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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

New Arrival of the Week: Springbank 17 year old Madeira wood

Today we’re toasting the arrival of a limited edition Madeira cask whisky from a distillery that still does things the old ways, Springbank in Campbelltown. Hurry, it’s not going to…

Today we’re toasting the arrival of a limited edition Madeira cask whisky from a distillery that still does things the old ways, Springbank in Campbelltown. Hurry, it’s not going to be around for long.

You can tell that they do things a little differently at Springbank from the marketing bumf. There’s no fancy fonts, or guff about ‘lovingly hand-selected’ and ‘hand-signed’ casks. Instead you have something that would have looked a bit dated in 1981.

Production is similarly traditional. Everything, malting, distilling, maturation and bottling, takes place at the distillery. Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland still doing this. But that’s not the end of the anachronisms: the stills are direct-fired, with oil. There’s something called a rummager inside to remove burnt bits. Springbank has its own unique distillation process with three stills. It’s a bit hard to explain so I’m going to quote from The World of Whisky book: 

“The low wines, foreshots and feints are re-distilled with the next batch of low wines in an intermediate still before final distillation occurs in the spirit still.”

The unique still set-up at Springbank

So, the spirit is distilled 2.5 times. The wash and the spirit stills use shell and tube condensers while the intermediate still uses a worm tub.We scarcely need to say that there’s no chill-filtration or colouring used. The final unusual thing about Springbank is it has been in the hands of the same family since it was founded 1828. The current chairman of the distillery Hedley Wright is great grandson of founder John Mitchell. 

At one point, Campbeltown, on a peninsula next to the isle of Arran across the water from Glasgow, was home to a staggering 34 distilleries. For much of the 19th century, it was Scotland’s whisky powerhouse, famous for its heavy oily spirit which was much in demand for blends. Things began to go wrong with the advent of the railways which saw better-connected distilleries further north, Speyside basically, stealing a slice of the whisky pie. But there were other problems: the Campbelltown style was ill-suited to lighter blends that became fashionable, Prohibition struck a blow, and there are stories about unscrupulous distillers simply making bad whisky and ruining the town’s reputation. By the 1930s there was only one functioning distillery in town.

Springbank suffered too. It stopped distilling in 1926 only to reopen in 1933. It then shut down for nearly ten years in 1979 as the Scotch whisky industry fell into another trough, and when distillation resumed, it was with only a limited production. Of course, things are very different now, Sprinbank is one of the most sought-after whiskies in the world, with old bottling attracting big money on the auction market. 

Casks outside the distillery

Things were going so well that in 2004, Springbank reopened Glengyle distillery taking the number of working distilleries in Campbeltown to three, the final one being Glen Scotia. Just to confuse matters, Glen Scotia owns the Glengyle brand so new releases from Glengyle distillery have been released under the Kilkerran name. The 12 year old is well with trying if you want some of the Springbank style at a bargain price.

Springbank itself produces three different brands: Longrow, which is heavily peated and distilled twice, Hazelburn which is unpeated and triple distilled as well as the classic lightly-peated Springbank. This week’s new arrival is a limited edition of this classic style. 

Only 9200 bottles have been produced. It was aged in rum and bourbon casks for 14 years, before spending three years in Madeira casks, a total of 17 years, before being bottled in October 2020 at 47.8% ABV. That classic Springbank fullness mingles beautifully with the sweet nuttiness from the Madeira wine. It’s sure to sell out quickly but if you’re not one of the lucky ones, there are other Springbank and Campbeltown whiskies on the site.

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Big rich flavours with ginger cake, toffee, grapefruit rind and strawberry jam coming through strongly with underlying saline and smoky notes.

Palate: Spicy black pepper and briny peat leads with sweet notes of caramelised ginger, salted caramel and fennel coming through, and a thick oily feel in the mouth.

Finish: Long, peat character mingles with walnuts.

Overall: Beautifully-balanced dram combining all those classic oily briny Springbank notes with sweet jam, toffee and nuts from the Madeira cask.

Springbank 17 year old Madeira wood is now available from Master of Malt.

Springbank Madeira

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New Arrival of the Week: Foursquare Détente

This week we’re particularly excited about the latest Exceptional Cask Selection rum from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. It’s been aged in ex-bourbon and Port casks for ten years. And…

This week we’re particularly excited about the latest Exceptional Cask Selection rum from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. It’s been aged in ex-bourbon and Port casks for ten years. And that’s not all, there’s a new vintage bottling on the way too. Double trouble!

First of all, let’s get the name out of the way, ‘Détente.’ It might sound a bit peculiar but it’s just the latest in a long line of gnomically-named bottles from the Foursquare Distillery in Barbados like ‘Criterion’, Nobiliary’ and ‘Empery’ –– some to think of it, I think I lost £20 on ‘Empery’ at Cheltenham a few years ago. Détente, though, brings to mind the Cold War, the word was used to refer to moments of relative calm between the USSR and USA. Could it be a coded reference that some sort of agreement over the terms of the island’s GI has been reached by those two titans of Bajan distilling, Richard Seale from Foursquare and Alexandre Gabriel from the West Indies Distillery?

Sadly not. The word in French can simply mean ‘relaxation’ and is probably just a reference to the perfect way to enjoy it. Whatever the meaning of the name, there’s no doubt that this is an exceptional drop. It’s a single blended rum which means that both pot and column still spirit is used, specifically a double retort pot still and the continuous twin column still for all you rum nerds out there. The final blend is made up of a ten year old, aged exclusively in ex-bourbon casks combined with a rum that was aged for four years in ex-bourbon casks before spending another six in ex-Port casks. It’s bottled at 51% ABV with no chill-filtering, colour or sugar additions. 

But that’s not the only exciting new bottling from Foursquare. The company has also released another rum in its Exceptional Cask Selection series this month. It’s also a blend, distilled in 2008 and spent the last 12 years in ex-bourbon casks before bottling at 60% ABV. Full details of both below.

