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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Lauren Eads

The future of English whisky

The English whisky scene has progressed at breathtaking speed since the first release of the modern era in 2010. There are now 33 producers with big ambitions, and a group…

The English whisky scene has progressed at breathtaking speed since the first release of the modern era in 2010. There are now 33 producers with big ambitions, and a group has just submitted plans for a regulatory framework to define English Whisky, as Lauren Eads finds out. 

For those with their nose to a barrel, English whisky isn’t anything new, but it’s only recently that the category has collectively gathered pace.

English whisky history

English whisky production can be traced back to the 1800s. In 1887 historian Alfred Barnard published the Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which listed four English whisky distilleries (alongside 129 Scottish and 29 Irish). They were Bankhall and Vauxhall in Liverpool, the Bristol Distillery, and the Lea Valley Distillery in London. But when Lea Valley closed its doors in 1903, English whisky was put on ice for 100 years. The first signs of its revival emerged (slowly) in 2003 with the opening of the Hicks & Healey Distillery in Cornwall, though it didn’t release its first whisky until 2011. The honour of releasing England’s first whisky in 100 years went to St George’s Distillery in Norfolk, aka the English Whisky Company, in 2010, four years after opening. 

Almost twenty years on, there are now 33 distilleries in England making and laying down spirits, according to the Cooper King Distillery’s English whisky map. It’s still a burgeoning category, but it’s got big ambitions. “Until recently English whisky was little known outside dedicated followers of individual distilleries,” says Tagore Ramoutar, co-founder of The Oxford Artisan Distillery. “But as the number of distilleries has increased and awards awarded, this is changing. English whisky is becoming more visible and advocates are growing.”

AndrewNelstrop from The English Whisky Company

Andrew Nelstrop from The English Whisky Company

What’s next for English whisky?

Now that English whisky is back on its feet, a legal definition now looms. Currently, English whisky conforms to generic EU regulations for ‘whisky or whiskey’, which state that it must be matured for at least three years in wooden casks of 700 litres or less, bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and can be neither sweetened nor flavoured, apart from plain caramel for colouring. It’s a simple framework that while useful isn’t geographically specific. The English Whisky Guild (EWG), formed in 2021, is hoping to change this, and has recently submitted an application to legally define a GI (geographical indication) for English whisky. “Currently there is nothing to stop whisky made elsewhere in the world being called English Whisky,” says Andrew Nelstrop, owner of The English Whisky Co. “Fifteen years ago this didn’t matter as we were only just starting out, but now there is a whole industry whose reputation is at risk, so it seems sensible to try and protect the reputation of our products by ensuring only those that make whisky in England can label it as such.”

The proposed GI

If granted it will formalise a standard for “English whisky”, with the aim of setting the ground rules on geographical production, raw materials and maturation. Currently, the EWG has 16 members (and so represents roughly half of English whisky distilleries), though a full list of members is yet to be made public. This will change once the group has held its first AGM at the end of April. For now, known members that have spoken publicly on the plans include the Copper Rivet Distillery, Oxford Artisan Distillery, English Whisky Company and Cotswold Distillery. Broadly, the EWG’s application proposes that any bottles labelled as “English whisky” must conform to the following regulations:

Be at least 40% ABV

– Be made using grain sourced from the UK with all production, including wort and new-make, taking place in England, as well as all ageing.

– Be matured in casks made from wood, not necessarily oak, for at least three years.

– English single malts must be batch distilled at least twice in a copper pot still.

The proposal is currently being reviewed by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with the group expecting a response in the coming months. “The GI for English whisky does three things: it gives new producers a framework to help them shape their future production – should they wish to be part of the English Whisky category; it gives existing producers a level of confidence that there is a level playing field in standards and quality within the category,” explains Stephen Russell, founder of the Copper Rivet Distillery and one of four registered directors on the EWG board. It also gives consumers a clear idea of the quality standards of English whisky, which is never a bad thing.

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

How do these rules differ to other whisky producing regions?

Understandably, the rules focus on ensuring the provenance of raw materials and a whisky’s geographical production, providing a baseline for quality while retaining scope to innovate. “Having no real legacy in England, and having a shared vision to create an interesting, innovative and high quality category, producers brought aboard contributions which represent best practice and experiences from around the world,” says Russell, on how the EWG arrived at its first draft. The requirement to use oak barrels is not absolute, as it is with Scotch, and is in keeping with the rules of Irish and Japanese whisky. Oak barrels remain the gold standard and are widely used, but there is potential to experiment with alternatives, such as maple or cherry. A minimum ageing period of three years in cask matches Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. “The new rules are still in draft form, so a bit early to comment on the likely outcome of them, but whilst they obviously have to follow a format that is understood and recognised around the world (e.g a single malt – should be made at single distillery from malted barley) as an industry we have worked hard to ensure the draft rules allow for innovation whilst maintaining the reputation of English whisky,” adds Nelstrop.

Inside the Copper Rivet Distillery

Inside the Copper Rivet Distillery

What can you expect from an English whisky?

A lot of diversity. While some producers are pursuing single malt whisky using similar methods to Scotch – quite traditional single malt styles – there are others producing rye whisky, notably The Oxford Artisan Distillery. While earlier this year Copper Rivet unveiled its third Masthouse whisky – Grain Pot & Column Distilled – produced in both pot and column stills. “Unlike Scotch which is neatly grouped into regions and as a result creates a belief that all Speyside whiskies are similar, all Islay whiskies are similar – the English producers have avoided this as it is clear that each distillery has a unique house style of whisky,” says Nelstrop. “Yes we make whisky in the same way as other whisky makers but our stills are shaped differently, our yeast is different, our timings in production are different and probably most importantly our climate is different. All these differences make our products unique to our distillery and the resulting whiskies are world-class English single malts.”

Could 2022 be a breakthrough year for English whisky? There’s plenty of action afoot, and Russell is optimistic. “When we first started the project, people would ask why we were making whisky in England, as though it was a rather eccentric thing to do (which it was, I suppose). Now they’re seeing more and more of it, along with other new world whiskies, and the quality is very good and it tastes great – nobody asks that question anymore.”

Header image courtesy of the English Whisky Company, credit: Chris Taylor.

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Nick Ravenhall on turning around the Holyrood distillery

Nick Ravenhall joined Edinburgh’s Holyrood distillery as managing director last year and pulled it back from the brink with a mixture of practical plans and innovative thinking. But will it…

Nick Ravenhall joined Edinburgh’s Holyrood distillery as managing director last year and pulled it back from the brink with a mixture of practical plans and innovative thinking. But will it work in the long term? Lauren Eads finds out.

It took someone with a lot of guts to take on the running of a distillery in 2021. Especially one that, as its incoming managing director admits, “was in the process of self-destructing”. Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh was founded in 2019 by David Robertson, former master distiller of The Macallan, and Rob Carpenter, a Canadian lawyer, and whisky enthusiast who founded the Canadian branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Holyrood was the first single malt distillery in Edinburgh since 1925, but the timing of its opening was less than ideal. They had a solid foundation, but like so many other distilleries, Holyrood was hit hard by successive lockdowns, which saw its business model, initially dependent on attracting thousands of visitors, thrown into disarray. 

Nick Ravenhall Holyrood distillery

The Holyrood team, with not a tucked-in polo shirt in sight

Cometh the hour

It was Nick Ravenhall, a New Zealander, then based in London, who got the call. He had set off from Auckland in 2007 with a dream of making whisky, working his way to Scotland via commercial roles with Diageo, Morrison Bowmore, and Atom Brands, Master of Malt’s sister company.

