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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Nate Brown

Ce n’est pas un Martini

This week our contributing writer and bartender Nate Brown channels General Bosquet* following a disappointing Martini experience at a famous London bar. Stepping into the bar of this St. James…

This week our contributing writer and bartender Nate Brown channels General Bosquet* following a disappointing Martini experience at a famous London bar.

Stepping into the bar of this St. James hotel feels like stepping back in time. Not way back, not like centuries. More like decades. It has a bit of ‘50s feel at best. ‘80s at its worst. The carpet is so plush one does not walk as much as wade through the room. It’s eerily quiet, despite the two elderly men in a corner. 

Table for three, I whisper. Right this way sir, says the white-jacketed man. Why do they all wear these jackets? I ponder. It’s somewhere between a uniform and a suit of armour. They all look like they’re carrying concealed weapons. 

I reach my table through the heavy silence, and see that I am the first arrival in the back room which opens only for evening service. I stand to remove my raincoat. It’s been one of those awkward autumn days. The rain falls but the temperature is still high. I can’t tell if I’m sweating or damp from the rain. Both, probably. Double moisture to be soaked up by the depth of fabric underfoot.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, too scruffy for some London bars

“Excuse me, sir”, I’m interrupted. “But we do not allow tee shirts in here”.

“It’s boiling in here”, I protest.

“I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to keep your jacket on.”

I look incredulously around the empty room, wondering who I could possibly be offended by my wearing of a tee shirt. Perhaps the walls are of a certain sensibility, the chairs perhaps? No, it’s definitely the carpet. That bastard mangrove of a carpet hates the sight of flesh.

I have no choice but to relent. I’m meeting two friends, L & C, here for the signature Martini. Apparently nowhere does them quite like here. I’ve been before. I hadn’t rushed back, but the gents insisted. C’s gin is on the menu and he’s quite proud. The damp raincoat stays on. 

Apparently this where Ian Fleming came to write some of his Bond novels and allegedly create the Vesper cocktail a shaken, gin heavy Martini with a pointless measure of vodka. No shaken martinis are any good. The only decent thing about that drink is the Kina Lillet, and you can’t even get that anymore. Nevertheless, here we are, about to spend £20 a pop on the speciality of the house. 

The Vesper Martini, shaken, not stirred

When they arrive we order said Martinis. A generous amount of time later, a rickety wooden trolley is lugged through the carpet. On board are a few enormous frozen Martini glasses. The kind that feel like danger in the hand. We are asked how we like ours. A request for a dry Martini results in a few dashes of house vermouth bounced into the glass, before being discarded ceremoniously onto the carpet. Right, so I can’t wear tee shirt but you can playfully toss vermouth onto the floor? In fairness, I bet you could empty an entire bottle onto this spongy floor without so much as a damp patch. 

The quantities of frozen gin poured directly into the glass are colossal. No shaking here, that’s for damn sure. What an imagination that Fleming chap must have had then. I mean, who else could have dreamed up a Scotch-swilling, colonialist, oft-racist, mass-murderer in this place? I look back towards the bar where now a few elderly, straight-backed chaps in striped suits have gathered and are proudly guffawing.

After ten minutes drinking we still haven’t emptied our glasses and the gin is now warm. It’s a grin and bear it moment to finish. We order another, or rather the first bucket of gin does. After two we are cut off. I’ve heard stories of two gin ambassadors coming here and finishing six of these mammoth Martinis on a few occasions. That seems unbelievable. I know I’d be my unwelcome self after that sort of session. I’d probably be requesting Meatloaf on the bar stereo. The embarrassment would linger. But then again, maybe that’s why neither of those chaps live in London anymore. 

As we leave, I can understand the two Martini limit. The afternoon is still blindingly bright, it’s still raining, and, in the lingo of the location, we are a bit spiffy. I suggest a beer to bring us back to reality. Drinks here are indeed worthy of their notoriety. Only it’s not really a Martini, is it?

*Who following the Charge of Light Brigade said: “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre, c‘est de la folie” – “It’s magnificent but it’s not war, it’s madness.”

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.

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How to lose your own cocktail competition

Nate Brown returns this week to take issue with the often costly, crass and conceited world of cocktail competitions. Walking into a bar and trying to choose what to drink has…

Nate Brown returns this week to take issue with the often costly, crass and conceited world of cocktail competitions.

Walking into a bar and trying to choose what to drink has become a game of chance. Menus are caught between the esoteric and the boring. Back bar shelves are at the point of collapse with every new gin and third-party-sourced rum. The tyranny of choice is palpable.

