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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Lucy Britner

Is the living room the new tasting room?

For the drinks industry, as with almost everywhere else, virtual has become the new reality. But as restrictions begin to lift, will it last, asks Lucy Britner. Is the living room…

For the drinks industry, as with almost everywhere else, virtual has become the new reality. But as restrictions begin to lift, will it last, asks Lucy Britner. Is the living room the new tasting room?

Let’s face it, over the past year, the living room has become the new everything. The new gym, the new meeting room, the new hair salon and the new destination for after work drinks, weekend drinks, virtual drinks and all other drinks (except kitchen drinks).

The question is, will it stay that way when we are released back into the wild? Will Zoom be trampled into the dirt as we stampede back to the bar? Or will the lure of the living room (and the mute/turn camera off buttons) be too great?

A virtual panel discussion

In a recent (virtual) event facilitated by incubator fund Distill Ventures, whisky experts from around the world joined a panel to discuss whether the living room had become the new tasting room. The consensus is that virtual tastings aren’t going away. And besides the mute button, they have brought with them a load of other benefits.

For panellist Samara Davis, founder and CEO of the US-based Black Bourbon Society, the pandemic brought a surge in new memberships as locked down drinkers sought new hobbies. She describes ‘bourbon curious’ consumers who want to discover what their palate is and buy whiskey accordingly.

And while in-person tastings will be back, the benefit of virtual ones is that people in far-flung places can still join in. She also says that people feel comfortable asking so-called ‘silly’ questions in a virtual setting.

“Our Facebook Group has 22k members and it’s a safe space to ask questions and research,” she explains as the group discusses going back to bars. “You never know what reception you might get from a bartender, but we do encourage people to go to bars to try whiskies without having to buy the whole bottle.”

Billy Abbott, author and whisky educator at the Whisky Exchange also points out that real-life events work for some people while for others an in-person festival, for example, just doesn’t appeal.

Billy Abbott

Look, it’s Billy Abbott!

Level playing field

Meanwhile, an undeniable plus to lockdown has to be that brands big or small can lay on a virtual event.

Panelist – and  founder of JJ Corry Irish Whiskey – Louise McGuane says: “Nobody can travel, but everyone has an internet connection so we can now do five events in one night – the explosion of online experiences has been a great leveller for small, founder-led brands such as ours.”

McGuane also points out that JJ Corry has developed two new whiskeys as a result of virtual events: a crowdsourced blend created in conjunction with online communities, as well as a whiskey made specifically for a group on Facebook.

Of course, there was a bit of work to do at the start of lockdown and panelist Tess Syriac, marketing director at Starward, says the team had to turn everything they knew 12 months ago on its head, in order to reevaluate how they used their social channels, and how they connected with consumers to create “meaningful conversations”. For Starward, bringing in-home experiences to life was a key component in allowing consumers to connect with the brand.

“The last year has unlocked all these new channels – including direct to consumer – which has put small brands in a great position, but making sure experiences are customised is essential. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and the more tailored the approach, the more brands will connect. In our view, at-home tastings will now have a place forever,” she says.

Mini adventures

There was also talk of bottle sizes – and miniatures. Sending samples is a lot of work and since single malt Scotch has to be bottled in Scotland, for example, minis don’t regularly make it across the pond. But both Syriac and Davis say this is changing, predicting we will start to see a variety of pack sizes. And McGuane confirms she’s looking at miniatures as an “actual strategy” whereas before the pandemic and at-home tastings, they wouldn’t have been a big consideration.

Luckily Master of Malt is a seasoned pro at breaking down expensive bottles or setting up tasting sets, with its Drinks by the Dram series.

#MissedMoment competition

Very handy for those online tastings

Beyond the living room

So far, it all looks pretty rosy for the living room Zoom boom, doesn’t it?

But there is something missing. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to being in a room full of people, all tasting the same booze together. Abbott calls it the “overall feel of the collective experience”. After all, interacting virtually ain’t easy – see: the stunted conversations, the pauses between sentences and the weird smiles we adopt while waiting for someone to terminate the meeting.

A bit of both, actually

The truth is, we are likely to see a future of both living room and bar room tastings. And the panelists seem to agree that more personalised and tailored tastings will be popular as brands and clubs get to grips with a growing audience.

While this might mean thinking about the styles of whisk(e)y or cocktails on offer, it could also mean thinking about whether a particular group would prefer a virtual or an in-person event.

I can also foresee a sort of hierarchy appearing for new launch tastings, whereby an ‘A list’ gets invited to sit at the table, while others are invited to sit in their own living rooms and look on with their sample packs. 

And so, as we step back into the light of the day and not the glare of the screen, there will be a bit of a stampede to socialise – we’re only human after all. But as the novelty of the last train home wears off, those virtual meet-ups will once again appeal.

In, out, in, out… It’ll be like the whole world is doing the Hokey Cokey. Maybe that IS what it’s all about.

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Chocolate and booze: the perfect combination for Easter

It’s nearly Easter! And while the Easter bunny is busy laying chocolate eggs (that’s right, isn’t it?), we’ve been trying out chocolate and booze pairings. And not just pairings, it…

It’s nearly Easter! And while the Easter bunny is busy laying chocolate eggs (that’s right, isn’t it?), we’ve been trying out chocolate and booze pairings. And not just pairings, it turns out you can put your booze in your chocolate – or your chocolate in your booze.

From cocktails to Port, whisky to gin, there is a chocolate for just about every type of drink. And a drink for every type of chocolate.

Lindt chocolatier

A Lindt chocolatier looking exactly as you would hope (PHOTOPRESS/Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli AG)

Chocolate first

To get started, I caught up with the man who makes those famous Lindt bunnies, Lindt master chocolatier Stefan Bruderer. Or so I like to think. “An important point is the tasting order,” he says, “always have the chocolate first.”

Wise words for any chocolate lover but there’s also some science to it. The temperature in our mouths is usually around 36°C, which is the perfect temperature to melt chocolate. “If you have a cold drink, between 5-8°C, the temperature in your mouth will drop down for a moment. The result is that the chocolate will not melt as it should,” he says.

Opposites attract

Like any food and drink pairing (or episode of Married at First Sight), Bruderer reminds us that opposites attract. “This means I am looking at the drink for some flavours I can’t find in the chocolate and vice versa,” he says. “So that they somewhat complete each other.”

He offers an example: “If you have a white wine that is not too sweet but slightly sour, with some notes of fresh fruits like green apples, lime or grapefruit the perfect match could be Excellence Orange,” he explains, “because Excellence Orange has some sweetness, as it is ‘just’ a medium dark chocolate, and has notes of ripe orange. This means if you pair those two you will have the sour and fresh fruit notes from the white wine and the sweetness and the ripe fruit notes from the chocolate.”

In fact, the Lindt archives are stuffed full of great chocolate and drinks pairings and among my favourites is the Aperol Spritz also with Excellence Orange a marriage of sweet, smooth citrus with bold, bitter citrus. Or perhaps a Negroni with Lindt Excellence Sea Salt Dark Chocolate appeals? Bittersweet umami for the win.

