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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Henry Jeffreys

New Arrival of the Week: Frapin Millésime 26 Year Old 1992

Today we talk to cellar master at Frapin, Patrice Piveteau, about what it takes for a Cognac to be singled out for the vintage treatment, and taste the very special…

Today we talk to cellar master at Frapin, Patrice Piveteau, about what it takes for a Cognac to be singled out for the vintage treatment, and taste the very special 26 year old 1992 release.

It can be something of a culture clash when British journalists talk to French drink producers. Journalists asking increasingly specific empirical questions, will often make Gallic producers become more abstract. Our recent Zoom chat with Patrice Piveteau, cellar master at Frapin, conducted for the launch of a 26 year old vintage Cognac from 1992, is a good example. Everyone wanted to know what makes a vintage good enough to be bottled separately, is it a specific quality of the grapes? But Piveteau refused to be drawn. Yes, you need ripe grapes with plenty of acidity but he does not know for sure until they have been fermented and distilled. “I decide to make a vintage not from the grape, I have an idea during harvest, I have an idea after vinification but the real decision is after distillation. It’s not during the harvest,” he said. 

To ensure that his spirits have the necessary structure for long ageing, he distills with the lees from yeast and with some of the pulp. “We are really artisan,” he said “there is no computer to tell you where to cut. From picking grapes to bottling, the main decision is only through the tasting.” Frapin produces vintages in most years. Even in years that are generally thought of as difficult like the frost-affected 1991, he found parcels of vines that made exceptional spirit: “1991 is not a good year on paper, but Frapin is on a slope, and part of the slope had no damage. It’s not a good year in general, but it is possible to find a vat from a year with a special characteristic,” he said. As the man said, it’s all in the tasting.

Patrice Piveteau in the vineyard

According to Piveteau: “We have a window between harvest and March to decide, then we call the authorities and they come and put a seal on it [cask of vintage wine].” This is to ensure against fraud so that only casks with the official seal can be sold as vintage. Such releases are rare in Cognac, “vintages tend to either be luxury releases from big brands or from small producers”, Piveteau said. “Frapin is small in Cognac but big for an independent grower in Grand Champagne.” It only uses grapes from its own vineyards. The 240 hectare property has been in the family for 22 generations, and is currently run by Jean‐Pierre Cointreau whose grandmother was a Frapin.

It’s a compact domaine entirely within the Grand Champagne region with a consistent chalky top soil with clay subsoil throughout, planted with Ugni Blanc (there is also a little experimental Folignan, a Folle Blanche/ Ugni Blanc cross planted 12 years ago so it is too early to speak about the quality). Vintage expressions, however, come only from the vineyard around Château Fontpinot. When asked why Piveteau replied: “I think the answer is in the question. . . . It’s the specificity of the terroir.” Thrillingly French! 

Piveteau then explained a bit about the aging process. For the vintages, he uses 350 litre Limousin oak casks. Larger casks impart less wood flavour. The spirit spends only six months in new oak to pick up the tannins (and colour) needed for long ageing before transferring to 5-15 year old casks for one year before moving to old casks which have no oak flavour. 

Château Fontpinot

Frapin has two types of cellar, dry and humid. Interestingly, vintage Cognacs are only ever taken from the dry cellar. This ageing gives: “more evaporation, more concentration, you lose more water than alcohol,” Piveteau said. Apparently dry cellars are unique to Frapin. Again, he refused to be drawn on what the specific differences in flavour are between dry and humid cellars. “Humid cellars are smoother and more round,” he said, “but it is possible to find the same flavours in dry cellars. In dry cellars things mature more slowly. We don’t sell Cognac from dry cellars at less than 20 years. All the vintages come from the dry cellar, every time I prefer when I have to make the choice. But humid is also possible. . . .” he added just to complicate things. When deciding whether to bottle a Cognac as a vintage, he’s not just looking for quality but difference: “During ageing if a vintage is the same as the rest of range then I put it in a blend,” he said. 

“What is interesting is not what I say, it’s the result in the glass,” Piveteau explained. And what is in the glass is very good indeed: the 1992 is rich but it’s also fresh and fruity, the flavour changing in the glass over the course of the day. Piveteau described it as: “like a firework, bof!” He went on to say: “It’s fine, fruity and elegant. You can find the rancio but it’s not heavy, that’s a real characteristic of Frapin. It’s a Cognac with purity, it’s not too woody. I’m really keen on complexity.” Sometimes you have to stop asking why, and just let the quality of the Cognac speak for itself.

Tasting notes from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: So fruity and fresh, fresh apricots not dried, strawberry, floral, dark chocolate and toffee, plus aromatic notes of tobacco and orange peel.

Palate: Super zingy: citrus, grassy, peppery, lots of eau de vie character, with that strawberry fruity note coming through. In the background some toffee lurking.

Finish: Very very long, lingering toffee, tobacco and citrus peel. 

Frapin Millésime 26 Year Old 1992 Grand Champagne Cognac is now available from Master of Malt.

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Master of Malt tastes… Waterford Single Farm Origin whiskies

These must be some of the most eagerly-anticipated whiskies ever, Waterford’s inaugural releases each made only from barley grown on a specific farm in Ireland. Mark Reynier, ex-Bruichladdich supremo, is…

These must be some of the most eagerly-anticipated whiskies ever, Waterford’s inaugural releases each made only from barley grown on a specific farm in Ireland. Mark Reynier, ex-Bruichladdich supremo, is the man behind it, and he’s got a lot to say.

Mark Reynier is not a man to mince his words: “The whole principle of provenance based on terroir is understood in wine and Cognac, but for some reason when it comes to whisky everybody seems to have had a lobotomy.” Scotch whisky might be made from Irish, Canadian or even, sharp intake of breath, English barley, and, though this might surprise some readers, is considered completely normal in the industry. Received wisdom is that where a barley is grown has a negligible effect on the finished product.

Reynier has a different perspective perhaps because his background is in wine. He spent 20 years in the trade before moving into whisky with the revival of Bruichladdich in 2000. Here he became interested in the raw materials, producing an organic whisky and a release made from bere, an archaic type of barley. But on Islay, there wasn’t the space, infrastructure or climate to conduct a commercial experiment in terroir so he could prove that different bits of land affect the flavour in the end product.

Reynier described terroir as: “the 3D connection between bedrock, subsoil, soil, microclimate, topography, elevation, orientation to the sun, drainage”. Ireland proved the perfect place to realise his dreams. He said: “Climatically it’s much much better to grow barley in and you don’t have geese, autumn gales, the deer, or the other associated issues.” Ireland being further south has milder weather and a longer growing season. He was inspired by the late Duncan McGillivray from Bruichladdich, “he told me the best barley he ever saw came from Ireland,” Reynier said.

Quiet, demure, unopinionated, it’s Mark Reynier!