“I didn’t know anything about Holyrood,” says Ravenhall, “The website was a bit old school with people in polo shirts that were tucked in. I didn’t know if it was for me but I said I’d go and have a look. I met David and Rob who were like: ‘try our fruity Speyside, here’s our peaty style’, and I thought this isn’t saying anything new. Then they pulled out a chocolate malt distilled and aged in first-fill Oloroso casks. I hadn’t tasted anything like it before – it was so bold and expressive.” 

A brief pep talk from his mum, who said he’d “be an idiot” not to take the job, and his bags were packed. He became Holyrood’s managing director in 2021. “The appeal was to run a distillery without any history. How do you turn this thing around and make it into the thing it could be? It felt like there was a McLaren sitting in a shed and no one knew how to use it.”

Nick Ravenhall Holyrood distillery

Nick Ravenhall (centre) collecting his award from the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce

Buying time

Mid-pandemic, he immediately furloughed all of its staff, shut down the distillery, and focused on securing contract distilling with the likes of Berry Brothers & Rudd and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and more recently X Muse vodka, (pronounced tenth Muse), the first blended barley vodka. “That bought us six months and in that time we were able to figure out what Holyrood was going to be about. Strip out all the old thinking, forget the visitors. Let’s pretend Covid lasts five years, how do we run this business? We have to run it as a single malt whisky distillery, not a tourist attraction.” He also launched the brand’s first public cask program, which allowed fans to buy casks of Holyrood single malt with the option to bottle their casks after three years. A year after taking on the job, Ravenhall was named Director of the Year by the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Now, contract work makes up about 40% of its production with the team focusing more on its own stocks, which includes a revolving range of limited malts, its Height of Arrows gin, new make spirit, and a new proposition, ‘strong waters’. It (proudly) doesn’t have a core range, with the ability instead to experiment and break apart the whisky-making process. “We routinely get asked what’s your core range going to be and we say we aren’t doing a core range. It’s usually a middle-aged dude who is judging what we are doing, and I say listen, we aren’t aiming for a core range because we are building as many data points and information so we can use science to make decisions about production and flavours and how to put them together. At that point, you watch them have a f****** meltdown because they don’t understand. It’s not what they’ve been taught. I want to reach the moment when we don’t have to explain that we don’t have a core range.”

Height of Arrows Gin - Holyrood

Strong waters run deep

This year Holyrood released two new products in a completely unexplored category – Strong Waters. It’s essentially a white new make spirit made from a single heritage barley and diluted with grain neutral spirit (GNS). The first two releases form part of Holyrood’s Charmed Circle range, made from Golden Promise and Chevalier barley. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before. It doesn’t fit new make because we blended it with GNS. It sucks when you make something new in a spirit space and it only gets to be called ‘spirit drink’. We looked at the archives to try and find something that talks about spirits that aren’t aqua vitae (an old name for a concentrated aqueous solution of ethanol) and we found references to ‘strong waters’, which refers to a spirit that a distiller would make that isn’t reserved for whisky production.” The aim is to highlight barley as a key flavour component in white spirit making. Next on the agenda is the release of Holyrood’s Elizabeth Yard rum, matured at a warehouse in Edinburgh that used to be an old naval rum store.

Is Holyrood ‘new wave’ in its approach? By most standards, yes. But what does that mean? “For us, it means adding to the story but also earning your whisky stripes. Who cares if you build a distillery, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It used to be so difficult but now we have a broad base of consumers interested in new things and getting money isn’t the crazy challenge. The bar is higher now, so when I think about terms like new wave, I think it means that you have to be creating something that’s adding to the momentum that brings about positive change. There are some really inspiring people in that ‘new wave’ space where it’s clear that they have thought about what they want to achieve with their distillery, not just churn out more single malt whisky.”

HighRes_HolyroodDistillery-06996.jpg RS

Stills at the Holyrood Distillery

Looking to the future

Ravenhall’s next aim is to create a whole new language for whisky with plans to launch a tranche of Mark 1, 2, and 3 releases. Mark 1s will be “mature whiskies that look to understand one variable, perhaps chocolate malt or champagne yeast.” Mark 2s will build on the understandings gained from Mark 1s by combining different recipes. Mark 3s will be the result of all of those ideas having gone through maturation. “That’s our big mission. There’s lots of stuff we have to do along the way but when it comes to what we want to achieve I’d love people to say ‘I respect what they are doing because they are doing it with the right kind of love and honour for the industry’.”

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Distillery architecture: the producers breaking the mould

Distilleries are more than just factories for making alcohol. Increasingly, producers are seeing them as architectural statements and tourist attractions, as Lauren Eads. From Macallan in Scotland to Pernod Ricard…

Distilleries are more than just factories for making alcohol. Increasingly, producers are seeing them as architectural statements and tourist attractions, as Lauren Eads. From Macallan in Scotland to Pernod Ricard in China, this is the changing face of distillery architecture.

On the face of it distilleries are rather dull, sterile places that don’t lend themselves to visitors. The same could be said of any factory, really. They are practical places that serve a purpose. But while few will have ever had the urge to visit a Coca Cola factory, distilleries have people lining up around the block to take a tour. How? 

Antique Macallan

Eh oh!

Macallan’s £140m mega distillery

It’s not by chance. Yes, spirits are inherently more interesting than your average soft drink, but their success as must-visit tourist destinations is a recent phenomenon, one that has happened entirely by design. The Macallan (above) set the bar very high with its £140m mega distillery and visitor centre, which opened in 2018 and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The subterranean distillery, situated on the Easter Elchies estate in Craigellachie, features an undulating wildflower-topped roof and impressive visitor centre complete with a walk-through oak ‘forest’ and cask-firing demonstration. In 2019 the design won the 2019 RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award.

Since then, a raft of increasingly innovative and bold distilleries, accompanied by visitor experiences, have continued to emerge. Last year, Diageo opened its new eight-floor Johnnie Walker whisky wonderland at Princes Street, the centrepiece of its £185million pound investment in Scotch whisky tourism. It centres around Walker’s ‘Four Corners Distilleries’ — Glenkinchie, Clynelish, Cardhu and Caol Ila – and features “personalisation to a scale never before seen in a global drinks visitor experience”. 

For PRINT Ardgowan Distillery 2 300dpi

Artist’s impression of the new Ardgowan distillery, not ‘sky platform’ on the right

Ardgowan rises form the ashes

Last month, plans for the Ardgowan Distillery in Glasgow emerged, an eagerly anticipated multi-million plan delayed by Covid. It will incorporate a Nordic long hall design that will include a ‘sky platform’ with views of the Clyde and a ‘Cathedral of whisky’ visitor experience, designed by Austrian architects Spitzbart and Partners. “This very modern Nordic long hall is pointing skyward, symbolising resurrection and our rise from the ashes of the former Ardgowan Distillery, which burned down in the Greenock Blitz in May 1941, and also our ambition to become one of the top whiskies in the world,” said principal investor Roland Grain. “I hope it will stand out as a ‘cathedral to whisky’ and put this corner of Inverclyde firmly on the tourist map.” Pending approval, construction is expected to start later this year, with the site expected to be operational by 2023.

So what’s driving these architectural beacons of distillation? “The biggest trend has undoubtedly been to accommodate not just visitors, but beautiful architecture,” says Ian Stirling, founder and co-CEO of the upcoming Port Leith Distillery in Edinburgh. “Think of the stunning feature windows that frame the stills at Lindores Abbey in Fife, or Clydeside in Glasgow. There’s a growing confidence in Scotland that we can entirely reimagine what a distillery should look like.”