Imagine, however, that you’re the producer trying to squeeze onto the shelf like a baby pigeon on a shit-covered statue, screaming “Pick me! Pick me!”. Because, once upon a time, you felt the romantic lure of getting your hands dirty, of stepping away from your cog-in-the-machine 9-to-5 desk job and into the soulful world of creation. You’ve bought a still, you’ve filled in your paperwork with HMRC and passed all the inspections. You’ve smelled a hundred different exotic botanicals and imagined awe-inspiring stories of where they came from (they came from a shipping container, mate). Eventually, you make your first batch. You’re so proud that you put your child’s drawing on the label. You have achieved the wholesome life you always dreamed of. Looking over at the pallet of boxed up bottles, it dawns on you. Now what?

How do you recoup some of the life savings and family-borrowed cash that you’ve ploughed into this little project? Suddenly, it all begins to feel a little self-indulgent, doesn’t it?

cocktail competition

An ingenious creation, or self-indulgent nonsense that doesn’t benefit the brand?

Fear not, intrepid soul. There are dozens and dozens of brand management agencies on hand. “Sell bottles?”, they’ll chortle, “We’ll do more than that, we’ll build your brand so large you won’t need to worry about selling bottles!”. OMG, you’ll think, I’m going to be the next Sipsmith.

And, sure enough, the agency will tell you that the key to success is to engage with bartenders. These guys and gals on the front line are the power. They are the trusted voices, with the power to recommend, the power to dismiss, they are the proletariat of booze. “Fabulous,” you’ll scream, “how do we get them on board?”

And lo, you’ll be begging, borrowing and stealing to magic up a marketing budget to no doubt run a cocktail competition that’ll engage every bartender in the land with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime prize. You poor, poor sod.

Because there are various problems with this format. Not least, competitions by definition make more losers than winners. Not exactly the lasting impression you want your brand to make, is it?

cocktail competition

Look at all that wasted drink. Heartbreaking.

Secondly, the practicalities of organising and hosting a competent nationwide cocktail competition are fraught with difficulty. The hours spent in encouraging the lazy, I’ve-got-nothing-to-prove (read: ‘My ego can’t take the bashing) attitudes of a large number of bartenders are enormous. The groundwork requires the establishment of relationships, plenty of smoke being blown up certain sun-deprived areas, hundreds of unanswered emails and missed deadlines.

Bartenders don’t like to be hassled. This does not fit with their personas.

Thirdly, there’s finding a suitable venue. This is the true hallmark of the prestige of the operation. Get one of the most highly regarded venues to host and you’ll attract a higher quality of entrants, and also a hugely expensive bill for the space.

Plus, you’ll be throwing stock around left, right and centre to encourage experimentation. ‘You want to try a Szechuan pepper infusion? Here, use my gin. Then throw it away.’

cocktail competition

Nate Brown is sceptical of the benefits of cocktail competitions

Then, of course, is the judging. How bloody contentious. Who do you get? How much will they charge, if at all? And how, oh how, do you get them to judge impartially and kindly, without favouritism to their mates? Because I’m sorry to say, there are very, very few cocktail competitions ran without fixing: skewed to favour the glamorous bar, to reward sales volumes or the weight the name carries in the industry. There should be a scoring criterion rewarded for zeitgeist. Bars operate in a microcosm of local celebrity associations. It’s all nonsense. On more than one occasion I’ve been privy to the judges’ final deliberations, discrediting entrants based on the bar they work in, and crediting their mates, regardless of the quality of the drink or presentation. It’s a con, folks.

Then, of course, is the quality. In theory, a huge prize should attract a high level of drinks and presentations. But what happens when none of them are any good? It’s an Olympic scoring system. Even I’d win gold in the 100 meters if all the other competitors fell over.

In the end, the result of the cocktail competition might be a whole host of disgruntled, bitter bartenders, and a few select winners, who have zero influence on the products stocked in their bar, and even less ability to present your product in the best light. Money well spent? I think not.

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A little learning can be a dangerous thing

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week,…

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week, Nate Brown has an issue with those who think they know best.

“Excuse me, but I ordered a Daiquiri. This is not Daiquiri”
“Uh yeah, I believe it is.”
“It’s not.”
“But… it is. I made it. Rum, lime, sugar. Bish bash bosh.”
“No. It isn’t. Trust me, I know.”
“I can assure you…”
“Have you ever been to Dylan’s. Do you know Sergio there? He’s the best, and he makes me the best daiquiris.”
“I have not. I do not. He does not.”
“Well, you obviously don’t know what a Daiquiri is, then. Some bartender you are.”
“Enlighten me.”
“It was red, and frozen, and the best.”
“See, what you had there was a frozen strawberry Daiquiri.  It’s not quite the same.”
“A frozen strawberry what….?”
“I can make that for you if that’s…”
“A frozen strawberry what…?”
“Daiquiri.”
“Exactly.”
“Fuck you, Sergio.”