He looked at various old distilleries around the country, there wasn’t much around, but he stuck gold in 2014 when an ex-Guinness brewery came on the market in Waterford. It was state of the art having only been built in 2004 at the cost of €40 million. “Brewing is two thirds of distilling,” he said, “we just introduced the copper element to shiny stainless steel.” It took one year and a day to convert it into a distillery. The copper element came in the form of two old stills from a now closed lowland Scotch distillery, Inverleven. The high tech equipment proved ideal for the terroir project as it involves processing a huge amount of data: “Diageo equipped distillery with latest date collection material for efficiency and volume which we have repurposed for quality  and analysis,” Reynier said. 

Farms and farmers:

Then it was a question of finding farmers who wanted to be involved. The Waterford team works with 40 farms each year, though they have changed as, according to Reynier, “some wily old farmers either found it too much hassle or weren’t up to scratch. It’s the young farmers really get what we are trying to achieve.” Around 100 farms have been involved in total. The grain from each farm has to be processed separately. Data is collected every step of the way, over 8,000 pieces per farm.

Interestingly, according to Reynier, there is no discernible difference between different varieties of barley. That is because they are “all based on the same parents and selected for disease resistance and yield. Not for flavour”, he said. The team is currently experimenting with early 20th century strains but this is a long term project.

Harvesting, drying and malting:

Waterford has what Reynier calls a ‘cathedral’ located in the heart of the barley-growing area. It contains 40 bins, each one can take 140-50 tonnes of barley. Here the barley is dried to preserve it before it’s off to the maltsters. It’s a huge undertaking, this is not a little craft distillery. 

Waterford uses Boortmalt in nearby Athy. The distillery has its own mini-maltings just for its barley within this larger facility. “Malting is a vastly underrated part of the distilling operation. One that just gets passed over. That’s where the great artistry is, being able to malt barley properly,” he said. Initially, each load of barley was malted in a one size fits all way but that led to some erratic results so each batch is subjected to a mini malting in the lab to ascertain the best way forward. 130 tonnes barley from the field results in around 75 tonnes of malt.  

Ex-Guinness brewery, now the Waterford Distillery

Mashing and fermentation:

Because this is a modern brewery, the equipment is more advanced than you would normally find in a distillery. Instead of a traditional mash tun, there are a series of pneumatic filters which according to Reynier means that you get more flavour out. 

Waterford uses a standard distilling yeast but uses about half of what most distillers use. The next step will be to propagate wild yeasts from certain fields, “that’s the next part of the project”, Reynier said, “but it’s not as interesting as terroir.” The team do a long fermentation of about 120-150 hours using the temperature control to slow it down, a facility that most distilleries don’t have. Reynier said: “not only are we getting more flavours extracted by our mash filter, but we’re also getting purer flavours”. As you would hope, he was on fighting form comparing the Waterford approach to the industry norm: “Distillers see fermentation as a bottleneck that has to be overcome. It is overcome by using a double volume of yeast to obtain a highly volatile, aggressive fermentation that is over in less than 24 hours, sometimes considerably less.” I’m sure many distillery managers would have something to say about that, but the Waterford approach would be uneconomic for most Scotch whisky producers. 

Distillation:

Reynier handed us over to Ned Gahan, who spent 15 years working with Diageo before joining Waterford in 2014. The stills date back to 1974 were designed to create an elegant floral spirit. Waterford uses double distillation as in Scotland and, interestingly, spells ‘whisky’ without the ‘e’. The process is slow with a narrow cut between around 66-75% ABV taken, all in the name of purity. Again, as with the malting and fermentation, the exact cut depends on the barley used. The spirit is not diluted before running into casks. The distillery produces around 1 million litres of pure alcohol per year.

Ned Gahan in action

Wood:

As you might expect, Reynier has some strong views on wood: “Now people say 80% of whisky’s flavour comes from wood, I bloody well hope it doesn’t.” He went on to say: “They [large whisky companies] have corrupted wood into this marketing pseudo thing where every whisky you see now has to be finished, why can’t you just start with the right barrel in the first place, then you don’t need to finish anything at all?!” 

The wood used is top quality, 30% of production costs go on barrels. The team uses a mixture French oak, virgin and first fill from wine producers, American oak, virgin and first fill bourbon, and fortified wine casks which they refer to as VDN (Vin Doux Naturel), not just sherry and Port, but also Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes from France. 

Taste that terroir:

From tasting the new make spirit, Reynier noticed different flavours: sandy soil produces more fruit flavours, clay soil more malty, limestone-influenced soil giving more spice. Gas chromatography analysis backs up sensory experimentation, we were told. In September, the University of Cork will publish a paper, which is currently being peer-reviewed, showing how terroir does influence flavour. 

Reynier puts it down to the three ‘t’s: terroir, traceability, transparency: “we believe in real provenance. It’s no use having it and saying you have it you have to be able to prove it.” In the words of the Sultans of Ping, “I like your manifesto, put it to the testo”. It was time to try some new make, both from Olympus barley harvested in 2017.

The first from Meadow Lodge Farm in Galway owned by Brian Kenny. Soil type: loamy drift with limestone. This smelt spicy with notes of liquorice and a saline freshness. In the mouth it’s fresh and peppery with some oaty porridge flavours.

Second sample came from Groveside farm in Wexford owned by John Cousins. Mixture of shale and limestone with some sand and an undulating topography. This smelt vegetal and fruity with green olives, lemon, honey and a malty sweetness. On the palate, it’s sweet and fruity, with lots of malt character. 

They certainly taste different. Rather proving Reynier’s point about where they are grown. And also the quality is obvious, both samples at around 71% ABV were incredibly smooth.

But would the terroir character persist after cask maturation?

Terroir, transparency and traceability

Whisky:

The first two releases are from single farms: 

Produced from barley grown by Ed Harpur in Wexford, right by the ocean at sea level.
Variety: Overture from 2015
Filled 23/06/2026
Bottled: 5/2/2020
ABV: 50%
Spirit aged for 3 years and 7 months
American oak first fill: 35%
American new: 20%
French first fill: 25%
VDN: 20%

Tasting note: Sweet smelling with notes of hay, vanilla, coconut, spicy oak, liquorice and cloves. In the mouth, banana custard with some oak tannins and spice. Initially it seems like oak dominates but apple fruit, elegance and depth come through with time open. Lovely texture.

Waterford Single Farm Origin – Ballykilcavan 1.1

Produced from barley grown by David Walsh-Kemmis in Laois
Variety: Taberna from 2015
Filled 19/04/2016
Bottled 5/2/2020
ABV: 50%
Spirit aged for 3 years and 10 months
American first fill: 45%
French first fill: 37%
VDN: 18%

Tasting note: Wow, this is so different: fruity nose, wine-like, red fruit plus some funky touches of barnyard, and sherry vinegar. Acidity and freshness followed by earthy notes, chestnuts, and baking spices, like mulled wine. Not as elegant as Bannow island, very intriguing. 

