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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Future flavour

Whether it’s with curious kit, unorthodox botanicals or futuristic thinking, new world spirits producers have harnessed the latest technology to create liquids that taste anything but traditional… For the tastemakers…

Whether it’s with curious kit, unorthodox botanicals or futuristic thinking, new world spirits producers have harnessed the latest technology to create liquids that taste anything but traditional…

For the tastemakers of tomorrow, flavour comes first. Join us as we take a peek through the looking glass to uncover the weird and wonderful, the unfathomable and the unnamable – from Willy Wonka-esque “world’s first” bottlings to space-age production and maturation methods…

Empirical Spirits

Empirical Spirits

Leading the charge of this rebellion is Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, helmed by Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, alumni of renowned restaurant Noma. Using a base spirit made using biodynamic barley, koji, and Belgian Saison yeast, the duo approach ingredients in a way only world-class chefs know how. Oysters are a botanical. Roasted chicken skin, wild roses, too. But don’t get your wires crossed, this isn’t about the shock factor. Empirical isn’t a fad or a gimmick – it’s a flavour company.

If you only try one product, make it… Charlene McGee Blend 

Juniper berries are smoked with their own wood, lightly crushed, macerated, and distilled at low temperatures before the resulting liquid is matured in oloroso casks. Flavour-wise, expect fresh juniper, fruity blackberries, and fragrant juniper sap that gives way to a smooth, smoky finish.

Comte de Grasse

Comte De Grasse

In the heart of Grasse – the so-called “fragrance capital of the world” – you’ll find French distiller Comte de Grasse, which set out to “start with creating flavours rather than with raw ingredients”. Headed up by master scientist and innovator Marie-Anne Contamin, the team uses lots of clever perfume tech (think ultrasonic maceration, cold vacuum distillation and CO2 supercritical extraction) to extract and preserve targeted flavours from each botanical without damaging the molecule.

If you only try one product, make it… 44°N

Named for the geographic coordinates of Grasse, 44° is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Côte D’Azur’s botanicals, with cade, bitter orange, verbena, everlasting, rose, alexanders, samphire, honey, juniper, angelica, coriander, lemon, orris, everlasting, lavender, mimosa, rose, grapefruit, jasmine, patchouli and pepper Sichuan.

Sweetdram

Sweetdram co-founders Daniel Fisher and Andrew MacLeod have been producing “progressive, flavour-driven spirits” on a custom-made copper pot still at their Edinburgh distillery since 2014. The duo met at university some three years earlier while studying for their master’s degrees in brewing and distilling and resolved to focus on flavour rather than established categories or trends. Exhibit A: Scotch single malt and grain casks blended and infused with botanicals and local honey. Exhibit B: Caribbean rums distilled with grains of paradise, lapsang souchong and smoked figs.

If you only try one product, make it… Escubac

Exhibit C, if you like. A spicy, citrusy, juniper-free botanical spirit – caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, bitter orange, orange, lemon, cloves, orris, coriander, cubeb, cinnamon among them – distilled and then infused with raisins, vanilla and saffron. 

Amass Spirits 

Billed as “the world’s first nomadic distillery”, Amass collaborates with independent craft spirit makers from around the world to release spirits with an authentic sense of place. Working to a “grower to glass” philosophy and creative by native distillers, each bottling (there are two in the series so far – Los Angeles and Copenhagen) seeks to capture the natural terroir and landscape that surrounds its production in flavour form.

If you only try one product, make it… Copenhagen Vodka

Said to be inspired by the city’s long summer evenings and longer winter nights. Marigold, chamomile and lemon zest are distilled on a traditional aquavit still as a nod to Scandinavia’s rich drinking history, creating “a heart with subtle layers of flowers folded around fresh, hand-grated citrus”. Delightful.

Lost Spirits Distillery

The team at LA’s Lost Spirits Distillery create high-ester rums and heavily peated malt whiskies, but not as you’ve ever tasted them before. In 2015, co-founder Bryan Davis developed a reactor that could flash-age his spirits, mimicking the flavour achieved by 20 years of maturation in just six to eight days. Yes, really. The distillery itself – which features a boat ride, a jungle, and a floating carousel with dragons – has been described as “Disneyland for adults” on more than one occasion.

If you only try one product, make it… Lost Spirits Abomination Chapter 2 – Sayers of the Law

A heavily-peated malt spirit that has been matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 to 18 months, before ageing in the reactor with charred American oak seasoned with late-harvest Riesling. Absolute magic.

Rebel Rabbet

It’s almost strange to think a spirits line as progressive as Rebel Rabbet could be inspired by a 103-year-old Irish whiskey mash bill recipe, but that’s the Rabbet way – whatever you’re anticipating, expect the opposite. When Matt McGivern and Dylan Bell launched the business in December 2018, they had one goal: alternative spirits “made from the grain up”. So they took ye olde recipe, fermented the mash with saison yeast, triple distilled it, and ran amok with the new make – in the best possible way.

If you only try one product, make it… Rebel Rabbet RES3: End of Austerity

A white Alba truffle, Beluga caviar and orris root ‘vodka’ described as “a flamboyant ride through the Michelin stars”. Flavour-wise, it’s every bit as intriguing and complex as it sounds, with salty maritime notes, floral parma violets, subtle spices and a dash of citrus.

 

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Dave Broom on new whisky film The Amber Light

Hang on to your hats because there’s a new whisky film coming to a screen near you. On the eve of the national release of The Amber Light, we talk…

Hang on to your hats because there’s a new whisky film coming to a screen near you. On the eve of the national release of The Amber Light, we talk to its creator Dave Broom about Scotland, music and, of course, whisky. Sláinte!

There’s been a few whisky films recently, The Golden Dram and The Water of Life both came out this year, but according to Dave Broom, The Amber Light (released 22 November) is does something a little different. Rather than being about how whisky is made, Broom said:  “What we wanted to do with the film was look at whisky as a cultural product rather than just going through the process. We looked at the story of whisky and its ongoing relationship with Scottish culture. That’s myth, legend, literature, poetry, song, music etc. All the way from the early, early days right up to contemporary times.” That’s a lot to get into an hour and a half.

So rather than the usual industry stalwarts, Broom and director Adam Park have spoken to writers like Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray, as well as musicians such as Rachel Newton, James Yorkston and King Creosote, for their views on whisky and Scotland. This link goes back a long way: “The earliest references to whisky and whisky consumption come in Gaelic poetry which is effectively song,” Broom told me. As he puts it, whisky is “part of the heartbeat” of Scotland, “it is absolutely integral to Scotland’s identity and I think it’s played an incredibly important role in helping to be the fuel for artistic and creative enterprises through the years. So whether overtly or whether sitting there in the background: whisky is part of our story. It has a positive, and occasionally negative part to play, and we’re not scared to go down the dark side either.” 

