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Category: Features

Five minutes with agave guru Björn Kjellberg 

It’s London Mezcal Week, so today we have an agave double bill. First an interview with Björn Kjellberg, a Swede who fell in love with agave and now runs distillery…

It’s London Mezcal Week, so today we have an agave double bill. First an interview with Björn Kjellberg, a Swede who fell in love with agave and now runs distillery tours of Mexico. Then this afternoon, we’ll be mixing up some mezcal for our Cocktail of the Week.

You can’t miss Björn Kjellberg. He’s a tall pale Swede with a shaved head and Mexican-style tattoos all over his body. We met him back in May at the EBS conference held at a villa up in the hills above Sitges in Catalonia. This is the annual gathering of teachers from all the European Bartenders Schools around the world. It’s a bit like Highlander, only with cocktails. As you might expect, when nearly 100 bartenders mostly under 30 meet in a town famous for its nightlife, there were some late nights involved. But the EBS crew were as into learning as partying, and despite some bleary eyes, everyone listened intently as big names from the drinks industry like John Quinn from Tullamore Dew and Ludo Ducrocq, formerly with William Grant & Sons, now with Glenmorangie, gave presentations. Even among such drinks luminaries, Kjellberg’s talk on agave was a highlight of our visit. He’s so immersed in mezcal (not literally of course, that would be dangerous) and Mexican culture that his typically excellent Swedish English sometimes came out with a Spanish inflexion. So who better to explain all things agave during London Mezcal Week.  

Kjellberg in Mexico, note traditional fire pit for cooking agave in the background

Master of Malt: How did you get involved with EBS?

Björn Kjellberg: I started working as a bartender at the nightclub back in January 2002. And it just kept rolling. I started a bartending school with a friend in 2006 and ran that for about seven years. Today I spent most of time looking after the Tequila brand Altos in Sweden and soon also the mezcal brand Del Maguey. I began working with EBS in 2013. I got invited to host a full day education on Tequila, mezcal and agave as well as some cocktail inspiration for the Teacher Academy and Advanced Bartending programs they ran in Stockholm then. One thing led to another and some years later I got the opportunity to be part of the EBS Board of Education to push the school further and to take lead as, not only the largest bartender school in the world, but also the premier one.

MoM: Can you remember your first bottle of mezcal?

BK: I am pretty certain it was Recuerdo de Oaxaca or maybe, El Señorio back in 2006. The old original bottlings before Casa Armando took over the production. Not saying they ruined it or anything, but it was a whole other beast back then. I later became good friends with Vincente Reyes who founded the brands and he was the one who guided me in Oaxaca the first time and lay the foundation of the deeper understanding and appreciation of this culture.

MoM: When did you first go to Mexico?

BK: In 2010, I spent about a week in Jalisco visiting six or seven producers and then a few days in Oaxaca for another three or four visits.

Agave plants which are destined for mezcal

MoM: What is it that makes mezcal so special for you?

BK: It is still alive! Not saying all other spirits are dead or too industrialised, but mezcal really is more alive. The only other spirit that comes close, as I see it, is Haitian clairin. Say Scottish whisky, as an example, it is important for the people in the communities and it is important for the identity of Scotland and so on. But it is not about life, it is not about death. It has to some extent lost its deeper roots and connection to it origin, to its ancestors and its indigenous role. Then, of course, we have the agave. No other crop in the world of spirits is so unique and extraordinary as the agave. People have been using it for food and for textiles, drinks, fuel and even shelter for more than 9000 years. It is embedded in ancient folklore, myth, religion and culture. With agave we are preserving ancient cultures and traditions. Each bottle of family-produced mezcal actually matters to someone. There is a real person and a family behind, and for them a little means a lot. I would love to recommend everyone with the slightest interest in spirits, culture or Mexico to watch the beautiful documentary Agave is Life by Meredith Dreiss and David Brown of Archero Productions. It gives gives you a deeper understanding why agave is important.

MoM: Are you happy with the new designation system (good explanation here) for mezcal?

BK: Very! As a rare thing they put people in charge who actually listened to the smaller producers and looked at production from a craft and tradition perspective first when stipulating these new rules and regulations. Also, I think they made it really fair even for the bigger producers who have chosen a more industrial way of reaching growth. Is it made from agave? Is everything made within the borders of the designated area? Good! Then we have a mezcal. Then if you choose more ancient or crafted methods of production you may add that to the name. Brilliant! More spirits categories should look at this.

MoM: Do you think mezcal is challenging for consumers? Do you think it will ever be mainstream?

BK: Yes, of course. Just look at the journey we made the last ten years. I never think mezcal will be as rum, vodka or gin, but it for sure will become normalised. This is also why it is so important with education and showing all parts of the mezcal industry and world. To allow growth and new influences without diminishing the traditions. I am pretty sure both modern and traditional mezcals can live side by side and that both will prosper from each other.

Bjorn Kjellberg

Kjellberg in his natural habitat, drinking mezcal

MoM: Do you have a favourite mezcal bar? 

BK: In Mexico I say Mezcalogia in Oaxaca and La Clandestina in Mexico City. Outside I would go for The Barking Dog in Copenhagen. Even though it is not a pure Mezcaleria they always carry a great assortment that is always on the move and also care a lot about each bottle. Then I have to mention La Punta in Rome as well. Great bar by great people.

MoM: Do you have any tips for people wanting to go on a mezcal tour? 

BK: It is always tricky, since a lot of people these days are going to Mexico, I always get the questions for recommendation for cool palenques (small artisanal distilleries) to visit. I can, but you will never find your way there. Not that they are secret or anything, it is just that most of them are located in such remote places and that this is not an industry as Tequila is where a lot of producers have organized tours or a visitor center or such. For a lot of visits, you need someone on the inside. This is one reason why I have been organising and putting together educational trips to both Jalisco and Oaxaca. To give more people the chance to see and get to know what I care about the most in the world. Other recommendations if you happen to be in Oaxaca is to swing by the bar Mezcalogia and talk to the staff there and they can hook you up. The family who owns the bar produces some of the finest mezcal I have ever tried and know pretty much everyone.There are also tours you can take and buy tickets for on the streets, and if you drive to Santiago Matatlán there are plenty of palenques to visit.

MoM: What’s your favourite mezcal cocktail?

BK: Funny, that this is the hardest question here. Since there really are no classic mezcal cocktails, most are signature drinks from a bar or bartender or contemporary riffs on classics. But I would have to say either a mezcal Negroni (equal parts) with a Jamaican style dark rum float (brand of choice for me is Smith & Cross), or something light fresh with tropical fruits like pineapple or mango. In general, I think mezcal is at its very best in cocktails when it acts more as a modifier than as a base. It only takes a little to do a lot.

