bhFachraín, double-distilled and filled into a first fill bourbon oak cask, the smoky profile of the new make is said to be true to what was being distilled in Ulster 200 years ago. Flavour-wise, James described the liquid as “soft and smoky sweet, with a fresh pear note and a hint of treacle”. And later: ‘exceptionally soft and is fresh, citrusy and has rich chocolate notes to complement the pronounced smoke’.

The new distillate is in rather good company. Sliabh Liag Distillers (pronounced ‘sleeve league’, named after a mountain on the Atlantic coast) currently produces Silkie and Dark Silkie blended Irish whiskeys, which James says “paints a picture of what will come from the distillery in the future,” and is also home to An Dúlamán gin and Assaranca Vodka, made on a copper pot still called Méabh at its current Carrick facility. Heavily-peated single malt and pot still Irish whiskeys will follow at the new site, but right now, space and equipment are limited. 

“The still we have at the moment is a 500-litre copper pot made by Forsyths in Scotland,” James told us. “It’s a very traditional still with quite a long neck on it, which creates a really soft gin. And we knew it would create a really soft whisky. But it’s a very conventional gin set up.” At the moment, around one week of each month is dedicated to distilling new make for whiskey. This small-batch approach to production represents a valuable research opportunity for the Doherty’s as they fine tune the recipe ahead of the move to Ardara.

Artist’s impression of the new distillery at Ardara. We particularly like the rock feature.

“It’s more of a learning and development exercise than full commercial production,” says James. “When we go to Ardara, we’re using an all-grains-in process, which will be fundamentally different. So, instead of using a mash tun, separating the grains out, taking the wash through and fermenting on, we’re actually leaving the grains in the process through the fermenter and into the wash still. It’s prevalent in America, I think there’s one distillery in Scotland doing it, and there’s certainly no one in Ireland doing it.” The new-make will also be triple-distilled, rather than double-distilled. And there’s production scale to account for – “instead of making batches of 500 litres at a time, we’ll be making 10,000 litres at a time,” he adds.

When it comes to the core character of their whiskey, the team at Sliabh Liag have a very specific flavour profile in mind. “I’d say it’s almost a triple-distilled peated Macallan, if you could imagine that,” says James. “Lots of congeners in there, but probably still at the lighter end of the flavour profile – not going into those oilier tastes that you get with the later cuts that say, Lagavulin would use. This is my view of where smoky whiskies from Ireland should be – a more general overlay to the core flavours that come from the barley. The smell of my grandfather’s pipe, if that makes sense, overlaid onto a triple-distilled absolutely-Irish-to-the-core single malt and pot still.”

Progress is being made on the new site. Of the 10 acres that will house Ardara Distillery, four have required lengthy flood mitigation works, which are now complete. Next, contractors will begin working on the road that leads to the main entrance of the distillery. “The stills and the distilling equipment is arriving at the end of February, so we will have to have the sheds ready for then,” says James. “Late spring, early summer is when we’ll be in production, and it’ll be mid-summer by the time we really get things ramped up and we’ve learnt all of our lessons.”

They bloody love their whiskey.

For Sliabh Liag, the next focus is fundraising, with the launch of a €1.5m crowdfunding campaign. Previously, a direct investment in the distillery was €25,000, whereas now, you can own a share for £75 pounds, says James. “Lots of people have said to us, ‘we’d love to come with you on the journey’, and it’s been really difficult to try and work out a mechanic to open the shareholding up to a wider group,” he says. “Crowdcube seems to be a really effective way of doing that.”

There are a range of rewards on offer – having your name etched on a copper still, receiving a bespoke Donegal ‘Silkie’ fishing fly, bagging a bottle of exclusive Rioja-finished Silkie. “My uncle is a weaver of many years, and he’s designed tweed especially for the distillery so we’re making scarves out of that and they’re beautiful,” he continues. “It’s great that fans and supporters can take part and there’s some cool rewards. But also, it’s an equity investment in a business that’s growing pretty rapidly – a 75% [increase] in case sales year on year despite Covid.” 

When James and Moira moved to Donegal in 2014, their dream was to reignite the county’s distilling heritage. Today, they hope to make the Sliabh Liag peninsula to Irish whiskey what Islay is to Scotch. “When we talk about reclaiming the distilling heritage of this county, we want to make something that’s true to Donegal and then Ireland, not Ireland and then Donegal,” James explains. “And if that makes us the Islay of Ireland, that would be job done.” 

The Sliabh Liag range is available from Master of Malt.

