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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Lucy Britner

The history of Campari

From its beginning in Milan to becoming an Italian icon, taking in Count Negroni, Fellini, squashed red beetles and, most importantly, the time Lucy Britner met Clive Owen – this…

From its beginning in Milan to becoming an Italian icon, taking in Count Negroni, Fellini, squashed red beetles and, most importantly, the time Lucy Britner met Clive Owen – this is the history of Campari.

In the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th president of the United States (that’s 1861, just in case you didn’t know), Gaspare Campari hit upon a successful (and very secret) recipe for a new drink with a bitter flavour. The Campari archives describe Gaspare as “both stubborn and brave”, since he set about making his “bitter in the Dutch style”, when  at the time, the world of liqueurs was dominated with cordials, elixirs and the like.

Seven years later, in 1867, Gaspare opened a venue in Milan – Caffè Campari – next to the city’s landmark Duomo. And by 1904, Campari was in production at its first plant in Milan’s Sesto San Giovanni.

In 1915, Gaspare’s son Davide opened Camparino as a ‘younger sibling’ bar next to his father’s Caffè Campari. The Aperitivo moment took off and the bar’s signature drink, the simple and delicious Campari and soda, was a hit.

Classic cocktails

It’s impossible to talk about Campari without talking about classic cocktails and the titans that are the Americano and the Negroni. The Americano, which is a mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water, was on the menu at Caffè Campari in the late 1860s, where it was known as the ‘Milano-Torino’ because Campari came from Milan and vermouth from Turin. The story goes that it became known as the Americano thanks to its popularity with American tourists.

The Americano is also the precursor to the Negroni. And like all good booze stories, the origins of the Negroni are soaked in confusion. My favourite tale is the one that suggests that in 1919 a Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender (Fosco Scarselli) at Caffè Casoni to swap out the soda in his Americano and replace it with gin. That’s MoM’s kind of Count.

Campari advert

Campari advert by Nizzoli from 1920s

Art attack

And as more and more drinkers were imbibing Campari – Counts or otherwise – the brand was also making inroads in the art world. In the 1920s, Leonetto Cappiello created the famous Spiritello sprite wrapped in an orange peel and by the 30s, Campari’s advertising has taken on the deco, futuristic style. The 40s and 50s saw Campari engage with more artists and in the 60s, Bruno Munari designed the iconic ‘Graphic Declination of the name Campari’ poster for the opening of the Milan subway. (It’s one with all the Campari labels sort of torn up and stuck on a red background).

From the art scene to the big screen and by 1985, Campari’s relationship with the world of film reached a new peak with Federico Fellini (of La Dolce Vita fame) directing a commercial for the Italian market.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw Campari capitalise on the economic growth of the era as consumers set out to be seen drinking the right thing. And in the 90s, Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science and The Woman in Red) became a different woman in red as she fronted the brand’s ‘It’s Fantasy’ ads.

By the 2000s, the mega stars were in full flow, with the likes of Salma Hayek, Eva Mendes and Jessica Alba all featuring in campaigns as well as the once famous Campari Calendar – a calendar that counted Mario Testino among its photographers.

While the world of art of film was in full swing, things were changing in the background, too, and in 2006, the company largely stopped using little red cochineal beetles to get the bright red Campari colouring. Sadly, they were never the subject of a calendar.

Galleria Campari

When a brand has amassed so much art, its owners need somewhere to put it all, so in 2010 the new Galleria Campari opened, coinciding with Campari’s 150th birthday.

Then, in 2016, Campari took down the calendar in favour of the Red Diaries film activation and British actor Clive Owen was announced as the star of the 2017 campaign. And yes, this whole article has just been a ruse, dear reader, to share this picture of me at the launch event with Clive Owen. Look how happy he is to meet a drinks journalist!

Clive Owen meets Lucy Britner, Campari

Clive Owen meets Lucy Britner!

Anyway, anyway… Owen was followed in 2018 by Guardians of the Galaxy actor Zoe Saldana and in 2019 by Blade Runner 2049-star Ana de Armas.

The big news for the brand this year harks back to Campari’s relationship with Fellini and the 2021 ‘Fellini Forward’ campaign designed to explore Fellini’s genius, using AI to emulate his works. A documentary following the process will be launched at Venice Film Festival on 7 September and New York Film Festival on 29 September, before wider release on-demand. 

Francesca Fabbri Fellini, Fellini’s niece, is involved in the project and it basically involves a “seamless collaboration between human and Artificial Intelligence”. It’ll probably make more sense if you just watch the video.

In recent company results, brand Campari delivered near 40% organic growth in the first half of 2021, compared to last year, thanks largely to all you home cocktail creators and the gradual reopening of bars.

So, mine’s a Negroni. Here’s to making it Count.

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Ken Grier on what makes an investment-grade spirit

After a recent tasting of Dictador’s latest 2 Masters release, MoM caught up with affable marketing mastermind Ken Grier to find out just what makes a spirit ‘investment grade’.   “I help people…

After a recent tasting of Dictador’s latest 2 Masters release, MoM caught up with affable marketing mastermind Ken Grier to find out just what makes a spirit investment grade.  

“I help people do cool stuff,” says Grier, explaining his job. “I did it for Macallan for 20 years and I had a lot of fun. Now I do it for other people. These are not just vanity projects, it’s about connecting with consumers in a highly distinctive manner: telling stories, making people dream, helping people to feel smarter, cooler and giving them more status. A moment of really special enjoyment where you go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’ve opened that’.

Grier helped to put The Macallan on the world stage. After retiring from the Scotch mega brand’s parent company, Edrington in 2018, he set up his own consultancy firm, De-Still, where he helps brands to reach their potential. A potential that often includes becoming an ‘investment grade spirit’. He describes investment-grade spirits as having a particular cocktail of ingredients, including provenance and often some history.

The second thing we can say is that they would normally carry some degree of distinctiveness in terms of liquid. Whether that be a rarity, a complexity within that. These things make something collectible. There is definitely something about scarcity and genuine rarity.

Investment-grade spirits also have a certain aesthetic, Grier explains, whether that’s simple elegance or an activation such as the £50,000-a-bottle Bowmore and Aston Martin collaboration.

You either want something that gives an incredible user experience or something that makes people feel there is some arbitrage there – that they feel they bought smartly, they have the respect of their friends, they feel good about it. And they might make a small return on it.

Ken Grier

Ken Grier in his Macallan days (photo courtesy of Macallan)

Beyond whisky

While whisky is firmly on the investment-grade radar, Grier says there are other categories that are interesting. Though he also suggests it’s often more about the brand than the category.

Rather than rum per se, if we look at Dictador in particular, and the cocktail we talked about, it ticks a lot of the boxes. It has been around since 1913, third-generation master blender and the remarkable cache of very old rum that they’ve carefully curated in good wood is amazing.

He also points to collaborations such as the latest Dictador 2 Masters Niepoort. The ultra-premium limited edition is the work of Port winemaker Dirk van der Niepoort and Dictador’s master blender Hernan Parra. The £800 rum is made from four vintage Columbian rums from 1971, ‘74, ‘78 and ‘80 aged for 12-16 months in Port pipes.