MoM: And finally, when did you get your first Mexican tattoo?

BK: The first with a pure Mexican motif is a day of the dead sugar skull I had done in 2008. Then I also have part of a drawing by the Mexican painter José Posada and an agave behind my left ear. Then again, pretty much half of what I got are Latin American Catholic motifs, so I guess I got a lot of Mexico-relatable stuff. This comes even before mezcal found me. It was meant to be!

 

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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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Rare single field Ocho Tequilas are here!

We have a treat this week, as Jesse Estes from Ocho talks us through his family’s single field vintage Tequilas. Oh, and coincidentally a consignment of these rare as hens…

We have a treat this week, as Jesse Estes from Ocho talks us through his family’s single field vintage Tequilas. Oh, and coincidentally a consignment of these rare as hens teeth spirits has just arrived at MoM HQ. What timing!

Perhaps more than any other individual, Jesse Estes’ father Tomas Estes is responsible for introducing Europe to Tequila. Originally from California, in 1976 Estes senior opened the first Pacifico restaurant in Amsterdam. A London branch opened in 1982 which became a celebrity hangout with Queen (the band) and Hunter S. Thompson both photographed there. Before Pacifico, Tequila was virtually unknown outside the Americas but in the ‘80s sales in Europe took off. In addition to the restaurants, Estes wrote a book on his favourite spirit and was made official Tequila ambassador for the EU by the CNIT (Camara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera).

Jesse and Tomas Estes

Tomas and Jesse Estes, and yes Estes junior is old enough to drink

In 2008, Estes teamed up with Carlos Camarena, an award-winning third generation Tequilero, to make Ocho Tequila. It was a very different market back then, according to Estes junior: “People laughed us out of the room when we talked about terroir.” The first batches only really sold through their restaurants, “we were never commercially-driven brand”, he said. Since then, the bar industry has changed immeasurably .

You can’t move for the word terroir these days in spirits. Much of this is nonsense (article coming soon!) but with Ocho Tequila it makes sense. Small differences in soil, altitude, and microclimate really can have an enormous effect on blue agave and the taste of the resulting Tequila, and each agave harvest is unique. “Tequila does not lend itself to consistency”, Jesse Estes told me. Most companies blend this variation away but Ocho Tequilas are bottled from single fields and harvests.He grew up taking yearly trips to Burgundy with his father where neighbouring vineyards can make wine that go for vastly different prices because of differences in the terroir. The aim with Ocho was to bring some of that sensibility to Tequila. Though unlike grapes, you don’t get a harvest from each field every year as the plants take on average eight years to mature.

All Ocho Tequila come from the family’s own fields. Jesse Estes told me that they harvest late to maximise sugar. Sometimes the fields smell of vinegar because the agave has already begun to ferment in the ground. Every batch is 100% agave, slowly steamed in brick ovens for 72 hours, fermented with wild yeasts, and double-distilled. There are no additives pre or post-distillation. As well as blanco unaged Tequilas, Ocho offers reposados (aged for eight weeks in ex-bourbon casks) and añejos (aged for at least a year). 

La Magueyra 2014

2014 harvest at La Magueyera

We spent a very happy morning at Cafe Pacifico in Covent Garden with Jesses Estes sampling our way through some of the range, and we were amazed at how different some of them are. You can really taste the difference between the fields – some are fiery and spicy, others sweet and floral. What they all had in common was that though they are distinctive, they are not difficult spirits for the uninitiated to appreciate, unlike some mezcals. There is a full range available exclusively to Master of Malt. Some are only available in limited quantities so you better hurry. I’ve picked out a few highlights:

Las Presas blanco 2018

“I love this field”, Estes told us.
Nose: pure and saline with a touch of mint.
Palate: olive brine, green fresh olives, you know those bright green Puglian ones.
Finish: green peppercorns. 

La Latilla blanco 2015

Nose: green banana, like a delicate rhum agricole.
Palate: sweet and smooth, vanilla, caramel, very creamy, refreshing acidity
Finish: black pepper.

Loma Alta blanco 2015  

Nose: really powerful, dark chocolate and vegetal notes.
Palate: aromatic pepper, pink peppercorns balanced by sweet toffee notes
Finish: very long, aromatic spicy notes.

La Magueyra 2014

Piña ready for cooking at La Magueyera in 2014

La Magueyera blanco 2014

Nose: lively and peppery, touch of paprika
Palate: intensely spicy, almost a chilli pepper burn from all that spice, but again there’s a sweetness that balances it.
Finish: creamy and long.

La Magueyera reposado 2014

As above but aged in oak for eight weeks.Nose: touch of toffee, aromatic.
Palate: floral, very big and spicy, touch of smoke here and then a caramel sweetness.
Finish: honey with lingering pepper.

 

 

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Hangover squared: the science behind relieving post-alcohol pain

Drinking enough to feel ill-effects the next day isn’t big and it certainly isn’t clever, but sometimes it happens – and now, there’s an industry of pills and potions dedicated…

Drinking enough to feel ill-effects the next day isn’t big and it certainly isn’t clever, but sometimes it happens – and now, there’s an industry of pills and potions dedicated to alleviating morning-after misery. But where is the trend going, and crucially, does it have any scientific backing? MoM peers inside the hangover supplement industry…

Hangover symptoms are far more complex than perhaps we give them credit for. Even doctors don’t fully understand the inner workings of your brain and body after one or two too many drams. And indeed there are many different factors that affect how your body processes alcohol – the type and quality of the alcohol being served to the age, sex, stature, ethnicity, heredity, diet and sleep habits of the drinker – which, in turn, have some influence on how you feel the morning after. 

Generally speaking, though, there are a few biological processes we humans all share. Drinking alcohol suppresses the creation of a hormone called vasopressin, says Samantha Welsh, marketing director for NutriDrip and The Hangover Club, prompting your kidneys to send water straight to your bladder without absorbing it, “which is why when we drink we tend to use the bathroom a lot,” she says. Your dehydrated brain shrinks, causing tension and painful headaches the next day, and you’ll have lost “important minerals and nutrients such as potassium, sodium, and other B vitamins, which results in muscle pain and fatigue”.

