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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

The rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif

Continuing our Dry January 2022 coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at the inexorable rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif, and the new brands to watch out for. It started with…

Continuing our Dry January 2022 coverage, Lauren Eads takes a look at the inexorable rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif, and the new brands to watch out for.

It started with a Shirley Temple, perhaps a coke with a slice of lemon if you were feeling fancy. Throw in a J20 and a soda and lime, and we had reached the peak of ‘adult’ soft drinks. Overly sweet and simple, the choices for non-drinkers were once depressingly limited.

Then a glimmer of hope. Producers began putting real effort into non-alcoholic beers and de-alcoholised wine. They weren’t perfect, but there was an enthusiasm to do better for non drinkers. Non-alcoholic distilled spirits like Atopia and Seedlip soon followed, entirely new brands that have reshaped the no- and low-alcohol (NOLO) movement.

As evidence mounted that many teenagers were no longer sneaking booze behind the bike sheds but abstaining altogether, a sense of urgency began to spread among alcoholic drinks producers too. Distillers got in on the action creating their own non-alcoholic versions of international spirits, including Gordon’s, Sipsmith and Tanqueray.

Slowly, non-alcoholic adult beverages became worth drinking.

As we enter 2022 the life of a teetotaller or abstainer is brighter than ever. There’s hundreds of options, some of them very good. And it’s no longer just about imitating spirits like gin or rum. The market for non-alcoholic ‘apéritifs’ has exploded.

Aecorn

An Aecorn Spritz makes a nice zero ABV option

What’s an apéritif?

Whether it’s a French apéritif or an Italian aperitivo, an apéritif is defined as “an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite”.

Martinis, G&Ts, and Negronis all make great pre-dinner cocktails, as does sparkling wine and spritz cocktails with vermouth or herbal liqueurs, like Campari and Aperol. What they all have in common is a dry bitterness to whet the appetite with flavours like wormwood, gentian and quinine all common.

In the world of non-alcoholic aperitifs, the trend has been towards that of a bittersweet, aromatic ‘liqueur’, intended to be mixed with tonic or soda.

The rise of the non-alcoholic apéritif

Seedlip kick-started the rise of the non-alcoholic aperitif when it launched Æcorn Apéritifs in 2019, inspired by the “European apéritif tradition”. Its three variants – Dry, Bitter and Aromatic – are based on herbal remedies from the seventeenth century and made with grapes, herbs, roots and bitter botanicals.

There is logic to prioritising apéritifs for de-alcoholisation. Their characteristic dry bitterness can be achieved with or without alcohol in a way that can’t always be matched by other NA alternatives.

“It is an incredible challenge to replicate the mouthfeel of a spirit without alcohol,” explains Rupert Gatehouse, sales and marketing manager of Botivo, an NA apéritif made with apple cider vinegar, honey, rosemary, thyme, gentian, wormwood and orange zest. “Although non-alcoholic apéritifs also lack the key component of alcohol, they are still able to capture the botanical notes and more importantly the bitter notes that you expect from an apéritif.”

The Nightcap: 14 January

Katy Perry has got in on the zero ABV aperitif game

Brands to watch

As if to underline their growing popularity, this month pop star Katy Perry launched her own range of non-alcoholic sparkling apéritifs called De Soi, made with “feel-good adaptogens like maca and reishi mushroom”. 

In 2020 Martini launched Torino Martini, a non-alcoholic apéritif made with the same white wines as its classic vermouth, but with the alcohol removed using vacuum distillation and infused with a selection of botanicals.

Mother Root came onto the market in 2019 – an alcohol-free ‘switchel’ made with ginger juice, apple cider vinegar, honey and a hint of chilli, intended to be served over ice with soda or tonic and a slice of orange.

There’s also Lyre’s Italian Spritz, Everleaf Bittersweet Apéritif, Three Spirit and Crossip to consider, all of which make excellent non-alcoholic apéritifs. Giffard Apéritif syrup is a concentrated non-alcoholic substitute for a red bitter liqueur (á la Campari) with flavours of bitter oranges, gentian root, quinquina, and spice.

Last year, several more entered the game. Wilfred’s claims to have ‘reinvented the Spritz’ with its bittersweet apéritif made from a blend of rosemary, bitter orange, rhubarb and clove.

High Point in Cornwall produces a Ruby Apéritif made by first fermenting natural ingredients including tea leaves, hibiscus, lavender, wormwood, pink peppercorn, orange zest and grapefruit.

“Demand is growing in the non-alcoholic apéritif category,” says Carl Stephenson, founder of The Bloomsbury Club UK which in 2021 created Tuscan Tree, a NA aperitivo made with Sicilian blood oranges, with flavour exploration the lynch pin of its growth. “It is evolving quickly and I think consumers are now accepting that non-alcoholic drinks are a really credible alternative to alcoholic drinks.”

High Point

Fermentation is the key to making High Point

How are they made?

And perhaps more pressing, why do some cost almost as much as an alcoholic version? Isn’t it just flavoured water? Sometimes, but there’s more to it than that.

Traditional apéritifs are made by macerating botanicals in alcohol, and most non-alcoholic versions undergo a similar process.

Botivo, which launched in 2021, macerates its botanicals for two months with raw apple cider vinegar and honey. This mirrors an ancient flavouring and preservation technique first used to make oxymel tonics (oxy = acid / mel = honey), giving complexity and natural shelf-stability.

High Point drew upon its background in beer (its founder is responsible for Harbour Brewing) to create its non-alcoholic fermented Ruby Apéritif. Any alcohol produced during fermentation is biologically removed, which is why each batch takes a month to produce.

“Our expertise in fermentation, as brewers, meant we could introduce sophisticated and complex flavours to the conversation that were previously hard to find in the growing world of NA,” explains Eddie Lofthouse, founder of High Point.

Compare this to your average soft drink and you can start to understand their pricing.

What’s next?

“More innovation, more diverse flavours and broader interpretations of drink styles,” thinks Lofthouse. “People are making better choices, an awareness fuelled by the emergency stop on daily life during the pandemic. Drinkers are more conscious and have had time to reflect and want to live mindfully. I see the category growing from strength to strength, in both size and quality.”

It might not be quite the same as the real thing, but abstention has never been more enjoyable.

Click here to see the full range of no and low alcohol drinks from Master of Malt

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Brora Distillery – recreating a legend

Last year we were treated to an exclusive tour of the recently-reopened Brora Distillery in the Highlands to see how the Diageo team are getting on bringing a legendary single…

Last year we were treated to an exclusive tour of the recently-reopened Brora Distillery in the Highlands to see how the Diageo team are getting on bringing a legendary single malt whisky back to life. 

There’s a well-known joke about a tourist lost in rural Ireland asking for directions from an old man. The man replies: “well I wouldn’t start from here.” That’s rather what it must be like reviving Brora distillery.

Worm rubs at Brora

The hottest worm tubs in Scotland

Recreating a legend

The revived distillery filled its first barrel last year but things are very much work in progress. The aim is to recreate that famous Brora taste with the same or replicas of the equipment used up until the distillery closed in 1983. But the problem is that the original set-up wasn’t ideal for making the kind of whisky the team wanted.

If you were building a distillery from scratch and the aim was to make a fruity new make, you would want lots of copper contact which would involve using shell and tube condensers. But Brora always used worm tub condensers so after the distillery reopened last year, the team had to work out how to run them so they work very slowly. According to brand ambassador Andrew Flatt, “we run them super hot to keep the vapour in as long as possible so you get as much reflux as possible.” Or in other words, I wouldn’t start from here.

He described the process as “reverse engineering”, trying to get the equipment to replicate the taste of the surviving whisky. The problem is nobody is quite sure why old Brora tastes as it does. Take that elusive quality known as ‘waxiness’, think the skin on an apple or even cheese rind. This comes partly from a build-up of oils in the spirit receiver. At the sister distillery which opened in 1969, this is known as “Clynelish gunk” and, according to Flatt, “they lost the character once when they cleaned it.” Though they have started filling barrels, the Brora new make doesn’t quite have this elusive quality.

