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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Chill-filtration: what’s all the fuss about?

Chill-filtration is such an emotive subject. So much so that we often condemn before we discuss. It’s as if the conversation is a bit cloudy. Let’s filter through it together…

Chill-filtration is such an emotive subject. So much so that we often condemn before we discuss. It’s as if the conversation is a bit cloudy. Let’s filter through it together and find out why it’s such a hot button issue for whisky fans.

Chill-filtration has been on whisky fans’ minds a lot recently. Ever since it was noticed that the words ‘non-chill-filtered’ had been removed from Glendronach’s packaging. This sparked a collective purist panic as Facebook groups, Twitter threads and YouTube videos filled with chatter and condemnation. 

Glendronach, for its part, released a statement addressing the situation: “We have removed ‘Non-Chill-Filtered’ from our packaging to provide the flexibility in our processes to optimise consistently exceptional quality, flavour, clarity and stability. The GlenDronach continues to be crafted to exceptionally high standards and of true Highland style, perfect for slow maturation in sherry casks. The change does not affect the flavour of our richly-sherried Highland single malts which continue to be of natural cask imparted colour from the sweet fruity flavours of the Pedro Ximénez casks or the dry and nutty notes of our Oloroso casks our master blender carefully selects.” 

Reading between the lines, it appears that Brown-Forman, the distillery’s owner, wants to leave its options open to sometimes filter certain batches. But why is that such a big deal? How come it prompted such an emotive response? And does chill-filtration really have that much of an impact on your dram? We’ve enlisted the help of some experts to wade through the issue. First, let’s start with a definition.

Chill-filtration

The debate around chill-filtration kicked off again when Glendronach made a big chance

What is chill-filtration?

Simply put, chill-filtration is a method of filtering whisky employed to remove residue and cloudiness which appears when the spirit drops below a certain temperature (usually following the addition of water or ice). It entails chilling the spirit to between -10 and 4°C and then passing it through a very fine filter. At such temperatures the fatty acids, proteins and esters compound as large clumps which are too large to pass through the filter. 

Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons Ltd explains that chill-filtration is only necessary if the bottling strength of a whisky is below 47% ABV. “This is due to the presence of long-chain ethyl esters (sometimes referred to as fatty acid esters) which occur naturally in whisky and are insoluble in alcohol less than 47% ABV. Once the whisky drops below that ABV these esters gradually drop out of solution and create a haze in the bottle”.  

It’s a common process that’s used widely in the industry, particularly for what you might term entry-level bottlings. The kind of bottles you’ll find on a supermarket shelf.  Ewan Gunn,  Diageo’s global Scotch ambassador says the technique is used with many of the brand’s best-selling Scotch whisky brands and means that it can be sure of the “liquid’s clarity, and bright appearance when it’s poured into the glass”. The theory is that if a person spends their hard-earned cash on a bottle of something tasty, they’ll be put off by the appearance of any haze which could result in bottles being returned as ‘faulty.’ And none of us wants that.

Jim Swan’s research

It’s difficult to know when exactly this became an issue that concerned whisky fans. Regular contributor Ian Buxton recalls interviewing Jim Swan in 2015 for an article in which he said one of the highlights of his long career was “the discovery of the chemical nature of chill haze”. At the time (the early nineties) Swan was at Tatlock and Thomson Ltd, Scottish-based beer, wines and spirits analysts involved in consultancy for maturation, filtration and stability of bottled products. Swan says his research “led to the widespread introduction of chill filtration and an understanding of what was going on when cloudy whisky with jellyfish-like floaters formed”. 

Chill-filtration

Brian Kinsman offers his thoughts from a producer’s perspective

Swan went on to say that “nowadays the aficionados may consider the process slightly detrimental to whisky flavour”. That’s the crux of the issue. The belief is that chill-filtration risks removing long-chain esters, which are large molecules that contribute to flavour and body. It’s not a concern without merit. Bruichladdich has a long post on its website about why it doesn’t chill-filter any of its whisky, reasoning that it would “rather have a haze in the glass than to lose the flavour and texture created all those years ago during fermentation and ameliorated over years of maturation”.

So what’s the issue?

But there’s a larger issue at play here, one ultimately concerned with whisky’s quest for authenticity. Concepts like provenance, terroir and sustainability are all the rage now. And in an age where the average whisky has more access to knowledge than ever, transparency is everything. No more hoodwinking the consumer.

This has led to the establishment of the idea that there are essentially four pillars that should give you an indication of quality. Whisky should have no colouring or additives, the bottling strength should be 46% ABV and higher, the casks should be of the highest quality and you never chill-filter. Whiskies that tick these boxes are appreciated by purists. And when a big multi-national corporation like Brown-Forman makes a change to a whisky like GlenDronach, it’s seen as a cynical attempt to try to cut its bottom line and woo the uneducated, underappreciating masses. 

Chill-filtration

Bruichladdich refuses to chill-filter any of its whisky

Valid concerns?

These are understandable points of contention. But all the outrage does make you wonder how many have experienced the ultimate test: assessing samples before and after chill-filtration. Ardent whisky fans will say they’ve seen what Glendronach is doing happen before and the whisky always suffers, testifying that they have noticed a drop off in quality when brands switch to chill-filtering. Though how much of this might be due to batch differences is hard to say. Another problem is that they know that the whisky they’re tasting was once bottled without filtration, so it’s not a fair test. How many have done a blind test, and how many would pass?

Whisky writer, Ian Wisniewski, says that the conversation is often simplified into a binary good/bad discussion which narrows the understanding of a process that is full of options. “There’s a lot of factors. The temperature to which whisky is chilled varies, from cooler to colder, and the colder the temperature the more stringent the process. The filter through which whisky passes can be tighter/looser, and filter out more/fewer fatty acid esters. And the flow rate of whisky through the filter matters, as a faster rate ‘pushes’ more fatty acid esters through the filter, while a slower rate catches more”. 

Wisniewski also raises the interesting point about consumer accountability. Would this even be an issue in the first place if we were educating people about why the haze occurs and not to be concerned about it? “Those of us who would return a bottle on this basis should bear some responsibility. Olive oil is prone to the same ‘clouding,’ though back labels explain this concisely and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. So, why not inform rather than chill-filter? Could the reasons be the expense, the time-scale involved and the results not being guaranteed?” 

What’s the impact on flavour?

From a producer’s perspective, Kinsman at William Grant & Sons believes the key is to ensure the process is done with “as light a touch as possible to remove the haze without stripping out any other flavour from the whisky”. This is because the main flavour compounds remain in solution at lower strengths so the filters need to be set up with the “correct surface area, flow rate and pressure drop to only focus on the long-chain esters that have formed a haze and to allow everything else to flow freely through the filter”. 

He concludes his statement by saying that, when done with the correct care and attention, he doesn’t think chill-filtration has any impact on the flavour of the whisky. “We regularly analyse pre and post-filter and also compare samples on a sensory level to ensure the filtration is working efficiently and preserving all of the flavour”. 

Chill-filtration

There are many ways to alter whisky once matured, but they’re not popular with purists

Much ado about nothing?

Ultimately, as somebody who has sampled an amount of whiskies I can’t even put a figure on (responsibly, of course) I can’t say that I’ve ever made a decision to purchase or not purchase a whisky based on whether it’s chill-filtered or not. And I’ve certainly enjoyed many a dram of whisky that has been. The idea of ruling out a drink based on this factor alone seems baffling to me, and just because a whisky hasn’t been chill-filtered doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good.

I wonder whether the term has been reduced over the years to just another marketing tactic. “How can you tell my whisky is superior and more authentic? Because I don’t chill-filter”. I’m also sceptical that a great many who protest could truly tell the difference between a dram that has been chill-filtered and one that hasn’t.