Survivor

You know you’re in for a long night when these packets are strewn on the table

Unfortunately dehydration is just a symptom, rather than a cause, of the hangover puzzle. The real problem isn’t, technically speaking, the alcohol (i.e. ethanol) you’re sipping – it’s a chain reaction that occurs inside your body after you’ve ingested that Piña Colada. “When you drink more alcohol than your liver can break down, toxins such as acetaldehyde build up,” explains Eddie Huai, founder of FlyBy. “This puts stress on your body, and you pay for it the next morning.” 

Acetaldehyde is around forty times more toxic than ethanol, explains Laurence Cardwell, founder of Survivor. “The reason acetaldehyde is such a bad boy is because it leads to massive inflammation,” he says. “The goal, really, is to break it down as fast as possible into acetate, which is benign. The two main ingredients that make up Survivor do exactly that.” One of these breakthrough ingredients is dihydromyricetin, which has been proposed in the highly-respected Neuroscience journal as a novel potential anti-intoxication medication. 

“In one of the studies performed they gave rats the equivalent of 20 beers,” says Cardwell. “I imagine these rats were absolutely plastered, wandering around in lederhosen singing songs. Being small rodents they have a fairly high metabolism and sobered up in 90 minutes. When injected abdominally with dihydromyricetin, they sobered up completely in five minutes.” 

Don’t worry, you don’t actually need two hands to hold a tablet. It’s not that big.

If alcohol-free spirits really aren’t your bag, popping a hangover supplement might seem like the next best option. But is there a danger that bottled ‘hangover cures’ will encourage people to drink more, or drink irresponsibly (like our rodent friends above) knowing there’s less chance of ill effects the next day? 

“Hangovers are usually a sign from your body that you’ve probably had too much to drink and should consider cutting down,” says Pedram Kordrostami, creator of AfterDrink, who adds that hangover-related supplements aren’t miracle workers. There are also “very strict rules about making claims with health supplements, especially when it comes to phrases around ‘cure’ or ‘treating symptoms’, as these are only authorised for medicines,” he says. 

Rather than a ‘hangover’ fix, Cardwell prefers the term alcohol health supplement. “Firstly it’s not a very accurate label, but also it’s not very credible,” he says. “Hangovers are effectively the extreme of alcohol consumption – you don’t tend to get a serious one unless you’ve been slugging it back. But even one or two glasses of wine or beer will affect your performance the following day.” 

The ritual of enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or a pint after work with colleagues is a huge part of cultures around the world, and it’s one that seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. Instead, the shift is towards balance. “People want to be able to combine that lifestyle, they don’t want to give it up entirely,” he continues. “They want to maximise their performance on all fronts: socialise with friends in the evening, work hard in the office and get a good night’s sleep.”

Losing a day or two to a hangover just isn’t an option for most people, adds Kordrostami.  “Drinking plenty of water and making sure you have a meal before going out helps a lot. However, it’s not usually enough. People are always on the lookout for natural and effective ways to support their recovery and supplements – like AfterDrink – provide a helping hand towards a solution.”

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Talking Irish single malt with The Sexton’s Alex Thomas

The Sexton Single Malt is an Irish single malt that has done a good job of establishing itself in a competitive market. We talk to creator Alex Thomas to find…

The Sexton Single Malt is an Irish single malt that has done a good job of establishing itself in a competitive market. We talk to creator Alex Thomas to find out how she did it, why it was important to make a distinctly Irish spirit and how she relates to the last person to see our bodies before they are laid to rest…

“Growing up my grandfather and father always kept a bottle of single malt whiskey in the house. It came out on special occasions, like 21st birthdays and weddings. But it also mainly came out when people had passed away. All the friends and family got together and they celebrated the life of that person that had passed and told their stories,” says Alex Thomas, founder of The Sexton Irish whiskey brand. “That’s what I wanted The Sexton to represent; living life well and having those memories you’ll share with your loved ones.”

Thomas is one of the few female master blenders in the Irish whiskey industry. We meet at an event thrown by The Sexton called ‘Own The Night’, which features plenty of very tasty cocktails (more on them later), a sensory experience based on the whiskey’s profile and a live photography exhibition. She is there to spread the word about her creation, The Sexton Single Malt, and its launch in London, Belfast and Dublin in December 2018 following a promising debut in America.

Thomas landed her first job in the industry at Bushmills Distillery. Her husband had come home from a shift at the distillery in 2004 to tell her about a new job opening. “Growing up with the distillery on your doorstep, it was a dream come true for many of us to be able to work there. When an opening came up, I jumped at the chance,” says Thomas. “I started working in the maturation and distillation part of the business with the great Colum Egan and fell in love with the process of turning something raw into something so delicate and rich that people can enjoy. I decided to do my exams and become qualified, and in 2012 I finished my exams and received my distilling diploma. From there I founded The Sexton, and everything that followed has just been a dream come true.”

The Sexton

Alex Thomas, founder of The Sexton

As Thomas speaks, photos are projected on the screens across each room showing images of people enjoying themselves with a dram in hand. The event space has a distinctive, macabre and gothic aesthetic influenced by The Sexton’s branding, which extends to the name. Anyone who’s big on Medieval Latin (where my people at?!) will know that ‘Sexton’ derives from the word ‘sacristanus’, meaning custodian of sacred objects, and is used to describe the person who prepared the grave, the last to witness the body before being laid to rest. “I wanted a name that would represent what I do. As a master blender and distiller, I am the caretaker of this amazing whiskey while it’s in the cask. The Sexton is about living life well before you meet the man that lays your body to rest, so that’s why I kind of came round the idea of naming it ‘The Sexton’. I wanted it to be something different, something approachable.”

That ambition obviously extended to the bottle design, which is unlike most you’ll see. It features The Sexton himself, a well-dressed skeleton (there’s even a skeleton horse and skeleton coachman). But the squat black hexagonal bottle is a striking image on its own, although it’s clearly going to be a challenging pour for a bartender with average size hands. “The distillery is up in the north coast of Antrim where there’s nothing more famous than the Giant’s Causeway stones, so that’s where the shape comes from,” says Thomas. “It’s dark, specifically because there’s a rich sherry colour to the whiskey so you’re getting that hint of what the darkness is going to be. I wanted people to get a little bit of that experience when they release it from the bottle… I’m sure the glass designer loved me!”

Thomas wanted it to stand out as she understands she’s working in an incredibly competitive market. “When I started in the industry there were only three distilleries. I knew that the branding needed to be bold and make a statement. Hopefully, those people who try it for the first time because of how it looks come back a second time for what’s in the bottle,” explains Thomas. “That’s the most important part. It’s the whiskey that is the main feature of The Sexton but the bottle attracts the attention to get you to try it first. It’s ultimately about the quality. From start to finish everything I use in that bottle is high-end quality, from the barley to the distillate, to the cask – everything.”