Port of Leith

Rising above Debenhams, it’s the Port of Leith distillery

Vertical and round distilleries

Stirling’s own Port of Leith Distillery is an innovative 40m vertical distillery due to open in the autumn of 2022. Based in Edinburgh’s city centre, space was limited, so a vertical structure made sense. “We’d never set out to build a vertical distillery, but it quickly became apparent that the only way was up,” says Stirling. “We did, however, set out to design a contemporary piece of architecture – something that would reflect the new and modern approach that we’re seeking to take with our spirit. We’re new, we’re not old, so don’t try to look old.” Its operations are gravity-based, with production starting with grain milling and mashing at the top, through to fermentation and then distillation at the bottom.

Elsewhere, plans have been unveiled for a new “drum-like” distillery on Islay. The ili (sic) Distillery has been designed by Alan Higgs Architects (see photo in header) with completion set for summer 2023. Based at Gearach Farm, near Port Charlotte, the distillery aims to be carbon-neutral and is the vision of Bertram Nesselrode, whose family owns the farm, and Scott McLellan, a local farmer. 

While most of Islay’s distilleries follow a ‘shed’ type design, (rectangular with gable roofs and white walls), this design is circular. “Whilst not typical for distilleries, it is a shape that is the most efficient way to enclose space, maps the process of making whisky, evokes naturally the tuns, tanks, pipes, stills, barrels and bottles that are emblematic of spirit making and makes a building that is rooted in its landscape,” the firm says.

Traditional distillery designs do seem to be falling out of favour, certainly among new producers that are building their brands from scratch, quite literally. “Ten years ago, there was perhaps still a desire for some to seek comfort in the traditional white building, pagoda-topped image of what a Scotch whisky distillery should look like,” adds Stirling. “The increasingly ‘innovative’ and ‘artistic’ distilleries that we’re beginning to see constructed are really reflecting the increasing confidence that there is to present a new and modern outlook in a very old and traditional industry.”

CHUAN EMEISHAN Pernod Ricard

“We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond”

Pernod Ricard’s new Chinese venture

Bold moves are being made outside of Scotland, too. Last year, Pernod Ricard completed work on a new US$150m stone-clad distillery in Emeishan in China’s Sichuan province (above). Built to become a “world-class destination for whisky, arts and culture” and draw two million tourists in its first decade, the Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery is China’s first malt whisky distillery, and was designed by award-winning Chinese architectural firm Neri&Hu. The distillery was built with a “timeless architecture that strikes a harmonious balance with the landscape, a design that embodies the refined sense of artistry embedded in whisky-making and blending”. 

In the US, plans have emerged for a pyramid themed distillery (which will be built into a quarry) designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban for Kentucky Owl Bourbon. While Rogers Stirk + Harbour has designed a distillery for Horse Soldier Bourbon in Kentucky, a brand founded by retired US Special Forces servicemen and named after US soldiers who fought on horseback in Afghanistan in the weeks following 9/11. Its plans include a water garden and replica of America’s Response Monument, which is located at Ground Zero in New York and unofficially known as the Horse Soldier Statue.

Building a distillery is ultimately about the practical job of producing whisky and generating revenue. But it’s also an unmissable opportunity to stand out and be seen – an exercise in branding and longevity. And that’s not been lost on modern whisky producers, no matter how big or small.

 

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Allison Parc: the New York ballerina making whisky in Cognac

Continuing our International Women’s Day coverage, Lauren Eads talks to Allison Parc, the force behind Brenne, a whisky made in the Cognac region of France. When Allison Parc set about…

Continuing our International Women’s Day coverage, Lauren Eads talks to Allison Parc, the force behind Brenne, a whisky made in the Cognac region of France.

When Allison Parc set about creating her own whisky brand in the early 2010s, she didn’t take the easy road. A former professional ballerina living in New York, you might have thought that an American whisky, perhaps a bourbon, would have been the obvious (geographically convenient) spirit of choice. 

AllisonParc

Allison Parc enjoying a glass of whisky

Whisky rooted in Cognac

Instead, Parc honed in on a third generation distillery farm in Cognac with a vision to create a French single malt that would place the importance of terroir centre stage. At that time, she was a lone whisky warrior among a sea of Cognac producers. Which did at least help her to stand out, but what she set out to do was far from the norm. “[Cognac] really is an ideal place for making whisky but I was truly shocked to be the first one to do so, and only around the fifth person in all of France to start making whisky back in the early 2000s. Now there are some 120 distilleries producing whisky in France.”

Did her years as a ballerina inform her approach to building a whisky? The two disciplines do have some commonalities, says Parc. “Both whisky and ballet take a great time, and there’s a sort of reverence to the years of work done prior and the end enjoyment. Both are rooted in history and rich with classical elements, ceremonies and respect, and both can take you through a wide variety of moods and expressions,” says Parc. “I love the complexities both worlds can have depending on the artist’s vision.”

Unique production techniques

Parc’s vision resulted in the creation of Brenne, an organic single malt made from two types of heirloom barley, grown, malted and distilled on the same farm in Cognac. The whisky itself is twice distilled in an alembic Charente still and aged in both French Limousin oak and ex-XO Cognac barrels, cut with water from the Charente River. 

It’s this double barrel maturation that’s unique to Brenne, which is currently the world’s only single malt to be aged in this way. The result is a whisky with signature notes of banana flambé, crème brûlée and blueberry muffin tops, explains Parc. 

Brenne Ten was launched in October 2015 and is a limited edition 10-year-old expression with just 300 cases made available each year. It was only recently released outside of the USA. In many ways Brenne’s darker sister, Brenne Ten offers notes of dark chocolate, dried fruits and warm baking spices, while showcasing some stone fruit and butterscotch notes, says Parc.

Terroir is key to both Brenne and Brenne Ten, with Parc believing deeply that soil, climate and topography can impact the flavour of a whisky, depending on how the barley was affected that season. But while Brenne is a blend of whiskies aged between 6-8 years old, Brenne Ten is a vintage expression, produced from barley grown in a single year and date stamped accordingly. “When you can bring in nature in relation to what is in someone’s glass you can build a deeper appreciation for the craft of making a whisky, focusing on terroir, organics and vintage,” adds Parc.

Brenne French whisky

The classic Brenne single malt bottling

Not an easy sell

10 years after it was founded, Parc has carved a comfortable niche for Brenne. But she admits that French whisky wasn’t then and still isn’t an easy sell, especially in the US. In the early days Parc had to work twice as hard to get her bottles on retailer’s shelves, delivering them personally via Citi Bike in Manhattan. “It was a ton of work and it was a ton of fun,” says Parc. “The challenge was that I needed to educate every single person – from distributor to bartender, retailer to end consumer – on the category first before I could dive into the education on my brand. I had to help everyone mentally get over the hump that yes, whisky can come from France. In other words, to sell one bottle of Brenne it took four times the amount of communication a fellow bourbon or Scotch brand needed to produce.”

Women in whisky

Parc is just one of a legion of women working in whisky in senior positions, either as a distiller or brand founder. And despite the spirits industry having made progress in relation to gender equality and representation, it’s still important that we continue to highlight the achievements of women working in whisky, says Parc. “Our industry has come a long way in seeing more women working throughout various aspects of our dynamic, global, space, but we have quite a long way to go,” says Parc. “Whisky is a world-wide beverage and having representation from the top down that embodies the wide diversity of our audience is, in my opinion, key to our growth and continued excellence. We still need more positions in the C-suite, VP’s, and director roles occupied by a more balanced representation of the population.”

