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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Kristiane Sherry

Fèis Ìle 2019: Day 0

Team MoM is safely installed on Islay! And what a first day it’s been. We’ve been all over the island checking out Bruichladdich, the Port Ellen Maltings and the Scotch…

Team MoM is safely installed on Islay! And what a first day it’s been. We’ve been all over the island checking out Bruichladdich, the Port Ellen Maltings and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society at Islay House!

First things first: it feels mighty strange calling this blog Day 0 when actually it was mega action-packed and full of fun. But traditionally the first day of the Fèis has been Lagavulin so… maybe the whole shebang needs a bit of shaking up? But that’s a debate for another time. Preferably over a dram…

Right. So, Team MoM is on Islay! Our main home for the first part of the week is ever-so-fancy. Yes, yesterday we checked into The Machrie, and no joke – it is stunning. Gorgeous rooms, great service, lots of whisky. But! We did manage to lure ourselves away first thing in the morning because the lure of Bruichladdich was strong.

Filming up at Bruichladdich

Those of you with half an eye on the Islay calendar will well know today is NOT Bruichladdich day. But Christy McFarlane, malts communications manager, enticed us over early with promise of barley news. And it was cool. We had a good chinwag as we wandered up to the new croft, taking in the views across Loch Indaal and back towards Bowmore as we climbed. The views were spectacular and the barley trials exciting indeed. Watch this space – a video with all the deets is coming soon!

No real time for a stop though as we traversed back across the island to the Port Ellen Maltings (via the all-important Co-op in Bowmore for a vital sandwich stop). This was Mega Exciting (capital letters very much intended) for both me and Jake – we’d never visited the site before, and it is integral to the island’s whisky industry. The Diageo-owned facility malts barley for seven of the nine distilleries – not just its own, Caol Ila and Lagavulin. The team had put on their own almost-distillery day, complete with music, gazebos and all manner of malting facts. And, of course, there were tours.

Feis Ile

It’s Port Ellen!

Before we had a nose about, we went down to Port Ellen beach with the maltings’ site operations manager Sam Hale and Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global scotch whisky master. In front of the old Port Ellen distillery we put your questions to them both, covering production at the maltings and the revival of the distillery itself. Videos to follow! (If you’ve got questions for any of the Islay distillery teams, send them to us on social or pop them in the comments below!).

Feis Ile

Dogs of the day!

Then Hale showed us round the maltings and the scale was something else. Super impressive, indeed! From the eight 25-tonne steeps to the enormous drums, and the gigantic kilns, which take in 6 tons of peat per batch, it’s clear that the operation is something special. We popped into the control room (like a spaceship) and even out onto the roof overlooking the old Port Ellen distillery. It was like glorious, peat-scented magic.

Feis Ile

SMWS ‘s Highland Games at Islay House

Time for a quick ice-cream break, then it was up towards the other end of the island for another village fete-type set up: the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Islay House takeover! There was bunting, drams galore, and a whisky-themed Highland Games, complete with axe-throwing and archery. We did not partake, but we did spot a trio of excellent dogs! We also caught up with the SMWS team, including the intrepid Richard who is taking on the recently-established Tour of Islay tomorrow. If you see a bunch of folks in SMWS cycling kits pedalling along, give them a wave or hoot – they’re aiming to cover all nine distilleries and 65-ish miles in one day!

That’s all too much energy for us. We’re off for tea. And a dram or three. Roll on Lagavulin Day tomorrow!

 

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New Arrival of the Week: Haku Vodka

What happens when a renowned Japanese whisky house sets its sights on vodka? Meet Suntory’s Haku, our New Arrival of the Week. We adore Japanese spirits here at MoM Towers….

What happens when a renowned Japanese whisky house sets its sights on vodka? Meet Suntory’s Haku, our New Arrival of the Week.

We adore Japanese spirits here at MoM Towers. Japanese whiskies have long been held in high regard, and the hubbub around the likes of Ki No Bi and Roku gins endures. Now there’s a new kid on the booze block in the form of Haku Vodka – and it’s everything we hoped it would be and more.

Haku Vodka

Suntory’s latest experiment: delicious vodka!

What sets Japanese spirits apart for us is the meticulous attention to detail during all stages of production – as anyone who has sipped and savoured the likes of Hibiki, Nikka from the Barrel, or the now-legendary and rarer-than-hens-teeth Yamazaki 18 Year Old knows (mouths collectively water across MoM Towers at the mere mention). After all, the entire history of the category is based on Masataka Taketsuru’s adventures in Scotland from 1918, and his dogged determination to create the most perfect whisky distillery possible.

That there’s now a growing interest Japanese vodka is intriguing. Full disclosure: Haku is not the first to market. Nikka released its Coffey Vodka in 2017, and the eye-catching Eiko Vodka is also available. But vodka is a category with a bland reputation. It’s generally made in bulk, and as such is viewed as a bit of a humdrum tipple, useful for adding a hit of alcohol, but with little finesse. Well, Japanese vodka, and Haku in particular challenges that view with aplomb.

Haku Vodka

White rice, not only delicious, but also useful in the creation of booze. What a product.

For starters, Haku starts life as white rice. But not just the white rice you’d stock your kitchen cupboards with. No. In Japan, white rice is seen as a luxury; traditionally it was reserved for fancy occasions and even worship. It’s got a slightly sweet flavour – a subtle characteristic which is preserved in Haku due to its painstaking production method.

