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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

Sassy: Putting the sass in cidre

Sassy in France blends traditional Norman techniques with modern flavour profiles and marketing to make an authentic cider with a twist. We meet the man with cider flowing through his…

Sassy in France blends traditional Norman techniques with modern flavour profiles and marketing to make an authentic cider with a twist. We meet the man with cider flowing through his veins, Xavier D’ Audiffret Pasquier.

First, let’s get that name out of the way. It doesn’t come from that tired word to describe young heroines, ‘sassy’. No, the brand is named after the Château de Sassy owned by the family of the brand’s founder Xavier D’Audiffret Pasquier. Sometimes in France, the word Chateau can be used rather generously to describe large farmhouses, but the family’s place is the real thing, looking for all the world like a miniature Versailles. 

Sassy_Château founders

Xavier D’Audiffret Pasquier (left) and Pierre-Emmanuel Racine-Jourden in the grounds of the Chateau de Sassy

Changing the image of cider

The D’Audiffret Pasquier family are cider aristocracy, as you’d expect with such a magnificent name. They have been making cider and Calvados in Normandy since the 19th century. But Xavier’s (I’m going to break convention by using his Christian name as saying D’Audiffret Pasquier over and over again just looks too unwieldy) business has only been going since 2014 and is completely independent. 

His background is in finance but, he told us “I had always wanted to launch my own company.” So he partnered with his old school friend, the equally magnificently-monikered, Pierre-Emmanuel Racine-Jourden to create Sassy. The idea was to shake up the image of cider in France which Xavier said “is very old fashioned, something you eat with galettes and crêpes.” 

Getting the branding right was very important. But they also wanted to make a cider that tasted a bit different while staying true to their Norman roots. Working with a cellar master, they developed three recipes. “I wanted to create something different to what every other farmer is making in Normandy,” Xavier said. Whereas most French ciders use four different apple species, Sassy uses 20, and less of the classic bitter apples to create something “delicate, fine and well-balanced with good complexity” as he puts it.

Sassy apple

It all starts with the humble apple

Very artisan

He describes production as “very artisan.” He uses fruit from trees planted in loam soils which apparently creates a “nice acidity” with low yields, they only plant 150 trees per hectare compared with the normal 600, and he waits eight years for the trees to mature before using the apples. The ciders are made from a combination of his own orchards and bought-in fruit from ten local farmers. 

As well as rejuvenate the category, Xavier wants to help promote his home region and protect its cider inheritance. “We wanted to launch something that could help to revitalise the Norman economy. The wine economy is massive and we’d like to do the same now for cidre. We saw that a lot of apple producers were destroying orchards,” he said. 

Innovative production methods

To make the cider, the team uses a pneumatic Champagne press that works gently so it doesn’t introduce any harsh tannins into the juice. His ciders are lower in alcohol than the Norman average, beginning at 2.5% ABV for the Le Vertueux and going up to 5.2% ABV for the L’Inimitable. He puts this low alcohol down to shorter fermentation times which they cut short by chilling to leave a little residual sugar. The ciders are then bottled and carbonated. 

Despite the low alcohol, Sassy ciders are packed full of flavour with a distinct fruit taste – like spiced apple pie. They stay true to their roots with a little tannic bite. The taste is distinctly Norman but also very fruity, modern and accessible. My mother-in-law, who doesn’t really drink, loved them. I was particularly taken with the 3% ABV rose La Sulfureuse cider made with pink-fleshed apples. 

Sassy cider rose

Sassy cider, perfect for picnics

Good mixers

They are also, Xavier said, “great low ABV mixers.” I can vouch that it makes a superb Anglo-French Kir Royale combined with White Heron British Framboise. He’s been working with Michelin-starred chefs like Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon, and making sure his cider is poured in 5 star hotels and cocktail bars like Nightjar. The aim is to: “change the perception and be disruptive.” He has begun to see his hard work pay off with cider increasingly seen on “cool terraces in Paris,” he said.

In 2017, they began exporting to Britain. If cider has a problem in France with its old man image, then Britain has it far worse. Say cider and many will think of tramps or teenagers in parks. In the UK, cider only has to contain 35% apple juice compared with 80% in France. Sassy is made from 100% whole fruit, and yet it is in the same category as Kopparberg.

“Kopparberg, it is not real cider. It’s more like hard seltzer than a cider,” Xavier complained. At the same time he recognises that though much of what people drink isn’t great quality, the cider market in Britain is ten times the size of France. Low apple ciders “make cider popular. It’s not a good product, but people like it,” he admits.  

But attitudes are changing in England too, with companies like Cider is Wine or the Fine Cider Company insisting that cider should be made like wine and enjoyed as such. Better quality ciders are increasingly available in pubs and restaurants, and people are waking up to the joys of real, whole fruit cider. Sassy is a great place to start if you want to know what the fuss is about. 

Buy Sassy cider here

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Cocktail of the Week: The Vesper

Apparently there’s a new James Bond film out later this month so we’re knocking up a cocktail invented by Ian Fleming with Mermaid gin and vodka. It is, of course,…

Apparently there’s a new James Bond film out later this month so we’re knocking up a cocktail invented by Ian Fleming with Mermaid gin and vodka. It is, of course, the Vesper!

When writing this blog, we dive into our collection of cocktail books to try to find the real story behind various drinks. The answer is usually, nobody really knows. Perhaps because everyone was drunk at the time. Just look at the various competing histories of the Negroni or Martini; being a cocktail historian isn’t as easy as it looks.

The first appearance of the Vesper

With the Vesper, however, things are more straightforward. It was invented by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. It’s a twist on a Dry Martini and first appears in his 1953 book Casino Royale:

‘Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig “on the rocks” and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”’

Now, there’s a man who knows what he wants. The cocktail was named after Bond’s fellow agent, and, of course, lover, Vesper Lynd (memorably played by Eva Green in the 2006 film Casino Royale). We are mentioning it because later this month there’s a new Bond film, No Time to Die, which was seemingly named using the patented Random Bond Film Name Generator. See Die Another Day, Tomorrow Never Dies, A Chance to Die, To Die, To Sleep etc.