Innovation in 2 Masters has created something unique. This idea of having real friendships, real collaborations in different terroirs, different climates is really exciting,” Grier adds.

Elsewhere, he mentions Mezcal and his client Amores’ Logia project, which makes use of wild agave. “The limit on the production is the amount of agave a donkey can carry,” he says. “It goes into the areas of scarcity and it’s a very different product experience because the agaves are very different.

Both Cognac and baijiu – and the Martell and Moutai brands in particular are on Grier’s investment-grade radar. But baijiu aside, he says it’s a tough area for white spirits. White spirits are more difficult,” he says. Some of them do have some provenance – Beefeater for example – but they don’t have rarity.

Ken Grier investment

It’s not just whisky that makes for a sound spirit investment

Secondary market

Now we know what makes an investment grade spirit, what’s in it for the drinks companies that make them? Well, Grier agrees “100%” that selling spirits on the secondary market is a good PR exercise for the producers and he speculates that The Macallan is now 39% of the entire Scotch whisky market at auction.

“I’m a big, big fan,he says of the secondary market, which can build caché for a brand and establish price points, “which can be helpful”. He also says the secondary market helps to expose brands to a wider category of people and in a different way.

Whether people use auctions to find liquid that will create a special connection with friends or as alternative asset classes, Grier says the secondary market is “very, very useful”. “Places like Sotheby’s do a great job,” he adds. “The way that they actually publicise brands, bring them to more people, tell interesting stories… and very often that raises good money for charity.” He mentions a Macallan that raised $460,000 for Charity: water.

Ken Grier investment

The Macallan Masters of Photography

To drink, collect, or both?

While there are benefits to the secondary market, there are some that believe spirits should be consumed – and not traded.

To me, it’s both,” says Grier. The liquid in the bottle is always at the centre. When I did the stuff at The Macallan, like Masters of Photography, the M Decanter, they were beautiful and interesting objet dart, but the liquid was also superb. It was put together for a specific purpose; it was aligned to the story and part of the whole objet d’art. And I’m proud of that.

“Ultimately, all of these things should be capable of being consumed and enjoyed. Because the purpose of alcoholic beverages is to consume and enjoy them,” he adds.

Grier says people chose to keep some products back because they are beautiful and because of the scarcity and intrinsic value.

“People see a value in them which is fine. And if people want to do that, that’s great. It’s when people buy them and flip them very quickly that I get worried for the industry because that means people are trying to make a very quick profit without really understanding.”

He highlights the many approaches to investment grade spirits, including the love, care and knowledge displayed by collectors as well as smart purchasers and those that open and enjoy the liquid.

“I’ve seen all sorts of things,” he says, “but if you specifically have in your mind to buy today and sell tomorrow, I’m not sure what that necessarily does for the industry.

Ken Grier investment

Casks are a tricky market to get right

The potential perils of casks

At this point in our conversation, talk turns to casks. There has been a lot in the press lately about the perils of buying casks as an investment opportunity.

“If you have a wonderful cask from a great make – a Balvenie, a Bowmore, Laphroaig, then that’s to be applauded, bottled carefully, enjoyed, and savoured. I think it’s a lot of the casks from no-name companies – ‘whisky 568% growth! Outstrips any other index!’ That’s when you’ve got to be a bit worried.

Grier reminds us that good wood is the basis of good whisky – and he says that if you’re careful about the type of wood, the type of spirit from a reputable brand, and the way it’s matured, then a cask is something that can be a legacy.

He also reveals his own legacy: “I’ve got a cask of Macallan that I laid down and I prize that.” He says it will be for his own consumption with his friends and family. (Ken, can we be your friend?)

Ken Grier

Ken Grier at the recent launch for Dictador 2 Masters Niepoort

How to get into investment-grade spirits

When it comes to offering advice on buying high-value booze, Grier has some wise words. “The first thing is: be clear on what your budget is, then look at the character of the liquid – it’s got to be something that is interesting. I’d certainly look at the brand – what do you know about it? Its heritage? Then I’d ask myself what character am I looking for from that liquid and over what time horizon? Do I want to enjoy it or keep hold of it and hope for future appreciation? Am I collecting? Be clear with your objectives. If you do that, it’s very difficult to go wrong.

Our chat winds down with a look at Grier’s own investments, which include a bottle of the 1972 Macallan Fine and Rare, which was bottled in 2002.

“I paid £500 for it, there were only 100 bottles in the cask… I saw one come up recently and it was £26,000, so that was decent,” he says.

And we part with one last story, a tale that suggests even the experts aren’t immune to the odd ‘accidentally-opened bottle’.

Grier tells the story of when his mother-in-law came to stay a few years ago, to look after the children while he went away.

“I left her a bottle of Famous Grouse – she was a Famous Grouse drinker. I came back and to my horror, my blue box bottle of 30-year-old Macallan was almost empty. That’s probably three and a half grand,” he says. Though he was happy there was a thimble left to try.

Nevertheless, an expensive babysitter.

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Cocktail of the Week: Tommy’s Margarita

In the build-up to National Tequila Day (on Saturday) we’re enjoying a twist on a standard that originated from a small family restaurant and has gone on to become a fixture on…

In the build-up to National Tequila Day (on Saturday) we’re enjoying a twist on a standard that originated from a small family restaurant and has gone on to become a fixture on cocktail menus across the world. This week regular contributor Lucy is making Tommy’s Margarita.

The Tommy’s Margarita is an accidental modern classic, born out of a passion for Tequila and the boundless enthusiasm of the bar community. The drink essentially sees the triple sec in a Margarita replaced with agave nectar. But to get to know the Tommy’s Margarita, first you need to get to know Tommy’s.

Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco is one of my all-time favourite bars. The neighbourhood venue in the city’s Richmond district is a haven for Tequila fans, locals, football watchers, Mexican food lovers and anyone and everyone in between.

The actual bar area sits in a partitioned section along the side of the restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to get a stool up at the bar, don’t expect to move for the night. Instead, settle in for the Tequila journey of your life – and marvel at just how fast bartenders can squeeze limes.

This warm hug of a place is home to hundreds of Tequilas, a collection built up by highly respected Tequila expert – and one of the nicest people in the industry – Julio Bermejo. His parents, Tomas and Elmy, opened Tommy’s in 1965 and the family’s awesome approach to hospitality is a testament to the bar’s longevity.

Tommy's Margarita

Lucy, her husband Luke Ellis, and the legendary Julio (middle)

Creating Tommy’s Margarita

Today, Tommy’s is famous for its eponymous Margarita cocktail. A drink that is now enjoyed all over the world. “I never started to try and create a modern classic cocktail,” Bermejo says. In fact, several events formed the perfect storm.”

Bermejo talks about getting drunk on beer, rum and brandy at an early age and feeling horrible hangovers”, which eventually led him to try Tequila. He began learning more and more about TequilaHerradura Reposado specifically”, he says. At the same time, he mentions the introduction of agave fructose in Northern California, and a big one: “Making the decision to stop selling regular [mixto] Tequila in favour of 100% agave Tequila as our house pour, when 98% of US Tequila consumers only drank mixto.”