Transparency is the key

But I do think those who take issue with GlenDronach’s move have a legitimate argument. They are, after all, the people who have paid good money to transform a once overlooked distillery into something worth Brown-Forman’s attention. From their perspective, they can see a slippery slope coming for a brand they love. This would be a good time for Glendronach to listen to its fans and be transparent about what it is doing rather than hiding behind opaque PR statements. 

But nobody should be judging the new Glendronach definitively until they actually taste the whisky. I certainly won’t.

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How to make your distillery more sustainable

We wanted to find out how a distillery can become more sustainable without greenwashing or compromising the quality of its spirit. So we asked a few brands who do it…

We wanted to find out how a distillery can become more sustainable without greenwashing or compromising the quality of its spirit. So we asked a few brands who do it best. This is what they had to say.

The distilleries featured in this article make booze with a purpose. Spirits that taste good while limiting impact on the planet. The process to make drinks puts strain on the environment. From the vast amount of water used, the energy required for production, and the logistics of packaging and distribution: the drinks industry has a responsibility to account for its waste.

And plenty of people are trying. However, there are pitfalls. Some brands have been accused of greenwashing, ignoring the point of sustainability in favour of PR. While others are in danger of spending so much time making sure the drink is green that they forget to make it good.

But some have actually managed to make a difference and do so without compromising quality. So we decided to talk to those distilleries who are doing just this. And I confirm that they do indeed make delicious spirits. Anyway, let’s meet them.

sustainable distillery

Two Drifters: one of the distilleries leading the way for environmentally friendly booze making

Meet our sustainable brands

Two Drifters is the world’s first carbon-negative rum producer, a project spearheaded by husband and wife Russ and Gemma Wakeham in Devon. Russ has a background in sustainability chemistry with a focus on carbon capture, storage, and turning CO2 into useful products while promoting alternative energy sources that are low carbon. “Knowing what I know, we couldn’t set up a business in good conscience without having sustainability at the very core of what Two Drifters is about,” he says. 

Cooper King Distillery, located in Sutton-on-the-Forest, York, was founded by partners, Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume. It produces England’s first carbon-negative gin and runs on 100% green energy. “We believed from the outset that drinking good spirits needn’t cost the Earth. On our adventures to Australia (from which the idea for the distillery was born) we were lucky enough to experience some of the world’s most beautiful places, though we also witnessed destruction which opened our eyes to the damage being done. We wanted to create and preserve these places for future generations to enjoy too, which meant creating a product with minimal environmental harm,” says Juame. 

Arbikie, meanwhile, is a Scottish producer located on the east coast of Angus that grows the ingredients for its products on its estate, with water even coming from its own underground lagoon. “As farmers and distillers, it was natural that we’d adopt a field-to-bottle approach to distilling, choosing the options that were best for the lands that surround us. The plan is to combine the best of farming and traditional distilling and innovation with sustainable considerations,” says Gareth Jones, brand manager.

sustainable distillery

Cooper King implement a huge variety of effective measures

How they implement sustainable measures

Each boasts a considerable amount of environmental policies, too many really to write down in one feature. So we’ll give you the cliff notes. At Two Drifters, for example, a renewable energy tariff runs the all-electric equipment, including 100% electric vehicles, charged with zero-emission energy to limit carbon emissions. Every emission is calculated, even down to the search engine used on their laptops. Where this can’t be removed (shipping, agriculture), Climeworks steps in to use its signature process of capturing CO2 from the air, turning it into stone, and storing it underground. The list goes on. A massive recycle water system is employed. All waste molasses is donated to a local farmer. Flexi-hex is used for shipping website orders. As are biodegradable tamper seals by viscoseclosures and Splosh cleaning products. The distillery is even rebranding at the moment and will relaunch in the summer with thinner, British-made glass bottles. 

Cooper King also accounts for its carbon use, with every bottle of Dry or Herb Gin removing 1kg more CO₂ than it produces (learn more in the band’s first report). It’s also the producer of the first gin in Europe with a 1% for the Planet accreditation (giving 2.5% of gross gin sales to the YDMT) and plants one square metre of native broadleaf UK woodland for every bottle sold. In 2018 Cooper King introduced the country’s first distillery gin refill scheme and raw materials are sourced locally where possible (all barley and wheat used are 100% Yorkshire grown) to support English farmers and reduce food miles. No waste is sent to landfill. The brand also distills using innovative rotary evaporators which run on a fraction of the energy required for a traditional gin still and, thanks to a closed-loop cooling system, saves 26,000 liters of water annually. Lightweight, recycled glass is also used, as is a clever origami-style cardboard postal box that has eliminated the need for plastic packing materials.  

Arbikie actually makes what was the world’s first climate-positive gin (meaning that it avoids more carbon dioxide emissions than it creates), Nàdar, using peas. They require no synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, meaning there’s no negative environmental impact on waterways, and soils. This, combined with carbon offsetting measures, means each bottle has a carbon footprint of -1.54 kg CO2e. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide solar power, honey is produced by local bees and the primary waste product from distilling is recycled wherever possible as feed for cattle.

sustainable distillery

Using local ingredients has a huge impact on waste and taste

How can others follow suit?

Each one of these distilleries isn’t open about its methods purely for marketing, but because there’s a genuine desire for people to be able to mirror the process. “However we make our rum, that’s our business. Everything we do from a sustainable point of view people are free to copy,” says Gemma Wakeman. The distillery is contacted frequently and their advice is to “think CO2 before you buy anything”. This determines the type of equipment that you buy, the type of building that you go into, the type of cars that you use to transport your product. “We acknowledge that there’s a challenge retro-fitting,” says Russ. “But if you are huge, small differences can have a massive impact; much bigger than we could ever have. That’s crucial”. 

Cooper King thinks along similar lines. “Start small and ask questions,” says Jaume. “Reach out to us and others in the industry genuinely making a difference. We regularly sit on sustainability panels and it’s a great way to benefit from the panelists’ combined years of research and learn from their mistakes before starting on your own path”. He also recommends reaching out to universities. “Student research projects are a great way to explore and evaluate new sustainable initiatives. They cost nothing except time, support student careers, and result in valuable data”.

Jaume also believes in making the most impactful changes first: moving to a 100% renewable energy provider, reducing waste, and evaluating packaging options. “Make informed decisions based on meaningful data, carry out a life cycle assessment of your business, and don’t be afraid to invest money”.

sustainable distillery

Small adaptations can have a big difference, particularly if you’re a major producer

Is the industry doing enough?

All three brands acknowledge that progress is being made in this area, but that there is still a long way to go. “I would say as a collective we have barely scratched the surface, but there is a growing global sustainable spirits movement,” says Jones.

Jaume agrees, commenting that while there are many large multinationals investing heavily in new technologies and changing their practices, “sustainability is viewed as a consumer trend by others who seek to benefit from high-value marketing campaigns in the absence of meaningful action. We need a fast, global shift towards becoming circular, adopting practices that enhance – rather than degrade – the environment and consumer education to reduce the negative effects of greenwashing”.

Gemma concurs. “I just did a LinkedIn general poll asking ‘if on a drinks menu in a bar it had a sustainability drink. would you be tempted to drink it over the alternative’ – half the people said ‘no’! Lots see it as a gimmick. It is a buzzword at the moment. That’s why credibility and transparency are so important. You can forgive consumers for being confused and not believing”. 

sustainable distillery

When it comes to the environment, you need to put your money where your mouth is

How to avoid greenwashing 

There are some products, however, that enter the market solely to tick the ‘green’ box and superficially boost environmental credentials. “Campaigns are littered with trending hashtags, impacts are overstated and sweeping claims are not evidence-backed. All the while, the rest of the business continues with no self-scrutiny or desire to minimise harm to the planet,” says Jaume. 