Fonseca Bin 27 port with chocolate

When in doubt, reach for the Port

Any Port

I’m sure it comes as absolutely no surprise that port is a winner with chocolate.

Fonseca Bin 27 is a top tipple with truffles. So much so in fact, that it features as an ingredient in Vinte Vinte Port Wine Truffles. If you can’t get your hands on those, find yourself a good quality 70% cocoa truffle and let the experiment commence.

This ruby Port is bottled ready to drink and it brings bags of black fruit to the table, along with tobacco, a slightly herbaceous note, figs, raisins, chocolate and vanilla cream. The truffles round out the black fruit character, bringing more cream and chocolate to the party, until you end up with a black forest gateaux in your mouth. What’s not to like about that?

Whisky fix

If Port’s not your bag, there’s a new whisky from Dewar’s that will work a treat with this kind of truffle – Dewar’s 8 year old Portuguese Smooth. The whisky is finished in, you guessed it, ruby port casks. With dark and red fruit on the nose, the palate offers smooth milk chocolate with poached pear and blackberries. 

And for smoke fans, get yourself some Tony’s Chocolonely Dark Milk Pretzel Toffee and a bottle of Lagavulin. The dark chocolate and toffee squares up to the smoky notes, while the salt tang of the pretzel meets the slight salinity of the whisky.

What about white chocolate?

The folks at Hotel Chocolat have a strong suggestion for white chocolate, which again plays on that desire to balance out flavours.

“White chocolate is arguably the creamiest of the mainstream chocolate types and so it’s a good idea to pair it with a drink that balances out that sweet, cocoa-buttery charm,” their guide suggests. “We’d recommend pairing it with a chilled Provence rosé; the refreshing strawberry notes are pleasantly elevated by the creaminess of the white chocolate.”

If you haven’t quite got into rosé season, MoM recommends Whisky Works Glaswegian 29 Year Old. This richly creamy single grain Scotch whisky pairs excellently with the creaminess of a good white chocolate.

Cocktail Porter Espresso Martini

Cocktail Porter Espresso Martini served in an actual Lindt bunny!

Liquid lush

Can’t be bothered to pair chocolate and booze? Good news! There are several drinks for that, too. How about Jaffa Cake Gin, Rum or Vodka? And of course there is a Bourbon Bourbon for all you chocolate biscuit fans. The drink features Kentucky bourbon infused with genuine Bourbon biscuits, and blended with dark chocolate and vanilla to accentuate those familiar flavours. The producer, Master of Malt’s sister company Atom Labs, recommends trying it in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. Or, y’know, a glass.

If glasses aren’t ‘Easter’ enough and you want to be really decadent, you can bite the ears off a Lindt bunny and stick your Easter cocktail right inside. That’s what the folks at Cocktail Porter have done with an Espresso Martini: Ketel One Vodka, Cocktail Porter sugar syrup, Kuka cold brew coffee and Conker Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur shaken and poured right into the cavity.

Have your cocktail and eat it.

And for the gin lovers, the folks at Kintyre Gin have come up with the Easter Bunny Negroni:

35ml Kintyre Pink Gin
35ml Creme de Cacao
15ml Campari
15ml Sweet Vermouth
Dash of chocolate bitters

Serve in a chilled Martini glass, rimmed with grated chocolate.

Bet you could serve that in a Lindt bunny, too.

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The history of Hennessy Cognac

How did the son of an Irish Lord come to create one of the most famous spirit brands in the world? Lucy Britner delves into the history of Hennessy Cognac….

How did the son of an Irish Lord come to create one of the most famous spirit brands in the world? Lucy Britner delves into the history of Hennessy Cognac.

Like all good stories, some of the details of Hennessy’s beginnings vary slightly depending on who is telling it. The most popular tale is that at 20-years-old, Richard Hennessy, son of Lord Ballymacmoy, left his native Cork for France to fight for King Louis XV. The story goes that he was injured at the battle of Fontenoy and later settled on the banks of the Charente River, which of course graces the town of Cognac.

Early days

According to Nicholas Faith and Michel Guillard’s Encyclopedia of Cognac, Hennessy started the brandy firm in 1765, thanks to some loans from Parisian banks and two partners – Connelly and Arthur. He settled in Charente with his wife Helene and their son Jacques (James).

In fact, it was James that really propelled the business. In an interview with the Irish Examiner, two eighth-generation descendants of Richard — brothers Maurice and Frederic Hennessy — say James kickstarted Hennessy’s world dominance through an alliance with existing Cognac powerhouse, Martell.

Alliance is another way of saying he married a Martell – Marthe Martell, in 1795 – one year after the first shipments of Hennessy arrived in New York and five years before Richard died, in 1800.

Hennessy Master Blenders Yann and Renaud

Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, 8th generation master blender and his uncle, Yann Fillioux 7th generation master lender

Export goals

Hennessy’s journey to the US is an important part of the brand’s story and the company says the Cognac has been available Stateside ever since that first shipment. “Hennessy has never left America since, establishing itself increasingly firmly in African American music,” brand owner LVMH says.

Export is a key part of the tale and in order to ship to more places, Hennessy moved from barrels to labelled glass bottles in 1804. Around the same time (give or take a couple of years, depending on the source), the company established another alliance – this time with the Fillioux family. Jean Fillioux was named master blender in 1806 and today, eight generations later, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde holds the title. Renaud succeeded his uncle, Yann, who was Hennessy’s master blender for 50 years – and schooled Renaud in an apprenticeship that lasted about 15 years.

VSOP and XO

The first VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) appeared in 1817, at the request of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and throughout the 19th century, the Hennessy brand continued to grow exports, with the first shipments to Russia in 1818 and China in 1859.

Then in 1870, Maurice Hennessy, a fourth generation member of the Hennessy family, is said to have asked then-cellar master Emile Fillioux to create a special cognac for his family and friends, using long-aged eaux-de-vie. They called it ‘XO’ for ‘Extra Old and the story goes that Hennessy XO became the first House blend to attain international renown, to the point that the XO classification became a gauge for quality.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Gérald de Geoffre – Maurice Hennessy’s great-grandson – created the classic XO bottle, a shape inspired by an upturned cluster of grapes. Put the lid back on before you check.

LVMH

In 1971, Hennessy merged with Champagne house Moët & Chandon. Faith and Guillard write that the merger, set up by then-chairman Killian Hennessy, came about in the face of competition from other multinational companies. Moët Hennessy later combined with luxury goods powerhouse Louis Vuitton to form Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy – LVMH – in 1987.

By this time, Hennessy was a two million case brand and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, its popularity continued with mentions in popular culture, including 2Pac’s Hennessy and Snoop Dogg’s Hennesey N Buddha.

Hennessy's Frank Gehry XO Cognac

Hennessy’s understated Frank Gehry XO Cognac decanter

The past decade 

Several new expressions have appeared over the years, including Paradis Imperial in 2011. Described as a “jewel in the Hennessy collection”, it is said that from any given harvest, the average number of eaux-de-vie with the potential to one day join this blend is only 10 out of 10,000.