What words of wisdom does Parc have for aspiring whisky entrepreneurs? Her advice is not gender specific. First off, you’ll need money, patience and an “unshakable belief in oneself”. “You also need to realise you’re creating something that human beings will ingest – so bring a tremendous amount of integrity to your process and when your brand is alive, share it with all the goodness in your heart,” she says. “To me, that’s where the next journey begins and it can be quite magical to open bottles of your creation and share in community around a glass (or two!) of your art.”

Brenne single malt whisky is available from Master of Malt

 

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The British distillers making rum from scratch

From Scotland to Stevenage, there’s a gang of intrepid British distillers making rum from scratch. Lauren Eads takes a closer look at the thriving UK rum scene.  Great Britain is…

From Scotland to Stevenage, there’s a gang of intrepid British distillers making rum from scratch. Lauren Eads takes a closer look at the thriving UK rum scene. 

Great Britain is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of rum production. Sure, there’s the historical links with the Royal Navy, the slave trade, and piracy, but actually making the stuff? We don’t have access to bountiful sugar cane crops nor do we have a climate remotely capable of ageing rum in the same way that the Caribbean does. And yet, rum is finding a niche in the world of Great British craft spirits. How? 

Cornish Distilling

Tom Read from Cornish Distilling with his Istill

Rum, the next step

The gin boom has helped create an interest in spirits, giving rise to hundreds of new distilleries across the UK. Now, many of those distilleries are diversifying, and rum is a great next step. But British producers aren’t only importing, blending and finishing rums in the UK. They are fermenting their own molasses and distilling the spirit from scratch.

On the face of it we have no business making rum, because it’s a crop that’s not grown in the UK, but we do have Europe’s only cane sugar refinery about 15 miles from the distillery,” explains Will Edge, owner and distiller at Greensand Ridge in Kent. Greensand’s Wealden Rum is made from surplus molasses from the Tate + Lyle sugar factory. “There’s nothing wrong with bringing rum into the UK and finishing it here, but I choose to do it this way because it’s a passion and it doesn’t compromise on our ethic of using locally sourced produce.”

A messy process

The English Spirit Distillery was among the first to start distilling British rum, founded by Dr John Walters. English Spirit has released three rums – Old Salt Rum, English Spiced Rum, and St. Piran’s Cornish Rum – distilled from 100% sugar cane molasses sourced from across the globe. Now, there are many more making British rum, including Scratch Faithful Rum, distilled in Hertfordshire, Two Drifters in Devon, Seawolf White Rum and Matugga Rum, which are both distilled in Scotland. 

“Traditionally rum has been imported from elsewhere and blended, either as a combination of different rums or a combination of high esters and other things that go towards making the rum,” says Dr John Walters. “Making rum from scratch is quite a complex and messy process, fermentation is quite tricky and it takes up a lot of space. People are now deciding it’s worth doing because of the authenticity that customers are looking for.”

For Walters, operating from scratch gives total control over the end flavour and product. “It all starts with molasses which is challenging because yeast doesn’t like the high acidity in it, so it struggles to grow. Yields are low, so commercially in terms of alcohol content you get less ‘bangs for your buck’, but you get more flavour. It transforms the flavour profile which is paramount to us and makes us very distinct in the marketplace.”

Morvenna rum

Morvenna spiced rum

Making rum from scratch

The Cornish Distilling Company, founded in 2016, makes a trio of British rums – Morvenna spiced, Morvenna white and Mooncurser. All are made using UK-refined molasses by head distiller Tom Read. “For us doing it from scratch was important, because we wanted that point of difference,” explains Read. “If we were going to be taken seriously as a rum distiller it had to be made from scratch, and it had to include a white rum so that we weren’t just spicing or sweetening everything that we made. Hopefully, there’s longevity in the way we are doing it.” In the longer term, aged rum is Read’s focus, with the distillery only now at a capacity where it’s able to lay down rums. “Ageing and un-spiced rums are important to me but it’s going to take time. Other brands that import can get an eight-year-old rum the next month. We have to make it then wait eight years.”

While say Jamaican or Agricole rum producers have had decades to perfect their character, it’s not possible to generalise a style of British rum. What you can assume is that it will be “radically different” from other rums, says Dr John Walters. “The rums we’ve been producing for the better part of a decade have improved steadily. We’ve understood more and more where we can go, and the weapons we need to use to direct the final outcome of the product. And you end up with a greater layering of flavours.”

John Walters in the thick of it at the English Spirit Distillery

A non-tropical climate

Obviously, the UK lacks a tropical climate, which is crucial to creating a style typical of a Caribbean rum. But that doesn’t mean producers can’t experiment with temperature control, from fermentation to barrel rooms. Read has considered heating his barrel room by using waste heat from the distillery, which could create a pseudo-Caribbean environment.

But equally, he thinks that the British climate could produce a style of its own. “For us, it’s getting the balance right and thinking about how we can create a British product that’s exposed to a UK climate. There could be an advantage to that. We are coastal so maybe the environment would have an effect on the barrel?” Cask finishing could also add a point of difference, with Read working with ex-bourbon, sherry and whisky barrels of different sizes and ages. “We can’t find out what kind of barrel a spirit will mature best in overnight. It’s going to take time, but finding out what works is going to be really interesting.”

For Edge, the aim has been to introduce a character of the local environment, including Kentish cobnuts. He uses wine yeast and controls fermentation and duration to bring out floral esters as much as possible, without high ester Caribbean tropical fruit flavours. “We are going to be at the stage for years where there’s a lot of experimentation,” says Edge. “What you can say is that a British rum is not going to be a Caribbean rum.”

Legal definitions

Currently, there is no legal distinction between rum (distilled in the UK) and those imported, blended and finished in the UK. It would be helpful for consumers to be able to distinguish between the two, but for now, it’s the responsibility of distillers to communicate the point of difference. British rum isn’t trying to compete with other rum-producing countries, but it’s nice to see a brown spirit other than whisky making strides in the UK. “In the long term I really think we can become a respected region for rum production, but it’s about playing the long game,” says Read. “Nothing’s going to happen overnight. We need to put in the hard work to benefit in the future.”

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NFTs and whisky explained

Intrigued by the growing trend for NFT’s in the world of spirits, but bamboozled by terms like Ethereum, non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrency? You aren’t alone. But never fear, Lauren Eads…

Intrigued by the growing trend for NFT’s in the world of spirits, but bamboozled by terms like Ethereum, non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrency? You aren’t alone. But never fear, Lauren Eads will your guide to the future of NFTs and whisky. 

NFTs operate in a parallel world powered by digital currency, acronyms, blockchains and investment lingo that can make your head spin if you think about it too much. 

But there’s no doubt they are big business, with the NFT market valued at US$41 billion in 2021. The first NFT sold in 2014 for $1.4 million. A piece of digital art called ‘Quantum’ by Kevin McCoy, if you’re wondering. The most expensive NFT sold to date is also a  piece of digital art, called The Merge by NFT artist Pak, which sold for $91.8 million in 2021. NFTs are now common in the art world, but 2021 saw the concept go mainstream. Now, multiple industries are getting in on the boom, including spirits. What could this mean for collectors of ultra premium spirits? Who’s buying them, and more importantly, what the deuce is an NFT?