The move was ground-breaking. And it was motivated by Bermejo’s desire for his Margaritas to taste of Tequilanot the modifiers or triple sec. “What ended up happening as a by-product of no longer serving mixto, is I did away with the notion of ‘top shelf Tequila,” he explains. Then, as I began to stock more and more 100% agave Tequilas, I started making Margaritas with other Tequilas to demonstrate to guests how much of a difference replacing the Tequila made to the Margarita.

He says that for drinkers, the difference was “night and day”. His guests eventually found their favourite Margarita and their favourite 100% agave Tequila.

Tommy's Margarita

Tommy’s Margarita is all about showcasing quality Tequila, made entirely from agave

Spreading the love

Though the Tommy’s Margarita was born in San Francisco, Bermejo believes it was made on the international bar scene.

I think the real story is how it became so popular,” he says. For that, he gives credit to bar industry legend and Tequila expert Dre Masso and the late, great Henry Besant – who was a titan in the Tequila world – as well as the International Bartenders Association. They helped put Tommy’s Margarita on the map. And on the menu.

Tequila picks

When it comes to choosing a Tequila to make a Tommy’s Margarita with, I get the impression it’s like asking a person to pick a favourite child. Bermejo doesn’t name brands, but he offers some pretty solid advice all the same. I always say that if one wants a great Tommys, use a great Tequila. If one wants a bad Tommys, use crappy Tequila.Wise words.

He also says that because there are people, like him, who love Margaritas all day, the time and climatic conditions can greatly influence a choice. So, for example, if you live in London and you’re out at night and it is chilly, I would like a Tommy’s with more body and length,” he explains. “So, Tommy’s made with a reposado or even an añejo. If you are in Ibiza for summer, then you need a very bright and crisp Tommy’s, say one made with a great Highland blanco.”

Tommy's Margarita

Tommy’s Margarita: simple to make but so rewarding

Making a Tommy’s

The night we visited Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, we got chatting to a guy who turned out to be involved in American football. The Tequila flowed and Bermejo ensured we were very, very well educated when it came to understanding how different Tequilas influence the taste of a Tommy’s Margarita. So well educated, in fact, that I can’t remember which was my favourite. Or much about American football. So, here’s my home go-to Tequila brand in Bermejo’s modern classic…

60ml Olmeca Altos Plata

30ml freshly squeezed lime juice

15ml agave syrup

Salt the rim of your glass if you like. Then, shake all ingredients with ice and strain into your ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

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What do gin botanicals do?

From boosting flavours to keeping aromas in the liquid, botanicals have many jobs. And beyond the traditional line-up, the world of gin botanicals can get pretty weird, finds Lucy Britner….

From boosting flavours to keeping aromas in the liquid, botanicals have many jobs. And beyond the traditional line-up, the world of gin botanicals can get pretty weird, finds Lucy Britner.

‘Botanicals’: once upon a time the word was associated with fancy gardens and stuff from the Body Shop, but the gin craze has brought botanicals to everyone’s lips. Even vodka and rum have got in on the botanical boom in recent years. But what do they do in gin besides add their own flavours? Which ones are the most important? And what do distillers consider when adding new ones?

First let’s get juniper out of the way – we know by now that the berries from this evergreen conifer are essential to gin. And the rules stipulate that a gin must be predominantly juniper.

So, what else have we got?

Sacred Cardamom Gin

Sacred’s delicious Cardamom Gin

Calling coriander seeds

“There is only one botanical that comes close to the amount of juniper required in a recipe and that’s coriander,” says Tom Nichol, master distiller at Harrogate Tipple and former Tanqueray maker, with over 40 years of experience making gin. “I personally use coriander from areas around Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania – you get the gist. Spanish and Moroccan coriander is about twice the size but half the flavour.”

At Highgate’s Sacred Spirits, co-founder Hilary Whitney says her coriander seeds come from India, bringing “a beautiful lemony dry spice found in many gins”. And Hendrick’s master distiller Lesley Gracie also mentions coriander’s citrus character, saying it can be used to “dial up” citrus notes.

Indeed, Nichol describes coriander and juniper as a “perfect marriage”.

“But as with any marriage, you need a mediator to fix and help them stay together,” he says. “And that is angelica root, which really does bind them together.”

Angelica and orris roots

These are our fixers. Angelica – sometimes known as Holy Ghost or wild celery, is cultivated for its sweet-smelling edible stems and roots. While orris is the name for iris germanica and iris pallida roots – and it takes about three or four years to grow a mature iris root.

“Orris root and angelica root act almost like Velcro, to keep the aroma in the liquid,” Gracie explains. “For this reason, you’ll also find them being used in the perfume industry.”

Orris is famously associated with Chanel No. 5 – a perfume that was launched back in 1921.

As well as its function as a stabiliser, Sacred’s Whitney notes that orris also has a floral character, while she says angelica “adds body and creaminess”.

Lesley Gracie at Hendrick's HQ

Lesley Gracie at Hendrick’s HQ

Citrus appeal

Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, yuzus, bergamots… the list goes on. Of course, the origin and type of your chosen citrus plays a part in the flavour profile. And Nichol says citrus can be a tricky customer in the distillation process.

“Some botanicals can change dramatically and can be difficult to maintain consistency, such as citrus fruits – especially limes,” he says. “A slight change in the recipe volumes of these more difficult additions to your gin can balance this out.”

For Gracie, dried botanicals are the order of the day, and she says this helps to guarantee that she will get the same amounts of essential oils and flavour compounds from the botanicals every time.

“Whereas if you pick them from the plant, you’re looking at 90% of the fresh material is water, so you lose 90% of the weight of your botanicals before you start,” she says.

But in Highgate, fresh citrus is on the chopping board, largely because of the type of distillation used to make Sacred Gin.

“We use fresh citrus in our products as we prefer a true citrus flavour rather than a dry preserved version of it,” explains Whitney. “Think of the difference between fresh versus dried apricots or a fresh Bramley apple and dried apple rings. Vacuum distillation is particularly suitable for this because, as distillation occurs at a very low temperature it retains the freshness of the citrus extremely successfully – a good example of this is the difference between fresh-cut citrus and marmalade.”

Lesley Gracie in Venezuela, Hendrick's Gin

Lesley Gracie in sniffing out new botanicals in Venezuela

Bonkers gin botanicals

Away from the famous four of juniper, coriander, orris and/or angelic root and citrus, distillers have been putting just about anything in their gins. And a burgeoning gin market means they will go to great lengths to find something new and interesting.

Gracie, for example, travelled to Venezuela back in 2013 with an “Indiana Jones character” to sample fruits and plants that might be good for a gin. “We stayed with a tribe that had only been non-nomadic for about three generations. They looked at us as though we were completely mad! Anyway, some of the plants that were growing there, I had never seen before. So, we were looking at different fruits and plants, rubbing them, smelling them. Some were amazing and some were horrific.”