They taste so different: The Bannow island initially a bit young but coming back to it, the depth of flavour even at that age is startling. It’s in no way raw or one- dimensional. Ballykilcayan tastes pretty crazy, tasting it you’d think there was a lot more wine cask influence than in Bannow Island. Again, great depth of flavour for how young it is. You’ll notice that the cask regime is not identical because Waterford had yet to acquire any French new oak when the 2015 Ballykilcavan barley was distilled. In future, all single farm expressions will have exactly the same oak treatment. They are both bottled with no colouring or chill filtration at 50% ABV, Reynier recommends a drop of water to bring out complexity.

These are not limited edition whiskeys. 200 barrels of each has been produced Reynier described it as an artisanal method but made to a “sensible commercial volume.” 

The bottles are pretty fancy too

The future:

In 2021, Waterford plans to release what Reynier refers to as a Grand Vin though will probably be called Cuvée. It’s an assembly of the best farms to create something like a Grand Cru Bordeaux or a vintage Port with “layers upon layers of complexity”. Further in the distance will be the Arcadian range made from organic, biodynamic and/ or heritage barley strains.

The Waterford project is fascinating for its sheer ambition and from tasting the new make and these young whiskies, the team are clearly on to something special. When asked about how the big boys would respond, Reynier was characteristically forthright: “In the next three, four or five years expect lots of images of barley, lots of images of farmers, lots of Gladiator-like fields of shimmering barley as they carry on doing exactly as they’ve always done. The word terroir will be abused beyond belief, it will be corrupted to being almost worthless.” 

Waterford Single Farm whiskies are now sold out. We don’t know when we’ll get any more in.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Bicicletta

Spritzes are two-a-penny these days, if you really want to be ahead of the cocktail peloton, then get yourself a Bicicletta. The Bicicletta is the ultimate DIY cocktail. Fancy ingredients,…

Spritzes are two-a-penny these days, if you really want to be ahead of the cocktail peloton, then get yourself a Bicicletta.

The Bicicletta is the ultimate DIY cocktail. Fancy ingredients, you won’t need them. Exact measurements, throw that jigger away and just pour. It’s a mixture of white wine, amaro and fizzy water. Apparently the name comes from how old Italian men would wobble home on their bicycles after a few. It’s essentially a slightly less spritzy Spritz as it’s made with still wine instead of Prosecco.

The big question is, ‘which bitter thing to use?’ Now, most people will be reaching for the Aperol, and if that’s what you like then ignore the Aperol critics (honestly why do people get so upset about Aperol? That’s a subject for another blog post). Or for those who like it a bit bitterer, then Campari is the obvious choice. I actually like a mixture of half Aperol and half Campari

There’s a whole world of amari to try but seeing as Spritzes, Biciclettas and aperitivos in general are typically Venetian, we’re going with Venice’s own Select Aperitivo. It celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The drink was created in 1920 in the Castello district of the city at the Pilla distillery. Today, it’s made with over 30 botanicals including rhubarb and juniper berries. The flavour profile is fruitier than Campari with less bitterness but without being quite as sweet and orangey as Aperol. It’s custom made to do with all those little snacks that the Venetians do so well: green olives, cured anchovies, bruschetta, that sort of thing. 

Could this be any more Venetian?

Then you have to decide what wine to use. Decisions, decisions! Well, anything goes really but you shouldn’t use something too expensive or too rich; you don’t want a great big oaky chardonnay in the middle of this. But at the same time, Select isn’t going to cover up that bottle of wine that’s been sitting on the counter for a week. A Bicicletta calls for a fairly neutral (but not completely bland) white wine of the kind that Italy does so well like Pinot Grigio, a dry Orvieto, Grillo from Sicily etc. Rosé also works a treat, either pale pink Provence or something darker and fruitier from Spain. The final thing you could do is use a light red, Spanish Garnacha or Italian Barbera to create something like an instant Sangria. Sounds a bit mad, tastes absolutely delicious. 

It’s the perfect hot weather lazy day in the garden sort of drink. Just keep topping it up with soda water, Select, wine and ice, and it’ll last all day. Just be careful on your bike on the way home. 

Right, here’s the recipe, if you need one:

50ml Select Aperitivo
50ml white wine like this Pinot Grigio
30ml sparkling water

Fill a tumbler or wine with ice. Add the first two ingredients, give it a good stir, top up with soda, stir again and garnish with an orange wheel and a green olive if you have any.

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New Arrival of the Week: Crabbie 25 Year Old 1994

Today we’re celebrating a single cask release from John Crabbie & Co. Normally this independent bottler keeps the source of its whisky secret but in this case we are allowed…

Today we’re celebrating a single cask release from John Crabbie & Co. Normally this independent bottler keeps the source of its whisky secret but in this case we are allowed to reveal which island distillery it comes from. . . . 

John Crabbie was one of the great pioneers of blended whisky like John Walker and Arthur Bell. Crabbie, who lived from 1806 to 1891, owned a grocery and tea-blending business in Edinburgh, but moved into the whisky trade when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Cognac leading to demand for an alternative from English drinkers. He acquired casks and started bottling whiskys from more than 70 distilleries around Scotland. With his friend Andrew Usher, he began blending whisky to create a consistent product. This led to him purchasing a brewery in Leith where he set up his own distillery producing not just whisky but also gin and liqueurs including a famous ginger wine. Later the two of them, along with William Sanderson (of VAT 69 fame), would set up the mighty North British grain distillery.

The North British is still going strong but until very recently the Crabbie name was only known for ginger wine, all that whisky heritage was largely forgotten. In 2007, Halewood, the company behind Whitley Neill gin as well as the Aber Falls Distillery, City of London Distillery, Liverpool Gin Distillery, and the Bristol & Bath Rum Distillery, acquired Crabbie. Production of Crabbie’s ginger wine moved to Liverpool, shock horror! But Halewood has not neglected Crabbie’s Scottish roots. Far from it, in December 2018 the company opened Crabbie & Co, Edinburgh’s first single malt distillery in over 100 years. Whisky, of course, takes a long time, so Crabbie has been building a reputation with some award-winning single malts releases from mysterious distilleries. 

The latest release, however, Crabbie is proud to announce is from Tobermory, a popular distillery at Master of Malt and not only for its excellent whiskies. This particular one was distilled in 1994 and aged in an ex-sherry hogshead and then bottled without chill filtering or the addition of colour at 46.2% ABV. John Kennedy, head of sales for Scotland, commented: “Crabbie 1994 Island Single Malt is one of our most carefully planned releases to date. We’d had cask samples from distilleries all across Scotland and it was a difficult choice, but this sherry cask from Tobermory was absolutely stand out with its nose of sweet macerated dates, fruit cake, warming spice and its orange marmalade and rich dark chocolate finish. It will most certainly appeal to those who take their whisky seriously.”