The Sexton

The ‘Own The Night’, featured cocktails, a sensory experience and a live photography exhibition

For all the fun and intrigue of The Sexton’s branding, the process behind creating this whiskey is where things get interesting. News has emerged recently that sources in the Irish grain industry claim that less than a quarter of the grain used to produce Irish whiskey is indeed from Ireland. This is not the case with The Sexton, which was made from 100% Irish malted barley. “The barley I use comes from the south east coast of Ireland, in Wexford and Tipperary. It’s a two-row barley, low on protein because I need to get at the sugar to be able to produce alcohol,” Thomas explains. Her use of Irish barley shows her commitment to provenance. But it’s more than this: “Ireland is my home, it’s where I’ve grown up all of my life and one thing I believe we do in Ireland well is make whiskey. Personally, I think we’re the best in the world and I wanted to represent Ireland as a whole.”

The Sexton is a brand without a distillery, a common sight in Irish whiskey. Thomas, however, hasn’t simply bought in the spirit. Instead, she was granted access to use the stills at Bushmills and runs her own distillation. “It’s wonderful, there’s no other industry that would allow that to happen, that would share their secrets. They taught me from the beginning to make Irish whiskey the best possible way I could so that I could represent the category well,” Thomas says. “My warehouse is on their premises as well. Hopefully, the future is big for The Sexton and who knows what will happen. But, for now, they allow me to do my work.”

Unsurprisingly Sexton Single Malt is triple-distilled, like Bushmills whiskey. Thomas opted to go down the same route because she enjoys the “smooth distillate it produces, a really sweet, fruity flavoured delicate spirit. Triple distillation also allows me to remove all of the things in the whiskey that I wouldn’t want,” she added.

The Sexton

Thomas sourced the barley and casks herself

The final defining characteristic of Sexton Irish Single Malt is its oloroso cask finish. Thomas established a relationship with the Antonio Paez Lobato family, who have over 70 years experience, in Jerez in Spain and the barrels are processed to her own specifications, from oak type, toast level, type of wine used and length of time of the seasoning. “I sourced the European oak in France, moved it over to Spain where it was air-dried for 16 months, toasted from the inside to a medium-high level and then seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry that I picked along with the family,” Thomas explains. “It’s then moved over to Ireland with around five to ten litres inside so the cask is really fresh”. Her approach to maturation mirrors her meticulousness with her selection of raw material and distillation process. Distillers and blenders working with cooperages to this extent are not uncommon, but there are plenty who aren’t as involved to this extent.

The Sexton is matured in first, second and third fill oloroso sherry casks, an approach Thomas settled on after a lot of trial and error. “At first I only wanted first-fills, but these are really heavily coated with the sugar coming in from the sherry and it was too sweet, which may have brought in new palates but I’m a whiskey maker so I wanted people who drink whiskey,” Thomas explains. “So I introduced a little second fill, but there was still something ever so slightly missing. I then introduced a couple of third fills and that nuttiness started to come back in from the European oak and it was like a day made in heaven! It was a eureka moment for me, the flavour profile just changes so much having that little bit of the second and third fill in there.”

The Sexton

Thomas at the ‘Own the Night’, walking guests through the sensory experience

The booze

The big question that remains is, how does The Sexton Single Malt taste? Well, it’s safe to say I was impressed. But before we get to that, Thomas was kind enough to let us sample her new make and the sherry used to season her oloroso casks as well as The Sexton itself, so here are our thoughts:

The Sexton

The Sexton Single Malt new-make sample

The Sexton Single Malt New-Make Tasting Note:

Nose: Homemade blackberry jam, crisp fresh malt and a little floral honey. Desiccated coconut, soft vanilla, marmalade and spearmint emerge underneath, as well as a hint of anise and soft marshmallow.

Palate: Hot white pepper spice initially, then a wave of fresh tropical fruit, buttery pastries and damp hay.

Finish: Banana foam sweets linger.

The Sexton

The Sexton Single Malt sherry sample

The Sexton Single Malt Sherry Tasting Note:

Nose: Savoury salty notes with some dried fruit, caramel and rich walnuts, then a touch of minerality and bittersweet herbs.

Palate: Refreshingly dry, with bright citrus, dried stone fruits, pecans and rounded sherry spice, then a touch of oak.

Finish: Good length with sherried peels and a touch of salinity.

The Sexton Single Malt Tasting Note:

Nose: The nose is rich, sherried and highly resinous, with oily walnuts, thick slabs of dark chocolate and plenty of dried and dark fruits such as stewed plums, cooked blackcurrant and raisins. A light maltiness emerges underneath with marzipan, caramel and a pinch of drying baking spice.

Palate: Robustly elegant, with prunes, Manuka honey and a little tropical fruit while the mid-palate is filled with stone fruit, oak spice, marmalade with zest, polished furniture and a hint of dried herbs. Treacle toffee, cocoa and a little menthol note add depth.

Finish: Mulberry jam, coffee icing and some woodiness lingers and dries into more maltiness.

Overall: An approachable, affordable and very tasty dram. The flavours are balanced, there’s some depth there and, to be honest, I helped myself to a second dram. I can’t help but think this whiskey also has a profile that lends itself to mixing and cocktail creation. Speaking of which…

The Sexton

The cocktail bar at the ‘Own the Night’ event

Cocktails

Thomas has something in common with many modern whiskey producers, in that she’s keen for the spirit to be disassociated from the tired image of it being an old man’s drink. “I had a real strong belief that if people got to experience single malts at a younger age, they would fall in love with whiskey,” she says. Thomas wants people to enjoy The Sexton Single Mal, whether they drink it neat, with a mixer or in a cocktail. “My father is a very traditional whiskey drinker: you either drink it neat with ice or with a little bit of water. But he embraces the fact that I’m the next generation and I want to drink it my way. We don’t eat in the same restaurants, we don’t live the same lives, so it’s about being unique and experiencing it your way.”

After trying a cocktail, or two, at the ‘Own the Night’ event (what? It was important research), it was clear that The Sexton mixes beautifully, as Thomas has found through her own personal research. “To be honest, it’s a perk of the job getting to try the different takes on what the mixologists work with and I must admit, I haven’t found one that I haven’t liked!”

The following examples, Bury the Hatchet, Love it to Death and Laid to Rest were all on show during the event and are easy enough to make at home. Enjoy!

