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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

Cocktail of the Week: The Rob Roy

Today’s cocktail is one for all those mixing Scotch whisky doubters out there. We’re using Black Bottle Double Cask to make Scotland’s answer to the Manhattan. It is, of course,…

Today’s cocktail is one for all those mixing Scotch whisky doubters out there. We’re using Black Bottle Double Cask to make Scotland’s answer to the Manhattan. It is, of course, the Rob Roy!

We spent a very jolly 45 minutes last week with Brendan McCarron from Distell tasting through the Black Bottle range*. You can watch him in action here. These are blends that speak for themselves, though having the always amusing McCarron as a guide certainly heightened the experience. Everything from the lightly-smoky standard expression, the ‘standing on the south coast of Islay in a gale’ Island Smoke to the mellow 10 Year Old are well worth your time and money. But this time it was the sweet and spicy Double Cask that stood out for me.

Black Bottle

Black Bottle Alchemy Series Double Cask and Island Smoke

A blend for mixing

One little sip and I thought what a fantastic cocktail whisky it is. The rich, toffee-laden spicy flavour profile comes from a mixture of malt whiskies finished in Spanish sherry casks and grain whisky aged in red wine casks. Also, according to McCarron, there’s a lot of virgin American oak in here as well. It all adds up to a blended whisky that majors on all the things that make bourbon so mixable: smoothness, sweetness, and spice, but there’s a whisper of smoke in here too. Best of all, it’s bottled at 46.3% ABV, so the flavour really comes through.

So think of all those cocktails that taste great with American whisky like an Old Fashioned or Boulevardier, and use Black Bottle Double Cask instead. Substitute rye for Scotch in a Manhattan, and you’ve got a Rob Roy. 

The Rob Roy story

Learned Master of Malt customers might assume that the cocktail was named after the novel by Walter Scott based on the life of Rob Roy MacGregor (made into a film with Liam Neeson and Tim Roth that was completely overshadowed by another Scottish history film that came out at the same time starring Mel Gibson). But in fact the Rob Roy gets its name from a now-forgotten Broadway musical based on the story which opened in New York in 1894. There seems to have been a trend for naming cocktails after musicals. The Pink Lady is named after a show that ran on Broadway before the First World War.

The Rob Roy is simply a Manhattan made with Scotch whisky instead of bourbon or rye. If you want to make it with Irish whiskey, it becomes an Emerald. As with a Manhattan you can make a dry version by using a dry vermouth like Dolin, or make it ‘perfect’ by combining sweet and dry. I’m sticking with sweet in the form of the decadent Azaline Saffron Vermouth.

For the whisky component, I find a big rich blend works best, like Black Bottle Double Cask, Johnnie Walker Black Label or Hankey Bannister. But a well-aged grain like Compass Box Hedonism would be great too. What’s also quite fun is to add just a teaspoon of something smoky, like Island Smoke, to give it a dose of peat.  Oh and don’t forget a dash or two of Angostura bitters.

Cocktail of the Week Rob Roy

How to make a Rob Roy

Right, let’s cocktail!

50ml Black Bottle Double Cask
25ml Azaline Saffron Vermouth 
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Stir all the ingredients with lots of ice in a shaker or jug. Strain into a chilled coupe or Nick & Nora glass, and garnish with a twist of lemon or a maraschino cherry. Or both!

*For a limited time only we are offering the Black Bottle bundle – all four expressions for a very good price. 

 

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Building a whisky book library

Once you develop a taste for whisky it can become an all-consuming passion. Before long you not only want to taste the stuff, you want to learn about it too….

Once you develop a taste for whisky it can become an all-consuming passion. Before long you not only want to taste the stuff, you want to learn about it too. So for those looking to expand their knowledge or just be entertained, here’s our guide to building a whisky book library.

Someone at worked asked the other day for recommendations for books for a whisky lover looking to disappear further into this enormous and fascinating subject. Despite the fact that so much information is now available online, if you really want to learn and be entertained, nothing beats a good book. 

So we started putting a list together and it grew and grew, and here it is. We have just included books that we genuinely love or have found useful. Usually both. There’s everything here from amusing travelogues to in-depth technical stuff. Some of the books are out of print but they are here anyway as it shouldn’t be too hard to track them down. To try to keep things down, we’ve only included one book from each author. This list is very much work in progress, we will keep adding to it and if you have any suggestions please put them below or let us know on social media. 

Peat Smoke and Spirit

Andrew Jefford Peat Smoke and Spirit

Jefford is one of the big names of British wine journalism, famous for his lyrical way with words and passion for drinks with soul. He brought all that and more when writing about Scotland’s most romantic whiskies, the single malts of Islay. In it, Jefford tries to get to the root of what it is about Islay that makes such distinctive whiskies. It was published back in 2005 to generally rave reviews and recently released as Whisky Island. Not quite such a good title. 

The Way of Whisky

Dave Broom The Way of Whisky 

Which Broom to pick? Well, no whisky lover should be without his World Atlas of Whisky and Whisky: The Manual is pretty indispensable too but if I could pick only one, it would be The Way of Whisky. In it Broom tries to answer the unanswerable question, what makes Japanese whisky unique? Since then it’s become apparent that the answer is a big dose of Ben Nevis, but despite missing the big story, it’s still a great book. I come back to it again and again for its classic soaring Broom prose but also because the technical details about Japanese whisky just aren’t available online the way they are about Scottish single malts. 