“It undermines the wider understanding of sustainability and erodes trust between brands and consumers,” adds Jones. Arbikie ensures that everything it does is backed up by scientific evidence. For Two Drifters too, that education is key. It’s in the process of updating its website to include data on CO2 figures, for example. “It’s all about understanding. We say if CO2 was a colour and people could see it leaking from their computer they would be more considerate with how they use it,” says Gemma.

The three distilleries all make a point of acknowledging that they are constantly challenging themselves, consulting experts, inviting constructive criticism, locating weaknesses, and taking positive action to shore them up.

sustainable distillery

Something as simple as great tasting, local ingredients can make all the difference

Ensuring your booze is sustainable and tastes good 

None of this will mean much, however, if nobody wants to buy your drink because it doesn’t taste good. At the core of each of these distilleries is a process that ensures that flavour is not lost while trying to be more green. “It’s all about ingredients for us. Everything is planted, sown, grown, and harvested on-site and we are in the enviable position of being able to oversee impeccable standards every step of the way, from field to bottle. Our sustainable, green ethos doesn’t impact the flavour, texture, or colour of any of our products,” Jones explains.

Russ also makes an interesting point for those starting out by recognising that, because sustainability runs through everything they do, it doesn’t have an impact on the distilling process. “It’s already built-in to everything we do, so we don’t have to go out of our way to account for it. We don’t want to be seen as ‘an eco rum’, because if we’re not a credible rum distillery it doesn’t matter what we do – we need people to like our rum. That’s why we spend so much work making our rum from scratch so it was as unique as our business processes”.

sustainable distillery

You can pick up the sustainable spirit these brands make from Master of Malt now!

What does the future hold?

Looking forward, it’s promising to see how much power we have as people. Brands ignoring environmental responsibilities can’t hide from informed consumers. And distilleries actually have huge potential to be a means for change, because products like the one featured in this article demonstrate that creating a lasting product with sustainability at the core of the brand is an effective way of spreading the message. “When he was an academic, people didn’t really want to talk to him about what he did. Everyone now wants to talk to Russ about CO2,” Gemma says.

She is also passionate that the focus should be to promote a “bright, lively, vibrant sustainable future” and doesn’t want the message to be all doom and gloom.  Jaume is also optimistic about the potential for change. “There’s an increasing appetite for an industry-wide, concerted effort to drive positive change. There are many of us already doing this and enjoying the benefits, so get cracking by taking ANY small step in the right direction!

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Awamori – Japan’s unknown spirit

Today, we’re delighted to have a guest post on the blog from Richard Legg who runs the Master of Malt’s WSET training. As he puts it, “I’m essentially here to…

Today, we’re delighted to have a guest post on the blog from Richard Legg who runs the Master of Malt’s WSET training. As he puts it, “I’m essentially here to ensure that we all know our Ardbeg from our Ardmore, while trying my hardest to get people here to like rhum agricole.” Here’s the first of two posts from his travels getting to know Japan’s lesser-known spirits. First leg: awamori!

In late 2019, I received a mysterious email inviting me to Japan to learn all about awamori and shochu. It was serendipitous timing as I was about to begin teaching the new WSET Level 3 Spirits course and wanted to further my knowledge of Asian spirits which are covered in the syllabus.

Richard Legg

This is Richard Legg

But what are awamori and shochu?

Well, much like an obscure pop group from the 1980s, awamori and shochu are big in Japan. Very big in fact. While sake, Japanese whisky and increasingly Japanese gin are becoming known to many, awamori and shochu remain much more elusive. They are both very rarely seen outside of picturesque areas where they are produced, with only a fraction of the total volume made currently being exported. 

Spirit odyssey  

In January 2020, after a very frosty start and an equally early flight, where it finally sank in this trip was actually happening and they hadn’t confused me with someone else, our small group of spirit educators first made our way to Okinawa, the home of awamori.  

Despite it being January, Okinawa is situated in the Ryukyu Island chain at the very south of Japan, meaning it was almost tropical weather. Okinawa itself is beautiful. A place with a unique history and identity, despite being almost brought to the brink by war and whose numerous military bases still serve as reminders of the bitter conflict which took place in the 20th century. However, back to awamori.

Awamori basics

Awamori is a spirit exclusively from the main island of Okinawa and several smaller islands, which make up the prefecture. It is thought to be Japan’s oldest spirit and has a long history going back around 500 years. It is made solely from rice, water, yeast, and black koji (aspergillus awamori), see below. 

Awamori has a diverse flavour profile, in much the same way as whisky. You can go from delicate melon and light floral flavours to fruity aromas with savoury elements, through to unique intense mushroom and meaty flavours. The latter style makes an amazing match for food, which is unusual for a spirit, but honestly a mushroom risotto and a savoury awamori diluted with a splash of water or soda is my new favourite thing!

Koji used to make awamori

No, not mouse dropping but koji, a mould that turns starch into sugar

The importance of koji 

Koji is a type of mould which is key to alcoholic fermentation of starch in Japan and Asia, where it goes under different names. It essentially fulfills the same role as malting in European brewing. Both methods produce enzymes which turn starch (unusable by yeast) into sugar, just in different ways. The koji method adds completely different flavours to that of malting, which makes spirits made using this method fascinating to spirits nerds like me. 

There are three main types of koji; black, white and yellow, which all have different properties. Of the three, black koji produces the most acid, which makes it difficult for bacteria to grow in the otherwise perfect near tropical climate of Okinawa, greatly reducing spoilage. It is black koji, therefore, which is the only permitted type of koji used for awamori.  

Production methods

The method works by carefully washing and steaming rice to cook the starch, before it is seeded with black koji spores. These black koji spores are native to Okinawa, but are now cultivated on the island in carefully controlled conditions by one of several specialist producers. Historically the rice (Indica variety) is imported from Thailand, whose trade with Okinawa predates awamori itself, although there are schemes to use more native grown rice (Japonica variety). 

It is then typically left for two to three days for the enzymes to work their magic, breaking down the starch into fermentable sugar. Water is then added along with yeast to start the fermentation, which takes two to three weeks. This can occur in stainless steel or in special earthenware pots (see header image). The yeast is often a standard strain (Awamori 101-18), but yeast strains found on various plants such as mango and sakura (cherry blossom) have been isolated and used, giving different flavours. 

Once fermented, the now strongly alcoholic liquid, which can get to around 18-19% ABV, is distilled usually once using either an atmospheric still or a vacuum still. Atmospheric will give a richer more intense spirit, whereas vacuum distillation allows the liquid to boil at lower temperatures preserving the lighter flavours and giving a more delicate style.

Awamori ageing in clay jars

Awamori ageing in clay jars

Ageing 

Awamori is traditionally aged in clay rather than oak. Clay reacts with the spirit to remove sulphur compounds formed, plus allows for much flavour development. The flavour change can be quite dramatic, with sweeter aromas such as vanillin forming over time. The greater the age, the sweeter and smoother the awamori. Aged awamori which has been in clay for at least three years is called kusu, and prior to 1945 when all stocks were destroyed during the conflict, there were kusu still maturing dating back 200-300 years.  Although now sadly lost, there have been efforts to build up supplies of these ancient spirits once again.   