Wild pig’s piss Hendrick’s anyone?

This is the point where Gracie tells us about the Hendrick’s limited edition that (thankfully) never was. “There was one plant the tribe called ‘wild pig’s piss’. Our global brand ambassador came scurrying in saying ‘we’ve got to use this – imagine the label: Hendrick’s with wild pig’s piss’!”

After rubbing the plant in her hand, Gracie says she had a pretty good understanding of where the name came from. Pig’s piss aside, the master distiller did find scorpion tail – a plant with a flower that curls over like a scorpion tail. “I pulled some leaves and flowers off that, and it had the green, the floral and the spice element that we build into Hendrick’s.”

She says maintaining the botanical profile of the brand was important – no matter how whacky the new addition. “I did an extract and most of the elements were still there, which is quite unusual. I did a distillation with my baby still – in the jungle, in the hut where we ate and slept – which was quite amusing. Those three elements were still in the distillate.”

And so, Gracie made nine litres of the distillate and shipped it back to the UK to make a small batch of Hendrick’s with Scorpion Tail to release at special events for friends of the brand.

The trip ended up being an inspiration for the relatively new Hendrick’s distillery and its two innovation green houses. One is set to the Mediterranean climate and the other to a tropical climate. Gracie can experiment with different botanicals so that she can source them on a commercial scale, if they turn out to be any good.

I bet she’s not growing any wild pig’s piss, though.

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White Port: life beyond tonic

There’s no denying that a White Port and Tonic is a solid drink. It’s refreshing, relatively low in alcohol, and makes a great aperitif or summer sipper. But what else…

There’s no denying that a White Port and Tonic is a solid drink. It’s refreshing, relatively low in alcohol, and makes a great aperitif or summer sipper. But what else can you do with white Port?, asks Lucy Britner.

Once the preserve of Douro Valley locals, white Port has enjoyed spreading its wings over the past few years. The thing is, pretty much every time you hear anything about it, the talk is of White Port and Tonic. And if gin fever has seen you overdose on tonic, this is the Port (feature) for you.

To explore how else we can enjoy this wonderful creation, let’s get going with some background.

Quinta do Gricha credit Misti Traya

The view from Quinta do Gricha (credit Misti Traya)

Grape expectations

White Port is, unsurprisingly, made from white grapes grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley. There are many grapes that it can be made from, with Viosinho, Gouveio, Malvasia and Rabigato among the line-up.

The drink has been around for nearly 90 years; the first white Port was introduced in 1934, by Taylor’s. Since then, loads of other brands have followed. While most white Ports are released young, a few see long cask ageing, giving them nutty, complex characteristics – notes certainly worth exploring in mixed drinks or as accompaniments to food.

Churchill’s, for example, barrel ages its white Port for an average of ten years to create a fuller, complex style with a rich golden-orange colour. The grapes are crushed with stalks in granite ‘lagares’ (presses) and undergo a light maceration by foot treading followed by fermentation on the skins. This, along with the barrel ageing, adds to the complexity of flavours.

Cocktail hour

Zoe Graham, sales & marketing director at Churchill’s says: “Dry white Port is an approachable style that has great potential to appeal to younger drinkers, drawing on fond associations with summers in Portugal. It’s a versatile wine that can be served chilled, on its own as an aperitif, or as a premium modifier in cocktails.”

The Churchill’s team suggests trying the Port in a Gricha Mule (Quinta da Gricha is the company’s winery and vineyard in the Douro valley). The cocktail was invented at the 1982 bar at Churchill’s Lodge in Villa Nova de Gaia. Here’s how you make it:

Gricha Mule with Churchill's Port

Gricha Mule

60ml Churchill’s Dry White Port
60ml ginger beer (not ale)
Two lime wedges
Three slices of cucumber
Sprig of mint

Muddle the lime wedges, cucumber and mint in a cocktail shaker. Add the Port and ginger beer, fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Pour the entire contents into a Highball glass, top with soda and garnish with a cucumber wheel.

Taylor’s, too, has a great bank of cocktails for its Chip Dry white Port brand. David Guimaraens, head winemaker at Taylor’s, describes the expression as a versatile aperitif Port, complex and nutty, with intense but delicate flavours.

When it comes to mixing Chip Dry, apple and citrus – especially lemon – flavours get lots of mentions and MoM’s favourite is a take on a Sour, called the Canary.

Taylor's Chip Dry, Canary cocktails

Taylor’s Chip Dry, Canary cocktail

Canary

50ml Taylor’s Chip Dry
30ml fresh lemon juice
15ml honey
3 egg whites
5 mint leaves

Dry shake all ingredients, then shake again with ice. Double strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with lavender.

Food for thought

Beyond cocktails, white Port is an excellent partner for many different foods – and you should always start with a bowl of salted almonds or olives with a chilled glass of white Port to whet your appetite, while you decide what else to eat. We recently explored some options with Quinta do Noval’s Noval Extra Dry White – a Port with a certain amount of body and richness, with an almond nuttiness on the nose, and fresh fruit on the palate.

The Port is a blend of wines with an average age of two years – 90% aged in old wooden vats and 10% in stainless steel. Carlos Agrellos, technical director at Quinta do Noval describes it as a “citrine colour with an intense and fruity bouquet”, with a “good alcohol, sugar and acidity balance”. All important stuff when you’re considering what to eat.

MoM recommends starting with something like a light terrine or paté (nothing too strong) to balance the acidity and alcohol, as well as bring out those fruit flavours. The creamy texture will also complement almond or vanilla notes on the finish. If meat’s not your bag, a hard sheep’s cheese is also a hit, especially when it has a good dose of salinity.

The almond and vanilla finish also inspires dessert matches, and dishes such as almond tarts, crème brûlée or even a trifle made with white port, rather than sherry, are on our menu.

Noval Port & Tonic

The classic Port & Tonic is pretty tasty too

Just the tonic

There’s loads you can do with white Port, besides serve it with tonic. But if tonic really is your jam, you might be interested to know that you don’t even have to mix your own white Port and tonic anymore. Earlier this year, Taylor’s released Taylor’s Chip Dry & Tonic, the first ready-to-drink white Port and tonic in a can. The launch was closely followed by Cockburn’s Fine White Port, tonic water, lemon & fresh mint – all in a can.

As far as pairings go, we recommend a bag of ready-salted crisps and a picnic blanket.

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They paid HOW MUCH?

From high profile celeb brands to multi-billion-dollar company buy-outs, the drinks industry is a hotbed of activity when it comes to mergers and acquisitions. This week, MoM takes a look…

From high profile celeb brands to multi-billion-dollar company buy-outs, the drinks industry is a hotbed of activity when it comes to mergers and acquisitions. This week, MoM takes a look at some of the whoppers from the past ten years and asks, ‘they paid HOW MUCH?’