We don’t know terribly much about the new film apart from it spent a lot of time in development hell and was then further delayed because of the pandemic. But it looks like it’s finally here, to be released in Britain on 28 September. We’re particularly looking forward to it because Phoebe Waller-Bridge was drafted in at the last moment to provide some humour to the script. Perhaps she’ll add a much-needed dose of awkwardness to the numerous sex scenes. Whether it works or not, Fleabag meets Ian Fleming surely has to be worth watching. 

Mermaid Vesper

Photo credit: Jamie Lau / Studio Lau

Bond sells booze

Of course, Bond is about so much more than the film. There’s the cars, the watches, the suits, the dresses, and, of course, the booze. Bollinger is taking care of the Champagne and in recent films Macallan has played a prominent role but as yet we don’t think Bond has an official gin sponsor – which seems like an oversight on somebody’s part.

Bond used Gordon’s gin to make a Vesper but it wouldn’t have been the namby pamby 37.5% ABV modern UK Gordon’s, it would have been more like the stuff you can buy in duty free. Similarly, the vodka used, Smirnoff, would have been higher ABV. Also, it’s hard to imagine now, but vodka was considered quite the exotic drink at the time. In the early ‘50s, most people outside Russia or Easterrn Europe would never have tasted vodka so Fleming was showing off his sophistication with the Vesper. Perhaps the modern equivalent would be using an artisan mezcal. 

To make our Vesper we’re using Mermaid gin, weighing it at a nice 42% ABV, and made with rock samphire and other local botanicals on the Isle of Wight, and Mermaid Salt vodka. It’s really worth using a vodka with a bit of weight and flavour. Unfortunately for Vesper lovers, Kina Lillet, an aromatised wine made with quinine, is no longer made these days, but in its place you can use Lillet Blanc though it has less quinine character or Cocchi Americano.

Right, it’s time to put on your dinner jacket, practise your one-liners and get shaking. 

How to make a Vesper

75ml Mermaid Gin
25ml Mermaid Salt Vodka
12.5ml Lillet Blanc

Shake in an ice-filled shaker, until really cold, strain into a chilled Martini glass or coupe and serve with a twist of lemon. 

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New Arrival of the Week: North British 13 year old (Murray McDavid)

Today we’re shining a spotlight on a neglected though vital part of the Scotch whisky, grain whisky with a special single grain release from the North British distillery finished in…

Today we’re shining a spotlight on a neglected though vital part of the Scotch whisky, grain whisky with a special single grain release from the North British distillery finished in Port casks and bottled by Murray McDavid.

Grain whisky was, until very recently, the dutiful sister when compared to the film star that is malt whisky. While single malt became internationally famous, with books, films, articles and clubs devoted to it, grain whisky just quietly got on with providing the backbone for the Scotch whisky industry. 

It doesn’t help that grain whiskies distilleries look like oil refineries and they are sited in the Central Belt – Scotland’s industrial heart. In contrast, malt distilleries are picturesque, set in dramatic landscapes like the Isle of Skye or Speyside. But also, let’s be honest here, new make produced from wheat or maize (corn) in continuous stills up to around 94.8% ABV doesn’t have the character of malt spirit.

Time for grain to shine

And yet, according to Dean Jode from independent bottler Murray McDavid, it’s time for grain whiskies to have their “time on the red carpet.” Grain might be lighter in flavour than malt whisky but what it does have is texture and an amazing affinity with oak. Think of the flavours in Compass Box’s Hedonism, a blend of Port Dundas, Strathclyde and North British grain whiskies.

This release in 2000 did much to change people’s perceptions of what grain can do. Furthermore, whisky lovers began taking an interest in long-aged stock from ghost distilleries like the Caledonian in Edinburgh, closed in 1988, or Port Dundas, shuttered in 2011. In 2015, the Diageo Special Releases contained an opulent 1974 single grain from the Cally. With time, grain whisky can do magical things. 

The North British distillery

The North British distillery, pretty it ain’t

The North British

This week’s whisky was bottled by Murray McDavid and comes from the North British Distillery in Edinburgh, which until the opening of the Holyrood distillery, was the only whisky distillery in Scotland’s capital city. It was founded as a joint venture in 1885 by some of the biggest names in Scotch whisky, Andrew Usher, William Sanderson, James Watson and John Crabbie, to challenge the monopoly the Distillers Company Ltd. had over the supply of grain. The distillery is now jointly owned by Diageo and Edrington, and the whisky goes into blends such as the Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker.

But it wasn’t until 2018 that the first independent single grain bottlings appeared from this whisky powerhouse. Now Jode thinks that whisky lovers are so much more open to new flavours, styles and countries, that they appreciate grain whisky for what it is. It also helps that it’s often much less expensive than malt whisky (not the Diageo Cally Special Release though, which was released at £750 a bottle!)

Aggressively-matured

“Historically single grain hasn’t been finished with the same respect as single malt,” Jode said. Murray McDavid is changing this. Its 2007 North British release was finished for 1.5 years in four 225 litre French oak barriques sourced from a tawny Port producer Caves de Murca. Before that, it spent 11.5 years in four refill bourbon hogsheads. 1375 bottles have been filled at 50% ABV with no chill filtering or colour added. 

Jode described it as a “gamechanger in terms of what people can find in grain.” It’s very different to the sumptuous long-aged grains that have so far led the category. He said it was “young, bold and brash” and “aggressively-matured in first-fill Port casks.” I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a whisky described as “aggressively-matured.” 

Murray McDavid has been innovative since it was founded in 1996 by Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin, and Gordon Wright. In 2000, they purchased and revived Bruichladdich to great acclaim. Then in 2021, the firm sold Bruichladdich to Remy Cointreau before the following year being bought out by Aceo, a whisky bonding, bottling and brokerage firm. Operations moved to Coleburn, a closed distillery near Elgin. Jode has been with the firm since 2015 and he’s bringing malt-style cask finishes to the single grain, blended malt and blended Scotch categories. You can see the range here.

But back to that North British 2007. It’s a great sipping whisky either neat or on ice but like most grains, it’s a superb mixer too. Mix it in a Rob Roy with a good Italian vermouth to bring out those red fruit notes, and you’ll see why grain whisky is finally having its film star moment. 