Step one is to ferment with something called ‘rice koji’ to create a mash. It’s then distilled using pot stills to get the initial rice spirit – this happens in Kagoshima, in Kyushu, a place famed for making rice spirits. It’s then distilled twice more using different methods (we assume this is where the column still comes in) to hit that all-important ABV.

Bamboo charcoal is key to the creation of Haku

The spirit then gets taken more than 600 kilometres to Osaka, a place Suntory calls its ‘Liquor Atelier’. Here it is filtered using bamboo charcoal, in a specific process used only by Suntory. The use of charcoal, however, is super traditional and was even used to ‘sweeten’ water for tea. Turns out, bamboo is a genius material, three times more porous than wood charcoal, and super-sustainable, too.

The results of all this? Something velvet-soft yet surprisingly floral. There’s something a little bit grassy about it, too. But the most compelling thing is that roly-poly mouthfeel. It’s bouncy and glossy without being weighty. And it makes a bloody magic Martini. Kanpai!

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Scotch bolsters UK economy by £5.5bn

We all know Scotch is delicious – but did you know it’s also thoroughly good for the UK economy? The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has crunched the numbers, and discovered…

We all know Scotch is delicious – but did you know it’s also thoroughly good for the UK economy? The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has crunched the numbers, and discovered that it now adds a whopping £5.5 billion pounds each year!

The amount the Scotch industry adds has climbed by 10% year-on-year, as exports reach record highs (£4.7bn in 2018) and new distilleries come online. We reckon that’s as good a reason as any to raise a dram.

“This research shows the Scotch whisky industry’s huge contribution to both the Scottish and UK economies,” said Karen Betts, the SWA’s chief exec. She also praised the “consistent investment” from whisky companies, with over £500 million going into production, distribution, marketing and tourism in the last five years.

Scotch whisky

Scotch whisky, delicious, convivial and good for the economy

“Despite the challenges of Brexit, this investment continues to flow, with further projects planned and more distilleries set to open – a sign that the Scotch whisky industry remains confident about the future,” she continued.  This is great news for our many employees, our investors, our supply chain and, of course, for consumers all over the world who love Scotch.”

What does this mean for Scotch? According to the SWA, the industry contributes more than the life sciences sector does to Scotland’s finances (£1.5bn), meaning it is a vital part of the economy. It also supports more than 42,000 jobs throughout the UK, including 10,500 people directly in Scotland, and 7,000 across rural communities.

Scotch is a super-productive business to be in, too. Apparently, the sector generates about £210,505 GVA per employee, more than the energy sector at £173,511 per person. In comparison, life sciences contributes £93,735 per head, while the creative industries stands at £60,712 per person.

Some more fun stats (we know you like them): for every £100 of added value Scotch produces, another £45 is generated in the broader economy. Plus, Scotch accounted for an enormous 21% of all UK food and drink exports in 2018, and 1.3% of the value of total exports.

Hurrah for Scotch!

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New Arrival of the Week: Compass Box Affinity

What happens when you gather two really rather delicious beverages, one from Scotland, and one from France, and mix them together? Compass Box has done just that with Scotch and…

What happens when you gather two really rather delicious beverages, one from Scotland, and one from France, and mix them together? Compass Box has done just that with Scotch and Calvados. The result? Affinity, an intriguing thing indeed…

Oh, Compass Box. The whisky blender extraordinaire, the maverick drinks maker, the champion of transparency*. What can’t be said about the self-proclaimed whiskymaker? (We visited way back in 2012 and were super-impressed. Time for a return trip.) Not only do the brand’s bottlings look the part (seriously, check out the labels), the blends themselves are seriously innovative. Well, that’s what I thought. Until Affinity came along, and suddenly, the rest of the range feels almost pedestrian in comparison.

Why the hype? Because Compass Box Affinity is one of those category-defying, hybrid spirits we got so excited about at the start of the year. And it’s here!

Affinity is a Scotch whisky-Calvados blend. And it’s a union made in heaven. Quite why it’s not been tried before I’m not sure (do let me know if you spot something similar already out in the wild). It’s appley, of course – thanks to the Calvados, from Christian Drouin, which, at 37.5% of the volume, is by far the largest of the six constituent parts.

As well as Calvados, Affinity is produced using a Highland malt blend (Clynelish, Dailuaine, Teaninich) matured in three different cask types, a blended Scotch parcel from a refill sherry butt, and Craigellachie from a first-fill sherry butt. It’s exciting to be able to dissect something in such a way. Especially a spirit so unusual in terms of its make-up. This is the joy of Compass Box. Not only is the product range genuinely ingenious, the brand is committed to letting us all know, in as much detail as it legally can, exactly what its drinks are made from.

In his notes on the release, Compass Box founder John Glaser says the team has been blending Calvados and Scotch for some time, “enchanted” by the character of the pair. “One of the world’s greatest spirits, sadly Calvados is also one of the most under-appreciated,” he writes. “Affinity showcases the mouth-coating texture and ripe fragrance of Calvados, partnering it with the rich spiciness and malty aromas of Scotch whisky.”