And the maths fans among us will realise that in 2020, XO celebrated its 150-year anniversary. In true Cognac style, that meant doing something pretty special with the bottle. Enter famous architect Frank Gehry, who reinterpreted the bottle to create something in his own unconventional aesthetic. Yours for just £15,000!

New creations and core expressions have contributed to the export success enjoyed by the early Hennessy family members and according to industry magazine Drinks International’s annual Millionaire Club, Hennessy dwarfs the other Cognac houses, with volumes at 8 million cases in 2019. Its nearest rival, Martell, was at 2.6 million.

NBA connections

In 2021, the Hennessy brand became the NBA’s first ever global spirits partner and Julie Nollet, Hennessy global CMO said of the partnership: “We represent global communities, and this partnership empowers us to support a game and culture that brings people together through entertainment and camaraderie despite the current challenges faced by fans around the world.” 

Besides sporting partnerships, most recent launches include Master Blender’s Selection N°4, which rolled out this month. The Cognac is the fourth in a limited-edition series and latest creation from current Hennessy master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde. “When creating this blend, I was inspired by the contrast of a ‘thermal shock,'” explains Fillioux de Gironde. “Going from feeling one’s smallness in such a wide-open space to being inside, passing from daylight to the darkness of night, from solitude of the forest, being completely exposed to the elements in nature, to an environment of complete comfort and cosy abandon surrounded by friends.” Blimey, sounds a bit like the orienteering day at MoM towers. Thank god for Google maps.

For now, we leave the Hennessy and Fillioux dynasty, at a mere 256 years old. Who knows what the next 256 years will hold…? Presumably, more Cognac.

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Snap happy – how to take better pics of your drinks

Taking a decent photo of a cocktail or a bottle of booze isn’t easy, especially if you’re in a dimly-lit bar. But from using what nature gives you to investing…

Taking a decent photo of a cocktail or a bottle of booze isn’t easy, especially if you’re in a dimly-lit bar. But from using what nature gives you to investing in some basic equipment, there are some clever tricks whether you want to up your Instagram game or just take better pics of your drinks, finds Lucy Britner.  

First, some bad news: “I’m sorry to say that lighting drinks is tricky,” says food & drinks photographer Steven Joyce, who has worked with Bacardi, Diageo, and Nyetimber. “So cut yourself some slack if it’s hard to get a professional-looking result.”

Joyce says pro drinks photographers will often have five or more lights coming at the set from every angle – to light the glass, the liquid, the garnish and the bottle. Then there’s the post-production: “A drink photograph is rarely just one image, it’s often a composite of a few images, put together in photoshop,” he explains. Learning how to take better pics of your drinks is not straightforward. 

But before you throw in the towel and resign yourself to badly-lit glasses of brown liquid, unimproved by even the fanciest of Instagram filters, Joyce has a few secrets he’s willing to share.

Photo of drink

This was shot just with daylight from a window and a reflector

It’s all about the light

“There are some simple steps to take better shots if you don’t have £10k worth of lighting to throw at the image,” he says, outlining his top three:

– Having light coming through the back of your drink is important, if you are shooting in daylight. First turn off all other lights so it’s just one light source, position the glass on a table with a window, at a short distance, behind the drink. Play around with the distance between your drink and the window until you get the right balance, with enough light on the drink and in the background. To get some light on the front of your drink use a piece of white foam board, or even the back of a white menu, to bounce some light back onto the drink. If you’re shooting at night in a bar, move the drink around and see where you can get a nice bit of light coming through the liquid. Don’t use the phone’s flash, it will make everything look horrible

– Focal length – this is the length of your lens. Ideally you want a lens on a DSLR camera that is around a 100mm macro for close-up, but if you’re using your phone and it has a longer lens built-in then great, use that, or just the regular lens if not. If you keep the immediate background clear of objects and you shoot fairly close to the drink, you can achieve a relatively short depth of field with a phone, this will give you a lovely blurred background and focus your eye on the drink.

– Think about the angle you want to shoot at. If you shoot at the same level as the drink, straight on, this will give your drink a hero feel, whereas a 45-degree angle will let you see the garnish on the top more clearly. Shoot both and see which you prefer.

Beyond making friends (or interviewing) a professional photographer, Maria Coelho, account exec at drinks industry PR firm The Story, who is a dab hand at taking pics for the company or for Insta, says she learned most of her tricks on YouTube and TikTok. 

Negroni

This Negroni was also just shot with natural light and reflector. Looks pretty tasty, doesn’t it?

You don’t need expensive equipment

“I’m a strong believer you do not need expensive equipment to get really good photos as most of the magic relies on editing – I use Lightroom for colour correction and Photoshop to remove anything I don’t need from the photo,” she says.

Like Joyce, she emphasises the importance of natural light but beyond that – and especially in the dark winter months – Coelho recommends a studio light. 

“Depending on the level of professionalism, people may want to get three studio lights so they can achieve three-point lighting, which is the basic lighting setup for video, film and photography,” she explains, sharing a quick YouTube tutorial as she goes:

“ Honestly, I have one softbox and that has worked pretty well for me.”

If you’re working with a phone, there are a few tricks you can use to get good quality images, says Coelho, outlining her top 4 tips:

– Record a video instead – iPhones already have incredible resolution, however, if you record your video in 4K (which can be changed in settings) your videos will have a better resolution than most photos.

– Use macro lenses – this isn’t necessary but it does make the quality fantastic.

– Change the brightness focus – when taking a photo on an iPhone if you touch the area that is the brightest, the iPhone will focus in that area and tone it down. You can also increase the brightness or bring it down.

Composition – sometimes it is easier for beginners to have the grid option on (which can be changed in settings) as this will help them with the angles they want to achieve.

Instagram hero

And here’s the hero shot. Why do they call it a hero shot anyway?

Don’t forget the garnish

And when it comes to the actual styling of a drinks image, Coelho recommends using garnishes as decoration. Utilising spare pieces of lemon, rosemary or mint, for example, and arranging them around a glass, can make a photo more interesting.

You can also play around with ‘wet look’ images. “Use a spray bottle filled with water and just before you shoot, spray the bottle or the glass for a refreshing look,” she explains. “For a more professional look you can mix glycerine with the water and ‘frost’ the bottle beforehand.” For further ‘frosting’ tips, she recommends checking out still life specialists Square Mountain.

Whether you’re doing it for the ‘gram, for your own website – or even just to show your mum – these hacks help you to get a decent snap.

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A day in the life of a whisky archivist

From finding 19th century distillery plans in a bin bag to inspiring new product development, the job of a whisky archivist is never dull, finds Lucy Britner. Ever wondered what…

From finding 19th century distillery plans in a bin bag to inspiring new product development, the job of a whisky archivist is never dull, finds Lucy Britner.

Ever wondered what a whisky archivist does all day? It’s easy to think of them as static and white-gloved, poring over fusty old books in a library. And while this might sometimes be the case, the consensus from archivists at Diageo, Bacardi and Chivas Brothers is that there is much more to it.