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5 must-try bottlings from certified organic distilleries

What makes a distillery ‘organic’? Increasingly, distillers are applying this sustainable practice to their entire production process – and they have the paperwork to prove it. Here, we take a closer…

What makes a distillery ‘organic’? Increasingly, distillers are applying this sustainable practice to their entire production process – and they have the paperwork to prove it. Here, we take a closer look at five certified organic spirits distilleries around the world…

It’s not something we like to think about when sipping on a Gin & Tonic, but the raw ingredients used to make our favourite spirits are typically cultivated and harvested using industrial farming systems that are – shall we say – not particularly great for the planet. But thanks to a handful of eco-conscious distillers, organic practices are beginning to take root in the drinks world, with more and more producers seeking formal certification. 

But what does ‘organic’ mean in practical terms when we’re talking about spirits production? From a regulatory perspective, there’s no definitive answer, since the exact standards vary slightly from country to country. More broadly, ‘organic means working with nature,’ the Soil Association – one of the eight government-approved organic control bodies in the UK – states. ‘Lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment, which means more wildlife.’ 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery set a precedent last month, becoming the UK’s first certified organic grain-to-glass distillery. Working with archaeo-botanist John Letts – who specialises in resurrecting ancient grains in genetically diverse fields, without the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilisers – the team grow organic heritage grain, malt and botanicals for their ‘seed-to-still’ spirits. While master distiller Cory Mason has produced spirits according to this philosophy since 2017, due to organic certification rules, he was unable to put it on the bottle.

organic distilleries

Archaeo-botanist John Letts specialises in resurrecting ancient grains in genetically diverse fields

Our drive to become certified came after talking to our customers on distillery tours – it became clear that people find it easier to understand sustainable farming and heritage grain when it’s linked with organic farming,” he explains. “In many ways, if you are already using certified products, the process of getting certification is a paperwork and audit check. The process starts with an audit from a Soil Association inspector, and they recommend a series of actions to implement in order to get certified. Because we are a seed-to-still distillery using organic products, our actions were about improving control and documentation rather than changing our sources.”

It’s a similar story for Chicago-based Koval Distillery, which sources its grain from a cooperative of organic farmers in the Midwest. The certification process involves “making sure that our whole supply chain has been certified organic for the past three years – at least,” says co-founder and president Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart. “All of our records are checked in a yearly audit, and any changes in suppliers or products also involve an audit from our regulating agency. It is really about oversight, transparency, and traceability. We are able to trace each bottle to the field on which the grains were grown – a field that has been growing organically for at least three years, with its own third party inspections and documentation.”

Farming organically is not without challenges. Organic crops typically have lower yields, partly due to restricted use of artificial herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilisers. “There are derogations available – such as the use of copper sulphate as a fungicide, to help tackle mildew – but more often than not, organic farmers try to create conditions that support self-sustaining biological systems, as opposed to being reliant on synthetic chemical inputs,” explains Robert Savage, director at Dà Mhìle Distillery in Wales. “Many of them – such as routinely-used glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide – have detrimental impacts on local biodiversity and human health.”

organic distilleries

In spirits production, the standards of what constitutes organic vary from country to country

In any case, organic farming is more than simply ditching synthetic chemicals. Restorative crop rotations, for example, are an integral part of growing grains organically. “This system helps build the soil’s fertility, improves soil structure and encourages biological activity,” Savage explains. “Cover crops can decrease leaching of nutrients, increase organic matter and assist with weed management… but these same crops sometimes increase the risk of pests and disease, and reduce the opportunity for weed control. Some of these things you just have to learn to live with.” 

Organic spirits may be more time consuming and expensive to produce, but they represent a step towards a more sustainable way of living. “Intensive farming has had a catastrophic effect on wildlife, it depletes the soil and contributes to global warming,” Mason says. “Scientists are linking pesticides to illnesses like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There has never been a more urgent need to explore less toxic and more nurturing ways of growing our food.” The contents of your glass seem like a great way to start – we take a look at five certified organic tipples from across the world to whet your environmentally-conscious whistle…

organic distilleries

The Oxford Artisan Distillery Company, England

MoM recommends: Spirit of Toad Oxford Dry Gin

The Oxford Artisan Distillery’s approach to spirits production involves a sustainable farming system that “goes beyond organic in terms of a positive impact on the environment,” says Mason. Its wheat, rye and barley grain are grown from varieties that were common before 1904, when plant breeders first created the hybrid ‘monoculture’ varieties – genetically uniform crops where every plant in the field is a clone of its neighbour.

