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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

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: The 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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Redbreast’s new 20 year old Dream Cask is PX sherry heaven

Well, Irish Distillers told us “Something special was coming soon. . .” in a mysterious video released this week. Then a package arrived at MoM towers that explained everything. It…

Well, Irish Distillers told us “Something special was coming soon. . .” in a mysterious video released this week. Then a package arrived at MoM towers that explained everything. It was something special indeed, the new limited edition 20 year old Redbreast Dream Pedro Ximénez Edition! Here’s the full story.

To celebrate World Whisky Day (that’s today!), Irish Distillers have released a whiskey that has been over 20 years in the making. It’s drawn from a single Pedro Ximénez butt where four different single pot still whiskeys from the Midleton Distillery have been marrying. The first component was distilled in 1998 matured in an ex-bourbon barrel and re-casked into a Pedro Ximénez sherry butt in 2012; the second was distilled in 1995, matured in an ex-bourbon cask and re-casked into an oloroso sherry butt in 2012; the third was distilled in 1985 and matured in a second-fill ex-bourbon barrel; and the final component was distilled in 1997 and matured in a second-fill ex-bourbon barrel. After marrying, the whiskey was bottled at 52.2% ABV and only 924 50cl bottles will be released.

From left, Dave McCabe and Billy Leighton

We were lucky to try a sample: as you’d expect the flavour it’s a symphony of dried fruit with that pot still spice and creamy texture (full tasting notes below.) The casks were chosen by master blender, Billy Leighton, in collaboration with blender, Dave McCabe. Billy Leighton said: “Rather than try to seek out another extraordinary cask from the Midleton inventory like the inaugural Redbreast Dream Cask, we set out to create a new Redbreast Irish whiskey like you have never tasted before. The coming together of three exceptional casks, originally destined for Redbreast 21, and a rare Pedro Ximénez butt is a first for Midleton, and the careful balance of sweet, spice and sherry flavours offers a new and complex take on the classic Redbreast Christmas cake flavour profile – it’s sure to add an extra cheer to your World Whisky Day celebrations this year!”

‘Right! where do I sign?’ we hear you say. Well, not so fast. This very special Redbreast retailing at 380 is only available from the Redbreast online members’ club, The Birdhouse, from 3pm on Monday 27th May. We hope that Irish Distillers have some top IT people on standby because we expect the site to crash with the demand. Last year’s 32 year old Dream Cask sold out in six hours!

Redbreast Dreamcask

Look at the colour on that!

Tasting notes by The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Like you’ve died and gone to PX heaven: malt extract, molasses, rum, toffee, raisins  and marmalade.

Palate: Very full-textured and rich, dates, dark chocolate, and coffee. Plus rum and raisin ice cream. Yummy! That high ABV keeps it all together with a peppery bite.

Finish: Orange peel, honey and walnuts, sweet and lingering

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The Diplomático Distillery Collection – Venezuelan rum deconstructed

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at Diplomático in Venezuela. The distillery uses three distinct distillation methods and blends the results together to make its award-winning rums. But…

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at Diplomático in Venezuela. The distillery uses three distinct distillation methods and blends the results together to make its award-winning rums. But 2017 saw the release of two single-still rums. And now the final piece in the jigsaw has arrived. . . The pot still.

Nelson Hernandez has spent most of his adult life at Diplomático – 33 years. He has worked in all parts of the business becoming maestro ronero (rum master) in 2017. So, who better to tell us about the Distillery Collection single-still rums. The company has been going since 1959, but only began exporting seriously in 2006 mainly due to economic problems within the country.

Nelson Hernandez Diplomatico DC3 launch

Maestro ronero, Nelson Hernandez

Export manager Javier Herrera told me that in the last eight years as the situation in the country worsens, Diplomático has become dependent on overseas markets and now exports over 90% of its production. “We are being destroyed by the crisis,” he told me, “it hurts to see the situation where families are suffering here”. Like another Venezualan rum producer Santa Teresa, the company does its best to look after its employees by providing healthcare etc. The company also bottles and keeps three years’ worth of stock in Panama to prevent government pilfering.

