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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

Take a Global Distillery Tour with Lonely Planet

We visit a lot of distilleries here at Master of Malt, but not as many as Karyn Noble from Lonely Planet. She has put a book together taking in the…

We visit a lot of distilleries here at Master of Malt, but not as many as Karyn Noble from Lonely Planet. She has put a book together taking in the main spirit-producing countries plus a few places that are a bit more off the beaten track. . .

Whether it’s gin, Tequila, rum or whisky, spirits are booming at the moment, with new distilleries coming on stream the whole time, and old ones opening their doors to visitors. Fine whiskies, are now made in Taiwan, India and Sweden, for example. Distillery tourism is big business, and what better way to get to know a country or a region than by sampling its local spirit and finding out how it is made. But with so many distilleries to choose from, where do you start? Thankfully top Australian travel writer Karyn Noble and the Lonely Planet team have put together Global Distillery Tour, a guide that takes the hard work out of planning a booze-centred trip. From Lebanon to Nicaragua, the book profiles some of the world’s most interesting distilleries as well as containing guides to different spirits, some cocktail recipes and a list of interesting bars to try on your travels. Phew!

We were lucky enough to get some time with Karyn Noble (who wrote most of the entries on Australia, the UK, Ireland and Sweden) to find out a little more about the project…

Kilchoman Feis Ile

The beautiful stills at Kilchoman on Islay

Master of Malt:  Where did the idea for the book come from?

Karyn Noble: Global Distillery Tour is part of a series of books under the Lonely Planet Food sub-brand. It follows on from Global Beer Tour, which we published in 2017 and Global Coffee Tour, released in 2018, which have both been hugely popular. By then the drinkers of spirits and cocktails in the office were getting a little twitchy and so a pretty strong case was made for this book. (We have a separate series about wine called Wine Trails, to preempt that question!)    

MoM: What tips would you offer for people visiting a distillery?

KN: Talk to the people who work there. It really would be a wasted trip to walk in and order a drink or buy a bottle to take home and learn nothing about what you’ll be drinking. The distillers and people who work in distilleries are usually extremely passionate and proud about what they’ve painstakingly made and want to help guide you towards enjoying what you might like best or introduce you to a potentially new favourite drink. Don’t feel intimidated or be afraid to ask questions. Quite often, people visit distilleries because they’re dragged along by someone more obsessed about spirits, so say that up front like: ‘I usually don’t like whisky, I prefer rum, but is there something I should try?’. If you’re willing to be open-minded, many distillers will take on the challenge of trying to convert you.

MoM: What was the first distillery you ever visited?

KN: Memories are a little vague but I think it was somewhere near Edinburgh in 1996 and it was the first time I’d tried a dram. I let someone who said he was a descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson drive me there and he told me I’d be killed if I asked for water with my whisky. Whisky has felt somewhat reckless and romantic ever since.

Teeling Dublin

You can’t visit Teeling in Dublin and not have a drink.

MoM: Do you have a favourite distillery?

KN: Yes! When I went to Four Pillars gin distillery in Australia’s Yarra Valley, I had to remind them (and myself) I was there for research and not for pleasure, as I always visit when I travel to Melbourne. It’s a lovely excuse for a day trip to the country (about 90 minutes’ drive from the city). One of my editors lives nearby and gave me the hot tip when it opened in 2015. It’s well-located in a renowned wine region and you can sit in what feels like a modern interpretation of a barn with a killer cocktail list or a tasting paddle of gins with unique Australian botanicals and a plate of gin cheese and be very happy with life.

MoM: What was the smallest distillery you visited?

KN: It was Hartshorn Distillery in Tasmania in Australia. I got distiller Ryan Hartshorn at a really exciting time. He distils his sheep whey vodka in the basement of his family’s cheese farm (Grandvewe) and it had just won the World’s Best Vodka in 2018 and he was starting to realise he needed to hire people to help him. The winning vodka hadn’t even gone out to subscribers yet, it had only been tasted by Ryan and the judges and had homemade stickers plastered all over it cheekily saying ‘World’s Best, don’t even look at me’. That was one of my favourite interviews.

MoM: Do you think that spirits are going through something of a golden age?