Whiskies Galore

Ian Buxton Whiskies Galore

Regular readers will know Buxton from his witty, knowledge and occasional curmudgeonly features for our blog. He’s one of the big names in whisky writing and author of the bestelling 101 Whiskies to try Before you Die series. But I’ve plumped for this idiosyncratic tour around Scotland’s island distilleries, from the famous like Talisker and Ardbeg, to some I had never heard of. One reviewer compared it to Bill Bryson which, I think, is just right. It’s the perfect mix of whisky, travel and jokes. Take a look at all those great reviews online. 

A Long Stride

Nick Morgan A Long Stride

Another Master of Malt contributor! We do have some talent on our books. Morgan is a historian and former Diageo man who was given the keys to the archives to write the definitive history of the Johnnie Walker brand. I think a lesser writer would have got bogged down in all that information but Morgan makes it both an engaging family story and nothing less than the history of Scotch whisky as told through one brand. Essential reading. We’ve also heard good things about his latest book Everything You Need to Know About Whisky: (But are too afraid to ask).

David Daiches

David Daiches Scotch Whisky: Its Past and Present

Now for an oldie but a goodie. Daiches was a historian of Lithuanian Jewish descent who was brought up in Edinburgh, a subject he covered in his memoir. Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood. He was also a great whisky lover but when he was writing, there just weren’t that many good books on Scotch whisky for the general reader – so he wrote one himself. Published in the ‘70s when the industry was still largely about blends, Daiches championed the unfashionable cause of single malt Scotch whisky. It’s out of print but copies are easy to find online. 

Hume & Moss whisky

John Hume & Michael Moss The Making of Scotch Whisky

In complete contrast to Daiches, this is really a book for proper whisky nerds. Sadly, it’s now out of print and second hand copies go for a lot of money but it really is essential if you want to delve into Scotch whisky industry. It looks at how it went from a cottage business to the powerhouse we know today. What’s most notable is how tied in whisky has long been with the industrial revolution. Distilleries that we now think of as quaint and artisan were in the time at the cutting edge of technology. Not an easy read but packed full of good things. 

Aeneas MacDonald

Aeneas MacDonald Whisky: The First Definitive Book on Whisky

MacDonald, the pseudonym of journalist George Malcolm Thomson, was one of the first writers to bring an amateur’s eye to what had previously been a dry, technical subject. This was first published in 1930 and then was out of print for a long time with old copies changing hands for serious sums. So it was canny of Birlinn to produce a new edition in 2016 with notes and introduction by Ian Buxton. MacDonald was not an expert, and part of the joy of this new edition is Buxton’s humorous commentary correcting him. In fact, it can be read as a good-natured argument between two greats of whisky writing. 

 

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New Arrival of the Week: Auchroisk 12 Year Old 2009 Storm (Fable Whisky)

This week we’re shining the New Arrival Spotlight on an independently-bottled whisky from one of Speyside’s more obscure distilleries. It’s Auchroisk 12 Year Old 2009 Storm (Fable Whisky). It was…

This week we’re shining the New Arrival Spotlight on an independently-bottled whisky from one of Speyside’s more obscure distilleries. It’s Auchroisk 12 Year Old 2009 Storm (Fable Whisky).

It was the arrival of some interesting single casks from Mossburn which put Auchroisk on the map for me. Before that I don’t think I’d ever thought much about this distillery apart from, oh Christ, how do you pronounce that? According to some sources it should be pronounced ‘orth rusk’ or here it says ‘ar thrush’ but then in the accompanying video they pronounce it: ‘och (as in loch) risk.’ So not ‘oh Christ’ then. 

Handily, my latest secondhand bookshop find, Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003) has a pronunciation guide at the back. Here it says it’s pronounced: ‘och roysk’ with the emphasis on the second syllable. I’m not going to argue with one of Granta magazine’s best young novelists 1993.

Auchroisk_Distillery (1)

A modern distillery

Say it again: ‘och roysk’. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? It means ‘ford across the red stream’ in Gaelic. That poetic name hides a distinctly modern distillery which only started distilling in 1974. It was built at the height of the last whisky boom when the industry thought there was no end to demand for its products. Sound familiar? The idea was to produce lots of light fruity whisky to go into J&B, then a massive brand for IDV (Independent Distillers and Vintners, a forerunner of Diageo.)

But unlike some other distilleries that were either built or revamped in the 1960s and ‘70s, google Loch Lomond if you want to see a distillery that will make you go ‘wow’, it does look like some effort has gone into the design (above). It’s a modern take on traditional white-washed distillery architecture. Iain Banks writes:

“Auchroisk distillery is quite beautiful in a modernist kind of way, all steep roofs and interesting angles. There’s a slightly gratuitous-looking sort of ground-floor turrety thing that I’m not so sure about but otherwise visually it’s a peach.”

Sadly, it’s not open to the public so you won’t be able to examine it close-up for yourself. The set-up consists of eight lantern-head pot stills combined with shell and tube condensers and a relatively long fermentation time, 80 hours, to produce an elegant fruity new make. Perfect for lighter blends. It’s usually matured in ex-bourbon casks with a light sherrying at the end. In fact, Auchroisk was a pioneer in cask finishing. Iain Banks describes the taste as: “a very pleasant, smooth, medium-bodied dram, like an allsort that’s been briefly dipped in sherry”.

Single malt bottlings

In the ‘80s, single malt from this difficult to pronounce distillery was marketed as Singleton, a brand now saved for Dufftown, Glenord and Glendullan. Allow me to go off on a tangent, I’ve never been able to understand why Diageo markets three distilleries and no others under the Singleton brand. It’s certainly not a name that resonates with customers. Somebody in house speculated it was so that Diageo could claim to have one of the biggest single malt brands in the world, by combining three distilleries. Answers and thoughts in the comments below or on a postcard to MoM Towers.