Amber Light

Dave Broom in the pub with Ian Rankin (all photos credit Christina Kernohan)

He thinks that the Scotch whisky business hasn’t and doesn’t always make full use of this cultural depth beyond rather cliched images of tartan and stags: “I think you can find companies, and it doesn’t matter what size they are, who maybe don’t get the importance of place, people and location, and see the depth and the resonance that whisky has and the role that whisky plays within communities, for example. And then you have other companies, including, I would argue, the biggest of them all [Diageo], who really do identify that and really do understand that and want to maintain that and build on it.” He went on to elaborate on this point: “I think the firms who have perhaps gone down more of a pure marketing route with whisky are the ones who perhaps are struggling at the moment, in a world where the nature of whisky has changed and is changing rapidly. Because if you look at Japan, America or any other country in the world who is making whisky, the first thing they are saying about their whiskies is, ‘this is where it comes from and we’re not Scotch. We are doing this and that and it’s different’. I think Scotch, mainly because of its dominance of the market, hasn’t necessarily had to do that and if it has done it it’s maybe done it in a casual way. But it’s a real motivation for consumers these days; knowing where something comes from.”

Broom, who I am sure needs no introduction to readers, has been writing about his subject for, as he puts it, “a ridiculously long time!” I asked him what had changed most in this time: “When I started writing about whisky there were 70 distilleries operational in Scotland. By the end of this year it’s probably going to be 140. So that’s the biggest change. There was one distillery in France, there are now a hundred distilleries in France making whisky. And there was nowhere making it in Australia, if you know how many distilleries there are in Australia these days. The manner in which whisky has become a global phenomenon is incredible.” And this global spread of whisky looks set to continue with Pernod Ricard opening a single malt distillery in China. Indeed, Broom is off to China in a couple of weeks time. “If China does really take off,” Broom said, “then there won’t be enough whisky in Scotland to be able to cope with demand there.” Broom thinks it’s understandable, therefore, that the big boys in Scotch whisky are betting on vast new markets like China and India by ramping up production.

Alasdair Roberts singing ‘Firewater’ at The Ben Nevis, Glasgow.

But he isn’t entirely sanguine about the future. “At the same time I am concerned because I’m not noticing existing consumers drinking more, I’m noticing existing consumers drinking less, if anything,” Broom said, “so they’ll have a glass of wine one night and they might have a glass of whisky another night and they might have a gin and tonic the night after. So people aren’t just whisky drinkers anymore.” Growth isn’t limitless and at some point, the market will contract. “Who will flounder?” Dave wondered,  “I think of the new ones, the ones who haven’t worked out what makes their individual distillery standout in an incredibly crowded marketplace. It takes a long time and a lot of money to build a brand and a distillery. The ones who really think about it from the word go in terms of quality and in terms of character are the ones who will be better placed to weather future storms. Those who just kind of do cookie-cutter distilleries and make a whisky whose style is similar, if not indistinguishable, from other larger players in the market are the ones who will suffer.”

After such seriousness we turned back to the rather jollier matter of the great world whisky community without whom The Amber Light would not have been possible. The film was crowd-funded because, as Broom joked, “we didn’t have any money ourselves. There is a sense of community within the whisky world and people, if people had not put their hands in their pockets this film would not have been made and we’re incredibly grateful for the fact that people did.” So are we. 

The Amber Light is released on the 22 November. See here for venues and special screenings featuring a Q&A with director Adam Park.  

 

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Five minutes with… Bhagath Reddy from Comte de Grasse

From Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur to founding a French distillery that makes a perfume-inspired gin, Comte de Grasse CEO Bhagath Reddy has had quite the journey. He tells us his…

From Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur to founding a French distillery that makes a perfume-inspired gin, Comte de Grasse CEO Bhagath Reddy has had quite the journey. He tells us his story here and discusses age-old perfume extraction techniques, the potential for ultra-premium gin and plans to create rum and whisky in the future.

Comte de Grasse is not your typical gin distillery. It’s housed in a 19th-century perfume distillery in Grasse, France. It employs techniques such as ultrasonic maceration, vacuum distillation and CO2 extraction. It has even established a partnership with the University of Nice, enabling access to research facilities and technical understanding. A visitor centre in 2021 is planned, and rum and whisky could well be on the way (more on that later). For now, spirits fans can enjoy its signature Comte de Grasse 44°N Gin, which it described as “the world’s first luxury, sustainable gin”.

To discuss all of this and more, we managed to get some face-to-face time with Bhagath Reddy, CEO and founder of Comte De Grasse.

Comte De Grasse

Say hello to Bhagath Reddy!

Master of Malt: Hi Bhagath! Tell us how you came to found your own distillery.

Bhagath Reddy: My background is fashion retail. I previously worked in Malaysia with luxury brands like Gomez, Rolex, Chanel etc., but I always wanted to start a distillery. It was a passion project. I always say that my family is governed by a spirit-line and not a bloodline! My dad loves his whisky, and this made me want to make the best whisky for my dad. This was around the time that Amrut was launched and I thought maybe I could make a whisky from my country, India, too. But setting up a distillery in India is a very complicated business. It’s not a very conducive environment. Most states are still conservative, where drinking is still a social taboo. I had to rethink. The essence of my idea was to make really high quality, super-premium, luxury drinks. So, why not go to the home of luxury? Which is Europe. I wanted to stay away from Scotland and the UK because the market was saturated.

MoM: So how did you make your way to Grasse in France?

It was through my research that I found Grasse and the connection with perfume. I realised that perfumers used to use copper stills, which are very similar to copper alembics but smaller in size. I thought there’s an idea there; to pick up some old perfume stills, recondition them, and make whisky out of them. That’s what I came to research the first time I came to France in March 2016. We found a contact for the University of Nice and met up with them, and that’s when things changed completely. I spoke with the head of the lab and he explained that in the past 25 years spirits and perfumes have taken a very different direction. In spirits, the investment has been in automation but the marketing and the storyline have been based in tradition. Whereas in perfume, they had to invest in technology because the raw materials are more delicate and becoming more expensive. They needed to invest in advanced sciences to be able to extract and distil better, using less energy in more efficient ways. That’s where vacuum distillation, molecular distillation, CO² extraction and all of these processes came up. I said ‘wait, hold on, why hasn’t somebody else made this connection?’. That’s when I realised that Comte de Grasse needs to be a distillery, it can’t be about just one spirit, it needs to be an innovation hub. So, we started building the company on our key fundamentals: innovation, sustainability, curiosity and art.

MoM: Tell us about Grasse itself and its history.

BR: The perfume history in Grasse is about 200 years old. Before that, Grasse was known for its tanning and its leather industry. The perfume came about completely accidentally; one of the tanners decided to perfume their gloves, because gloves then had an unpleasant smell, and gave them to Catherine the Great. She loved this so much the tanners started working with perfumers and slowly the perfume industry grew, and the tanning industry eventually died out in Grasse. It’s also very unique because it’s got a microclimate of its own. It’s located in the hills, just off the coast, and there’s plenty of good rainfall. Therefore, the soil in the area is very, very fertile and is great for growing exotic botanicals. This also helped to build up and reassert the perfume industry in and around Grasse.