KN: I think spirits are catching up with the food revolution in that drinkers are becoming more interested in the provenance of what they’re drinking. More people are going to bars and asking for brands now rather than generic spirits. Cocktails and (especially Instagrammable) cocktail bars are becoming more popular. I was chatting to a mixologist from the Maldives recently (unfortunately not in the Maldives) and he was saying that he would have liked to offer more whisky cocktails at his bar but women never ordered them, which led him to believe that women don’t like whisky. Maybe this is true for people holidaying in sunny locations, I’m not sure, but I promptly set about educating him about the Old Fashioned renaissance I’ve been seeing in London bars over the last few years.

Starward

Starward distillery in Melbourne

MoM: Will the gin boom ever end?

KN: I agree the gin market is fairly saturated at the moment, which is why a book like Global Distillery Tour is really handy to help direct people towards craft distillers with compelling stories and unique products. One insightful experience I had when researching this project was at Snowdonia Distillery in North Wales where distiller Chris Marshall got me to blind-taste some mass-market gins (he wouldn’t tell me what they were) before and after trying his small-batch Foragers Gin. They were awful, yet it’s all most people know.

MoM: Do you have a favourite spirit?

KN: I do have a soft spot for gin, especially Four Pillars because it’s so delicious, vibrant and pure, but my head has been turned recently by some complex rums and you can’t peat me too much with whisky: I love a smoky whisky.

MoM: And finally, what’s your favourite cocktail?

KN: Tough question but I’m going to go with what we’ve ranked number one in the book’s World’s Best Cocktails List: I love a Negroni like no-one’s business.

Thank you Karyn! You can buy Global Distillery Tour direct from Lonely Planet.

Domaine de Tourelles in Lebanon, distillers of Arak Brun

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Cocktail of the Week: The Mellow Yellow

This week we talk to Stephen Marsh, the man behind Pinkster, and try a summery cocktail especially designed to go with his pink gin. When Pinkster was launched in 2013,…

This week we talk to Stephen Marsh, the man behind Pinkster, and try a summery cocktail especially designed to go with his pink gin.

When Pinkster was launched in 2013, pink gin as a category did not exist. Fast forward six years, and according to the WSTA, flavoured and pink gins are now valued at £165m, up a staggering 751% on 2017. Stephen Marsh, Pinkster’s inventor, laughs when I suggest he created a monster. He describes it as “a hobby that’s grown wildly out of control.”  

It all began when Marsh began reacting badly to alcoholic drinks. A doctor told him that it was because sugar and yeast were upsetting his system and advised that he give up beer and wine. Neutral spirits like gin and vodka, though, were fine. Marsh switched to gin but encountered a problem: “juniper is a very bitter botanical and doesn’t go very well with food, except game”, he told me.

Stephen Marsh, Pinkster Gin copy

Stephen Marsh, the man behind the gin

So, he set out to create a gin that would be more versatile with food, mainly by trial and error; “I’m not a scientist, I’m an arts graduate,” he said. Nevertheless, Marsh has long been a fruit gin maker so he did have some experience. “I went through the fruit bowl, before having a eureka moment. Raspberries and juniper do something really special together.” Having made this discovery, it took four years to perfect the recipe.

According to Marsh, he had no plans to commercialise it. But friends told him how good the product was. So to make sure it “wasn’t just people being nice”, as he put it, he made up a load and took it to food festivals around the country. Rather than just giving out samples and asking people their opinions, he sold Pinkster drinks and made a note of the number of people who came back for seconds. It quickly became clear that he was on to a winner.

Not everyone was so keen. “We got a lot of push back from the trade. People were a bit sniffy about Pinkster because it wasn’t a classic London dry gin”, Marsh said. But customers loved it and began asking for it by name. Pinkster inspired legions of imitators. Marsh is diplomatic about his competitors, but concedes that many pink gins are gins only in name as they don’t really taste of juniper, and they can be incredibly sweet. Pinkster is made by taking a distilled dry gin, produced by G&J Distillers, and then adding raspberries and other botanicals, which is where it gets its pretty colour from.

Mellow yellow

The Mellow Yellow – it’s clearly orange

Marsh recommends drinking Pinkster in a Martini with elderflower cordial in place of vermouth. This week’s cocktail, however, is a little more elaborate. It was created especially for Pinkster by top bartender Joe Brayford when he was at the Worship Street Whistling Shop (since closed) in London. Marsh met him when his son dragged him for a night out in Shoreditch. It’s a refreshing summer drink (if we get a summer this year) and a good way of using up that bottle of limoncello your mother-in-law bought you from her holiday in Amalfi.

Right, without further ado, here is Mellow Yellow!