They can’t adapt to climatic change and are vulnerable to disease, pests and drought. Because they are all short, they can’t compete with weeds. ‘Yields can be enormous in a good year if the fields are dosed with nitrogen fertilizer and dowsed regularly with fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, but they will fail or underperform if conditions aren’t perfect,’ says Mason.

By contrast, the so-called ‘landraces’ grown in the past are genetically diverse, resilient and adaptable. Each plant in the field is different, creating a crop which is more vigorous, healthy and hardy, without the need for chemicals. “Most of these are tall with deep roots which creates a leaf canopy that is untroubled by shorter weeds and supports a lively ecosystem,” says Mason.

“It is a little like having an Amazon rainforest in an English field,” he continues. “Every part of a landrace sustains the agro-ecosystem – from microorganisms in the soil, to insects buzzing and birds flying above. “Unlike monocultures, these crops can respond to the challenges of natural selection and adapt to environmental shifts. They are natural, vigorous plants and the crop gains strength through its diversity.”

organic distilleries

Casa Noble, Mexico

MoM recommends: Casa Noble Blanco Tequila

The Casa Noble Tequila Company was established in 1776, making it one of the oldest producers of 100% blue agave Tequila. In the early nineties, seventh-generation maestro Tequilero Pepe Hermosillo decided to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps, founding what would become the first Tequila distillery to achieve certified organic status.

The blue agave sourced for Casa Noble Tequila is grown and cultivated on an estate in the lowlands and harvested after 11 years having reached full maturity. You won’t find any fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides in those fields, since the nutrients found naturally in the region’s volcanic soil do a far better job. Wild yeast cultivated at the distillery is used to ferment the piñas.

organic distilleries

Koval Distillery, Illinois

MoM recommends: Koval Bourbon Whiskey

The first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s, Koval Distillery has been producing certified organic and kosher grain-to-glass whiskies, gins, liqueurs, and more for over a decade. Supporting sustainable agriculture, founders Robert and Sonat Birnecker source grain from local organic Midwestern farms, and use non-GMO yeasts and enzymes in the on-site milling and mashing process. 

“Using organic grains for us is, in part, about supporting sustainable agriculture, and those who work very hard to grow without pesticides,” says Dr Birnecker Hart. “We also like the flavour and aroma we get from the organic grains and believe that using them elevates the spirits both physically and symbolically.”

Each of the American Oak barrels used to age Koval’s whiskies is crafted locally at The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. And since they’re all single barrel bottlings, the liquid within can be traced back to the specific shipment of raw materials they were created from. And of course, botanicals are locally-sourced too, from chrysanthemum flowers to organic wildflower honey. “We also do not use any chemical flavourings or colourings,” adds Dr Birnecker Hart. “In fact, we do not use any flavourings or colouring at all – even those that would be considered ‘ok’. Everything in our bottles is just the all-natural, lush flavours of the organic grains, berries, and spices used in our spirits.”

organic distilleries

Spirit of Hven Distillery, Sweden

MoM recommends: Spirit of Hven Seven Stars No.1 Dubhe

Producing organic vodka, gin, aquavit, single malt whisky, rye whisky and more, you’ll find Spirit of Hven distillery on the island of Ven (Hven is the older Swedish spelling). Located in the strait of Öresund between Denmark and Sweden, it’s around three square miles in size with a population of fewer than 400 people.

Fitting, then, that Ven is home to one of the world’s smallest commercial pot still distilleries. At Spirit of Hven, every single step of the spirits-making process – mashing, fermentation, distilling, maturation and bottling – is carried out at site, using only certified organic ingredients sourced locally.

organic distilleries

Dà Mhìle Distillery, Wales

MoM recommends:  Mhìle Apple Brandy

Dà Mhìle’s founder John Savage-Onstwedder commissioned the first organic whisky (of the modern era) back in 1992, which was distilled at Scotland’s Springbank Distillery. He went on to work with Loch Lomond on the first organic single grain, distilled in 2000, and then – as any whisky-lover would – blended them together to create the first organic blended whisky. From there, he went on to build Dà Mhìle Distillery on his family farm in West Wales, which has produced a wide range of organic spirits – from single malt whisky to apple brandy, savoury seaweed gin to oak-matured rum – since 2012, all created by John’s eldest son, John-James.