Delicious indeed. But how to drink it? The inspired Compass Box sorts recommend serving Affinity with amaro and vermouth for a thoroughly unexpected Boulevardier twist. Or with a sweet tarte tatin (guaranteed to impress at the next dinner party). I reckon simply sipping over ice is thoroughly pleasing, especially now the mild spring evenings are here. Tchin-tchin!

*In 2016, Compass Box launched a Scotch Whisky Transparency campaign after it got told off by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) for inadvertently breaking the law around age statements on two of its products. Compass Box had detailed the ages of the constituent parts in its blends, but EU law states that only the youngest can be disclosed.  

 

Compass Box Affinity

Compass Box Affinity

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Beefeater parent Pernod Ricard snaps up Malfy Gin

Pernod Ricard has got a taste for juniper! The drinks group released a statement this morning confirming it’s about to buy Italy-based Malfy Gin, growing its gin portfolio to six….

Pernod Ricard has got a taste for juniper! The drinks group released a statement this morning confirming it’s about to buy Italy-based Malfy Gin, growing its gin portfolio to six.

“This acquisition is true to our long-standing strategy of investing in brands with strong potential in growing categories,” said Christian Porta, MD of Pernod Ricard’s Global Business Development arm.

Malfy Gin is made by the Vergnano family in Moncalieri, and is available in four varieties: Originale, Con Limone, Con Arancia and Con Rosa. It’s produced using genuine Italian ingredients including juniper, coastal-grown lemons, Sicilian blood oranges and pink grapefruits.

It has already proved popular in big drinks markets around the world, including the US, Germany, and here in the UK.

Pernod Ricard hasn’t said how much it has paid for the brand, which will join the likes of Monkey 47, which it partnered with in 2016, and Ungava, a 2018 acquisition, once the transaction goes through.

“We are excited to see Malfy Gin move to the Pernod Ricard family of brands,” said Elwyn Gladstone, founder of Biggar & Leith, which launched Malfy in 2016.

“We believe that with their stewardship and expertise in building super-premium spirits brands, Malfy will continue to flourish.”

The deal is expected to close shortly – and it seems likely we will see more brand-buying from the drinks giant. “In line with the launch of our ‘Transform and Accelerate’ strategic plan, we will continue actively managing our fantastic portfolio of brands,” Porta added in the statement.

Malfy Gin Pink Lemonade

Malfy Gin Pink Lemonade

Malfy is pretty popular here at MoM Towers. If the news is giving you a bit of a hankering for a gin cocktail, why not give this super simple Pink Lemonade a go, made with Malfy Gin Rosa.

Take an ice-filled Highball glass and mix two parts Malfy Gin Rosa with one part Limoncello. Top with three parts soda water and garnish with a slice of lime and a raspberry (if you’re feeling fancy). Enjoy!

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‘One-off’ Glenmorangie 1991 is here!

Much excitement, folks! This week, Highland Scotch whisky distillery Glenmorangie unveiled the fourth release in its Bond House No. 1 vintage collection. And we were among the first to taste…

Much excitement, folks! This week, Highland Scotch whisky distillery Glenmorangie unveiled the fourth release in its Bond House No. 1 vintage collection. And we were among the first to taste Glenmorangie 1991!

We’ll start off by giving it its proper name: Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991. So far, so fancy. What’s so exciting about this particular expression? We high-tailed it up to L’oscar, a former Baptist chapel that has been transformed into a dark, decadent hotel and restaurant, to check it out.

Luckily for us, Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks, was there to help unpick this one. He described Glenmorangie 1991 as “small batch” and “a genuinely one off whisky” – which always piques interest. But this time, we genuinely think it deserves the hype.

It’s Dr. Bill Lumsden!

It’s a rich, plummy sort of spirit, made from two parcels of whisky – unusual because they’ve been brought together. One parcel was finished in oloroso sherry casks, giving it all kinds of Christmas cake spice. The other? Burgundy cask-finished liquid, giving it an earthy richness. Both had been ‘finished’ for ten years (maybe more of a second maturation?). There’s some full-aged virgin oak wood, and come classic bourbon-aged Glenmorangie thrown in for good measure, too. It shouldn’t work. But it does. But only just.

What’s even more remarkable is that back in 1991, cask finishing wasn’t really even A Thing. We’re super used to seeing it today, but back then, Glenmorangie was one of the first to explore the technique.

Lumsden himself acknowledged that Glenmorangie 1991 was “tricky whisky to work with”, totally unlike the ‘89 and ‘93 expressions in the same collection. “Bringing together two such incongruous whiskies goes somewhat against convention which, in part, is what drew me to the challenge of combining them,” he said. “The result is a single malt with a rich plum character, deep, mellow aromas and tastes of ripe fruits and milk chocolate.

“Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991 honours those early pioneers who dedicated themselves to the art of the wood finish in 1991, whose work still guides us today.”

So. The important bit. What does it taste like? Over to our Henry and his tasting notes:

Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991

Colour: Deep copper

Nose: There’s chocolate orange, dried pineapple and aromatic cigar box aromas. A little time and fudge and toffee appear.

Palate: Very complex, powerful and peppery with a noticeable chew from the wood tannins, then fruity notes come through dark cherry and classic Glenmorangie peachy notes.

Finish: Rather long with honey and salted caramel.