Comte De Grasse

Grasse, France.

MoM: You say you employ ‘age-old perfume extraction techniques melded with cutting-edge distilling technology’, can you explain what this means?

BR: The age-old extraction techniques are actually very simple ones. For example, rose hydrolat is one of the first perfumes ever made. It’s just steeping roses in water. At Comte de Grasse, we bring the rose in on two levels. First, we bring in rose petals into the ultrasonic maceration process. We ultrasonically macerate them with pure alcohol and then distil in a vacuum distillation. What we realised is the flavour of rose that we got from this process disappeared in the middle of the palate. It didn’t remain consistent throughout. So, we introduced the rose hydrolat in a final stage, back into the drink, so that the rose hydrolat stays and remains at the back of the palate. That’s a combination of cutting-edge, where we use ultrasonic maceration and vacuum distillation, but also bringing in an age-old technique to create the depth we desired.

MoM: Tell us about the set up at your distillery.

It’s completely modern, with custom-made equipment. Everything was built from scratch. There’s no copper anywhere, no steam, no use of heat. Everything is cold-distilled, like the ultrasonic maceration we use, which is the first step in our three-step process. In ultrasonic maceration, you take GNS (grain neutral spirit), add the botanicals and bombard it with ultrasonic frequency. The ultrasonic frequency creates microbubbles in the GNS through a process called ‘cavitation’ and these bubbles extract the flavour from the botanicals. Traditionally, in a 45-minute maceration, you get the same level of extraction as you would from two weeks of steeping, or traditional maceration, depending on the botanicals. It’s a much faster process, but it’s a much higher quality process. The liquid then gets passed through a vacuum still where it gets distilled at a very low temperature. With vacuum distillation, you reduce the atmospheric pressure to create a vacuum. At low pressure, the boiling point of alcohol decreases, so you are able to boil and extract the flavours at 35-45 degrees. The freshness of the compounds that were extracted through the ultrasonic process is retained and then we get what we call the base for our gin. This base gin is then compounded with rose hydrolat. We also do CO² extractions for certain botanicals, like jasmine, which cannot be treated to any form of heat since it is extremely delicate. CO² extraction is where you pass liquid CO² over powdered jasmine or the flower itself. Liquid CO² is a universal solvent and the minute you expose it to the atmosphere it completely evaporates, leaving only the flavour compounds behind. We bring those flavours in the third stage. So that’s the three-step process for the making of our gin. We call it the Grasse (HyperX) Process.

MoM: I was going to ask you what sets your gin apart, it sounds like that’s it!

BR: Yes, that’s it – The Grasse (HyperX) Process!

Comte De Grasse

The Comte de Grasse Distillery

MoM: Tell us about distiller Marie-Anne Contamin, why was she the right person for the role? What was the process of bringing her into the company?

BR: We found Marie through the University of Nice, she was a professor there. Initially, we worked together on an experimental basis as she is one of the rare people who is experienced in both flavour and fragrance, and has spent a lot of time researching the correlation between the two. We thought that for our core USP, which is translating the perfume science of Grasse into a flavour and spirit, she was the right profile. We worked with both Marie and the other professors at the university to understand all the distillation processes. Marie helped us create a flavour profile, and instructed us how to identify and extract the best aspects of a particular botanical.

MoM: Let’s talk about the botanical selection in the gin and how you distil them.

BR: It took us almost 11 months to develop the recipe. We tried about a hundred different botanicals. The principle was to try and use botanicals from the region; if not from Grasse, then Provence. It wasn’t just about using rare or exotic botanicals, it was about making sure that we identified the ideal flavour profile. The brief we gave Marie was: ‘if light were a flavour and illumination a scent, this is what it should taste like’. This was because of the beauty of the light in Grasse, we wanted to capture that feeling and put that emotion into the liquid. Marie then started working on a pyramid, which any perfumer works on, where you have the base notes, middle notes and top notes. She started building and engineering a flavour profile lived up to that phrase and that’s how the botanical selection began. We slowly narrowed it down to 20, with the focus always on the consumer’s experience, mouthfeel and ensuring the flavour worked through the whole palate from front to back. Every botanical was put through a test, something called a GC-MS analysis. It’s a gas-chromatic graphic analysis that allows you to identify what kind of flavour extraction you are getting. That’s how we were able to zero in on the ideal timings, the ideal temperature and the ideal process for every single botanical. Of the 20 botanicals, 13 are used in the ultrasonic maceration. The other seven are introduced in different stages because they are not suitable for an ultrasonic maceration. There was some pre-existing knowledge because a few of these botanicals are already used in the perfume industry, such as rose water and lemon peels, so that helped speed up the process. But we still had to do every single test ourselves.

MoM: So would it be fair to say you were drawn to making gin because the use botanicals mirrors that of the perfume industry?

BR: Yes, and the fact that gin is the spirit of the moment! In terms of translation and synergies between the processes, gin was the most immediate spirit into which we could apply some direct learnings from the perfume industry. Gin is all about botanicals, all about flavour and all about being able to deliver a smooth palate.

Comte De Grasse

The famous ancient Fragonard perfumery in Grasse, the world perfume capital.

MoM: What was the inspiration for the name?

BR: The latitude on which Grasse is situated. The city of Grasse is situated on 43.663 degrees north, so we adjusted it up to 44 degrees north. Grasse plays a very important role in the company in terms of technology, the terroir and everything it lends to the company – that’s why it is called Comte de Grasse.

MoM: What are your personal tasting notes?

BR: I love the citrusy notes, the verbena, and I love the smoothness that the rose and honey brings too, which rounds everything off. If you put a couple of cubes of ice into the liquid and let the gin rest a bit, you see the taste profile evolving. I sometimes feel that the liquid is a living creature! We don’t chill-filter it, we don’t remove all the nice stuff, we want the liquid to be constantly evolving.

MoM: What about any suggested serves you particularly enjoy with it?

BR: While we were making the gin, we thought a lot about the perfect serve and did a lot of research on what should it be. However, we realised that if it’s a luxury gin it should work with anything. Each consumer should be able to identify their own way of enjoying 44°N. Some people just like sipping it with ice, but we don’t claim that as a perfect serve because we want it to be a process of self-exploration. We want every bottle to be a process of self-exploration where you identify what it works with. Personally, I like having it neat, but it works very well with most premium tonics. We recommend having it with a light tonic simply because in a strong tonic the quinine can be overpowering. It works fantastically in a Dry Martini and in a Negroni.

Comte De Grasse

44°N Gin works in a variety of serves

MoM: Tell us about the inspiration behind the striking bottle design.

BR: The inspiration was the Mediterranean. Much like the inspiration for the liquid, the design of the bottle was purely emotional. We wanted to be able to transport people back to the Mediterranean, that feeling of the south of France, the feeling of light, the blue sea. We worked with two French agencies: Chic and forceMAJEURE, and they collaborated to create the bottle design. If you hold it up against the light it looks like the Mediterranean, the blue sky, shimmering water. The yellow disc on the top of the lid represents the sun shining down on the ocean. For a luxury consumer, you need to be able to provide a more holistic experience that covers all these elements.