What the fung?

NFT stands for ‘non-fungible token’. A non-fungible asset is one that can’t be transferred or exchanged for a similar product. It’s unique and permanent, like a piece of art. An NFT token is simply a digital receipt recording authenticity and ownership of a non-fungible asset. NFTs aren’t worth anything until an asset is attached to them. NFTs can be bought with conventional money, but are commonly purchased with cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin (BTC) or Ethereum (ETH), also known as Ether. Ether is to Ethereum what pound sterling is to the Bank of England. Cryptocurrencies allow transactions to operate outside of a traditional banking system, beyond government control. Their value can rise and fall in relation to real world currency, but it’s a separate system. At the start of 2017, one Bitcoin (BTC) cost around £800. Today, one BTC is worth close to £30,000.

What has this got to do with spirits? Increasingly spirits producers are signing up to crypto-platforms and selling ultra-rare expressions as NFTs, specifically via Block Bar. The platform was founded in 2018 and is the world’s first (and currently only) direct-to-consumer NFT platform for luxury wine and spirits. BlockBar’s cryptocurrency of choice is Ether. You can make purchases with conventional money too, but any secondary sales will be credited to you in Ether.

The Dalmore - whisky and NFTs

‘Mmmm, non-fungible’, Richard Paterson from The Dalmore

NFTs and whisky

Kieran Healey-Ryder, head of whisky discovery for Whyte & Mackay, which owns The Dalmore, likens the NFT market to the dawn of the world wide web. “NFTs today are the latest technological innovation,” he says. “It is not the first. For me, it is reminiscent of the early days of digital, the first websites led many to question who would want to discover a whisky on the ‘world-wide-web’. Today, we don’t question it.”

Last year The Dalmore offered its first 25 NFTs via BlockBar, each tied to a limited edition set of its Decades No.4 Collection comprising four whiskies (1979, 1980, 1995, 2000). Each set sold for US$137,700 (around 50 ETH). “This is a space that offers an elevated digital experience,” adds Healey-Ryder. “Presentation is key. As more and more brands play in this space, what it takes to stand out will require a commitment to exceptional presentation and the imagination to communicate a truly special story.”

Crucially, BlockBar is responsible for storing the physical product and its cryptographic NFT certificate on its block chain as proof of authenticity and ownership. A blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across a network of computer systems in a way that makes it nearly impossible to change or hack. You could redeem your NFT token for the physical product. In that instance BlockBar would destroy the NFT attached to it. But that’s not really in the spirit of NFT trading. This is about collecting and investing, with buyers able to resell their NFTs via the BlockBar platform.

21-year-old Reserva Rum cask single malt Scotch 2

Glenfiddich dips its toe into the NFT water

Glenfiddich gets on the NFT bandwagon

Last year Glenfiddich offered its first 15 NFTs, each representing a rare bottle of 46-year-old single malt Scotch, finished for 21 years in an Armagnac cask. At US$18,000 (4.7 ETH) each they sold out in 4 seconds, and the next day were being flipped for between $189,000 and $288,000. “For the spirits industry, it opens up a new consumer segment and provides existing consumers with another means of managing and trading their whisky assets,” says Will Peacock, global luxury director at William Grant & Sons. “It opens doors for both brands and consumers to know each other directly.” Glenfiddich’s latest NFT release was 200 bottles of 21-year-old Reserva Rum cask single malt on 1 February. They sold out immediately and are already available on BlockBar’s secondary market.

Is it fraud-proof? Any system can be manipulated and any NFT platform needs to be trustworthy. But NFTs offer a novel solution to tackling counterfeits. Buying from an auction house means putting your faith in a third party to assure authenticity. Buying on a platform like BlockBar allows consumers to buy direct from brands with a full record of ownership. NFTs have an implicit ability to authenticate assets, with physical bottles retained within one sphere of influence, perhaps indefinitely. So the potential for assuring the authenticity of future super rare and old expressions is obvious. “The premise of BlockBar lends confidence to collectors and provides transparency in a secondary market, adds Peacock. “From our perspective the main security within this type of investment is that the NFT backed purchase allows individuals to build direct relationships directly with the brand. As well as this, the number of individuals who are buying asset-backed NFTs has grown exponentially, so it is becoming a more widely tried and accepted form of holding assets.”

You are still putting your trust in BlockBar, but it’s a digitally-minded, simple solution to tackling fraud. Penfolds, Dictador Rum and Hennessy have also signed up to sell super rare expressions via BlockBar – luxury brands with little need to branch into a potentially problematic space unless it was worth it.

Caveat emptor

Is this the future of spirits investment? Perhaps. There’s lots to love about NFTs. Guaranteed authenticity, assured storage, direct brand-to-consumer sales, slick, digital platforms. As with any leap forward the brave and bold go first. For the “technologically savvy consumer who is crypto-literate” there’s an expectation for luxury brands to have a presence in the NFT space, says Healey Ryder. “This is not your traditional whisky connoisseur necessarily. They are interested in exceptional products, progressive brands and technological change.”

There’s plenty to be wary of too, not least the volatility of cryptocurrencies. It’s not for the faint-hearted and financial diligence is strongly advised. Do the rewards outweigh the risks? That’s what every investor has to weigh. Either way, you’ll need deep pockets, and an iron disposition.

 

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The joy of liqueurs

Finishing off our dryish January coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at an often-overlooked member of the drinks family which offers maximum flavour but with around half the alcohol of…

Finishing off our dryish January coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at an often-overlooked member of the drinks family which offers maximum flavour but with around half the alcohol of spirits. Isn’t it time you embrace the joy of liqueurs?

There are few better ways to cut down on booze than with a warming, flavourful liqueur. With all the punch but up to half the ABV (typically 15-30%) of a spirit, liqueurs can be a pretty virtuous choice, with low and no-alcohol alternatives emerging too (Crossip and Lyre’s Coffee Originale for a start). 

Lockdown liqueur lovers

Their popularity is growing too. Liqueur sales rose by 27% in the year to 11 September 2021, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). Growth was attributed to pandemic-stricken Brits whipping up colourful cocktails at home and sharing their creations on social media.

Whatever gets people loving liqueurs, all the better. Too often they are mistakenly dismissed as frivolous, save for the rare-but-very-serious Chartreuse collector. It is a fun category, full of colour and flavour. Disaronno, Chambord, Cointreau, Kahlua and Bailey’s are some of the biggest household names. But the category goes far beyond big brand liqueurs, and is one of the oldest, most diverse and eclectic of all.

Liqueurs are essentially distilled spirits that have been sweetened and flavoured. In the EU that means a strength of at least 15% ABV and a minimum of 100g of sugar per litre. A liqueur flavour wheel would look something like this: herbal, fruit, cream, créme, coffee, chocolate, floral, anise, nut and whisky. The result is a mind bogglingly vast array of flavours. 

Chartreuse

Chartreuse – king of liqueurs

Liqueurs ancient and modern

“There are ancient recipes made by monks and innovative modern examples with creative aromas and flavours,” says Tobias Gorn, chair of judges at the World Liqueur Awards. “It is a wonderful but sadly underrated drinks category. One that’s fun and with so much history, inclusion and innovation. From mediaeval alchemists and ancient monks to modern city-dwelling lactose-free vegans, everyone can find their favourite.”

The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquefacere, meaning ‘to make liquid’. First produced by mediaeval monks and alchemists as early as the 13th century, these herbal remedies, also known as tonics, elixirs and oils, were once used as medicines and even aphrodisiacs. The naturally green herbal liqueur Chartreuse is one of the oldest.