Stewart Bowman and family at Brora

Former master distiller Stewart Bowman, his father and two other old Brora by the wildcat gates

Smoky Brora

To further complicate things, that classic fruity style isn’t the only Brora out there. In the 1960s, because of a drought on Islay, there was a demand for smoky whiskies in the image of Caol Ila or Lagavulin for blends. So Brora switched to making peated whisky between 1968 and 1981, according to Flatt. The revived distillery will also make a smoky whisky in the future.

But it’s the third style that has proved the hardest to replicate. This was a funky, earthy style that the distillery produced occasionally in the early ‘70s. This was probably not intentional and may have had something to do with a bacterial infection. Nowadays, however, these wild Broras are some of the most prized bottlings. With their trademark barnyard note, they smell a little bit like certain wines that have been infected with Brettanomyces such as Chateau Musar from Lebanon or Domaine de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

So though Brora has started filling barrels, visitors to the distillery can’t actually try the new make. Instead, Flatt gave me three new makes which mimic the sort of character that they are after, but he asked me to keep their actual provenance secret. My lips are sealed. 

Brora book

A record of the final distillation at Brora… until last year

Brora’s rich history

The whole revival of the distillery has been a bit like that, based on incomplete knowledge as to how it originally worked. Before taking me around, Flatt gave me a whistlestop history including a look at the plans when the distillery was remodelled by Charles Doig in the late 19th century which were found in an old bin bag. He showed me minutes from the DCL meeting in 1968 when it was decided to build a second distillery called Clynelish, and the original distillery became known as Brora, and old ledgers which workers kept from the tip, including the heartbreaking final one from 1983 which stated “feints brought forward” (see above). Nobody is sure what happened to these final feints.  

Entering through those famous wildcat gates, it’s hard to imagine that the Brora was a wreck until very recently. It’s now probably the most perfect-looking Highland distillery I have ever seen. When Plato was thinking of a distillery, this was it. It’s so perfect, that it almost feels like a film set.

According to Flatt, it took a quarter of a million man-hours from highly qualified tradesmen to get it into this state of perfection. The renovations involved removing the pagoda for repair. But much of the most time-consuming work can’t be seen, such as cutting stone blocks in half in order to put in fire retardant material and insulation, and rebuilding the foundations so the buildings didn’t collapse.

Brora stills

The original stills are still in place

Recreating the classic set-up

The team has tried as much as possible to recreate the classic ‘70s set-up. It starts with a Porteus mill, not the original one but period correct. The rollers are quite far apart to get a rough texture. The mash tun is the same as the one from 1973, with a rake and gear. They don’t agitate it continuously because the aim is to get a clear wort. The data for operating the mash tuns comes from books from the 1970s.

Then there are six Oregon pine washbacks. They use Kerry liquid yeast with very long ferments – 115 hours. The idea is to build up fruity esters. These will develop further as bacteria build up in the wood of the washbacks. 

Thankfully, the original stills were never removed because they worried that the building would have collapsed. They were refurbished by a team from Diageo’s Abercrombie works. The stills are run slowly, around 11 hours. Then the new make is condensed in those hot-running worm tubs before running into casks. The capacity is to produce something like 850,000 litres per year. This is not a boutique operation. It’s all watched over by Nara Madasamy who began his career with Brewdog so knows a thing or two about fermentation.

Brora distillery reopens

Brora – the Platonic ideal of a distillery

Brora was ahead of its time

The tour finished appropriately enough in the dunnage warehouse, where there’s space for 5-6,000 casks, with a taste of the 39-year-old which was bottled at 49% ABV. A stunning drop, aged in 70% used casks, it’s incredibly vibrant, tasting more like a 15-year-old. The fruit, think pineapples and apple crumble, is quite sensational with the classic waxiness on display.

Tasting this mind-blowing whisky, it’s very hard to understand why Brora was closed in the first place. But the extraordinary thing about Brora is nobody quite realised how good it was or how well it would mature. Like Port Ellen, it all went into blends. The first single malt bottling of Brora came from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989. The first official bottling was part of the Rare Malts range in 1995. I remember these Rare Malts then priced at around £50 a bottle gathering dust on the shelves at Oddbins in the late ‘90s.

Those bottles are now going for around £10k. The 39-year-old I tried will set you back around £8k. And we won’t see or taste the results from the ‘new’ Brora for years. Life just isn’t fair. 

Bespoke tours of Brora are available. Contact the distillery for more information. 

 

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Drinks without category: Pussanga

Pussanga is made from a plant used in shamanic medicine as a love potion. It has been described as a liqueur, a new style of a spirit, or even a hybrid….

Pussanga is made from a plant used in shamanic medicine as a love potion. It has been described as a liqueur, a new style of a spirit, or even a hybrid. But what is it? We speak to the founder to find out.

In Central and South American jungles there are plants  known as pussanga whose root is used historically by local shamans to make love potions. This process was witnessed by a German scientist named Petra Spamer-Riether in the late 1980s, who visited Peru after her bachelor’s degree and then again after her masters’s degree, and later for her PhD travelled into the jungle to find with this special plant.

“I already started to learn quite good Spanish and I was in five different places at the Madre de Dios River, near the Manú National Park. I used to live with Machiguenga and Piro Pueblo indigenous people, and then I went to the Ucayali River,” says Spamer-Riether. 

“I was working there in a little Indian village, Limojema, and I heard that locally there were some roots of ‘pussanga plants’, which means an aphrodisiac plant in the local language. They showed me the root and how they blended it with different herbs, plants, ginger and honey. It was always sweet and a little spicy, but it varies from different areas”.

Tasting that drink in the Peruvian jungle didn’t immediately lead to Spamer-Riether creating her own, however. She spent the next couple of decades working as a journalist in TV, radio, and newspapers, eventually making documentary films about science and nature, including about her travels in Peru. 

Pussanga

Petra and Janina

A drink to remember

After one particularly grueling project her daughter, Janina, bought her a novel to relax with, The Cook by Martin Suter. In it, there’s a story about a cook who made aphrodisiac recipes for dinners. “I had a flashback to my time in Peru 25 years ago and thought I could create an aphrodisiac spirit like the shamans did”.

By 2011 she was working on what would become Pussanga, although it took a year of experimenting to create the recipe. “In the beginning, it tasted like cough medicine! I used some other aphrodisiac ingredients, like chilli and ginger, and settled on a recipe with a selection of fruits, herbs, and plants like pomegranate, thyme, basil, orange, strawberry, tangy raspberry, a lot of cardamom, some cinnamon, and a lot of vanilla”. 

Of course, there’s the vital ingredient: crushed pussanga root from Peru and Mexico. Spamer-Riether won’t reveal the exact type of plant, but we do know it adds a complex, bitter flavour. With the help of her daughter, who is still involved although now splits her time between a PhD and the brand. She launched Pussanga at Bar Convent Berlin in 2013 to a great reception. People might not have known what it was exactly, but they liked it.

Pussanga

There’s some classic botanicals, and one special, secret ingredient

How to make a drink like no other

The drink is now made at a distillery in Spamer-Riether’s native Germany, using what she describes as a very complicated, handmade process. In a glass ball, alcohol is mixed with soft water from the mountains of the Spessarts in order to extract the flavours from the fruits, herbs, and spices. 

Each ingredient is macerated over the course of two weeks, steeped into alcohol in cotton bags at selected intervals. “It’s tough because when you bring them all together you can’t filter the liquid. The pussanga root in particular is like dust, which is nearly impossible to filtrate. So one ingredient could need five days, another one nine,” Spamer-Riether explains. 

The spirit is filtered several times and then everything spends a few months together in stainless steel containers to allow all the ingredients a chance to marry together and develop. Because each batch is made to taste rather than to measure, each bottle is unique.

The result is a drink that is fruity, spicy, bitter, and a little bit sweet. “It’s a unique taste. When one of our first awards in 2015, Cocktail Spirits Paris, one of the founders said ‘it’s a singular product, you can’t compare it with anything, it’s so special’,” Spamer-Riether says. She describes it as a hybrid. In 2015, Pussanga was chosen among the 100 most innovative spirits and has picked up numerous awards since its creation. 

Pussanga

Is it a liqueur? Something else? Whatever it is, Pussanga tastes good

Drinking Pussanga

But what is it? In some countries, Pussanga can be classified as a liqueur, but as the definition of what makes a drink a liqueur differs so much across the world, that’s not a complete classification. A hybrid is not a bad way to put it. What’s most important is what it tastes like in your glass anyway, and happily it’s not only unique but really enjoyable.