First up, a trip back in time to 2014. Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ was still top of the pops. And who else was happy? Well, the folks at Suntory probably were. In January that year, they announced a $16bn deal to buy Beam. The Beam company came with a goodie bag of spirits, including its namesake Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Courvoisier Cognac, to name a few. They joined Suntory’s powerhouse Japanese whisky brands Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Suntory time, indeed.

campari-ceo-bob-kunze-concewitz_juggling

Campari CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz  juggling oranges

They paid HOW MUCH?

In 2015, one of the biggest deals in corporate history – let alone the drinks industry – came in the form of Anheuser-Bush InBev’s move to acquire fellow global brewer SABMiller. The £79bn deal took a year to iron out and it gave ABInBev a truly global reach [including acquiring the Atom Group, Master of Malt’s parent company in 2018]. It finally closed on 10 October 2016. And Asahi picked up a few treasures from the deal, too, agreeing in early 2016 to buy SABMiller’s Grolsch, Meantime and Peroni Nastro Azzuro beer brands for about £2bn. 

Also in 2016, Campari Group lined up a EUR684m deal to buy Marnier-Lapostolle. Among the treasure trove was Cognac-based orange liqueur Grand Marnier. In full-year 2020, the brand accounted for 6% of the group’s sales and additions Cuvée Révelation and Quintessence concluded the full relaunch of Grand Marnier since the purchase.

CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz said at the time: “With Grand Marnier, we add a premium and distinctive brand to our global priorities portfolio, thus driving richer product mix, and we further consolidate our position as the leading purveyor of premium liqueurs and bitter specialties worldwide.”

In fact, Campari might be one to watch in the coming months, too, as recent reports suggest Kunze-Concewitz is once again on the acquisition trail. 

2016 was a busy year for Sazerac Company, too, as the US firm took control of Southern Comfort, among other brands, in a $543.5m deal with Brown-Forman. The acquisition of Southern Comfort by Sazerac was hailed as a bit of a homecoming, since both hail from New Orleans.

George Clooney Casamigos

The two amigos, George Clooney and Rande Gerber

Clooney tunes

The following year, in a sunny June 2017, Hollywood mega star George Clooney amassed a bit more wealth, when he – along with bar and restaurant owner Rande Gerber and Discovery Land Company CEO Mike Meldman – sold the Casamigos Tequila brand to Diageo for up to $1bn.

The trio launched the brand in 2013 and at the time of the sale, Gerber said Casamigos “started from a friendship and an idea to create the best tasting, smoothest Tequila as our own house Tequila to drink with friends”.

Anyway, it also started getting pretty big – big enough to draw the attention of Diageo.

At the time of the sale, industry analysts questioned whether the deal was on the expensive side… However, in 2018, Casamigos Mezcal made an appearance and Casamigos became Casamigos Spirits Co. So, they didn’t pay $1bn just for a Tequila after all. MoM wonders what else will come out of the Casamigos Spirits Co stable…

Agave go-go

Sticking with all things agave, and in 2018, Bacardi took over Tequila giant Patrón. Reports suggested that the deal valued the brand at $5.1bn. Bacardi had played the long game with Patrón, having first bought a 30% stake in the business back in 2008.

“We are delighted to welcome the team from Patrón into the Bacardi family,” said Mahesh Madhavan, CEO of Bacardi Limited, at the time of the deal. “We continue to be inspired by their passion, culture of caring, attention to detail, and unwavering commitment to quality. Our promise is to uphold these qualities to ensure the product integrity, innovative marketing, and commercial success of Patrón tequila for years to come.”

In the same year, Pernod Ricard made moves in agave, too, with a smaller deal to buy the rest of Avión Tequila – it had held a significant majority stake in the brand since 2014.

It's Ryan Reynolds!

It’s Ryan Reynolds, gin salesman extraordinaire

Gin takes flight

In 2019, all things gin were in full swing, and Brown-Forman made a move for Fords Gin. Then, in 2020, Diageo made the headlines with another celebrity purchase – this time it was Aviation Gin, co-owned by Ryan Reynolds, who retains an interest in the brand. The deal was worth up to $610m – an initial payment of $335m, followed by up to $275m, depending on Aviation’s sales performance over the following decade.

The structure of the deal sparked a tongue-in-cheek ‘out of office’ email from Reynolds. It read: 

Thanks for your email. I am currently out of the office but will still be very hard at work selling Aviation Gin. For quite a long time, it seems. In related news, I just learned what an ‘earn-out’ is… And I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone I told to go f*** themselves in the last 24 hours. My lawyers just explained how long it takes to achieve an ‘earn-out’… so… turns out I’m not as George Clooney as I thought. The point is, to those listed below, I’m sorry… and I’ll indeed be needing your help in the coming months and years. Thanks in advance!”

The email went on to list several people, including Clooney, the CEO of Diageo and Reynolds’ wife Blake Lively.

This year’s big deals

So far in 2021, we’ve seen many-a drinks giant invest in alcopop-du-jour, hard seltzer. But the deal closest to MoM’s ageing millennial heart is the sale of perry brand Lambrini, to wine company Accolade. If you’re wondering why on earth why, here’s what company CEO Robert Foye said: “Lambrini has such a strong heritage and is loved by British consumers. We are excited about the role the brand will play in our broader strategic growth plans for the UK and Europe.”

Sadly, they declined to disclose financial details of the sale. We’re assuming not Casamigos money.

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Saluti to holiday drinks

From pastis to limoncello and herbal bitters, the world of ‘holiday’ drinks doesn’t have to suffer because we can’t travel as much. Lucy Britner rounds up a handful of favourites…

From pastis to limoncello and herbal bitters, the world of ‘holiday’ drinks doesn’t have to suffer because we can’t travel as much. Lucy Britner rounds up a handful of favourites and offers some tips on how to enjoy them.

One of the best things about foreign travel is the wonderful – and often slightly weird – drinks. You know the ones, they appear unordered at the end of meals, or you see a cluster of locals sipping on them with a petanque or chess game on the go.

These are the drinks that give us a sense of place, and though many of us only enjoy them on holiday, there’s plenty of scope for drinking them back home.

Limoncello

This is an Amalfi dream. In the rights hands, limoncello can be delicious

Limoncello

“This is a drink usually given – and not asked for – and it’s often homemade,” drinks maestro Salvatore Calabrese tells me from his holiday on the Amalfi coast. “It’s very popular here, in the country of the lemon – the Amalfi has the most beautiful lemon zest in the world and limoncello has always been a part of the culture.”

Calabrese says the drink became popular in the ‘70s when someone discovered that it was much more palatable when served from the freezer.

But if you don’t fancy it neat, Calabrese has a cocktail for that; one he invented at a party.

Amalfi Dream

50ml vodka
25ml limoncello
25ml fresh lemon
Mint leaves

Shake all ingredients with ice and pour into a glass. “There wasn’t even a shaker at the party, so I just used a jar,” he says. “You don’t need lots of equipment to make good drinks, make use of what you have in your house.”

And, of course, the maestro has created his own version of a limoncello: Salvatore’s Liquore di Limone, which uses Cognac as its base, instead of neutral grain spirit. He also says the lemons for his drink are picked earlier for freshness. You can make the Amalfi Dream with this instead of limoncello, too.