North British 13 year old

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Nose: Buttery oak, raspberries, vanilla, toasted oats, and sugared cereal.

Palate: Mouth-coating creamy, with whiffs of lemon posset. Gently herbal, grassy notes balance juicy chocolate raisins, mocha and butterscotch.

Finish: Floral melon and citrus zest combine with boozy sultanas and warming oak spice.

North British 13 year old 2007 (Murray McDavid) is available from Master of Malt. 

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New Arrival of the Week: Deanston 12 Year Old 2008 Oloroso Cask 

We’re toasting a glorious new week here at Master of Malt with a limited edition Oloroso cask Deanston 12 year old. But that’s not all. Not by a long way….

We’re toasting a glorious new week here at Master of Malt with a limited edition Oloroso cask Deanston 12 year old. But that’s not all. Not by a long way. Alongside it, Distell has released three other limited editions from Bunnahabhain, Tobermory and Ledaig. Yes it’s bonus week!

Earlier this month we joined some of the team from Distell for one of those online tastings that have become fashionable of late. On the call were master blender Julieann Fernandez, master distiller Brendan McCarron and travel writer Robin McKelvie, who has just made a film about the three Scotch whisky distilleries in the Distell stable: Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and Deanston.

Deanston distillery

Deanston distillery is housed in a former mill

Not faceless whisky factories

McKelvie spoke passionately about his film. He said that the distilleries are not “faceless whisky factories”, they mean something to the local community. The real stars are the distillery workers who during the height of the pandemic were frustrated that they could not share the love of whisky with visitors. You can watch the film here

Julieann Fernandez commented on the film: “To be able to tell the stories behind each distillery and showcase the team who have worked so hard behind the scenes to keep our whisky flowing, is a real honour for us. These film clips pay tribute to these teams and our distillery homelands”.

This was Brendan McCarron’s first public engagement since his surprise move from Glenmorangie earlier this year. He described himself as the “new boy ” and seemed to be enjoying his new job thoroughly. The only problem is he’s spending too much money on whisky especially Ledaig, the peated expression from Tobermory: “my wife banned me from bringing anymore in.”

As well as enjoying McKelvie’s film, we were there to try four limited edition whiskies from the three distilleries. They range from the classic to the slightly off-the-wall, but all are worth trying especially as none is overpriced. Fernandez commented: “We’re incredibly excited to share these four wonderful, limited-edition whiskies with fans around the world, each with their own defining characteristics and flavour profiles.”

Here’s what we tried:

Distell Limited Editions

Deanston 12 year old Oloroso cask

This was distilled in 2008 before filling into an American oak Oloroso cask. McCarron is clearly a massive fan of his local distillery located near Stirling in the central belt of Scotland. “It has a waxy texture which is impossible to copy. You can try but you won’t succeed”, he said, “it has a robustness about it which suits the high ABV.” It’s bottled at 52.7% ABV.

This has an amazingly fruity nose with sweet orange notes, bitter orange peel and that classic Deanston waxy flavour. The palate is an explosion in the mouth of dried fruits, waxy notes (naturally), cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and honey with aromatic wood notes. McCarron described it as having a bitter cherry note like an old Chianti. It’s a big sweet dram but that spiciness balances the sweetness nicely.

Bunnahabhain Aonadh 10 year old

This is a daring whisky from Islay’s famous unpeated distillery. It’s aged in sherry casks but with a Port finish. Does sherry go with Port? McCarron commented: “It shouldn’t work but it does” and praised how the Port and sherry were harmonised. Fernandez explained how it was a matter of mixing a range of Port finishes together some at four, five or six years in the Port casks, “finding the right length of time in cask.” It’s bottled at 56.2% ABV.

So does it work? The nose is massive, lots of wood, caramel, cloves and cardamom with distinct varnish notes. It’s certainly distinctive. The palate is much more classic with sweet toffee balanced by a salty dryness and then in comes a massive wave of nuts, walnuts, brazil nuts and chestnuts. It’s like Xmas day on Islay. One that tastes far more harmonious than it smells. One to discuss at your whisky group!

Tobermory 17 year old Oloroso cask

We’ve been fortunate enough to try a lot of long-aged sherry cask malts from Tobermory recently and this is a classic example. It was distilled in 2004 at the Isle of Mull distillery and aged in Oloroso sherry casks. Nothing strange going on here. According to Fernandez, Tobermory has a light new make so you have to be careful not to swamp it in sherry. It’s bottled at 55.9% ABV.

This is a lovely dram for fans of sherry cask whisky. The nose is sweet with malt, toffee and dark chocolate, a dash of water brings out orange, orange peel and for one taster a little lime. I loved the sweet nuttiness on the palate, like roasted walnuts and coconut, with a thick full texture like creamy toffee. A load of spice comes in towards the end and it finishes dry to prepare you for another sip. Another great old sherried Tobermory.

Ledaig 22 year old PX cask

Distilled in 1999, this was fully matured in a Pedro Ximénez cask before bottling at 55.6% ABV. Ledaig is the peated version of Tobermory but it’s very much not a “peat monster” according to McCarron.

At first the main smell is the wine, floral like a muscat with dried fruit, then comes the wood smoke and bacon-flavoured crisps. The mouth is all about the balance of sweet grapey notes with cigar smoke, bonfire and roasted nuts. This is a very special dram. You can see why McCarron is spending so much money on Ledaig.

All in all some seriously distinctive and impressive drams from the Distell stable. 

They are available to buy from Master of Malt. Click on links above to buy.

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A first look at Johnnie Walker Princes Street

It’s been a long time coming but finally the all-singing, all-dancing Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh opens to the public on Monday 6 September. We were treated to a…

It’s been a long time coming but finally the all-singing, all-dancing Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh opens to the public on Monday 6 September. We were treated to a sneak preview. Here’s what we thought.

It has to be said that Edinburgh’s Princes Street, once the Champs-Élysées of the North, has seen better days. The grand old department store Jenners closed earlier this year and all along the street there are boarded-up shops and a noticeable shortage of tourists.

So, it’s a relief to reach the far end, opposite the Caledonian hotel, and see that another former department store, Binns, a magnificent art deco building, has been beautifully-renovated into the Johnnie Walker brand home. Diageo has even fixed the old clock which plays Scotland the Brave at seven minutes past the hour while Highland figures jig about.