Miseducation. Fake news. Arrogance, mismanaged expectations. Call it what you will, but that’s a toxic cocktail of ingredients right there. Stirred together and they help form the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sociological phenomenon whereby a person’s perceived competence is hugely over-inflated with the smallest amount of knowledge. Bad education, between peers or across the bar, is breeding a generation of rabid, jacked up on the power of knowledge fools. Dangerous, dangerous fools. 

A lot has been said about what we sell in our bars. Is it drinks? Is it atmosphere? Is it escapism? Is it experience? Maybe. But no matter your thoughts on the matter, one universal truth is that guests pay for value. Anything you can get in a bar or restaurant can be achieved in the home, albeit at such an extraordinary cost that the value evaporates. It is the value that keeps bums on seats. And this value is becoming eroded. The second a guest knows better than the host, the system is in trouble. And those guests with a little bit of knowledge are being created by us.

Daiquiri Naturale

That’s not a Daiquiri!

That guest that knows cucumber is the best garnish, or that Schweppes is the only tonic for that gin, or that gin should really be drunk from balloon shaped coppas for flavour, they know their gin. This is the guest that knows that a Manhattan should be stirred 30 times in 15 seconds in a clockwise motion, that water belongs nowhere near a Scotch, or that the cork of the vermouth should be waved over the Martini; the guest also knows that rum is sweet because it’s made from sugar and that Daiquiris come in passion fruit or raspberry. Well, that guest is Frankenstein’s monster.

Behind the stick is no better. The archetypical bartender who holds dearly the phrase “that’s not how we did it in my last bar”. That bartender that stirs a Negroni in a mixing glass because that’s what they did in the hotel he came from. You know the one, he’s the one describing every spirit as smooth and fruity, and uses polishing cloths to clean his bar top and discards his used tools in the sink for the long-suffering bar back to clean because that’s how he earned his stripes. This is the chap who knows, and I mean really knows, what whisky goes in a Rob Roy, because the brand ambassador himself bestowed the burden of knowledge upon poor Barry’s special shoulders. Well, I don’t give a fuck, Barry. Where I come from we used to meet disobedience with kneecapping, shall we return to the good old days you miss so much? Thought not.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer. Is it too clichéd to quote some old wise character here? Like that lunatic Gandhi: “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom,” or Socrates and his paradoxical “I know that I know nothing.” Humility is in short supply in our industry. To be seen to change one’s mind is perceived as weakness, which is a dangerous spiral. One of the theories of bartending I was taught was the ‘failure of success’, which decried that if you think you’ve made it, you’ve failed. Some of you may know this as ‘sharks don’t sleep’. Only progression and learning are worth praise, and that’s worth remembering.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer.  Look up the Dunning Kruger if you don’t know it already, for forewarned is forearmed. Just don’t go preaching it – a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

 

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The hell of airport drinking

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown…

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown asks why drinks have to be so hellish when bars have a captive audience.

Here’s a classical depiction of Hell. Numerous descending circles, each floor a deepening depiction of depravity and retribution, hot pokers and all that jazz. However, at the bottom is no lake of fire, no burning pits. Instead, the devil is a three-headed monster encased in ice, frozen and incapacitated. 

I have a different interpretation of Hell. It is about an hour south from St Pancras station. It is a place where frivolous hope comes to die. At least in a hellish fire pit, you could cook sausages. At least among the ice, you could make a decent Dry Martini. In Gatwick airport, however, such simple pleasures are forever out of reach. 

Plymouth Martini

Imagine getting a Dry Martini like this at the airport, you’d want your flight to be delayed

On my latest adventure, I found myself thirsty, peckish and soon to be depressed in the departures hall. Bacchus and the other gods of food and drink have certainly never blessed this land. This is a place of hunger and want of every kind. Foolishly, I thought that a visit to one of the last remaining Jamie’s Italians would at least be mediocre. But my safe bet was a mule. Immediately, I became aware that the hostess’s lack of lust for life is contagious. Boy, if terrorists could bottle that, they could be done with us all by lunch. 