Many people see organic farming as a new fad,” says Savage. “Yet less than 120 years ago, organic agriculture was the norm. We’ve accepted that organic grain yields will be inherently lower than conventionally grown grains, due to lower inputs and less chemical intervention. However, the long term benefits to biodiversity and the environment outweigh the loss in yield at harvest time. If you want to do your bit for the environment, choose organic.”

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Master of Malt tastes… new whiskies from Tobermory, Deanston and Bunnahabhain

Sound the whisky klaxon! International spirits kingpin Distell has just released eight exceptional limited-edition bottlings across its single malt Scotch whisky portfolio, which spans Tobermory, Deanston and Bunnahabhain distilleries. And…

Sound the whisky klaxon! International spirits kingpin Distell has just released eight exceptional limited-edition bottlings across its single malt Scotch whisky portfolio, which spans Tobermory, Deanston and Bunnahabhain distilleries. And guess what? We were lucky enough to sample three of them during an online tasting with master blender Julieann Fernandez, distillery manager Andrew Brown and visitor centre manager Dr Billy Sinclair. Here’s the scoop…

Little can top the thrill of pouring a dram of whisky you’ve never tasted before, except, of course, sharing the experience with the folks who made it – which is exactly what we did last week during an online tasting hosted by Julieann Fernandez, master blender across Distell’s single malt Scotch whisky distilleries; Andrew Brown, distillery manager at Bunnahabhain; and Dr Billy Sinclair; visitor centre manager at Bunnahabhain. The occasion? To toast the 2020 edition of Distell’s limited edition range, which this year boasts a combined age of nearly 150 years across eight expressions from Tobermory, Deanston and Bunnahabhain. And they’re coming to MoM Towers very soon*.

Tobermory is the Isle of Mull’s only whisky distillery and – having been established in 1798 – one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. It’s here that both unpeated Tobermory and peated Ledaig single malts are produced. This year, the Hebridian distiller has crafted three limited-edition drams, the first being Tobermory 2007 Port Pipe Finish, bottled at 55.8% ABV. Peat fans will be pleased to hear we’ve been treated to two Ledaigs: 1998 Marsala Finish, bottled at 58.6%; and 2007 Pedro Ximenez Finish, bottled at 55.5%.

new whiskies from Tobermory Deanston Bunnahabhain

There’s nothing more exciting than new whisky from the likes of Bunnahabhain

Over on the mainland, perched on the banks of the River Teith, lies Deanston. This former cotton mill was lovingly transformed into a whisky distillery in 1966, and bottled its first whisky eight years later in 1974. This years’ collection welcomes a 2002 Organic Pedro Ximenez Finish, bottled at a cask strength of 49.3% ABV – Deanston became one of the first Scottish sites to start producing organic whisky back in 2000 – along with a 1991 Muscat Finish, which comes in at 45% ABV, and a 2002 Pinot Noir Finish at 50% ABV. 

Rounding off the collection is Bunnahabhain, which has been situated on Islay’s most northerly point since it was established in 1881, and remains the island’s most remote distillery to this day. There are two glorious bottlings to choose from: Bunnahabhain 2008 Manzanilla Matured, which unlike the others, is a full maturation as opposed to a finish (bottled at 55.4% ABV); and Bunnahabhain Moine 1997 Pedro Ximenez Finish, bottled at a respectable 50% ABV. All eight expressions are of natural colour and non-chill filtered. Lovely stuff.

new whiskies from Tobermory Deanston Bunnahabhain

Deanston 2002 Pinot Noir

Our first pour was Deanston 2002 Pinot Noir, which started its journey back in December 2002. It was initially filled into refill casks and then transferred into pinot noir casks in June 2018. Deanston is a very light and adaptable spirit, Fernandez says, and this is due to a quirky production design. 

“The stills are very tall and they have an inclining lye pipe, which is quite unusual,” she explains. “Because of the shape, we get a lot of reflux, which creates a really light spirit.” For that reason, Deanston’s new make lends itself to a huge array of different cask types and different finishes. “With a Pinot Noir coming from the Champagne region it is very special, and I think it pairs beautifully with the Deanston,” she says.

On the nose, this whisky is crisp, with hints of vanilla and oak and plenty of green apples, says Brown. “The palate is quite dry, quite acidic but it still reminds me of Deanston – the crisp apple that I associate with Deanston is still coming through,” adds Fernandez. “Lovely maltiness and hints of tannins, and quite a long finish on this – the acidity lingers with a malty creaminess.”