We take our whisky very seriously here and were suitably impressed. Despite the all sherry cask ageing, it’s not what you’d think of as a ‘sherry bomb’. The nose is aromatic, minty even, followed by sweet toffee, coffee and dark chocolate notes. In the mouth, it’s fruity and fresh, with cedar, black pepper and muscovado sugar on the finish. All round, it’s an elegant drop. It’s also a very limited edition with only 247 bottles available for all of the UK market. We think it’s a great tribute to a giant of Scotch whisky who deserves to be much better known.

Tasting notes from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Brandy butter and fruitcake, with a hint of menthol sneaking through.

Palate: Soft on the palate, with sultana, chocolate mousse and malt loaf. A slow build of clove and caraway warmth.

Finish: Tiffin, chocolate peanuts and some fresh mango fruitiness.

Crabbie 25 Year Old 1994 is available now from Master of Malt.

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Cocktail of the Week: The White Port and Tonic

White Port and Tonic in hand, we take a stroll around the beautiful city of Porto which despite the cancellation of this year’s Festival of São João is welcoming visitors…

White Port and Tonic in hand, we take a stroll around the beautiful city of Porto which despite the cancellation of this year’s Festival of São João is welcoming visitors once more with the opening of the much-anticipated  all-singing, all-dancing World of Wine museum. 

If you’re in Porto and someone hits you over the head with a plastic hammer, do not be alarmed. It’s just the Festival of São João and the person hitting you means you no harm. Ostensibly a religious festival celebrating John the Baptist, it probably predates Christianity and offers an excuse for the whole city to go bananas on midsummer’s eve, 23 June. There’s music, fireworks, concerts, sardines and squeaky plastic hammers. Don’t ask why, just join in. Apparently, Tripeiros (tripe eaters, as people from Porto are known) used to hit each other with leeks which makes complete sense but at some point this changed to plastic hammers. And to keep you refreshed while bashing your neighbour, there’s a choice of two drinks: Super Bock beer and White Port and Tonic, Porto’s answer to the G&T.

Sadly this year because of Covid, São João has been cancelled. It’s hard to social distance while hitting someone on the head with a plastic hammer (unless you have a really big one.) But you can still get in the spirit by having a White Port and Tonic at home. We’re using Taylor’s Chip Dry white Port. This label dates back to 1934, the name comes from the old English expression ‘dry as a chip.’ The name is apt because there’s less sweetness than most white Ports; the alcohol in the form of aguardiente is added later so more sugar is fermented into alcohol. It’s not, however, as dry as fino sherry. The principal grape variety is the honeyed Malvasia Fina combined with other white Portuguese grapes, then aged in oak for between four and five years which gives it a nutty roundness without losing the fresh fruit. It’s a great tapas sort of wine sipped chilled and neat with cheese, or especially melon and ham. Or, of course, mixed with tonic as they do in Porto.

Porto looking lovely as always. WOW is under the red roofs in the foreground

São João might have been cancelled this year but the city is opening up again. According to Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s, Portugal has had a relatively good Covid. “Portugal has come out as a very safe destination,” he told me. Restaurants and hotels are once again doing business, the border with Spain opens up on the 22 June and Michael O’ Leary from Ryanair is itching to get flights running to Porto airport. Bridge has a particular interest in some degree of normality returning to the city as his €100 million World of Wine (WOW) is due to open at the end of July consisting of six museums, devoted to fashion, cork, Portuguese history, chocolate and, of course, wine all housed in historic Port warehouses on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river

There will also be five restaurants where I imagine thirsty visitors will get through a lot of Chip Dry and Tonics. Just as with a Spanish G&T, it’s fun to play around with garnishes. Mint and lime are good though I find a piece of rosemary brings out woody spicy notes in the wine and a piece of orange peel accentuates the fruit. The orange bitters is a nice addition but not essential. And don’t forget the plastic hammer. In fact, an idea for the Taylor’s marketing department, free plastic hammer with every bottle. I’ll suggest to Adrian Bridge now.

Right here’s how to make a White Port and Tonic:

35ml Taylor’s Chip Dry
65ml Tonic water
1 dash Fee Brothers Orange Bitters

Fill a Highball or goldfish bowl glass with ice, add the white Port, stir, and top up with tonic, Add one dash of orange bitters, stir again gently and garnish with a spring of rosemary and a piece of orange or lemon peel (or mint and lime if you prefer).

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New Arrival of the Week: Bunnahabhain 15 Year Old 2003 Amontillado Cask Finish

This week’s New Arrival from Bunnahabhain was originally a distillery-only expression but we’ve snaffled the lot so it’s now available only from Master of Malt. But probably not for long….

This week’s New Arrival from Bunnahabhain was originally a distillery-only expression but we’ve snaffled the lot so it’s now available only from Master of Malt. But probably not for long.

The gap left by the cancellation of Fèis Ìle left a huge hole in the life of many whisky lovers. Islay fans are a particularly fanatical bunch and the Covid crisis has meant that this year most won’t get their yearly island fix which also means that they won’t be able to buy certain releases that are only available from distillery doors. Well, our buyers have seen an opportunity by bringing Islay to you in the form of this former distillery-only release from Bunnahabhain which is now only available from Master of Malt.

It’s a 15 year old release that was distilled in February 2003 and filled into refill hogsheads. Then in 2016 it was transferred into amontillado hogsheads for a further two years ageing before it was bottled at cask strength, 57.4% ABV.  1710 bottles have been produced. The flavour is rich with dried fruit and chocolate without a trace of smoke. It’s very different from the typical Islay dram.

You might not be able to go to Bunnahabhain, but we can bring a little bit of Bunnahabhain to you

Bunnahabhain is something of an anomaly on the island in producing mainly unpeated for its single malt. This didn’t used to be the case. The distillery was built between 1881 and 1883 by the Islay Distillery Company. The name means ‘Mouth of the river’ in Gaelic; the river in question being the Margadale. According to Moss & Hume in The Making of Scotch Whisky, when it was built it was the largest distillery on the island with a capacity to produce 200,000 gallons (900,000 litres approximately) a year of highly-flavoured whisky for blending. Its owners merged in 1887 with Glenrothes to become Highland Distilleries Ltd. 

In 1963, production was doubled but the style changed with the closure of its maltings. From now on malt came unpeated from the mainland. Most of this new lighter Bunnahabhain went into Cutty Sark blended whisky. In 1999, Highland Distilleries was acquired by the Edrington Group which then sold Bunnahbhin to Burn Stewart Distillers in 2003. Bunnahabhain new owners kept the light style for the single malt but also used the distillery to make heavily peated malt for the Black Bottle blended whisky. Burn Stewart in turn was bought by South African spirits conglomerate Distill in 2014. It can be hard to keep up with who owns what in Scotch whisky.

The set-up consists of two large onion-shaped wash stills and two smaller pear-shaped spirits stills. Washbacks are traditional Oregon pine. Production now stands at 2.5 million litres a year. A little peated single malt is released under the Mòine label but ours is in the classic post-1963 Bunnahabhain style. Very nice it is too though perhaps not for real Islay headbangers. 