But onto happier matters, like rum cocktails. Brand ambassador Jon Lister gave us Diplomático Planas (a white rum aged six years and then filtered) with grapefruit tonic the breakfast of champions. While we sipped, Hernandez told us a little about the production process. Diplomático uses both molasses and cane honey. He gave us some to try side-by-side and the difference was noted: cane honey is sweeter and less processed without the bitter taste of molasses. It’s used to make heavier rums with the molasses saved for lighter ones.

Diplomatico distillery

Rum maturing at the Diplomatico distillery – it gets hot in here

It’s hot in Venezuela all year round, with an average day temperature of 32°C and 24°C at night. Ageing is therefore very fast. Diplomático’s regular range is sweetened using an aged spirit containing sugar, rather like boize used in Cognac. Planas has 3g per litre added, Mantanua has 8g and the Reserva Exclusiva has a whopping 35g to create something closer to a rum liqueur.

The rums in the Distillery Collection are roughly the component parts of Mantanua but with nothing added except water to bring them down to 47% ABV. We tried both the new make (slightly diluted to comply with aviation regulations) and the finished product. Here we go!

Diplomatico batch kettle

That, my friend, is a batch kettle still

No. 1 Batch Kettle Rum

The batch kettle still is an enormous Heath Robinson-esque device that was originally used by Seagram in Canada to make rye whisky. It was brought to Venezuela in 1959. Sugar honey is used for these rums and the alcohol comes off at 95% which is then reduced to 75% for ageing. This rum gives lie to the idea that high ABV equals low flavour.
New make: Strongly fruity with distinct taste of banana.
Finished product: Spends six years in ex-bourbon and ex-Scotch whisky casks; no solera system used at Diplomático. It’s dry, fresh and aromatic with that fruit coming through strongly, with toffee and nutty notes. Lightish body.

No.2 Barbet Rum

The Barbet column still is a French continuous still looking rather like an Armagnac still though the spirit comes off at a higher ABV, 95%. The rum is made with molasses.
New make: Very spicy, with notes of cinnamon and orange.
Finished product: After four years ageing, the cinnamon and orange is still there but joined by creamy notes, “like condensed milk”, according to Hernandez. The result is very elegant and aromatic like a Cognac.

No.3 Pot Still Rum

This rum is double-distilled in 6,500 litre pot stills originally used to make Scotch whisky but adapted for rum. It’s distilled on its lees (like Cognac), and comes off the still at 80%.
New make: Dark cherries, full body, fruity and floral.
Finished product: It’s reduced to 55% for cask ageing and spends eight years in oak. There’s a big meaty nose with maraschino cherries, it’s very full with notes of chocolate and coffee. Intense and complex, this is one that will appeal to Speyside whisky lovers.

Diplomatico pot stills

Ex-Scotch whisky stills with added double retort

After the tasting, the fun started because we got to play rum blenders. My favourite blend consisted of six parts batch kettle rum, four parts Barbet still and three parts pot. Hernandez tried it and pronounced it “very rounded”. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Apparently, I came very close to the taste of the final blend with the batch kettle still providing the backbone, the Barbet the elegance and the pot the meatiness. Perhaps I should jack in the writing and become a rum blender. Or maybe he was just humouring me.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Pornstar Martini

It’s World Cocktail Day! Hurrah! What’s everyone doing? We thought we’d celebrate by making the UK’s favourite cocktail, the Pornstar Martini! Cast your minds back to 2003 if you will….

It’s World Cocktail Day! Hurrah! What’s everyone doing? We thought we’d celebrate by making the UK’s favourite cocktail, the Pornstar Martini!

Cast your minds back to 2003 if you will. Every mobile phone was made by Nokia, most bars had just two varieties of gin and if you said ‘pop-up’ to someone, they would assume you were talking about a children’s book. It seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? But it was also the year that Douglas Ankrah invented that most current of cocktails, the Pornstar Martini, at the Townhouse in Knightsbridge  his landmark bar that helped put London on the cocktail map. “I first created the Pornstar Martini circa 2003 in London”, he told us. The name came about because “the cocktail was so sexy and looked what a pornstar would drink”, he said. Can’t argue with that. Ankrah also founded another legendary London bar, LAB (London Academy of Bartenders) in Soho, which opened in 1999 and finally closed its doors in 2016. It was here that the Pornstar Martini became a sensation.