Pour yourself a glass and you’ll find it’s spicy from chilli and baking spice. There’s also heaps of red fruit sweetness and sour tang which is balanced with a really pleasant dose of bitterness. There’s a touch of German liqueur heritage in that spice and herbaceousness, but it definitely stands on its own two feet. Immediately I’m thinking Pussanga would be an interesting base for a Spritz, but it would also mix well with tonic or sparkling wine. Although, I can’t say it had any love-potion qualities for me, and, in fairness, that’s not something the brand guarantees either.

While you might not land your soulmate with Pussanga, finding a suitable pair for the drink itself is not particularly hard. For Spamer-Riether, the sky’s the limit with how you can drink it. “It works in so many different cocktails because you can pair it with every spirit, Tequila, gin, vodka, rum, mezcal, whisky. The Ritz Hotel last year made a very nice cocktail with a Glenmorangie, and it makes a good Manhattan variation. Tony Pescatori created a very nice Pisco Sour with Pussanga,” she says. There’s a reason why top bars like Isabel’s, Amazonico, and Nightjar stock it. 

But, if you want to keep it simple you can make yourself a Pussaga Tonic, just avoid the sweeter, flavoured tonics, or mix it with some Champagne. It’s also tasty neat, with Spamer-Riether saying she drinks it in the summer as a digestive, sometimes with ice cubes and a lemon or orange garnish, but she also likes to heat it in the winter, mixing it with black tea, making punches, or even with hot chocolate. It’s worth experimenting to find how you like best. Whatever you decide, it’s a safe bet you won’t have many other drinks like it in your cabinet.

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How the Morris winery turned its hand to Australian whisky

Morris might be one of Australia’s most celebrated wineries, but it has recently entered the world of whisky and has hit the ground running. Here’s how a respected wine family…

Morris might be one of Australia’s most celebrated wineries, but it has recently entered the world of whisky and has hit the ground running. Here’s how a respected wine family dynasty made the transition look easy.

In Australia, north-eastern Victoria is regarded as the capital of fortified wines, ever since vines were brought along with the Gold Rush of the 1850s and were planted in the rolling hills of Victoria’s Riverland, fed by the mighty Snowy Mountains and Murray River. Here you’ll find the small town of Rutherglen, home to less than 2,000 people, including the Morris family, whose winery was established in 1859. Here six generations have made fortified wine, a tradition maintained today led by head winemaker David Morris. 

This generational expertise, impressive stock, and popular brand made the winery an attractive proposition for Casella Family Brands, which bought it in 2016 but kept the Morris family doing what it does best. But it wasn’t just the wine that tempted John Casella. He always had a passion for single malt whisky and had a dream to create a great Australian example. And the Morris family had an original 1930’s hybrid copper-pot still, used to make the spirit for the fortified wines since 1941, although it had laid dormant for some time.

When you put 2+2 together you get 4, and when you realise you have a unique still as well as access to an amazing library of fortified casks that could be used to finish whisky, you have yourselves the making of a great distillery. One with a point of difference. Who else starts off with that level of drinks knowledge and quality of equipment to hand? “With these factors combined, alongside a passion for whisky from the family, we knew it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up,” says global marketing manager, Michael Sergeant.

Morris Whisky

The Morris Winery

Living up to the family name

With all these advantages comes a certain pressure: the Morris brand has a reputation to uphold. John Casella knew the most critical thing was to get the liquid quality and brand proposition right from the outset. He set up the Copper & Grain Distilling Co. and the Rutherglen Distillery to be the home to Morris Whisky, and carefully restored the hybrid copper pot and column still, naming it Aurora, after the princess in Sleeping Beauty who awoke after close to a century of slumber.

He then ensured that all the barley used in Morris Whisky production is 100% Australian sourced, malted in Australian maltsters, and then brewed at the family-owned brewery. “Having our own grain supply is an advantage as we are able to control the quality and consistency of the grains we are using in our whisky, allowing us to ensure that each bottle of Morris Whisky has the same exceptional flavour,” Sergeant explains. There is scope in the future to try other grains but for now it’s just malted barley.

Pure, filtered water from the Snowy Mountains is also used in Morris whisky production. But the star of the show is Aurora which produces 400-500 litres of high strength new make spirit per batch which comes off the still at 78% ABV – the strength chosen by the distillers for having the right balance of flavours and congeners. The process is overseen by a team of highly-regarded experts, including ex-Diageo man and head distiller Darren Peck, who has worked for the last five years under the tutelage of John McDougall, a renowned whisky maker with experience with Balvenie, Laphroaig, and Springbank. He now consults exclusively to Morris as master distiller, while the late Dr Jim Swan, was also a key member of the original Morris Whisky team. 

Morris Whisky

The muscat wine barrel

Where whisky and wine meet

Both McDougall and Swan were integral in designing a unique barrel maturation program, and providing the team with a special and unique barrel toasting regime. David Morris helps identify the best casks from a library that includes barrels over a 100-years-old. They’re all prepared by hand at a private cooperage in-house in Yenda, which is led by Anton Remkes, a great advantage as the distillery can create customised shaving and toasting methods for optimal maturation.

The whisky is matured in a combination of American and French oak casks, ex-Shiraz, and Cabernet red wine barrels specifically, selected from wineries in the Barossa and Coonawarra regions.  The Signature Whisky is then finished in a combination of Morris fortified barrels, while the Muscat Barrel Whisky is finished in, you guessed it, rare Morris Muscat barrels, some of which have held what the brand claims is the world’s most highly awarded fortified wine.

These fortified barrels offer Morris an exceptional edge, creating whiskies with a combination of style and quality few can match. The Morris winery makes some of thebest fortified wines in the world, while the Rutherglen region’s climate lends itself to whisky production with hot summer days and cool nights, conditions that are perfect for ageing and helping create the distinctive Morris Whisky taste. 

Morris Whisky

There’s a lot of promise in those barrels

At the forefront of a growing category

Creating whisky with a winemaker’s perspective is an intriguing perspective, as two worlds collide.  Morris says that, from the beginning, the brand set itself two main guardrails: 1) to be respectful of the traditions of single malt whisky-making and 2) honour the heritage of the Morris family. “We also found on our journey that there are more similarities than not between these two worlds, the attention to detail, the influence of terroir, the quality and purity of ingredients, and the role of the barrels in ageing and blending,” Sergeant explains. “Over time, we also learnt that both consumers and trade alike were open and intrigued to learn more about the craft of fortified winemaking and how these amazing aged liquids can impart rich and intense flavour into whisky.  While our ambition is for Morris Whisky to be regarded as a world-class single malt in its own right, we hope that we can help shine a light back onto the amazing fortified category for many spirits consumers to rediscover and enjoy”.  

This approach has helped set Morris whisky apart from other distilleries in what is an increasingly strong and competitive Australian whisky market. Accelerated growth has defined the category, with the sales of local whisky more than doubling from 2019 to 2020 according to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record). The folks at Morris are confident that success isn’t fleeting and that drinkers both local and overseas will continue to appreciate the Australian flavour. Certainly, Morris seems to have a bright future, with 2021 a bumper year for the brand with the release of its first whiskies.

Australia’s leading wine and spirits writers have given Morris Whisky glowing reviews, picking up numerous awards and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from both consumer and industry professionals for redefining the pricing of quality Australian single malt whisky and making it more widely accessible.  These last two points, in particular, are very encouraging as they have tended to be the factors holding the category back. For Morris though, everything is moving forward. Premium releases and ideas to develop the range further are in the works, as are plans for greater distribution to an increasing number of markets, and the team are also close to opening its own brand home, the Morris Distillery in Rutherglen in 2022.  

The review

It’s a story and an approach that has grabbed the attention of a few of us at MoM Towers, with its reasonably priced inaugural releases (especially for 700ml bottles, a rarity in Australia) and wine legacy prompting several of us to find out if what’s in the bottle lives up to the promise. So, let’s take a look at the two releases, which are available now simply by clicking the links.

Morris Whisky

Morris Australian Single Malt Whisky Signature

Here we have the Signature single malt whisky from Australia’s Morris Distillery. This expression is aged in fortified wine barrels and, as you’d expect, benefits from all that intense, rich fruity character. Sherry cask lovers will love its blend of spice, sweetness and nutty qualities, while an underlying biscuity malt and orchard fruit character I’d guess is coming from the spirit adds depth and plays with the cask notes beautifully. A very enjoyable sipper, one that’s hard not to go back to.