30ml Pinkster Gin
25ml Luxardo limoncello
3 basil leaves
Ginger ale

Shake the gin, limoncello and two basil leaves with ice. Double strain into a wine glass filled with ice, top up with ginger ale, stir and garnish with a sprig of basil.

 

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New Arrival of the Week: Fortunella Golden Orange liqueur

Just landed at MoM towers is a new liqueur that has got us singing an old Rihanna classic. It’s called Fortunella, ella, ella, eh, eh (see what we mean?) and…

Just landed at MoM towers is a new liqueur that has got us singing an old Rihanna classic. It’s called Fortunella, ella, ella, eh, eh (see what we mean?) and it’s made from the smallest member of the orange family, the kumquat.

Oranges have an illustrious pedigree when it comes to booze. There’s Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and errr, Bols Blue CuraçaoNow there’s a new kid on the block, Fortunella Golden Orange liqueur. Golden orange is another name for kumquat. Do you remember how these tiny little oranges blew our minds when they arrived in the 1990s? You’re meant to eat the whole thing skin and all! But actually kumquats on these shores are nothing new. According to the people behind Fortunella, a Mr Robert Fortune introduced the kumquat to London in 1846, and it is he who this new liqueur is named after.

Lukas Stafin

Lukas Stafin engaging in a spot of cocktail alchemy

This new kumquat liqueur is the brainchild of bartender Lukas Stafin, who in his 15 years behind the bar worked at such notable venues as Purl in Marylebone and the Lanesborough Hotel, and Dariusz Plazewski, founder and distiller from Bimber. This west-London-based distillery opened in 2015 and have quickly made a name for itself with its London dry gin, flavoured vodkas, and rum. And watch this space for a single malt whisky. We’re excited!

But back to Fortunella, ella, ella (we’ll stop now); it’s made entirely by hand from fresh, not dried as with most orange liqueurs, kumquats from China, India, South Africa and South America. It’s made in small batches using a table top still. The result is less sweet than most orange liqueurs and comes in at 36% ABV. “As a bartender, I am passionate about creating drinks from scratch and have always looked for original new drinks, which can really deliver on natural flavour and have genuine potential for regular usage,” Stafin said. “In Fortunella I have meticulously sourced the most aromatic fresh fruits and trialled many production techniques to retain their taste sensation and achieve an unusually low level of sweetness balanced by a dry finish; then tasted and refined it with bar colleagues whom I respect for their critical palate and hands-on bar expertise”.

Fortunella might be London made but it’s heart is very much in the east. After all, kumquats are native to south Asia. The earliest reference to these tiny oranges appears in 12th century Chinese literature. The packaging reflects this: that stubby 50cl bottle makes it look like a top Japanese whisky. The label is inspired by Chinese herbal remedies and features a golden orange tree with the words ‘golden orange’ written in Chinese lettering. And very stylish it looks too. We’ve had to wait for our delivery because the first batch of 300 bottles of was snapped up in its entirety for export to the Far East.

Fortunella

Fortunella, full of eastern promise

Stafin recommends drinking Fortunella with soda or tonic but as you’d expect it makes a cracking Margarita, has a great affinity with brandy, so works in a Sidecar, or you can use as the sweetening agent in an Old Fashioned. It’s an adaptable beast.

Welcome Fortunella! May fortune smile upon you.

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Five minutes with Joy Spence from Appleton Estate

We had the honour of an audience with the queen of rum, Joy Spence from Appleton Estate. We talked about Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication, whether she might ever launch a…

We had the honour of an audience with the queen of rum, Joy Spence from Appleton Estate. We talked about Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication, whether she might ever launch a single pot still spirit (please!), and why when she became master blender some people thought her parents owned the company.

Last month four of the most eminent names in global distilling were at Carlton House Terrace in London for Gruppo’s Campari’s Meet the Masters event. The big four were Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey Bourbon, Patrick Raguenaud of Grand Marnier, Dennis Malcolm of Glen Grant and Joy Spence from Appleton Estate in Jamaica.

The fab four, from left: Raguenaud, Russell, Spence and Malcolm

For rum lovers, Joy Spence needs no introduction, but we’re going to give her one anyway. Spence trained as a chemist and did her masters at Loughborough University in England. She joined J. Wray and Nephew, Appleton’s parent company, in 1981. She held a number of positions before becoming chief blender in 1997. The first woman ever to hold this position.