The Seale family have been on the island of Barbados since the 1650s and involved in the rum business since at least the 1820s. The brand R.L. Seale dates back to the 1920s. Foursquare, however, is a much more recent creation. The distillery was founded in 1995 by Sir David Seale and is now run by his son Richard, a master distiller and blender. Under the Foursquare label, the firm produces some of the finest rums in the Caribbean to Richard Seale’s exacting standards. He is outspoken in his opposition to any sugar addition and off-island ageing, both techniques used (to great effect it has to be said) by Alexandre Gabriel at the West Indies Distillery, also in Barbados. So there’s a lot they disagree on which we have documented on the Master of Malt blog in the past. Anyway, that’s enough politics, let’s taste the rums!

From cask types to bottling dates, there’s no shortage of information on Foursquare labels

These are both exceptional liquids, that are best drunk neat or in very simple cocktails which let the quality hine through. With the Détente, I made perhaps the best Palmetto I’ve ever had, made half and half with Barbadillo sherry vermouth, served over ice with a dash of Angostura and some orange peel. Absolutely stunning. Here are the full tasting notes for:

Foursquare Détente Exceptional Cask Selection (available now from Master of Malt)

Nose: Extraordinary complexity: sweet notes like butterscotch and muscovado sugar mingle with spices including cinnamon and nutmeg, dark cherries and orange peel, and then powerful aromatic menthol notes and a touch, just a touch of acetone. 

Palate: Smooth with popcorn, dark chocolate, red fruit, molasses and creamy buttery notes but all the time with a vein of fiery pepper running through it. 

Finish: That menthol note comes breezing through again, like mint choc chip ice cream.

Foursquare 2008 (new stock coming in any day now at Master of Malt) 

Nose: Strong acetone notes like varnish and furniture polish followed by dark chocolate, coffee, and toffee.

Palate: Strong wood tannins, it really grips the mouth with a taste of tobacco, leather and bitter espresso coffee. Big alcohol too, providing black pepper and chilli. A dash of water softens it bringing out notes of milk chocolate, maraschino cherry, cooked apple and manuka honey. 

Finish: Long and intense, like biting into high cacao dark chocolate and those tannins linger. A finish you can chew. 

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Johnnie Walker film: ‘The Man Who Walked the World’

There’s a Johnnie Walker film called The Man Who Walked the World coming out today, 12 November, and we were fortunate enough to get a sneak preview and talk to some…

There’s a Johnnie Walker film called The Man Who Walked the World coming out today, 12 November, and we were fortunate enough to get a sneak preview and talk to some of the people behind it. Here’s what we thought.

As you might have noticed from the release of fancy new whiskies, the revamping of distilleries and the publication of a splendid biography, it’s the 200th anniversary of the Johnnie Walker brand. Now, there’s a film too. We can’t wait for the video game. But back to the documentary: it’s called The Man Who Walked the World and it’s directed by award-winning filmmaker Anthony Wonke for independent production company Something Originals and Partizan films. It features a mixture of whisky types including Dr Nick Morgan and Alice Lascelles with celebrities like Cappadonna from the Wu-Tang Clan, and people who are a bit of both like actress and brand ambassador Sophia Bush. There’s also some top cultural commentary from Jason Solomons, John Hegarty and Ekow Eshun.

Cappadonna from the Wu-Tang Clan is a fan of Johnnie Walker

We were fortunate enough not only to see the film but, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, listen to a discussion featuring some of the film’s participants. Though sadly not, from none more black heavy metal band The Black Label Society, who tried and failed to get endorsement from Johnnie Walker whisky. What’s amazing about The Man Who Walked the World was that it was made during the pandemic so the director Anthony Wonke couldn’t travel. He had to shoot the whole thing remotely using local film crews. Not so easy as the film travels from Baghdad to Brazil and had to be made as different countries were locking down.

The documentary is a race through the history of the whisky from its beginnings in Kilmarnock to becoming the world’s number one whisky brand. Wonke takes a global perspective looking at what Johnnie Walker means to different cultures and individuals. There’s a lot to cram in, too much really for a 45 minute film. At times it had the feel of a trailer for a longer, more satisfying film, But then, it’s not really aimed at hardcore whisky fans. Those looking for the full history should read Morgan’s book.

As the Wonke said during the press conference, after watching the film the audience should “feel like they’ve had a couple of shots of Johnnie Walker”. I certainly felt a little like that after viewing it though that might have had something to do with the Black Label Highball I was sipping at the time. 

1950s Johnnie Walker billboard advert

Here are five things we learned from the film:

Johnnie Walker fits in everywhere

Johnnie Walker has the ability to “walk with kings and not lose the common touch” as Alice Lascelles put it quoting Kipling. From the trans community of Burma to protest movements in Brazil; from your local cornershop to the swankiest bar in Dubai, Johnnie Walker is at home everywhere. 

Johnnie Walker was into diversity before it was popular

The brand was running aspirational adverts with black Americans enjoying Johnnie Walker back in the 1950s and ’60s (see above). There was no message beyond saying that Johnnie Walker is for everyone. Quietly powerful.

Johnnie Walker’s big birthdays tend to be in interesting times

It’s eerie how the brand’s 200th anniversary echoes its 100th which took place at a time when people were reeling from the first world war followed by the global flu pandemic. He does pick his moments, does Johnnie. 

Johnnie Walker is a global currency

One of the best bits in the film was an interview with an American intelligence officer working in Iraq who said that meetings with Iraqi politicians could not begin until there was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label on the table.

Johnnie Walker was an Indian film star

An Indian actor called Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi (1926-2003) who changed his name to Johnnie Walker. He was famous for playing drunks though as an observant Muslim he never touched a drop. His son features in The Man Who Walked Around the World.

The film will be broadcast on Discovery’s portfolio of brands and services from 12 November. For more information visit https://themanwho.film

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Blue Spot Irish whiskey returns after more than 50 years

The final spot is here! For the first time since the 1960s, there are four colours in the ‘Spot’ range of single pot still Irish whiskey with the arrival of…

The final spot is here! For the first time since the 1960s, there are four colours in the ‘Spot’ range of single pot still Irish whiskey with the arrival of the Madeira-aged cask strength Blue Spot. We spoke to people behind its rebirth and, most importantly, had a little taste.

In November 2018, we visited Dublin for the relaunch of Red Spot single pot still whiskey and while we were there, Kevin O’ Gorman from the Midleton Distillery hinted heavily that the team were working on the release of the final spot in the range, Blue. Well, now the wait is over. 