Nose: Biscuit malt, marzipan and jammy black fruits make way for dark chocolate, stewed apples, earthy vanilla, and zingy orange zest.

Palate: Rich and unctuous, with fruitcake, nutmeg, chocolate digestive biscuits, as well as touches of menthol cherry sweets and a little cassia underneath.

Finish: The full-bodied sweetness lingers with a hint of aromatic spice.

Morris Whisky

Morris Australian Single Malt Whisky Muscat Barrel Finish

The more premium offering with its unique finishing period in Morris Muscat barrels, no other whisky can boast that. The prestige is matched in good measure by personality, with oodles of aromatic spice, toasty sweet notes and dense fruit mingling away together. It’s a statement whisky from the brand and it’s got very interesting things to say, particularly in a palate that defies its age and has some truly complex notes. This will prove very popular I think.

Nose: There’s an unctuous funk moving through this, Medjool dates, deeply caramelised apple and wine-soaked oak playing with beeswax, Muscovado sugar, mocha and rich malt. Licks of manuka honey and a hint of sweet tobacco are present throughout.

Palate: Prunes, raisin and oily nuts lead with vanilla pod earthiness, dark chocolate, cardamom, and more stewed orchard fruit in support. Underneath it all, there’s floral, fruity tones, allspice, and a touch of damp forest floor.

Finish: A drier, spicier finish carries with it rich oak, dark molasses, strawberry bonbons and baking spice.

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The best pubs and restaurants for a leisurely lunch

It’s been a tough two years for the hospitality industry so we wanted to show our appreciation by highlighting some of the places that we love here at Master of…

It’s been a tough two years for the hospitality industry so we wanted to show our appreciation by highlighting some of the places that we love here at Master of Malt. So we all chipped in with our suggestions of the best pubs and restaurants for a leisurely lunch. There’s some great personal recommendations here.

If you think you’ve had a tough time of it in 2020/2021, spare a thought for people trying to run a pub or restaurant. First there was a lockdown, then a baffling tier system in which you were allowed to visit a pub but only if you had a Scotch egg, and didn’t laugh. But not in Leicester. Then there were further lockdowns but it all looked like it was over with ‘freedom day’ in July (not in Scotland or Wales). Restaurants in London were celebrating full reservation books and looking forward to a lucrative Christmas when news came from South Africa of a new variant…

And that’s before we get into staff shortages caused by the pandemic, pingdemic, and Brexit. Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that so many places, especially the kind of independent restaurants and pubs we love, have gone to the wall. Many are holding on by their fingernails. 

So, along with Dryish January, this year we want to do our best to encourage people to eat out and use your locals, because if you don’t, they may well be gone. However, we do appreciate that some aren’t ready to do this because of concerns about Covid. That’s ok. But for everyone else, we’ve rounded up some of our favourite restaurants for a leisurely lunch. Yes, a lot of these places are near Tonbridge because that’s the location of MoM Towers. These are the kind of places where you can linger all afternoon, ordering more food and drink, and watch the sun slowly set. Treasure them.

The best restaurants for a leisurely lunch

Dungeness Snack Shack

Dungeness Snack Shack, Dungeness – Alex Badescu, distillery assistant 

There’s a thing in my family for sparse landscapes, peppered with huge industrial constructions – a sort of Mad Max aesthetic, probably something to do with childhoods spent on the beaches of Romania – and really good, fresh fish. We’ve been known to travel to great lengths seeking out both. In this sense, Dungeness Snack Shack ticks these very specific boxes at the same time. Setting up shop in the shadow of a nuclear power station gives you a surprising number of advantages. Planning permissions are few and far between to protect the shingle ecosystem that makes up Dungeness and its rare flora and fauna inhabitants. It also keeps neighbourly competition low, and Dungeness Snack Shack could easily offer out something mediocre to those who have made the trip. But how lucky that this blue shipping container by the sea chooses to rely on that winning formula for dishing up fish: seasonal, simple, fresh and flavourful. The chalkboards tell you what’s on offer that day and gently remind you that all the fish are from their own boats so ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’. I’m yet to arrive early enough to catch their famous lobster rolls and scallops before they sell out. So I usually go for the fisherman’s roll: white fish of the day (griddled or battered) and served with zingy salad and generous amounts of homemade tartare sauce. I’m a sucker for a crispy potato, which are on the menu here rather than chips, so do yourself a favour and order extra because these are as crunchy as they get. Prices vary but expect to be very well fed for between £6 – £12, and afterwards you can roll yourself down to the beach for a bit of seal spotting.  

The Ragged Trousers

The Ragged Trousers, Tunbridge Wells – Emma Symons, content executive 

The Ragged Trousers and I have history. It opened around the same time that I reached legal drinking age, and it’s probably endured the test of time better than me. It helps that the food is all made in-house by the same French chef who has been there since the start. I have to admit a personal connection here because whilst I was working behind the bar at the Ragged’s sister pub, the Sussex Arms, that certain Frenchman fell for my Kronenberg pouring talents and we are now engaged. Forget Emily In Paris, it’s Emma on the Pantiles. But even if I weren’t getting hitched to the man behind the stove, I’d still come for his croque monsieur (ooh err!), moule or, best of all, his exquisite cassoulet. To drink there are plenty of guest beers, the staff get to pick the tunes and always get the mood right. The walls are packed with original artwork, much of it produced by talented staff past and present (artsy bar worker types – you know the sort, one of my favourite categories of human). What more can I say? Vive le pantalon déchiré!

Brutto, Clerkenwell, London

Brutto, London – Henry Jeffreys, features editor

A good restaurant is about so much more than just food as Russell Norman knows. He’s the chap behind Polpo which, when it first opened in 2009 in Soho, felt like the most exciting place in the world. Sure, the food was good, but it was the atmosphere, the staff, and the little touches that brought people back again and again. Norman and Polpo, now a chain, went their separate ways, but now he’s back with an ode to the food of Florence called Trattoria Brutto near Farringdon station. The name means ugly in Italian, because it’s the sort of food that doesn’t look so pretty, but tastes great. What I love about this place is you can have a blowout with Florentine steaks served very rare and Barolo. But you can also have pasta dishes, slow-cooked meats like beef shin, and best of all ‘cuddles’ – little deep fried cheese and ham doughnuts – all washed down with a bottle of Barbera, for a surprisingly reasonable price. Also a Negroni costs £5. Yes, really, £5 Negronis in Central London. More than the food, however, you get to sit in a restaurant that feels like the best place in town. It’s like being part of a culinary cabaret with the cheerful, well-drilled waiting staff moving in time around you in a dance, and at the centre of it all, the maestro of ceremonies, Norman himself. Brutto has only been open since November but already feels like an institution. 

The Wiremill, East Grinstead

The Wiremill, East Grinstead – Gabriella Morrissey, design assistant  

The Wiremill has to be one of the most beautiful pubs in the country. It’s housed in a converted 15th century mill near Ashdown Forest and looks out onto a lake. It’s particularly stunning on a summer’s evening watching the sun set over the water [see above]. But, thanks to the Covid measures, the terrace is now covered and heated so you can use it all year round. The food never disappoints. On my last visit, I had a delicious buttermilk chicken burger. Portion sizes are generous, so bring a large appetite, and the service is always prompt and friendly. Being in East Grinstead there’s some good spots to go for a drink afterwards or why not go for a walk on the Ashdown Forest and enjoy some more country views.

Prestonville Arms, Brighton

The Prestonville Arms, Brighton – Jess Williamson, content manager

The Prestonville Arms is pretty much everything you could want from a pub – an open fire, well-placed mismatched reclining armchairs in front of said fire, and Sunday roasts worth travelling for. That said, the food is very tasty all week with bangers and mash, pies, and burgers on the menu. You know the deal, all the usual stuff you expect from a good pub but done unusually well, plus an ever-changing list of specials. You’ll find it just up the road from the main station away from the Lanes, so it’s somewhat off the beaten track, and for when the weather finally perks up there’s a cosy garden out the back. It’s got a touch of that Brighton kookiness to it, with the whole of the back wall covered in shiny vinyl records, colourful furnishings, and board games strewn around the place. I can’t speak highly enough of the staff (when we last went the chef even made us a special gravy to go with our roast – though we can’t promise anything!), and if you stay long enough past lunch, you might even catch some live music. Oh, and the best part? It’s dog friendly!