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Toasty oak and caramelised nuts, with dusty cocoa, earthy vanilla pod and jammy berries.

Palate: Plump raisin and melted dark chocolate, with mocha, dark treacle and oily nuts alongside forest berries.

Finish: Chocolate-covered raisins linger.

Bunnahabhain 15 Year Old 2003 Amontillado Cask Finish is only available from Master of Malt.

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Master of Malt tastes… Mars Japanese whisky

Today, we’re tasting whiskies from a lesser-known Japanese producer, including a couple that are distinctly affordable. Not something you hear that often when the words ‘Japan’ and ‘whisky’ are put…

Today, we’re tasting whiskies from a lesser-known Japanese producer, including a couple that are distinctly affordable. Not something you hear that often when the words ‘Japan’ and ‘whisky’ are put together. 

It’s well-known that Japanese whisky is based on the Scotch industry, dating back to when Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland in 1919, and brought distillation and ageing techniques back home. But did you know that much Japanese whisky is based on Scotch a little more literally? 

Yes, it’s something of an open secret that many blended Japanese blended whiskies contain some Scotch. Japanese whisky regulations are almost non-existent, and a whisky can be labelled as Japanese even if it contains foreign-distilled spirits. In the past ten years, demand for Japanese whisky has exploded, and at the same time bulk imports from Scotland (and Canada) have increased dramatically. According to SWA figures, there was a four-fold increase in bulk exports from Scotland to Japan between 2013 and 2018.

Pot stills at Shinshu

Many Japanese blends, even those imported into the EU and USA, contain Scotch. One hears all sorts of rumours but it’s hard to know which producers are involved. One brand, however, is open about its use of Scotch malt in its blends: Mars.

I met with Cristian Cuevas, the UK brand ambassador for Mars before lockdown to taste through the range. The venue was an amazing bar in London by Old Street roundabout called Bull in A China Shop that specialises in Japanese whisky. They have Karuizawa at £55 a glass. According to the owner, Stephen Chan, many people who order it “are collectors who have a bottle at home but have never tried it”. 

Mars has a pretty convoluted history. Its parent company Hombo has been making shochu since the 19th century, as well as that uniquely Japanese style of wine, Koshu. After a few false starts with distilleries around the country, in 1985 it opened a single malt distillery, Mars Shinshu at Miyata in Nagano province just in time for the Japanese whisky crash of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The distillery closed in 1992, but reopened again in 2011 when the market picked up. It was completely refitted with new stills of the same shape as the old ones, but larger. At 800 metres above sea level, this is the highest distillery in Japan. Some grain whisky is now made here too. 

Tsunuki distillery

In 2016, the company opened a second distillery, Mars Tsunuki, in Kagoshima prefecture. Both distilleries produce unpeated, lightly peated and heavily peated whiskies, and they use mainly ex-bourbon casks with some ex-shochu and Yamanashi wine casks, and mizunara oak as well as various fortified wine barrels. They only operate around half the year in the cooler months. Mars has three warehouses including one at Yakushima in the far south of Japan where it’s extremely hot. The team moves barrels around so that the whisky ages at different rates. 

Because of those closed years, the company has something of an inventory problem with small stocks of very mature whisky, plus younger casks from the post-2011 rebirth. Scotch whisky is used to plug this gap, which it does seamlessly. And no wonder, as raw materials (much Japanese whisky uses imported malted barley from Scotland) and production methods are pretty much identical for Scotch and Japanese whisky. As long as producers are open about it, we’re all for this blending of two great whisky nations. 

Casks maturing at Shinshu

Right, let’s try some whiskies!

Mars Kasei 

This is a special blend created for Le Maison du Whisky in France. The name means ‘Mars’ in Japanese. Sneaky. It’s a mixture of Japanese malt and grain with, according to Teddy Althapé Arhondo from LMDW, some whisky from Scotland. It’s aged in a mixture of new American oak, ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and bottled at 40% ABV. On the nose there’s a little smokiness with some lavender, honey and green apple. It’s fruity with sweet vanilla on the palate but with that smokiness lingering underneath. Delicious, drinkable and deceptively complex, it might be the ultimate Highball whisky. 

Mars Maltage Cosmo

The name is a clever portmanteau of ‘malt’ and ‘age’. It’s a blend of Japanese malt, approx 80%, and Scotch single malts. A plethora of different cask types are in here: bourbon, Madeira, sherry cask and Port. It’s bottled at 43% ABV. The flavour profile is classic ‘sherry bomb’. There are lots of fruitcake aromas and a distinctive spicy note like cardamom. On the palate, it’s rich and round with orange peel, dark cherry and chocolate. Very long finish. This is a luxurious dram that will appeal to lovers of Tamdhu or Glenfarclas. Cigars at the ready!

Mars Komagatake single malt (2019 release) 

Every year, Mars releases a small batch single malt from Shinshu, combining young casks with mature pre-1992 malts. This gives you a taste of the old Shinshu distillery before it was refurbished (there are also some old single cask bottlings which tend to be very expensive). This 2019 release was aged in bourbon casks, apparently, though it does taste as if there’s some European oak in there. It’s a rich, spicy whisky with ginger, dark cherries, dried apricots and aromatic notes of cedar and tobacco. Lovely mix of sweet and spicy balanced by smoke and fruit. It’s bottled at 48% ABV. Absolutely superb and for a Japanese single malt, good value for money. 

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Five minutes with… Logan Plant from Beavertown

Beavertown has to be one of the most recognisable breweries on the planet with its amazing SF-inspired cans, vibrant hoppiness and unforgettable beer names. We talk to the founder Logan…

Beavertown has to be one of the most recognisable breweries on the planet with its amazing SF-inspired cans, vibrant hoppiness and unforgettable beer names. We talk to the founder Logan Plant about what music has in common with brewing, working with Heineken and why he and his father are each other’s biggest fans. 

The Beavertown story started in 2011 with former musician Logan Plant making beer in his kitchen in East London. Since then it has gone to produce some of the most distinctive beers in the country. In June 2018, Heineken took a minority stake in the business to fund a new brewery and increase capacity. Now, there can be few bars or shops that don’t stock Beavertown beers like Gamma Ray with its crazy space alien cans. It’s the craft beer that non-beer drinkers recognize and it’s certainly been a massive hit for Master of Malt customers during lockdown. The gorgeous weather might have something to do with that (come back, please!) So we thought it would be a good time to have a chat with founder Logan Plant and get the full Beavertown story.

Stairway to heaven

Master of Malt: Has beer always been something you’ve been interested in?

Logan Plant: Yeah, obsessed really! My dad was a massive beer fan. And being from the West Midlands there’s a huge beer culture there, with great pubs, great environments, great beers. My friends and I, probably around the age of 18 became obsessed with a few local breweries and started to dream about possibly opening a brew-pub. And then eventually at the age of 30, my wife and I just decided to go for it. I was in the music industry for ten years, as was my wife, and we just decided that the time was right to change and go for our dreams. At the age of 32, we opened Beavertown. And that was it!