But before we dive in, first a bit of recap. The Spot range of whiskeys, of which Green Spot is the best known, are a relic of the old days when the big distillers didn’t bottle their own whiskey. Instead, merchants all over the country would buy and age new make spirit and sell it under their own brands. One such was Mitchell & Sons wine merchants in Dublin. They began buying spirit from John Jameson and Sons distillery on Bow Street in 1887 and filling it into empty wine casks, mainly sherry, Port, Malaga, Madeira and Marsala. 

Master distiller Kevin O’ Gorman

These casks would mature in the firm’s Fitzwilliam Lane cellars and then daubed with a spot depending on its ageing potential with red being the highest designation. At one point the firm sold four designations: Blue, a seven year old, Green, a ten, yellow, 12 and red, 15 year old. Gradually, however, the mighty Irish whiskey industry contracted and independent bottling died out. Green Spot survived, now made at the New Midleton distillery in Cork, but the other Spots were discontinued in the early 1960s.

At one time, Green Spot was the only single pot still whiskey available. It was hard to get hold of and often a welcome present for Irishmen living abroad. Peter Dunne from Mitchell & Sons told a story about two men coming into the shop and buying six bottles. He’d never sold so many before and was curious about who they were for. Apparently, these men were friends of Samuel Beckett on their way to visit him in Paris. 

Now, of course, things are very different, the style is revered and Green Spot is available globally.  Now an NAS expression, it contains whiskeys between seven and ten years old. Yellow Spot was reintroduced in 2012 as a 12 year old whiskey aged in sweet Malaga casks followed in 2018 by a 15 year old Red Spot aged first in bourbon and then Marsala casks. Now the final piece in the jigsaw is here. Sadly we weren’t able to travel to Dublin this time but instead did a Soom tasting with Katherine Condon and Kevin O’ Gorman from Irish Distillers, Jonathan and Robert Mitchell from Mitchell & Sons, and Humberto Jardin from Henriques & Henriques in Madeira.

This relaunched version is aged in bourbon and sherry casks like Green Spot, but adds Madeira, a wine which would have been imported by Mitchell & Sons. According to O’ Gorman, they didn’t really know what the original Blue Spot tasted like beyond that it was seven years old and had some Madeira influence, nobody has seen a bottle for years.

It’s back!

Jonathan Mitchell explained: “The inclusion of whiskey aged in Madeira casks adds flavours that would have been originally introduced into Irish whiskey by the Mitchell family. As the full Spot range comes back to life, we find ourselves bursting with pride for the role our family played in the creation of this treasured range of whiskeys.” These casks were coopered in northern Portugal before being sent to the island of Madeira for seasoning in Tinta Negra, a full-bodied medium sweet wine, for three years before they’re ready to be sent to Ireland to be filled with medium style pot still spirit. 

It’s a seven year old whiskey but according to master distiller Kevin O’ Gorman, it contains much older Madeira cask whisky including some barrels that were filled when he first joined the company. He commented: “It is with absolute pleasure that we reintroduce Blue Spot and bring a piece of Dublin’s rich whiskey history back to life. Over the years I have had the honour of collaborating with the Mitchell family, who for generations have celebrated the influence of fine wines on Irish whiskey, as we have reintroduced expressions to the beloved Spot range. I am incredibly proud to celebrate with Jonathan and Robert Mitchell on this historic day as Blue Spot takes its place alongside Green, Yellow and Red Spot, reuniting the whole family once again.”

This reborn version is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength in batches so the alcohol will vary. Our sample was 58.7% ABV. There’s a full tasting note below but it really rounds off the spot range: the Green being all about that fresh green apple note, the Yellow honey, peaches and creme brulee while the Red Spot majors on dried fruit, rum and nuts; the Blue, in contrast, is bigger, burlier and spicier but with no shortage of elegance. Those Madeira casks provide nuttiness and the alcohol comes through more as flavour than heat, making it dangerously drinkable for such a strong whisky. According to O’ Gorman, it just tasted so right at cask strength that he thought there was no point adjusting it. We have to agree. 

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Big hit of spices on the nose, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, followed by a medley of puddings: banana custard, apple pie, and frangipane tart. 

Palate: It’s a spicy one, with plenty of black and sichuan peppers. It’s full-bodied and super creamy with vanilla green apple, peaches, lemon peel and toasted hazelnuts. 

Finish: There’s a milk chocolate creaminess that goes on and on with fresh fruit and nuts lingering, and just a lick of rum at the end.

Overall: Masses of pot still character, a powerful, charismatic and distinctly Irish whiskey. 

Blue Spot will be arriving at Master of Malt soon. Check the New Arrivals page for more information. 

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New Arrival of the Week: Black & Gold 11 Year Old Bourbon

Today’s we’re shining our giant New Arrival spotlight on a mysterious long-aged bourbon from Tennessee. We can’t tell you exactly where it came from, but we can tell you that…

Today’s we’re shining our giant New Arrival spotlight on a mysterious long-aged bourbon from Tennessee. We can’t tell you exactly where it came from, but we can tell you that it is delicious. 

It’s not often you see a bourbon with an age statement on the bottle. In fact, to be classed as bourbon in the US, the spirit just has to be made from 51% corn and spend some time in charred new oak casks (there are some other rules but that’s pretty much the basis). But the regulations don’t say how long. So your old timey bourbon could have just spent months ageing rather than years. It’s a bit different with whiskey imported into Europe which due to EU regulations has to be aged for a minimum of three years. To further complicate matters, it’s a bit of grey area whether products sold as bourbon minus the word whiskey have to follow these rules.

All this preamble is to say that your American whiskey is very unlikely to be much much more than three years old. Now that’s not really a problem because whiskeys made from rye and corn do tend to develop delicious flavours at a younger age especially when you factor in the amount of flavour that charred new oak imparts. Combine this with the hot and humid climate you get in the heart of American whiskey country, Kentucky and Tennessee, which leads to much quicker ageing than in the cold of Scotland; the evaporation is quicker but the ABV remains higher.