MoM: What do you think the potential for premium gin is?

BR: In the past ten years the premium and super-premium category have been growing. But when we looked at the market at the end of 2016, early 2017, we thought that the super-premium and premium categories were very, very crowded. There was still a lot of growth, but there were a lot of brands coming in and there was a lot of saturation. That’s why our goal was always to create a very unique consumer experience. We saw a gap in what we described as the luxury sector, above premium and ultra-premium. That’s how we went about engineering the product, the bottle, the look and everything. It came from identifying potential and trying to engineer the best product that lives up to the expectations of that sector.

MoM: People have been saying for years now that gin is a ‘bubble’ that will eventually burst. What’s your perspective?

BR: It’s definitely a bubble but I think the bubble is still going to grow. It might not burst, it might saturate. There might be a consolidation eventually where some brands which are more sustainable and have stronger legs will remain, but some of the smaller brands and others might disappear. There might be a small adjustment in the market, but I don’t think the bubble will burst and gin consumption will suddenly drop to nothing. It’s all to do with consumer trends. The most popular white spirit is vodka, and vodka’s growth is down due to its association with clubbing and the fact that it’s easy to mix. But increasingly, we’re drinking less and we’re drinking better. We drink for the experience. It’s about that moment in life when you’re sitting with friends enjoying a great drink prepared by a great bartender. Gin falls into that category because it offers options, there’s scope to innovate and create new things and keep that interest going.

Comte De Grasse

The distillery, housed in a 19th-century perfume distillery, could well be a whisky-making site in the future.

MoM: Is there any possibility of you distilling rum or whisky in the future?

BR: Sure. I want Comte de Grasse to be an innovative hub in the spirits industry. The goal is to continuously challenge and innovate. We are working on a rum. Whisky is on the cards because my dad is waiting for it! We’re thinking about some other spirits as well. We have an innovation pipeline that we’re working on, but expect something different from every single spirit. None of the spirits are going to be made in a traditional manner and there will be some element where we challenge the norm with every single spirit. Hopefully in a good way and for the right reasons – not just for the sake of challenging it!

MoM: What does the future hold for the distillery, and what’s your ambition for it?

BR: The ambition is to continue to be innovative, and to continue to enjoy it. All of us enjoy what we are doing right now. That’s what drives most of the work and most of the energy that’s behind the company. The ambition is to build an environment where we are able to sustain this feeling. With most companies, as they grow big, this kind of energy starts dying out. I want to continue to love waking up every morning and going to work. I want to be able to build a work environment where this feeling resonates for everybody in the company. That’s the kind of an environment that fosters innovation, growth and the building of a great and sustainable business. So, I guess the goal is to continue having fun!

Comte De Grasse

Comte de Grasse 44°N Gin

Comte de Grasse 44°N Tasting Note:

Nose: Bright, crisp and piney juniper positions itself at the core the nose. Aromatic spice, sea salt and potpourri follow, with a touch of tart pink grapefruit. A bouquet of floral notes then develop with some warming aromatic spice in support.

Palate: The winter spices (orris root in particular) take hold initially, before more of that woody juniper returns. There are more earthy and floral elements present on the palate, with jasmine, lavender and patchouli standing out. There’s a pleasant salinity that runs through from the nose, as well as a creamy sweetness that adds balance throughout.

Finish: More of that potpourri element lingers among warming citrus, softer juniper and orris root.

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The rise of cask whisky investment

Curious about cask whisky investment? Don’t get your assets in a twist. No matter whether you’re sourcing direct from distillery or exploring your options through a third party, here’s everything…

Curious about cask whisky investment? Don’t get your assets in a twist. No matter whether you’re sourcing direct from distillery or exploring your options through a third party, here’s everything you need to know about buying booze by the barrel…

Owning a maturing cask of whisky might be every dram lover’s dream, but it can also be a sound investment for the future – with none of the insidious money-grabbing associated with bottle flipping. No matter whether you opt for a quarter-cask or a full-blown butt, the contents should appreciate in value over time. That’s in the current climate, this is dependent on those fickle financial markets. 

“The reason people invest in whisky is because you get a personal touch,” explains Elliot Wynn-Higgins, cask custodian at Lindores Abbey Distillery in Scotland. “You don’t tend to get the same welcome from banks or investment advisors. Whisky is a fun investment, it’s not an ISA that sweats cash – it’s a journey in spirits maturation and an ongoing project. You can even taste it.” 

The stills at Lindores Abbey

The stills at Lindores Abbey

Interest rate averages for whisky, he continues, can be higher than gold and vintage sports cars, with an average of around 6% return every year. But dollar signs aside, there are a number of motivations to invest, whether it’s marking an important milestone like a wedding or a newborn, creating your own independent whisky bottling, or fulfilling a lifelong dream to participate in whisky-making history.

After all, maturing whisky evolves in a way that a bottle of whisky just won’t. Each cask is patently unique – even when two identical casks are filled at the same time with the same spirit, they’ll taste different. It’s a limited commodity, observes Simon Aron, co-founder of Cask Trade, “if a particular cask yields 250 bottles, after they’re gone, they’re gone, that’s it. There will never be another cask like it.” 

So with that in mind, what should a would-be investor bear in mind? “Buying at the lowest price you can is obviously the smartest, but make sure that it’s a branded facility,” says Whiskey & Wealth Club co-founder Jay Bradley. “It’s quite easy to buy whisky in Scotland and Ireland from a commercial facility – you can buy it at a decent enough price, and that’s great for blending and whatnot.” 

If if it’s return on investment you’re chasing, he says, stick with known brands. “For example, a five-year-old Macallan cask is worth more than five-year-old cask of no-name whiskey. Making sure it’s a solid distillery with a good master distiller behind it is very important as well – the more they build their brand, the more the cask of whisky will go up in value.”

Jay Bradley from Whisky and Wealth

Jay Bradley from Whisky and Wealth

And make sure you do your maths, first. “Look at your budget and your targets,” suggests Aron, who says the youngest whisky on Cask Trade’s list is three years old and comes in at £1,500, while the oldest, at the ripe old age of 50, is north of £300,000. “The budget would be personal to that individual and the target would be: do you want to see a return in three years, five years, 10 years? Do you want to buy one cask and sit on it, or would you rather a portfolio of different ages? Do you want a portfolio where you can cash in at different dates?”

Just as there are a few reasons to consider trading your hard-earned cash for amber nectar, there are several means to go about doing so. Before you commit, remember to ask about any extra costs associated with warehouse storage, insurance and bottling, including HMRC duty and VAT. Here, we run through your options…

From a distillery

Plenty of distilleries now offer their own private cask purchase programmes. The benefits are two-fold: buyers have the chance to own a piece of whisky history, while distilleries receive a cash injection – often, in the case of younger producers, precisely when their overheads are steepest and they perhaps. need it the most. 