Master of Malt: You make such distinctive tasting beers. Are these the sort of beers that you just fell in love with and that’s why you started brewing them yourself? 

LP: A beer like Neck Oil Session IPA started out with a cask beer that I was obsessed with back in the Black Country where I was from. And I tried to recreate it but could never get close so I just decided to turn it into this kind of session IPA style, I think seven years ago. Some of the ideas come from history but then a lot of them come from an innovative side. You might take a cocktail and you might try and reproduce that in a beer, or you might take a dessert and take the nuances of that and put it into a big stout. Inspiration comes from everywhere really. But I think as a team, the main thing with any beer is about nailing a balance. I think every beer we brew and we put into our core ranges is something that you can really sit on a session. 

MoM: Which breweries were an inspiration to you?

LP: Well the first brewery that really got me into beer, was a very traditional one back in the West Midlands called Bathams. They were formed in 1887 and they brew a bitter and a mild, and they’ve got about ten pubs. That’s what I was kind of brought up on. They’re family owned and they’re brilliant. And then again, more modern day, a brewery called The Kernel. They do a table-beer which was part of the inspiration for Nanobot. Just being able to drink a lot of their table-beer made me think ‘amazing!’. Then looking to America has been a great inspiration because the craft beer industry is further ahead. Perhaps not now but four or five years ago when I was travelling around America absorbing the industry out there. Breweries like Firestone Walker in California have been a huge inspiration because they showed me that you can go big, with this style of beer and with these styles of beer and with this kind of mindset, you can take it to the people. And that’s really driven my inspiration of getting great beer onto every street corner. 

MoM: What are the main differences between the music industry and the drinks business?

LP: I don’t think there are many actually, there’s a lot of similarities: it’s an artistic expression. Whether you’re writing a song or you’re building a recipe, I think they’re quite similar. I think the art and the design in beer is also very similar to a kind of album cover.

Amazing looking cans

MoM: Yes, I was going to ask you about that. Who is it that designs your amazing cans?

LP: Nick Dwyer is his name, and he’s our creative director. When we started Beavertown in our restaurant, Duke’s Brew & Que back in the day, Nick was a waiter but he would always doodle and sketch before or after his shift. And I saw what he was coming up with and it kind of epitomised psychedelia and Day-of-the-Dead and really kind of crazy stuff that I was into. So as soon as we could get Nick on board, he rebranded everything for us and he’s taken us to a different level. And I think that’s really important, you know, that differentiation on the shelf, looking different, feeling different, talking different. There are so many beers in the market, how can you stand out, not only for your quality but also from a visual perspective?

MoM: And who comes up with the names for the beers?

LP: Well ‘Neck Oil’, for example, is an old term that my great grandfather used back in the Black Country and it was his name for his beer, his local beer. He’d say he was going down the pub for a pint of neck oil! So I thought it was a great name when my dad used to tell me the story. And then things like Gamma Ray have kind of come around through the art, crazy spacemen with ray guns and stuff. And then Nanobot really, as an example of modern, more recent name, really came around because the style of the beer is so delicate and so precise and that’s kind of what nanobots are! The names and the artwork correlate into a kind of story. 

MoM: Are you surprised just how successful Beavertown has been in such a short amount of time? 

LP: When I was brewing in the kitchen, eight years ago when my wife and I started Beavertown, I thought it was just going to be serving the local people in Duke’s Brew & Que and just keeping East London. It’s really surprised me and I’m honoured to be part of this craft beer movement. And the fact that it started to snowball maybe four or five years ago, it was amazing to see the opportunities and to see tastes change and the mainstream suddenly adopting these styles of beers. It shows that people nowadays crave more from their food and their drink. Obviously we are going through a rough time at the moment but the fact that many pubcos are now looking towards having a great range of craft beers on their bar and if you look at the likes of Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tescos they’ve got amazing lineups of canned and bottled produce. 

Skull, skulls, skulls, a recipe for success

MoM: That brings me on to asking how’s business with all of this lockdown stuff?

LP: 85% of our business closed when the pubs and bars shut. But from that we’ve had to kind of morph and pivot and particularly work with our off-trade customers. Also our webshop has gone bonanza, it’s been absolutely brilliant. It’s gone from a two-person operation to eight people. It’s now our second biggest revenue income for the brewery, so it’s been a real lifesaver if you like. Our main aim has been about the safety of our people, primarily. Maintaining jobs, which we’ve managed to do throughout, which is great, and then just concentrating on supporting our customers and getting the market back up and running. The other positives are the launch of Nanobot, which we had always planned to make. We just thought it would be a great time to release something exciting, give people a bit of a boost.

MoM: Can you tell us a bit more about Nanobot? How do you create a low alcohol beer with the intensity that Beavertown drinkers expect?

It’s a 2.8% ABV Super Session IPA. As brewers we’re challenging ourselves to get the most flavour, so no compromise on that flavour but also to deliver that low ABV. I think it’s probably one of the hardest styles to nail. Because you’re obviously using less malt, you’re getting less sugar. . . the way that I talk about it is that Nanobot is ‘small but mighty’. It’s about getting that kind of delicacy and that kind of sessionability at 2.8% ABV but then giving those IPA characteristics.

MoM: Are you the head brewer or do you have someone else who is in charge of that?

LP: No we’ve got an amazing brew team. I was a home brewer initially and I started brewing at Beavertown but I haven’t actively brewed a beer probably for the last five years but I’m involved in every recipe instruction and I work really closely with the brewing team. They are far more qualified than I am! 

Inside the Beavertown taproom

MoM: How has the involvement of Heineken changed the business?

LP: It was a big process we went through to find a partner, to help us to build Beaverworld, which is our new brewery. And, for me, it was about staying in control. Heineken came in as a minority partner, which was really important. But then also to have the kind of values of a family-run entity, which I believe Heineken are. Some of the family have got to know a lot of the crew there, who are amazing, that was really important. And then to have a partner that just knows way more than us about what we’re doing. Heineken is one of the biggest brewers in the world with amazing resources and expertise, that was really key. 

MoM: And finally, I have to ask as I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan, but what kind of age did you realise that your father is a hero to so many people around the world? 

LP: My dad was never too extrovert, he didn’t have crazy cars, he was just another bloke down the pub. Sure I’d go on tour with him and I’d see him play big gigs as a solo artist, because Zeppelin, they disbanded when I was about one. I think it was at the age of 12 he bought me the Led Zeppelin albums on cassette and I’d never really heard of them before until that age, I think I was about 11 or 12, and I put them on and I was like ‘bloody hell!’ I suddenly realised he was in another band, he wasn’t just Robert Plant the solo artist, he was this singer in this amazing bombastic sound. Ever since then, I’m one of their biggest fans, they’re my favourite band. And most importantly, he’s just a damn good bloke. He’s very supportive as a parent and he loves Beavertown; his favourite beer is Gamma Ray! And he’s very proud, I’m glad to have made him proud because he makes me very proud. I think we’re an inspiration to one another!