Age statements are rare. In fact, you have to be quite careful because in hot climates the whiskey might become over mature and woody if left too long. Many distilleries in America have special pockets within their warehouses which are cooler so the whiskey matures more slowly. Which brings us on to this week’s New Arrival. We can’t say much about its origins apart from that fact that it comes from Tennessee, which narrows it down somewhat. It might even come from one of the distilleries mentioned in this article. Even though whiskey from this state isn’t usually sold as bourbon, much of it is legally entitled to be.

Black & Gold, a bourbon worth taking your time over

The casks that go into Black & Gold were tasted by top whiskey sniffer Sam Simmons aka Dr Whisky; he told us: “I flew to Tennessee to select these casks in the warehouse. The phrase ‘hand selected’ is so often used and so rarely true, but in this case it actually happened.” He also revealed that the mashbill is heavy on the corn: 84-8-8 (corn-rye-barley). It spent 10 years slumbering in the heat of Appalachia before taking a slow boat across the Atlantic and finished its ageing in rainy old Britain. The result is something richer, more complex, more savoury than you usually get in a bourbon but it hasn’t dried out at all. You’re starting to get cigars there like an old Speyside malt but here’s still plenty of maple syrup, vanilla and apple pie that will appeal to bourbon lovers. It’s bottled at a nice punchy 45% ABV.

It’s very much not a speed rail bourbon for sloshing into cocktails but, though it’s probably best enjoyed neat, it certainly wouldn’t turn its nose up at a carefully made Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Then sit back and savour all those years of ageing. 

Here’s the full tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Dense vanilla, toasted brown sugar atop apple pie, gingersnaps and cinnamon sticks.

Palate: Caramelised nuts, cask char leading to earthy cigar box and vanilla pod, with a touch of maple syrup hiding in there too.

Finish: Lasting oak and forest floor richness, well-balanced by toffee and chocolate sweetness.

Overall: Everything you could want from a bourbon and more, this expression is simply astonishing.

Black & Gold 11 Year Old Bourbon is available from Master of Malt.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Rum Bonfire

This week we’re shaking up a special seasonal cocktail using Burning Barn, a smoked rum inspired by a tale of triumph of adversity. It’s just the thing to sip round…

This week we’re shaking up a special seasonal cocktail using Burning Barn, a smoked rum inspired by a tale of triumph of adversity. It’s just the thing to sip round a blazing fire as the winter nights draw in.

You know the phrase ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’? I’ve never quite understood why it’s a metaphor for turning a bad thing around, surely lemons are a good thing, no? Especially if someone is giving them away. The story behind this week’s cocktail makes more sense: when your father-in-law’s barn burns down, start a rum business. 

This is just what happened to a barn belonging to Katherine Jenner’s husband’s father. His barn, the home of the family fruit  business, burnt down in 2015 and rather than just take the hint and retire, he rebuilt everything from scratch. As Jenner puts it: “If he can rebuild a business in his 60s we can start a business in our late 20s.” Her background is in wine, with a stint working with Lidl on its Wine Cellar range. Jenner saw how craft beer and gin had taken off but was disappointed by the range of rums especially flavoured ones available. So she thought she could do better herself. This was the germ of the idea for Burning Barn.

Katherine Jenner looking very on-brand

It’s something of a message for our times. Jenner said: “We hope to inspire people with a message of hope in the face of adversity. Everyone has their own burning barn or pandemic to deal with. Take action, go outside, follow your dreams, and not let that get you down.”

Everything begins with a high quality rum from the Diamond Distillery in Guyana aged three years in ex-bourbon casks. “We quickly decided we wanted to use dark rum that had been aged which would have been very expensive to do in the UK,” she said. There is a plan at some point to start distilling themselves but, because of you-know-what, plans are on hold at the moment. “We’d love to make a white rum. That would be pretty cool for the on-trade,” Jenner told us, “bartenders are really engaged with rum. We’ll have to see what works and what doesn’t.” 

The Burning Barn range consists of three bottlings: a rum liqueur infused with honey from the family’s own hives; a spiced rum infused with coconut, ginger and chilli with no additives or artificial flavours; and finally a smoked one. The last one is made very very carefully. “We don’t want another burning barn”, Jenner joked. “We have a smoker, separate from rum itself so by the time smoke reaches the rum, it’s cool.” The rum sits in an old apple juice tank with an oak lid, and the smoke comes from burning applewood. Nothing else is added, no need when you have such high quality rum, so you get a very clean smoky taste where you can really taste the apple. “We don’t alter sweetness at all from when it comes, we don’t add any sugar or anything,” Jenner said. 

Behold, the Rum Bonfire!

The smoked rum is subtle, with sweet apple smoked notes, which compliment the high quality Guyana base. In short, it’s great in really simple cocktails so those flavours don’t get lost. The one we’re making this week is called the Rum Bonfire and it blends smoked rum with Burning Barns’ spiced expression with bitters and a little golden syrup (though you could use simple sugar or honey.) It’s served on crushed ice which is great fun but it also works well served with ice cubes for slow fireside shipping. 

Right, let’s get shaking!

25ml Burning Barn Spiced Rum
25ml Burning Barn Smoked Rum
1/2 teaspoon golden syrup
Dash of nut bitters
Dash of Angostura bitters 

Dry shake all the ingredients and pour over crushed ice in a Martini glass. Garnish with toasted marshmallows for the full Bonfire Night experience. 

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Top ten: Home bar essentials

As we’re once again going to be spending much more time at home because of lockdown, we thought it would be useful to round-up the essentials bottles you need to…

As we’re once again going to be spending much more time at home because of lockdown, we thought it would be useful to round-up the essentials bottles you need to make great drinks without having to step outside your front door.

We don’t know about you, but we got pretty good at cocktails during lockdown earlier this year. We learned how to make syrups and picked up some tips from the pros. Unfortunately, it seems that it is all happening again just as we thought it was safe to venture out to our favourite bar again. We thought it would be helpful, therefore, to round up some of our favourite bottles.

Just add fresh fruit, soda water, sugar and bitters (Angostura and orange will do), and you’ve got everything you need to make dozens of cocktails. Then all you’ll need is some quality barware, the ultimate home bar book (plug! plug!), and now you can turn your living room into the bar of your dreams. Then dim the lights a bit, put some music on and voila, swanky bar city!