Anyway, as you’d expect from a workhorse distillery, Diageo doesn’t exactly pull out all the stops marketing Auchroisk. There’s the classic 10 year old Flora & Fauna bottling. Plus it crops up occasionally in the annual Special Releases. But this very obscurity makes it something of a gift to independent bottlers.

STORM. Auchroisk

A good story

Our New Arrival comes from a relatively new company, Fable, which is packaging its releases in an innovative way. So as well as great whisky, you get a good story. This release is dubbed ‘Storm’ and features artwork (above) by Hugo Cuellar, inspired by the folk tale ‘The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay’.

Daryl Haldan, creative director from the company, explained: “We’re passionate about showcasing distilleries that don’t always get enough love, so when you get whisky from places you don’t get to taste every single day you have a responsibility to present them at their best”.

This particular Auchroisk was distilled in 2009 and spent its entire life in a refill hogshead before bottling at 56.5% ABV. There’s a full tasting note below but in brief you’re getting masses of fruity distillery character combined with subtle American oak. And the best thing is you can order it online, no need to make a fool of yourself mispronouncing it in a whisky shop. 

Auchroisk 12 Year Old 2009 Storm (Fable Whisky) is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy. 

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Nose: Cut grass and subtle floral heather hints, with creamy fragrant vanilla over the top.

Palate: White chocolate, peppercorn, sherbet lemon sweeties, still subtly grassy.

Finish: Drying spiciness, with a smidge of oak.

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Master of Malt tastes… Mossburn Vintage Cask releases

Look at what has just landed at MoM towers: a haul of single cask whiskies from independent bottler Mossburn including a Springbank from 1999. Be quick, these Mossburn Vintage Cask…

Look at what has just landed at MoM towers: a haul of single cask whiskies from independent bottler Mossburn including a Springbank from 1999. Be quick, these Mossburn Vintage Cask releases aren’t likely to have around for long.

Last year was a milestone for Mossburn Distillers as its distillery on Skye, Torabhaig,  released its inaugural single malt whisky – to great acclaim and huge demand. There’s more to come as the company has a grain plant at Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders called the Reivers Distillery which at some point in the near future will be releasing a rye-based spirit.

That’s not all! The Jedburgh HQ is also home to the company’s warehouses, where Mossburn functions as an independent bottler releasing a range of rare single malts as well as blended whiskies including the Caisteal Chamuis, which came out earlier this year. The firm is owned by a publicity-shy billionaire called Dr Frederik Paulsen. According to Ian Buxton in a recent article, “Mossburn, Mamont Vodka, Mozart Liqueur, Torabhaig, Kaikyo, a number of wineries and multiple drinks distributors all around the globe are part of his sprawling empire.”

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

Torabhaig, the Isle of Skye’s newest distillery

Back to the whisky

But back to the whisky. We’re very excited about a series of single cask bottlings which will be landing at Master of Malt shortly from Mossburn’s Vintage Casks range. These include rare old releases from Jura and Springbank as well as younger single malts with interesting cask finishes from Auchroisk, Craigellachie, and Macduff. 

Company director and whisky maker Neil Macleod Mathieson explained: “As independent bottlers, we have the opportunity to scout out the most interesting casks that can provide an alternative perspective on a distillery’s character. At its heart, Mossburn has a concept we like to refer to as ‘the spirit of intrigue’, a phrase which we feel sums up our team as much as it does the whiskies we make. We aim to reward drinkers’ curiosity with thought-provoking whiskies that will allow whisky enthusiasts to continue on their journey of discovery.”

So there we go. Here’s what has just landed:

Springbank

Springbank 1999 22 Year Old SOLD OUT

Bottling strength: 54.7% ABV

Nose: Delicate wood smoke with stewed fruit and baked apple with a little lemon, baking spices, leather and aromatic tobacco and camphor wood notes. Hugely complex and enticing.

Palate: It delivers on the palate too with sweet fruitcake, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, tobacco, and hints of wood smoke all wrapped up in a full oily texture.

Finish: Very long with lingering smoke and spices. 

Jura Packshot

Jura 1993 28 Year Old 

Bottling strength: 48.2%ABV

Nose: Waxy notes with mature cheddar rind, vanilla, toffee and cooked apple.

Palate: Big spices here with aniseed to the fore. Wow, it sounds like someone has dropped some ouzo in here by mistake. Also pepper, chilli and orchard fruit with a creamy texture.

Finish: Sweet toffee, liquorice and hazelnuts. 

 Craigellachie,

No.28 Craigellachie 2007 13 Year Old Oloroso finish

Bottling strength: 46% ABV

Nose: Sulphurous and a little wood smoke with waxy apple skin, vanilla and saline notes.

Palate: Fiery chilli peppers, black pepper, gorgeous full creamy texture.

Finish: Leather, a little smoke and lemon rind.

29 Macduff Packshot

No.29 Macduff 2007 14 Year Old Ruby Port finish

Bottling strength: 56.4% ABV

Nose: Toffee and dried fruit with fresh stone fruit, peaches and cherries, plus some darker notes like old cellars, damp leather and tobacco. Magnificent!

Palate: Super peppery with Szechuan pepper and cloves balanced by sweet toffee and apple notes and creamy full texture.

Finish: Burnt caramel and spice. 

30 Auchroisk Packshot

No.30 Auchroisk 2007 14 Years Old Bordeaux Red Wine finish 

Bottling strength: 46% ABV

Nose: Smoky nose with sweet vanilla, milk chocolate, and cinnamon.

Palate: Another one with prominent aniseed among other spices. Very light and fresh.

Finish: The smoke comes back in again.

So something for everyone in these latest releases from Mossburn Distillers, with my tips being the Springbank if you’re feeling flush (and quick), and the Macduff for those on a more everyday budget. These are strictly limited edition single malts so may sell out very swiftly.