Awamori Jinbner 

About six months after I got back from Japan, the world was a very different place. Travel had pretty much stopped, most people were wearing masks, pubs and restaurants were closed, and Japan seemed a distant memory. I was therefore delighted to receive another mystery email inviting me to become an ambassador for awamori, where after receiving more training in a series of presentations, I would be officially recognised as an Awamori Jinbner (ambassador) and be able to promote awamori to new people, like you.

Next step – shochu. Coming soon!

We are hoping to have some bottles of awamori landing at Master of Malt soon. As always, keep checking the New Arrivals page.

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The roof is on fire: the best bars with a view 

Finding a roof with a view and a decent drink can sometimes be a challenge. You might get the view, but what’s in the glass ends up being a bit…

Finding a roof with a view and a decent drink can sometimes be a challenge. You might get the view, but what’s in the glass ends up being a bit of a dud. Luckily the team at MoM has been scaling tall buildings to find the good stuff. Spider-Man ain’t got nothing on us. So, here are some our favourite bars with a view

2021 might just be the year of the roof terrace, as venues up and down the UK look to make the most of any outdoor space. I love a good cityscape as much as the next roof terrace tourist, but I also want it to come with a decent drink.

For this particular rooftop round-up, the focus is on two of my favourite cities: London and Edinburgh. The former is full of great bars with a view, while the latter is really an excuse for us to mention just how excited we are about the soon-to-be-open malt Disneyland that will be Johnnie Walker Princes Street.

Seabird

Who’s a pretty boy then?

London Calling

Starting in London and the talk of the town has to be The Dorchester’s new space, aptly named The Dorchester Rooftop. The top deck offers views over Hyde Park, with live music, making it a great place for sunset cocktails. And we’re talking The Dorch, so you know the drinks are going to be on point. The new cocktail line-up (from 10 May) features some serious drinks. The Colombo Sour is a mix of Colombo gin, peach liqueur, kümmel, lemon and Angostura orange bitters; while Hikkaduwa sounds like the perfect sundowner, a blend of tropical mix, peach, Aperol and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label.

Next is a personal favourite of fellow MoM writer Millie Milliken’s. Yep, it’s Seabird at The Hoxton, Southwark (see photo in header). The Insta-worthy drink here is The Toucan (above) – it’s a heady mix of Olmeca Altos Tequila, mango, cinnamon and aji pepper, served in a sort of ceramic parrot. Fortunately, it can’t fly away.   

But if you want to drink and dine like a professional, then take note of Milliken’s wise words: “It was actually at Seabird that I first tried the combination of straight mezcal and oysters – and I’m never going back,” she says, pointing out that the bar has seven mezcals on its menu to choose from. “I’d go for something herbaceous and vegetal like the Derrumbes Zacatecas to marry with a Jersey No.3’s crisp, green and lemony flavours.”

A few miles north and there’s another new kid on (top of) the block: The Standard. The vista at this London outpost of the US hotel group takes in the beautiful St Pancras Station, and Eder Neto, head of bars has got the recs. He suggests a Spicy Tommy’s Margarita from Black Lines with blanco Tequila, chilli, lime, agave nectar. “It’s refreshing, so it’s great for the summer, yet still packs a punch with a spicy kick,” he says.

ROOF GARDEN Glasshouse, Edinburgh

The massive roof garden at the Glasshouse in Edinburgh

Head north

While you’re near Kings Cross, you could just hop on the train to Edinburgh? And if The Standard roof terrace was a bit small for your tastes, head to The Glasshouse. This place has a two-acre roof garden. According to Google, that’s the same size as an actual football pitch!

Tom Gibson, general manager at The Glasshouse recommends a touch of Islay goodness for a summer evening, in the form of the Peaty Kiss signature cocktail. “With a base ingredient of Laphroaig 10 year old single malt, the flavour is delicately offset with fresh grapefruit and orange juice, with a sweet touch of honey and a small drop of Jägermeister,” he explains. “Scotland can do exotic and traditional all at the same time.”

If actual smoke (rather than peat smoke) is your bag, the hotel is also a great place for whisky and cigar pairings. Especially since the bar stocks about 100 whiskies.

“We recommend pairing the profound flavours of The Dalmore King Alexander III single malt with one of our individually picked cigars such as the Partagas Series,” says Gibson. “The deep and complex flavours of the whisky blend harmoniously with the bold and powerful aromas of these Habano cigars, making this a delectable combination.”

Johnnie Walker Princes Street Edinburgh

Artist’s impression of Johnnie Walker’s soon-to-open brand home in Edinburgh

Coming soon

Staying in Edinburgh and this summer promises another magical roof space – and good drinks here should go without saying. Yep, it’s nearly time to say hello to Johnnie Walker Princes Street. This eight-floor ‘experiential’ space features everything from a shop and entertainment space to an ‘interactive flavour activity’, all under the 1820 Rooftop Bar. There may even be ‘bars’ plural up there – and they will have views to the castle and across the city skyline to east, west and north.

Artists’ impressions suggest there’s an indoor-outdoor vibe to the roof space, which is handy to know. And while there’s not much more to tell until the space opens this summer, there’s always time to fix yourself a highball and dream of dizzy heights. Try a Johnnie & Lemon: 50ml Johnnie Walker Red Label, 150ml lemonade. Pour over ice and garnish with lemon zest and a lemon verbena sprig – or an orange wedge if you’re fresh out of lemon verbena sprigs.

There’s no reason why we can’t raise the bar and the roof this summer.

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Dennis Malcolm celebrates 60 years at Glen Grant

Last month master distiller Dennis Malcolm celebrated a scarcely imaginable 60 years in the business. We sat down over a virtual dram to discuss his long and varied career in…

Last month master distiller Dennis Malcolm celebrated a scarcely imaginable 60 years in the business. We sat down over a virtual dram to discuss his long and varied career in Scotch whisky, and his enduring love for Glen Grant.

People use the expression man and boy to describe a long career but in Dennis Malcom’s case it’s true because he started at Glen Grant at only 15 years old. This was back in 1961 when stills were coal-fired, dramming was a perk of the job and the filling process required a team of men. 

Glen Grant Distillery

Glen Grant Distillery, where it all began

A different time

For every cask that you filled, you would weigh the casks empty and then weigh them full,” he explained. Then you had to calculate, in the days before calculators, the “proof gallons of alcohol in the cask.” Furthemore, there were no forklift trucks, so each cask had to be man-handled. These included bourbon barrels, hogsheads and sherry butts which weighed half an imperial ton (around 500kg). “It was very, very labour intensive,” he said. That’s an understatement.

The two things that haven’t changed, though, are Malcolm’s love of Glen Grant and the quality of the whisky: “I’ve been here for 60 years and I can tell you that the process parameters and the procedures that we have in place have not changed,” he said. Even over Zoom, Malcolm’s energy and passion for the distillery that he calls home is palpable. Can he really be 75 years old?

To the manner born

He was literally born on the grounds of Glen Grant in 1946 so it was somewhat inevitable that he would follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and work at the distillery. Malcolm’s first job was an apprentice cooper. He found the whole idea of casks fascinating: “Purely because a cask is an odd shape and I was always intrigued, how did it hold a liquid which is thinner than water, with no glue!”

He did five years coopering and “I spent the next six years going through all the different process of the malting, the mashing, the distillation, the fermentation,” he said. A brilliant education in whisky making.

By the time he was 25, Malcolm was production manager which made him the boss of men much older than him. “I was the young boy really, so I had the energy and the willingness to do the job and they had all the experience, which was a big benefit for me,” he said.