The Sexton

Bury the Hatchet

Bury the Hatchet

Combine 50ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 25ml of lemon juice, 12.5ml of sugar syrup) in a glass, then top with soda water and add a 15ml sweet sherry float. Garnish with a wedge of lemon.

The Sexton

Love it to Death

Love it to Death

Combine 50ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 25ml of fresh lime juice, 12.5ml of Aperol, 2 dashes of absinthe, 20ml of sugar syrup in a glass, then serve garnished with thyme and orange peel.

The Sexton

Laid to Rest

Laid to Rest

Combine 25ml of The Sexton Single Malt, 5ml of Pedro Ximenez sherry, 20ml of manzanilla sherry, 12.5ml of spiced claret syrup in a glass serve over crushed ice. Garnish with mint leaves and dried spices.

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2019: The year that low-and-no alcohol stormed Imbibe

On 1 and 2 July flocks of folk from this boozy industry of ours descended on London Olympia in Kensington for Imbibe 2019. Drink, as always, flowed liberally from every…

On 1 and 2 July flocks of folk from this boozy industry of ours descended on London Olympia in Kensington for Imbibe 2019. Drink, as always, flowed liberally from every bar and stand. But, this year, much of it was somewhat lacking in alcohol. What is going on?

Anyone who was at Imbibe 2018 will remember that it was a year defined by gin. Juniper reigned supreme that summer, like World Cup fever or parody Elon Musk accounts. You couldn’t move for botanical booze. In 2019, however, this was noticeably not the case. Gin was still present, of course, as were whisky, rum and pretty much every kind of alcohol imaginable. But there was a new star of the show this year.

You might have heard people talking about the rise of low- and no-alcohol drinks. We’ve mentioned it a couple of times on the MoM blog ourselves, from predicting it as a trend for this year, to looking at some of its standout expressions, like Kombucha. But it was striking to see it out in such force this year. ‘The Zero Option’, a new wholesale venture specialising in the supply of low- and no-alcohol drinks, had its own section at Imbibe 2019 which highlighted the up-and-comers of the category. Alongside the growing CBD trend (which Ian Buxton goes into detail on here), brands such as Lyre’s, Ceder, Borrago, Caleño Drinks, STRYYK, Xachoh, Silk Tree, Percival and Co., Three Spirit, LA Kombucha, Go Kombucha, Small Beer Co. and many more all made a stand for a new way to imbibe from their respective, err… stands. There was even artisanal soda courtesy of Dalston’s (which was delicious).

low-and-no alcohol

The Zero Option’ stand, which specialised in low-and-no alcohol drinks

“No-and-low alcohol brands and drinks options were undoubtedly a stand-out theme of Imbibe Live this year,” Dan Harrower, sales director at LA Kombucha, believes. “It demonstrates the growing demand from consumers and the increasing need for the trade to offer credible, great tasting choices for those wanting non-alcoholic drinks options.” Craig Hutchison, co-founder and managing director of Ceder’s Drinks, agreed. “There are undoubtedly more low/no spirit brands at trade events, and we can expect many more in the future. This is driven by consumer demand, great support from the off and on-trade, and both entrepreneurs and corporates entering the market.”

It’s clear there’s an appetite for this category as consumers become more health conscious, and pretty much every side of the industry has stood up to take note. From Whyte & Mackay’s recent light edition, to the huge influx of botanical-based products, to the growth of Kombucha and the seemingly endless stream of alcohol-free beer, low- and no-alcohol appears to be enjoying a real moment.

This growth is backed by the numbers. Diageo-backed Distill Ventures recently released a study which found that the number of non-alcoholic spirits on the UK market currently stands at 41, back in April 2018 it was just 4. The findings also revealed consumer’s attitudes, explaining that 59% of people order non-alcoholic drinks as well as alcohol on a night out, while only 29% order just alcohol. Web searches for the word ‘mocktail’, meanwhile, have increased by 42%, while 42% of the wider London on-trade expects non-alcoholic spirits to play a key role in its next 12-month sales mix.

low-and-no alcohol

Three Spirits were one of many brands showing off tasty low-and-no alcohol expression

And with good cause. It’s about time that those who want a good non-alcoholic drink can actually find what they’re looking for. “Adults who don’t drink alcohol, or who are reducing their intake, still deserve a refined and sophisticated drink experience, with many options to choose from,” Hutchison commented. “A fifth of adults in the UK is now teetotal, and increasing, so we can expect very dynamic growth in this fledgeling category, for many many years to come.”

There are still concerns. Taste can be a problem for low-and-no alcohol. But companies such as, Small Beer Brew Co., for example, have demonstrated that flavour doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the name of ABV when it comes to beer, while Hayman’s Small Gin, one of the most interesting expressions at Imbibe 2019, also demonstrates an innovative solution to the problem.

low-and-no alcohol

Hayman’s Small Gin was a standout bottling at Imbibe 2019

Miranda Hayman, co-owner at Hayman Gin, explained that “while there seemed to be lots of low-and-no alcohol gin ‘alternatives’ available, we didn’t feel there was anything that really delivered on the flavour side of things. So we set out to make one that would! There are times when all of us want to have a grown-up drink, that has all the flavour and ritual associated with mixing a G&T – but with a lot less alcohol. For us, Small Gin is the answer – a real gin with all the flavour but just 0.2 units per serve.”

Texture is another area where low- and no-alcohol substitutes struggle. A few that we sampled at Imbibe were simply too watery. Mirroring the viscosity of alcohol, in a way that Three Spirits have done exceptionally well, for example, is a must. The biggest issue so far, however, is price. People aren’t stupid. If they can get a tasty bottle of gin for £30, or a tasty bottle of ‘I can’t believe it’s not gin!’ for £30, it’s going to be tempting just to stump for the former. Even if they do plump for the latter, many are going to resent how much it set them back. The category has to get its pricing right.

low-and-no alcohol

Imbibe 2019, the year of low-and-no alcohol

Overall, however, it feels like the future looks bright for low-and-no alcohol. Hayman concurs, “I think the future for releases such as Small Gin that provide ways to mix low alcohol drinks that are indistinguishable from existing well-loved alcoholic serves is particularly strong. The opportunity here lies in allowing consumers to lower their alcohol consumption without making any compromise. Ultimately it’s about enabling choice – if you can give consumers the power to decide whether they want their real gin and tonic to be at classic strength or low ABV who wouldn’t want that?”

Harrower is also firm in his belief that low- and no-alcohol will help the industry, because “with more and more smaller producers now making great drinks with unique ingredients and production methods, the established players have also been forced to up their game and this was visible at the show this year. Ultimately this is great news for both consumers and bar owners, as there has never been more choice and the opportunity to revamp old and tired drinks menus.”