Home bar essentials

Bathtub Gin

Gin is the most important spirit for cocktails. The Martini, the Martinez and the Negroni are all based on gin. We’re huge fans of Bathtub gin because it delivers a great wack of juniper which is what you need but it’s also complex with a great mouthfeel. It’s the consummate mixer but it’s also pretty delicious sipped on its own.

Home bar essentials

Four Roses Small Batch bourbon

After gin, good American whiskey is the next most used spirit in the cocktail repertoire. Most people choose bourbon though many bartenders prefer rye. Small Roses Small Batch solves this conundrum because it has a high rye content giving it masses of spice alongside the sweeter flavour. Also superb value.

Home bar essentials

Dolin Dry vermouth

You’ve got to have dry vermouth and this classic French brand ticks all the boxes for us. It’s delicately flavoured and low in sugar and harmonises beautifully with gin in particular. It’s also extremely handy to have around the kitchen to add a splash to sauces.

Home bar essentials

Martini Speciale Riserva Rubino vermouth

The standard Martini Rosso is a great all-arounder but we think it’s worth spending the extra money on this. It’s much subtler than the standard bottling and unusually is made with red wine from Piedmont giving it a delicious tang. It makes the best Gin & It.

Home bar essentials

Havana Club 3 year old rum

In order to make rum-based classics like the Daiquiri, Mai Tai and Zombie, you’ll need at least two rums in your cupboard. For the white, we’re very taken with Havana Club’s 3 year old. It’s packed full of character but also mixes with pretty much everything. No home bar should be without it.

Home bar essentials

Dunderhead Rum

This is a great dark blended rum made with a good dollop of high ester Jamaican pot still spirit in it. If you love big funky flavours of banana, pineapple and toffee, then this is the rum for you. It’s a superb mixer providing a bass note of funk to a wide variety of cocktails but especially the Mai Tai.

Home bar essentials

Hankey Bannister Scotch whisky

The name might sound like something an Aberdonian builder would say when he’s inspecting your staircase, but this is actually one of the nicest blended Scotch whiskies around. It’s all about sweet honey, heather and toffee flavours making it a great base for cocktails like the Rob Roy or Rusty Nail. 

Home bar essentials

Janneau VSOP Armagnac

In the olden days, it was brandy and not bourbon that was the basis of most cocktails, so if you want to make an old-timey Sazerac, a Brandy Sour or a Vieux Carre, then you’ll need a decent bottle. This Armagnac with its sweet grapey flavours and nutty complexity is a real find and a steal at the price. 

Home bar essentials

Kavka Vodka

Vodka doesn’t have to be boring and tasteless. This delicious little number from Poland is made with rye and wheat and contains a tiny proportion of strongly-flavoured fruit brandies. These give it a depth of flavour rare in this category. Makes one of the best vodka Martinis we have ever had.

Home bar essentials

Campari

And finally, no home bar is complete without a bottle of the red stuff. It’s an essential ingredient in the Negroni and the Americano. It’s delicious with soda water and it’s a great way of perking up a mediocre bottle of white, rose or fizz. All hail the king of the bitter drinks!

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A Long Stride: A history of Johnnie Walker

This year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, a book has been published called A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s no. 1 Scotch Whisky. We talk…

This year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, a book has been published called A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s no. 1 Scotch Whisky. We talk to the author Nicholas Morgan about how a blend from a small shop in Kilmarnock went global.

Before I even knew what whisky was, I’d heard of Johnnie Walker. As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I remember seeing the famous Striding Man on the back of a magazine with the legend, “Born 1820 and still going strong,” and marvelling at this extremely long-lived man.

For nearly half of the brand’s existence, however, the Striding Man didn’t exist and the whisky wasn’t even called Johnnie Walker. I learnt all this and more from a fascinating new book called A Long Stride by Dr. Nicholas Morgan. Morgan is the grandly-titled head of whisky outreach at Diageo but this is no corporate cutting job. Morgan taught Scottish history at Glasgow University before joining United Distillers (forerunner of Diageo) in 1989. In his research, Morgan has delved deep into the substantial Walker archive, with help of research assistant Laura Chilton. Refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to chart the lows as well as the highs, as we’ll see. 

“Hi Dr Nick!”

The result is a fascinating account of how one whisky became one of the world’s best known brands but it’s also a portrait of the Walker family, the town of Kilmarnock, and a rich history of the 19th and 20th centuries. We spent a very pleasurable hour discussing the book…

Early days:

It all began in 1820 when John Walker, son of a local farmer, went into the grocery business with a shop in Kilmarnock. Many grocers had their own blends of whisky – the idea of blended whisky came from tea blending where the grocers would blend teas of different types and qualities into a consistent product – but it was Walker’s blend, known as Old Highland Whisky, that began to build a reputation outside of the town, especially after John’s son, Alexander took over in 1857. Morgan explained why: “I would say consistency. It’s clear from Alexander’s correspondence that they were striving to improve the quality of their product and get this consistency, while doing everything on a bigger scale.” This was based on holding vast quantities of whisky stocks. “But also,” he continued”, “consistency in presentation, a square bottle, for the most part, with a slanty label on it.” This distinctive look that continues to this day began came in in the 1860s. That’s when the firm began to go global. To assist, it had a great sales team in London and later around the world, driven by Kilmarnock men. Morgan explained: “Alexander trusted everyone from Kilmarnock more than anyone else!”

Enter the Striding Man:

One thing that John Walker & Sons didn’t do was advertise. That was left up to Johnny-come-lately brands like Dewar’s. One of the big contrasts in the book is between the extravagant Dewars, who saw themselves as the young guns of the industry, and the more diffident Walkers: “I certainly had the Walker’s as my heroes,” said Morgan, “And then if I had villains, there would be the Dewar’s, these arriviste, self-publicity-seeking… ‘narcissists’ was one of the words I used to describe Tommy Dewar.”