Delving into the Diageo archive

“There is no typical day-to-day,” says Diageo archivist Jo McKerchar, who has been with the company for 15 years. The archive, in Menstrie in central Scotland, holds the records for Diageo-owned brands – from company meeting minutes to recipes – and it dates back to the 1760s. As well as photos, films, old ads and packages, the archive also holds bottles going back to 1880 in what McKerchar calls the “largest spirits archive in the world”.

She says her work ranges from education sessions and helping the innovation team, to sense checking labels and working with the legal department to research trademarks. And for the past few years, she has been delving into the history of the soon-to-be-reopened Brora distillery.

In fact, McKerchar tells a great story about visiting the Brora site, shortly after she was informed of Diageo’s plans to reawaken the facility. “We were looking around and saw some bin bags in a loft space, so I opened them up and found Charles Doig plans from the 1890s,” she says. “I thought, ‘I better take them with me!’.” (Doig was an important architect in the whisky world, famous for the pagoda-like ventilators on his distilleries.)

“We also have the ledger from 1983, from the last time Brora was operational,” she says. “There’s graffiti in the back and notes between shifts, like if someone was off on holiday. Then it just stops and there are blank pages  – it’s quite emotive.”

Part of McKerchar’s job involves looking at these old plans and records to help ensure the next incarnation of the distillery remains true to its past.

Jacqui Seargeant

Jacqui Seargeant who works with the rich Dewar’s archive

Drams of future past

And while preserving the past is important, archivists play a big part in inspiring the future.

“We spend a lot of time working with our marketing teams or packaging designers, to find the things that might inspire a new product, a label, or a bottle shape,” says Jacqui Seargeant, global heritage manager & whiskies archivist at Bacardi. “One of the most exciting things for us is to see a bit of history brought back to life, but with a modern twist.” She gives the example of the Dewar’s White Label bottle which includes the founder’s signature taken from an old financial document from 1860.

In Strathisla, Chivas Brothers archivist Chris Brousseau shows off a lineup of Chivas Regal bottles dating back to 1909. “Design agencies come to the archive for inspiration, it’s not just a case of them improving on the most recent bottle, they can see the key parts of that brand going back more than a hundred years.”

Which brings us to an important question: Is it the archivists that inspire new products or does the marketing department ask for authentication on an existing idea?

“It can happen both ways,” says Seargeant. “We share our fun discoveries that we think may be useful, as well as presenting stories and themes from our history to groups within the company. The marketing team can be inspired by something random and unexpected, and they do also come to us for ideas when they are developing their packaging for a specific product or creating something new.”

Tommy Dewar Highball

Tommy Dewar invented the Highball, apparently

Highballs and pistols

She gives the example of a random discovery that led to a campaign around the whisky highball serve. “I discovered during some research that one of the founders, Tommy Dewar, had invented the Highball cocktail back in the 1890s, and our company even trademarked the words,” she says. “The Highball has ever since been a hugely popular Scotch whisky serve, and the marketing team were able to use the personal brand story to give us ownership of the highball serve, so it wasn’t just ‘another’ Highball.”

At Chivas, Brousseau points to the recent The Glenlivet Illicit Still release. “The marketing team wanted to do a series of limited editions based on original stories for The Glenlivet,” he explains. “Se we started looking at the history and thought about starting before distilling at The Glenlivet was legal. We came up with the concept of The Illicit Still – we knew [founder] George Smith was distilling before he got his licence in 1824. And part of the archive is being able to tell the story of illicit distilling in the 1820s and about the smugglers trails – all stories that can be used for the copy and the packaging.”

Brousseau also has a bottle of The Glenlivet, distilled in 1898 and bottled in 1925. He says it’s the oldest branded bottle of The Glenlivet. “We were able to use the colour and general shape of the bottle and even the same abv – 48% in this case – to inspire Illicit Still.”

And according to Brousseau, we can expect another expression from the limited-edition series “shortly”.

The actual pistols belonging to George Smith of Glenlivet

The actual pistols belonging to George Smith of Glenlivet

Weird and wonderful

As we chat about The Glenlivet, the story of George Smith becoming a legal distiller throws up the subject of weird and wonderful things that end up in the archive. “These are George Smith’s pistols,” says Brousseau. “When he became the first legal distiller, the laird of Aberlour gave him these hair trigger pistols to protect himself because his neighbours had threatened to burn down the distillery with him in it.”

At Diageo, McKerchar’s collection of weird and wonderful things includes a great photo of Carsebridge, when women stepped in to run the distillery during world war one. “They all look so serious!” she says.

“I also love the old dramming stories,” adds McKerchar. “There’s a great one about using salad cream bottles to get whisky out of the barrels – apparently they are a good size for bung holes.”  

For Bacardi’s Seargeant, the most bizarre find may be an 1897 patent for branding the tyres of bicycles and cart wheels with ‘John Dewar & Sons’, so that the company name would be imprinted on the streets. “We don’t know if it was ever used, but I know our marketing team would like to try that!” she says. 

These are just some of the stories that help make the Scotch whisky industry so fascinating. And Seargeant points out that the development of the Scotch whisky industry is very much a story of the development of Scotland.

“Our archives act as corporate and cultural memories, the original records can bring to life a world which disappeared long before any of us were born,” she says.

And no doubt these archives will remain long after we’re gone.

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What are worm tubs and why do they matter?

Today, Lucy Britner takes a dive into one of the more geeky aspects of whisky production, worm tubs, and asks what effect these traditional condensers have on the finished spirit. …

Today, Lucy Britner takes a dive into one of the more geeky aspects of whisky production, worm tubs, and asks what effect these traditional condensers have on the finished spirit. 

Anyone who enjoys visiting distilleries will likely remember their first worm tub. Mine was at Talisker on a freezing cold March morning. As I stood outside, looking at the large wooden tubs filled with steaming water and coiled copper worms, part of me wondered what on earth they were for. But most of me wanted to jump in and warm up (obviously I didn’t do that). For a few reasons, worm tubs are a relatively rare sight. But for those that have them, they represent a vital part of a distillery’s character…

Worm tubs at Talisker

Fancy a dip? The worm tubs at Talisker

Worm what?

In short, worm tubs are a type of condenser. They are a traditional way of turning spirit vapour back into liquid and they work like this: The lyne arm at the top of the still is connected to a long, coiled copper pipe (worm) that sits in a huge vat of cold water (tub), which is usually outside. As the vapour travels down the worm, it condenses back into liquid form.

There are only a handful of distilleries that still use this method to condense their spirits, with most now preferring the more modern and efficient ‘shell and tube’ approach.

The general assumption is that because the cold water in a worm tub causes the vapour to condense fairly rapidly, there isn’t as much copper contact, generally making for a heavier style of spirit. But, like with all things whisky, this is only one part of the process and there are many factors that combine in each distillery to influence the style of a spirit.