Francois Hannibal d’Estrees (marshall of artillery for King Henry IV) is said to have given an ancient manuscript entitled An Elixir of Long Life to a Carthusian order of monks in France in 1605. It wasn’t until 1737 that the complex recipe was perfected, resulting in the first Chartreuse Elixir. It’s made with 130 different plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, brandy, distilled, honey and sugar syrup. But the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. It’s said that at any one time only three monks know the recipe, and they never travel together. Green Chartreuse has an ABV of 55%. In 1833 a milder and sweeter 40% ABV version was created, known as Yellow Chartreuse. Nearly 300 years later, classic herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse, and Bénédictine D.O.M, are still revered, with top bartenders and collectors seeking out old bottlings, says Gorn. 

Floral flavours

Whereas these ancient monkish liqueurs are cult drinks, floral liqueurs, which use rose, violet, hibiscus, and elderflower, are among the most unsung members of the category. Which is a shame as not only can they be delicious but they have long histories too.  Quaglia Camomilla is a fragrant camomile-flavoured liqueur, while Liqueur de Violettes from Tempus Fugit Spirits is based on a mid-19th century recipe made from hand-harvested French violets grown in the Côte d’Azur. Liqueur de Pain d’Epices is made by Alsace-based distiller G.Miclo and tastes like drinking gingerbread. If you can imagine such a thing.

Equally festive is Zirbenz’ Stone Pine Liqueur, made with Arolla Stone pine cones found in the Alps, which give the flavour and aroma of a Christmas tree. For the more adventurous there’s Ancho Reyes, a chilli-flavoured liqueur that’s great in a Bloody Mary, and the more unusual Chareau, a Californian liqueur made from aloe vera, cucumber, spearmint and lemon peel. “There’s some superb liqueurs with tea and the use of more exotic citrus like yuzu,” adds Gorn. “I always encourage consumers to be brave and try new things.”

Bailey's cocktail

Everyone loves Baileys

Anyone for Baileys?

Then there are cream liqueurs, typically made with whisky, which includes Baileys and Arran Gold Cream Liqueur. Not to be confused with whisky liqueurs, which are made from Scottish and Irish whiskies blended with herbs, spices, honey and other ingredients. Think Glayva, Irish Mist or Drambuie. 

For vegans and the lactose-intolerant there are an increasing number of dairy/lactose-free options. Baileys Almande is a dairy-free version of Baileys Irish Cream, made with almond milk and a touch of vanilla. Horchata is a Spanish drink traditionally made in Valencia with soaked, ground and sweetened tiger nuts (which are tubers and not actually nuts). Licor 43 Horchata is a dairy-free and vegan ‘cream’ liqueur made with cinnamon and citrus, as is Besos de Oro, made with brandy from Jerez and horchata from Valencia.

Those with a sweet tooth will find comfort in chocolate liqueurs like Austria’s Mozart, or Ireland’s two-toned coffee liqueur Sheridans. But if you’re really after a sugar hit go for a créme liqueur, which must contain a higher sugar content of 250g/l. For créme de cassis, the star of a Kir Royale, it’s 400g/l.

There are also bittersweet liqueurs like Italy’s amari (plural of amaro), the most famous being Campari, Aperol and Fernet Branca. In Germany you’ll find Kräuterlikör (herbal liqueurs), known as “half bitters”, which are bittersweet and close to an amaro with less perceptible sweetness, like Jägermeister and Underberg. 

Muyu

The team behind Muyu: Kratena, Berg and Caporale

Not quite so sweet

A number of ‘savoury’ liqueurs have also emerged. In 2019 London bar the Gibson and Italian distillery Casoni designed a trio of liqueurs that use balsamic vinegar from Modena to “add a savoury note” to cocktails. They include Amarotto, a cross between amaro and amaretto, a fruit liqueur made with blueberries and blackberries and a third made with figs and cherries. Muyu is another trio of liqueurs based on the flavours of the Amazon rainforest (Jasmine Verte, Chinotto Nero and Vetiver Gris) developed by renowned bartenders Alex Kratena, Monica Berg and Simone Caporale in partnership with De Kuyper.

Modern liqueurs have moved beyond synthetic flavours, while traditional liqueurs have had centuries to perfect their craft. You might favour a bittersweet herbal digestif, love seriously sweet sips, pine for pine cones or salivate over spice – it doesn’t matter. Liqueurs are democracy in action: there’s something for everyone.

Click here to browse the full range of liqueurs at Master of Malt.

 

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The rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif

Continuing our Dry January 2022 coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at the inexorable rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif, and the new brands to watch out for. It started with…

Continuing our Dry January 2022 coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at the inexorable rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif, and the new brands to watch out for.

It started with a Shirley Temple, perhaps a coke with a slice of lemon if you were feeling fancy. Throw in a J20 and a soda and lime, and we had reached the peak of ‘adult’ soft drinks. Overly sweet and simple, the choices for non-drinkers were once depressingly limited.

Then a glimmer of hope. Producers began putting real effort into non-alcoholic beers and de-alcoholised wine. They weren’t perfect, but there was an enthusiasm to do better for non drinkers. Non-alcoholic distilled spirits like Atopia and Seedlip soon followed, entirely new brands that have reshaped the no- and low-alcohol (NOLO) movement.

As evidence mounted that many teenagers were no longer sneaking booze behind the bike sheds but abstaining altogether, a sense of urgency began to spread among alcoholic drinks producers too. Distillers got in on the action creating their own non-alcoholic versions of international spirits, including Gordon’s, Sipsmith and Tanqueray.

Slowly, non-alcoholic adult beverages became worth drinking.

As we enter 2022 the life of a teetotaller or abstainer is brighter than ever. There’s hundreds of options, some of them very good. And it’s no longer just about imitating spirits like gin or rum. The market for non-alcoholic ‘apéritifs’ has exploded.

Aecorn

An Aecorn Spritz makes a nice zero ABV option

What’s an apéritif?

Whether it’s a French apéritif or an Italian aperitivo, an apéritif is defined as “an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite”.

Martinis, G&Ts, and Negronis all make great pre-dinner cocktails, as does sparkling wine and spritz cocktails with vermouth or herbal liqueurs, like Campari and Aperol. What they all have in common is a dry bitterness to whet the appetite with flavours like wormwood, gentian and quinine all common.

In the world of non-alcoholic aperitifs, the trend has been towards that of a bittersweet, aromatic ‘liqueur’, intended to be mixed with tonic or soda.

The rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif

Seedlip kick-started the rise of the non-alcoholic aperitif when it launched Æcorn Apéritifs in 2019, inspired by the “European apéritif tradition”. Its three variants – Dry, Bitter and Aromatic – are based on herbal remedies from the seventeenth century and made with grapes, herbs, roots and bitter botanicals.

There is logic to prioritising apéritifs for de-alcoholisation. Their characteristic dry bitterness can be achieved with or without alcohol in a way that can’t always be matched by other NA alternatives.

“It is an incredible challenge to replicate the mouthfeel of a spirit without alcohol,” explains Rupert Gatehouse, sales and marketing manager of Botivo, an NA apéritif made with apple cider vinegar, honey, rosemary, thyme, gentian, wormwood and orange zest. “Although non-alcoholic apéritifs also lack the key component of alcohol, they are still able to capture the botanical notes and more importantly the bitter notes that you expect from an apéritif.”