Douglas Ankrah

Douglas Ankrah, cocktail inventor extraordinaire

Ankrah said, “when I first made it, I had no idea it was going to be neo classic.” Now, 16 years later, Ankrah’s creation is the nation’s favourite cocktail (according to a report just released by Diageo). I asked Ankrah why he thought it was so popular: “It has to be the name, the serve, and, of course, the Champagne shot on the side”, he said. It’s easy to see the appeal: the Pornstar Martini is fun to order; a bit rude, without being embarrassing like those ‘90s favourites such as a Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall or a Screaming Orgasm; it’s sweet and delicious. Mainly, though, I think, the reason it is so popular now is that it looks particularly good on Instagram.

If Ankrah received a penny from every Pornstar Martini served, he’d be a very rich man. Sadly, there are no royalties from cocktails, so Ankrah has released a bottled version: “I’ve got to sell the bottled version of my famous cocktail to make those pennies”, he joked. Part of the logic for launching his own product was because he was sick of tasting badly made Pornstar Martinis: “It’s like writing a great song that being covered very badly. It’s one of the reasons I bottled my creation. At least I have done it justice”, he said.

A ready-made Pornstar Martini

A ready-made Pornstar Martini

But rather than use the bottled version, it’s much more fun to make your own. Ankrah uses passion fruit puree but you can use fresh passion fruit though you’ll need to give it a good strain.This recipe calls for Passoa passion fruit liqueur but soon Ankrah will be launching his own version, called, coyly, P*star Passion Fruit liqueur. Watch this space.

This is his recipe for the perfect Pornstar Martini.

50ml Grey Goose Vanilla Vodka
20ml Passoa
50ml passion fruit purée
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar*
Half passion fruit to garnish
Shot of Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut Champagne

Shake ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled Martini glass. Float half a passionfruit on top and serve with a shot of Champagne on the side. You could use Prosecco or Cava but then that’s not very pornstar now is it?

*You can buy this or make your own by adding vanilla beans or extract to caster sugar.


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Ramsbury Distillery – taking local to a whole new level

Last month we took a trip to the beautiful Wiltshire countryside to visit Ramsbury Estate which grows (almost) everything needed to make gin, vodka, beer and so many delicious snacks….

Last month we took a trip to the beautiful Wiltshire countryside to visit Ramsbury Estate which grows (almost) everything needed to make gin, vodka, beer and so many delicious snacks.

If you want to start making gin, there’s an easy way and a hard way. You could order a little Portuguese still on the internet for £500, get a licence, buy neutral alcohol, some botanicals and off you go. You can make very nice gin this way. Or you can buy a farm, grow your own wheat, ferment it, equip a distillery with an expensive column still to make neutral alcohol, distill your gin and then use the leftover botanicals to cure meat which, of course, you have raised on your farm. No prizes for guessing how they do things at the Ramsbury Estate in Wiltshire.

The estate covers around 20,000 acres and it’s owned by a Swede called Stefan Persson. He’s not the most high profile billionaire but the chairman and main shareholder of H&M, he’s not short of a bob or two. When I visited in April, I was shown around by the estate manager Alistair Ewing, head of marketing and sales Will Thompson and Mats Olsson, who used to work with Absolut Vodka. The estate employs 25 people not including the pub staff.

We began the day with a pint of Ramsbury bitter at the pub on the estate, The Bell at Ramsbury. This was followed by a superb meal cooked by chef Oli Clark using ingredients from the estate as much as possible. To finish we had a Gin & Tonic pudding made with, naturally, Ramsbury Gin.

The Ramsbury ethos in diagram form

The Ramsbury ethos in diagram form

“We are a farm that has a distillery”, Ewing explained to me. He then outlined all the activities that take place on the estate in addition to spirit manufacture. There’s brewery which produces a variety of traditional English beers brewed from estate-grown barley. Apparently the soil isn’t good for hops growing so Kentish hops (with some Czech and New Zealand hops) are used instead. There’s cattle and pigs as well as game like deer and pheasants. The estate produces cold-pressed nutty rapeseed oil and grows rye to be used as biofuel. Waste goes into anaerobic digester, and water used in the distillery and brewery is filtered through reed beds. Not all the sustainable practices have worked: “We tried to reuse yeast waste from fermentation to make bread but the results were revolting”, Ewing told me.