The even better news? Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991 is in the building! Enjoy, folks.

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Distell unveils super-local Tobermory Hebridean Gin!

Are you a gin magpie with an eye for shiny, new juniper-based concoctions? Then listen up. Mull-based distillery Tobermory is in the process of releasing its first gin expression. Behold –…

Are you a gin magpie with an eye for shiny, new juniper-based concoctions? Then listen up. Mull-based distillery Tobermory is in the process of releasing its first gin expression. Behold – Tobermory Hebridean Gin!

Tobermory Distillery has been closed for a two-year renovation period, and the first fruits of that investment were on display at an event in London last night (27 March).

Not only did the distillery reveal its new Tobermory 12 Year Old, an unpeated bourbon cask-matured, virgin oak-finished Scotch whisky expression, but it surprised guests with a sneak peek at the new gin, too.

Tobermory Hebridean Gin

Tobermory Hebridean Gin – Tobermory’s first gin!

Tobermory Hebridean Gin is a 46.3% ABV small-batch-distilled gin made with local botanicals including elderflower, tea and wild heather, and a dash of Tobermory new-make spirit.

The new-make is used more as another botanical rather than the full base. The result means the oily, cereal character is a flavour contributor, rather than overwhelming the whole expression.

We were particularly impressed by the bottle, which showcases the iconic, colourful houses that border the shore in Tobermory, the island’s biggest town. The clear glass and label design are in line with a sleek brand refresh for the wider spirits range. 

Dr Kirstie McCallum, Distell’s master blender, told us that the gin release was the result of the investment in the distillery. It’s currently being produced in 60-litre still named Wee Betty, with a larger dedicated gin still set to be installed in the new spirits stillhouse (separate from the existing whisky-producing space) later this summer.

Once the larger still is in situ, the gin will be released more widely.

Tobermory 12 Year Old

The shiny new Tobermory 12 Year Old!

McCallum also confirmed Tobermory 10 Year Old has been discontinued with the launch of the 12 Year Old expression, and that we can expect to see more changes to the distillery’s core Scotch whisky range soon. In addition to the unpeated Tobermory range, the site also produces heavily-peated Scotch whisky under the Ledaig name.

Keep an eye on the blog for our full interview with McCallum, including further details on Tobermory Hebridean Gin and Tobermory 12 Year Old, coming soon!

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St George Spirits: The home of dynamic distilling

California’s St George Spirits knows no bounds when it comes to distilling invention. We travel to Alameda to meet the team. Across the Bay from the contrasts of San Francisco…

California’s St George Spirits knows no bounds when it comes to distilling invention. We travel to Alameda to meet the team.

Across the Bay from the contrasts of San Francisco – the confines of the street grids and the expanse of sky, the nostalgia and the novelty, the big business and the homelessness – is a startling stretch of nothing. After the colour, the noise, the sharp undulations of the city, arriving the St George Spirits Distillery in Alameda is disorienting.

Driving down West Midway and onto Monarch Street, you feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. The scale is extraordinary; cavernous buildings set back from the road, each in acres of space, barely another car to be seen. The proportions, the flatness, the emptiness are the opposite of the city across the water. I was half an hour ahead of schedule when my Lyft pulled up outside St George, one of the last buildings on the island. I’d enormously overestimated the time it would take to drive over from the city, and was feeling as worried about my early arrival as I was surprised by Alameda’s quiet. It all felt mildly post-apocalyptic.

St George Spirits

Storm incoming: the view from St George back to San Francisco on a grey day. We promise the city is there somewhere

The weather didn’t help. A winter storm was about to roll in; sensible types were already safely harboured from the forecast deluge. My driver had inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, dropped me on the wrong side, keen to get back over the bridges into the city before the worst of the weather. The St George building was as huge as all the others, and I wondered if anyone would hear my knock. They did. A warm, friendly welcome greeted me, completely at odds to the starkness outside; one of the distilling team led me through the impressive 65,000 sq ft production and warehouse space. There were two banks of gleaming stills, vats and tanks galore, and near-floor to ceiling racking – more on all that shortly. It somehow felt far smaller on the inside that it did from the outside, stack after stack of maturing spirits filling the vast space to the brim. Out the other side, right by the really rather obvious entrance I should have arrived at, was a generous visitor area, with two bars and a shop at the far end. Windows down the exterior wall provided a glorious view back to San Francisco, with all its towers. There’s nothing between the distillery and the city except for a wash of wetland, the Bay itself, and an expanse of concrete which turned out to be a disused runway.

St George Spirits roof

St George barrels and the original WWII hangar roof

“This is World War II construction, an old aircraft hangar,” confirmed Dave Smith, St George Spirits head distiller and vice president, an animated yet softly-spoken fellow who joined the team nearly 14 years ago. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me despite my poor timekeeping, and welcomed me with literal open arms. “The last squadron stationed in the hangar prior to the base’s retirement was Atkron 304, known as the Firebirds, which were made up of Grumman A-6 Intruders.” The scale of the buildings now makes sense, and when I looked into the site afterwards it turns out it was a Naval air base that only closed in 1997.