Appleton is one of the oldest names in rum. The first mention of the estate producing rum is from 1749. In 1916 it was acquired by the J. Wray and Nephew, who make Jamaica’s number one rum, and in 2012 both brands were bought by Campari. Appleton has been instrumental in taking rum upmarket with its excellent age statement range like the exceptional 25 year old Joy Anniversary Blend (bottled to honour Spence’s 20 years as master blender). 2018 was a big year for Appleton as it opened a £5.4m visitor centre called, naturally, The Joy Spence Experience, and Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication was approved which means that it has protected status like Champagne or Stilton. To learn more, we spoke to the lady herself, Joy Spence:

Master of Malt: How important is the GI for Jamaican rum?

Joy Spence: I think the GI for Jamaican rum is extremely important because what is happening globally is that a lot of producers outside of Jamaica are purchasing Jamaica rum but diluting it but still declaring it as a hundred percent Jamaican rum. So we set up some key characteristics for Jamaica rum: first you must use limestone-filtered water in your fermentation, Jamaican limestone-filtered water to be precise! You must ferment and distill in Jamaica. If you’re going to have an age statement it must be the minimum age system, similar to the Scotch whisky system. And last but not least, no additives in Jamaica rum.

MoM: And do you think other countries will follow you? Because some countries have slightly less clear labelling systems?

JS: Yes. Actually Barbados is now working on a GI for Barbados rum and I think others will follow suit because they see the importance of having a geographical indicator and protecting your turf. Unfortunately it’s not an even playing field in the rum industry, because you have so many different regulations from different countries, so it’s not quite clear exactly what an overall definition for rum is and what is allowed and what is not allowed. This is why we have decided to clarify what Jamaica rum is all about so they know exactly what they’re getting when they purchase a bottle of Jamaica rum.

MoM: Does all the sugarcane used in your rum come from the estate?

JS: Yes we grow over 4,000 hectares of sugarcane at Appleton, so we’re one of the few producers that can claim the process from the cane to the cocktail, where we have total control of our process.

MoM: What about yeast?

JS: We have a special strain that was handed down from the inception of rum making at Appleton so we generate a strain every three months to keep it pure. We ferment for between 36 or 48 hours and at the end of that we have fermented molasses that has 7% alcohol in it.

MoM: And that’s quite a fast fermentation for Jamaica, is that right?

JS: You have two methods of fermenting in Jamaica but this particular method represent 90% of the production in Jamaica. And we don’t use dunder in the Appleton process, those are for high ester rums. We’re looking to make smooth, rich, complex, and fruity spirits.

Joy Spence

Spence brought Jamaica to London with her

MoM: And can you tell me a little about the distillation. What sort of stills do you use?

JS: We use a combination of both pot and column in all of our blends. The pot still however is the heart and soul of our blends and our copper pot stills are specially designed in Scotland for us and so they produce this distinctive orange peel top note, which is the hallmark of the Appleton Estate range.

MoM: I know you’ve done some single cask releases but would you ever do a single pot still release?

JS: Eventually. Right now because we have so much aged stock, I am releasing limited time offerings of blends but eventually we will look forward to a single mark. But not just yet because we have quite a few products in the pipeline coming out. We plan to launch one every year.

MoM: That’s really exciting! Do you think the future of rum is to go upmarket?

JS: Yes, I think the rum consumer is looking for more sophistication, and genuine stories, a lot of the rum producers really don’t have a lot to say about their story. Appleton has genuine provenance and a huge story behind it. Premium aged rum category is now the hot category and it is going to be the next whisky.

MoM: At the moment whisky is trying to be less serious, do you think there’s a danger with rum becoming more serious that it might lose some of its sense of fun?

JS: At Appleton Estate, we make a rum for any occasion. So, we make rums that are great for fun parties and rums that are for a more serious, sophisticated setting. What we do is to try to cover both ends of the spirits category.

MoM: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became the master blender at Appleton?

JS: I joined the company as a chief chemist in 1981 and then I started working with the previous master blender and then I became so fascinated with the art of blending; being able to use my sensory skills to create all these beautiful flavour profiles. And he recognised that I had great creativity. So he took me under his wings, tutored with him for 17 years and then when he retired, I was appointed the first female master blender in the spirits industry. It was a male-dominated industry no woman had ever been made master blender. And some persons were sceptical, people thought that my parents owned the company and that’s how I got the position! And not the fact that I really earned it through expertise. But eventually people understood that I’d worked for several years in the industry and became quite an expert.