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Cocktail of the Week: the Thunderer

This week we’re resurrecting a lost cocktail created by Dick Bradsell for The Times in 1982. It’s a kind of proto-Bramble called the Thunderer!  The Bramble is the second most…

This week we’re resurrecting a lost cocktail created by Dick Bradsell for The Times in 1982. It’s a kind of proto-Bramble called the Thunderer! 

The Bramble is the second most famous creation of legendary bartender Dick Bradsell (the first being the mighty Espresso Martini.) The story goes that it was invented when he was working at Fred’s Club in Soho in the mid-’80s.

It was inspired by his childhood holidays on the Isle of Wight. In 2001, he wrote this for Difford’s Guide on his creation: “I wanted to invent a truly British drink for reasons that escape me now…. A bramble, by the way, is the bush where the blackberry grows, I know this as I spent an inordinate amount of time in my Isle of Wight childhood cutting and scratching myself on their jaggy thorns in attempts to capture those elusive berries that others had failed to harvest.”

Thunderer times extract

Image courtesy of Jane MacQuitty from The Times

The Bramble’s ancestor

What’s not so well-known is that the Bramble has an ancestor that is now almost completely forgotten. Almost, but not quite. Jane MacQuitty, long-time wine columnist of The Times, remembers a kind of proto-Bramble.

The year was 1982 and MacQuitty was writing a column on how cocktails were back in, there really is nothing new under the sun. To tie in with the feature, the Times team commissioned Bradsell and others including the American Bar at the Savoy to come up with a special cocktail for Times readers. She told me that “Dick at Zanzibar was by far and away the best ….”

She wrote at the time: “A panel of experienced imbibers sampled several impressive concoctions before giving its unanimous vote to one which, although not in the fashionable fruit-and-parasol idiom, may well become a classic.” It was dubbed the Thunderer, after the paper’s nickname, and then seems to have largely been forgotten about. The only reference I could find of it was on the Absolut website with no mention of its inventor.

Its descendant, however, the Bramble did indeed become a classic. The two drinks work on a similar theme but the Thunderer uses cassis instead of creme de mure, vodka instead of gin, a tiny amount of parfait amour, and is served ice cold straight up rather than on crushed ice. Apparently it proved very popular with readers, MacQuitty told me, and got more than a few drunk. 

A few years later when, Bradsell had by then left Zanzibar and was at Fred’s Club in Soho, he unleashed the Bramble on the world and the rest is history. He would later invent the Espresso Martini as well as work at the quintessential ‘90s bar The Atlantic. Sadly, Bradsell died in 2016 of brain cancer aged only 56.

Thunderer cocktail of the week

How to make a Thunderer

Bradsell’s legacy would be to inspire a generation of bartenders to make classic simple cocktails using high quality ingredients, rather than the lurid sugary concoctions that MacQuitty is alluding to above. 

And the Thunderer is vintage Bradsell being both incredibly simple and incredibly delicious, as long as you use the right spirits. The original recipe calls for Stolichnaya or just Stoli as it is now known. I think, however, Kavka from Poland would be even better as it’s made with tiny quantities of fruit brandy. 

Finally, MacQuitty adds that you can leave out the parfait amour, a strongly floral liqueur which some people hate, if you find the flavour “too provocative.” She doesn’t specify a garnish but a raspberry dropped in the glass would be lovely. 

60cl Kavka vodka
1 teaspoon White Heron British cassis
½ teaspoon Giffard parfait amour (optional)

All the liquids should be as cold as possible. Swirl a frozen coupe or Martini glass with creme de cassis, add the parfait amour and the frozen vodka. Then, as MacQuitty puts it: “serve instantly before the glass defrosts.” 

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Cocktail of the Week: the Sazerac

Today, we’re making a cocktail with its heart in old Louisiana. Like an Old Fashioned but with a French twist, it’s the drink of New Orleans. It is, of course,…

Today, we’re making a cocktail with its heart in old Louisiana. Like an Old Fashioned but with a French twist, it’s the drink of New Orleans. It is, of course, the Sazerac!

New Orleans, with its blend of French, Spanish, British, African, and Native American cultures, is a rich place for drinks. It’s the home of the Hurricane, and the city’s old town gives its name to the Vieux Carré. But against such stiff competition, it’s the Sazerac that is the definitive New Orleans cocktail. So much so that in 2008 the Louisiana Legislature proclaimed it as the city’s official cocktail. 

Who invented the Sazerac?

It was probably invented in 1838 by Antoine Peychaud, a Louisiana apothecary and inventor of the eponymous bitters. The Sazerac was named after a now defunct brand of Cognac: Sazerac de Forge et Fils. The Sazerac was originally made just with brandy but when the vineyards of Europe were destroyed by phylloxera (the vine-eating louse that came originally from America) in the late nineteenth century, bourbon or rye whiskeys were used instead. 

Now it gets a bit confusing because there is now a highly-regarded make of rye whiskey named after the famous cocktail. The Sazerac Company also owns Buffalo Trace bourbon, Southern Comfort and Peychaud’s bitters so they have the Cajun cocktail game sewn up. 

To further confuse matters, the Sazerac company launched its own brand of Cognac in 2020 called Seignette VS. And to make things even more complicated, it has now revived the Sazerac de Forge Cognac brand. So the Sazerac brand will be returning to its French roots. 

New Orleans

It’s like a French Old Fashioned

The Sazerac cocktail is part of the Old Fashioned family. A mixture of alcohol, usually brandy or whiskey, sweetened with sugar, seasoned with bitters and chilled, these would have originally just been known as ‘cocktails’. That’s before the great vermouth revolution when all kinds of new-fashioned drinks like the Martini and Manhattan usurped the name cocktail.