“I definitely get the apples on the nose, but it’s almost like the bottom of the box of the apples – slightly musty, a wee earthy quality to it, but still got the sharpness,” Dr Sinclair continues. “The finish is incredible, it comes in waves. You get the sharpness, then it dies down and the creaminess comes in, and it just ripples off into the distance to the back of your throat. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

new whiskies from Tobermory Deanston Bunnahabhain

Tobermory 2007 Port Pipe Finish

Next stop, Tobermory. As we referenced earlier, the Isle of Mull-based operation produces two single malts: Tobermory, which is unpeated, and Ledaig, which is peated. “The distillation process for both of them is exactly the same – just slightly different cut points for the Ledaig just to get all the phenols over,” says Fernandez.

Today we’re tasting Tobermory 2007 Port Pipe Finish, which was distilled and filled into refill hogsheads in October 2007 before transferring to Port pipes in June 2016 for a further four years’ maturation. Tobermory’s new make spirit is quite complex, says Fernandez, and more robust compared to Deanston.

“Tobermory’s new make is packed full of citrus, especially orange, and this really comes through in this Tobermory limited edition,” says Fernandez. On the nose, “there’s a lot of sweet citrus, poached pears, Turkish delights, rose petals, and a hint of cold espresso. On the palette, really creamy, beautiful sweetness with pears and oranges coming through. Rich oak, vanilla, caramel and warming spice.”

Dr Sinclair agrees. On the nose, “jasmine and liquorice, and then that vanishes and you get that creamy rich sweet flavour coming through from the port influence,” he says. “At the end, it’s warm and rich with five-spice, and when you add a couple of drops of water into it, the finish seems to last even longer – it’s as though you’ve turned the volume down from 10 to seven, and it’s just continuing like that off into the distance.”

“The finish is just amazing on this,” Brown agrees. “The balance between Tobermory spirit and the Port wood cask is just spot on. Sometimes port overpowers whisky, but in this, it complements the Tobermory spirit so beautifully. An absolutely stunning dram.”

new whiskies from Tobermory Deanston Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain 2008 Manzanilla Matured

Our final Scotch whisky stop for the day is Bunnahabhain on Islay. The first bricks were laid down in 1881, and it first went into production in 1883, says Brown. The distillery exclusively produced peated whisky until 1963, where the production pivoted to unpeated only. Since 2003, the site has produced both unpeated and peated whiskies, and as such has released both styles in this years’ collection. 

The one we’re tasting – Bunnahabhain 2008 Manzanilla Matured – is unpeated, and has been matured entirely in former Manzanilla sherry casks for 11 years, having been filled on 2 July 2008. “On the nose, you get salted caramel, creamy berries, rich oak, honeyed cashew nuts, dried fruit, and there’s a subtle spice,” says Brown. “With a wee bit of water in it, the berries come out more and more – it’s an absolutely beautiful nose.”

On the palate, you’ll find “lovely dried fruit and fig with sweet malt, candied fruit, and a nice oak toffee taste,” he continues. “I get a salty, briny note, I don’t know if it’s just because the cask has been beside the sea since 2008. On the finish, more dried fruit and salted caramel – a bit of water in it and you get more spiciness coming through; a drier finish with more oak. For me, it’s an absolutely cracking whisky.”

“This finish is so long and so full,” agrees Fernandez. “The flavours just coat your mouth and linger there, all the dried fruits you mentioned, that salted caramel. Completely with you on the salty note. I think this is absolutely exceptional.” 

And Dr Sinclair agrees. “Adding a drop of water at the end, the saltiness just goes right up,” he says. “It’s dry, it’s clean, it’s crisp, and then you get that lovely caramel coming through towards the end. For me, Bunnahabhain and Manzanilla just work. This is a really good example of that pairing coming together in harmony.”

The new Distell bottlings will be available to buy from Master of Malt soon.

*Excluding the Ledaig 2007 Pedro Ximenez Finish, bottled at 55.5%, which is currently a visitor centre exclusive. We’ll let you know if this situation changes.

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Why coconut water is making waves in the drinks industry

Step aside, mainstream mixers! Whether it’s stirred into a long drink, frozen into ice cubes, or cooked down into simple syrup, coconut water is having a moment in the spotlight – and…

Step aside, mainstream mixers! Whether it’s stirred into a long drink, frozen into ice cubes, or cooked down into simple syrup, coconut water is having a moment in the spotlight – and given its versatility, it’s easy to see why. We asked four bartenders to share tips and advice for making drinks with coconut milk’s trendier cousin…

Light, sweet and viscous, coconut water is the clear liquid found in the centre of young, green coconuts. It has plenty of healthful attributes – the hydrating liquid is packed with electrolytes and boasts more potassium than four bananas – although mixing it with high-abv booze will likely quash those instantly. Still, nice to know they’re there.