Pernod

Nothing says south of France like a Pernod ice bucket

Pastis

From Italy to the south of France and the pastis brand Ricard (yes, of Pernod Ricard) was founded in Marseilles by Mr Paul Ricard himself, in 1932. Ricard is a heady mix of star anise and liquorice, fennel and plants from Provence.

Or, if you’re team Pernod, Pastis 51, created in 1951, has a similar botanical line up. These drinks are often served in a glass with a chilled jug of water on the side. The liquid turns cloudy when you add the water because the essential oils from the botanicals aren’t soluble in water. This is called louching.

Anise-based drinks make appearances on many holidays – from ouzo in Greece to raki in Turkey.

And if you want to enjoy a bit of anise action at home, this Ricard recipe is a good place to start. 

Lemon Yellow

20ml Ricard
20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
10ml orgeat syrup
16ml water

Mix everything except the water in an ice-filled glass. Top with water and garnish with lemon and mint.

Or, if you want a pastis from the UK, check out Cornwall’s Tarquin’s Cornish Pastis (see what they did there). Founder Tarquin Leadbetter suggests enjoying the pastis with water alongside some cold cut meats, olives and light cheeses before dinner.

“We also enjoy it with cloudy apple juice which complements the aniseed incredibly well,” he says. “For anyone looking to experiment with a more complex cocktail, why not try a Pastis Mauresque with Cornish Pastis, orgeat, lemon juice and an orange twist?”

Ok, then. Here’s how to do that:

Pastis Mauresque

50ml Cornish Pastis
15ml orgeat syrup
5ml lemon juice
Orange twist
Cubed ice

Place all your wet ingredients into an iced cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Double strain into chilled rocks glass. Garnish with a twist of orange zest.

Becherovka and concrete

Becherovka and tonic – solid

Bitters

If you’re a fan of Jäger or Fernet, you have to try Becherovka. Or as we nicknamed it on a trip to its homeland of Czech Republic, ‘Buggeroffka’ ( we over-indulged). This herbal bitters is made using a secret recipe, though the keen beaks at MoM towers can decipher cinnamon, aniseed and thick honey.

We enjoyed it as a sort of Boilermaker, alongside a fresh pint of Czech beer, but there are other ways to get your herbal hit.

Alex Kratena, co-founder of top London bar Tayēr + Elementary – and a native of the Czech Republic – tells MoM that Becherovka is drunk back home as a highball called BeTon (Becherovka and Tonic), often with a slice of lemon. “It’s really delish and it’s also a bit of a pun as ‘beton’ means ‘concrete’ in Czech,” he says.

Hard stuff indeed.

Fernet Branca

Very popular in Argentina… and San Francisco

Always room for a Fernet-Branca

Ok, ok, Fernet has travelled further than many amaro. And though it was born in Milan, it is hot in Argentina.

Poppy Croft from Fernet’s UK distribution company Hi-Spirits, says: “Whilst Fernet-Branca originated in Milan, Italy in 1845, created by Bernardino Branca, it is reported that Argentina consumes 75% of the global Fernet-Branca consumption.” A thirsty nation.

Croft says that to enjoy your Fernet like you’re in Argentina, simply mix it with Coca-Cola in an ice-filled glass. “This also contributes to making Argentina one of the planet’s highest Coca-Cola consumers,” she adds.

If you’re wondering how much Fernet is enough – Croft suggests 50ml – and give it a stir.

Happy holidays!

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How to mix BBQ and booze for Father’s Day

If your dad has moved beyond the classic cremated sausage (black on the outside, raw in the middle) and supermarket lager combo, this is the blog post for you. And…

If your dad has moved beyond the classic cremated sausage (black on the outside, raw in the middle) and supermarket lager combo, this is the blog post for you. And him. So here are our tips on putting together BBQ and booze this Father’s Day.

Beer and a burger are about as perfect a match as Kylie and Jason. But the world of the barbecue offers a range of ingredients and flavours, opening up a whole load of drinks opportunities. From marinating meats with a splash of whisk(e)y to pepping up tomato sides with a slug of vodka, barbecues and booze are brilliant bedfellows.

Cooking with alcohol

Let’s take a closer look at how to put the booze on or in the food:

“We love adding a small quantity of alcohol into a barbecue marinade or glaze,” say Aaron & Susannah Rickard, authors of the newly published book Cooking with Alcohol. “The volatile alcohol molecules will gradually evaporate from the warm food as you eat, and this evaporation carries the vibrant, fresh aromas to your nose – fragrance is a big part of how our brains perceive flavour, so the addition of alcohol can literally make it seem more delicious.”

Well, there’s the science. The Rickards tend to use dark spirits when barbecuing with alcohol – they look for booze that can stand up to the strong, smoky flavours without adding too much liquid. “Dark rum, bourbon and even Jägermeister are all great options,” they recommend.

Cornish sustainability expert and development chef James Strawbridge from Strawbridge Kitchen agrees. He recently worked with online farm shop 44 Foods to create National BBQ Week ideas and he says using whisky in marinades helps to build a robust depth of flavour.

“It works wonderfully with the following spices and herbs: clove, mustard, rosemary, allspice, smoked sea salt, soy sauces, cinnamon and orange zest,” he explains. “Bourbon with its vanilla, spiced caramel notes is excellent with maple syrup for a smoky glaze brushed onto sticky ribs or with pulled pork.”

Buffalo Trace and butcher Jonny Farrell

Jonny Farrell demonstrates the thrill of the grill

BBQ and bourbon

Speaking of bourbon, Buffalo Trace has gone big on Father’s Day this year, with a competition for people to nominate a strong father figure for a chance to win a bourbon and barbecue experience. The brand has teamed up with renowned butcher Jonny Farrell, who has given MoM a top tip for the grill.

“If you’re outside and have a decent space around you – no covers and walls nearby – you can always use a little Buffalo Trace to flambé your steaks,” he says. “Just as they’re about to finish, carefully pour a shot over the coals and watch the flames lick the meat!”

Farrell explains that not only does this look “seriously cool”, but it also adds a little extra flavour.

Peat smoke and fire

Away from bourbon and back on this side of the pond, Strawbridge is a fan of peaty Scotch, which he says works “wonderfully well with BBQ beef short ribs or smoked beetroot to enhance the woody notes”.

The folks at Ardbeg are also unsurprisingly big on smoke – and smoking meat. They have once again joined forces with DJ BBQ to bring “big, smoky flavours to backyard barbecues”. The DJ’s big hit has to be 18-hour whisky smoked pulled pork, a recipe that features half a bottle of Ardbeg.

If that’s not enough Ardbeg, you could also make the Hot or Cold Apple Cider drinks pairing – a heady mix of Ardbeg Wee Beastie, cider and ginger (recipe below).

Ardbeg Wee Beastie

Ardbeg Wee Beastie, smokin’!