The Nightcap: 14 January

Katy Perry has got in on the zero ABV aperitif game

Brands to watch

As if to underline their growing popularity, this month pop star Katy Perry launched her own range of non-alcoholic sparkling apéritifs called De Soi, made with “feel-good adaptogens like maca and reishi mushroom”. 

In 2020 Martini launched Torino Martini, a non-alcoholic apéritif made with the same white wines as its classic vermouth, but with the alcohol removed using vacuum distillation and infused with a selection of botanicals.

Mother Root came onto the market in 2019 – an alcohol-free ‘switchel’ made with ginger juice, apple cider vinegar, honey and a hint of chilli, intended to be served over ice with soda or tonic and a slice of orange.

There’s also Lyre’s Italian Spritz, Everleaf Bittersweet Apéritif, Three Spirit and Crossip to consider, all of which make excellent non-alcoholic apéritifs. Giffard Apéritif syrup is a concentrated non-alcoholic substitute for a red bitter liqueur (á la Campari) with flavours of bitter oranges, gentian root, quinquina, and spice.

Last year, several more entered the game. Wilfred’s claims to have ‘reinvented the Spritz’ with its bittersweet apéritif made from a blend of rosemary, bitter orange, rhubarb and clove.

High Point in Cornwall produces a Ruby Apéritif made by first fermenting natural ingredients including tea leaves, hibiscus, lavender, wormwood, pink peppercorn, orange zest and grapefruit.

“Demand is growing in the non-alcoholic apéritif category,” says Carl Stephenson, founder of The Bloomsbury Club UK which in 2021 created Tuscan Tree, a NA aperitivo made with Sicilian blood oranges, with flavour exploration the lynch pin of its growth. “It is evolving quickly and I think consumers are now accepting that non-alcoholic drinks are a really credible alternative to alcoholic drinks.”

High Point

Fermentation is the key to making High Point

How are they made?

And perhaps more pressing, why do some cost almost as much as an alcoholic version? Isn’t it just flavoured water? Sometimes, but there’s more to it than that.

Traditional apéritifs are made by macerating botanicals in alcohol, and most non-alcoholic versions undergo a similar process.

Botivo, which launched in 2021, macerates its botanicals for two months with raw apple cider vinegar and honey. This mirrors an ancient flavouring and preservation technique first used to make oxymel tonics (oxy = acid / mel = honey), giving complexity and natural shelf-stability.

High Point drew upon its background in beer (its founder is responsible for Harbour Brewing) to create its non-alcoholic fermented Ruby Apéritif. Any alcohol produced during fermentation is biologically removed, which is why each batch takes a month to produce.

“Our expertise in fermentation, as brewers, meant we could introduce sophisticated and complex flavours to the conversation that were previously hard to find in the growing world of NA,” explains Eddie Lofthouse, founder of High Point.

Compare this to your average soft drink and you can start to understand their pricing.

What’s next?

“More innovation, more diverse flavours and broader interpretations of drink styles,” thinks Lofthouse. “People are making better choices, an awareness fuelled by the emergency stop on daily life during the pandemic. Drinkers are more conscious and have had time to reflect and want to live mindfully. I see the category growing from strength to strength, in both size and quality.”

It might not be quite the same as the real thing, but abstention has never been more enjoyable.

Click here to see the full range of no and low alcohol drinks from Master of Malt

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How to make packaging more sustainable

Lauren Eads joins us again to talk all about sustainability in spirits, how packaging can make a difference, and where compromises might need to be made. Right now, sustainability is…

Lauren Eads joins us again to talk all about sustainability in spirits, how packaging can make a difference, and where compromises might need to be made.

Right now, sustainability is the watchword for every organisation in the world. COP 26 wrapped just weeks ago and saw countless high-profile figures starkly outline how close we are to the brink of environmental disaster.

UK PM Boris Johnson warned that it was one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now, while Prince Charles said this is literally the last-chance saloonfor the planet. British naturalist Sir David Attenborough was left questioning: Is this how it is doomed to end a tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?

Great focus has been placed on reducing plastics, which is necessary, but glass too comes with some complications. A 2020 study by the University of Southampton found that glass bottles are actually more damaging to the planet because they require more energy and natural resources to produce and recycle. The type of sand used to make new glass (and construction materials) is a finite resource the world uses a lot of it, and its running low.

Sustainability in spirits

Big brands getting on board can cause seismic change

What can spirits producers do?

Production of a spirit itself needs to be sustainable, but packaging is the most visible marker of a producers commitment to sustainability. Not so long ago, the buzz words in packaging weresmall batch, handcrafted, artisan. The spirits world went nuts for bottles with rustic aesthetics and handwritten typography cues that speak of craftsmanship and authenticity. Eco-friendly packaging was a bonus, but not a necessity. Those qualities are still valued, but things are changing, says Kevin Smith, founder of design agency Stranger & Stranger, having received more briefs for sustainablepackaging this year than in the last 27 years combined.

We began working on sustainability a long time ago, a passion project to assuage the guilt of being in such a carbon-heavy industry, but we couldnt make anything stick because the consumer interest wasnt really there,he recalls. Whats exciting is that at last, it might be. We did a paper wine bottle 10 years ago that died. We did a paper bottle for Bacardi recently which, given their power and range, might just make a difference.

Pretty bottles with green hues and images of nature can convey a willingness to go green but can be disingenuous. Weve moved beyond simple aesthetics. Now, the emphasis is on the packaging itself, and the impact it isnt having on the planet.

Is it recyclable and recycled? What type of ink has been used? How heavy is the glass?

Sustainability in spirits

A 100% plastic-free, paper-based Johnnie Walker bottle is expected in 2023

How can packaging fight climate change?

The vast majority of spirits producers use glass, which is fully recyclable. You might think thats enough, but glass is heavy. Transporting large numbers of bottles across the globe can exude masses of carbon emissions. The first thing that producers should be doing is reducing the weight of glass and heavy bottles are being phased out by most producers. Diageo committed to a reduction in total package weight of 15% in 2020, and to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable. Glass isnt going anywhere yet, but it can be used more responsibly choose light.

Whats the alternative?

The difficulty for spirits producers has been finding an inert container that can safely store a spirit for some years without the risk of degradation. Cans and certain pouches that contain hard seltzers or RTDs can be fully recyclable, lighter, and less damaging. They work well for fast-moving goods, but spirits need something sturdier.

Bacardi has already produced a plant-based fully biodegradable bottle using natural oils derived from seeds, including palm, canola, and soy. The bottle biodegrades after 18 months without leaving behind microplastics and is due to be rolled out in 2023. A paper bottle is also in the works, and the company has pledged to remove all single-use plastic from its gift packs and point-of-sale materials by 2023. It wants to be 100% plastic-free by 2030. But Bacardis bottle is just one of many prototypes.

Pernod Ricard unveiled its Absolut paper bottle in January made from a mix of paper and recycled plastic, eliminating glass. A next-generation plastic-free version is already in the works. Diageo has created a 100% plastic-free, paper-based Johnnie Walker bottle (made from sustainably sourced wood) that is completely recyclable, with a specialised internal coating that doesnt interact with the liquid. Its rollout is expected in 2023. Silent Pool Distillers created a fully recyclable paperboard bottle with a food grade liner with Frugalpac to house its Green Man Woodland Gin. Its five times lighter than glass alternatives and has a carbon footprint six times lower than glass or PET plastic bottles.