So, what you think of low- and no-alcohol drinks? Is it a trend that will pass? Do you enjoy the increased availability and innovation within the category? Please let us know in the comments below.

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Five irresistible British apple brandies

Calvados may well be the best-known variety of apple brandy – but skip across the Channel, and you’ll find a burgeoning cider-based spirits scene right here in the UK. Here,…

Calvados may well be the best-known variety of apple brandy – but skip across the Channel, and you’ll find a burgeoning cider-based spirits scene right here in the UK. Here, we’ve picked out five British apple brandies to wet your whistle, no Eurostar required…

The first reference we have about distilling cider brandy is in a book called A Treatise of Cider by John Worlidge which was published in 1668, explains Matilda Temperley, director of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company. The farm can be found within 180 acres of cider apple orchards at the base of Burrow Hill in south Somerset, and was granted the UK’s first ever full cider distilling license in the 1980s. Today, its brandy has protected geographical indication (PGI) status. “The cider we distil is especially made for this purpose,” Temperley continues. “It is very pure with nothing added and contains at least 20 varieties of traditional cider apples. At the moment we are the only people in the UK to legally use the term Somerset Cider Brandy, because ‘brandy’ is tied to our PGI. Anyone else making aged cider spirit must use the term ‘cider spirit’.”

Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Julian Temperley from the Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Matilda’s father, Julian Temperley, pioneered the resurrection of the category, paving the way for other apple enthusiasts to get stuck in – people like Chris Toller, co-founder of Shropshire’s Henstone Distillery, which opened its doors in 2016. His brandy is distilled in a 1,000-litre pot column hybrid still named Hilda and matured in new American oak barrels.

Two of Henstone’s four founders own a brewery that also produces cider, “so it seemed obvious that we should distill it!” Toller says. “We named our spirit Nonpareil after one of the apple varieties used to make the cider. The Sweeney Nonpareil is a native Shropshire apple that almost became extinct in the 1970s and now features in our orchard here at the distillery.”

While the category as a whole remains very much under the radar, the emergence of independent cider producers across England, Wales and beyond will mean there’s plenty of produce to distil. We can only hope to taste the fruits of their labour in aged form over the years to come, so long as British spirits continue to pique the interest of drinks fans.

“There’s talk of a brown spirit revolution, which is encouraging,” says Temperley, adding that production can be a painstaking process – there are brandies ageing for up to 25 years at the Somerset Cider Brandy Company farm. “We have just built a new bonded warehouse to double our output, so we are feeling positive,” she says.

While we wait for those – and others – to come of age, here’s our pick of five phenomenal cider-based spirits from around the UK…

Henstone Nonpareil

From: Henstone Distillery, Shropshire
Henstone Nonpareil is made by distilling Stonehouse Brewery’s Sweeney Mountain Cider in a pot column hybrid still. The use of the columns means the process is equivalent to five individual distillations, resulting in a “very smooth distillate”, says Toller. Maturation in new American oak barrels introduces “a pleasant vanilla flavour and a little smoke on the nose,” he adds.

Shipwreck Single Cask Cider 

From: Somerset Cider Brandy Company, Somerset
Billed as the South-West’s answer to Calvados, thanks, in part, to the Coffey still used to make it, Shipwreck Single Cask Cider Brandy is a unique proposition. The 10 year old brandy has been finished in shipwrecked Allier oak barrels from the MSC Napoli, which ran into difficulty en route to South Africa back in 2007. Hence the name.

Greensand Ridge

Maturing casks at Greensand Ridge

Greensand Ridge Apple Brandy

From: Greensand Ridge Distillery, Kent
Dubbed the “whisky of the Weald” (by its producer), Greensand Ridge Apple Brandy is made from sweet dessert apples collected from fruit growers across Kent and Sussex. After a long fermentation, the cider is distilled and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Since the apples are surplus, the varieties and ratios changed year-on-year – this bottling is made with 60% Gala and 40% Mairac.

Dà Mhìle Apple Brandy

From: Dà Mhìle Distillery, Wales
Fantastic liquid from the folks at Welsh distillery Dà Mhìle, which is made from organic wild apples foraged from their own farm as well as the nearby valleys. The fruit is first made into cider, then quadruple distilled and aged in former French red wine barrels for a year. Rich, rounded and very moreish.

Fowey Valley 1 Year Old Cider Brandy

From: Fowey Valley Cider, Cornwall
The folks at Fowey Valley distill their vintage cider an honourable five times before laying the liquid down in new American oak barrels for a minimum of one year. Expect black cherry and sandalwood on the nose, with nuts, molasses, raisins liquorice and pepper on the palate. Sound good? Be quick, there’s only one bottle left.

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Was Glenfiddich really the first ever single malt whisky?

An email making bold claims about Glenfiddich arrived at Master of Malt HQ last week. We had our doubts about its veracity so we turned it over to whisky writer…

An email making bold claims about Glenfiddich arrived at Master of Malt HQ last week. We had our doubts about its veracity so we turned it over to whisky writer and industry veteran Ian Buxton for his take. And here it is!

In what I laughingly refer to as my line of ‘work’ I’m exposed to a fair amount of nonsense from over-exuberant PR agencies (one day, I must offer you a selection of their better howlers).  Mostly this can be put down to inexperience or an excess of enthusiasm but this week my inbox positively glowed with some nuclear-weapons-grade spinmeistering from Glenfiddich’s agency Porter NovelliBack in 1969, they would have you know, “Glenfiddich was changing the world of whisky as we know [it, sic], launching the first ever SINGLE MALT WHISKY – they were all blends before the summer of ’69!” (their bold face and block caps).

Well, that got my attention, as did the claim that Glenfiddich opened the world’s first ever distillery visitor centre (I hope you’ve noticed the bold face and block capitals, by the way).  Let’s deal with that first: distilleries have been welcoming visitors since the 19th Century as Alfred Barnard would testify and, while they may not have had purpose-built facilities, Tobermory was actively welcoming visitors from the early 1920s (look closely at the bottom two lines on the door).  Glenfarclas opened their doors at much the same time as Glenfiddich – so closely in fact that they could hardly be accused of ‘copying’ their Speyside rivals. As so often, two people independently had the same great idea at much the same time, though it was hardly revolutionary. These, in fact, are mere striplings: the Palais Bénédictine was opened in 1888, beating Glenfiddich by a mere 81 years, and as Scotch whisky began life in the 15th Century at Lindores Abbey we can be sure that the hospitable monks were welcoming medieval visitors more than 500 years ago.  