‘Creating a movement’

St George Spirits dates back to well before the airfield closed, though in a different location. Jörg Rupf, widely considered to be the father of American artisan distilling, set up St George way back in 1982 – long before hipster beards and ubiquitous quirkiness overran the territory marked ‘craft’. He travelled to the US on an assignment from the Ministry of Culture in his native Germany, but it was San Francisco, and his family heritage as Black Forest brandy makers, that shaped his course. It started with eaux-de-vie, pear in particular, made in a tiny “20ft by 20ft” room, Smith told me. Times might have changed when it comes to production scale (the team moved to the current site in 2004) but fruit brandy remains an integral part of the St George offering today.

St George Spirits

St George Pear Brandy in front of the distillery – a starting point for the brand

The breadth of the distillery’s product portfolio is one indicator as to why a visit to St George Spirits is high on the bucket list for so many drinks lovers, myself included. And that’s where we began, hunkered down at one of the gleaming bars as the storm swept in across the Bay. As he poured St George Pear Brandy, Smith was keen to stress just how much of a catalyst Rupf was for the US spirits scene. “Jörg was really thoughtful about helping other distillers,” he said. “He really had a sense of ‘all ships will rise’; he created a movement.” Under his mentorship, other distillers set up shop, and he shared his expertise in fermentation and distilling, especially with regards to eaux-de-vies and fruit spirits – drinks totally new to the market, at the time. It’s a category that makes perfect sense for California, with its lush fruit harvests.

And that’s what you get with Pear Brandy – a hit of fresh lushness. It’s made with Bartlett pears, and a lot of them: there are 30-35lb of pears in each bottle. Why Bartlett pears? “We want small fruit, so the essential oils are very concentrated,” Smith said. The cinnamon spice, pear drop notes develop during a two-week fermentation, with the spirit eventually made in a 250-litre pot still. “Our job as distillers is to be expressive of the raw materials,” Smith stated. It’s this pear spirit that is the base for so many other St George products, including the All Purpose Vodka. That vibrant pear note is like a signature sillage you pick up throughout the portfolio.

St George Spirits

All kinds of distilling options at St George

We tasted our way through the vodka line with California Citrus and Green Chile Vodka. It’s here that the St George philosophy to showcase raw materials really hits home. The spirit is made with five different chilies (jalapeños, serranos, and habaneros, then red and yellow bell peppers) in a mix of infusions and distillations, depending on what flavours, textures and heat levels each technique extracts. “We separate these things out, and then recombine,” he explained. “I can use alcohol as a solvent, I can distil, I can infuse… But I don’t want things to be complex for the sake of being complex.” The creativity, the technicalities, the detail… it’s mind-boggling. And this is just for one bottling among 20 or so – not including limited-run expressions.

Transparent production

We moved on from the vodkas to the trio of St George gins, each distinct, each characterful, but each clearly St George. We start with Dry Rye, which, as the name implies, uses 100% pot-distilled rye spirit as a base. It’s juniper-forward, with just five other botanicals: black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel and lime peel, combining for a rich, warming hit, but never overpowering the rye character. “We’re trying to find things that are expressive, and that have a statement to make,” Smith said. Next is Botanivore, Smith’s “botanical leader” made with a whopping 19 botanicals with a mix of infusions, macerations and distillations. It’s deliciously complex on the palate, still with that vital juniper but with a St George eccentricity, too.

St George Spirits gin

The trio of St George gins

Next up: Terroir Gin, which was actually the first St George gin, Smith explained. It was master distiller and president Lance Winters who came up with the concept. “He was picking up his son from summer camp, when he had the idea,” he detailed. When you taste the gin, you can picture the scene: the mountains, the forests, the sea. It’s California in a bottle, an evocative, aromatic gin made with Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage and other local botanicals. The flavour is earthy, outdoorsy, and especially effective with a building storm as a backdrop.

Time to segue into whiskey. First stop: the latest batch of Breaking & Entering, an intriguing expression that blends sourced bourbon and rye with some of St George’s own California malt whiskey. “We want to be really transparent that we’re not making it all in-house,” Smith stated. “And as none of the four grains are more than 51%, there really isn’t a category that we can label it as.” The rye, barley, corn and wheat mashbill is balanced so that none is prominent, but all is delicious. The 2018 edition was bursting with rich, pastry notes, jammy red fruits and dash of menthol, all wrapped up in a sweetcorn smoothness. A treat, indeed.

Just one of the very many barrel types

The final thing we tasted before stepping back into the distillery was St George Single Malt, a fascinating expression that Smith described as a “brandy made from grain”. Winters’ background is brewing; combine that with the eaux-de-vie obsession that underpins operations, and this starts to make sense. The barley at the base of this bottling is malted in multiple ways, including smoking some over beech and alder wood. Different barrels, from ex-Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee, to Port pipes and both French and local wine casks, contribute all kinds of flavours. Maturation spans from four to 19 years. You’d expect it to be bonkers, but it works. It’s batch-produced and changes each year, but the 2018 expression was like a sweetly-spiced hot chocolate, with zesty orange top notes. Lovely stuff. And that’s just part of the portfolio; after the distillery tour we sampled the Raspberry Brandy, Aqua Perfecta Basil Eau de Vie, California Reserve Agricole Rum, Raspberry Liqueur, Spiced Pear Liqueur, NOLA Coffee Liqueur, Bruto Americano bitters and Absinthe Verte, complete with a mischievous monkey on the label. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a range from a single producer. Tasting the whole lot in one morning was quite an experience.