Appleton Estate

Joy Spence with the 25 year old Joy Anniversary release

MoM: What do you think the biggest skill that a blender has to have?

JS: People think that the biggest skill that a blender should have is being able to taste but no! It’s your sensory skills. Because we can differentiate much more by nosing than by tasting. Because the taste buds really get shattered after about three or four drinks. And when you’re doing sensory analysis you can smell and differentiate for hours the different aromas. And so this is the most important part of being a blender in the rum industry. Sensory analysis is based on memory so you memorise each aroma and it stays right there. There’s a little lobe right at the front here where you store everything for sensory analysis. And so I can differentiate over 200 aromas right now.

MoM: Do you have a favourite? I know it’s difficult, like choosing your children, but at the end of a hard day which Appleton do you reach for?

JS: I think my favourite blend to date is the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend. It is really the hallmark of excellence.

MoM: Do you have a favourite rum cocktail?

JS: I like simple cocktails. And I find that a Daiquiri with Appleton Estate Reserve, using brown sugar with a few drops of Angostura bitters, is quite delicious, simple and easy to make.

MoM: And then finally, what’s new on the horizon?

JS: Well we just launched Appleton Estate 30 year old for this year. And we are going to be releasing a product before the end of the year at the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience that was specifically made for the Experience and so it won’t be sold anywhere else in the world, so you have to come to the Experience in Jamaica to actually purchase it.

We are so there!

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Cocktail of the Week: The Toasted Nut Boulevardier

This week we delve into the fascinating world of vermouth with a man who knows his artemisia absinthim from his artemisia pontica (they’re both types of wormwood), Jack Adair Bevan,…

This week we delve into the fascinating world of vermouth with a man who knows his artemisia absinthim from his artemisia pontica (they’re both types of wormwood), Jack Adair Bevan, and show you how to make a deliciously nutty bourbon and vermouth cocktail.

Jack Adair Bevan (what a great name BTW, it sounds like he should be played by a young Bruce Willis) hasn’t always been so keen on vermouth. In his new book, A Spirited Guide to Vermouth, he writes, “I shared most people’s perceptions of vermouth of ancient bottles that gathered dust in corners of drinks cabinets and kitchen cupboards with faded labels and bottle tops fused shut with crystallised sugar.” Yup, that’s my parents’ drinks cupboard. It was a Negroni drunk in Haus Bar (since closed) in Bristol that made him change his mind.

Bevan got the vermouth bug real bad: whereas you and I might just experiment with some different brands, Bevan went the whole hog and started making his own. In 2012 with the team at the restaurant where he worked, The Ethicurean just outside Bristol, he created a brand of vermouth called The Collector made with Italian wines and spirit distilled from Somerset cider apples. It became a cult hit among British bartenders.

Jack Adair Bevan

Jack Adair Bevan, looking nothing at all like a young Bruce Willis

When he left the restaurant, The Collector project finished, but Bevan’s vermouth fire is burning brighter than ever hence the book which has just been published. A Spirited Guide to Vermouth (Headline Home, £16.99) traces the long history of aromatised wine: the Romans were flavouring wines with bitter ingredients like wormwood (vermouth gets its name from the German word for wormwood, wermut). But vermouth really went global in the 19th century when it was commercialised in France and Italy by firms like Noilly Prat, Dolin, Cinzano and Martini. The book takes an in-depth look at production methods: in Martini the botanicals are steeped in neutral spirit before blending whereas at Noilly Prat they use wine.

Vermouth went into a decline in the 80s and 90s, but in the last six years things have picked up with increasing sales, small brands and new releases from the old guard. The vermouth world is now truly international. In the book, Bevan picks out some of his favourite labels; he even tells you how to make your own. His enthusiasm is so infectious that, you know what, I must just give it a try.  

“I regard making vermouth as an art form.” he writes, “It’s as close to cooking as the drinks world gets. It’s about a careful balancing of a huge array of contrasting herbs, roots and spices, wines and sweetness.” And indeed, there’s a great affinity between vermouth and food. I recall earlier this summer, near Barcelona, eating a dish of boquerones, anchovies in vinegar that would destroy a normal wine, but the Las Vermudas vermouth just sailed through, the sweetness and bitterness of the drink chiming with the acidity of the little fish.  