There’s an irony in this one remaining smouldering ember of an empire being the worst of the bunch, like a cockroach that just won’t die. I was sent to the bar to order. I watch the bartender (and I use that term loosely) make a deplorable Bloody Mary: a single of Smirnoff, visibly fizzy tomato juice, bubbling like a witch’s cauldron, a single dash each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, two ice cubes and a withered, malnourished lemon slice. I prayed for her to add more Tabasco to save whatever wretched soul was about to be served this crap. Mind you, all the hot sauce in the world would not be enough. The whole thing was put together at a snail’s pace, with absolute zero fucks given to the drink, or the guests impatiently waiting at the bar. She stops halfway through to complain about Barney the manger to her colleague, how he’s always hiding in the office. He’s hiding from you, Medusa.

The presence of a captive audience should stimulate the bars and restaurants that feed and water the endless arrival of inquisitive travellers. The hardest part of operating a venue is getting willing punters through the doors. Not focusing on that means more energy spent on perfecting the product. If only! Instead, the absence of a need to draw in punters transforms these venues into cesspits of hospitality excrement. What does it matter to them if the beer smells like cheese, or the mixed drinks are watered down with decomposing ice, or if the fruit garnish was cut last week? There’ll still be another wave of suckers to inflict this torture upon. 

Nate Brown showing us how to make a proper drink

The lounges are no better, stocked with horrendous spirits. Nor is there any relief to be found after boarding. Why is the journey a penance and not part of the pleasure? I think about becoming teetotal when I travel. Or hijacking the plane. And airports are not the only criminals. All arenas of captivity are the same. Theatres offer (bizarrely) acidic Merlot, bought by the bar for £5 a bottle and flogged for £30 to mugs like me. No, I do not want a Bell’s while watching Pinter. I’m close enough to the edge as it is. I’d kill for a Redbreast. Literally. On trains, it’s a choice between tins of London Pride or Carling? Give me strength. Why is there not a Beavertown? Or some partnership with one of the thousand independent breweries this country supposedly has to offer? Instead, I’m left with a choice between having my throat burned or my stomach assaulted. It’s part of the reason why I don’t go to festivals, either. I do not want to have to pay £9 for a horrific Heineken in a plastic pint. I don’t want to pay an extortionate amount for the worst Bacardi and faux-fruit slushy imaginable. Why is it so hard to offer a decent Highball? Is this why people take drugs?

There’s a certain destitute acceptance of being in a captive audience, one that will consume any old crap at any old price, and one that I refuse to partake in. When the demon Mephistopheles in Marlow’s Doctor Faustus is asked why aren’t you in Hell, he responds, “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” I know what he means. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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RSVP crimes 

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping…

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping mad. . .

Not so long ago I attended an event in Shoreditch. It was a snazzy affair in terms of organisation. Five sets of bartenders from all over the world were shaking up different interpretations of a similar brief, and it was fascinating. 

Each team produced widely different end products: some thought-provoking, some bloody good fun, all delicious. There was music, dancing, canapés, smoke machines, laser lighting, the works. It had just the right amount of glamour and good vibes for an epic, inspiring party. 

But one thing was lacking: guests. The room was sparsely populated. There were a few of the usual suspects, press, bloggers, bartenders associated with the brand, and not even a huge amount of those. Sneakily, I managed a peek at the guest list. It was long. There were dozens and dozens of names all expected to turn up at any point. But as the evening progressed, the numbers dwindled like a wake. Most of those no-doubt-enthusiastic would-be revellers simply didn’t show up. This is an epidemic in our industry. And that’s a terrible thing. 

ELLC

Now this is how a party should look (5th birthday bash for East London Liquor Company)

Firstly, a lot goes into organising and hosting an event. From a brand’s perspective, there’s finding the perfect location, and if that’s bar, then choosing a date that won’t detract from the usual trade will be a challenge. There’s always Monday nights, as almost no bar in London loves Monday’s ghostly trade, but this has to be balanced with when the target demographic actually want to go out. 

Print materials, such as menus, need to be designed and paid for. This will probably mean sourcing logos, typefaces, colour palettes etc. Stock, the currency of the events market, will need to have been requested, justified and shipped. 

As for bars, there are always obstacles. Team members aren’t always receptive to change, and all too often diminishing initiative is the price paid for moving them out of their comfort zone. Drinks have to be written, high volumes of glassware need to be on hand and playlists need tweaking. All this before the dreaded invite list is constructed.

And, after all, it’s worth remembering why these events are happening in the first place. Maybe a brand is launching a new expression. Maybe a master distiller is in town. Maybe the latest vintage is out. It almost doesn’t matter, for all the shapes and sizes a brand event may take, they are almost without exception a celebration. A celebration of achievement, an anniversary, a celebration of the industry, a salute to be honoured and respected.