Influences and inspiration

St George lays claim to a number of American-firsts in that list, including the Absinthe, which Smith described as “the worst kept secret in the Bay Area for about a decade prior to its official release”. Many defy category definitions (can you even make Rhum Agricole in California? The answer is yes, as long as you drop the ‘h’), and walking through the production space it all starts to make sense. The team here has an infatuation with flavour and a mastery of raw materials and process. There are five pot stills ranging in size from 250 litres to 1,500 litres, including hybrids with column options and an old Holstein, plus a coffee roaster dating back to 1952. If they can possibly make it in house, they will.

St George Spirits

Creation station: All kinds of stills

Grain for spirit currently maturing is floor-malted down the road at Admiral Maltings (“if you think about the real-estate in the Bay Area and what you need for maltings…” Smith says, as an aside). New cask requirements are met by Burgundy-style barrels. The California climate does hit the angel’s share – as much as 10% is lost in the first year, with 3-6% evaporating every year after that. We stopped for a taste of something really exciting – some California Shochu, followed by some unusual cask samples. It was a real treat, and there were yet more examples of surprising ideas coming out of this distillery.

Cali shochu, anyone?

In terms of newness, the stakes ramp up even higher in the St George lab. We stepped into the experiential space and the energy from all the ideas was almost tangible. On the left was a library of samples. Single distillates, infusions and more stack from floor to ceiling. There were two test stills, one 10-litre, one 30-litre, and all kinds of tanks, one even styled to look like Star Wars’ R2-D2. There’s stuff on every surface – you couldn’t call it clutter because it all felt purposeful, like the next big idea could be in any of those little bottles.

St George Spirits

Dave Smith gets the cask sample spirit flowing

“It’s what we’re influenced by, what we’re excited by,” Smith said. “We need to do more than what we did yesterday, increase our repertoire and techniques.” Not everything is successful, he added. But it doesn’t need to be. There’s clearly no fear of failure here, which goes some way to explaining why the range of St George spirits is not just delicious, but incredibly diverse.

St George Spirits lab

Experimental lab stills!

We headed out of the room and back to the bar. The storm was in full swing; rain pounding against the windows, the old WWII wooden roof hollering in the elements. You couldn’t even see across the old runway, let alone make out any shape of the city beyond. Smith looked around back towards the distillery as if taking it all in, and summed up what seems to be the St George philosophy: “We create things because we can.” And what better reason is there than that?

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We chat all things Irish whiskey with Billy Leighton!

St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us! In the spirit of the moment, we caught up with Irish Distillers master blender Billy Leighton to talk Spot Irish whiskey, the ace…

St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us! In the spirit of the moment, we caught up with Irish Distillers master blender Billy Leighton to talk Spot Irish whiskey, the ace cask samples we have up for grabs, new distilleries and innovations for the future.

It’s St Patrick’s Day on Sunday! 17 March brings with it a celebration of all things Ireland, and it would be highly remiss if that didn’t include a splash of something boozily delicious – Irish gin, Poitín, and of course, whiskey! And to help get in the celebratory spirit, we’ve not only taken £5 off each bottle of the marvellous Yellow Spot, but we’re running a competition to win two 700ml bottles of incredible Malaga cask whiskey, too. Hand drawn by Billy Leighton, Irish Distillers master blender, no less!

But Irish spirits are for life, not just St Patrick’s Day. With that in mind, we got Billy himself on the blower to quiz him not only on Yellow Spot and those delicious sample bottles, but the past, present and future of Irish whiskey, too. And from the historical single pot still style to the wealth of new distilleries opening up (Clonakilty became the 23rd earlier this month!), it’s looking bright indeed…

Master of Malt: Hello Billy! First off, in your own words, tell us about the history of Spot and how all the whiskeys came about?

Billy Leighton: I think the Spot range has a really good heritage. It goes back to the family, Mitchell & Son, and they’ve been in Dublin for generations now, close 240 years. And it’s still run by Mitchell and his son; we [Irish Distillers] have a very good relationship with them. They’re a lovely family, Jonathan and Robert are the current father and son. But when their family business started up back in the early 1800s, they were wine merchants, importing wine from all around the world. Casks of oak, fortified wine: sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala, all those fortified wines. And then, about 1880, 1890, they then became whiskey bonders. They had all these empty wine casks, having the wine bottled, and where they’re left with the casks. So they then will have bought new-make spirit from the Jameson Distillery in Dublin and filled that into their freshly emptied fortified wine casks. I don’t know what spawned the colour-coding system, but it was a good idea to colour-code their casks, to designate the age of the whiskey they were going to bottle. For example, they would have put out a green dawb of paint on casks that were intended to be used at ten years old, and that became their ‘green spot’. And likewise, the yellow paint was 12 years old; the red paint was 15 years old. They had a ‘blue spot’ as well, which was a seven year old. So that’s how the whole Spot range came about.