The brand had become colloquially known as Johnnie Walker but the firm always referred to itself as John Walker & Sons, and the principal blend as Old Highland Whisky. Morgan explained: “John Walker’s widow lived until 1890 and she exerted a huge influence over Alexander and no doubt over her grandchildren. You can imagine what that was like: ‘Johnnie Walker’ no no no, we’re not going to do that!” It was James Stevenson, a non-family member, who shook things up. Morgan said: “He’d come into the business as an office boy but ended up in effect as marketing director and was a marketing genius. It took Stevenson to persuade the family of the power of this thing called ‘Johnnie Walker’ that lived in the minds of the public.”

Johnnie Walker ad from Punch magazine, 1922

The firm engaged American adman Paul E. Derrick, who was behind the Quaker Oats campaign. “Between Derrick and Stevenson they wrote this brief and rejected all that tartan, old men, Highland chiefs drinking,” said Morgan, “and that was the brief that finally went to a very famous cartoonist Tom Browne.” The result was utterly different to anything else in whisky. A Morgan puts it “A Georgian man walking along, with a dog originally, vigorous, striding, a bit rakish. An interesting sort of fellow. That was the character that suddenly leapt off full colour posters all around the UK in 1908. This was before TV. What are you going to talk about in the office? The adverts you saw. It was popular currency. To suddenly see this figure and everyone say ‘that’s Johnnie Walker! That’s the guy we’ve been talking about for 25 years and suddenly he’s come alive and he’s everywhere!’” Meanwhile, Walker’s blends were rebranded with Old Highland becoming White Label (later discontinued), Special Old Highland Red Label and Extra Special Black Label

The campaign was a huge success: sales went through the roof and transformed the brand. The image is so strong that it has been used to sell Johnnie Walker, on and off, ever since. And the clever thing is that much of the time, the adverts don’t even mention whisky. 

Upsetting the old guard:

It’s hard to imagine now that blends are the establishment, but in the late 19th century they were the disruptors, taking business away from malt whiskies. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Morgan’s take on the famous “What is Whisky?” case. This is usually told from the malt distillers perspective, defending their good name against inferior grain and blended whiskies but, as Morgan discovered, it’s a lot more complicated than that. 

“The rise of blended Scotch whisky disrupted a whole range of very well established economic relationships”, Morgan explained. These included the agricultural lobby put out by the imported grain used in blends and the old Highland distillers, “who did like to think of themselves as the sort of elite of the world of whisky. Suddenly they were simply suppliers of whisky to blenders. And the little interest there had been in malt whisky was taken away because everyone wanted to drink blended Scotch.” Both groups had powerful allies in parliament. 

The final piece in the jigsaw were retailers and wine merchants. “You have a system of retailing which is fundamentally threatened by the existence of advertised or promoted proprietary brands. It takes away the independence of retailers and it takes away the position of those wholesaling companies who have been supplying them.” Biggest of these were Gilbeys, the wine merchants, which, Morgan said, “led a campaign against blended Scotch and grain whisky. From the 1890s they were already trying to get acts of parliament through which would constrain what blenders could do”. In the end, however, the blenders won out and could continue to call their products ‘whisky’.

The evolution of the Striding Man

Tribulations and consolidation:

The 20th century was a turbulent time for Scotch. There was the fall-out from the collapse of Pattisons whisky business in 1898 which, though Walker’s were not involved, reverberated through the industry. Morgan explains: “There was a huge bubble of speculation and the Pattison crash brought that bubble down at a stroke. It depressed prices for new-make whiskies and for mature whiskies which speculators were holding, so a whole range of people suffered financially very badly from that and it knocked a lot of confidence out of the whole Scotch sector and it meant that banks wouldn’t loan.” 

But this wasn’t the only problem the industry faced. There was world war one followed by the influenza epidemic. Then prohibition not just in the US, but in Canada and New Zealand plus a real possibility that something similar would be enacted in Britain; Prime Minister Lloyd George was a teetotaler. 

The uncertain times led to a merger between Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, the Distillers Company (which owned grain distilleries) and John Walker & Sons in 1924/5. The Walkers, however, bargained hard not to be subsumed within this new whisky behemoth: “What came out of this merger, which was as the Walkers had intended, were cost savings on the production side but companies that still quite aggressively competed with each other in the marketplace.” Johnnie Walker preserved its semi-independence until the Distillers Company was bought by Guinness in 1986. Alexander Walker II, John’s grandson, was the last family member to run the business. 

Downs and ups:

Morgan’s book is largely a portrait of great men with vision, making bold decisions, and selling a quality product. But the Johnnie Walker board didn’t always make the wisest choices. Perhaps the most bizarre thing in the book was when they  went up against the might of the EEC, which Britain had joined in 1973, over the pricing of Red Label. “They had one set of pricing for the UK and they had one set of pricing for European customers. That was in contravention of the EEC regulations,” says Morgan. “So the European Commission took them [the Distillers Company] to the European Court and a ruling came out that that was not a permissible way of doing business which affected everyone in the trade.”

Rather than put UK prices up, the management decided to remove entirely the Red Label brand, which was selling 1.25 million cases at home, from the British market. The plan was to replace it with a new brand called John Barr,  “which was not a success in any way”, Morgan said with some understatement. This decision had a momentous impact on the industry. You’ve probably heard that the infamous ‘whisky loch’ was caused by overproduction in the 60s and 70s, but according to Morgan “it’s really the Red Label loch because that million cases are out of the market”. 

This  presented an opportunity for other brands like Famous Grouse and Bell’s. But also led directly to the upsurge in single malts:  Morgans explains: “As a member of one of those [single malt] families gleefully told me when we were talking about the book, at a dinner last year, ‘boy when Red Label went it was just hoorah, hoorah!’” Meanwhile at DCL, the management thought that single malts had no future and actively thwarted the rise of Cardhu, a brand which was taking off in Spain and Italy. D’oh!

It’s a great-looking book with lots of illustrations and photos

But Johnnie Walker recovered: the book explains how much of the vigour returned to the brand in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Opportunities for de luxe whiskies, especially in emerging markets, were capitalised on with the launches of Blue, Gold and Green Label. Meanwhile the Striding Man himself was invigorated: “At the beginning of this century, a bit like happened in 1908 with the creation of the Striding Man, that character was absolutely rejuvenated by BBH [ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty] in the ‘Keeping Walking’ campaign, which actually saw the brand grow again, from around ten million cases to 20 million, astonishing in a short period.” He went on to say: “In the same way that the Striding Man had reached out to consumers in the early 20th century, this new manifestation based around this idea of personal progress, captured consumers’ imaginations and it was brought to life with all that same brilliant creativity that had been seen in the Edwardian era.”