Eric Felten, in his great How’s Your Drink, writes: “It may not be the World’s Strongest Drink, but the Sazerac with its spicy-sweet contradictions, is a cocktail according to the original specifications. Taste one, and you’ll realise why the concept caught on.” According to him, the best Sazerac in the world is made at the Library Lounge of the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans.

Aniseed haters avoid

The Sazerac’s uniqueness lies in the addition of aniseed in the form of absinthe to the simple Old Fashioned recipe, and that it is stirred down and strained rather than served on the rocks. Beware, it’s not a drink for those who don’t like aniseed. So all you aniseed haters out there, avoid. Instead of absinthe, you could use pastis or Herbsaint, a New Orleans aniseed liqueur which it won’t surprise you to learn is also owned by Sazerac. Almost nobody will know the difference. But whatever you do, you must use Peychaud’s bitters or it isn’t a Sazerac. 

Finally, do you use Cognac as in the original recipe or rye as they do at the Library Lounge? Well, I’m going for both, using Seignette VS Cognac and the magnificent Oxford Rye cos it’s what I have in the house. And it’s magnificent. You could keep it on brand by using Sazerac Straight Rye, and save yourself some money.

Whichever you use, the spice of the rye does something magical with the fruit from a vibrant young Cognac. Add a dash of aniseed and some Peychaud’s bitters, and suddenly you’re in the French quarter of New Orleans with the sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band floating on the breeze. 

Homemade New Orleans Sazerac Cocktail with Bitters and Rye

How to make a Sazerac

30ml Seignette VS Cognac
30ml Oxford Rye Whiskey Batch 4 or Sazerac Straight Rye
Teaspoon of sugar
Tablespoon of absinthe or Ricard Pastis
Dash of Peychaud’s bitters
Dash of Angostura bitters

Coat a tumbler with the absinthe and shake it out. Then in a shaker stir together the brandy, whiskey, bitters and sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Add ice and stir vigorously for about 30 seconds. Strain into the absinthe coated glass and serve with a twist of lemon.

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Classic bottlings: Nikka Coffey Grain

As part of our Japan focus this week, we’re taking a closer look at a brand that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Since its launch in 2012, Nikka Coffey…

As part of our Japan focus this week, we’re taking a closer look at a brand that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Since its launch in 2012, Nikka Coffey Grain has become the darling of bartenders around the world. But at first, not everybody was so keen. 

Before we dive into Nikka Coffey Grain, I asked brand ambassador Nathan Shearer the correct way to pronounce Nikka. Apparently, it’s “nee ka” rather than “nick ah.” So now you know. Right, let’s get on with it!

Nikka Coffey Grain is such a fixture on the whisky scene, especially with bartenders, that it’s difficult to recall that it had people scratching their heads when it was first launched in 2012. Japanese whisky was still something of an unknown quantity outside its home market and many people were perplexed by the word ‘Coffey’ on the label. Could this be a coffee-flavoured whisky, some speculated

Coffey Still Nikka

Not very pretty but it makes great whisky: one of Nikka’s Coffey stills

Coffey, not coffee

But, as I am sure all Master of Malt customers know, it refers to a special type of still patented by Dublin exciseman Aeneas Coffey in 1830. It allowed alcohol to be made continuously rather than in batches as with a traditional pot still. Coffey’s invention wasn’t the first, a similar device invented by Robert Stein was already in use, but it worked far more efficiently allowing large quantities of high quality, high strength alcohol to be made quickly and cheaply. Our very own Ian Buxton will be looking at Aeneas Coffey in more detail next month. 

His invention transformed spirits in Britain – London dry gin as we know it today relies on the Coffey still and its descendants – but it was most influential in Scotland. Reliable, light Scotch blends like Johnnie Walker would not have been possible without grain alcohol to blend with highly-flavoured malts. Coffey’s invention, however, did not catch on in his home country, the big Dublin distillers stuck with their huge pot stills until the bitter end. 

Masataka Taketsuru

One person who did see the value of the patent stills, as it was also known, was Japanese whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru. In 1919, while on his fact-finding tour of Scotland he worked at a now shut grain distillery, James Calder in Bo’ness.

The stills used by Nikka are more modern. The company has two Coffey stills built in 1963 and 1965 by Blair, Campbell & McLean of Glasgow, a firm that went out of business in 1977. Nowadays, most Scotch whisky producers use more advanced column distillation equipment, according to Nathan, Nikka is the only distillery of any size still to be using Coffey stills. Originally they were at the Nishinomiya distillery but were moved to Miyagikyo in 1999. 

Miyagikyo Distillery - Lake Cherry Blossoms (Official Photo) (1)

Much prettier: Miyagikyo Distillery

The launch of Nikka Coffey Grain

The output from these old stills was used in blends with occasional single cask releases until the launch of Nikka Coffey Grain in 2012. The mashbill is 95% maize with 5% malted barley to get the enzymes going. For the ferment, Nikka uses a range of different yeasts rather than a solitary strain. The new make comes off the stills at between 92-95% ABV. According to Dave Broom’s The Way of Whisky, the stills produce five grades of grain whisky: “light, medium, heavy, heavier and super-heavy” So Nikka Coffey Still is a blend of different styles rather than just the same new make. But it is all from one distillery and, indeed, one country. Unlike some other whiskies in the Nikka portfolio, it is classed as Japanese whisky according to the forthcoming regulations

For ageing, Nikka uses only American oak casks. “Sherry would be overpowering,” Shearer explained. These consist of a mixture of refill casks, remade casks with new tops and bottoms and re-charred casks. “It’s about oxidation rather than extraction,” he continued. 