It’s part of Diageo £185m splurge on Scottish whisky tourism which also includes the renovation of four distilleries’ visitor experiences, Clynelish in the HIghlands, Caol Ila on Islay (to open soon), Glenkinchie in the Lowlands and Cardhu in Speyside. The home is set over eight floors and 71,500 sq ft; it includes not one but two rooftop bars, a blending room, a shop, and a VIP whisky vault. But most of all, it’s the home of the Johnnie Walker Experience, which tells the story of the brand. So the big question is: is it worth a visit?

Johnnie Walker Princes Street

Make it so!

It’s all about flavour

The experience will cost you £25 as part of a guided tour and takes around 1.5 hours, and includes three drinks. Your ‘journey’, the word ‘journey’ is used a lot, starts on the ground floor where visitors take a flavour test. What you choose will determine the drinks that you receive on your tour – mine came up tropical fruit.

We then watched a short film which explained, as all brand ambassadors do these days, that whisky is for everyone, there are no rules, drink it how you will, as long as you do it responsibly etc etc. There’ll be no tartans, tweeds, slippers, spaniels, fireplaces and all the things that apparently people used to associate with whisky. 

From there, we were treated to a whistlestop history of the brand told by a dancing lady on a moving walkway – keep walking, get it? It’s witty and stylish though the history is rather rushed. From there, we were guided through various rooms while the guide explained the various flavours behind Johnnie Walker, aided or sometimes hindered by stunning sounds and visuals. Along the way, we got three whisky-based drinks based on our flavour profile. These are described as “carefully controlled” in the press bumf ie. you’re not going to get merry on your journey. Non-alcoholic options are available.

The company who designed the brand home is  Los Angeles-based BRC Imagination Arts, which is also responsible for Jameson’s Bow Street visitor centre and the new Guinness experience, both in Dublin. The firm’s signature consists of amazing light displays combined with audio which at times made the visit seem more like a music festival than a whisky tour. The decor is resolutely modern, coming in somewhere between Star Trek: the Next Generation and the future bits in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Johnnie Walker Princes Street archive

The Johnnie Walker archive, it’s not on the tour but should be

Two cheers

There are moments of pure magic that made a jaded old hack like me gasp. At times, the Willy Wonka comparisons are very much warranted but it’s by no means perfect.

Though it’s designed for non-whisky geeks, it also manages to be a bit confusing. There’s a room featuring the ‘Four Corners’ of Johnnie Walker, Clynelish, Glenkinchie, Caol Ila and Cardhu, but without much explanation of what they have to do with Johnnie Walker’s blends. The drinks included in the tour are no help as they are all heavily-diluted cocktails. 

There are also disembodied voices of Johnnie Walker blenders, names which will mean nothing to non-whisky geeks. I think it would have been better if all the explanations came from the guides – ours was brilliant on the day.

It’s hard not to get the feeling that the pyrotechnics are all sound and fury signifying nothing. Which is a shame because the Johnnie Walker story is so rich and naturally visual. Why wasn’t more made of the brand’s striking advertising history? For all the talk of diversity, there’s very little on how or indeed why Johnnie Walker became a global icon. Imagine a section of the brand’s cultural role in India, America or the Arab world.

Our group were particularly interested in a small archive office with its old Johnnie Walker posters. It wasn’t part of the tour but we sneaked in anyway. Apparently, there will at some point be archive tours available which sound brilliant. 

Finally, my worry is the futuristic decor is going to look very dated very quickly. The most visually successful place was the Whisky Makers’ Cellar, which is based on John Walker’s old cellar in Kilmarnock.

Johnnie Walker

Filling a bottle of Johnnie Walker

What else is there?

In addition to the main experience, there’s plenty of other things to do on site. We highly recommend having a drink in one of the two rooftop bars with their breathtaking views across the city. Naturally, there’s a shop where you can fill your own bottle.

Then there’s the Whisky Makers’ Cellar in the basement where a brand ambassador will blend for your group one of 11 different Johnnie Walker’s based on your personal tastes. Then the dreaded disembodied voice will tell you about your blend. The cellar contains various casks including some that are maturing into what will be a special Johnnie Walker Princes Street blend. 

Finally, there’s the invitation-only VIP Whisky Vault – housed in an old bank vault – which has the most astonishing selection of whisky samples from Brora, Port Ellen, Roseisle and other ‘unicorn’ whiskies.  

Amazing views from Johnnie Walker Princes Street

Amazing views from Johnnie Walker Princes Street

So, should I visit?

If you’re in Edinburgh, it’s well worth a visit, even if it’s just to have a drink and enjoy the amazing views. The tour is fun, visually-impressive and has a real magic about it. Having said that, if you’re a proper whisky nerd, we recommend you do the blending experience in the Whisky Makers’ Cellar or better still, get a bus to nearby Glenkinchie where the same team has done an amazing job of upgrading the visitor experience without Disneyfying a working distillery. It’s particularly good at explaining where various flavours come from during the whisky making process. Again our guide was superb.

Overall, it’s great that Diageo is investing so much in Edinburgh and to see a fine building put to use. Maybe that’s the answer to all those emptying department stores, turn them into drinking experiences.

Click here to book and for more information.

 

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New Arrival of the Week: TBWC Home Nations Series

Normally for this slot we highlight one product. This week, however, we’ve got a whole raft of exciting new whiskies (and some rum) from Britain and Ireland bottled exclusively for That…

Normally for this slot we highlight one product. This week, however, we’ve got a whole raft of exciting new whiskies (and some rum) from Britain and Ireland bottled exclusively for That Boutique-y Whisky Company. It’s TBWC Home Nations Series! 

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot of whisky talent in Britain and Ireland. Obviously Scotland and Ireland are world leaders, both vying for the position as the first place whisky (or whiskey) was made. Quick aside, why don’t the Scots, the Irish, and the Americans just sit down and just agree on a spelling for ‘whisky’ so we don’t have to use tortured constructions like whisk(e)y? This has gone on too long.