Then it was off in the Land Rover for a tour of the estate with Ewing pointing things out to us in his deadpan Devonian burr. Seeing a hare galloping across the Wiltshire hills on a bright April day was a magical sight. When we couldn’t see any pigs, Ewing said, “they probably had a fight with a badger”. Less amusingly, he pointed out ash trees that are dying from a fungal disease. He expects to lose about 90% of the ash on the estate. These will be cut down and put in a wood chipper to be used as fuel.

Massive column still

Massive column still

After the tour, we had a quick look round the brewery (and yes, some beer) before the main reason for the trip, the distillery! And what a set-up they have! Distiller Dhiraj Pujari showed off his kit: Dominating the room is a 42 plate column still and to the side two pot stills. The neutral alcohol is made from wheat grown on the estate, fermented with a distillers yeast. The wash is first distilled in a pot still and then the low wines go through the column to create a 95% spirit. The fact that they have a pot still means that a whisky is a possibility though they haven’t produced any new make yet. Ewing told me that team are currently experimenting with making casks out of local oak which they might use to age their own whisky.

The gin is a classic London dry style partly distilled using juniper growing outside the distillery though they do buy in some too. Other botanicals include cinnamon, orange, lemon, and quince (which comes from the estate). Barrie Wilson, owner of Scotch and Limon, knocked up some drinks including Gin and Tonics and delicious beetroot Martinis, which were a meal in a glass. All the time snacking on delicious meats cured by smoke from leftover botanicals. Other products include a fruity, peppery vodka and a damson gin.  Your bottle will you not only when your spirit was made, but also when the cereal was harvested and which part of the estate it came from. Can’t get more local than that?

All this commitment to sustainability and localism doesn’t come cheap. According to Ewing, the estate owner “takes a long view on profit”. But Ramsbury Estate is much more than a rich man’s plaything. “We are custodians of the land”, Ewing said, “we’re not doing anything people weren’t doing 300 years ago. . . Except with more health and safety.”

Reeds at Ramsbury

Reed beds outside the distillery clean waste water and provide a habitat for birds

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Ardnahoe: A closer look at Islay’s newest distillery

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how…

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how could we refuse?

Just getting onto Islay proved tricky for many invited to the opening of Ardnahoe Distillery. Gusts of 70 mph meant that all the ferries were cancelled. Luckily, the plucky folk at Logan Air weren’t deterred, and the tiny propeller aircraft I was aboard touched down safely on the island. During the journey from the airport to the distillery, the driver pointed out the scorched smoking landscape. Dry weather, high winds and perhaps someone’s carelessness with a cigarette had set off wild fires the night before. The air smelt like an Islay whisky.

Hunter Laing

We are family: from left, Scott, Stewart and Andrew Laing

Ardnahoe is located in the north of the island, facing Jura and near Port Askaig. “We think it’s the most perfect location from a scenic point of view for a whisky,” Andrew Laing from Hunter Laing told me. It’s a family business run by Stewart Laing and his two sons, Andrew and Scott. The company, which bottles whisky and rum, has been going in its present form since 2013, though the Laing family has been in the whisky business much longer. Stewart Laing is clearly very proud of his sons: “They are the real driving force developing the profitability of the company,” he said.

A distillery of their own was the inevitable next step. “We looked at a couple of options to buy distilleries, but it became apparent that for reasons of cost and for reasons of finding the right project, that we really needed to build one rather than to buy one,” Andrew explained. “ If you’re building a distillery, from our point of view, the only place to build one was Islay.” The Laing family has history on the island. “On my grandmother’s side, on my dad’s side, we have a family connection to Islay going back to the 1700s. More recently my father studied whisky making at Bruichladdich in 1966,” he continued.

Work began on the distillery (the first new one on Islay since Kilchoman opened in 2005) in 2016 and was completed last year. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though. Stewart Laing mentioned some neighbours who had been less than supportive when they were seeking planning permission. Andrew was more diplomatic: “there was some opposition at the planning stage, which is fair enough.”

Worm tub condensers at Ardnahoe distillery

Look at those worm tubs!