Glen Grant Distillery

Look his tie matches the flowers! What a class act

Corporate shenanigans 

When he started, Glen Grant was a family business, part of a small group with Glenlivet and run by Douglas MacKessack, a descendant of the distillery’s founder John Grant. But the ‘70s and ‘80s was a time of mergers and multinationals. The company, now called Glenlivet Distilleries, joined with Longmorn and Benriach in 1970. Then in 1978, it passed into the hands of Canadian giant Seagram in what Malcolm called an: “unfriendly takeover.”

Despite this, Malcolm stayed on and in 1992 became general manager for all nine distilleries in Chivas Brothers group, under the Seagram umbrella, plus three farms, and an animal feed plant. “So I still had my link with Glen Grant, I never lost it.”

But he wasn’t so happy when Pernod Ricard took over in 1999 following the collapse of Seagram. “They wanted their own people there. And I didn’t really like that because I had been in production all my life,” he said. 

Malcolm is candid about how he thinks Glen Grant was neglected under Pernod Ricard ownership. The distillery was mainly used to provide malt for Chivas Regal with the only single malt visibility being the 5 Year Old for the Italian market and “the 10 Year Old in the visitors centre at the distillery. That was us, nothing else,” he said. “Glen Grant almost disappeared from the single malt arena”. 

A change of scene

So, Malcolm took some time away from his beloved Glen Grant and went to work for the Inver House at Balmenach Distillery. “It was a hands-on operation. It was eight people and if you wanted to move a cask you pushed it. If you wanted to turn the steam onto the stills you had to go and turn it on and turn it off. That appealed to me,” he said. There was a family connection too: “my wife is the great-great granddaughter of Janie Macgregor, who was the daughter of James Macgregor, who built and founded Balmenach Distillery.”

Campari takes over

In 2006, Campari bought Glen Grant, it’s first and only single malt Scotch whisky distillery. “They asked if I would come back and head up Glen Grant for them. Well, I didn’t need to think twice about that because I think the biggest part in my life and my heart is Glen Grant.” he said. “Campari were Italian, they’re very passionate people and I’m passionate about Glen Grant. It was a great combination.”

Malcolm set about turning the distillery into a single malt powerhouse. “Campari invested heavily behind it and allowed me to create new expressions.” There’s now a core range of  10, 12 and 15 year olds, plus various special editions. But it’s the all bourbon-cask 18 Year Old that has whisky fans in particular raptures and is considered the quintessence of the Glen Grant style with its combination of fruit, sweetness and delicate nutty complexity.

The stills at Glen Grant, the heart of that fruity taste

The stills at Glen Grant, the heart of that fruity taste

The Glen Grant style

I asked Malcolm to describe the style: “Glen Grant is very much a light, fruity, estery, whisky on the nose and on the palate it’s creamy and fruity. Because we’re using quite a high percentage of bourbon casks, you get this toffee-vanilla note from it. It’s got a fruity sort of nutty taste. When we see younger expressions it’s more like hazelnut and as it matures longer and gets softer and refines better, it’s more a soft almond, marzipan sort of note.” He describes really old Glen Grant as tasting of “Christmas cake.”

“The two important things for defining character in a single malt is the distillation style, the stills, and the wood that you put it into,” he said. His coopering background gives him an intimate knowledge of what makes a good barrel.” He was delighted, therefore, when Campari acquired Wild Turkey, giving him the first pick of ex-bourbon casks. “Bourbon does play a big part in Glen Grant and having our own bourbon distillery guarantees supply for us,” he said. 

Award-winning whisky

Glen Grant now has a groaning trophy cabinet most famously (or perhaps I should say infamously) from Jim Murray who named Glen Grant 18 Year Old Scotch Whisky of the Year three years in a row. Now, of course, Murray isn’t quite the name to conjure with that he was before last year’s accusations of sexism. Though, I noticed that the Jim Murray Whisky Bible logo still sits proudly on the box of the 18 Year Old that the distillery was kind enough to send me.

Malcolm was diplomatic when I brought up Murray, though I could see the PR people hovering nervously on the video call. “Jim Murray was very good at marketing Glen Grant,” he said. But, he went on to say, “the brand speaks for itself. You get press and you get recognition, which is really good, but it doesn’t matter what you do, if you’ve got a successful product it will always be there.”

Malcolm is particularly proud of how fondly Glen Grant is perceived in the industry. When the 15 Year Old Batch Strength won a best Speyside single malt award at the Spirit of Speyside Festival in 2019, “that one gave me more pleasure and accepting because it was all my peers in the industry that voted for it,” he said.

Casks at Glen Grant Dennis Malcolm

He knows a fair bit about casks

60 year old release

Later this year Glen Grant will be releasing a special limited edition 60 Year Old single cask bottling to celebrate Malcolm’s anniversary. Naturally, Malcom himself chose the particular barrel: “I looked at quite a few 60 year old casks there and selected one that I thought was the best. l selected one that I thought reflected or recognised the characteristics of Glen Grant base, this liquid Christmas cake, this fruitiness, the softness..” He was keen to find something that wasn’t too woody. “The aroma, the taste, has got to be in harmony.” It’ll set you back around €25,000.

To celebrate his 60 years on 3 April, however, Malcolm chose something a little more down to earth, the classic 18 Year Old. “It’s very, very delicate, it’s floral on the nose with nice fruitiness. There’s oaky overtones and hints of spices there but it’s got a long, sweet and a hint of nuts and spice in the finish.” He described it as “really sophisticated and refined.” In other words, classic Glen Grant.

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The divine truth about the angel’s share

From whisky to Cognac, the concept of the angel’s share, how much liquid a cask loses to evaporation, is one that is unique to every distillery. Millie Milliken takes a…

From whisky to Cognac, the concept of the angel’s share, how much liquid a cask loses to evaporation, is one that is unique to every distillery. Millie Milliken takes a closer look at this costly but vital part of the ageing process. 

It’s true: there are some alcoholic liquids that have nearly swung me in the direction of believing in divinity. And while none have quite got me willingly through the doors of a church on a Sunday (or any other day for that matter), there is one supernatural story that never fails to enchant me – that of the ‘angel’s share’.

A quick question on my sophisticated data collection software (Instagram stories) solicited many a fellow drinks lover telling me where they were the first time they learned about the term: “a trip to Lagavulin on Islay”; “Speyside at Chivas Regal getting the grand tour from the master, Ian Logan”; “Officially? At the Aber Falls distillery”.

Yet a quick poll of my non booze-dwelling friends found that nearly all of them had no idea what I was talking about. So, what is the angel’s share and why does it happen?

Duppy Share

It’s not just angels that love spirits

Give it wings

The angel’s share is the amount of liquid lost from a cask during the ageing process due to evaporation. As a spirit ages, water and alcohol evaporate through the wood’s pores, rising off the cask and are lost into the atmosphere. Or, should I say, to some rather lucky angels.

But it’s not just angels who appreciate ageing spirits. Anyone who has been inside an old distillery may have seen a black substance slick on the walls when they looked heavenwards. This is baudoinia compniacensis, a fungus that thrives on airborne alcohol and as such it is particularly happy in warehouses and distilleries housing spirits. And “in the Caribbean, spirits called ‘duppies’ swoop between the islands taking rum as they go,” said Jack Orr-Ewing, CEO of Caribbean rum brand, The Duppy Share.

Whoever it is enjoying the alcohol, Scotch whiskies on average lose 2% of a cask’s liquid per year. The duppies are even greedier, taking about 7% per year from Caribbean rums. Over time, this can amount to a shockingly high proportion of the distiller’s liquid. On average a VSOP Cognac will have lost over 10% over its life in cask, an XO will have lost 30% and after 50 years ageing, your now extremely expensive Cognac will have lost a staggering 70% of its original liquid (image in header is courtesy of Delamain Cognac).