A slow burn

The aim was to create something like a classic American corn whisky, but lighter and more delicate. When it was launched Nikka Coffey Grain was a slow burn rather than an instant hit. As well as those thinking that it had actual coffee in it, there was, and still is, a lot of prejudice about grain whisky.

I shared that prejudice but remember first trying it back in 2017 at the Whisky Show and loving its delicate fruitiness, sweetness and surprising depth of flavour. Those qualities helped it win through, eventually. According to Dave Broom, “it helped shift the debate about grain whisky globally.” Now, Shearer said “it’s an iconic whisky in the Nikka portfolio.” He couldn’t reveal how much is made every year, but did say “it’s not huge” as most of the grain whisky produced is needed for brands like Nikka from the Barrel and Nikka Days. It’s big in France and the UK, picking up in the US, but, oddly, rarely seen in Japan. 

Nikka Coffey Grain has proved particularly popular with bartenders. Nikka runs a competition called Perfect Serve at which Coffey Grain is a perennial favourite. Shearer said that as Japan’s answer to bourbon, it’s particularly good in cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Whisky Sours. But his favourite thing to make is something called a Spring Manhattan (see recipe below).

Nikka Coffey Grain Product Lifestyle

How to make a Spring Manhattan

50ml Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese whisky
25ml Cocchi Americano
2 dashes of Fee Brothers peach bitters

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled Martini or Nick & Nora glass. Raise a glass to Aeneas Coffey and Masataka Taketsuru.

Nikka whiskies are available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy. 

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Lucas Bols – over 400 years of cocktail inspiration

Today we’re taking a look at a company with some of the richest history in drink: Lucas Bols. From its beginning in 16th century Amsterdam, its liqueurs and spirits are…

Today we’re taking a look at a company with some of the richest history in drink: Lucas Bols. From its beginning in 16th century Amsterdam, its liqueurs and spirits are in pretty much every bar in the world. It’s quite a story.  

I wrote a book a few years ago called Empire of Booze looking at the British influence on alcoholic drinks. If it was successful, I envisioned a sequel looking at other enormously influential countries for alcohol, Republics of Booze, perhaps, and top of the list would be the Netherlands. Sadly so far the silence from publishers has been deafening. 

Well, they are missing a trick because the Dutch influence is everywhere: brandy is a Dutch word coming from brandewijn meaning burnt wine, gin comes from geneva, and we owe great wines like Chateau Lafite to Dutch engineers who drained the swamp north of the city of Bordeaux to create the Medoc.

The Lucas Bols story

Then there’s liqueurs. For over 400 years it’s a Dutch company that bartenders around the world trust when pouring triple sec, creme de cacao or blue Curaçao, Lucas Bols. I spent some time on Zoom with the company’s creative and communications director Sandie van Doorne.

The Bols story begins in 1575 when the family began producing liqueurs in a small distillery on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but as the city has expanded, this area is now very much in the urban centre. According to the company’s history, the first flavours used were cumin, cardamom, and orange. 

At the time liqueurs were used mainly for health purposes – juniper distillate was thought to be good for settling the stomach – or for special occasions like weddings. There was even one called ‘bridal tears’ made with flakes of gold leaf. These were not everyday drinks. 

1979-What-Rembrandt-did-for-art-Lucas-Bols-did-for-flavor-Bols

Lucas Bols himself on an 1979 poster for the US market

The Dutch Golden Age

In 1652, the grandson of the founder, Lucas Bols, took over and began turning the company from a local operation to an international affair. At the time, Holland was going through what’s known as the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch had fought off domination by the Spanish to become the world’s top mercantile nation with a formidable shipping fleet. When you think of the beauty of old Amsterdam or paintings by masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, this is the period.

Much of this wealth came from spices and other valuable goods from the east shipped by the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. In 1700, Lucas Bols became a major shareholder, giving him access to the finest spices from the orient. He would give bottles to seafarers so wherever the Dutch went, which was everywhere, Bols liqueurs went too.

As well as liqueurs, the Bols name is strongly associated with genever, Dutch gin. This was a rough spirit at the time according to van Doorne, but the Bols company elevated it into a fine spirit made from rye, wheat, and malted barley. Nowadays the company makes a vast array of traditional genever including aged and single cask expressions. Unlike London gin, it’s made from a base spirit with a rich character.

100 years ahead of the English

If all this sounds familiar – spices brought from the east, a great explosion in wealth, for some, and the elevation of a rough spirit – it’s because a similar thing happened in London and with gin but roughly 100 years later. As with many things, not just alcoholic, the Dutch were there first. In fact, the Bank of England was modelled on the banking system in the Netherlands. 

While London gin ruled in Britain, the heavier Dutch original found a home in the US, initially brought by Dutch immigrants. It proved immensely popular and if you look at old cocktail books, there are recipes that call for something called Hollands Gin. Jerry Thomas, cocktail pioneer, only used four base spirits, rum, brandy, whisky and genever in his 1862 book, Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide.

Erven_Lucas_Bols_Distillery_,_Amsterdam_,_Netherlands,_1940

Lucas Bols distillery in 1940

The family sells up

Meanwhile back in Amsterdam, the last male Bols heir died in 1816. The family sold the company, to the magnificently-named Gabriel Theodorus van ‘t Wout, but with the proviso that the name Lucas Bols (who died in 1719) should be on the bottles in perpetuity thus keeping the name alive. In 1868, the Moltzer family acquired Lucas Bols and it remained with them until it was floated on the Dutch stock exchange in 1954 before a merger with Remy Cointreau in 2000. 