“As a potential buyers comes to me, I suss out why they want to buy a cask,” says Wynn-Higgins. “From there, I help them select the perfect cask with their budget in mind, and they come along to fill it with me where they can. Casks typically aren’t cheap things to buy, so when we make a sale of a cask it helps us out financially very strongly. It also helps us build great customer rapport from a very early stage.” 

While the small-print surrounding your purchase will vary from producer to producer – “some distilleries won’t allow you to sell to private brokers, whereas some do,” he says – there are a few common rules. “Typically, you can’t take your cask home with you as it needs to mature in a bonded warehouse. Unless you have a rather large shed in your garden.”

Cask Trade 4

Whisky slowly maturing, with any luck, becoming more valuable

From a broker

Cask brokerage company Rare Whisky 101 essentially acts as the middle-man that links serious cask buyers with genuine cask sellers. The team screens potential interested parties to make sure they have sufficient funds to complete the acquisition process and take a 100ml sample from each cask to assess the quality according to a ten-point rating scale – providing reassurance for both the buyer and the seller. After all, maturing whisky has a time limit. For sellers, particularly those new to the world of whisky investment, prospective buyers can be hard to find.

“Many people would assume that as long as their whisky is stored in cask in a bonded warehouse, no harm can come to it,” says RW101 co-founder, David Robertson. “However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is most definitely a finite time in which to sell a cask. We recently saw a 50-year-old cask that had dropped below the legal minimum of 40% alcohol to 28% and was subsequently deemed worthless. I’d encourage any owners, even if they don’t want to sell, to get their casks regauged and sampled. Casks can also leak and become overly-woody so cask owners should ensure that their casks are checked annually.”

From an alternative investment company

Whiskey & Wealth Club (WWC) sources Irish whiskey and Scotch for investors. The distilleries sell casks of their new make spirit – usually bulk in the form of six 200-litre palates – to private investors through WWC, which stores them in a government bonded warehouse, typically for between three and five years. Investors then decide whether to bottle for themselves, sell for a profit through WWC, or allow the contents to continue maturing. 

“We’re bridging the gap financially between a distillery and a whiskey brand that wants to buy mature stock,” explains WWC co-founder and CEO Scott Sciberras. “From the distillery’s point of view, producing whisky is a very expensive business, and you don’t see a return for years down the track. And from a whisky brand’s point of view, they want to buy mature stock to bottle and sell straight away.”

With WWC’s format, everyone’s a winner. “Rather than either one of them tying the money up for maturation period, private investors bridge the gap,” Scott says. “We purchase it by litres of pure alcohol, which gives us volume to sell to our clients without the overheads of running the distillery – so we can sell it for a far cheaper price. If we purchase 20% of a distillery’s fresh new make, it gives them enough working capital to run their stills.”

Macallan cask, probably worth a bit

From a dedicated marketplace 

Put simply, Cask Trade is a marketplace for trading whisky casks. Unlike a broker, it only sells whisky casks it owns, and only whole casks – no fractional sales. “We buy casks from all sorts of different places, so distilleries, warehouses, blenders, independent bottlers, investors; casks are moving around constantly between all of those groups,” Aron explains. “Some of the distilleries will never come up for sale because they don’t sell, full stop. Everything goes into production. But most distilleries are moving stock around Scotland all the time.”

The casks are held in HMRC-bonded warehouses, which are regularly visited by Cask Trade whisky masters. The business offers regular sampling and re-gauging of casks, re-racking, estimates of bottles and strength in cask, the financial modelling of bottling, costings for bottling, labelling and shipping, and will arrange for buyers to receive samples of their whiskies and visit their barrel(s) in person. It also guarantees to buy the cask back from its clients should they decide to sell it.

“If you’re got a bottle in your hand,  it’s sealed with a cork, all the information is on the label, it’s pretty much a done deal,” says Aron. “With a cask, it’s a moving target. It needs to be checked, sampled and looked after by a safe set of hands. Because there’s no label on a cask, you need to give the details – so people can understand how many bottles it would give at 12 years, how many at 15 years, how it’s expected to taste depending on the cask type, examples of bottles that have been sold in the past. It’s much more of a journey, like buying a classic car. You need to know when it was made, how it was made, who looked after it, how it was looked after and whether it still runs well.”

Cask Trade 1

Testing whisky at Cask Trade

Through an auction website

As of last month, Cask Trade launched an auction website aimed at private buyers and sellers. With casks going under the hammer four times a year, auctionyourcask.com will help private owners sell their casks to independent bottlers and investors from across the globe. 

There’s a stringent application process for sellers, and all casks are regauged ready for auction with a full 700ml drawn, so bidders can try before they buy. Since there’s no commission fee, Cask Trade sellers take the full hammer price home, bar the price of the reguage. Win-win.

“It gives bottlers and other buyers the chance to get a cask that has been sitting with an investor privately somewhere,” explains Aron. “From there, they can either take it on a journey for a few more years or bottle it. It’s like wanting to buy a Tiffany bracelet from an old catalogue in the 1930s. You just won’t be able to buy it unless you find it auction – otherwise it’s going to sit in someone’s jewellery box in their house forever and ever.”

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Five minutes with… Kirsteen Campbell, master whisky maker at The Macallan

Overseeing the production of the industry’s most sought-after Scotch whisky may be a gargantuan undertaking, but with 18 years’ experience under her belt, The Macallan’s master whisky maker Kirsteen Campbell…

Overseeing the production of the industry’s most sought-after Scotch whisky may be a gargantuan undertaking, but with 18 years’ experience under her belt, The Macallan’s master whisky maker Kirsteen Campbell is more than up to the task. Here, we chat about the evolution of the newly-strengthened whisky mastery team… 

Hailing from Thurso in the windswept Highlands, Campbell’s career started in 2001 with a degree in food science and a job in a new make spirits laboratory. Fast forward almost two decades, and she’s only gone and made history as the first female Macallan master whisky maker in the brand’s 200-year history*. Surely a contender for the world’s best job.

Having worked on the likes of Cutty Sark, Naked Grouse, The Famous Grouse and The Glenrothes at parent company Edrington, Campbell has become the newest addition to The Macallan’s six-strong whisky mastery team, made up of: Stuart MacPherson, master of wood; Sarah Burgess, lead whisky maker; Polly Logan, whisky maker; Steven Bremner, whisky maker; and Russell Greig, sample room assistant.

Here, we caught up with Campbell to chat through her new role – and find out a little more about how she enjoys one of the world’s best-loved Scotch whiskies…

Macallan whisky mastery team

Not a cutting electronic group from Zurich, it’s The Macallan whisky mastery team

MoM: Huge congratulations on the new role, Kirsteen! Could you tell us a little bit about when and where your love of Scotch whisky first began? 