“Some believe that worm tubs tend to create heavy spirits, but that’s not necessarily true as they are capable of producing lighter characteristics depending on how they are used it’s a fine balance,” explains Jackie Robertson, site operations manager at Talisker on the Isle of Skye. “At Talisker, we are passing a lot of cold water through the tub, condensing the vapour quite quickly to reduce the copper contact, so you’re going from the vapour phase to the liquid phase. If you retain warm water in your worm tub, you can slow down that condensing process and allow much more of a copper conversation with the vapour.”

Enter relative newcomer Ballindalloch, which started making whisky in 2014 and uses slightly warmer tubs to create a lighter style. Distillery manager Colin Poppy explains that the distillery was built inside an 1820s listed building, so the design had to fit the site. “There was no room inside for shell and tube condensers,” he explains. “We could’ve put them outside but we decided early on that we wanted to be traditional, so we decided on worm tubs.”

Ballindalloch’s tubs are about 10,000 litres each and the copper worms are about 70 metres long. “The most common statement I get from guests is ‘how come your spirit is light and fruity when you use worm tubs?’.” Poppy explains that at Ballindalloch, the worm tubs operate using a closed loop system that recycles the water. This means it is never quite as cold as other worm tubs, where water is often drawn from a river.

He says this allows the vapour more copper contact in the worms before condensing. Not only that, the distillery carries out a very slow distillation, which also means lots of copper contact.

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas from Ian Macleod Distillers

Traditional practices

Like Ballindalloch’s desire to adhere to traditions, the soon-to-be reawakened Rosebank distillery in Falkirk will feature new worm tubs that mirror the original production style alongside the same still designs.

Rosebank was of course a triple-distilled Lowland malt but also used worm tubs a juxtaposition in whisky production,” explains Gordon Dundas, senior brand ambassador at Rosebank’s parent company Ian Macleod Distillers. “Triple distillation promotes a lighter style in a whisky (more copper contact and reflux) but then using worm tubs is more associated with a bolder and heavier style of spirit.”

Dundas also points out that the role of condensers must be looked at in relation to the whole distillation process and “what the spirit is like before it passes through”. He continued: “How that manifests itself during maturation is key and in Rosebank, I always get a light floral style, as it is a whisky predominantly matured in refill but a little weight in the palate.”

From the Lowlands to the height of the Highlands and the Pulteney distillery has been using worm tubs since 1826. Distillery manager Malcom Waring says that “using worms in our process at Pulteney allows us to have a long, slow spirit run, with the spirit vapour picking up the bolder, beefier characteristics in the first part of its journey in the worm. Once in the cask, these develop into notes of butterscotch, vanilla and coconut, giving Old Pulteney the distinctive taste and character we’re looking for in the finished whisky”.

The overall structure and design of the worm tubs used at Pulteney today are the same as the originals. “We tend to replace sections of the worm tub when needed, so some bits of the current equipment are older than others,” he explains. “They were installed as you see them today when Pulteney was refurbished in the 1920s and six original stills were replaced with two.”

Ballindalloch Distillery

New worm tubs at Ballindalloch Distillery

Why aren’t they everywhere?

In theory – and indeed in the glass – worm tubs seem great. So why don’t more distilleries have them? In short, they have been substituted for a more efficient condensing method.

Distillery equipment company Forsyths says they have largely been replaced by shell and tube condensers because shell and tube offers a “more compact design and are easier to repair and replace”.

Indeed Pulteney’s Waring says it takes more effort to use and maintain worm tubs. “There’s a lot of copper, so they wear out more quickly, plus the equipment needs quite a lot of space and water,” he says. “But I think it’s worth it for the qualities they bring to our whisky. We are one of only a handful of distilleries still using worm tubs, and unlike many others, there has never been any pressure for us to change our production process. I see this as a huge advantage, allowing us to make Old Pulteney using the traditional equipment in the way it has always been made here in Wick.”

And as more distilleries are revived or built with certain traditions in mind, it will be interesting to see if the worm tub will become a more popular fixture.

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Five minutes with… John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams

We spoke with head distiller John McCarthy about Adnams’ the grain-to-glass process, being a pioneer British craft distiller and the crucial difference between wash and beer. Oh, and he has…

We spoke with head distiller John McCarthy about Adnams’ the grain-to-glass process, being a pioneer British craft distiller and the crucial difference between wash and beer. Oh, and he has some quite strong views on pink gin.

Created within the Adnams brewery grounds in the picturesque English seaside town of Southwold, the Adnams Copper House Distillery opened in 2010. According to Adnams, it was the first brewery to be legally allowed to install a distillery in the UK. Today, Adnams counts gin, vodka, whisky, cream liqueur and distilled Broadside beer among its spirits. Head distiller John McCarthy has been there since (before) the start so who better to explain the whole thing to us?

Master of Malt: How did you go from an engineer to a head distiller, John?

John McCarthy: I started at Adnams 20 years ago now, in 2001, as an engineer from an electrical background. I came here to look after the electrical stuff that keeps the brewery running. As an engineer, I run projects and a project came along to put a distillery in.

We started talking about it in 2009 and I was deemed the best engineer for the job because I had done some brewing exams. So, I looked into how a distillery works and what you need to do. I did a five-day course in the States, set up by the German stills company, Carl. They were pretty busy in the US at the time, because the craft distillery movement was really taking off. Jonathan Adnams came along with me because it was his idea for the distillery and on the plane home, I asked him who would run it. He said he hadn’t thought about it, so I said, ‘I’ll give it a go’. That was my job interview.

Adnams Copper House Distillery

The lavish stills set-up at the Copper House Distillery

MoM: What was the craft distilling scene in the UK like back then?

JMcC: It was new and exciting. The English Whisky Co. was going, Chase had started. There were very few of us and after that, distilleries were popping up everywhere, within a few years. A lot of people said to me at the time, ‘do you really like all these other distilleries popping up?’ And I thought it was great because the gin category exploded when there was an explosion of gin producers. If there hadn’t been 50 gin distillers, there wouldn’t have been the gin craze. It’s the variety of products that actually caused the craze to happen.

MoM: So, is that what you set out to make first? Gin?

JMcC: Gin first, but Jonathan’s angle, always, is that because we’re a brewer, it’s going to be grain to glass, we’re not going to buy neutral grain spirit. I have used NGS in the past, but only for contract gins, which we make for a couple of different people. We buy NGS for that because the vodka I make to make our gins is quite precious to us, it’s quite labour intensive to make.

MoM: Tell us about the grain to glass process…

With our grain to glass approach, the brewers had to learn to make a distillery wash. There are differences that happen in the brewhouse. When you mix your malted barley or whatever grains you’re using with warm water, you’re getting enzymes to break down the starches into sugars. When you brew beer, you want that to be at a certain temperature so you get a make-up of sugars that are fermentable and non-fermentable, you want long chain sugars like dextrin, because you want sweetness. And you want sugars that are smaller, like maltose and glucose, which will ferment into alcohol. You want alcohol, but you also need to retain some sugars that will not ferment. That’s beer. When you make a distillery wash, you want it all to be fermentable because you can’t distil sugar – you’re just wasting starch.