The Nightcap

The higher up the stack you go, the hotter it gets, and the greater the angel’s share

Location, location, location

There are a multitude of factors that can affect how much the angels get. As well as the strength of the liquid when it enters the cask, climate and temperature are two important ones and depend on the distillery’s location. Casks stored in humid conditions will lose less water and more alcohol than those stored in non-humid ones.

When it comes to temperature, a barrel kept in cold conditions will age slower than one in the hot climes of somewhere like Kentucky. Indeed, some Kentucky whiskies can lose up to 10% of their liquid in the first year while in the Caribbean, rums can lose up to 7%. 

And then there’s the design of the warehouse which can affect ageing and the quality of the resulting liquid. “In Cognac you have a wide range of options,” says Clive Carpenter, general manager of Gérant Domaine Sazerac de Segonzac and creator for Seignette VS Cognac. “New-build warehouses are rather hot and dry because they are made of breezeblocks and are taller which means you’ll get a lot of water evaporation. That produces Cognacs which age faster but are harsher on the taste buds. Old-fashioned warehouses are made of stone, by the river on beaten earth, [so they’ve] got a very humid atmosphere. There you can lose a great deal of alcohol and not much water and if you overdo ageing in a damp warehouse, you get Cognacs that are over flabby.”

Then there’s how the barrels are stored in the warehouse. Airflow is important and in larger warehouses, casks can be stored on racks meaning more air can circulate around then and there is more evaporation. At The Glenlivet in Speyside, according to the website: “we have a traditional (dunnage) warehouse, with a gravel floor and only a small number of casks. This helps us to hold on to liquid as best we can.” In contrast, if the casks are stacked in a Kentucky warehouse, the temperature of the top of the warehouse will be far hotter than at the bottom.

The Glenlivet

Inside a traditional dunnage warehouse at Glenlivet

Cask matters

Cask size and wood type can also affect angel’s share. Brand new oak will absorb more liquid quicker than second-fill casks while smaller casks with more liquid-to-wood contact will encourage more evaporation too. At The Glenlivet, “casks that hold fewer than 50 litres can show really remarkable losses, which also leads to a faster maturation.”

And when we’re talking casks, we’re also talking ‘devil’s cut’. This is the liquid lost to the cask (and not evaporation) depending on how porous the wood is. Jim Beam has even created a Devil’s Cut expression using its 90 proof bourbon and blending it with the absorbed spirit extracted from the barrel.

Angel, duppy or devil, losing a percentage of your liquid is a price every distiller of aged spirits has to pay. If they do exist, sounds like the bar will be well stocked in both heaven and hell.

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A history of celebrity-endorsed drinks 

From Sean Connery advertising Suntory in the ’90s, to David Beckham with Haig Club, Ian Buxton looks into the history of celebrity-endorsed drinks. Nowadays you’re nowhere in celeb world unless…

From Sean Connery advertising Suntory in the ’90s, to David Beckham with Haig Club, Ian Buxton looks into the history of celebrity-endorsed drinks. Nowadays you’re nowhere in celeb world unless you’ve got your very own Tequila, whisky, gin or Prosecco.

I couldn’t help but notice that Sir Ranulph Fiennes is flogging rum these days. Celebrity-endorsed drinks adverts have been a long-standing fixture since, well, since there were celebrities and advertisements in which to feature them but looking into Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum, it seems that those relationships are now more than skin deep.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes with Dr John Waters

Sir Ranulph Fiennes with Dr John Waters from English Spirit

Celebrity-endorsed drinks through the ages

Sometimes, the celebrity juxtapositions seem bizarre– hard to believe that even in 1949 actress Doris Day was the best salesperson for Harvester road rollers, for example. In alcohol, today’s audiences might look askance at Woody Allen promoting vodka (assuming any brand would think it a great idea) but, in 1966, he was apparently the ideal choice for Smirnoff to appeal to trendy young drinkers.

Fortunately for Smirnoff, its association with Mr Allen was long forgotten (except for this blog’s keen eye for gossip) before recent adverse publicity reflected badly on the brand. But in fact, the possibility of the celebrity turning toxic and damaging the partner is a real danger of celebrity endorsements.

That’s something probably well remembered by Bacardi’s marketing team who, in late 2003, had to withdraw TV commercials featuring ex-footballer turned thespian Vinnie Jones hastily following his involvement in an unfortunate air-rage incident. Unfortunate for both parties as he lost what was clearly a lucrative gig, and Bacardi had to dump at least one expensive advert that had yet to air.  

Once upon a time, it was simpler to use dead celebrities, as at least they could be relied on not to misbehave. Mark Twain (died 1910) and Rudyard Kipling (1936), were both disinterred to promote Old Crow bourbon in American press adverts in the early 1950s based on Twain’s reputed fondness for the brand. He could hardly argue the point or ask for a fee.

Old Crow Whisky

Just Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain enjoying a glass of bourbon

Take the money and run

Some years later, a fashion developed for publicity-shy but impecunious celebrities to endorse Japanese brands, confident that the association would not be picked up in the West, a trend wonderfully satirised by Bill Murray in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. Murray stars as Bob Harris, a fading American movie star who is having a midlife crisis when he travels to Tokyo to promote Suntory whisky.

Who could he have been thinking of? Surely [surely shurely? Ed.] not Sean Connery’s 1991 promotion of Suntory Crest? Surely one of the world’s greatest Scotsmen would want to promote a fine single malt? Well, no single malt could afford his rumoured fee of $1 million but Dewar’s stepped up in 2004 with some digital magic in which Connery meets his younger self and advises ‘Some age, others mature’.

Doubtless Connery’s agent was happy with that deal and by the turn of the millennium any coyness about an association with alcohol had long been abandoned as more celebrities began to cash in. In fact, coy hardly describes Sharon Stone’s promotion of the William Lawson’s blended Scotch whisky, a sister brand to Dewar’s that’s popular in European markets. 

Leveraging the brand

But soon an even more astute generation of celebrities with a keen sense of their commercial value began looking for more than a lucrative payday, linking their personality uniquely closely with the brand by seeking first a royalty payment based on sales and, even more recently, taking an ownership position with equity in the brand itself.

This is a new development and demonstrates our continuing fascination with celebrity.  Never mind seeking out some obscure, artisan product – as consumers we’re proving little more than biddable sheep, anxious to secure the reflected glory of a well-known face and name.

The trend setters have been US hip-hop* artists such as Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, Puffy, Puff, etc) with his 2007 partnership with Diageo’s Ciroc Vodka. Fellow rappers had worked previously with various Cognac brands, such as Jay-Z with Chateau de Cognac’s D’USSE and Nas has been working as a brand ambassador for Hennessy since 2012. 

But P. Diddy changed the rules, treating the French vodka like a trainer brand and insisting on a 50/50 profit split and creative control of US marketing. Did it work? Ask Diageo, which when it acquired DeLeón Tequila was quick to cut a similar deal with Combs.

George Clooney Casamigos

The two amigos, George Clooney and Rande Gerber

In fact, this appears to be a particularly effective strategy for star-struck Diageo which has form in celebrity tie-ins with their brands – think David Beckham with Haig Club and George Clooney’s Casamigos Tequila, both following in Combs’ Ciroc footsteps.

Cashing in

The amounts of money are staggering. Casamigos changed hands for a reputed $1 billion if all the longer term targets are met, and August 2020 Diageo was back in business, having ponied up a cool $335m to buy Aviation American gin, with another $275m to follow if sales live up to expectations.

The fortunate celebrity here is Ryan Reynolds who we may safely assume will be able to stand his round for many years to come.