Vegetable inks are another powerful tool. They are made from linseed (flax), castor, canola, safflower, soybeans, corn oil, or other vegetable-based oil, but soybean and linseed are the most common. Traditional ink is made from petroleum, yes, petrol. Vegetable inks are clearly better for the environment than those that rely on fossil fuels. But what you might not realise is that all paper goes through a de-inking process before it is recycled. It is much easier to remove vegetable ink than petroleum-based ink, which in some cases can cause the paper its printed on to be completely un-recyclable.

Sustainability in spirits

Are we willing to accept the change in style that comes with eco-innovation?

Whats the trade-off?

Can a bottle be environmentally friendly, fully compostable, or recyclable and look good? Is there a compromise to be struck?

Of course,says Shaw, but thats part of the creative challenge and we love it. You can use a pulp carton to great effect with embossing and vegetable inks. It stands out a mile from all the slick over-guilded boxes and goes straight on your compost heap.

It might be harder to create an aesthetically pleasing environmentally-friendly bottle, but which is more important? And in any case, many producers have been successful in marrying the two.

The Isle of Wights Mermaid Gin unveiled a redesign of its bottle in 2019 made from sustainable, recyclable, and plastic-free materials. The mesmerizing bottle features sculpted scales designed to reflect and refract light, while also being 100% recyclable, printed with biodegradable inks, and featuring an all-natural cork with a wooden top and neck seal made from compostable corn and potato starch.

Everyone loves a slick, stylish bottle, but one thats eco-friendly too? Thats the cherry on the top.

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Bourbon innovation

If you think bourbon is a static category, then think again. From cask finishes to heirloom grains, this formerly conservative whiskey is now a hotbed of experimentation. Lauren Eads takes…

If you think bourbon is a static category, then think again. From cask finishes to heirloom grains, this formerly conservative whiskey is now a hotbed of experimentation. Lauren Eads takes a look at the exciting world of bourbon innovation.

The past decade has seen a bourbon boom. Kentucky currently has 10 million barrels of bourbon aging in distillery warehouses, says the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, with the industry setting a new production record in 2020 for the number of barrels filled in a single year – nearly 2.5 million.

WRBE-Bottle-HERO-on-Baccarat-Bar-WEB

Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition is finished in Cognac casks

Bourbon innovation

Much of this growth has been driven by a renaissance in brown spirits, which has also seen the value of bourbon on the secondary market explode, but also growing innovation that has hooked new consumers. There is an urge to push the boundaries, not only among newer craft distillers, but also legacy producers.

Established names had a head start, clearly. Woodford Reserve began cask finishing in the 1990s, releasing the first bourbons finished in Port and Sherry casks, as well as ex-Pinot Noir and Chardonnay barrels. This coincided with an industry wide move toward more premium small batch and single barrel expressions. In 2013 Buffalo Trace launched its Warehouse X, analysing how light, airflow, temperature and humidity affects maturation. Now, craft distillers are catching up, producing exceptional spirits while bringing forth fresh ideas.

“Some whiskey made early on by craft distilleries, especially products aged in small casks, just wasn’t on the same level as the heritage distilleries,” says John Little, founder of Smooth Ambler in West Virginia, which was built on sourcing mature bourbon for its Old Scout label. “Now we’re seeing producers that are closing that gap. Those craft distillers, especially those making American whiskey, are making better whiskey than ever, offering new blends and finishes and pushing the boundaries.”

John Little from Smooth Ambler

John Little nosing out some quality whiskey

Bourbon beyond Kentucky

Pinhook, New Riff and Yellowstone are a few Kentucky-based producers disrupting the status quo, experimenting with vintage variation, blending and barrelling. But while 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky, not every brand is bound to the Bluegrass state.

FEW Spirits, founded by Paul Hletko in 2011 in Chicago, makes a bold, spicy bourbon that deliberately sits apart from its Kentucky counterparts. “People are less negative about non-Kentucky bourbon – they are getting excited about what we are doing in expanding the flavours of a tightly regulated spirit like bourbon. There’s this rich wide open world that goes beyond six or seven legacy distilleries in Kentucky. I think that’s a good thing, it gives consumers a choice.”

Hletko uses a mash bill that includes 20% rye to add spice, but there’s more to it than that. Most of his flavours are created during fermentation, not in the barrels, which come from Minnesota rather than further south.

“We are fastidious about ferments,” he says. “We use special yeast and control the temperature and ferment to secure the flavours we want. We use the barrel as additional processing to shape and mould the flavour rather than to create it. It’s a brewer’s approach to fermentation that for whatever reason most distilleries don’t use.”

The Smooth Ambler range

The Smooth Ambler range

Whiskey and terroir

For Lisa Wicker (in header), head distiller at Widow Jane in Brooklyn, New York, innovation and craft distilling are inseparable. She uses a “one-of-a-kind” corn trademarked as ‘Baby Jane’ – a cross between Bloody Butcher and Wayside Valley heirloom corns.

“My style of distillation always considers the corn source and type,” says Wicker. “I ‘cook’ Yellow Dent [corn] in a more traditional way of mashing and distilling. With heirloom corn the cooking process is different with temperature and times, working to keep the characteristics of the variety. Because I was a winemaker I believe that fermentations and distillations need to match the profile of the corn or grain, not unlike grape varieties being handled differently.”

Widow Jane’s 10-Year-Old is made from a blend of straight bourbons from distilleries in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, produced in five barrel batches and cut with limestone mineral water from the Rosendale Mines of New York.

“It seems so obvious to me that everything that goes into a whiskey influences it. The idea that some believe terroir does not exist in whiskey makes me crazy. Rob Arnold’s book The Terroir of Whiskey is a must read for distiller and consumer alike. Just like the ‘farm to table’ movement, sense of place is part of the final product,” Wicker explained.

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

Cask finishes add another layer of flavour

Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon is famously finished in Port casks. This year it released a limited edition bourbon finished in Madeira casks, while Rebel Yell released a Kentucky Straight Bourbon finished in Cognac casks. Yellowstone unveiled a limited edition blend of seven- and 15-year-old Bourbons with a portion of the liquid finished in ex-Amarone wine casks. Smooth Ambler has finished bourbon in cider and beer barrels, and its Old Scout Rye, separately, in both an ex-Australian Tawny and ex-Port cask.

Flavoured Bourbons are all the rage too. Jim Beam’s Red Stag and Wild Turkey’s American Honey blazed a trail. Both have a bourbon base but are classed as whiskey liqueurs. Knob Creek makes a mean Smoked Maple Kentucky Straight Bourbon, while FEW Spirits brings its Cold Cut Bourbon to bottle strength with cold brew coffee.

Legally, bourbon must be made in the US from at least 51% corn and aged in charred new oak barrels (minimum two years for straight bourbon). No flavourings can be added and it must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV), having come off the still at a maximum 160 proof (80% ABV).

But is it still bourbon?

According to according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) regulations, if a bourbon has been flavoured or finished in a cask other than new charred oak then legally it comes a ‘distilled spirits speciality.’ But the word ‘bourbon’ can still be used on the label so long as it’s accompanied by a “truthful statement” on the cask finish and/or flavouring used, The Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS) confirmed.

Purists might balk at the idea of a cask-finished bourbon, even more so one flavoured. And while trust in labelling is crucial to maintaining integrity, exploration and innovation is what sparks debate and captures minds. “Consumers like choice and variation,” adds Little. “It’s our job to listen to them and to work to provide products that meet that need. It’s not to be hard-lined bourbon snobs; let’s buck tradition and give the folks something fun and delicious.”

Amen to that.

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