In 2006, van Doorne was part of a management buyout which returned the company to Dutch hands. And in 2014, Lucas Bols began distilling again in Rozengracht, near the site of the original Bols distillery. Bols had come home. 

Semper idem

The key to Bols success has been consistency. The firm’s motto is semper idem – always the same. According to van Doorne the technology such as distillation, maceration, and percolation hasn’t changed much in 400 years. Many of the recipes are based on the originals created by Lucas Bols. But, she added: “we have changed over time with current flavours.” The trend now is for “natural botanicals” compared with the “big flavours” 1980s. “In the old days, we didn’t always use natural ingredients,” she said. As well as Bols-branded products, the company owns a portfolio of other drinks including Galliano. 

To keep up with the times, Bols works closely with bartenders. The company has the Bols Academy (see photo in header) where it trains bartenders and it runs cocktail competitions. The very bottles are designed for use by professionals with non-slip rings for ease of handling. 

Blue Bols

Blue Bols cocktail bundle

For the home bartender

But Lucas Bols is now aiming to move out from behind the bar and into the homes of customers. Hence things like the cocktail finder on the Bols website so you can make use of Bols products at home. We made a Brandy Alexander yesterday, and very nice it was too. During Covid, the team speeded up the development of RTD cocktails which will be arriving in Britain very soon. 

It’s a remarkable story of over 400 years of Dutch booze know-how, surely there’s a book in there somewhere. Publishers, it’s over to you.

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Cocktail of the Week: the Brandy Alexander

This week’s cocktail is a decadent concoction made with Cognac, Cream, and Bols creme de cacao. John Lennon was a fan, and so should you be too. It’s the Brandy…

This week’s cocktail is a decadent concoction made with Cognac, Cream, and Bols creme de cacao. John Lennon was a fan, and so should you be too. It’s the Brandy Alexander!

We’ve just had a load of liqueurs and other fine alcoholic beverages from Bols – we’ll be running a profile on the Dutch masters of booze tomorrow. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time on the company’s cocktail recipe page to put them to good use. A few jumped out at me, the After Eight, made in honour of the poshest mints known to man, but then I realised that we hadn’t covered the Brandy Alexander, and I really wanted to make something with Creme de Cacao.

This is a liqueur containing herbs, spices, oranges and, of course, chocolate, and Bols has been making it since the 16th century. It comes in two versions, white, which is sweeter and more like milk chocolate, and brown, which is bitter like the dark stuff. I’m going to use the latter in my Brandy Alexander. 

Which Alexander?

It might surprise you that an ‘Alexander’ is actually a type of cocktail.  Before the Brandy Alexander, there were other Alexanders such as the Gin one (which sounds revolting). The Alexander in all its forms was invented some time around the 1920s and may have been named after Alexander Woollcott, drama critic of the New Yorker, or even Tsar Alexander II. 

Whoever it was named after, it’s the Brandy Alexander of all the Alexanders that has lasted the course. It’s quite a favourite of 20th century literature, cropping up Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and others. But for me it’s most memorable role is in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Anthony Blanche orders it before his meal with Charles Ryder – this is one of the funniest scenes in the 1981 ITV adaptation of the book with Nickolas Grace playing the role of Blanche:

‘At the George bar he ordered ‘Four Alexandra [sic] cocktails please,’ rang them before him with a loud “Yum-yum” which drew every eye, outraged, upon him. ‘I expect you would prefer sherry, but, my dear Charles, you are not going to have sherry. Isn’t this a delicious concoction? You don’t like it? Then, I will drink it for you. One, two, three, four, down the red lane they go. How the students stare!’…”

Brandy Alexander Brideshead Revisited

Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace) enjoying a few Brandy Alexanders

Like a milkshake for grown-ups

Brandy Alexander’s most notable champion was probably John Lennon. The story goes that he was introduced to the drink by singer and noted booze enthusiast Harry Nilsson in 1974 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Apparently after his first taste, he commented: “Wow, it’s like a milkshake.” Later he and Nilsson got hammered, started a fight and continued on an almighty bender but that’s another story

Lennon was right about the taste, a Brandy Alexander is like a milkshake for grown-ups. It’s essentially a pudding in a glass, so rather than drink it before a meal like Blanche does in Brideshead Revisited, it works much better after instead of dessert. 

Once you’ve got your Bols Creme de Cacao, then it’s a question of what sort of brandy to use. You certainly wouldn’t want to pour in your best XO. I’m using Remy Martin’s delightfully rich 1738 but something like a decent Brandy de Jerez like Carlos I Gran Reserva, or an Armagnac like Janneau VSOP would be more than adequate. 

Swap the brandy for vodka and you have something not far from a Mudslide. Use Irish Whiskey and you have what is essentially Bailey’s. As for the cream, American recipes call for something called ‘heavy cream’. This is equivalent to British whipping cream. Single cream is too light and double cream too thick. 

You’ll want to give this a really good shake. Probably one is enough, they are very rich and you don’t want to end up doing a John Lennon.

Brandy Alexander

How to make a Brandy Alexander

30ml Bols Brown Creme de Cacao
30ml Remy 1738 Accord Royal Cognac
30ml whipping or heavy cream

Shake all the ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with some grated nutmeg or a piece of Cadbury’s flake if you’re feeling decadent.

 

 

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Visiting Pulteney distillery

We took a trip to (one of) Scotland’s most northerly distilleries, Pulteney, not far from John O’ Groats, home of a single malt with a distinctly maritime heritage.  In my…

We took a trip to (one of) Scotland’s most northerly distilleries, Pulteney, not far from John O’ Groats, home of a single malt with a distinctly maritime heritage. 