Spot Irish whiskey family

The Spot family of Irish whiskeys

MoM: And that was in Irish whiskey boom time…

BL: Well certainly in the 1970s, 1976-ish I think it was, Irish pot still whiskey had gone through a very, very bad time. Between the early 1900s and right up until the 1960s, Irish pot still whiskey was almost dead and buried! It was brands like Green Spot and Redbreast, two single pot still brands, that endured the bad times. In the mid-seventies, Irish Distillers basically took over the Spot Whiskies – of which there was only one at the time! The Green Spot. It became an Irish Distillers brand but the distribution in Ireland remained with Mitchell & Son. Then we did a bit of a makeover on the brand, and it got a new lease of life. I think the interest in Irish single pot still whiskey was starting to gain a bit more traction again, so we decided then to extend the range. That’s when we re-introduced Yellow Spot with the 12 year old age-statement on it, and then just recently the Red Spot, with the 15 year old statement.

MoM: Why do you think the Green Spot survived and the others didn’t? Was it to do with the age or the flavour profile? Why did one endure when the others fell by the wayside?

You know, it could have been availability of stock. The Irish whiskey category had dwindled away to virtual extinction. They couldn’t have sustained or justified maintaining the full range. The Green Spot is no longer a ten year old, it doesn’t have an age statement. So I think it was just to keep that brand alive. And maybe more for sentimental purposes than anything else, you know?

Bill Leighton Irish whiskey

Billy does his thing

MoM: Sure. And today, aside from age statements, what separates the different Spots, and are they very similar at all to the historical ones?

BL: Well, we like to think so. But the wood management wouldn’t have been as sophisticated as what we have today. So they would have had all of those different fortified wine casks available – sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala – they wouldn’t necessarily have… structured their formulations to call out any cask type in particular. What we have tried to do is stay as close to the heritage of the brand, but we tend now to call out the different fortified wine casks that we’re using. In the Yellow Spot we call out the Malaga cask inclusion, with the Red Spot it’s the Marsala cask, Green Spot has got oloroso sherry casks. It is the only fortified wine cask in there. The Yellow Spot and the Red Spot have a little bit of oloroso sherry in there, but again, it’s kind of doing what the Mitchells did. It wasn’t so much one particular cask type became Yellow Spot and a different cask type became Red Spot. There would have been a mix of casks. Back in the day, the age was the only differentiating factor.

MoM: So we’ve got these two Malaga cask bottles up for grabs, which is incredibly exciting. Tell us a little bit about what sets these apart, and how you go about choosing casks for bottling…

BL: Well for these special bottles that are up for grabs, we went and looked at what Malaga casks we’re currently using in Yellow Spot. We sampled a few of them, and picked out a good one that we felt had a nice balance of the single pot still character and also that Malaga component we’re using in Yellow Spot. How I see the Malaga cask manifesting itself in Yellow Spot is kind of heather-honey sweet note. It takes the sweetness you would see in Green Spot and it takes the sweetness up another level. The Malaga casks, whenever they’re seasoned in Malaga, the wine that’s used is 100% Pedro Ximénez. 30% of the Pedro Ximénez grapes would be sundried, so it’s concentrating the sweetness there. And I’m particularly partial to sweet wine, and the Malaga just fits the bill. Those honey-sweet notes very much complement and balance with the spiciness of the pot-still distillate itself. So it works, it works very, very well for me.

Red Spot Irish whiskey

Red Spot is a recent addition to the Irish pot still family

MoM: Fabulous. More broadly, Irish whiskey is obviously booming. Why do you think that is, and why do you think single pot still Irish whiskies are so popular again?

BL: Taking a step back a little bit, I think it’s fairly well-accepted within the Irish whiskey industry that the whole renaissance has been brought about by the success of Jameson. Around the world, you know?  And where people are getting a taste for Jameson, they’re more inquisitive; a lot of the flavour is being driven by that pot still component. People are always wanting to find out more, and Green Spot would be the opportunity for them to try that single pot still component. I think it’s consumer awareness brought about by the attention that Jameson is bringing to the Irish whiskey category as a whole. ‘Why do we talk about Irish single pot still whiskey, is it not just the same as Scotch malt, only it comes from Ireland?’ When they try it, they find out that Irish single pot still is a completely different style of whiskey from a Scotch malt. And once they get the experience of a single pot still, such as Green Spot, they want to know a little bit more about what other offerings there are. And then of course there are other brands, like Redbreast for example, which is a single pot still Irish whiskey but with a different expression of maturation. I really think the Irish single pot still whiskey is where the future is.

MoM: Absolutely. But Irish whiskey as a whole is changing, not just single pot still. I think one of the reasons is all the new distilleries coming online. And now we’re seeing a lot of new spirit coming into the market. Do you think we’re going to see significant shifts in the structure of Irish whiskey and the character of the category?

BL: There are lot of new distilleries and it’s exciting when you see so many opening up, and they’re all going to want to make their mark and have their own individual style. I think that’s only good for the whole category, consumers included in that. I think for a long time, like ten years ago when we had only four operating distilleries, we didn’t have such a selection. And neither did we need one, to be honest! But each new distillery coming on stream is going to want to make their own mark and do things their own way. The only thing maybe to add there is that [it’s great] as long as all these new styles of whiskey don’t compromise the quality standard that Jameson has set, you know? That’s one thing we want to be careful about, that the perceived quality of Irish whiskey doesn’t slip.

Yellow Spot Irish whiskey

Oh haiiii Yellow Spot

MoM: Yeah, it’s got to be good!