Tobermory

Tobermory has been welcoming visitors for a long time

So that’s a pretty daft claim that ill becomes a brand with a great track record of innovation but one that we could probably ignore if it hadn’t been offered with the remarkable assertion that all Scotch was blended prior to 1969.  Really? Who knew? 

Where to start?  Well, Macallan’s then Chairman George Harbinson, was able to assure his presumably happy shareholders in 1963 that “the sale of Macallan in bottle is gaining momentum with a steadily increasing demand for the over 15 year old from the south of England”. Or perhaps with Professor George Saintsbury who in his hugely-influential Notes on a Cellar Book (1920, but still in print), disparages grain whisky as “only good for blending” and points the reader to Glendronach, Clynelish (now known as Brora) and Smith’s Glenlivet as single whiskies of note.  His admirer Aeneas MacDonald in his Whisky (1930, but also still in print) devotes the whole of his book – a genuine first, by the way – to singing the praises of single malt.

But for writers in the early part of the twentieth century to be championing single malt it had to have been around for some time.  Well, of course it was: blending greatly boosted Scotch whisky’s fortunes from the late 19th century at the expense of single malt but it never went away.  Connoisseurs such as Saintsbury, MacDonald and Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart (Scotch, published 1951) make that abundantly clear. Earlier writers too, sang its praises.  I call to the witness stand Robert Louis Stevenson who in his poem The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad apostrophises Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet as one of his three “king o’ drinks”. And that, of course, brings us to Glenlivet of which Sir Walter Scott was to write “it is the only liquor fit for a gentleman to drink in the morning”.

Bowmore advert

Advert for Bowmore whisky from before 1969

Now, Chivas Brothers’ The Glenlivet may have dropped its claim that it was “the single malt that started it all” but the Glenlivet name was highly prized.  Did not King George IV on his famous Brigadoon-style visit to Scotland in August 1822 demand a glass of Glenlivet whisky, then technically illegal and most certainly not blended? So valuable was the Glenlivet name that in 1884 J. G. Smith had to go to law to obtain the sole right to use the definite article in marketing his whisky as The Glenlivet.  As soon as Prohibition was repealed in 1933 his successors were exporting to the USA with such success that just twenty years later some 27 other brands had applied Glenlivet as a suffix to their drams. But even before Prohibition certain Islay whiskies, notably Laphroaig and Bowmore were well known in North America.  Bowmore were even advertising in Canada in the late nineteenth century. Need I go on – well, just one more example.  Royal Brackla was advertising its whisky and the Royal Warrant it received from King William IV in the 1830s.

Oh, and just for Porter Novelli’s benefit, Glenfiddich was being sold in Scotland well before the Second World War and Glenfiddich Pure Malt dates from 1903 at least.  How do I know – well, I found this picture on their website! Perhaps the PR team should take a look!  

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich malt whisky bottle c. 1903-1908

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Circumstance, probably Britain’s most innovative distillery

On a nondescript industrial estate in Bristol lurks perhaps Britain’s most innovative distillery, Circumstance, which is pushing the boundaries of spirits with unusual grains, yeasts, wood, and even a cryptocurrency….

On a nondescript industrial estate in Bristol lurks perhaps Britain’s most innovative distillery, Circumstance, which is pushing the boundaries of spirits with unusual grains, yeasts, wood, and even a cryptocurrency. We had to pay a visit.

It’s a far cry from the grandeur of Speyside but located on an anonymous industrial estate to the east of Bristol city centre, among the soft play centres and sign companies, there’s whisky being made. The distillery called Circumstance (for reasons that will become clear soon) is the creation of two friends: Liam Hirt, a cardiologist, and Danny Walker, who has worked in or around bars all his life, including a short stint as a brand ambassador for Diageo which didn’t suit him.

The pair started distilling way back in 2007. According to Walker, “we spent six years making gin in a basement as a hobby but it gradually became a career.” In 2013 they opened a distillery near Bristol university named Psychopomp, after spirits in Greek mythology who guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife. It quickly gained a local following. Walker told me, “we never made a sales call, people came to us.” Apparently selling gin is easy: “you can make gin and hide it, and people will find it”, but “rum and grain spirits though, that’s another story”, he said. 

Circumstance Bristol

Danny Walker, left, and Mark Scott by a container of fermenting oats

And that is exactly what they are trying to do now with their second distillery which opened in August 2018. After Pychopomp comes, naturally, Circumstance. They are still a very small outfit, five people in total including a full time distiller Mark Scott who has been with them since 2016. At the new distillery, there is a 1900 litre stainless pot still which can be connected to two column stills, a four plate and a 12 plate. Using this system they could also make double-distilled pot still spirits but at the moment, they’re just using the columns. Alcohol comes off the smaller column at around 70-72% ABV, preserving plenty of character. There are also a couple of tiny 300 litre gin stills which are used to make contract gin for, among others, the Wild Beer Company based nearby in Shepton Mallet.

The stills though are the least interesting thing about the set up. They work with a wide variety of raw materials including malted barley, oats, corn, rye, molasses, and one I’ve never heard of called triticale which is a cross between rye and wheat this is the only grain that isn’t UK grown. They are also experimenting with crystal and chocolate malts, rice and, according to Scott, plan at some point to make an Irish-style single pot still spirit made with a mixture of malted and unmalted barley. I can’t wait to try that.

The passion for experimentation continues at the fermentation stage. To ferment their barley spirits, they use a distillers yeast combined with a saison beer yeast. For oats, corn and rye, mead yeast is used. No enzymes are added so all the mash bills contain some malted barley to get things going. They ferment at low temperatures, which according to Scott gives fruity flavours. But this isn’t deliberate, it’s just bloody cold in the distillery. When I was there they had wheeled a plastic fermenter of oats (or rather 72% oats and 28% malted barley) into the sunlight to get the fermentation going more vigorously. It smelt sour and a little funky, not unlike cider. Fermentation times are measured in days rather than hours; some take two weeks to finish. It’s the kind of relaxed approach you can have when you don’t have to be consistent, Walker told me.

Then it was time to look into the maturation warehouse. Warehouse is probably the wrong word: it’s basically a shed within their industrial unit. It may be small but they have packed in a lot of innovation. There are 30 litre chestnut barrels both charred and uncharred. They do have some ex-bourbon from Jim Beam. Sounds a bit conventional, but before putting the spirits in they seasoned some casks with tea and some with coffee. Scott described the coffee one as tasting of green pepper and the tea of passion fruit.

oak spindle

Oak spindle

Wood comes not just from barrels but also oak spindles. This was copied from small distilleries in the US but the Circumstance team wanted to use English oak so they found a skilled woodworker to carve something to their specification which was then roasted. According to Walker English oak is spicier than American and this technique produces “…lots of wood character though no maturity obviously.” 