Best of all are the cocktail recipes; I can see A Spirited Guide to Vermouth becoming one of the most well-thumbed books in my collection alongside David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. I am definitely going to try his version of the Gin and It, half gin, half vermouth, pre-mixed and served straight from the fridge into frozen sherry copitas with a little ice at the bottom.

Toasted Nut Boulevardier,

Toasted Nut Boulevardier, note very large ice cube

The cocktail I’ve chosen this week, however, requires a bit more preparation. To make a Toasted Nut Boulevardier, you need to steep your bourbon with nuts for four days. Bevan writes: “The flavour of toasted pecans and walnuts is rich, sweet and superb combined with bourbon. The flavour almost sits like another botanical or ingredient with the Martini Rubino.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Right, let’s get cracking.

35ml Toasted nut bourbon*
25ml Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino
15ml Campari

A strip of orange peel and a toasted pecan to garnish.

Combine the toasted nut bourbon, vermouth and Campari in a chilled ice-filled shaker, stir and strain into an Old Fashioned glass containing, ideally, one large cube of ice (if not just use four or so conventional ones). Twist the orange peel over the drink, drop in and rest the pecan on the giant ice cube.

* Toast 150g of pecans and 100g walnuts in a preheated 180°C oven for about 10 minutes, turning a couple of times to ensure even toasting. Allow to cool and then put them in a Kilner jar with 700ml of Heaven Hill bourbon. Leave to infuse for four days and then strain through a coffee filter into a sterilised bottle.  

Spirited Guide to Vermouth

Spirited Guide to Vermouth

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Talisker video masterclass with malt whisky ambassador TJ

One of only two whisky distilleries on the Isle of Skye, Talisker, has a loyal following. In this masterclass malt whisky brand ambassador TJ shows us how to get the…

One of only two whisky distilleries on the Isle of Skye, Talisker, has a loyal following. In this masterclass malt whisky brand ambassador TJ shows us how to get the most out of its distinctive smoky salty taste.

The rugged maritime setting of coastal Skye is echoed in the taste of Talisker whisky.

One sip of the 10 Year Old expression, and you can smell the sea air and almost hear the squawk of seagulls. It’s one of Scotland’s best-loved and most distinctive single malts. If you’re lucky enough to visit the distillery, you mustn’t miss out on the nearby shack selling fresh and smoked seafood caught in the surrounding waters. A dram of Talisker and a Scottish oyster is a match made in heaven. But you don’t have to drink it neat, Talisker is also delicious in cocktails, hot and cold. 

Talisker Campfire Hot Chocolate

Talisker Campfire Hot Chocolate

To tell us more about Talisker, its affinity with seafood and how to use it in cocktails, we were lucky enough to spend some time with TJ. A former Edinburgh bartender, TJ now works as a malt whisky ambassador for Diageo, spreading the word about the joys of Scotch whisky.

Got your Talisker ready? Take it away TJ!

Here TJ tells us a little about himself and his journey from behind the bar to Diageo whisky brand ambassador.

In this video TJ shows how well Talisker 10 goes with raw oysters.

Talisker Campfire is the ultimate hot chocolate drink.

Talisker Port Ruighe also tastes amazing with seafood.

 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Long Sloe Summer

Sloe gin isn’t just for Christmas, says pioneering bartender Nick Strangeway. This week’s cocktail eloquently explains why. Long before foraging became fashionable, people were making sloe gin. These tiny sour…

Sloe gin isn’t just for Christmas, says pioneering bartender Nick Strangeway. This week’s cocktail eloquently explains why.

Long before foraging became fashionable, people were making sloe gin. These tiny sour plums that appear in autumn hedgerows aren’t great for eating but do something magical when steeped with gin and sugar. By the following winter, you have something delicious to drink. Bartender and founder of Hepple Gin, Nick Strangeway told me: “Everybody thinks of it as something you drink around Christmas and then forget about for the rest of the year.”

But he uses sloe gin all year round in a variety of cocktails: “When I worked with Dick Bradsell”, he said, “we made a drink with sloe gin called the Wibble, named after the marketing director of Plymouth Gin at the time who would wobble but wouldn’t fall over”. He also recommended other sloe gin cocktails like the Hedgerow Sling and the Charlie Chaplin.

Strangeway is a stalwart of the London bar scene who worked with Bradsell at such legendary venues such as Fred’s and the Atlantic. Strangeway remembers his mentor very fondly: “Some of the places he worked in were not what you’d call salubrious yet he would look after you as though you’re in the Savoy,” said Strangeway. I asked him what was the most important thing he learned from the master: “Most of it was to do with looking after customers. Bars are about customers, rather than about drinks. Without nice customers and nice staff, it’s irrelevant whether you make good drinks”, he said.