The Ardnahoe set-up is sure to get whisky fans hot under the collar. It has Oregon pine fermenters, two lantern shaped pot stills (a 13,000 litre wash still and an 11,000 litre spirit still), the longest lyne arm in Scotland (or so they tell me), and worm tub condensers. “That slower condensing that we get from the worm tubs and the fact that we’ve got more copper contact in vapour form gives us a wee bit more character, texture and complexity,” Andrew explained. We thought even if it makes one percent difference to the whisky, it’s worth the extra expenditure.”

The distillery manager, Fraser Hughes, gave me some new make to try. It’s a complex dram, smoky as you’d expect (it’s made from malt peated to between 40 and 45 PPM from Port Ellen Maltings) but with tropical fruit and earthy cereal notes. Hughes described it as “dynamic but not dirty or in your face” and went on to say “it will be better in a few weeks when you have more foreshots and feints in the system.” According to Andrew Laing, that fruitiness comes partly from a long slow fermentation, around 72 hours.

Jim McEwan, who consulted on the project, joked that finding the cut point in the spirit was a difficult as giving birth. The Laings are clearly delighted to have worked with McEwan and vice versa. “To be honest, he didn’t take very much persuasion to come out of retirement for this project,” Andrew Laing said.”He was very excited and who can blame him! To build a new distillery on Islay!”

The official opening was in April, but the distillery has been filling casks since 2018. “Last year we did an inaugural first year production offer of just over 400 casks, and it was oversubscribed. We sold them all,” Andrew said. These first casks are sitting in the distillery warehouse (though most of the production will be matured on the mainland). He told me these will be split between “about 70% first-fill bourbon barrels; then about 20 or 25% first fill ex-oloroso hogsheads and some butts. And we’ve got some other wines casks, such as Port, Madeira, Muscat, Rioja, and some rum.” As a rum bottler, there’s a decent supply of used rum casks.

Ardnahoe Distillery Still Room

Still room with its beautiful view

It’s a great-looking distillery, modern but fits beautifully into its natural setting. “We made sure first of all that from the experience point of view, it’s a welcoming place and an enjoyable place to visit,” Andrew Laing explained. “It’s very bright, very airy, a comfortable place to spend some time.” He added that whisky tourism is growing “in a big way”. The team is gearing up for Fèis Ìle (24 May – 1 June) with a screening of a new whisky documentary, The Water of Life, featuring Jim McEwan.There will also be some premium Kinship whiskies bottled for the festival and available only from the distillery. “It brings a fair penny in,” joked Stewart Laing.

One of the advantages that Ardnahoe has over other new distilleries is that its owner, Hunter Laing, is a spirits bottler.  Even without its own mature whisky, there are lots of exclusive things to try. Not just whiskies from all over Scotland (including a special local blend called Islay Journey, which you can bottle from the cask yourself), but rum from around the Caribbean under the Kill Devil label. After expressing an interest, Andrew was soon opening bottles from Hampden in Jamaica and Diamond in Guyana, and enthusing about a blended rum that is in the pipeline. We were having so much fun that part of me hoped that the weather would get worse and my flight would be cancelled. Stranded at a distillery on Islay, isn’t that every whisky lover’s dream?

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Cocktail of the Week: The Clover Club

To show us how to make this week’s drink, the Clover Club, we spoke to the head bartender at Swingers, a West End bar that combines cocktails with, errr, crazy…

To show us how to make this week’s drink, the Clover Club, we spoke to the head bartender at Swingers, a West End bar that combines cocktails with, errr, crazy golf.

The Clover Club is named after a now-defunct gentleman’s club in Philadelphia where the cocktail is said to originate. The club began in 1896 and met until the 1920s at The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel before it disappeared. Nobody knows what happened, perhaps the members just got bored of each other. But at some point between the Clover opening and closing, the club’s signature cocktail was invented.

A Clover Club is usually made with raspberries or raspberry syrup with gin, vermouth, lemon juice and that all-important egg white, but Harry Craddock’s version from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) calls for grenadine instead and omits the vermouth to create something very similar to a Pink Lady.

Leo Gle

Leo Gle (note very strong arms)

On our recent visit to Swingers, a West End bar where you play crazy golf while your caddie keeps you supplied with drinks, we were very taken with head bartender Leo Gle’s version of the Clover Club. So, we asked him for his recipe. Gle’s version involves fresh raspberries which give it a wonderful colour: “it tastes as good as it looks”, he said. Look at that photo below, you can’t disagree. To get the froth perfect, Gle gave us a tip: “The key is to do a two part shake, a dry shake (without ice) and a wet shake (with ice). This ensures that the egg doesn’t separate and you get that lovely foamy top”, he said. This requires some serious shaking.