Anyway! It’s not just in the old countries, England and Wales now have serious strength in depth when it comes to whisky with the English Whisky Company in Norfolk turning 15 this year and Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons turning 21 in September. These pioneers have been joined by a legion of innovative distilleries making bold, distinctive whiskies.

British & Irish Lions, but with booze

So to celebrate all this talent, That Boutique-y Whisky Company is releasing the Home Nations Series. The idea of the ‘home nations’ is inspired by rugby where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales put aside their rivalries to play together as the British & Irish Lions, usually with magnificent effect.

Lineup- Home Nations TBWC/ TBRC

The whiskies include a six year old Penderyn from Wales, a cask strength three year old from Scotland’s Nc’Nean Distillery, and a very special 29 year old Irish single malt from an undisclosed distillery (though you can probably guess which it is.)

Meanwhile, team England fields a 12 year old from the English Whisky Company in Norfolk, a 7 year old from Adnams in Suffolk, a 3 year old single grain from the Oxford Artisan Distillery, and a 3 year old from the Cotswolds Distillery. Meanwhile we have two nearly whiskies from Circumstance in Bristol and White Peak in Derbyshire

There’s rum too!

But that’s not all! The Home Nations series includes three rums: a 17 month rum from Ninefold in Scotland, an 18 month rum from Greensand from Kent ,and a 2 year old from J. Gow on Orkney! Plus a selection of rare single malt Scotch whiskies bottled exclusively for That Boutique-y Whisky Company – see the full range here.

I’ve pulled out three that I particularly liked below. These are largely single barrels and bottled at cask strength or high ABV. All come in 50cl bottles. Numbers are extremely limited so hurry, catch the home nations while you can.

Circumstance TBWC

Circumstance 40 Days Old Batch 1

Type: Wheat spirit

Cask types: Matured in a drum with charred English oak spindles

ABV: 59.8% 

We visited this distillery a couple of years ago and were amazed by the innovations going on with yeasts, fermentation times and, most of all, ageing. This shows how you can get masses of flavour into a young spirit without it tasting over-worked. Extremely clever.

Nose: Super sweet, chocolate digestives and ginger nuts. It’s like a party in the biscuit aisle at Sainsbury’s!

Palate: Sweet toffee and chocolate and then spicy. Really really spicy with black pepper, chilli and bitter minty notes – like Fernet Branca. Some massive spicy wood action happening here.  

Finish: Spices go on and on, seriously intense!

English Whisky Co B3

English Whisky Company 12 Year Old Batch 3

Type: Single malt

Cask: first-fill bourbon

ABV: 63.4%

Wow! This is a mighty dram. This English whisky pioneer just keeps getting better and better. Can you imagine how excited we are to try a 15, an 18 or even a 21 from this distillery?

Nose: Toffee, chocolate, dried fruit, vanilla and creamy cereal notes, water brings out sweeter notes and peachy fruit.

Palate: Big spice, wood tannin, dark chocolate, savoury, and bitter coffee with a full texture like chestnuts. Water brings out aromatic tobacco notes, and with time a distinct apricot taste emerges. 

Finish: Layered and very complex, that apricot note goes on for a good ten minutes.  

Penderyn TBWC

Penderyn 6 Year Old Batch 1

Type: Single malt

ABV: 50% 

Cask type: This is from a single STR red wine hogshead.

Distilled in Penderyn’s unique Faraday still – like a cross between a pot and a column (read more about it here). It’s been a while since I’ve had Penderyn, this bottling shows how beautiful it is at a higher strength. 

Nose: Sweet cereal notes with apples, caramel, butter and toffee.  

Palate: Creamy marzipan texture, there’s a gentle sweetness with baking spices like cinnamon and creamy patisserie notes with orchard fruit. Lovely balance, no water needed here.

Finish: Gentle sweetness and spice. 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Woodsman

This week’s cocktail is called the Woodsman and it features a new blended malt called the Gladstone Axe from Biggar & Leith. It was inspired by founder Elwyn Gladstone’s illustrious…

This week’s cocktail is called the Woodsman and it features a new blended malt called the Gladstone Axe from Biggar & Leith. It was inspired by founder Elwyn Gladstone’s illustrious ancestor. And his axe. 

Blended whisky until recently was something of a staid category dominated by brands that had been around for decades like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and J&B. But things began to change at the turn of the century with the arrival of Compass Box making blends exciting and innovative blended whiskies. And then came brands such as Monkey Shoulder, Copper Dog and others. These were high quality blended malts that were as happy mixed or drunk neat.

Gladstone Axe - American OakMalts for mixing

Elwyn Gladstone worked at William Grant & Sons as new development director during the launch of Monkey Shoulder though, he told me, he didn’t work on that particular brand. He was, however, involved with Hendricks’s gin, Reyka vodka and Sailor Jerry rum. It was clearly a very fertile period for Grant’s. From there he went independent with Malfy Gin which was such a success that he sold it to Pernod Ricard. Since then with his company Biggar & Leith, he’s launched the Hotel Starlino range of aperitifs and vermouths, and others. 

Now he’s dug into his family’s history with a blended malt brand called The Gladstone Axe. It’s named after his great great grandfather William Gladstone, four times Liberal prime minister of Great Britain during the late Victorian period. The brand is aimed squarely at the cocktail market, and this week we’re using it to make a Highball-style cocktail called the Woodsman.

Scottish blood, Scouse upbringing

First a bit of history. William Gladstone was born and raised in Liverpool of Scottish stock. He said: “I am a man of Scotch blood only, half Highland and half Lowland, near the Border.” The family’s name came from a village near Biggar in South Lanarkshire. They were even involved in distilling. The family owned Fettercairn next to their big house in Scotland in Farsque,” Elwyn Gladstone said.

William Gladstone was influential in whisky in other ways. “The Spirits Act of 1860 allowed for blending of Scotch whisky from different places. It coincided with Scotch whisky booming and took over from Irish whiskey,” Gladstone said. According to a little book that Biggar & Leith has produced to promote the whisky, Gladstone was “instrumental in abolishing burdensome taxes and introducing legislation that allowed Scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time.” In 1861, Gladstone liberalised the selling of wine with the Single Bottle Act allowing for the first time for wine to be sold by the bottle. This created the system we have today of off-licenses and laid the foundation for Britain to become a wine drinking country.