As we enter another extremely uncertain period in history, it’s somehow reassuring that Johnnie Walker has come through far worse adversity. Morgan said: “There is a story in the book about resilience which is good for this current moment. “ So, let’s raise a glass to another 200 years of the Striding Man!

A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No. 1 Scotch Whisky by Nicholas Morgan is published by Canongate.

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Challenging times for Port

What with the hottest July since records began, Covid and wild boars rampaging through the vineyards, it’s been a difficult vintage in the Douro valley. Nevertheless, Adrian Bridge and David…

What with the hottest July since records began, Covid and wild boars rampaging through the vineyards, it’s been a difficult vintage in the Douro valley. Nevertheless, Adrian Bridge and David Guimaraens from Taylor’s are confident that the Port industry has the tools to weather the storm.

We’re all still getting to grips with Zoom meetings so we can sympathise with one attendee at a Taylor’s event recently who forgot to mute her mic before saying: “This is just the boring webinar I’ve ever been on in my life”. It certainly got a laugh from everyone and CEO of Taylor’s, Adrian Bridge, had the grace to realise it was the perfect moment to hand over to his winemaker David Guimaraens for a vintage report.

Yet, Bridge, an ex-army man and one of Port’s most influential characters, was being far from boring, explaining how Taylor’s was toughing out Covid. It’s a big business, taking in the Port brands Croft, Fonseca, Krohn and Taylor’s itself, plus hotels and a recently-opened World of Wine museum (WOW) in Oporto. According to Bridge: “Port sales are up in most markets with many people choosing to consume Port at home people.” But, people are drinking wines that they find in their local supermarket rather than the more expensive things from restaurants. Earlier this year, the company sent its first ever shipment to South Korea. The home market, however, highly dependent on tourism, is 50% down. 

Adrian Bridge rocking the pleated chinos look

In Britain, sales of Taylor’s White Port and Croft Pink, both great cocktail ingredients, are booming. The UK market makes up over 30% of the business so Bridge is making sure plans are in place for a complicated Brexit. The company is building up stocks over here, so don’t worry, there’s no need to panic buy Port. 

The industry continued throughout Covid but with social distancing restriction in place. Taylor’s opened a supermarket for staff so they could buy provisions without having to mingle or queue. The company used their downtown Porto hotel, the Infanta Sagres, to put up medical workers and supplied hospitals with hand sanitiser made from aguardiente. 

Covid also meant that the traditional foot-treading that many Port companies still use for their finest wines (the foot is a great medium for extracting flavour and colour without crushing pips and releasing bitter notes) wasn’t able to take place this year. In April, Taylor’s put in robotic treaders, effective but not quite so much fun.

It was a challenging vintage in other ways, according to winemaker Guimaraens. During the festival of São João on 22-23 June when the whole town usually turns out to hit each other with rubber hammers (not this year, sadly), temperatures hit 40°C. July was the hottest since modern records began with 13 nights where it did not drop below 20°C. On average, it was 3.5°C hotter than normal. There was some welcome relief with rain in August but then there was another heatwave and, according to Guimaraens: “Suddenly all the vineyards needed to be picked.” Normally, the grapes ripen in stages depending on altitude and situation but not this year. White grapes harvest began on 24 August with reds on 3rd September. Guimaraens said it was “a race against time” to harvest everything before grapes turned into raisins.  

Wine maker David Guimaraens rocking the Steve Irwin look

Some grape varieties struggled, shrivelling on the vine whereas others like Tinta Cão coped well. Paul Symington from great rivals, the Symington Family Estates which owns brands such a Graham and Cockburn, commented: “The good news is that our indigenous varieties are well adapted to hot and dry Douro summers and demonstrate a variety of natural responses to challenging conditions. However, consistently high temperatures (above 35°C), are – without a doubt – a problem for the region.”

Yields were down 30% but with massive sugar levels, the highest since proper records were kept. Guimaraens said that he’d never known a year like it though apparently the 1940s were similar. But he reached back even further in time, they have long memories in the Douro, comparing 2020 with the legendary 1820 vintage when the grapes were so ripe that they couldn’t ferment properly leaving most wines sweet. This is thought to be when Port changed from being a dry to a sweet wine.

Guimaraens commented: “Port as a fortified wine copes well with very high sugar levels, it’s not a drama as it is for table wines.” Taylor’s is one of the few Port groups not to move into table wines which struggle with too much sugar. He went on to say that, “I’m happy with the Ports we have produced.” The wines have lots of colour, something highly prized in the Douro, and unbalanced wines can be blended with wines from lighter vintages into tawny ports. In perfect years like 2011 or 2016, they can make vintage  ports but, Guimaraens said: “In variable years it is tawny ports, blending and ageing, turning imperfect Ports at harvest into perfect tawny Ports. Two different styles, both equally great. In the trade we have all the tools to adapt to a region like the Douro valley.” So, a vintage declaration, only done where the wines are exceptional all over the region is very unlikely, but the company may offer vintage releases from specific quintas (farms) with cooler vineyards. 

Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas

The final problem in a year of difficulties was the wild boar population which through lack of hunting is increasing. Bridge said that “they have become quite a pest and do a lot of damage.” Traditionally, boar would have been turned into sausages etc. but Taylor’s put a stop to the practise on its properties. Bridge, however, muttered that it might be time to revise that decision. 

Here are three great wines from the Taylor’s stable to try:

Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port

It’s great to see the White Port and Tonic, the drink of Oporto take off in Britain. It makes a lighter alternative to the G&T but a nutty lemony off-dry White Port like this is also lovely drunk chilled on its own. 

Taylor’s Ten Year Old Tawny 

This is where much of the 2020 vintage will go, blended, and long-aged in wood. Ten years is an average so there’s younger and much older wines in here, giving very ripe strawberry fruit and long walnutty finish. 

Fonseca Guimaraens 2004

We might also see some wines like this from 2020: not a proper vintage Port but a single harvest wine made in lesser years. At the moment, it’s still bursting with youthful fruit like  black cherries and plums with distinct spicy fennel note and leathery finish. 