Campbell: My career began with a scientific background, I studied food science at Glasgow Caledonian University and, following a bit of travel, started working within a lab at a distillery –  that’s when I first began to appreciate all the complexities in Scotch whisky. I started to do a bit of sensory work as well which fascinated me, so it was really from that point onwards that my love began. From there on I moved into research at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh, delving more into the science behind flavour and gravitating more and more towards the sensory side of things. Then a role came up at Edrington – it was titled whisky quality technologist which essentially was a trainee blender, so I applied for that. I was successful and joined Edrington in 2007, and that’s where my role really became about blending and flavour. I’ve just had my 12 year anniversary with Edrington. I can’t quite believe it, it’s gone by in a blink.

The Macallan is one of the most revered whisky brands in the world. From a flavour perspective, what do you think makes the whisky so beloved among fans?

It’s definitely about our exceptional oak casks. We’ve a very rigorous cask policy and even have our own master of wood, Stuart McPherson. It’s just such an important factor of Macallan – so much of the flavour of Scotch whisky comes from oak casks, so we pay huge attention to that and place huge emphasis on it. But of course we look at quality throughout every stage of the process from the new make spirit to the casks we’re bringing in. Throughout the maturation period we’re checking on the whisky to make sure it’s developing in the way that we want it to. In the sample room we check the quality of every single cask that goes into every single batch of Macallan, so we’re moving thousands of samples. Attention to detail is really important in terms of the final quality of the whiskies and our sherry casks which deliver that rich, distinguishing flavour of the entire Macallan portfolio.

Kirsteen Campbell

Campbell in front of Macallan’s space age Speyside HQ

Could you talk a little bit about the various roles within the Whisky Mastery Team and how each relates to the liquid in the bottle?

It’s very much a team approach, we’re very collaborative with each other. I’m based in Glasgow so I spend my time between our headquarters, our bottling plant and The Macallan estate. Up there we have a team of four – Sarah Burgess is the lead whisky maker, there’s also Polly Logan, Steven Bremner and Russell Greig. Between us we look specifically at the quality of the liquid while Stuart McPherson looks after the quality of our casks. We’ve got over 100 years in the industry between us – Stuart’s working in the industry for 40 years, Sarah’s 28, I’m 18, Paulie’s 15 so between us we have a breadth of experience. We work very much as a team and bring our individual experiences together to make Macallan the best it possibly can be.

The art and science of whisky making is a huge focus for The Macallan. Which aspect of the whisky-making process do you personally find the most compelling – the arty, creative side or the really technical lab-based stuff?

It’s a very interesting one for me because I am quite split on it. There’s definitely a technical, logical side to the role, you’re working with numbers a lot and liaise closely with the team in Glasgow who are more scientific, so I get involved in some of their research. Then the other side, which I do also equally enjoy, is the arty side of things, and that really comes into play for new product development (NPD) in particular. It’s really fun to get involved in creating something completely new. Some people [in the whisky mastery team] are more creative while others are more technical and that overall balance works really well.

Macallan

Some seriously fancy Macallan

Could you talk about the research and development process at the distillery – for example, does your team work closely with other departments, or as a team are you quite independent in creating new bottlings?

All aspects of our roles require collaboration and NPD is one of those. We work very closely with the marketing and packaging teams on that, it’s not something that you can do in isolation and when a new product comes out there’s a huge range of people who have been involved in that process. Everything has to come together to make a successful product – from our perspective it’s the liquid, but you also need the background story and a great pack. We’re meeting with people throughout the company on a regular basis.

When you’re winding down at home, what’s your go-to Macallan expression?

That’s a tough choice because we have a wonderful portfolio of whiskies. For me, I do enjoy Double Cask, I have to say. I love that balance of the American oak sherry – the lovely sweet, vanilla, citrus notes – balanced perfectly with rich dried fruits and spicy character from the European oak casks. It’s a beautiful marriage of the two different cask types that we use.

*Well, almost – the brand celebrates its bicentenary in 2024.

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Sherry, the ultimate food wine

Sherry has long been the wallflower of the wine list, but it’s time to give the tipple the recognition it deserves. To toast Sherry Week, we’ve assembled a handy little…

Sherry has long been the wallflower of the wine list, but it’s time to give the tipple the recognition it deserves. To toast Sherry Week, we’ve assembled a handy little guide to pairing Southern Spain’s finest with your favourite dish…

“Sherry is a drink for every dish, every culture, every hour – whether you’re drinking it with sushi at dinner time in Japan, with almonds before lunch in Spain, in an evening cocktail in a New York bar, or poured over ice-cream for pudding in England,” writes the Sherry Wines Council. “Whatever you’re eating, there will be a type of sherry to match.”

So why aren’t more of us partial to a glass these days? Well, partly because today’s dishes are so much more creative and their flavours far more complex, reckons Adrian Coppelstone, manager at The Tapas Room in Tooting. “Thirty to 40 years ago, you’d have a classic dish and there would be a wine that goes with that, job done,” he explains. “But tastes have changed and cookery methods are so much more technical now than they used to be.”

Bodegas Estevez

One of these barrels contains The Ark of the Covenant

Rather than adopting an all-or-nothing approach by pairing with, say, a certain meat or a particular fish, Coppelstone has a nifty trick that can be used to pair any wine with your dish du jour: identify the ‘base note’ in your tipple of choice and pair that with the food. “Whenever I go to a restaurant – much to the irritation of the people I’m with – the first thing I do is pick up the wine list and decide what I want to drink,” he explains. “I don’t pick up the menu and decide what I’m going to eat; I do it in reverse. And I’m looking for those base notes.”

The base note of a meal doesn’t necessarily refer to the overarching flavour or ingredient. Despite what supermarket signposting will have you believe, it’s a little more complicated than that. “A white wine that ‘goes well with chicken or fish’ is such a lazy description,” he says. “There’s so much going on in that bottle – it might actually go with one specific type of fish or one specific type of vegetable, so this is the kind of base flavour that I would use to marry it up.” 

Coppelstone uses foie gras as an example. “The base note is the fat, the oiliness,” he explains. “Therefore, rather than go for a classic Sauternes which is what the old boys say should go with it, I look for that note in the wine, so I’d go for something like an aged German Riesling.” Sherry is, he admits, a little trickier to pair than your average bottle of white, because the base note can be masked by the fortifying alcohol, the wood influence of the cask and the age of the liquid, but it’s not all bad news. “The brilliant thing is we now have so many more sherry houses available to us than we did, say, 10 or 15 years ago,” he continues, “so we really can mix and match”. 

Here, we run through three everyday sherry styles and what to drink them with…

Sherry flor

That’s flor, a layer of yeast that protects fino sherry from oxygen

Fino (eg. Tio Pepe Fino En Rama)

A fino tends to be a young wine (average is usually between four and seven years) that develops a layer of yeast on the top known as flor. The flor if looked after can last for up to about 15 years meaning that there are some older finos available. The wine is fortified to 15% ABV, the perfect level for development of the yeast that protects the wine from oxidation and consumes glycerol, alcohol and any residual sugar in the wine. This gives fino a crispness and lightness that belies its high alcohol and low acidity, making it the ideal pairing for sea bass and anchovies, says Coppelstone.