It’s all about getting as much flavour into the spirits as quickly as possible. Rather than wait the customary three years before they can call them whisky, the team has began releasing wood-aged spirits already. First out of the gate, and made from 100% barley is the appropriately named Circumstantial Barleywhich was released earlier this year which was highly spiced with an amazing richness considering it had only been maturing for around six months. 

The next grain spirit has just been released. Called Circumstantial Mixed Grain, it’s made from wheat, malted barley, and rye (unsurprisingly), and aged on a combination of charred oak spindles, ex-bourbon oak casks and 30 litre chestnut casks. It has a grassy spicy nose, with lots of cereal character and a toffee sweetness. They have definitely succeeded in making flavour-packed brown spirits in record time. 

Circumstantial Cane

Three rums in one, Circumstantial Cane

Then there’s a rum, Circumstantial Cane, “the first ever distilled in the city” according to Walker, which is made with mead yeast. It is oak-aged and then redistilled to remove colour. Again, it’s packed with flavour, green banana, grapefruit, and lemons with chocolate on the finish. Walker told me that one bartender described it as like three rums in one: Spanish, oak-aged and high ester Jamaican. “The rum is a tool for bartenders”, he went on to say. 

We also tried some of the Psychopomp range including a very special Old Tom which rather than getting its sweetness from sugar, tastes sweet because of the botanicals used. Very clever. As well as gin, they make absinthe, aquavit, coffee liqueur and a ready-to-drink Negroni at the Psychopomp distillery. They really do have everything.

The innovation continues when it comes to selling the stuff: Circumstance has its own cryptocurrency. Walker filled me in: “that was Liam’s idea, we are entirely self-funded but we liked the idea of engaging with customers as with crowdfunding. The currency is a way for people to buy in early”. They sold 1,000 currency tokens for £30 each which can be traded or used to buy any bottle of Circumstance spirit. Great value when you consider a bottle costs £44 at the moment. And finally, though the labels are minimalist, there’s exhaustive information about each bottle on the website. 

We will be watching what Circumstance does in the future with great interest. Whatever it is, it’s not going to be conventional. 

 

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Jigger Beaker Glass bartender roadshow returns

Jigger Beaker Glass returns with a wealth of industry luminaries to explore the themes of creativity, hospitality and productivity – a.k.a. the holy trinity of bartending. We get the lowdown…

Jigger Beaker Glass returns with a wealth of industry luminaries to explore the themes of creativity, hospitality and productivity – a.k.a. the holy trinity of bartending. We get the lowdown from Rebecca Sides, London and South UK trade ambassador for Bacardi Brown Forman Brands…

The third instalment of Bacardi Brown Forman Brands’ bartender education roadshow Jigger Beaker Glass is very much upon us, and don’t quote us, but it might be the best one yet. Loaded with thought-provoking presentations, interactive sessions and the wise words of a few bonafide bartending legends, the UK-wide tour will make eight pit stops in total across the likes of Edinburgh, Bristol and beyond, beginning in Liverpool on 18 June and concluding in London, Leeds and Belfast in early 2020.

For the unacquainted, the annual roadshow has three core pillars – Jigger, which focuses on skills; Beaker, which covers innovation; and Glass, which shines a light on drink-making. Marking a departure from previous years, for 2019’s event the distinct disciplines have been split across three individual rooms to make the whole thing a little more immersive.

Rebecca Sides

Rebecca Sides in action

So, who’s on the roster? Joe Schofield – formerly of the Tippling Club and The American Bar at The Savoy – will be taking ‘creativity’; Paul Johnson, formerly of Annabel’s and Chiltern Firehouse, is the ‘hospitality’ wizard, and both Joe Stokoe, founder of Heads, Hearts & Tails, and Joseph Hall, of Satan’s Whiskers, will be channelling ‘productivity’.

As the tour gets well and truly underway, we chatted with Rebecca Sides, London and South UK trade ambassador for Bacardi Brown Forman Brands, to glean a few tips, tricks and takeaways about each theme. Here’s what we learned…

Master of Malt: What are the key tools or traits an ambitious bartender should possess if they want a career in the industry, whether by opening their own bar, becoming a brand ambassador, or simply being known for their creativity or progressive work?

Rebecca Sides: The wonderful thing about hospitality is that it’s an ever-evolving field, and so there’s always something to learn. You see time and time again that those who move fastest or furthest are those who are humble and curious; constantly striving, pushing themselves, self-disciplined and self-motivated. 

You need strong arms to be a bartender

MoM: As part of the Jigger Beaker Glass 3.0 tour, the Bacardi Brown Forman Brands advocacy team will ‘explore the theory behind the complex world of creativity’. Could you share some tips for unlocking creative potential behind the bar?

RS: As bartenders we don’t tend to work to the usual business hours – which is a good thing! The number one tip for harnessing your creativity is identifying your most creative time. We tend to not listen to our inner clock, but planning a creative session between a meeting and a delivery just because you have that hour free doesn’t really work and won’t result in the best ideas. Figure out when it is, use that time wisely, build your day around it and use the rest of your time for easy tasks.

MoM: There’s also a focus this year on enhancing hospitality for guests outside of direct interactions with them. Could you talk about some of the tips the Bacardi Brown Forman Brands advocacy team will share and how they reflect the ways in which bars are changing?

RS: Good hospitality meets the needs that they articulate; great hospitality anticipates those needs before they are articulated; and the best hospitality anticipates needs that guests are not even aware of. The key is knowing your guest, which is sometimes easier said than done. Without giving too much away, the session takes a pretty scientific approach to how we can engineer atmospheric hospitality. Did you know 75% of the emotions we generate on a daily basis are affected by smell? Or that there are four parts of the brain that interact with music? This knowledge is key to understanding your guests needs.

Tattoos help too

MoM: Finally, the roadshow will delve into the history, science and psychology of productivity. Could you share some pointers on staying focused and keeping your finger on the pulse in the bar industry?

RS: Staying focused and off Instagram is a constant battle, but did you know that battle is much easier to fight at the start of your working day than at the end? When we have a task to do, we’re often told to just “get it out of the way” and there’s some real science to that. We’ll learn in this session how willpower is a muscle to be trained. For now, the biggest tip to being productive is to start with your hardest task and end on the easiest or most rewarding.

 

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