You got the drinks, but where are the people?

Escapism and experiences are the tools of the hospitality trade. I’ve heard it said that ‘we sell the life of a millionaire, one drink at a time’. This is what good events offer: glamour, celebrations, appreciation. So it is amazing to me that we, as so-called experts of empathy, don’t show up when we say we will. 

I’d go as far as saying that we have developed a culture of false kindness. Of saying ‘Yes, I’ll be there’, without bothering to attend. We click ‘Going’ on Facebook, unaccountably making online promises that the analogue self has no intending of upholding. The attendance rate amongst those that RSVP yes can be 10%.

This false enthusiasm is hypocritical. If we feign enthusiasm, we are hypocrites. We create and offer worlds expecting guests to flock to and embrace, and, importantly, to play their part. And yet, we don’t reciprocate in our turn as role of guest.

I get that hospitality workers have long hours. I get that evenings off are precious. What I don’t get is the easy “yes” when the answer is no. Say you’ll try, say I can’t, say ‘if it suits’, but don’t make false commitments. It affects those who have worked hard to put it on. It goes beyond bad manners. It’s nasty.

So next time your phone pings with a new Facebook event, or an invite enters your mailbox, spare a thought for the organiser. Think twice before hitting yes. I know I’ll be making an effort to attend more celebrations, some to improve my knowledge, some to garner insight, but most to have a blast and celebrate our industry done well. I’ll see you there. Or not.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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Roe & Co, a Dublin distillery reborn

Last week saw the next step in the revival of a great name from Irish whiskey as the new Roe & Co distillery opened in Dublin. Our in-house bartender Nate…

Last week saw the next step in the revival of a great name from Irish whiskey as the new Roe & Co distillery opened in Dublin. Our in-house bartender Nate Brown paid a visit, tried the new make, and spoke with Diageo master blender Caroline Martin from Diageo. 

Some two and a half years after the release of the whiskey, Diageo launched the Roe & Co distillery in the Liberties area of the city. The distillery is the fourth whiskey producer to open in the area, further adding to the rebirth of the distilling heritage of Dublin 8. In the 1800s, George Roe & Co distillery was one of the big players in the Irish whiskey scene, with the distillery occupying some 17 acres, and home to nine massive stills making the traditional Irish Pot Still style of spirit. The whiskey crash of the early twentieth century called time on the brand, as it did on so many. Today, all that remains from the original company is a copper-domed tower, from which the Roe & Co bottle draws inspiration, and a centuries-old pear tree, which, appropriately, still bears fruit.

The still room at Roe & Co

The new Roe & Co is situated in the red brick 1930s power station that had previously powered the Guinness storehouse next door. Speaking of which, the Guinness plant is Europe’s most visited tourist attraction, and the folks at Roe & Co are hoping to capitalise on the trade. As part of the tour, visitors will be treated to a Highball cocktail experience, with the opportunity to mix their own drink using whiskey, a cordial of their choosing and lengthened with soda. At the end of the tour, guests can enjoy a drink in the lavish Power House bar. The emphasis throughout is on how to enjoy Roe & Co, not just how it will be made, which is a welcome sign of where the whiskey market is moving. The appeal is clearly to a younger, trendy crowd, and a step away from the more traditional Scotch distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio. Much of the design work was done by Drinksology, whose contemporary stamp is all over the distillery, from a mind-map made from copper wire, to the stylish cocktail menu in the bar.

The three pot stills are visible from the street thanks to an enormous glass-panelled window. These will be used to create the triple-distilled malt, and are named Vision (a 14,000 litre wash still), Virtue (a 6,600 litre ex-Tanqueray still) and Valour (3,300 litre spirit still). They are accompanied by a three tonne mash tun and six wooden washbacks. 

Refreshingly, Roe & Co does not shy away from the fact that its current bottling is not distilled at the new distillery. Instead, the focus is on the art of blending, as executed by superstar master blender, Caroline Martin. Martin has worked on Johnnie Walker, Bell’s and a host of other blends in her 33 year Diageo career. “A big factor [on creating the blend] was the need for a depth of flavour. I wanted something robust, that could stand up in cocktails,” says Martin. Throughout the development process, she consulted with Irish bartenders on what they wanted to see. One such change was the increased ABV to 45%. “We wanted transparency from the start, with no nasty surprises,” she says of the ethos.