Barrels at Adnams Copper House Distillery

Wood experimentation in an important part of McCarthy’s job

MoM: Speaking of beer, how’s Spirit of Broadside doing? Have you made spirits from any of the other beer brands?

JMcC: We haven’t. Lots of people love Spirit of Broadside but the problem we have is it’s a hard sell. We basically did it as a stepping stone to making whisky. It helped us to have a brown spirit early on. We’ve still got some, we still make it. The big advantage of having our own shops is we can get people to try it before they buy it.

MoM: Rumour has it you use a pretty interesting yeast strain…

JMcC: Adnams yeast is two different strains, which we’ve had since about 1940. They are called class one and class three and we like to have 50% of each. If we have 50% of class one and class three, we get good, steady, vigorous fermentation – a good performance. We get the right amount of alcohol, everything’s lovely. If it gets out of 50/50, then we get problems: stuck fermentations, cloudy beer, all sorts. The problem we have is class one is a chain-forming yeast – it is very vigorous, and dominant. Class three (you can see the difference under a microscope) is ones and twos [as opposed to chains] and it is not so strong, it tends to get dominated by the other one. So, we have to propagate class three and do regular yeast counts. That’s the yeast we use for everything. And it’s free!

John McCarthy head distiller Adnams

John McCarthy in action at the Adnams Copper House Distillery

MoM: Adnams is also known for its wine business – are you doing anything exciting in the distillery with wine casks?

JMcC: We filled some Port and sherry casks with new make. They’ve been laid down for five years now. We have our three whiskies – our rye, a triple malt and a single malt. The single malt has gone into the sherry and Port casks, which I’m keeping. I’m into the idea that we need to do special releases. I want to do distiller’s choice-type releases, where I’ll just pick a single cask and bottle it. The sherry and Port might go for that.

I did buy some TGS (tight grain selection) barrels. They cost an awful lot of money but the tight grain, apparently, in the fine wine industry, gives a more refined wine, it just takes a lot longer to get there. So, I bought some of those to see what they did with spirits. I’ve got an experiment that’s been going with those for about seven years now. I’ve not even tried it. I will soon.

I’d say over 90% of the barrels I buy have never been used – freshly made and freshly toasted, straight from the cooperage in France. We do fill some ex-bourbon because our single malt is a blend of French oak and ex-bourbon, 66:33. If this distiller’s choice idea kicks off, I will buy some wine barrels to do some finishes in.

We’ve also made one barrel, about eight years ago now, of brandy from locally grown grapes. There’s a vineyard about 14 miles away from here and I bought a couple of thousand litres of wine off them and distilled that into brandy. Suffolk grapes making Suffolk brandy. It is a mix of Seyval Blanc and a bit of Müller-Thurgau.

Adnams Copper House Distillery

Southwold’s famous lighthouse reflected in a still window

MoM: Any other future plans you want to share?

JMcC: I’d like to grow whisky. I think English whisky is going to be a thing. There are around 20 people making whisky in England and Wales. So, it would be nice to get together and become a category. We’ll continue with gin, we’re doing seasonal gins. To come up with another great gin is always a good thing.

MoM: Do you think gin has still got legs?

JMcC: I think it’s on the wane. I don’t think that’s an issue, I think that’s probably a good thing. There are some gins that I don’t agree with – pink gin.  Hold my hands up, I make a pink gin but I try to make a pink gin that still tastes like a gin. There are a lot of gins out there that don’t. You can’t really call them gins but they’ve got gin on the label. I know the WSTA and the Gin Guild are working very hard to get rid of some of those.

MoM: Do you do any alcohol-free spirits?

I have played with it. I thought I ought to find out because someone is one day going to say, ‘John, make an alcohol-free spirit’, and I need to know how to do it. But we did some research and there really isn’t much money in it. It’s not a big category. There’s a lot of shouting about it, though.

MoM: What has been the biggest surprise when it comes to distillery life?

JMcC: How much fun it has been. When you’re an engineer, you just get called to install stuff and fix stuff. Going from that to actually being someone who makes something and gets good feedback for things I’ve made, or a recipe – that’s one of the highlights.

MoM: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

JMcC: I’d probably still be an engineer. I’d be fixing someone else’s distillery, on my hands and knees in a puddle.

The Adnams spirits range is available from Master of Malt.

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The history of Beefeater gin

What stories lie behind famous drinks brands? In the first of a new series, Lucy Britner looks into the history of Beefeater gin from its foundation by James Burrough in…

What stories lie behind famous drinks brands? In the first of a new series, Lucy Britner looks into the history of Beefeater gin from its foundation by James Burrough in 1876 to the launch of a new 20% ABV light version earlier this year. 

The year is 1876. Tchaikovsky has just finished Swan Lake, Alexander G. Bell is applying for the telephone patent and James Burrough has created Beefeater gin.

Early days in Chelsea

Devon-born Burrough, a chemist by trade, purchased the Cale Street distillery in Chelsea for the princely sum of £400, back in 1863. He embarked on making liqueurs, fruit gins and punches and counted Fortnum & Mason among his customers.

About 13 years after he set up shop, the first mention of Beefeater, named after the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, is said to have been recorded in the company’s papers.

Burrough died in 1897, aged 62, leaving his sons to run the business.

James Burrough founder of Beefeater Gin

James Burrough founder of Beefeater Gin

Move to South London

The Burrough boys must’ve been doing a pretty good job because by 1908, the distillery had relocated to Lambeth. The new site, which retained the Cale Street name, was equipped with the very latest stills, allowing for increased production. According to local historians, the new site also gave the company access to a well, capable of supplying London water with the right taste profile for the company’s gins.  

Beefeater poured out of Lambeth for 50 years but by 1958, the distillery had outgrown its surrounds and the Burroughs sought new premises. They relocated to the old Haywards Military Pickle factory at Montford Place in Kennington – the same site the distillery occupies today.

Conquering America

Advertising campaigns from the late ‘50s show that Beefeater had established itself as a premium brand: “A little more to pay, a little more to enjoy”, reads a UK campaign from 1959. And the following decade, the gin was enjoying success Stateside. According to the company, Beefeater made up “three out of every four bottles of gin imported into the US”. Then, in 1963, it was the only gin selected to be on board the maiden voyage of the QEII to New York.

The Burrough family sold Beefeater to Whitbread, the brewing giant, in 1987. From there it went to another behemoth, Allied Domecq, before coming under the ownership of Pernod Ricard in 2005 – as part of Pernod’s £7.4bn acquisition of Allied Domecq. The purchase catapulted Pernod onto the world stage, as the second-largest global drinks company after Diageo.

Desmond Payne, Beefeater Gin

Master distiller Desmond Payne enjoying a Gibson (photo credit: Chivas Bros.)

Desmond Payne, gin royalty

Along with both Plymouth and Beefeater, Pernod also inherited a man who has come to be a bona fide gin legend – and synonymous with the Beefeater brand: Desmond Payne. After 24 years at Plymouth, Payne returned to London in 1995 to make Beefeater. And he’s still there today. In fact, Payne’s life in gin was recognised in the 2018 New Years Honours list, when the master distiller received an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for services to the British gin industry.