Caravan, Kings Cross, London – Jason Hockman, general manager

Caravan is so ubiquitous to Londoners that it’s easy to forget what a revelation the first restaurant was when it opened in 2010 with its fresh flavours and laidback Australian attitude. There are now a few dotted around central London but my favourite is the Granary Square outpost behind King’s Cross Station. It’s one of those places where you can just keep ordering, you don’t need to have a formal meal. I love the margarita sourdough pizza, jalapeno cornbread, chickpea dahl and lamb meatballs, and they even serve breakfast right throughout the day. There’s lots of space with indoor and outdoor eating areas, and a very relaxed atmosphere which is particularly handy if you’re eating with children. In the summer, they can play in the fountains outside while you have another cup of Caravan’s excellent coffee. 

Bullfinch, Leith

The Bullfinch, Leith – Gordon Baird, head of compliance

Tucked away on the corner of the entrance to the Port of Leith (not the pub that Trainspotting was reputedly created in, the actual port with ships) lives The Bullfinch. Following a refurb, it opened in 2021. Thankfully the bar has retained much of its original character. It specialises in local breweries such as Vault City, Campervan, Barneys, and Pilot with a short list of cocktails shaken by the rumbling of heavy trucks down the cobblestone streets. I like to imagine the wines are loaded straight from exotic ships coming into the port. The menu changes the whole time but on my last visit the kitchen was offering small plates like mac and cheese balls with a bacon mayonnaise, tempura calamari, and garlic and rosemary tear & share (sharing optional), or poke bowls if you want something a bit more substantial. You can order by app so you never have to face a human and explain that the seventh small dish you’re about to order, is indeed, also for you. The outside seating area is fully covered with the heat lamps essential for 80% of the Scottish al fresco dining calendar. There’s even a vent from the kitchen which, if you position yourself well, will allow you to smell what’s cooking, as you suffer through your January promise that you will not class chips as a vegetable, and ketchup as a vegetable smoothie anymore. 

Dyls York

Dyls, York – Alex Blackall, sales support

York is a picture book city in miniature. Within those Roman walls you’ll find cobbled streets, castle towers and the long shadow of York Minster. It can be jarring, however, to see all those modern chains like Costa, Greggs or Sports Direct. If you’re looking for a place with a bit more character, I’d recommend ambling Ouseward from the centre, and you’ll discover Dyls Café and Bar hidden within the old Motor House on Skeldergate Bridge. It’s a family-run business with a menu built around locally-sourced food, and a great range of craft spirits, cocktails, coffee, cakes and of course, local beers. There’s a heated terrace with views over the river Ouse and three quirky indoor rooms. The uppermost of which would feel like home for Rapunzel, the perfect spot to hide away for a catch up with friends. Just pity the poor waiting staff who had to clamber the spiral staircase all afternoon with our sharing boards, ales, and increasingly adventurous cocktail orders. Dyls has recently had to overcome flooding-related, as well as lockdown-enforced, closures. But it’s once again open and I can’t wait to return when I next visit God’s Own County.

Even Flow, Tunbridge Wells

Even Flow, Tunbridge Wells – Cal McGuinness, trade relations supervisor

I have to start with a confession: my first true love is nothing booze-related. It’s coffee (please don’t tell anyone at MoM Towers!). Before joining Master of Malt I was a barista and I’m still an espresso aficionado. Each weekend you’ll still find me, fully caffeinated, hopping from one fancy coffee shop to another. So when Even Flow opened its doors back in early 2020, specialising in coffee, lunchtime goodness, and vinyl records, I was excited. A place to pick up a piccolo and a copy of The Cure’s Greatest Hits? I’m in. Perched just outside the town centre, on St Johns Road, it’s been incredible to see this place go from strength to strength despite all the challenges of the last two years. Needless to say their coffee game is top tier, the whole team really knows their beans. However, their food options are just as impressive with an ever-changing menu so there’ll always be something new to try. I’d particularly recommend their homemade sausage rolls and a mozzarella pesto panini. Then we need to talk about cake and here we reach my second confession, I’ve been known to fill a takeaway box with a variety for my ‘friends back home’ only to munch my way through the lot while listening to the new Cyndi Lauper record I picked up. If you’re looking for a place for a leisurely lunch with a fantastic variety of lunch options and a great atmosphere definitely drop by! 

Teuchters Landing, Leith

Teuchters Landing, Leith – James Evans, campaigns marketing executive

Located in the once shady but now-fashionable shore area of Leith, Teuchters is a staple of the community known for its mouth-watering dram selection, classic hearty pub grub, Scottish cask beer and…cigars? Yes, you heard that right and there’s no better way to enjoy a dram and cigar combo than sitting out in the beer garden. But this isn’t just any beer garden because it’s located on the actual water of the dock for the full maritime effect. Yes, it’s been pretty freezing out there most times I’ve visited. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed many a good night in this dockside pub, playing whisky roulette with their 100+ malt selection, and indulging in arguably the most Scottish dish ever, a haggis stovie before enjoying a scenic jaunt home through the shore of Leith. It’s one of those places that’s as popular with locals as with tourists. And no wonder, if top tier dram selections, fresh pub grub and local beers sound like your bag then absolutely give this place a visit. It’s one you won’t regret, nor forget.

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Enjoy alcohol-free cocktails this Dry January with High Point

High Point Drinks is the brainchild of Eddie Lofthouse, founder of Cornish brewery Harbour Brewing. And we reckon the non-alcoholic alternatives are ideal for making booze-free cocktails you’ll actually enjoy…

High Point Drinks is the brainchild of Eddie Lofthouse, founder of Cornish brewery Harbour Brewing. And we reckon the non-alcoholic alternatives are ideal for making booze-free cocktails you’ll actually enjoy this Dry January. 

Just ten minutes from Eddie Lofthouse’s house is the highest point in Bodmin (and in Cornwall), the summit of Rough Tor. He and his family go up there to see sunrises and sunsets, the ocean and the local wildlife. “It’s wild, rugged and ace. When life is moving at pace, how you choose to spend your time can quickly become about choices,” he says. 

It was having this thought and this spot that Lofthouse conceived of High Point Drinks, a brand based on the idea that the choice not to drink alcohol should be about an elevated experience, not a compromised one. As was the case with Harbour Brewing Co, he couldn’t find what he was looking for in the market so he decided to make it himself. “Despite the pace of its growth, we couldn’t find depth, complexity or rich flavours in the no-to-low booze world. Our expertise in fermentation meant that we had craft production and layers of authentic flavour to introduce to the conversation”. 

The Cornwall brand currently makes two drinks, a non-alcoholic fermented Aperitif and Digestif. Lofthouse was attracted to this style of drink because he feels they’re sophisticated and hold depth of flavour, complexity and are interesting to drink. He adds that “we chose to create an aperitif and a digestif for more than just their style. It’s the occasions that are associated with them. Two key moments around the table that we love, an aperitif at the beginning of a delicious meal with friends, and a digestif when the meal ends and the pace of the evening begins to wind down”. 

High Point

Eddie Lofthouse, in his element

How a brewer makes low-and-no alcohol

The process to create both beings with a brew of Cornish spring water (the elixir of life – depending on who you ask, says Lofthouse) and tea leaves. Then a two-stage fermentation process is done, one bacteria and the other yeast, or anaerobic and aerobic if you’re the kind of person who watches Only Connect

While alcohol is produced as a natural part of this process, it’s eaten up and converted into acetic acid. From there natural fruits, herbs, and spices are infused and afterwards, a blending method is used to achieve balance. The digestif has an extra step in that it ages for a week or so to create a smoother mouthfeel and extract some deeper notes. 

Lofthouse’s brewing background comes into its own here, as flavour in High Point drinks really is driven by the fermentation. “Those years of perfecting and deepening our knowledge, and an ability to play with the process has uncovered layers of complexity and flavour beyond our expectations,” Lofthouse says. “We knew the science behind it would work, but the personalities shining through so distinctly in both Ruby and Amber have been rewarding and surprising, for both ourselves and the on-trade”. 