Caroline Martin, Diageo

Caroline Martin enjoying the fruits of her labour

Indeed, Martin sent various samples to the helping bartenders, and it was version 106 that scored the highest. This commitment to developing the liquid has been honoured in a blending room called Room 106, where guests will be able to explore the art of blending and bring a blend of their making home. As a way of thanking the bartender crowd, and as an homage to the whole of Ireland, Roe & Co have released an Ireland-only blend, with the ratios of malt to grain reversed. This malt-heavy spirit is aged in a combination of Port and bourbon barrels, and is to be the first in a long line of limited release expressions.

As for the regular liquid, we tried the new make and true to the brand’s history, it is jam-packed with pear notes. Powerful fruit flavour, already synonymous with Irish Whiskey, is certainly the goal. Currently, the new make liquid is laying in cask awaiting the first release of Roe & Co distilled at the new Dublin site. In the future, it’ll be up to Martin to blend the final product to match today’s releases, although she certainly has all the right ingredients to hand. 

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Terroir in spirits: the myths and the marketing

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using…

Nate Brown says that the word ‘terroir’ is becoming increasingly meaningless as producers and marketers deploy it to describe a whole range of inappropriate products. It’s time we stopped using it.

Terroir is like quantum mechanics. Nobody can fully understand or explain it, though we are all aware of its existence. And much like the refusal of a quantum particle to be independently measured, as soon as I hear the word terroir in spirits, I know it isn’t at play. It vanishes at the sound of its name, like the opposite of Beetlejuice.

But for the purposes of this article, I’ll offer my own interpretation. Terroir is the flavour imparted by the idiosyncrasies of the location of its production. It’s a word owned by the wine world. It speaks not only of microclimates, polycultures, soils and sunlight, but also of tradition, culture, history and identity. Terroir is introspective. Terroir is retrospective. 

All very lofty. Perhaps I should explain what terroir is not. Terroir is not foraged local botanicals thrown in with sourced imports. Terroir is not a meaningless buzz-word employed by uncreative creatives. Terroir is not synonymous with small batch. Or ethos. Or foraged. Or local. Or mountainside. Or handmade.

Grace O’ Reilly from Waterford in Ireland

“The terroir, [is not] the process and the people ensure passion, innovation and tradition are poured into every bottle of Caorunn Gin”, according to a certain master distiller. There. I fixed it. 

Just for the record, claiming terroir in gin is pretty much always nonsense. Chances of you growing your own source material, fermenting it with wild yeast, then undoing all that hard work by distilling to 96%+ ABV, before sourcing juniper form Macedonia and orange peel from Seville pretty much makes a mockery of your idea of terroir. Because let’s face it, you’ve bought in your spirit, and your handful of locally-foraged botanicals aren’t going to cut it.

Similarly, rum has little claim to the word. I shan’t argue that some distilleries display characteristic styles, but where does the molasses come from? Some may be local. Most of it is shipped in bulk from Guyana. A rum company that imports spirit from a plethora of islands, making no reference to the molasses source, and part ages the product in Europe in French oak, should not be using the term terroir, grand or otherwise. 

As for whisky? Not likely. The overwhelming majority of Scotch produced uses barley from outside Scotland. There are those, like the chaps at Bruichladdich who source individual fields grown by local farmers, and as these ferment there’s a case for terroir. But if the distillation wasn’t destructive enough, the distillate is then aged in mostly American casks, or ex-sherry butts, all of which are most likely made from quercus alba, which isn’t even grown on this continent. Don’t tell me there’s terroir after all of that. 

That’s why vodka can probably use the term. There’s so little of anything else, that if the source starch is from a unique place, then its shadow grows long and reaches the bottle. Vestal does this well with some niche expressions made from individual potato varieties. Belvedere does it too. The other 99.9999% of vodka does not. As for Tequila & mezcal? Well, OK, maybe they have a claim, the blancos at least. 

Terroir can exist in spirits, barely, like fading colours of a painting left in decades of the afternoon sun, but until the likes of Waterford start delivering it in whiskey, it just doesn’t yet.

Not that any of that matters. It doesn’t take a genius (or a well-funded PR campaign) to see that a change in the source material will indeed change the resulting product. Stills aren’t that efficient (thank goodness or we’d all be drinking vanilla flavoured vodka). But, terroir exists in wine because there we have fermentation, followed perhaps by some subtle ageing, (and the low ABV of the ferment minimises cask influence) followed by bottling. Sure, there may be some filtration and other manipulations, but in a good wine there should be no greater influence than the grapes and the fermentation, without distillation to eviscerate terroir’s legacy. 