Payne and his team have created many expressions of Beefeater over the years, as the brand looks to keep up with the fashions.

London wet gin?

Before the gin boom really took hold, the company went against the ‘Dry’ terminology associated with its London Dry Gin, to launch Beefeater Wet, in 1999. The gin-based drink was described as “sweeter and more fruity” and flavoured with pear essence. Although I’ve never tried it (it was discontinued ages ago), I’ll wager it was designed to appeal to the vodka drinker.

Almost a decade later, by 2008, the gin movement was gathering pace and Beefeater’s ‘Forever London’ marketing campaign cemented the brand at the heart of the London gin scene. In the same year, Payne created Beefeater 24 – a super premium brand extension, named after the 24 hours it takes to steep the gin’s botanicals. 

The Burrough name has never been far away from Beefeater and in 2013, Payne released Burrough’s Reserve. The gin, which is designed for sipping, was “rested” in Jean de Lillet oak barrels, giving it a straw-coloured hue. (Incidentally, the Burrough name is also connected to another well-known London gin maker – James Burrough was the great grandfather of Christopher Hayman and the Hayman family have been distilling gin ever since.)

Beefeater Distillery in Kennington, South London

Beefeater Distillery in Kennington, South London

Beefeater becomes a tourist attraction

But back to our story, and in 2014, a multi-million pound visitor centre opened at the Kennington distillery, marking what Pernod Ricard claimed at the time was the first gin distillery in London to have a visitor centre attached. (How times have changed!) To coincide with the opening, Payne created Beefeater London Garden gin, which was available only at the distillery.

Constant innovation

The following year, Beefeater relaunched Crown Jewel as a “thank you” to bartenders who lobbied the company for the 50% ABV gin’s return. The gin, which first appeared in the early ’90s, featured the same botanicals as Beefeater, though with the addition of grapefruit.

Innovation marches hand-in-hand with consumer trends and in 2018, Beefeater blushed: the launch of Beefeater Pink saw the addition of natural strawberry flavour to citrus and classic juniper botanicals. “Beefeater Pink really captures what gin has become, a modern, vibrant, colourful and innovative category, where consumers are not afraid to challenge the classics and conventions,” said Beefeater brand director Eric Sampers at the time.

Since then, we’ve seen the likes of Blood Orange and Blackberry join the flavour ranks and in answer to the low- and no-alcohol trend, the company released Beefeater Light. The 20% ABV product was launched in Spain only earlier this year. So far, it hasn’t appeared in the UK but never say never.

In the most recent results announcement, for the six months to the end of 2020, the Beefeater brand saw sales decline 20% on the same period a year prior. It’s a tough comparison to make, though, given the world has changed so much in that time; this is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Spanish bar and restaurant market where the brand had a dominant position. 

The company did, however, say that flavours were proving popular. And as if by magic, Beefeater Peach & Raspberry has just joined the fold. According to Pernod, it is “inspired by two historic recipes from founder, James Burrough, who created Peach Liqueur and Raspberry Gin in the 1800s”.

Beefeater 24

Beefeater 24 premium gin

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Cocktail of the Week: The Rusty Nail

This week’s cocktail is a simple drink that relies on one of whisky’s best liqueur friends: Drambuie – a secret blend of Scotch whisky, spices, herbs and heather honey. It’s…

This week’s cocktail is a simple drink that relies on one of whisky’s best liqueur friends: Drambuie – a secret blend of Scotch whisky, spices, herbs and heather honey. It’s the Rusty Nail!

True, the name ‘the Rusty Nail’ is not all that appealing. But compared to what the drink was called when it first appeared, it’s a peach. The mix of Scotch and Drambuie is said to have made its debut at the British Industries Fair in 1937, where it was simply called the BIF.

A version of the drink later appeared in the 1951 book Ted Saucier’s Bottom’s Up and in its post-BIF days, the cocktail was called all sorts of other things, including the Mig 21, which might’ve come from the 21 Club in Manhattan, where it had become a popular mix. Or perhaps named after Russian fighter jet the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21.

How did it become the Rusty Nail?

Enter Drambuie. In 1963, the liqueur company’s then-chairperson Gina MacKinnon, who travelled extensively as an ambassador for the brand, endorsed the Rusty Nail name. Such was the strong connection between Drambuie and cocktail, the company trademarked ‘Rusty Nail’ in the mid-60s, as a drink made with Scotch and Drambuie. Today, Drambuie is owned by William Grant & Sons and according to the Intellectual Property Office, so is the Rusty Nail trademark.

Back to our story and the mid- to late-60s. By now, the drink had, says cocktail aficionado Dale DeGroff, worked its way into the 1967 edition of Old Mister Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, which he calls “the cocktail book of record through the post-Prohibition 20th century”.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra enjoyed a Rusty Nail when he was out on the town

And like so many famous drinks, it is the famous drinkers that helped propel the cocktail to popularity and eventual classic status. In this case, the Rat Pack. Legend has it, Frank Sinatra et al were big fans of the Rusty Nail and DeGroff notes that by the ‘70s, the drink was a hit in Manhattan’s PJ Clarke’s – by then well known for being a regular haunt of Sinatra’s.

In the ‘80s, a delve into the New York Times archives throws up a reference to the Rusty Nail in an altogether different context: Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners. The newspaper describes the guide as “the last word in British titles and protocol”. So, where does the Rusty Nail fit in? Well, when it comes to advice about shooting, of course.

”Shooting is in fact so dangerous that anyone invited to shoot who has no experience should decline the invitation,” the book reads. “The host will not only understand but will be grateful to have saved the embarrassment of letting an inexperienced person loose with a gun.”

Then comes the drinking advice, or “aiming juices” as the book calls it. The preferred libation is to be carried in a hip flask and it is “a concoction known as ‘Rusty Nail’ (Scotch and Drambuie in equal quantities)”.

The Rusty Nail goes quiet

There is little reference to the cocktail in the 90s and 00s, except the odd blog that refers to it as an ‘old man’ drink. By this time, brown spirits-based cocktails were largely taking a break to allow the party drinks a chance to shine.

And then, in 2014, the owners of Drambuie said they were thinking about selling up.

The brand was snapped up by William Grant & Sons later that year and the CEO at the time said: “We are delighted to be in a position to start to re-engage with existing drinkers and to connect the brand with an entirely new generation of consumers.”

Rusty Nail with Drambuie

The perfect Rusty Nail (photo courtesy of Drambuie)

It’s back and badder than ever

They didn’t have to wait long. In 2015, Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul saw the main character make a Rusty Nail in the very first episode. His version included a squeeze of lemon (in fact this two-ingredient cocktail can be made to suit the drinker, as we’ll see shortly). And though the character of Saul might not be the poster boy they were looking for, the show did have a decent following.

A couple of years later, in 2017, Drambuie went big on the Rusty Nail, with a celebration of its 80th anniversary, timed for World Whisky Day. “The Rusty Nail has been formative for the development of Drambuie, which is now a highly-regarded essential to bartenders worldwide,” William Grant & Sons said at the time.