Beyond meat

But if red meat or big peat are not your bag, Cornish chef Strawbridge has a dish for that, too. “Irish whiskey is the drink to use with a little orange zest on lobster tails or to flambé wood roasted scallops in their shells,” he explains. “It’s lighter, complex and can be paired with seafood or poultry.”

Cooking with Alcohol authors the Rickards also have some tips beyond the meaty main. To pep up side dishes, they reckon stirring in a little alcohol can add a bright, fresh flavour.

“The zesty, herbal notes of gin will enhance a coleslaw beautifully, while just a teaspoon of vodka in a spicy tomato sauce adds a lovely zing,” they say. “And to finish your meal, marinade large pieces of pineapple or peach together with a little brown sugar, lime juice and spiced rum, before tossing them on the barbecue. The sugars in the fruit will caramelise over the heat to create a deliciously sticky sauce with incredible depth of flavour.”

Whatever you’re barbecuing this Father’s Day, there’s a drink for that.

Hot or Cold Apple Cider

Ingredients

50ml Ardbeg Wee Beastie
50ml apple cider
50ml ginger beer
25ml freshly squeezed lime juice
Demerara vanilla sugar to taste

Decide whether you would like to make cocktails individually or as part of a batch. Add the ingredients together and stir well. Heat the mixture on a BBQ (depending on your preference) and serve with a ladle or use a hot poker to heat individual serves (careful now!) Garnish with a cinnamon quill, a star anise and a mini toffee apple

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The story of Grey Goose vodka

This is the story of Grey Goose vodka, the brand that kickstarted the super-premium movement and changed the face of the category. But did you know that before it was…

This is the story of Grey Goose vodka, the brand that kickstarted the super-premium movement and changed the face of the category. But did you know that before it was vodka, the Goose was a brand of cheap German wine? Lucy Britner has the whole story.

The tale of Grey Goose can’t take flight without talking about its creator, the US booze tycoon Sidney Frank (who with his bow tie and cigar looked just like you hope a booze tycoon would look). It might surprise you to know that Grey Goose wasn’t always a vodka. The brand ‘Grey Goose’ started life as a German Liebfraumilch (like Blue Nun) – registered by Frank in the ‘70s. And although the sweet wine died, the trademark lived on, revived by Frank two decades later, to become a vodka.

The ultimate vodka brand

It was the ultimate vodka brand – it started life with no liquid, no distillery and no bottle. But Frank knew there was a tremendous opportunity. Absolut was already making waves and he had the contacts, thanks to his success with Jägermeister.

You see, Frank started Sidney Frank Importing Co (SFIC) in 1972, bringing Jägermeister from Germany and putting it on the map in the US. Among SFIC’s contributions to its success are the Jägerettes – what the company claimed were the first promotional models in the spirits industry. SFIC also introduced the Jägermeister Tap Machine, which brought the brand out of the freezer and onto the bar. So, Frank and his team were well connected in the US bar world.

Grey Goose vodka advert

Ooh la la!

Super Premium

Frank could see Absolut was doing pretty well, but he had worked out how he might do even better. In an interview with Inc, he points out that Absolut was selling for $15 a bottle. “I figured, let’s make it [Grey Goose] very exclusive and sell it for $30 a bottle,” he said.

And the story of how it came to be made in France is just as ‘matter of fact’ as Frank’s pricing structure. “I said, France has the best of everything. I asked a distiller there whether they could make a vodka. They said sure. The product manager and I tasted about 100 vodkas on my front porch here, and we agreed on one vodka as the best-tasting,” he told Inc.

If you’ve been to Cognac, you might’ve seen the big grey, Grey Goose plant outside of the town. And despite its location among the vines, Grey Goose is made using winter wheat from Picardy, France.

The liquid was created by François Thibault (below), Grey Goose’s own maître de chai. “The vodka was created in Gensac, near Cognac, a region renowned for its high-quality wines and spirits and high mastery of the distillation process,” says Sébastien Roncin, heritage curator for French brands at Bacardi (which now owns the brand). “The pure grain undergoes a five-step distillation process, maximising the flavour at each stage and retaining the unique qualities of fine French wheat. The spirit is then combined with naturally-filtered water from the Gensac spring.”

The vodka quickly won ‘best-tasting’ status with the Beverage Testing Institute and the story goes that Frank put all his projected profit for the year into advertising. The brand went from nothing but a name to 1.5-million cases by 2004. 

Francois Thibault Grey Goose Vodka

Frank becomes a billionaire

And in that same year, Frank sold Grey Goose to Bacardi, for a reported “more than” $2bn.

Bacardi made the purchase to become a “serious player in the strategically important vodka category”. And Frank, though rolling in cash, was a little bittersweet about it. He said of the sale: “One cannot avoid having mixed feelings on the sale of such a great brand. However, I cannot think of a better new home for Grey Goose than Bacardi. The people at Bacardi understand brand building, and this will ensure the development of the full potential of Grey Goose.”

Frank handed out big bonuses to his employees so they wouldn’t quit the company and he also splashed a bit of cash on himself – he bought two big Maybachs and a Bentley. And he gave $100m to Brown university, which is used to provide financial aid to students in need. (Frank himself had attended Brown in 1942 but had to leave after a year because he couldn’t afford the tuition.)

Before he sold the brand, Frank, who was a big golf fan, contributed to the creation of the Grey Goose 19th Hole TV programme on the Golf Channel. This was continued after the acquisition by Bacardi and in 2005, golfer Retief Goosen was endorsed by the brand, then Matt Kuchar in 2012.

The story goes that in his older years, Frank, unable to still play golf, would ride around on his cart, instructing a team of aspiring pros to play for him. And they say money can’t buy you happiness.

Frank died in 2006, at the age of 86, having fulfilled his dream of becoming a billionaire.

And the story of Sidney Frank Importing went full circle when, in 2015, it was acquired by Mast-Jägermeister. Two years later, the company’s name was changed to Mast-Jägermeister US.

Grey Goose is celeb-tastic

Celeb-tastic!

The Bacardi years

With Bacardi in the driving seat, Grey Goose has continued to champion the super-premium mentality, with straplines like ‘Fly Beyond’ and ‘Live Victoriously’.

The company has also carried on producing flavours, after Frank introduced L’Orange in 2000 and Le Citron a couple of years later. La Vanille ran from 2003-2007 and was reintroduced in 2018, while La Poire (2007), Cherry Noir (2012) and Le Melon (2014) have kept things fruity over the years.

All the while, Grey Goose has gained traction in popular culture. It was explicitly mentioned in the Sex and the City TV series and in songs such as Stop Playing Games by 8Ball & MJG. Roncin says these mentions contributed to Grey Goose vodka’s popularity.

And ‘sleb’ tie-ups are still on the bill. In 2018, Grey Goose announced a partnership with top Hollywood actor Jamie Foxx. The collaboration included a 9-part digital series called ‘Off Script’, which featured Foxx interviewing other superstars, including Denzel Washington, Benicio Del Toro and Melissa McCarthy.