Nate Brown

Nate Brown in action behind the bar

So yes, talk about local provenance, sure. Incorporate your heritage and your surroundings by all means, but don’t use terroir. Try ‘sense of place’. Or ‘parochial’. Wouldn’t parochial spirits be a nicer term to band around? Because we really have to draw the line at a terroir-inspired (glass, blue highlighted) bottle design. Give me a break. 

I personally believe that terroir in spirits is possible, but I cannot reconcile this scale and commercialisation. I can fantasise about a poitin maker in the hills of Galway, growing his own grains and spuds for his tea, putting a bushel aside to ferment with wild yeasts, a rough, basic single distillation to ‘up the burn’ to ‘make something worth drinking, boy’, all done on a homemade still made from scrap parts and an old bucket. This is how his Daddy did it. And his Daddy before him. This is how he’ll teach his nephew to do it. This is terroir, it’ll be found in the place where the word has never been mentioned. See? It’s quantum. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

 

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Meet Scotland’s new make innovators

If you’re a new whisky distillery, what do you do to bring in a little cash while you wait for the spirit to mature? Make gin? Boring! Nate Brown looks…

If you’re a new whisky distillery, what do you do to bring in a little cash while you wait for the spirit to mature? Make gin? Boring! Nate Brown looks at two producers doing something a bit different. 

The economics of opening a whisky distillery are not for the faint-hearted. Years of planning, design, construction, commissioning of stills, bottling contracts and a hundred other factors are to be tackled even before the long wait for maturity begins. As it is, a cool £10m should cover the initial phases of the build for a good-sized operation. With perhaps as long as ten years of waiting on the cards before you can start to see any money coming the other way. Don’t expect your bank manager to do anything other than cackle in your face whilst bashing the under desk alarm. Mix into this the depth of competition and the unpredictability of future markets and you enter a kingdom of risk where few individuals dare tread. 

Ncn'ean Distillery

A watched cask never matures

So it’s no wonder then, that once the ground has been broken, walls erected and spirit has flown that distilleries explore any and all options at off-setting the huge cash deficit. You could, of course, release a gin, but please don’t. The world does not need another cynically-conceived on-the-bandwagon bottling. Gin fatigue, ironically, is alive and well.

If you really want to do something other than twiddling your thumbs and wait (which I strongly recommend), there is always the opportunity to play with the alcohol you are producing in-house. Indeed, it is the new-make spirit that makes a distillery unique, the casks used are pretty much ubiquitous. Just don’t expect to make any money. 

To be frank, it’s a darn shame that nobody just drinks new make. It’s a trillion times better than boring vodka (and I do mean the boring variety, not all vodkas are created equal). I know this because some new make spirits are already on the market, quietly gathering dust on shelves. Which begs the question, just what can be done with new make spirit? Here are two distilleries leading the way.

Lindores Abbey Distillery

Lindores Abbey Distillery in Fife

Lindores Abbey the infusers 

Does the name sound familiar? Good on you, my little geek. Lindores Abbey is mentioned in the first written reference to whisky (well, almost it’s written as Aqua Vitae) in Scotland (we know the Irish got there first). Appropriately then, Lindores Abbey has released an Aqua Vitae made from its new make spirit and infused with botanicals according to an ancient recipe (or close enough). 

The AV seems like a no-brainer. Although, as anyone in the sales and marketing side of the industry will be quick to point out, the ROI (Return on Investment) here is dubious. But we’re not here to make money, folks! No, no, this is an exercise in brand-building. 

As the man tasked with the education of the bartender community, brand ambassador Murray Stephenson plans to straddle both gin and rum drinkers by using AV as the hero spirit in classic cocktails, rather than as a modifier. It stands up in Espresso Martinis, Mai Tais, and Negronis, and all manner of tiki serves, should wish to don a grass kilt and pretend you’re more Bob Marley than Bobby Burns. Each to their own, I say. I’ll have mine in a highball. 

Ncn'ean Distillery 5

The stills at Ncn’ean Distillery

Ncn’ean the progressives

The folks at (the extremely unpronounceable) Ncn’ean do something similar. Again we have foraged local botanicals, only this time it’s distilled rather than infused. Yes, I know this sounds like a gin, but it really isn’t. There’s no juniper for a start. 

In fact, there is nothing gin-like in the new make from Ncn’ean; it’s really all about the rich, malty, stone fruit character of the spirit. Well, almost nothing. Yes, the signature serve is with tonic (and bitters). Yes, the bottle looks like a gin. Yes, some of the botanicals in the mix are locally foraged. But this is not gin. Nor is this terroir. This is a reflection of local provenance. There’s the key difference.