High Point

Fermentation is the key

Providing choices, not compromises

Dry January isn’t a pledge I’ve ever taken myself and, as the founder of Harbour Brewing, it’s fair to say that Lofthouse is more motivated by moderation, not sobriety. “People want choices. We’re not anti-alcohol. It’s about finding balance in a world of indulgence, something we’ve all become increasingly aware of throughout the pandemic,” he explains. “The ritual of preparing a sophisticated drink and enjoying it at home; for many, this is simply relaxation. If we can offer someone that same occasion without the alcohol then that is finding balance without compromise for us. People want to compromise on their alcohol intake, not on flavour and experience”. 

It’s this perspective that demonstrates the potential of the no-and-low alcohol market. The desire for choices means the need for options, so expect more brands like High Point to pop up. Lofthouse predicts we’ll see some unprecedented growth first, as new brands and ideas make themselves known, followed by a natural evolution in quality and understanding as awareness of the market grows. “The NA market has the potential to give consumers what they’re seeking, a way to master moderation without feeling excluded or left with a “less than” taste,” he summarises. 

The question that remains is, how do you create non-alcoholic cocktails that don’t skimp on flavour or a sense of occasion? “Keeping it simple, and letting the complexity perfected in our liquids lead the way. We’re not looking to be a ‘replacement’, High Point Drinks stand up by themselves in cocktails,” Lofthouse explains. “We keep it simple for at home recipes, and hand the controls over to the bartenders and mixologists that truly know what they’re doing”.

Here’s some recipes and a breakdown of each product to get you started. 

High Point

The High Point Ruby Spritz

High Point Ruby

High Point Ruby is a vibrant fermented aperitif and delicious served as a spritz with tonic and ice. This bittersweet citrus aperitif also works really well when paired with fine food.

Ingredients: Hibiscus, lavender, wormwood, pink peppercorn, orange zest and pink grapefruit zest.

Tasting note: A wild herbal aroma, a wave of zest and spice that rolls onto your palate with long-lasting bittersweet citrus flavours.

Simple serve: The High Point Ruby Spritz. To make, combine 50ml High Point Ruby and 200ml of good quality tonic water in a large wine glass filled with cubed ice. Garnish with a slice of pink grapefruit. Simple but effective. Lovely.

Take it up a notch: Ruby Bitter Summer. Put 50ml High Point Ruby, 50ml freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice, 15ml freshly squeezed lemon juice, 10ml sugar syrup (made 1:1), 5ml passionfruit syrup and 5-8 mint leaves into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake for 10 seconds. Fine strain into a chilled highball glass full of cubed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and a slice of pink grapefruit.

For the mixologists: Ruby Clover Club. Place 50ml High Point Ruby, 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice. 15ml sugar syrup (made 1:1), 5 raspberries, 20ml egg white/vegan foamer in a cocktail shaker, shake without ice, add ice and shake again. Fine strain into a chilled coupette/cocktail glass then garnish with freeze-dried raspberry powder.

High Point

The High Point Amber Old Fashioned

High Point Amber

A deeply smoky fermented digestif, which has been cold smoked and aged for one week after blending. Best enjoyed with ginger ale or neat over ice. 

Ingredients: Lasag, ginger, clove, vanilla, cacao nibs and gentian root.

Tasting note: Freshly stoked embers and notes of toffee aroma, the scent of freshly stoked embers rise up with notes of log-fired toffee before its signature mouthfeel is ignited, and smoke and spice start to gently warm the soul.

Simple serve: Amber Lowball. To make, combine 50ml High Point Amber and 200ml of good quality ginger ale in a large wine glass filled with cubed ice. Garnish with a slice of orange. 

Take it up a notch: The High Point Amber Old Fashioned. To make, combine 50ml High Point Amber Digestif, 5ml of sugar syrup (made 1:1) and three dashes of aromatic bitters in a mixing glass filled with cubed ice. Give it a hearty stir, before straining into a chilled rocks glass over cubed or block ice. Garnish with an orange twist. An effective and rewarding twist on a classic.

For the mixologists: Amber Penicillin. Put 50ml High Point Amber, 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice, 10ml homemade ginger syrup and 10ml honey syrup (made 3:1) into a cocktail shaker, filled with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with cubed ice.

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Don’t over-ice my Negroni

Nick Morgan has a bone to pick with bartenders. He’s noticed a worrying trend to put so much ice in cocktails that it’s impossible to drink them. So for 2022,…

Nick Morgan has a bone to pick with bartenders. He’s noticed a worrying trend to put so much ice in cocktails that it’s impossible to drink them. So for 2022, he has one request: ‘please, don’t over-ice my Negroni’.

Reflecting on the past 12 months (which we are all encouraged to do at this transitory time of year), I have had cause to wonder about a rather different pandemic that has blighted almost every lunch I ate out from that time in the spring of 2021 when we were first allowed to venture out of our houses. Blinking like a dormouse emerging from a lengthy hibernation, I scuttled into the heart of the city that was once London. From St John to the Savoy Grill, and from the French House to the Argentine Sucre, even in my club in Soho, no bartender seemed immune to this infection. And I soon discovered this wasn’t only a metropolitan crisis. Even the best Italian restaurant in Auld Reekie (that’s the tiny one opposite Haymarket Station if you’re interested) fell victim to the contagion.

Too much ice, sir?

Looking at this through the forensic lens that a trained epidemiologist might use, I can see that this particular plague was already with us several years before we retreated to our homes to escape the most recent one. I recall a truly sensational lunch in the Clove Club in 2017 when I mentioned to our very attentive server that there had possibly been too much ice in the Negronis. He reacted as if stung by the cruellest of barbs.

In case you are in any doubt I refer to that vile phenomena, the over-iced Negroni. By over-iced, by the way, I don’t mean just too cold or over-chilled. I mean when one’s Negroni is served in a rocks glass filled with so much ice that it becomes a physical impediment to consumption. So much ice that it protrudes from the glass like a wayward berg in the ocean, waiting to trap some hapless passenger liner. So much ice that merely raising the glass to your lips can risk removing an eye, or the embarrassment of an ice shard performing a lateral flow test up both nostrils. Do any bars or restaurants, I wonder, risk assess their Negronis? They certainly should. If there is a risk of a patron losing an organ or suffering life-changing injuries, then that is simply too much ice.

Pandan Negroni - Nomad

Can we talk about the difficulty of drinking through one of these gargantuan ice cubes?

Enough of these so-called experts

In the same way that people can create a social media account and instantly become whisky experts, or heaven help us, ‘whisky influencers’, so they can also step behind the bar of a fashionable restaurant and overnight become gods, or even gurus, whose commandments are not to be challenged. It matters not how imbecilic the serving suggestions may be – blue cheese-stuffed olives in a Martini anyone?

But so much ice in a glass of Negroni? Just what are they thinking of? Certainly not the simple ergonomics of drinking, not the laws of physics that dictate what will happen to all that ice once the glass is lifted and angled towards the lips. They’re certainly not thinking of the customer, who for all the highfalutin pontifications that we hear from behind the bar, is actually the most important person in the room. If there is so much slow-thawing ice in the glass that it’s impossible to drain your drink before the appetisers appear along with a nice bottle of Burgundy, well, it’s just as bad as being served a short measure.

What does Wondrich think?

Perhaps unsurprisingly I thought I should take a look at some of the history of the Negroni and its relationship with ice. Given that cocktails are the victims of even more bad history than whisky (you might not have thought this possible, but it actually gets worse with every cocktail book that’s published) I first checked my contributor’s copy of the newly published, and rather definitive, Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, to read what Dave Wondrich had to say on the subject. As one might expect Wondrich, despite a few alarming ‘probablys’ and ‘possiblys’ tells a good story of the evolution of the drink, and particularly it’s halcyon days post Second World War. 

But whilst Wondrich tells us that the drink is ‘usually served with ice’, he insists in his recipe that the drink is to be mixed in an ‘ice-filled’ Old Fashioned glass, as does, for the record, the late Gary Regan in The Joy of Mixology. Pre-filling a glass with ice, Difford’s Guide to Cocktails helpfully reminds us, makes the drink colder, and reduces dilution. At this point one might want to hunt for the ever-elusive expert on historic weights and measures to deliberate on exactly how much ice goes into an ‘ice-filled’ glass.