Gladstone and his Axe, Gladstone Axe

William Gladstone with one of his many axes

A gap in the market

But back to the whisky. The range currently consists of two pure malt whiskies: American Oak, a Highland blend, including Fettercairn, naturally, and the Black Axe, a blend of Highland and Islay. The aim was to simplify Scotch whisky into what Elwyn Gladstones sees as its two most recognizable styles: sweet and honeyed; smoky and peaty. 

According to Gladstone (not the PM, this is getting confusing): “Scotch whisky has gone in two directions, really cheap and very commodified, or it’s getting complicated and rarefied like Cognac, which is hard for consumers to understand and indeed afford.” So he thinks with the Gladstone Axe that he has spotted a gap in the market. There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as interesting as a single malt. “Blended things are often more delicious than individual components,” Gladstone said.

They’re both my kind of whiskies, full of flavour and built for drinking rather than gingerly sniffing out of Glencairn glasses. I found the American Oak particularly nice in an Old Fashioned, especially when sweetened with PX sherry, and it’s also pretty handy in a Whisky and Soda.

Gladstone’s axe?

The name, the Gladstone Axe, comes from the former PM’s penchant for cutting down trees. Apparently only the rotten ones got the Gladstone treatment. He had a collection of axes and used to give special ones to people as gifts. They became his symbol, a metaphor for cutting out the corrupt dead wood in society. Rather like the ‘broom of reform’ in O Brother Where Art Thou?

So this week’s cocktail is aptly named, the Woodsman. It’s of the Highball family with refreshing lemon juice balanced with a simple syrup. You could substitute plain sugar for the syrup from Maraschino cherries which takes it into hedonistic territory.

Take a sip and raise a glass to Gladstone and his axe.

The Woodsman, Gladstone Axe

How to make the Woodsman

40ml Gladstone Axe American Oak 
25ml lemon juice
12ml simple syrup
50ml club soda 

Pour the whisky, lemon juice, and syrup into a Highball glass or tumbler filled with ice cubes. Give it a good stir, top with club soda. Garnish with a Hotel Starlino Maraschino Cherry and a slice of orange.

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New Arrival of the Week: Sollasa

Forget lager or white wine, a new aperitif called Sollasa promises to be the perfect match with Indian food. We put it through its paces. One of the great questions…

Forget lager or white wine, a new aperitif called Sollasa promises to be the perfect match with Indian food. We put it through its paces.

One of the great questions of our time is: what do you drink with Indian food? You’ll often read that certain wines cope well with spicy flavours such as off-dry floral whites like Gewurztraminer or spicy reds like Australian Shiraz. It’s well worth reading Guardian columnist Fiona Beckett whose website is a great source for tricky food and wine combinations. And yet when it comes to spicy food most of us reach for pure refreshment in the form of lager including various ‘Indian’ lagers which are usually brewed in Bedford or somewhere like that.

Vishal Patel and his brother-in-law Sajag Patel, Sollasa

Vishal Patel and his brother-in-law Sajag Patel

Characterful food needs characterful drink

Vishal Patel and his brother-in-law Sajag Patel are the duo behind a new Indian-inspired aperitif called Sollasa. He told me that while British tastes in Indian food had become increasingly sophisticated with premiumisation and a growing awareness of the many regional cuisines, what we drink has not moved with the times. “Drinks are stuck in the ‘80s with pints of Cobra and Kingfisher,” he said, “surely there must be something better than a pint of lager?”

Some Indian chefs are sticking with beer but realise that highly-spiced food works better with characterful beers. The head chef at Quilon in London, Sriram Aylur, is a huge British ale fan and offers old years of Fuller’s 8.5% ABV Vintage Ale – a strong London ale that improves with time in the bottle. In fact, so strong is the affinity of Indian food with English beer styles, that someone should open a pub that serves samosas, pakoras, and bhajis instead of sausage rolls, pork pies and beer. It would make a killing. 

Spirits with food

India, however, has much more of a spirits-led food and drink culture. Indeed, it’s the largest whisky market in the world, and we’ve learned that whisky Highballs can be a great match with Indian food. So the Patel duo thought it would be more authentically Indian to have a spirit-based drink to answer this perennial question.

Sajag Patel’s background is in marketing whereas Vishal Patel works for Distill Ventures – Diageo’s venture capital arm – but Sollasa is an independent side project.

It’s a grain-based spirit flavoured with coriander, cardamom, orange, lime, lychee, mint, basil and sea salt weighing in at 20% ABV. The name comes from the Manasollasa, a 12th-century Sanskrit text thought to be one of the first Indian recipe books. 

According to the website they “worked with leading chefs, mixologists and food scientists to develop the perfect partner.” Work began in December 2020 and by June the product had been perfected and was ready to hit the shelves.

Originally, the plan was to launch it in more upmarket Indian restaurants, but with the trade is still finding its feet. Patel was aware that a brand new drink would be low on most restaurateurs priority list. Nevertheless, he told me that they had great feedback and was confident that it would soon lead to listings. At the moment the priority is for online retailers like Master of Malt.

Sollasa and tonic

Sollasa and tonic, lovely with spicy food

Sollasa, ice and tonic

The simplest way to drink it is with tonic water to create a refreshing drink that’s lower in alcohol than wine. There’s also a range of cocktails that you can make with it on the company’s website. Vishal said “Sollasa truly compliments food but doesn’t overpower it. We wanted it to have a bit of bite and when mixed with tonic about 5% ABV, about the same as beer but less gassy.” 

I tried it mixed with ordinary Fever Tree tonic, lots of ice and a slice of orange. It tasted delicious and worked brilliantly with my wife’s wonderful and totally inauthentic chicken curry. So next time you’re cooking Indian food, forget cold lager, try Sollasa.  

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Zesty notes of sweet orange and zesty lime balance more floral, perfumed notes of lychee. Sweet, fragrant garden herbs lead wonderfully into soft wafts of aromatic spices and a subtle touch of salinity, reminiscent of fragrant Indian cooking and spice shops.

Sollasa is available now from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.