Curiously, in 2021, the drink doesn’t even get a mention on the cocktail page of the Drambuie website, nor in the brand’s history section. 

Whether or not this cocktail has been consigned to the history books, it’s so simple to make, it would be rude not to give it a go…

As whisky is such a big component, the choice is important. Drambuie is very sweet so something with a little bite and smoke to it works well like Green Isle, a blend of Islay and Speyside single malts with Lowland grains whisky. Or we can confirm that Talisker is a great fit too.

Here’s how to make a Rusty Nail, 80th anniversary version:

60ml Green Isle
30ml Drambuie

In a tumbler stir over ice and garnish with a lemon twist. The traditional version is half and half or if you have a sweeter tooth you can reverse the ratio. Or halve the amount of Drambuie if you like it drier.

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Say cheese, with whisky

From rich crumbly blues with peated Islays to Parmigiano-Reggiano with a cask strength Highlander, the world of Scotch whisky and cheese pairing is rich and (ful)filling. Lucy Britner talks match…

From rich crumbly blues with peated Islays to Parmigiano-Reggiano with a cask strength Highlander, the world of Scotch whisky and cheese pairing is rich and (ful)filling. Lucy Britner talks match pointers and favourite combinations with a handful of whisky experts 

A great whisky and cheese pairing is one of life’s little pleasures. And let’s face it, we could all do with a few of those at the moment.

The rules of cheese and whisky pairing

Like many food and drink pairings, there are a few basic rules to observe when it comes to getting your dram and your dairy to dance. Of course, once you have observed them, you can enjoy breaking those rules or making up new ones of your own.

Gordon Dundas, international brand ambassador at Ian Macleod Distillers, says the old adage of looking for a complement or a contrast is the first port of call. Matthew Cordiner, global brand ambassador for Bacardi’s single malts concurs and demonstrates both a complement and a contrast in his pairings (below).

Beyond that, Dundas says “peat level, cask maturation and alcohol strength are the three things you should be looking out for” when choosing a cheese. 

He says stronger whiskies generally have a more robust mouthfeel, meaning hard cheeses are usually a good match, whereas peated whiskies need big flavours, such as blue cheeses.

In Islay, Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Distillery visitor centre manager, says pairing cheese and whisky is a “win-win challenge, as the fat of the cheese balances the strength of the alcohol”. 

Thomson says there are a few other things that can cement a match: “It is important to find a ‘bridge’ – a fruit, a spice, a nut, a type of bread or biscuit – which will facilitate the marriage between the solid and the liquid.”

Cheese dreams: Top picks from our experts
Ardbeg and cheese tasting

Ardbeg and cheese, these are two of our favourite things

Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Distillery visitor centre manager

Ardbeg Uigeadail, 54,2% ABV, with blue Stilton

Thomson suggests serving the two with a salad of green leaves, chopped walnuts, dressing with orange juice and zest and olive oil.

“The tanginess of the blue cheese meets the smoky profile of the whisky. The walnut and orange are an echo to the sherried maturation of Uigeadail – this is a truly flavoursome matching.”

Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 year old, 47.4% ABV, with a Taleggio

To be enjoyed with an olive or bacon focaccia.

“Taleggio is a smear-ripened Italian cheese with a strong flavour and a creamy texture. The rind is washed during the ageing process and is edible,” Thomson explains. “It reveals some fruity and buttery notes and a slight acidity in the finish. There is an interesting combination of flavours with the meaty character of the whisky and the soft texture of the cheese tames the whisky’s spicy outburst at mid-palate.”

Aberfeldy and Craigellachie with cheese 2

Cheese and whisky gang thegither

Matthew Cordiner, global brand ambassador for Bacardi’s single malts

Cordiner keeps things local with his selection of cheeses from Edinburgh’s I.J. Mellis.

Aberfeldy 12 year old, 40% ABV, with Hebridean Blue

“The sharp, salty notes of the Hebridean Blue worked well with the honeyed sweet notes of the Aberfeldy giving a rich, rounded and creamy mouthfeel overall.”

Craigellachie 13 year old, 46% ABV, with Auld Reekie – a smoked cows’ cheese from Aberdeenshire

“Unlike the Aberfeldy which was more of a reverse pairing, the Craigellachie and Auld Reekie was a perfectly complementary pairing, with the creamy tropical fruit notes and wisp of bonfire smoke from the whisky working beautifully alongside the creamy and smoky taste of the cheese, which is itself smoked in Aberdeenshire over old whisky barrels.”

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

Gordon Dundas, international brand ambassador at Ian Macleod Distillers

Glengoyne Cask Strength Batch 8, 59.2% ABV, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano

“A harder, flavoursome cheese, like an aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, will really cut through that high strength. The whisky is matured in both sherry and bourbon casks, so it’s not overtly rich, more fruity although strong and intense. As a result, it contrasts the strong crystal style of the cheese but balances out flavour-wise, giving a long combined finish.”

Glengoyne 12 year old, 43% ABV, with Brie

“For a lighter, bourbon-influenced whisky, such as Glengoyne 12 year old, you want something that complements. Brie is light and creamy and will appear sweeter with the vanilla and calm the zestiness of the whisky.”

 

Ian Logan, international brand ambassador, Chivas Brothers

Glenlivet XXV, 43% ABV, with Camembert and chutney

“This was a creation of John Williams at The Ritz. With the XXV being finished in first-fill Oloroso casks for a couple of years, we managed to get a cheese that complemented perfectly. The chutney was made up of raisins, almonds, spices, apricots, dates and with the sweetness of the coconut, it couldn’t be a better match for those sherry casks. It was served with rye bread on the side for a little extra spice. A wonderful memory of a wonderful evening at The Ritz.”

Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve, 40% ABV, with Parmigiano-Reggiano

“Those new French oak casks are bringing heaps of sweetness and spice to the game, lots of lactones and vanilla from the Tronçais oak. Often as Parmigiano gets older, there is more spice to be found and that was the perfect foil for the sweetness of the casks and a complement to the spice from the wood. This match was proposed by Martine Nouet.”

GlenDronach-Reviva

The mighty Revival, great with cheese

And here’s one of my own

GlenDronach 15 year old Revival, 46% ABV, with vintage cheddar 

“It is customary in my house to enjoy Christmas cake with a slice of mature cheddar. For this reason, I’d go for something like GlenDronach 15 year old Revival, which is matured in Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez casks, paired with a crumbly mature cheddar cheese. The tang of the cheddar is the perfect match for rich, dried-fruity whiskies and the GlenDronach also has some great caramelised walnut flavours that work well with the rich and bold flavour of the cheese. Extra points for older cheddars with crystals, for extra mouthfeel.”

The beauty of whisky and cheese pairing is that you can go totally bonkers and spend a fortune on artisan cheeses and rare whiskies – or you can go totally Tesco and do it all on a more modest budget. There are perfect partners for every dram and no doubt there’s even a match for the DairyLea Dunker. 

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