Beavertown beers are available from Master of Malt.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Dark ‘n’ Stormy

It was 40 years ago this week that Gosling’s rum in Bermuda took the bold step of trademarking the island’s drink, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy. To celebrate this anniversary, we…

It was 40 years ago this week that Gosling’s rum in Bermuda took the bold step of trademarking the island’s drink, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy. To celebrate this anniversary, we delve into the cocktail’s history and show you how to make the perfect one, with Gosling’s Black Seal rum, naturally.

Cocktail history can be pretty hard to get to the bottom of. Think of all the competing stories about the origins of the Margarita. Mix tall stories with alcohol and you get a whole world of confusion. To be honest, with most cocktails, we don’t know for certain when they were invented, by whom, how and even why. The Dark ‘n’ Stormy is different as there’s actually a foundation date, 9 June 1980, that’s 40 years ago this week. This was the date that Gosling’s trademarked its signature cocktail. 

As Malcolm Gosling puts it: “While in Europe, food and drink products can be granted Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication accreditation to stop them being appropriated, abused and misused, Bermuda has no such thing. With the popularity of Bermuda and the Dark ‘n’ Stormy® growing in the late ’70s, we felt it was vital that we started the process of protecting our heritage around this special drink.”

Gets our seal of approval, arff, arff

It’s been something of a mixed blessing for the firm ever since because on the plus point, it has its very own cocktail, no other rum brand has that. But at the same time, the family has to decide whether to send in the lawyers whenever someone advertises its cocktail with a different rum or creates a ‘Dark and Stormzy’ or suchlike. What would be in a Dark and Stormzy? The mind boggles.

Anyway, I digress. According to the press bumf, the name of the drinks comes from: “when an old salt observed that the rum floating on top of the ginger beer was the ‘colour of a cloud only a fool or a dead man would sail under’”. Mmmm, well maybe, or perhaps it came from the timeless opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford: “it was a dark and stormy night.” A line that has become the classic way to open a shaggy dog story, so apt for delving into cocktail history.

According to Gosling’s lore, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy was invented in the early 1920s by the British officer’s mess in Bermuda. They added Gosling’s Black Seal to their own homemade ginger beer and thus a classic was born. Now, rum and ginger have a rich history together, think of punches. And whisky and ginger has been drunk for years so it seems unlikely that nobody had ever mixed rum with ginger beer before those British officers. But of course,  Gosling’s is trademarking the name, not the drink. Any rum can be in a rum and ginger, but only Gosling’s Black Seal can be in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy. As Malcolm Gosling eloquently puts it: “Fair enough, mix any rum and ginger beer you want but if it doesn’t have Gosling’s, don’t call it Dark ‘n’ Stormy®!”

The Gosling’s begins in 1806 when English merchant James Gosling left for America. He stopped in Bermuda and liked it so much that he decided to stay on to sell wines and spirits. The family has been there ever since. His rum blend dates back to the 1850s when it was sold from the barrel. Around the time of the first world war, it began to be bottled for sale, in used Champagne bottles from the officer’s mess, and sealed with black wax, hence the name. The business is run by the seventh generation of the Gosling family.

A pretty two-layered effect

Luckily for cocktail lovers, Gosling’s Black Seal is an extremely nice rum. It’s a classic navy-style blend made with a mixture of pot and continuous still rums from around the Caribbean. There’s plenty of proper aged rum and the sweetness is the perfect foil to. . .  yes, you’ve guessed it. . . ginger beer. And happily, Gosling’s makes its own special version (there’s even a premixed can for when you want a Dark ‘n’ Stormy on the move.) The final ingredient is lime. In the classic recipe, below, it’s just a wedge but some versions call from lime juice as well and even Angostura bitters. Heresy! A nice upgrade, however, if you’re feeling lively, is a tablespoon full of overproof rum on the top. Gosling’s, naturally. 

Right, here’s how to make a Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Don’t forget the ®!

50ml Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
75ml Gosling’s ginger beer

Fill a Highball glass with ice and add the ginger beer. Pour the Gosling’s Black Seal over the top for a pretty two-level effect and garnish with a lime wedge.

Everything you need including the glass is in this special Dark ‘n’ Stormy bundle from Master of Malt.

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Five minutes with. . .  Mark Harvey from Chapel Down 

English wine is on a bit of a roll at the moment and the country’s largest producer, Chapel Down, is based right here in Kent. But that’s not all, it…

English wine is on a bit of a roll at the moment and the country’s largest producer, Chapel Down, is based right here in Kent. But that’s not all, it also makes gin, vodka, beer and cider alongside it’s award-winning wines. We thought it was time to learn a bit more. . . 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, those lines seem particularly apt for English wine. On one hand there’s been booming sales, a run of great harvests and increasing brand recognition by consumers; on the other there’s the uncertainties caused by Brexit and Covid plus a lack of profitability among some producers. One company, however, that looks set to thrive even in today’s uncertain times is Chapel Down. It produces everything from popular still wines to the superb single vineyard Kit’s Coty range which tops out at around £100 a bottle for the prestige Couer de Cuvee. In addition, there is beer, gin, vodka and cider. It’s a one stop shop for all your English drinks needs. Recently we ran a sale on the site of Chapel Down products and were stunned by the response so we thought we’d find out a bit more from the company from managing director Mark Harvey who joined the firm in 2015. 

MoM: How are you finding lockdown at Chapel Down?

MH: It’s a really mixed bag. Our restaurants, shops and tours are all shut. The minute we got the advice, we acted pretty swiftly on that, which felt like the right thing to do. All of the on-trade which is heavy on the beer but lighter on the wine is switched off. Then the retail side, we’re in Majestic, Waitrose, Sainsburys, all that lot, they seem to be doing really well. I mean all the signs are pretty positive. And then online it’s just gone bonkers. I mean, literally, 10-15 times up what it would normally be! 

Mark Harvey, MD of Chapel Down

MoM: How are things in the vineyards?

MH: The vineyards just don’t stop obviously and we’re kind of going through frost season [we spoke to Harvey at the end of April] at the moment, so kind of nervously looking at the ground each morning but so far, we got a little bit of frost last week on one parcel of land, one block of land, but nothing major. But we’re not out of the woods yet so we’ve probably got another two weeks of just looking and checking. But the forecast is good, so that should be all right. Last year’s harvest was so big, we are still processing 2019 wines. This week we are doing all of the Bacchus and then we need to get onto blending the sparkling wines because we will start bottling in, hopefully June if the French guys can come over and do it, or if not it might be a little bit later. But yeah, the vineyards and the winery are dead busy. 

MoM: Are you worried about potential shortage of pickers because of Covid 19 and Brexit? 