Amontillado (eg. Lustau Los Arcos)

Amontillado is essentially a fino that has been aged further, but without the flor. This can be because the flor dies naturally or when more grape spirit is added. “This is one of the most changeable sherries in terms of style and flavour, depending on who makes it,” says Coppelstone. “When you’re pairing sherry with spicy food, amontillado is the answer.” Pick an Amontillado at the lower end of the acidity spectrum, and opt for curry spice, rather than ‘chili’ hot spice, so the flavour “doesn’t bounce off the wine, but instead blends with the sharp, nutty notes of the sherry”, he says.

Oloroso  (eg. Colosia Oloroso)

Oloroso is a deliberately oxidised sherry, so the wine is much heavier to start with, says Coppelstone. It’s fortified up to around 20% depending on the producer – far too strong for flor to grow. Classically olorosos are fully dry (though you can buy sweetened ones) but because there is nothing feeding on the glycerol (part of what gives a wine body) olosoros tend to taste a little bit sweeter though, with notes of caramel, nuts, leather and wood. Try pairing with hard cheeses “that have a little bit of spice in there”, says Coppelstone, “rather than Camembert or potent cheese like Bourgogne – they’ll bounce off each other in your mouth”.

 

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Ronnie Lee – the man who mends mills

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt. What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about…

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt.

What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about the first thing you see on any distillery tour but, once you’ve heard the guide’s regulation story about their age and how they outlived the company who made them, you move on.  

It’s a shame. Painted, usually, in that distinctive shade of dark red, sturdy, planted four-square in the mill room, ready to receive another load of malt, these quiet occupants of an unobtrusive corner of the distillery just do their job in a modest and under-stated way.  A malt mill would never shout or draw attention to itself you feel, happy to do an honest day’s work and then await the next consignment to be turned into grist.

But if you take a second, harder look you might see a simple plaque discreetly fixed to the side with the legend RONNIE LEE, MILLWRIGHT and a telephone number.  One day I couldn’t bear it any longer; I was puzzled and intrigued; I had to ask: “Who is this bloke Ronnie Lee?” 

R. Boby

Plate from an old Boby mill

“I have no idea,” was my host’s honest, if unhelpful reply (but then he was a marketing type). I began asking production folks – real whisky people. To a man, they smiled.  “Ronnie Lee,” they said. “You must know Ronnie Lee.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t and the more I learned the worse I felt. So, I set to tracking him down because everyone told me that, though he wasn’t their employee, Ronnie Lee was a vital part of their team. From Diageo to Kilchoman, Chivas Brothers to Rosebank, he keeps the mills running. Without his unique service those antique rollers might seize up and fail, whisky could not be produced – indeed, a great national disaster would befall Scotland.

So I called the number and found myself on an industrial unit alongside a chicken farm in Chepstow – about as far from the glamorous world of luxury seen in whisky’s current imagery as may be imagined. This is where old-school engineer Ronnie and his two sons are based and where the world comes when a mill – possibly more than one hundred years old – needs some TLC. 

These fine pieces of machinery, be they the familiar Porteus design or that of their less well-known rival Boby, were built to last.  Their solid construction and simple, yet well-proven design has stood the test of time and, entirely fortuitously, speak to our present-day concerns about sustainability and the responsible use of resources.

A beautifully-restored Porteus

A beautifully-restored Porteus mill

But how long can they continue to run? The answer may well surprise you. I was certainly taken aback when Ronnie proudly shared with me his latest project: the restoration of a Boby mill, found in an Australian brewery and saved from scrap, that he believes was manufactured around 1855-60.

It may well be the oldest surviving example of a malt mill anywhere in the world and, following 80-100 hours of skilled and experienced cleaning and restoration, it will certainly work again and looks good for another 150 years of service (though, strictly speaking, non-commercial use as it lacks the anti-explosion guard fitted to later models).  Perhaps it will become a display piece, tribute to some far-sighted Victorian engineers as Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds.

And how has it happened that Ronnie has found himself in this highly specialised niche? He grew up near his present Chepstow home and, after school, was apprenticed to the motor trade, quickly passing through a dozen or more jobs before embracing self-employment.  Back in 1995 he was contracting to Buhler, a Swiss mill manufacturer, installing their larger systems in flour mills (there aren’t many in distilleries, though you can see a mighty example at Glenfarclas). 

Ronnie Lee with an old Boby mill

The man himself with an old Boby mill

By this time, Boby was being closed down and the old Porteus company was owned by Briggs of Burton (a name you’ll find on mashtuns and other larger pieces of brewery and distillery equipment). But the heyday of the Porteus mill was the 1960s and by 1972/73 manufacturing had ceased. Maintenance and spare parts became more and more of a problem and eventually Briggs were unable to support what was by now, for them, an obsolete product. 

Ronnie was able to acquire the original Boby plans and drawings (he could build you one from scratch) and armed with these and Porteus’ withdrawal from the market, it was natural for him to step into this gap. His affinity with old machinery and his ability to coax new life from their aging cogs and gears has ensured his unique place in whisky. So, in a world which lauds distillery managers as rock stars, spare a thought and raise a glass to Ronnie Lee, the man who mends the mills and a true whisky hero.

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BrewDog Distilling Company introduces Five Hundred Cuts Rum

Authentic, honest and packed full of flavour: Allow us to introduce you to BrewDog Distilling Company’s latest creation – a botanical spiced rum named Five Hundred Cuts, inspired by 18th…

Authentic, honest and packed full of flavour: Allow us to introduce you to BrewDog Distilling Company’s latest creation – a botanical spiced rum named Five Hundred Cuts, inspired by 18th century botanical illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell…

Twelve years ago Brewdog’s co-founders set about revolutionising the beer industry from a garage in Aberdeenshire. And revolutionise it they did, ruffling countless feathers along the way with 55% ABV beer stuffed inside taxidermy animals, herbal Viagra-spiked American IPA, and the first beer ever brewed on the ocean floor. 

It’s of little surprise that this cavalier ethos has been applied to Brewdog’s ever-expanding distilling arm, which recently introduced a botanical spiced rum. The fifth spirit in the core range, named Five Hundred Cuts, is inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell, “a heroine of Aberdeenshire back in the 1730s”, explains Steven Kersley, head of distillation at BrewDog Distilling Company

Born in Aberdeen in the early 18th century – “a time of huge change,” observes Amanda Edmiston, a self-styled herbal storyteller known as Botanica Fabula – Blackwell went on to create one of the most comprehensive herbals* of her era. Recording a ground-breaking 500 plant engravings (or ‘cuts’), The Curious Herbal was validated by the Royal College of Physicians and made available to both the medical elite and, unusually, a wider public audience. 

“Not only was Elizabeth the first woman to publish a herbal; she was the first person to publish one with quite so many plants,” explains Edmiston. “She embraced plants that were coming into the UK from a huge range of countries. There was a real explosion in botany, and it was the first time anyone in the UK had seen cacao and allspice and Tonka beans,” which – spoiler alert – may well feature in the Five Hundred Cuts recipe.