* For the avoidance of doubt the editor has suggested I confirm that I am unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Messrs. P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Nas though, full disclosure, I did once watch a James Bond film.

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English wineries to visit this summer

Staycations are the 2021 holiday. And although we might be missing out on some exotic booze from foreign climes, there’s plenty to get excited about in ol’ Blighty – particularly…

Staycations are the 2021 holiday. And although we might be missing out on some exotic booze from foreign climes, there’s plenty to get excited about in ol’ Blighty particularly when it comes to visiting English wineries.

From dinner among the vines to fizz flights and afternoon tea picnics, English wineries are bringing their A game for visitors. And you don’t even need to get on a plane! Hurray!

For readers in the South East, there are now so many vineyards that you could easily do a week of day trips or even boujie your way around boutique hotels – many of them even owned by wine producers.

Anyway, here are five of our favourites to get the fizz flowing:

Licensed to Rathfinny Estate for worldwide, non restricted use.

The view across the vines at Rathfinny

Rathfinny 

A few miles in-land from the Sussex coast, Rathfinny is a giant among English wine producers. For an adventure (and to work up an appetite), get off the train at Seaford and walk for about 1.5hrs across the Downs to the winery.

There’s plenty on offer and guests can plan the ultimate food and wine getaway with packages including bed and breakfast in the Flint Barns. There’s a plate to suit all tastes – with wine tasting and dinner in either the gastro pub-style Dining Room or the Michelin Plate Tasting Room restaurant.

Summer al fresco dining options include picnic boxes, an antipasti bar and wine and nibbles on the Tasting Room balcony.

New for 2021

All menus are brand new, created by estate head chef, Chris Bailey who has come up with “contemporary dishes inspired by freshest, seasonal British produce”.

Two new Sussex Sparkling vintages: the second release of the house-style vintage 2017 Classic Cuvée and the new limited-production release of the 2017 Blanc de Blancs.

Hush Heath winery

The spectacular Hush Heath winery in Kent

Balfour Winery 

Balfour, located on the Hush Heath Estate, is a destination for lovers of a nature walk. You can take a stroll through the 400-acre estate, which features vineyards, apple orchards and ancient oak woodlands, or join an expert-led tour and tasting experience. The Balfour Brut Rosé is a good bet for enjoying on the terrace – and the shop even offers a magnum for the 2016, perfect if you’re having six people round to the garden, say.

Top tip

This is a great place to take friends who aren’t necessarily big wine fans. The estate also features Jake’s Drinks – a collection of beers and ciders made using local ingredients. For example, the ciders are made with 100% juice from the Kentish dessert apples Russet, Cox and Bramley.

Balfour also owns a few pubs across Kent and Sussex, many with hotel rooms. Why not make a weekend tour of it?

Bus at Hambledon

Hambledon has an actual wine bus

Hambledon 

This is England’s first commercial vineyard of the modern era, planted in 1952 – and the treat for visitors here is the underground cellars, cut straight into the chalk. MoM recommends a sparkling afternoon tea tour for two, which includes a tour and tasting as well as a picnic and a glass of Classic Cuvée Rosé. Or if seafood tickles your tentacles, the vineyard will feature an oyster and fizz bar later in the summer.

Champagne fans should try the Première Cuvée  – this Non Vintage is a blend of 73% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir and 3% Pinot Meunier.

New for 2021

Dine in the vines! Hambledon will be hosting a series of al fresco dining experiences over the summer, centred around English fizz and Hampshire produce, including

smoked chalk stream trout, cheeses and charcuterie.

And as luck would have it, the vine rows are 2.2m wide, so with tables in alternate rows, you are naturally socially distanced. (As someone who prefers to be naturally socially distanced, this is music to my ears.)

Chapel Down Kit's Coty Vineyard

Chapel Down’s famous Kit’s Coty vineyard

Chapel Down 

Situated in the Kent countryside, near Tenterden, Chapel Down will be opening for vineyard tours again from 19 May 2021. There will be a variety of experiences on offer from guided tours, wine tastings, masterclasses and food and drink experiences combining a meal in The Swan restaurant.

New for 2021

“We’re in the process of releasing five new 2020 vintages of some of our best-selling wines, all of which will be available in store to sample along with others from our award winning range,” says Chapel Down’s Guy Tresnan​, retail and export director. Wowsers, FIVE!

Grape picking at Sharpham

Grape picking at Sharpham in Dorset

Sharpham 

This Devon estate is one for cheese fans. We recommend the Guided Tasting, which includes four wines and two cheeses – as well as a tour through the different wine making processes at Sharpham. Cheese comes from the Sharpham Dairy, which is famous for Sharpham Brie, made with fresh milk from the creamery’s Jersey herd.

New for 2021

Sharpham Summer Sparkling Wine has just landed for summer. It is a blend of estate grown Dornfelder and Pinot Noir red grapes from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. Sharpham calls it “a lost batch” that was rediscovered while moving to the new winery at Sandridge Barton in 2020.

That must’ve been a happy discovery.

The wine is described as “soft and spritzy with fruit salad, peach yogurt and strawberry characteristics”. Summer in a bottle.

See you for a scone in the vineyard

The great thing about English wineries is that they have grown up realising the importance of visitor experiences. This makes them well equipped to offer wonderful days out with world-class wines. And if ever there was a year to support them, as well as find fun things to do in the UK, this is it. 

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The story of Don Julio Tequila

Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada was just 17 when he founded his Tequila distillery. It’s been quite a journey from these humble beginnings to being part of one of the largest…

Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada was just 17 when he founded his Tequila distillery. It’s been quite a journey from these humble beginnings to being part of one of the largest drinks companies in the world, and enjoyed by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio. This is the story of Don Julio Tequila.

1925 was a momentous year. America got its first female governor in Wyoming, Nellie Tayloe Ross; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published; as was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush hit the silver screen.

Don Julio

It’s Don Julio himself!

Do Julio, the man behind the brand

It was also the year that Julio González-Frausto Estrada was born. The man behind one of Tequila’s most recognisable brands, Don Julio, was raised in the highlands of Atotonilco el Alto in Mexico’s Jalisco region. “He was born and raised in the heart of a family devoted to the agaves,’ says Karina Sánchez, Don Julio’s global brand ambassador. ‘Since he was a child he developed a devotion to the land.”

He learnt his trade as a young man making mezcal in underground ovens and at the tender age of 15, Julio was distributing Tequila on horseback to provide for his family after his father’s death. In 1942, at just 17 years of age, he bought his first distillery – La Primavera (meaning ‘spring’) – using money lent to him by a wealthy local gentleman.

However, it was another 43 years until the brand Don Julio was officially born. During a party thrown for Estrada by his sons in 1985, he requested that his special reserve reposada be served in the now signature short and square bottles so that guests could see each other across the table. When he was asked by guests where they could buy the Tequila originally only made for the family, it set off a spark for turning his liquid into a business. In 1987, finally the world was introduced to Don Julio Tequila.

Don Julio Tequila HQ

Don Julio HQ

The liquids

Today, the brand has six core expressions: Blanco, Añejo, Resposado, 70 Añejo Claro, 1942 and Real, as well as some special limited bottlings, including one even aged in Lagavulin casks – master distiller Enrique de Colsa is, needless to say, a busy man.

Making the Tequilas is a showcase in quality craft. The agaves (Don Julio only ever uses 100% blue agave) are grown in the microclimate and the mineral-rich red clay soils of Jalisco and harvested after seven to 10 years. Then, the pencas (leaves) are cut from the piñas which are then cut into thirds or quarters and steam-cooked in traditional masonry ovens over three days before going into white oak casks for the aged expressions. Eight pounds of agave goes into one bottle of Don Julio Tequila.