Ncn’ean distill the new make but its distilled with botanicals off-site. There’s no point in installing an expensive new still for a spirit that right now has a limited application. Ncn’ean, much like Lindores, isn’t balancing its while-we-wait-please-give-us-a-tiny-bit-of-cash releases on a pedestal of bullshit about apparent standalone integrity. 

I hope more newcomers pay attention to Ncn’ean’s (are we sure that word isn’t Elvish?) and Lindores’ models. What works here is the integrity. Goodness knows we could do with a tonne more of that in this game: we make fools of our guests when we are made of fools of by the marketers. Most of what makes a distillery unique is the new make, let’s celebrate it, even if we don’t drink it. After all, as any good brand engineer will tell you, if you’re not making money, make friends. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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The art of slow drinking

Bartender Nate Brown asks why we try to cram our drinking into certain designated time slots but shun alcohol at all other times. That’s not how they do things on…

Bartender Nate Brown asks why we try to cram our drinking into certain designated time slots but shun alcohol at all other times. That’s not how they do things on the continent. . .

Hemingway once said that drinking was a way to end the day. Clearly, old Ernest didn’t spend enough time in 21st century Europe, where Croatian fishermen begin their daily routines with a tall Karlovačko, or where French farmers drink Picpoul like water under the afternoon sun. To true Europeans, the ‘it’s 5 o’clock somewhere’ mentality is a grotesque excuse: the clock is not the gatekeeper of the gullet.

Ricard pastis

Savoir faire, innit? (photo credit: Pernod-Ricard)

Besides, it isn’t much of a stretch to feel that Champagne was made for mornings and Martinis for lunchtime. When, if ever, is a Negroni an unwelcome addition to your day? A Highball in the afternoon, or a pastis at sundown, this laissez-faire timetable is when drinking is at its best, not crammed into a few blurry nighttime hours like Claphamites on the tube.

We’ve got to hand out to our continental friends, they know what to drink and when. A recent trip to southern Spain confirmed our differences. Not only do they actually have weather (as opposed to dreary old England’s perpetual grey), but they also know how to handle it. Siestas, two-hour lunch breaks, cafes that spill out onto the town square, and best of all, bucket loads of the grape and the grain to stave off the heat noon and night.

Alas, to the modern Brits anything more than a ‘cheeky’ glass at lunch is obscene. The sight of a lonely chap nursing his afternoon Boddingtons evokes feelings of pity and dread. There but for the grace of God drink I. Don’t believe me? Suggest a chilled Beaujolais over breakfast to your nearest and dearest and await the intervention.

It wasn’t always this way. The restrictive licensing structure as we recognise today was brought in to allegedly aid the war effort (I trust the terrible irony of Dutch Courage is not lost here). The Defence of the Realm act (which is not actually from Game of Thrones, who knew?) restricted the sale of alcohol in public houses to ‘luncheon’ and ‘suppertime’ as if the feast mentality of the barbarians still held true. David Lloyd George, the teetotal Chancellor of the Exchequer reportedly said that Britain was fighting “Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.” And so he more or less brought to an end the afternoons of whisky sodas that had lubricated decades of social affairs. The taboo is a recent fancy, I don’t think the men and women of Victorian England had any qualms with an afternoon’s tipple, mother’s ruin or no.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, making his usual breakfast cocktail

But since then we’ve learned to cram our drinking into designated time periods. No wonder most of us drink too quickly. I say it’s time to return to the past and slow down a bit. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: have a Negroni at 11.30am before embarking on a four hour lunch. And by slowing down, we can learn to recognise that what’s in your glass has been patiently grown, crafted, and rested (if it’s been rushed, don’t drink it).

Think about this. The years that it takes for an agave plant to reach maturity before catalysing into a spirit can be an astounding 10 years, often more. And we shoot it down like a penance to be paid en route to delight. The minimum three years of solitary silence endured by the Palomino grape in a sherry butt can only command prices of less than £15 per bottle. It’s madness. Fermentation can be aided, but there is no fast-forward button. These things take time, time that we cannot get back, time that is so rarely appreciated. The patience practised in alcohol creation is a virtue beyond parallel. Who’d be a producer, eh?

After all, time is the one vital ingredient that is almost always overlooked in the world of drinking. I dare say that if the hospitality industry began a campaign of education surrounding the time that goes into creating a spirit, a wine, or a beer, the world would be a better place; a place where we can drink cans of Mojito (or preferably something tastier) on the tube home, or where a glass of something sparkling can welcome the day, or where the awkwardness of meetings can be dissolved in a glass of gin. That’ll be the day.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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