Style over substance

So, is it heresy to ask for less ice? Do we drink for pleasure, or do we really have to be subjugated to this modern tyranny, this overbearing sickness of style over substance?

Is it heresy to ask for what you want, rather than be intimidated into accepting what you are given (as sadly happens far too often in cocktail bars)? To ask for a drink that is still cool, but that can be comfortably enjoyed in the hand without risk of first degree facial lacerations and possible humiliation? To ask for a Negroni is to ask for a drink that speaks loudly of its unique individual parts, not flavours overwhelmed and hidden by ice. The Negroni is an unbeatable lunchtime aperitif (sorry sherry lovers), and it is intended to be drunk and enjoyed relatively quickly before food service commences.

The good old days

I have heard dissident whisperings in dark corners of London’s finest cocktail bars that in ‘the good old days’ Negronis were never served with as much ice as has become the accepted practice de jour. It could of course just be a British thing – we never were that good with ice in the past. Remember the classic pub Gin & Tonic in a wine glass with a solitary small lump of ice?

References to Negroni recipes in post-war British newspapers are far and few between, but you will find Hugh Johnson recommending serving his Negroni with crushed ice in The Sunday Times Magazine 1964; Jeremy Lee recommends ‘four or five’ cubes of ice in The Guardian in 1999. Until these ice-rich recent times I would have to suggest that ice-filled Old Fashioned glasses were a trans-Atlantic phantasmas.

London Cocktail Week

You wouldn’t want to over-ice one of these

Don’t over-ice my Negroni

Indeed, enthusiasts for using old (and increasingly expensive) ingredients in their Negronis (where the Campari, for example, will look and taste totally different from today’s version) tell me they would never dream of killing these complex flavours with ice. As anyone who’s ever enjoyed a free-pour Negroni chez drinks legend Charlie Maclean will know, there’s rarely any ice used in his serve (although that’s possibly because Charlie forgot to buy any – again). Just to repeat, the simple perfection of the Negroni is a perfection of flavour. That is what the drink is all about. Chilled gin, vermouth and Campari, a handful of ice cubes, but never a glass filled to the brim with over-large dangerously jagged chunks. It’s a new orthodoxy that the drink just doesn’t deserve.

So as we enter a new year with the hope of eventually being unburdened from the oppressions of one pandemic, let’s not allow ourselves to be oppressed by another as we all seek to enjoy the best that our hospitality industry can offer. Here I stand with my new-year Negroni manifesto: bar tenders shouldn’t be slaves to their ice machines, shouldn’t think that the fact that they can use fistfuls of ice means that they have to use fistfuls of ice, they should think about those appetising flavours, and they should think about the physical act of consuming a Negroni when they load each glass, and ask themselves how the drinking will be done in practice. Most controversially, does it need ice at all? Let’s make 2022 the year of long Negroni-fuelled luncheons, and dear bar people, just go easy on the ice.

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Whisky distilleries to watch out for in 2022

2022 should be another landmark year in whisky with new distilleries opening and first releases from new players hitting the market. Here’s our pick of some of the most exciting…

2022 should be another landmark year in whisky with new distilleries opening and first releases from new players hitting the market. Here’s our pick of some of the most exciting ones to watch.

It’s not exactly been the most encouraging couple of years for the drinks industry but whisky is doing pretty well, all things considered. Just look at all the distilleries that will open this year, and all the first releases we have to look forward to. The path to getting back on track is paved with good drams, from all over the world. Here, we shine our big ‘MoM’ branded spotlight on just five distilleries that we’re particularly excited about.

Whisky distilleries to watch out for in 2022

Whisky distilleries 2022

On our recent visit, we were very impressed by Bankhall’s approach

Bankhall Distillery, Blackpool, England

The team at Bankhall have been busy re-imagining the traditional whisky process in Britain with a star-spangled twist. The Halewood Artisanal Spirits (the people behind Aber Falls, Whitley Neil, Vestal Vodka and many others) owned project was founded in 2018 and has spent the last few years working to create a bourbon-like spirit in the UK. Master distiller Vince Oleson (previously of the Widow Jane Distillery in New York) uses a single batch process to make a spirit that’s American in, well, spirit, as well as experimenting with single malt and rye whiskies. Two young sweet mash spirits have already been released to acclaim, but this year we should see its first official whisky, and we can’t wait. What we’ve tried so far is full of promise, reasonably priced and so intriguing. Plus, the distillery is in Blackpool. Which is an amazing city.

Whisky distilleries 2022

Not just a beautiful place, this is home to some already impressive whisky

Killara Distillery, Tasmania, Australia

This is one of the most highly anticipated new distilleries in the world for good reason. Headed up by Kristy Booth-Lark, daughter of Australian whisky guru Bill Lark and the creator of many of the Lark distilleries’ most loved expressions, she’s now running the show as something of a ‘one woman band’. We love people keeping the family tradition alive, but when they do so by making whisky with locally-sourced grain, a focus on supporting neighbouring businesses and a process that prioritises quality, that’s when you really start talking our language. Early expressions have been extremely good for their age, like this lovely Boutique-y bottling, and the only problem with whatever comes next will be getting your hands on a bottle, because they sell out quickly.

Whisky distilleries 2022

Progress is coming along nicely and we can’t wait to see the finished distillery

The Port of Leith Distillery, Edinburgh, Scotland

We’ve spoken about The Port of Leith Distillery before, because it’s an extremely exciting project. While whisky is still a few years away yet, we wanted to flag this Edinburgh distillery because it should open this year and, once it does, you’ll have to get in line behind us for a visit. The ‘vertical distillery’ rises 40 metres above the quayside, and will feature a top floor double height whisky bar (with views to Edinburgh Castle, no less) and the capacity to produce up to million bottles of single malt a year. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that this will become a tourist attraction in no time, but the level of detail that co-founders Paddy Fletcher and Ian Stirling have put into this distillery demonstrates that it won’t be a case of style over substance.

Whisky distilleries 2022

Japanese whisky is about to welcome an influx of newcomers and we’re very excited

Kanosuke Distillery, Kagoshima, Japan

Quite a few Japanese distilleries are gonna come of age this year so it’s hard to pick just one to get fired up about, but the Kanosuke Distillery is already making so many waves it’s hard not to take notice. Even though it only opened in 2018, the company behind it Komasa Jyozo has been producing traditional spirits such as shochu since 1883. This might explain why its hit the ground running with its first releases including young spirits showing the whisky’s progression and then a single malt first edition and second edition, as well as a distillery exclusive. There’s a real sense of originality here, with three pot stills, each with a different shape and neck inclination, allowing for diversity of production of whiskies and a unique climate impacting maturation. Early signs are great, and this distillery is just getting started.

Whisky distilleries 2022

A humble but outstanding young distillery

Killowen Distillery, Co. Down, Northern Ireland

There’s just so much to like about Killowen Distillery. This is a really honest, pure operation that’s all about creating interesting, tasty whisky. From the worm tub condensers to the direct-fire-heated alembic stills, the long fermentations, experimental mash bills and bottling everything at cask strength with no filtration or additional colouring, head distiller Brendan Carty is making whisky for the purist. Expect some of the most distinctive Irish whiskies you’ve ever tasted. I’m actually slightly regretting telling you them as I want all the whisky to myself. But that very much goes against what my actual job is. So, you’re welcome.

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The stories that make Fable Whisky

How do you stand out from the crowd as an independent bottler? Fable Whisky did it by embracing storytelling, animation, and illustration to create an approachable, modern brand. It was…

How do you stand out from the crowd as an independent bottler? Fable Whisky did it by embracing storytelling, animation, and illustration to create an approachable, modern brand.

It was at a duty-free show in Cannes that drinks industry veterans Calum Lawrie and Andrew Torrance decided it was time to branch out and create their own brand. Lawrie had held various roles at companies including Diageo, while Torrance had done a stint at Morrison Bowmore, and was at one time MD of the Whisky Shop. But they wanted to be independent bottlers of great whisky. They knew the game well enough that simply sourcing tasty booze wouldn’t be enough to sustain a business, however, so the question was: how to cut through in an industry that’s already got a lot of great brands.