These meticulous methods are testament to Estrada’s love of his craft. His unconventional methods included planting the agave’s further apart and even whispering to his agaves. “I really admire his dedication and love for the agaves – he considered them as his own children,” says Sánchez. “He was also so careful about trimming the grass around them, and he taught the jimadors how to cut the leaves in his own way.”

The legacy

When Don Julio sadly passed away on Tuesday 20 March 2012, there was an outpouring of love for the Tequila pioneer. In a statement, president of global Tequila for Diageo, Maggie Lapcewich, wrote: “Throughout his life Don Julio worked arduously, neither allowing himself to fail nor succumbing to adversities. He always fought and prevailed in his perseverance to achieve his goalsMany describe the journey of Don Julio’s life as one that was honest, just and fair. He remained loyal to his beliefs and was committed to his work and family… we know that his legacy will live on.” 

Indeed it has, with Diageo completing a full acquisition of the Tequila brand and the assets of La Primavera in 2015, pumping $400m into the brand. Since then it’s been sipped by Leonardo DiCaprio, P Diddy and Hailey Baldwin at Coachella’s 2018 afterparty; had a cameo in 2018’s The Predator; and featured in its own TV promo entitled The Man, the Legend.

Don Julio continues to sell by the ‘caja’ (‘crate’) load – even if the second half of last year saw sales drop somewhat, no doubt a result of Covid. With more consumers leaning towards premium tequilas, we’re expecting the agave spirit to continue to fly off shelves and backbars. I’m sure if Don Julio could still distribute his wares on horseback, he would.

The Don Julio Tequila range is available from Master of Malt.

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What the heck’s a swan neck?

Ever wondered why Sipsmith has a swan for its spokesbird? Or what the bit that bends at the top of a still is called? Well, wonder no more. Lucy Britner…

Ever wondered why Sipsmith has a swan for its spokesbird? Or what the bit that bends at the top of a still is called? Well, wonder no more. Lucy Britner explores the world of the swan neck and looks at how different iterations affect the flavour and character of spirits such as whisky and gin.

Stills are a bit like people. They come in all shapes and sizes, they all have their own character and some even sing (hello, Mortlach). A still’s swan neck – the bit at the top that curves to connect to the lyne arm – also has its own vibe and the angle of a swan neck can have an impact on the spirit in question.

Sipsmith swan

Sipsmith has a swan brand ambassador

Sipsmith’s swan

Swan necks are so important that intense focus on the first still’s swan neck design at Sipsmith caused the swan to creep (waddle? glide? swan?) into everyday conversations  – and it went on to influence the brand’s entire identity.

“I remember a sign inside the door of the tiny garage on Nasmyth Street where we started out: ‘Swanny says – did you remember your keys and wallet?’,” Sipsmith master distiller Jared Brown tells me. “The artist who sat in the distillery taking notes before creating our label and immortalising our swan had to see that sign and must have heard the word a few times.”

Not only is Brown a master distiller, he’s also a master at explaining the swan neck. Pour a G&T and take note.

Copper contact

“A classic copper pot still begins with the pot, which holds the liquid and is where it is gently heated to convert it to steam,” he starts. “The steam rises from the pot, then condenses on the sides of the helmet above the pot. This causes it to run back down the inside of the still against the highly-reactive copper repeatedly, with impurities leaving the spirit and bonding to the copper with each pass. Once steam reaches above the helmet it passes into the swan neck which leads to the condensing coil where it will be cooled and returned to a liquid state.”

A still’s swan neck dictates how easily the liquid passes from the pot and helmet to the condensing coil. Brown explains that stills with broader swan necks that slope steeply downward carry heavy, smoky, oily, peaty flavours. Meanwhile, stills with necks that slope upwards from taller helmets, and have narrowed diameters bring more refined notes, while causing the heaviest flavours to remain in the still.

Makes sense.

The Sipsmith master distiller says that while in whisky distilling, the shape of the swan neck dictates which flavours of the base fermentation of malted grain come over the still, in gin the swan neck dictates how the botanicals present themselves in the final liquid.

Stills at Sipsmith

Te still set-up at Sipsmith, note the elegant swan necks on the stills

New necks

Of course, the beauty of building your own distillery is that you get to choose everything.

New kid on the block White Peak Distillery in Derbyshire is launching its first whisky in autumn this year. The dram will join its Shining Cliff Gin, which is already available.

“One of the unique benefits of starting a whisky distillery is the opportunity to design bespoke equipment, including pot stills to achieve a desired style of spirit, and the connection this gives for the whisky-makers through design to spirit,” says White Peak co-founder Max Vaughan.

He describes the distillery’s spirit still as having an oversized pot (for the batch size) with a modest fill level, a tall and relatively thin neck and a gently upward sloping and long lye pipe, and finally a copper shell and tube condenser. Vaughan says the combination of these features encourages reflux/copper contact and the spirit to “work hard”, therefore helping to strip out some of the heavier compounds.

“We also run the still slowly which gives the still shape more influence and helps with hitting our desired cut points to produce a smooth and fruity, lightly-peated spirit,” he adds. 

The convoluted swan neck at Macduff distillery

The convoluted swan neck at Macduff distillery

Kinky 

Building a distillery from scratch isn’t a reality for everyone and on many occasions, especially when it comes to re-jigging older facilities, fitting in with the space can determine the set up of a swan neck.

Bacardi brand ambassador, Matthew Cordiner describes the Macduff distillery, which makes The Deveron, as a “bit of a Mad Hatter’s tea party”. Indeed, if a real swan had the neck from a Macduff still, it would either be able to see around corners or be in serious pain.

“Two wash stills have a right-angled kink in them [in the foreground above], which is pretty unusual, leading to the vertically mounted shell and tube condensers,” says Cordiner. “This was more about how to best fit them into the space than a flavour-led decision. But the fairly steep upwards sloping lyne arms will encourage more reflux and re-boiling action – meaning less lower volatility compounds will be able to make it through the first distillation run.”

The distillery also has a rather unusual spirit still set up – pretty small and narrow stills, giving lots of copper contact and very short lyne arms [in the background above], which are also angled upwards and have a right angled kink in them.

Don’t forget the condensers

“These would again encourage a bit more reflux, though any ‘lightness’ this might have brought is almost undone by having horizontally mounted shell and tube condensers,” Cordiner adds. “The horizontal condensers mean that less ‘weight’ is stripped from the spirit through copper contact. This creates almost a midpoint between a vertical shell and tube and an old fashioned worm tub, we do have a light/moderate sulphur character in the new make spirit because of this, too.”

Cordiner emphasises that it’s a combination of all of this, plus how the distillery makes its cuts, which creates the balance between fruitiness and cereal/nutty characters, as well as the signature ‘apple’ note The Deveron is known for.

Macduff stills

Macduff’s unusual spirit stills with swan neck and right angle lyne arm leading to horizontal condenser

It’s the way that you do it

“Still shape and configuration is really important but it is also down to how you run them,” he says. “If you take our Aultmore distillery for example, with its short stills and descending lyne arms, at a glance you would have thought they were producing a more robust style of whisky, but by the way in which they are run, we are able to create a light, grassy and biscuity style of whisky.”

And so, it is a truth universally acknowledged that it is the whole process combined that creates a spirit’s character – but there is no denying the swan neck plays an important part.

So important that the eagle-eyed Latinists among you will note the term ‘cygnus inter anates’ on the bottom of all Sipsmith bottles. A slogan created by Sipsmith co-founder Fairfax Hall, meaning ‘a swan among the ducks’.  

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