So, what makes coconut water such an excellent mixer for spirits? “One of the best things about coconut water is its body,” says Jemima Christie, bar manager at Filthy XIII in Bristol. “It immediately adds a richer mouthfeel to a drink. It also has a saltiness which helps to amplify some of the more subtle flavours in the other ingredients it’s paired with.”

It’s also extremely versatile, Christie continues and has a longer shelf life than other natural liquid ingredients. “Coconut water is a natural ingredient but can last longer pre-batched than perishable natural mixers, like fruit juice, or other coconut products, like coconut milk or cream,” she says. “It can also be mixed with acids without risking curdling, which can happen with these creamier ingredients.”

coconut water

Coconut water is full-bodied, versatile and has a long shelf life

When it comes to mixing up a drink, the subtle toasted nuttiness of coconut water pairs particularly well with darker spirits, says Christie – but it can also be a medium for introducing coconut flavours to lighter spirits “without overpowering the profile of the spirit or changing the texture of the drink too much, which can sometimes be a problem when using coconut milk or cream,” she says. 

It’s a bit of a chameleon mixer, agrees Joe McCanta, head of mixology and education for Bacardi. “I’ve made equally delicious vodka and Scotch whisky cocktails with coconut water,” he says. “In fact, one of my all-time favourite cocktails essentially pairs Dewar’s whiskey with coconut water – and really works! It’s lovely with gin as well, because the pine notes of the juniper pair exceptionally well with the green notes in the coconut water.” 

Coconut water also goes exceptionally well with Caribbean white rum and even cachaça, says Marco Nardi, mixologist and general manager at Michelin-starred L’Ortolan and brand ambassador for Binary Botanical, “but you will need to be careful and balance the cocktail properly”. A statement with which Franck Dedieu, brand ambassador for Bacardi Limited, agrees. “The key is to make sure the other ingredients are working well together,” he adds.

coconut water

The Grey Goose Magnifique mixes vodka, coconut water, sea salt and orange blossom water

Your garnish choice really depends on the profile of the cocktail you’re making, Dedieu continues, but citrus peels – such as orange, lemon and lime – and tropical garnishes like passionfruit, pineapple, and mint all work well with coconut water. “I love using spices with coconut water like nutmeg, cinnamon or especially cardamom,” adds McCanta. “From a visual perspective, it’s amazing to use the husk or shell but also things like pineapple leaves or dehydrated pineapple.”

Nardi, meanwhile, recommends “dehydrated pineapple slices, fresh coconut chutney, fresh coconut powder on a mango tuile – a type of thin French biscuit – or my all-time favourite, chocolate and coconut powder combined and placed on the rim of the glass,” he says. You could also use coconut water as part of a garnish too, adds Christie – “maybe as part of a spray, for example, because it’s got that subtle, sweet aroma.”

Coconut water works great in place of a regular mixer – typically a ratio of 3:1 – but if you’re feeling experimental, there are a number of ways you can play around with it. Since coconut water has a lot more body than regular water, it’s ideal for making syrups and cordials with a fuller, creamier mouthfeel, says Christie (simply combine one part coconut water, one part sugar, and a drop of orange blossom, as suggested by Dedieu).

coconut water

Will you be giving coconut water a go? Let us know in the comments

“Coconut water also works really well carbonated, because it naturally has the sweetness and saltiness that normally gets added to sodas pre-carbonation,” Christie continues. “We used carbonated coconut water as the lengthener in our Blue Hawaii; it carried through the tropical, coconut flavour that we wanted, but stayed a lot fresher and more natural tasting than the artificially flavoured sodas you can buy pre-made.”

Alternatively, you could make ice cubes with coconut water – “although be aware that it has a lower freezing point than water, so you need to get them very cold,” says McCanta – or use it to infuse tropical fruits such as papaya, mango or pineapple, as Nardi suggests: “The infusion period improves the characteristic of both the fruit and the coconut water,” he says.

When choosing a coconut water brand to pair with your favourite spirit, opt for as ‘raw’ a liquid as possible, advises McCanta, “Coconut water works best when poured directly from a coconut, or at least not pasteurised,” he says. “Too many brands cookout the best parts of coconut water and take away all of that beautiful subtlety.”

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