Gle, a Frenchman, worked as a chef at Sketch in London before moving behind the bar at the same venue. He then worked in the south of France and Switzerland, before moving back to London to be head bartender at Swingers. Gle said: “I love the fast pace of the London bar scene, it’s enabled me to grow and learn quickly, as you have to keep up with the ever-evolving tastes and trends. London is very diverse and there is such a variety of different drinks and service styles to experience.”

So which gin should you use? “Tanqueray No. TEN, but you could also use Martin Miller’s gin which has a unique balance of citrus and juniper and is made using Icelandic spring water, giving it a clean crisp taste”, he told us. The result is something that “has an elegant balance between the citrus, fruit and gin flavours. It’s deliciously fruity but not too sweet, making it very easy to drink”.

Clover Club

You need to do something serious shaking to get a foam like that

Right, got your shaking arms limbered up? Let’s make a Clover Club.

40ml Tanqueray No. TEN
15ml Belsazar Dry vermouth
20ml Raspberry puree
25ml Lemon juice
10ml sugar syrup
1 egg white
Fresh raspberries

Fill a coupette with ice to chill the glass. In a shaker, add the egg white, sugar syrup, lemon juice and raspberry puree*, followed by the vermouth and gin. Add one ice cube to the shaker and give all the ingredients a really hard shake, then add some more ice and shake again. Double strain into the glass and add some fresh raspberries to serve.

*If you don’t have raspberry puree, put three fresh raspberries into the shaker and add a little extra lemon juice and sugar syrup.

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New Arrival of the Week: Darnley’s Very Berry Gin

This week Darnley’s Gin launched a limited edition gin distilled with local ingredients from the hedgerows and even from the sea. We went to Scotland for a little taste. ….

This week Darnley’s Gin launched a limited edition gin distilled with local ingredients from the hedgerows and even from the sea. We went to Scotland for a little taste. . .

In January we visited Kingsbarns Distillery in Fife to try its first whisky release, and very nice it was too. The distillery’s founders, the Wemyss family, also produces Darnley’s Gin which appeared back in 2010. In craft gin terms, this is ancient history.

Head gin distiller Scott Gowans talked me through the range. I enjoyed the Original and the cumin-accented Spiced Gin, but the one that really blew my hair back was a limited edition product – the Very Berry Gin. It’s a London Dry Gin made with Scottish hedgerow fruit including rose hips, elderberries and sloes. I loved its fruity flavour and the saline note that comes from using sugar kelp as a botanical, and couldn’t wait until it was available to the general public. Well the wait is over. It’s here.

Very Berry Gin

Very Berry Gin – note gleaming copper in the background

The range is named after Mary Queen of Scot’s first husband, Lord Darnley. She first met him in February 1565 at Wemyss Castle in Fife and was clearly quite impressed. A chronicle of the occasion wrote: “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen.” Blimey! By July of that year, they were married.

Unfortunately, despite his general dishiness, Darnley was also a violent drunkard. His behaviour, which included murdering Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio, quickly made him unpopular at court. Darnley was himself eventually murdered in 1567, some think at instigation of Mary.

His portrait sits in the gin distillery at Kingsbarns. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area not least for the theatrical gin tasting room. It seems like an ordinary room but at the touch of a button, a light comes on behind a wall-sized window to reveal the gleaming copper gin stills. Very James Bond.

Gowans uses both traditional distillation and vapour infusion to get those wonderful flavours into Very Berry Gin. When I tried it back in January, I immediately thought it would be great in a Negroni, but it’s also a natural candidate for a Bramble. Here’s a recipe which will get the most out of this very Scottish gin:

50ml Darnley’s Very Berry Gin
25ml lemon juice
10ml sugar syrup
10ml crème de mure

Shake the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup with ice in a shaker, double-strain into a tumbler filled with crushed ice. Drizzle crème de mure on the top and garnish with a lemon slice and a bramble, and raise a toast to one of Scotland’s top scoundrels.

Darnley's Very Berry Pack Shot crop

It’s very very berry

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