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Master of Malt tastes… Diageo Prima & Ultima

We were invited to the recently-reopened Brora distillery, virtually, to taste the second batch of Diageo Prima & Ultima whisky releases including rare malts from Linkwood, Mortlach, Convalmore and Brora…

We were invited to the recently-reopened Brora distillery, virtually, to taste the second batch of Diageo Prima & Ultima whisky releases including rare malts from Linkwood, Mortlach, Convalmore and Brora itself. The collection will set you back north of £20k. So is it worth the money?

We reported earlier this month that Diageo was releasing another super swanky Prima & Ultima collection of rare malts. It will set you back a cool £23,500 for the collection, because of course it will. This rare and old Diageo stock, people. Every drop makes a sound like a cash register opening. Ka-ching!

But you can’t simply order a set online. Only 376 have been produced so you have to register online for a chance, just a chance, to buy; Monday 23 August is the last day you can do this (there’s more info here). Furthermore, set #1 signed by master blender Maureen Robinson will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong from 15-24 September.

Robinson and brand ambassador Ewan Gunn hosted a tasting last week of these rare whiskies from Brora, and Master of Malt was lucky enough to get an invite to taste, virtually. The big question is, can any collection that expensive be worth the money?

maureen robinson master blender at Diageo

Master blender Maureen Robinson doing that thing with the glass that whisky pros do

The last shall be first, and the first last

The collection gets its name because it includes some of the first and last casks from each distillery, or from a period in that distillery’s history. For example the Auchroisk is literally the very first cask filled when it opened in 1974, whereas the collection contains some of the last casks of Brora 1980 in existence. All were bottled earlier this year. 

Robinson commented: “This is a selection of very special single malts – some that have never before seen the light of day and others that are the fleeting and final examples of their kind. Each bottling shares a glimpse into the history of Scotch and one that I am honoured to have witnessed in person. Some of these casks I helped to lay down, and have taken great pleasure in tending to them since, so I chose them with rich memories in mind.” 

She recalls, for example, choosing to hold back the cask filled at Auchroisk knowing it would be special for the future, while revealing that maturation trials undertaken with Linkwood and The Singleton have now been realised in these releases. It’s all very exciting. And yet, it was a lesser known name that really stood out.

Convalmore shines

Full details and some tasting notes below, but for this taster the standout whisky by a country mile was the Convalmore (read about the distillery’s history here). This is the last of the 34 year old stock and was bottled just before the Speyside distillery closed for good. It has the most amazing waxy texture with gorgeous appley fruit. Whereas a couple of the whiskies in the collection were very cask-led, the Convalmore really just tasted of itself.

Compared with the other Diageo ghost distilleries like Port Ellen or Brora (a  Lazarus distillery now?), it’s very much under the radar. You can pick up bottles for £600 and £1300 which looks like a bit of a bargain when you see what Port Ellen is going for these days. Sadly, according to Ewan Gunn, Diageo has no plans to bring this one back from the dead.

So our big tip is buy Convalmore, buy Convalmore and then go back and buy more Convalmore before prices catch up with the quality. 

Right without further ado let’s look at the rest of those whiskies. But before we do, would we pay £22,500 for the lot? Hell, no, but then they’re not aimed at us. We just hope whoever gets their hands on a set, drinks them, because there are some phenomenal whiskies here. 

The Nightcap: 6 August

There’s some very tasty kit here

Tasting Prima & Ultima

Prima

Auchroisk 1974 

ABV: 48.7% ABV 

Casks: single refill European oak butt 

Nose: Sweetly fruity nose, apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, custard with touch of vinegar on here too, like an oxidative wine wine.

Palate: Sweet notes of fudge and honey, with black pepper and lots of orchard fruit, bruised apples and cider.

Finish: Toffee apples

Overall: Another stand out whisky. Really delicious and fruity.  

Lagavulin 1992 

ABV: 47.7% ABV 

Casks: Taken from five freshly-charred American oak hogsheads. First of a small experimental batch matured in such casks. 

Nose: Wood fire and sweetness, toffee, peppery, cloves, honey, very distinctly Lagavulin. 

Palate: Tangy and salty, lovely almondy nutty texture, gentle caramel sweetness, vanilla, creamy, then wood smoke comes in with a twist of black pepper.

Finish: Creamy and wood smoke mingle. 

Overall: Another gorgeous textured whisky, loved the mixture of creaminess and smoke. 

Linkwood 1981 Prima & Ultima

Linkwood 1981 

ABV: 52.9% 

Casks: 12 years in refill casks followed by 24 years in PX and Oloroso-seasoned new American oak.

Nose: Raisins and dates with a spicy aromatic quality, a touch of varnish, and a strong floral note like lavender. 

Taste: Maraschino cherries and blackcurrants, chocolate and raisin, with an aromatic quality running through it plus a floral violet note. Water brings out a woody tannic side, and dries it out a bit

Finish: Long and very fruity

Overall: Sherry bombers will love this one. Drink it at full strength as water rather spoils it. 

The Singleton of Glendullan 1992 

ABV: 60.1% ABV 

Casks: first kept in refill wood before being double matured in two Madeira casks for 14 years. Robinson described it as “leap into the unknown.”

Nose: Grassy fruity notes, honey, peaches, orange and then a huge hit of toffee. 

Palate: Lots of toffee and dark chocolate, some light orangey fruit, with baking spices, Water really brings out the spice turning those warm notes into hot chilli and pepper.

Finish: Brown sugar and sticky sweet wine notes plus chilli peppers. 

Overall: Massive Madeira influence but it stays on the right side of too much and doesn’t overpower it. 

Ultima:

Convalmore 1984 

ABV: 48.6% ABV 

Casks: taken from three refill American oak hogsheads 

Nose: Waxy with a touch of cheese rind, almonds and fresh green apples.

Palate: Creamy texture, touch of pepper, waxy, almond texture, pears, fresh apple,and a little cinnamon. With time sweeter notes like brown sugar and coconut come out. Just a hint of cheese rind too. 

Finish: Long and waxy, gets sweeter with each sip.

Overall: Totally irresistible.

Brora 1980 

ABV: 49.4% 

Casks: three refill American oak hogsheads

The last of the 1980 casks which were distilled during the ‘golden age’ of heavily-peated Brora.