Long Sloe Summer

Nick Strangeway, bartender and founder of Hepple Gin

Anyway, back to those sloes. The Moorland Spirits Company, the business that Strangeway founded in 2014 with chef Valentine Warner and others in Northumbria, has just launched its Hepple Sloe and Hawthorn Gin. It’s less sweet than a standard sloe gin: “Sugar can cloud complex flavours like the sloe”, Strangeway told me. It’s also bottled at a higher ABV than most rivals: “There’s a tendency to default to what already exists, rather than the right ABV. When we did ours, we thought 32% ABV was best in terms of flavour delivery”, he said. The Hawthorn “add another level of dryness to it”, as well as continuing the hedgerow theme.

Strangeway spends half the year in Denmark and he is very inspired by New (well “old now”, he jokes) Nordic Cookery, “a northern style of cookery that’s fresh and light. In terms of flavours Hepple and indeed Northumbria is Nordic”, he said. He’s also inspired by how Scandinavian chefs use technology to bring out flavours. Hepple Gin is made using a ‘Triple Technique’ compromising of traditional pot still, vacuum distillation and CO2 extraction. This juniper-heavy gin is used as a base for the Sloe and Hawthorn Gin.

So now on to the cocktail, the Long Sloe Summer. Strangeway mixes his sloe gin with fino sherry which “adds dryness and salinity.” The final ingredients are a splash of tonic for a spritz and some green olives for a savoury element. “I wanted a long drink that wasn’t massively high in ABV, a drink I could drink all summer long”, he said.

Cheers, Nick!

Long Sloe Summer

The Long Sloe Summer

30ml Hepple Sloe and Hawthorn Gin
30ml Tio Pepe fino sherry
150ml of tonic water
2 Green Olives to garnish

In a large wine glass combine the sloe gin and the sherry, add lots of ice, top up with tonic and stir. Garnish with two green olives.

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Johnnie Walker Blue Label masterclass with Colin Dunn

We filmed Diageo whisky ambassador Colin Dunn talking about how to get the most out of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Turns out, we’d been doing it wrong all these years….

We filmed Diageo whisky ambassador Colin Dunn talking about how to get the most out of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Turns out, we’d been doing it wrong all these years.

Johnnie Walker is the most famous name in Scotch whisky and Blue Label sits at the top of the range (give or take a few special editions). It’s perhaps the ultimate gift whisky: you know you’ve done a good job or your father-in-law approves when you receive a bottle. But as well as being a known currency throughout the world, it’s also a damn fine drop blended from some extremely rare and old malt and grain whiskies.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label

That’s the stuff

It’s not an in-your-face whisky and as such can initially be a bit underwhelming to palates raised on the big bold flavours of heavily sherried or peated malts. So, to show us how to appreciate this fine elegant blend, we are lucky enough to have some time with Colin Dunn. Dunn originally worked in the wine trade before being snapped up by Bowmore to spread the word about single malt whisky. He also worked with other distilleries in the Suntory portfolio including  GlenGarioch, Yamazaki, and Hibiki. Then in 2008, he moved to Diageo where he represents the company’s 28 malt distilleries as well as Johnnie Walker.

Right, got your Blue Label ready? Take it away, Colin!

Here Colin Dunn introduces himself and tells us why he loves Scotch whisky so much.

And now the Johnnie Walker Blue Label masterclass. You’ll never drink whisky in the same way after watching this.

 

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Cocktail of the Week: Grand Sour

This week we talk to the master blender, Patrick Raguenaud, and show you how to get the most out of Grand Marnier’s orangey, Cognac-soaked flavour profile. Cognac runs in Patrick…

This week we talk to the master blender, Patrick Raguenaud, and show you how to get the most out of Grand Marnier’s orangey, Cognac-soaked flavour profile.

Cognac runs in Patrick Raguenaud’s veins. Well, not literally, that would be lethal, but his family has been farming in the region since the 17th century. He distils from his family’s vines in the Grand Champagne region, is president of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), oh, and he’s the master blender at Grand Marnier. Where does he find the time?