MH: That’s an ongoing thing. Lots of this stuff is just really unknown. I saw that there was a plane-load of Romanians coming in a couple of weeks back for the fruit that needs picking now, so whether that will happen with us, I don’t know. We obviously work with external companies, who bring these guys and girls in, so they obviously paint a pretty positive picture, because, why wouldn’t they? If we’re in a bit of a corner come August time, it will be around that time, we will probably look to see if we can get local pickers. 

A team of pickers in the vineyard

MoM: And what’s your background before you joined Chapel Down?

MH: I used to work at LVMH so I sold champagne and spirits. I was in the UK for probably half of that and then I was general manager in Ireland. My last job was business director for the whiskies in the US. 

MoM: You joined Chapel Down in 2015, is that right?

MH: It will be five years in September that I’ve been here. It’s gone really quick actually! I’m kind of the glory boy, it [English wine] was already good when I started but it’s going really well now. This next period will be interesting with corona and on-trade shutting down and all of that, as it will for lots of businesses. But long term you step back from it and the future is pretty rosy.

MoM: Do you think at some point there’s going to be a bit of consolidation in the British wine industry? 

MH: Without doubt, yeah. I think this current crisis might possibly accelerate that. And I think the large harvests of 2018 and ‘19 might make things difficult for some as well. Because up until now, the dynamic has been massive demand and not sufficient supply so lots of people have been planting like crazy and then suddenly we’ve had two whopping harvest in ‘18 and ‘19 and I think it’s going to get tougher. And then it’s brands ultimately that win out. There’s lots of lovely boutique wineries but in terms of brands, with a guy wandering down the Waitrose aisle, how many English wine brands does he know? Not many. And even the top ones, like Chapel Down and Nyetimber, the awareness isn’t that high. I think it’s going to be really interesting and yeah, I think a consolidation in the next few years is inevitable. 

MoM: And in the time that you’ve been in the wine business, English wine has changed massively. What are the factors that have seen it become the industry that it is today?

MH: Oh man, it’s changed out of all recognition. I mean, fundamentally, the wines are really good now. I think site selection at the starting point is really important and that’s got better. The knowledge and the expertise of the guys in the vineyards planting the vines and cultivating and all of that, the establishment of the vineyards has got much better. The guys in the winery have got much better. And it’s a combination of talent coming in so there’s some New World and Champagne guys have come over. And then, in our example, it’s two home-grown talents in Richard Lewis and Josh Donaghay-Spire, our winemaker. They’re graduates of Plumpton, the wine school in Sussex. So the expertise has got a lot better and the resulting wines are better. 

Beyond the production-side, you’ve got more professionalism coming in. So, dare I say it, someone like me coming in from LVMH. You’ve got people from big wine organisations coming in, we recruited a guy from Treasury Wine Estates. I’m a massive believer in brands and I think the fact that the leading players are doing the right thing by the brands. The pricing is right, the bottle looks decent on-shelf, it’s sold in the right channel. English wine as a brand is really well-established. The only fear now is that as more wine comes on-stream, that people do the wrong thing with price and… we’ll just have to see how it goes. 

Head winemaker and Plumpton graduate Josh Donaghay-Spire

MoM: What do you think is going to be the next thing that takes off in English wine?

MH: From a varietal point of view, there will be bits and pieces and innovation round the side and we have had a grower that’s planted some Albariño, that was a bit of fun. Ben Wallgate at Tillingham does some interesting stuff and so there will always be bits and pieces around the outside. I think it’s great that you get that diversity. But actually the two main messages whenever I talk about English wine are ‘the traditional method’ and the link back into Champagne. And then Bacchus on the still side. And those, I think, are the two flags that will keep going for a long time. 

MoM: Do you think still Chardonnay will go mainstream or is it always going to be a premium product?

MH: That’s a good question. I think for us it will always be a premium product actually. Just given the scale of it, the quality of it and we shift it, we’re always after more! So unless somebody comes in and plants a lot more… I mean you never know what’s going to happen but I think Bacchus will continue to be at the entry-point still wine scale and then Chardonnay will tend to be at that more premium price point. Our single vineyard chardonnay is 30 quid, which is obviously premium and we just can’t make enough of it. 

MoM: You’re part of the Wine Garden of England group with other Kent winemakers. Do you think Kentish wine has its own identity? 

MH: Yeah, it’s a really interesting one. I like the Wine Garden of England because I think at core there’s a sort of truth to it which is ‘we all believe that Kent is the best place for growing grapes for traditional method wine – lots of clay, lots of chalk and the right climate. So there’s something to it, we’ve all planted in Kent for a reason, so it’s not made up. It makes sense to hold hands on tourism and attracting people to Kent but personally, I don’t think there’s much merit in complicating it beyond that. I think the smart thing to do is just forge ahead as brands. Kent is part of the makeup of what we do, it’s a bit complicated because we also source grapes from Essex and Sussex. I just think that all of us should just go hell-for-leather on our own brands and then the details of ‘Kent’ and ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, it’s just secondary messaging. I think the most interesting things for consumers are individual brands and stories and provenance and that’s what’s of interest. Whether the fact you have an overriding Kent logo or England logo on the bottle, I just don’t think they care. 

Kit’s Coty, Chapel Down’s most prestigious vineyard

MoM: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the sparkling Bacchus because that’s quite innovative isn’t it?

MH: It is and controversial in a way as well as it’s carbonated. Bacchus, because it’s fresh and it’s meant to be drunk young, you don’t want the brioche-y notes you get from secondary fermentation, so it just works. And it’s cheaper to make. And the price point is lower. And it’s a bit of fun. And we’ve been really happy with it and we partnered with Waitrose from the start, who have gone gangbusters with it, it’s now in Majestic [it’s done very well through Master of Malt too]. It was flying in the on-trade and it’s irked a bit because it was about to skyrocket in a few national chains, but such is life. But yeah, it’s a cracking product. 

MoM: How did making gin come about?

We started making spirits a couple of years back. We make a grappa from the Chardonnay grape skins that are left at the end of harvest and that’s the base of the vodka. And that’s then blended with English wheat spirit and it’s as simple as that. We’ve got two gins. One is a Bacchus base and the other one is a Pinot Noir base. And then the botanicals mirror the flavour profile of that particular grape varietal. 

MoM: How is the beer side of the business developing?

MH: We opened up a brewery in Ashford last May and that’s going well. The difference between wine and beer is that wine is really heavily weighted on off-trade while beer is weighted on-trade, so beer is tough right now. But then the online sales of everything has gone bananas and we have got some retail. 

MoM: And finally, you do a cider as well don’t you?

MH: Yeah, I’ve just been drinking it actually! Every week, it’s a bit cringey, but I do this cocktail online for Instagram and I’ve just made a ‘Taste of Kent’ which is the Chardonnay vodka blended with the Curious Apple. It’s pretty punchy: 60ml of vodka, 40ml of the cider, poured over ice, two cracks, two twists of black pepper, stir it round and that’s it. But it’s very punchy.

The Chapel Down range is available from Master of Malt.

 

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