In my mind, the classic Scottish single malt distillery is nestled in a valley surrounded by a field of shimmering barley. Somewhere like GlenDronach would be the perfect example. But distilleries come in all shapes and sizes, and in unexpected places, like crammed in down a backstreet in Wick. 

Old Pulteney

You don’t expect to find a distillery down a side street in Wick

Herring town

Wick is one of the northerly towns in Scotland – go much further and you’re in the Orkneys. Until very recently Pulteney was the most northerly distillery on the mainland. Wolfburn now has that crown but still, Pulteney is a long way from Inverness.

The distillery was founded by James Henderson in 1826 to cater to herring workers. At the time Wick was the herring capital of the world. Tonnes of the little fish would arrive in the town every day to be canned, pickled, or smoked, and sent all over the country. The smell must have worked up a powerful thirst. 

The herring industry is no more, and Pulteney distillery itself was dormant between 1931 and 1950 when it was reopened by local businessman Robert ‘Bertie’ Cumming who also owned Balblair. It was then bought by Hiram Walker followed by Allied Distillers, before the Thai-owned Inver House group, which also owns Balblair, Knockdhu and Speyburn, took over in 1995. The single malts are marketed under the name Old Pulteney. 

Malcolm Waring Pulteney

Distillery manager Malcolm Waring

Snakes and elephants

Entering the distillery in the company of brand ambassador Lukasz Dynowiak, the first thing that I noticed was how tiny it is. There is hardly space for the strange bulbous stills, a 15,000-litre spirit and a 21,000 wash still. According to manager Malcom Waring, they had to cut off the top of the wash still to get it in. And then there’s the bizarre lyne arm which snakes off like an elephant’s trunk, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. The whole place looks like the workshop of an eccentric Victorian scientist.

The distillery was refurbished in 2015/16 and the old rusty washbacks were replaced with spanking new stainless steel jobs. The other change has been the switch from distiller’s and brewer’s yeast to just using distiller’s. They use 35kg for each ferment and apparently, this means fewer deliveries by road to this remote part of Scotland with no discernible effect on flavour.

Fermentation with a clear wort takes around 60 hours during the week but they also do a longer 100-hour fermentation over the weekend. Both long and short ferments are around 8% ABV and they are combined in the wash charger before going into the stills. The clear wort and longer fermentation times combined with the reflux from the bulbous stills and long convoluted lyne arms all point to a fruity new make. The stills, however, are short and factor in the worm tub condensers and you’re going to get some heaviness carried over into the new make spirit. 

Stills at Old Pulteney

No room to swing a cat in here

Inconsistency is the new excitement

According to the distillery manager Malcolm Waring who has been at Pulteney since 1995 , the worm tubs struggle to condense the new make in the summer. It’s much easier to make whisky in the winter and indeed, summer and winter production has a markedly different character: “Inconsistency is the new excitement,” he joked. 

The new make goes into casks at natural strength which means that they take longer to mature. Furthermore, all the maturation takes place on-site either in dunnage or racked warehouse. Summers are very short, “not like the Central Belt or England”, Waring said, which slows things down even further. They use mainly bourbon with some sherry butts and hogsheads, though Dynowiak said “I would love some wacky casks”.

The maritime connection

Old Pulteney’s marketing makes great play of its maritime connection, sometimes to an irritating degree. One recent press release read: “Old Pulteney is the only brand whose story, distillery, and whisky are shaped by the sea itself.” Sounds like fighting talk. But there’s no doubt the maritime connection is strong, both historically and the fact that all ageing takes place by the sea. Unlike other ‘maritime’ whiskies one could mention. 

Tasting through the Pulteney range, it’s that salty, manzanilla sherry note that stands out. They haven’t used peated malt here since the 1950s, and yet there’s definitely a whiff of saline about them. According to Dynowiak, Pultney “loses the briny taste if matured inland”. This means that they can’t really expand production, he added, because: “we have nowhere to go when it comes to warehousing, all matured onsite.”

Previously Old Pulteney came with 12, 17, and 21 year old age statements but that was changed to 12, 15, 18, and 21 for a better comparison with the rivals. Tasting across the range, I have to say that these are great distinctive whiskies that deserve to be better known. For me the 15 is the pick of the bunch but if someone else was paying, I wouldn’t say no to the 25. I’d also highly recommend a visit. There’s really no distillery like Pulteney. 

The Old Pulteney range is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.

Old Pulteney warehouse

All Old Pulteney single malt is matured on site

Tasting the Old Pulteney range

Old Pulteney Huddart 

This is an NAS whisky which spends between 18-24 months in casks that previously held peated whisky from Knockdhu.

Nose: Wood smoke, ginger spice, apple, and a saline tang.

Palate: Oils, citrus peel, peppery, smoky with some cooked apple.

Finish: Lingering smoke

Old Pulteney 15 Year Old

Aged in second fill American oak and refill Spanish oak sherry casks

Nose: Vanilla, apple and a touch of custard

Palate: Lovely, so creamy, vanilla and ginger, juicy and luscious, oily. I could just swill this around in my mouth all day.

Finish: Brine comes through at the end 

Old Pulteney 18 Year Old

Aged in refill American oak and sherry casks

Nose: Spice on the nose, vegetal, fennel, with green apple.

Palate: Spicy and pungent, creamy.

Finish: Salt and dark cherry.

Old Pulteney 25 Year Old

Nose: Fruitcake, rancio, furniture polish, acetone.

Palate: Savoury and meaty, leather, layered, dried apricot with chocolate and a creamy texture.

Finish:  Lift of brine at the end. It’s a sit back with a cigar and show off your cufflinks kind of dram.

Old Pulteney 25 Year Old

If someone else is paying

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