At the Whisky Shop, Torrance worked with an agency called GP Studio and a brainstorming session with them provided the answer. The duo wanted to create a brand rooted in storytelling, utilising animation, illustration, creative writing, and even ceramics to tell those tales.

“We felt in this subcategory of single cask and independent bottlings, there was a space to do things a bit differently,” Lawrie recalls “It’s one steeped in heritage, provenance, family names. We’ve been in the industry for a long time but we don’t have any links in that way. We had to come up with a USP, something different from everyone else. Andrew spent time in travel retail and was always impressed by the packaging of the perfume industry versus Scotch whisky, feeling it was more inspirational and beautiful. Obviously, that liquid has to be good, but we thought if we can create a beautiful aesthetic and convey the right tone, then we’ve got a chance to standout”.

A different approach

The stories weren’t simply going to be about the whisky in the glass or the distillery, however, but lesser-known stories, myths of Scotland with a whisky association. For the first collection of whiskies, the brand expanded on the legend of ‘The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay’, working with artist Hugo Cuellar to make an enchanted world of gothic-style illustration and macabre imagery. In order to convey a sense of place, drone footage of Clanyard Bay was shot, videos with narration and a character-rich story were made, and each of the eleven whiskies in the series were named after its own aspect of the fable.

Cuellar’s input was supported by creative writer Des Waddy, narrator and actor Jeff Rawle, and even potter Bella Jones, who makes Fable’s black volcanic clay whisky tumblers and water jugs, all helping bring the story of Clanyard Bay to life. This is all just for one collection, don’t forget, the life cycle of which will be about 18 months to two years. “We’ll have a new illustrator, animator,  narrator, etc. for the next one and keep things exciting and evolving over time. That’s the beauty of it. It can get repetitive to regurgitate an iconic brand in a different way. Whereas we have the scope to really do anything,” Lawrie says.

People from all walks of life

There’s a clear ambition here to attract more than just your traditional, dyed-in-the-wool whisky drinker. The kind of people who would usually support independent bottlers can be seen as a restricted demographic traditionally, so it’s not lost on the team at Fable how significant it is that people from all walks of life have engaged. 

“It goes from one end of the spectrum; to the other. From millennials and women, to the guys that you might think are very staid in their choices. The stories actually become collectables, not for the kind of person who collects priceless prestige bottlings that never comes out of the cabinet, but amateurs who are interested in the brand and want to participate,” Creative director Daryl Haldane explains. “A lot of classic bottlings are heather and weather, all the classic malt whisky cues. Here we have Fable which is doing something in a very different way. We see this as an opportunity for single cask, indie bottlings to become more mainstream”. 

Fable Whisky

Fable Whisky is getting it right inside and outside the bottle

Not just a pretty label

It’s not an easy task putting together a brand like this, though. Every label, package, chapter is different, as is the liquid inside each bottle. There might have been easier roots for the founders, but they say becoming independent bottlers wasn’t a debate for them, they love the work and the whisky. “Sometimes there are sleepless nights, but it’s exciting. We can try lots of new whiskies and different styles,” Lawrie says. “We know how important the quality is. The whole idea is that, if we can pull people in from a creative angle, then we can have that conversation about whisky, how it is produced, and why it’s great”. 

For the first collection, each of the eleven chapters share a style. “They’re raw, unadulterated. Whisky, it’s as it should be. We want to showcase distillery character, not disguise them with casks,” Lawrie explains. “Certainly where I’ve come from in the past, we’ve talked a lot about casks and didn’t talk enough about distillery character, We feel that’s a great place to start with the first Fable for sure. The feedback we’ve been getting is how refreshing it is to try these distilleries and really get their true style coming through”. 

One way to win over whisky purists is to bottle the whisky you source with no added colouring, chill-filtration, and at cask strength, and Fable’s approach respects this holy trilogy. “We know this is what whisky nerds love and it’s a credibility thing, but when you’re talking about distillery character and letting that shine through, that’s just how you do it,” Haldane says. “We’re passionate about showcasing distilleries that don’t always get enough love, so when you get whisky from places you don’t get to taste every single day you have a responsibility to present them at their best”.

Fable Whisky

The Fable style is distinctive and engaging

A fable worth knowing

It’s a system that’s working, at least if you look at our stock. Fable whisky sells out quickly for a reason. I love whiskies that showcase distillery character anyway, and tasting a few of the Fable drams it’s clear that the first collection has met the mark. Getting to peel back the curtain and get to know producers I haven’t had the chance to enjoy as much as I’d like, such as Mannochmore and Dailuaine, is also very rewarding. Entrepreneurism, creativity, and branding are all well and good, but Fable also manages to do the really important work and makes sure the quality of the whiskies adds depth to the stories.

I love the look and feel of the brand too. It’s fun to see Scotch being fun, and to see brands be brave and creative to try to create something new. It’s not the only bottler to embrace story or interesting aesthetic, but Fable typifies how Scotch whisky is becoming more open to different approaches and doesn’t need to lean on purely traditional imagery. People engage with brands like Fable, not just new drinkers, but old whisky fans too, who aren’t a monolith. Everybody appreciates a good story. You pair that with great whisky and you’ve got yourself something that will stand out from the crowd. 

Glen Elgin 7 Year Old 2014 – Piper (Fable Whisky), Blair Athol 12 Year Old 2009 – Crows (Fable Whisky), and Teaninich 13 Year Old 2008 – Fairies (Fable Whisky) have all just arrived at MoM Towers, with more Fable whisky to come…

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Dryish January: a guide

While a lot of people give up alcohol entirely in January, we’re doing things a bit differently with a month devoted to drinking less, drinking lower ABV, and celebrating all…

While a lot of people give up alcohol entirely in January, we’re doing things a bit differently with a month devoted to drinking less, drinking lower ABV, and celebrating all that’s great about the drinks industry. It’s not Dry January, it’s Dryish January!

Judging by the mood on social media, it doesn’t look like Dry January is going to be quite the event it usually is. If the people you’re following are anything like mine, there’s a lot of ‘seriously fuck Dry January’ going on. One of our local restaurants has a sign up saying “We’re doing Dry January here: Dry Martini, London Dry Gin, dry white wine.” 

Dry January has become such a fixture on the drinks trade calendar that you might be surprised that it’s a recent coinage. According to The Week magazine, it was registered in 2014 as a trademark by Alcohol Concern. Since then it’s been followed by all kinds of other ‘giving-up’ months like Stoptober, Go Sober for October, and Veganuary (dread word!).

Dryish January

But, of course, following a period of excess with one of abstinence isn’t exactly a new idea. Most religions involve a bit of fasting, like the 40 days of Lent which commemorates Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. Dry January is essentially the secular equivalent.

It has proved particularly popular in the drinks trade where Christmas can start some time in early December and go on until New Year’s Day. It’s great to give your body a well earned rest. But there seem to be few takers this year. This might be because so many of those festive events did not take place because of fears of the Omicron variant. Or just that after two years of restrictions, the idea of giving up something that provides a lot of pleasure during the coldest and most depressing month of the year seems like a really bad idea. 

The back bar at the Gibson

Photo credit: The Gibson in London

Go out to help out

Furthermore, all those Christmas cancellations means that the beleaguered hospitality industry is in an extremely precarious position. If everybody stays in this January, there might not be anywhere to go out when February comes around. We like the sound of a campaign that brewers and drinks writers have got behind called Tryanuary (dread word, again!) This encourages people to experiment with their drinks choices.

So this year at Master of Malt our ‘Dry January’ is going to look a bit different. We’re calling it Dryish January and we will still be looking at some fully alcohol free options with examples of cocktails and new products that you can try if you’re cutting out the booze completely, and even running a competition to win a bundle of zero ABV goodies to be won. But for Dryish January we will also be looking at ways you can make delicious drinks with less alcohol using liqueurs, fortified wines like Port or sherry, and vermouth, for example, in place of full strength spirits. There are also very clever high strength spirits which are packed so full of flavour that you only need to use a tiny bit.

We will also be visiting producers, meeting distillers and trying exciting new spirits as usual. But most of all, we’ll be celebrating the diverse wonders of the drinks industry and encouraging you to get out there, visit bars, pubs and restaurants, and taste new things, whether they contain alcohol or not. Let’s raise a glass to Dryish January!

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