We met him last week for the perfect start to a day, a Grand Marnier breakfast masterclass. He presented surrounded by little orange trees and bowls of sweet oranges which looked pretty but are actually very different from the fruit used in Grand Marnier. The recipe calls for bitter oranges which are bought from the Caribbean, Tunisia and South America. The oranges are picked when just turning from green to orange. “They have a very rustic flavour”, Raguenaud told us; the pulp is inedible and goes into compost while the skin is dried in the sun. He gave us some dried fruit to try: it was mouth-puckeringly, almost painfully bitter. The next step is to remove the pith and then the zest is macerated for two weeks in neutral alcohol.

The resulting orangey boozy liquid with the zest included is watered down and redistilled in a special still, similar to how gin is made. Then to make the classic Cordon Rouge expression, the distillate is diluted (to 40% ABV) and blended with sugar syrup and Cognac, which makes up 51% of the finished product. Raguenaud is very particular about the spirits he uses. He wants a light, fruity Cognac so doesn’t distil on the lees. He gave us some to try which was grassy with notes of pear and lemon and only a little wood influence. “We don’t want too much oak or it will spoil flavours”, he said.

Patrick Raguenau

Patrick Raguenaud with the Grand Marnier range

“It’s a very complex job to maintain consistency”, according to Raguenaud. The company both ages eaux-de-vie distilled to its specifications and buys in aged Cognac. This year it released a special version, Cuvée Louis Alexandre, using a higher percentage of Cognac, and older spirits. We tried it alongside the standard model and it’s richer, sweeter and longer. He also let us try some of the completely fabulous and astronomically-priced Quintessence which is made with XO Cognac.

Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge was created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle. Since 2016 the company has been part of the Campari group. The biggest market by far, according to Ragueneau, is America where it’s used in Margaritas. I love a Margarita as much as the next man but I think this week’s cocktail makes better use of Grand Marnier’s intense sweetness, mouth-coating bitterness and length that comes from the Cognac. In fact, as it contains high ABV spirit, a bittering agent, orange, and sweetness, Grand Marnier is almost a cocktail in a bottle. So all you really need to add is something sour and voila! You have an elegant drink.

This recipe comes is based on one from Difford’s Guide. It’s really very special and harmonious. Best of all is the finish where the complexity of the base Cognac really comes through, though I have a feeling that using one of the fancier versions would be even more delicious.

Grand Sour (credit Misti Traya)

Grand Sour (credit Misti Traya)

Got your bottle of Grand Marnier ready? Let’s get shaking.

60ml Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
30ml Lemon juice
15ml Blood orange juice (both freshly-squeezed)

Shake all the ingredients hard with ice and double strain into a chilled tumbler (or similar) with ice (or you could also serve it straight up in a coupe). Garnish with an orange round.

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Mortlach video masterclass with malt whisky brand ambassador TJ

Last month we spent an evening at Diageo’s London HQ with Edinburgh bartender and malt whisky brand ambassador TJ learning about why they call Mortlach the Beast of Dufftown. And…

Last month we spent an evening at Diageo’s London HQ with Edinburgh bartender and malt whisky brand ambassador TJ learning about why they call Mortlach the Beast of Dufftown. And we’ve got the videos to prove it.

Mortlach is a Speyside legend famed for its powerful whiskies that are capable of great ageing (the distillery recently released a 47 year old). Its unique character is down to a peculiar distillation technique known as ‘The Way’ invented by Alexander Cowie who built the distillery in 1823. We won’t go into too much detail about how it works but you can read more about it here. In this technique, the wash is distilled not once, not twice, not even three times a lady, but 2.81 times. So precise!

You can see it for yourself if you enter our Mortlach competition, where you can win a VIP trip to the distillery featuring a private tour, tastings, two nights at The Craigellachie Hotel and more. There’s also currrently 10% off Mortlach 12 Year Old, 16 Year Old and 20 Year Old, so everyone’s a winner!

Mortlach 12 Year Old in all its glory

To talk us through the core range, we were lucky enough to have one of Diageo’s newest and shiniest brand ambassadors TJ. An Edinburgh native, TJ cut his teeth working in some of the city’s best bars before being snapped up to spread the malt whisky gospel.

Drams at the ready, let’s masterclass!

Here TJ tells us a little about himself and his journey from behind the bar to Diageo whisky brand ambassador.

 

The 12 Year Old is Mortlach’s bestselling expression offering all that trademark meatiness at an everyday price.

 

One step up in the range and a move up the complexity scale is the 16 Year Old.

 

And finally the biggest beast in the Mortlach core range, it’s the mighty 20 Year Old!

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