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LVMH launches premium Cuban rum brand, Eminente 

We were given an early taste of the latest spirit in the Moët Hennessy portfolio. As you might expect from this luxury goods giant, it’s a little bit special. Introducing…

We were given an early taste of the latest spirit in the Moët Hennessy portfolio. As you might expect from this luxury goods giant, it’s a little bit special. Introducing from Cuba, Eminente Reserva Rum…

Moët Hennessy is famous for its Champagne bands such as Ruinart, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot but now, according to brand manager Max Helm, “spirits are the way forward” because there’s not much room to expand in Champagne, both in terms of production and sales. So, joining such illustrious names as Belvedere, Ardbeg and Glenmorangie in the company’s portfolio comes a new rum from Cuba. 

The company had been looking to produce, in Helm’s words “a very versatile style of rum” about three years ago and so some of the team met with the Cuban government which controls the industry. It was serendipitous timing as the state monopoly, Ron Cuba, had been preparing the groundwork for a premium product, laying down stocks of mature rum. “They really wanted to showcase one end of the spectrum. Something you don’t see coming from Cuban rum and to show off their expertise,” Helm said. We’ve heard from other brands that the Cuban government isn’t that easy to deal with but this rum took only three years from inception to bottling. 

It’s maestro ronero Cesar Marti!

It’s a good fit, a Cognac company working with a Spanish rum company as Helm explained: “It’s about working with eau-de-vie, ageing, blending, different barrels sizes.” It was clearly a meeting of minds when the Hennessy team were introduced to the youngest ever Cuban maestro ronero, Cesar Marti. Helm explained: “Cesar Marti is the beating heart behind this. He’s a bit of a prodigy. His family worked in the industry so he understands sugar and soil. But he’s also done a chemical degree so he has expertise in all areas.” His face and signature adorn every bottle. 

The production process behind the rum is fascinating and worth explaining in detail. It all starts with 100% Cuban sugar cane. This is grown slowly and only harvested when it has reached “maximum potential” ie. a high sugar content. Sometimes it is allowed to grow for as much as 22 months. It’s then processed using, as is normal in Cuba, somewhat antiquated machinery. This leaves molasses behind with around 54-64% sugar rather than 45% using more modern equipment so you have “a rich base,” as Helm puts it. It’s then fermented quickly for 25-30 hours to give a clean fruity wash.

Then it’s on to distillation which takes place at various facilities around the island. Rum master Marti produces two spirits: a high strength rum of about 95% ABV, and what is known as an aguardiente of around 75% ABV. A good way to think of these two spirits is the first as a grain whisky providing alcohol and helping bring components together, and the second as the more full-flavoured single malt. The aguardiente is aged for two-to-three years in ex-Scotch and Irish whisky ex-bourbon barrels as the Cuban industry cannot buy casks directly from the US. Marti blends the aged aguardiente with fresh high ABV spirit. This blend is then aged for seven years with increasingly older aguardiente added slowly during this time. According to Helm, there are 14 blending processes overseen by Marti. The result has an age statement of seven years, as in Scotch whisky the age of the youngest component, but contains older spirits. The final blend is about 70% aguardiente, most aged Cuban rum is around 18%. Five grams of sugar per litre is added before bottling.

Where it all begins, in the sugar can fields

The result is an extremely appealing rum (full tasting note below). It’s very much in the classic Spanish style of being clean, fruity and fragrant but also complex, like Santa Teresa from Venezuela. It will appeal in particular to Cognac drinkers. The sweetness is just right. It has a great depth of flavour mixing fresh fruit like cherries with dark chocolate, coffee and tobacco. It’s a great sipper, but also good in simple cocktails like an Old Fashioned, an El Presidente or Palmetto (mixed half and half with vermouth and served straight up with a dash of orange bitters.) 

As you’d expect from LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), the packaging is pretty snazzy too, with the bottle ribbed to resemble the skin of a crocodile and on the label a drawing of the island of Cuba in the form of a crocodile. Helm told me that Cuba has its own unique species of crocodile and the locals refer to the island as ‘el crocodillo.’

Eminente is aimed at spirits lovers rather than rum nerds. Helm thinks it will appeal to whisky drinkers but also to “people who try new gins every week and people during lockdown, who thought I’m not spending money in other ways, I’ll upgrade and spend money on a bottle.” 

Moët Hennessy doesn’t always get it right. The company dipped its toe in rum back in 2005 with a product called 10 Cane which was, oddly enough, an agricole-style rum from Trinidad. It seemed to confused consumers at the time because it was “made for sipping but the consumer preference in the US was for mixing,” Helm told me. He also joked that it didn’t taste good mixed with coke which was how most Americans drank their rum. 10 Cane flopped but the market globally has become a lot more sophisticated since then and Eminente is clearly a much better thought-out proposition. Also, I reckon it’ll have no problems with coke. So far though, the launch is quite low key with limited quantities going into the UK, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. There’s also an on-trade only three year old ‘claro’ expression. 

Fancy packaging, as you’d expect from LVMH. The contents are good too

It’s not just rum, the LVMH spirits portfolio is expanding in other areas too: a new Tequila brand called Volcan de mi Tierra Blanc has just been launched in the US and Mexico; and in 2017, it bought a bourbon distillery in Washington state, Woodinville, But what about gin? Helm, who has been with the company since 2006, told me that when he joined, “there were all sorts of rumours about Hendrick’s but the gin train left and somehow we didn’t have a ticket!” But now that spirits are such an important focus for the group, Helm said: “There will have to be a gin coming somewhere, but when, how or in what form, I don’t know.” So expect a gin from LVMH in the not too distant future.

Eminente Reserva 7 year old tasting note:

Nose: Lots of cinnamon spice with fresh cherries and a little dried fruit plus followed by dark chocolate, coffee and tobacco.

Palate: Fresh, fragrant and floral, light body, just a touch of sweetness, some pepper, then toffee, chocolate and coffee swing in. With a little smokiness in the background. 

Finish: Long and layered with sweet dark chocolate. 

Eminente Reserva is now available from Master of Malt.

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