The brand’s latest iteration, Grey Goose Essences, also got a spot at the Oscars. The 30% ABV flavoured vodka range was launched in February and it comprises three flavours: Strawberry & Lemongrass, White Peach & Rosemary and Watermelon & Basil. The Oscars push included a 30-second ad that ran during the ceremony.

Interestingly, Roncin describes Bacardi’s investment in Essences as the “largest investment in the brand since the original Grey Goose”. 

Today, Grey Goose is available in 152 markets – and it’s not yet 25 years old.

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Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 9: Ardbeg

It’s Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 9: Ardbeg time! For the ninth day we travel to the mighty Ardbeg to see what the team has planned while Lucy…

It’s Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 9: Ardbeg time! For the ninth day we travel to the mighty Ardbeg to see what the team has planned while Lucy Britner shares her own painful memories of the distillery.

We’re so near the end of the Master of Malt Islay festival 2021. This is the last day on the island itself before we head to Jura and from there back to MoM Towers at a secret location in Kent. We’ve got a treat today, as we’re going to Ardbeg, home of some of the most individual and fiercely-loved whiskies in Scotland. 

Before we hand over to Lucy Britner for her memories of Ardbeg and the Islay half marathon, we’re going to take a look at what kind of online shenanigans the team has planned for Ardbeg Day. But before that, check out our very own Jake Mountain talking to now-retired distillery manager Mickey Heads from Feis Ile 2019 and don’t forget to listen to our Islay memories playlist on Spotify 

What’s going on today?

As you might expect, Ardbeg is doing things a bit differently with what’s described as a “Fantasy Island Map” that you can navigate around to discover whisky-based treasure. “Simply click where you want to travel to, pour yourself an Ardbeg, and enjoy uncovering the myth behind this year’s malt – Ardbeg Scorch,” it says. It’s a bit hard to explain so we recommend going to the special page to find out more. 

What’s the festival exclusive?

Ardbeg Scorch, of course! This will be released in time for Ardbeg Day on 5 June. That’s today! Naturally, Ardbeg Committee members get first dibs. The name comes from a dragon that apparently lives in Dunnage Warehouse no. 3. The limited release whisky is aged in heavily-charred ex-bourbon casks and bottled with no age statement at 46% ABV. Dr Bill Lumsden described it as “a fire-breathing beast of a dram!” The tasting note is quite something: “A long and heroic finale, with a subtle tarry aftertaste. A finish that will drag on, well into its happily ever after.” Blimey! 

Colin Gordon, Ardbeg’s new distillery manager, said: “This year will be my first Ardbeg Day ever: a baptism of fire! It’s a shame we Ardbeggians can’t enjoy it together in person, but the online event is shaping up to be tremendous fun. With a whole virtual world to explore, including fantasy inns, campfire tales, medieval feasts and live tastings, there’s plenty for people to be excited about this year.” 

The brave runners of the Islay half marathon (credit: Phil Williams)

The brave runners of the Islay half marathon. Lucy Britner is 132

Tales from Islay: The Ardbeg half Marathon

This is the story of how Lucy Britner came to be wearing the former Ardbeg distillery manager’s socks. It’s also a story of friendship, loss and an ill-advised ceilidh.

The mile marker said ‘7’. I was over halfway in the half marathon that I’d only half trained for. Horizontal rain turned to hail and then back to sunshine, and I could no longer see any of the other drinks journalists that were also taking part in the Ardbeg Islay half. We were all doing the race in memory of one of our peers, Alan Lodge, who had died of a brain haemorrhage shortly before his 30th birthday. 

Ardbeg had always been Alan’s favourite dram, and he would mention it frequently and passionately. And so here I was, plodding along a country road, trying to avoid grain trucks as they sped past. The rain kept coming and with it, every emotion I had. Of course, I was sad to be thinking about Alan but then moments later, laughing out loud at what he would’ve made of this motley crew of booze hacks running 13.1 miles. 

I suspect I looked genuinely deranged. More so, perhaps, because mile seven was going on forever. And ever. I knew I couldn’t give up because I was alone in the middle of nowhere – and as I was fighting a feeling of despair, finally a mile marker came into view. It was mile 10. It turned out the others had blown away.

The finest illustration of just how lonely the run was, is Phill Williams’ brilliant picture of booze journo Richard Siddle. We called it the ‘never-ending road’ – and I genuinely don’t know how he’s smiling in the picture. Well, actually I do… Richard, or ‘the chief’ as he is known, ran the race on a cocktail of painkillers, owing to a bad back. He told me later that he’d been listening to Kylie and even enjoyed a blissful few miles where she had been running along beside him. Maybe that’s how to run a half marathon…

Celidh, Islay half marathon. Credit: Phil Williams

Never do this after a half marathon

The end of the road

The race started and ended in Bowmore and as I approached the finish, I could see familiar faces, already wearing medals and spurring me on for the final few paces.  A stranger shouted ‘C’mon, Lucy’ and for a second, I thought I was some kind of new local celebrity, but then I remembered my name was printed on the back of my top. Still, it gave me a boost for those last steps, especially as to meet the 13.1-mile requirement, you had to sort of run beyond a natural finishing point and round a little corner, away from the bustling main drag of Bowmore.

So, we finished. We ate snacks on Bowmore beach and patted each other on the back. The competitive ones among us talked times and tactics, showed each other app readings and compared running notes.

But I had something else on my mind. I’m a big believer in rewarding myself after any kind of exercise, so my thoughts naturally turned to what I could eat and drink after running that far. And so, just a couple of hours later, I was sipping from a can of lager in the village hall, awaiting my turn to be flung around the dance floor at the ceilidh. The hall was packed with locals and runners, and no one showed any of that ‘school disco’ fear. Indeed, we clapped and danced for hours and hours.

This, it turns out, was a huge mistake.

The next morning, my blisters had blisters and no amount of plasters would let me put on yesterday’s trainers. For some reason, I had taken flipflops to Scotland, which was a blessed relief until I got to the Ardbeg distillery.

We were hosted by the wonderful Mickey Heads, who was the distillery manager at the time – and if  my memory serves, we got to try many drams, including a limited-edition Ardbeg from 1973, as well as Alligator, Corryvreckan and Galileo. (Soz, Alan, you would’ve loved this.)

Mickey heads Credit: Phil Williams

Mickey Heads to the rescue with a fresh pair of socks

You can’t hike to a water source in flip flops

After a tour of the distillery, Heads announced we were going to hike to Ardbeg’s water source, Loch Uigeadail, for a picnic. Now, it’s not that far – about 1.5 miles – but there’s always a danger of ticks and the like, so my flip flops quickly became a bone of contention. There was no chance the trainers were going back on and soon a pair of wellies appeared, and then Mickey handed over a fresh pair of socks. From his own sock drawer. What a legend.

And so we walked (slowly) and lazed by the loch, eating, drinking, chatting.

In hindsight, the Ardbeg half was a wonderful way to see a chunk of Islay. And I’d do it again, just with better trainers.

And so, for this year’s virtual Fèis Ìle, I raise a glass of Ardbeg to you, Alan. Gone, but never forgotten. 

Photos of Islay half marathon courtesy of Phil Williams.

 

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