BL: And from that point of view, Irish Distillers has probably been in the business the longest, but our doors are always open. We have a mentoring scheme in place now where new distillers can come along, probably through the Irish Whiskey Association, and see how we do things. We’re not telling them how to make the whiskey because they’d probably all end up making the same sort of whiskey! But it’s just to highlight production methods, even cask procurement, things that people don’t even think about. Like how much freight on casks costs. We’re quite open to tell things as they are, because we want to see everybody succeeding in the Irish whiskey category, making their own contribution to future growth.

MoM: Through the mentoring programme, you and the team must meet a lot of new people and a lot of new minds with a lot of new ideas. Is there anything that particularly excites you?

BL: It’s early days, but a lot of the new brands that we’re seeing in the marketplace now are pretty much different maturation expressions. People are procuring some whiskey for themselves and then doing their own twist on it. That in itself is adding a bit of excitement, maturation styles and tweaks that wouldn’t have been done before. When we had the four operating distilleries [Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills and Kilbeggan], everybody was kind of just set in their ways. They had successful formulations, why mess with them? But now we have the Irish Whiskey Regulations, they’re out there, but they’re there to be tested. There will be opportunities for using different types of wood, for example; Irish regulations allow us to use wood other than oak. So there’s interest there at the moment. We’ve introduced a whiskey finished in chestnut casks with Method and Madness. Bushmills has introduced an acacia cask finish. But also, whenever the new distilleries are up and running there are loads of opportunities for using different cereal types rather than just barley; raw barley and malted barley. There are opportunities there for other grain types, maybe rye or oats, wheat, whatever. I would say in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be seeing a little bit more variation on the distillate type itself, driven by different cereals.

Billy Leighton Irish whiskey experiments

Billy being all experimental

MoM: That’s exciting. And how much of this might be happening at the Middleton microdistillery?

BL: Oh yeah, we do quite a lot of experimentation there in the micro. We have done some trials with various cereals over the past few years. Some of that will actually become whiskey in the next while – it will be over three years old. It’s going along and it’s working very nicely. But we wouldn’t be giving anything away on that or releasing anything until we’re happy that it’s of the quality and the style that we’re happy to share with the consumers.

MoM: And going back full circle to Spot Whiskeys, what’s next for the Spot brand? We don’t have a Blue Spot anymore, might we see a return of that?

BL: We get this on social media all the time: ‘when are you going to complete the family of Spots?’, and it’s not something that we have ignored at all. It’s been discussed, but we don’t have any solid plans at the minute to reintroduce a Blue Spot. There have been discussions. Maybe what could be more likely, I’m not saying it would happen, but we might look at other variants on Green Spot. For example, to add to the Léoville Barton and the Chateau Montelena expressions. So I think there’s a lovely story there that connects Irish families that have left Ireland to go and get involved in the wine business around the world. And the Mitchells are still wine importers, so they have contacts all around the world. So anything we may do in that direction would be in collaboration with the Mitchells. You probably will see maybe the odd single cask offering with the Green Spot label on it. But that’s as much as there is really at the minute.

MoM: Lots of potential developments in the future. Thanks so much, Billy!

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Gordon & MacPhail reveals new whisky distillery details

Whisky distiller and bottler Gordon & MacPhail has unveiled further details for its proposed shiny new distillery in Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park. And we’re excited. At MoM Towers, we’re all…

Whisky distiller and bottler Gordon & MacPhail has unveiled further details for its proposed shiny new distillery in Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park. And we’re excited.

At MoM Towers, we’re all ears when it comes to distillery developments. Those giant ears of ours have been twitching with anticipation ever since Benromach parent Gordon & MacPhail said last year it was planning to open a second distillery. And now have an update.

Set to be built on the banks of the River Spey in Craggan, near Grantown-on-Spey, the proposed distillery has a strikingly circular design. It’s the work of architect firm NORR, and is meant to make the most of the stunning mountain and river views while hiding most of the operational side of spirits production. It’s even got a grass sedan roof (remind you of anything?) to help it blend into the environment.

Gordon & MacPhail's new distillery

Gordon & MacPhail’s super-modern proposed distillery

If the plans go ahead, the Craggan distillery (not its official name) will become the first of the new-wave distilleries to go live in the Cairngorm National Park.

How much whisky will it make? At first, 375,000 litres of spirit will flow, but capacity can increase to 2 million litres in the longer term – which would make it much larger in terms of output than Benromach.

Local residents were recently treated to an exhibition detailing the planned site, with more than 150 people popping in to check out the proposals. According to Gordon & MacPhail, the response has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

“We’re really pleased at the number of people who came along to see our plans, we couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome,” said Ewen Mackintosh, Gordon & MacPhail’s managing director.

“People are saying how excited they are to see a distillery being proposed for the area as they believe it has the potential to support Grantown-on-Spey as a destination and encourage visitors to stay longer in the town.”

Gordon & MacPhail's new distillery grass roof

Round, round baby… and with a fancy grass roof

The Urquhart family, which owns Gordon & MacPhail, also went along to the presentation. “We are a longstanding family-owned business with strong roots and commitment to the north of Scotland,” said Stuart Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail operations director. “Building and operating our second distillery is part of our generational plan to grow a long-term sustainable business, whilst continuing to be part of the fabric of the local community.”

Let’s hope the plans get the go-ahead!

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