Nose: Some maritime and wood fire notes, but smoke is quite reticent. It’s a little mucky on the nose with a touch of cider and old leather boots plus citrus fruit. 

Palate: Toffee and salted caramel with a strong saline note, herbal and mint with smoked meat and black pepper. Texture is waxy and then deeply savoury. 

Finish: Long finish with that gorgeous waxy note persisting. 

Overall: Totally distinctive and on great form. They don’t make whisky like this anymore (or maybe they do).

Talisker 1979 Prima & Ultima

Talisker 1979 

ABV: 47.5%ABV 

Casks: Taken from four refill American oak hogsheads, the last 1979 American oak hogsheads fully matured in Talisker’s Warehouse no. 4, right by the Atlantic ocean.

Nose: Warm and spicy, almond, cinnamon and nutmeg, smoked meat notes, sea air, plus some richer notes of toffee and apple. 

Palate: Very spicy, chilli peppers and black pepper, quite fierce, then the bonfires come in, with a splash of sea air and citrus notes. A little toffee in the background.

Finish: Spicy, with a little sweetness coming through. 

Overall: Lovely balance between fierce spice and smoke, and sweeter fruity notes. Very nice.

Mortlach 1995 

ABV: 52.4%  

Casks: taken from a single PX/Oloroso-seasoned European oak butt

Nose: Dried fruit, raisins, burnt caramel, toffee, orange peel, touch of sulphur

Palate: Peppery spice, cloves, liquorice, tangy fruit, deep sweet flavours of fudge and dark chocolate, brandy-soaked cherries, plus some wood tannin. 

Finish: That spicy liquorice note just goes on and on, with notes of walnuts. 

Overall: This really needs time to open up to reveal its charms. Straight out of the bottle, it’s a bit monolithic, but reveals complexity after half an hour in the glass. 

 

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Cocktails in the City celebrates its 10th birthday

Cocktails in the City celebrates its 10th birthday this year with an event 20/21 August at Bedford Square Gardens in London. We talk to founder Andrew Scutts about putting on…

Cocktails in the City celebrates its 10th birthday this year with an event 20/21 August at Bedford Square Gardens in London. We talk to founder Andrew Scutts about putting on a festival in a big city, weathering Covid, and the future of cocktails.

During the upheavals of 2020/1, for some businesses the difference between trading and bankruptcy was having a sympathetic landlord. According to Andrew Scutts, founder of Cocktails in the City: “the reason we could get back on our feet was with the help of Bedford Estates, they changed our payment structure.” The group that owns a large chunk of Bloomsbury saw the value in attracting people safely back to central London.

Scutts managed to put on an outdoor Cocktails in the City event in Bedford Square Gardens in September last year to raise money for the hospitality industry. This was followed up by three ‘Summer Series’ events this year in June, July and now this 20/21 August. Overall this summer’s activities will feature around 50 bars serving over over 7,000 visitors.

Andrew Scutts

Fun for all the family, Andrew Scutts is on the left

The ultimate cocktail festival

Running from 12 noon to 10pm this Friday and Saturday, it’s billed as ‘The Ultimate Cocktail Festival.’ Indeed, Scutts sees Cocktails in the City as offering all the fun of a music festival, dancing, music and partying, but without the drawbacks like crap drinks, camping, and dodgy toilets. “And you can get the tube home at the end of the night,” he said.

Scutts is clearly passionate about bars and drinks, and yet what he originally wanted to be was… a PE teacher! Yes, really. That was the plan following a degree in sports science at Birmingham University. And you can see, even via Zoom, that unlike some of us in the drinks industry, he still takes his fitness seriously.

Following a stint working at Mint Leaf in London, he planned to do his PGCE teacher training but he had to go home to Newcastle when his father became ill. So while he was there he got in touch with Blackwoods Gin who he knew from his time behind the bar and suggested that he become the firm’s North East rep.

A bar show with a difference

From there, all thoughts of the Adidas tracksuit and whistle were forgotten, as he moved back to London in 2003 to continue working in bars. It was at the mammoth Bar Show at Olympia that he had the idea for creating a small scale independent version. 

The Boutique Bar Show was born in 2005. The ethos was that every brand had a stand the same size so “the liquid took centre stage, not marketing spend,” Scutts said. Brands such as Sipsmith, Chase and Maverick Drinks were involved from the start.

Cocktails in the City

It’s the lads from Trailer Happiness who appeared at CitC this summer

Why not put on an event for consumers?

It was a trade-only show but Scutts had a brainwave: he had a venue and he had dozens of bartenders in town, why not put on an event for customers? So Cocktails in the City was born where “bars and brands would stand shoulder to shoulder and speak directly to consumers,” Scutts said. The first one took place in the grandeur of the Manchester Town Hall in 2011, followed by an Edinburgh event. The first London one was in 2014. 

According to Scutts, it proved a much better business model than the Boutique Bar Show (which he hasn’t put on for two years), and has run in different venues around the country ever since. This year, however, he is “playing it safe” and just putting events on in one venue, Bedford Square Gardens in London.

This Friday and Saturday’s event includes such famous bars as Callooh Callay, London Cocktail Club and the Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel. Scutts is particularly excited about a bar that hasn’t even opened yet called Boiler & Co, coming soon on Bankside, which will be working with Johnnie Walker on cocktails. This includes a delicious-sounding Rockstar Martini, a whisky-based riff on the Pornstar Martini, whose inventor Douglas Ankrah sadly died this week.

Rockstar Martini - Cocktails in the City

It’s a Rockstar Martini!

Every cloud

Finally, I asked Scutts how Covid has changed the hospitality trade. Apparently, it’s not all been negative in the way it has changed customer behaviour. People are now far more used to “booking ahead so operators know how many people will be coming through the business,” he said

It has also changed the theatre of cocktails with more action happening at the table rather than the bar, where cocktails are increasingly batched. Plus he thinks the “massive move to drinks at home” will continue. During the Pandemic, he launched his own range of batched cocktails so you can get the bar experience at home.

As good as these may be, it’s much more fun to go out. So, “fingers crossed for the weather,” Scutts said, though surely it wouldn’t be the ultimate cocktail festival without a classic Glastonbury downpour.

To buy tickets go here.

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