Hand not included

Her botanical creation is also one of the first herbals where the plants are accurately drawn – take mandrake root, for example. “Legend says it transforms into the shape of a person when pulled from the ground,” Edmiston adds, “it screams and the person pulling it up dies. For this reason mandrake root was often drawn as a little person, but she draws the actual plant.”

It’s a story made all the more remarkable when you consider Blackwell’s motivation: to pay off debts owed by her husband Alexander and see him released from Newgate Debtors Prison. Later, he managed to secure a job as an agricultural advisor to the king of Sweden, says Edmiston, but before she could join him, “he gets caught up in a Jacobite-influenced plot to fiddle and tweak the running order for the claim on the Swedish throne – and is promptly executed”. Oh dear. 

Beheading aside, it’s a remarkable story that has influenced an equally remarkable rum. Five Hundred Cuts starts out as sugar cane molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process – since there aren’t any sugar cane fields in northern Scotland, pressing, distilling and fermenting raw sugar cane isn’t an option for Kersley and the team. “It arrives on-site in tankers, 28 tonnes at once,” he explains. “We unload it one tonne at a time, wearing those white forensic crime scene [scrubs] – it does look like a crime scene after we’re finished – and start the fermentation process by diluting that molasses down with water.”

The team ferments the molasses with a combination of red wine yeast and rum yeast; the former brings out “massive dark fruit flavours and works with the dark burnt sugar flavours coming from the molasses” while the latter “creates a lot of tropical notes like pineapples and mangos”. Yeast, after all, “is a massive source of flavour,” Kersley continues, “it doesn’t just convert sugar into alcohol – it creates a whole host of different esters and flavour profiles”.

Steven Kersley

Steven Kersley, head of distillation

The mix is fermented for seven days at precisely 28 degrees celsius before it’s double pot distilled. Then, 11 botanicals including tonka bean, clove, lavender, cardamom, orange peel, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, allspice and ginger are brought into the mix using two methods. The more delicate botanicals, such as orange peel, lavender, schezuan peppercorns and cardamom, were re-distilled with the base spirit to “create what is, in essence, a spiced white rum distillate”, he says.

The botanicals which are – as Kersley kindly puts it – “slightly more assertive, slightly more bold”, like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, tonka bean, ginger, and allspice, are steeped in the remaining white spirit for 14 hours, before the solids are filtered out. Then, the macerated white rum and white rum distillate are brought together, “so we’re getting all the bright, vibrant flavours from the distillate and then a lot of the more spicy, bold characters coming from the macerate,” Kersley says. The team rounds the liquid off with a little muscovado sugar, and then it’s bottled – scroll down for some tasting notes.

So, how to drink it? Five Hundred Cuts “works amazingly across all the classic serves: Rum and Cola, Rum and Ginger Beer, Pina Colada…” Kersley says. “We absolutely love white rum, it tastes incredible, and for me as a distiller it has real potential for layering and developing flavour on top of it. The natural step was to use botanicals. We didn’t just want to create another generic spiced rum with fake colour, fake sweetness and a lot of vanilla typically added. We wanted to create something authentic, honest and packed full of flavour.”

*A ‘herbal’ is a text that contains illustrations and descriptions of plants, their medicinal preparations, and the ailments for which they are used, according to The British Library.

Tasting notes from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Coca-cola, dark chocolate, caramel combine with more aromatic notes like ginger, orange peel and cloves.

Palate: Highly aromatic, almost menthol, with assertive cardamom leading balanced by rich dark sugar. 

Finish: Fresh and herbal, like upmarket cold cure. 

 

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No more heroes

In the wake of some very public scandals in the drinks world, our contributor Nate Brown thinks it’s time we retired the word ‘legend’ and stopped putting bartenders on pedestals.  …

In the wake of some very public scandals in the drinks world, our contributor Nate Brown thinks it’s time we retired the word ‘legend’ and stopped putting bartenders on pedestals.  

I don’t know about you, but hospitality as a career was never something offered to me at school. Which, with hindsight, seems strange in a country of drinkers. According to our betters, we could be anything we wanted, so long as it was a police officer, teacher, lawyer, tradesperson, journalist, or an accountant. The idea of a career in hospitality sat alongside creatives and self-employment as the scary unmentionables of the taboo section. 

It’s hardly shocking, therefore, that when I, like many others, fell into this industry we were like rabbits in the headlights looking longingly for guidance and leadership. We found ourselves entering into a closed, unknown world, a magic circle of performers and actors. We were among kings and queens, filling their ice and polishing their glassware. We watched in awe as they enthralled the masses at lightning pace on nightly basis. They were the centre of attention, and the centre of our aspirations. Look at them go!

cocktail competition

Don’t call me a hero, I just make the drinks

The bartending world is a world so full of heroes it could be an Avengers movie. But of course, they’re not really heroes, are they? They’re drinks-makers and they’re entertainers. Some are business-minded, most are chronically gregarious. The attention they receive is addictive. And we want some of that. The industry is fuelled by their social status, and the energy that it brings. 

And so, as newbies, we watched on with dumbstruck awe as this microcosmic clique spewed out nano-celebrity after nano-celebrity, and we were desperate in our fawning cajolery to emulate them as protégés and prodigies. Bartenders who stuck it out passed some sort of invisible threshold to become industry furniture. Thought-leaders and disruptors are elevated as demi-gods to the bowing congregation. They are rewarded with praise and glamorous trips across the globe, brand merchandise and party invites. The career bartender is walking aspiration. Powered by big brand support, the idol factory that is hospitality continues with relentless abandon, some chosen few enjoying their fifteen minutes, others fifteen years. 

Without a nurturing framework, the green look up, and the experienced look down. What else did we expect? But this is a much more dangerous situation than a first glance would suggest. Reputations deliver powerful personas. In the worst cases, they can absolve responsibility, enabling abuses of power and position, acting as a suit of armour against accusation. Much has been said in recent weeks about the awarding of an ‘industry legend’, one who has a history of misogynistic opinions. The result of which was a conflicting polarity of lauding of his career and despising of his character. Who is the judge, who is the jury, and who is the executioner? Accountability and responsibility have long since sailed into the sunset, I’m afraid, and much like the takedown of a similarly culpable London ‘legend’ in recent years, it’ll all too soon blow over.

This goes deeper. Controversies like these, at least momentarily, serve to usurp the facade our industry constructs. 

I do not wish to undermine the achievement of owning and operating one’s own bar or brand, or the hard work and dedication it takes to become a thought-leader through merit. But for goodness sake, stop calling each other legends. The Minotaur, Medusa, King Arthur. These are legends. Since when did legends stop slaying dragons and start fucking throwing martinis?

Clearly, no one, no bar, no ‘legend’ is beyond reproach. If it’s heroes you want, you should have joined the police.  

 

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Kinahan’s Kasc Project

Resurrecting an historic spirit is no mean feat, particularly one revered for its pioneering and unconventional approach, but take it from us, the folks behind Irish whiskey brand Kinahan’s are relishing…

Resurrecting an historic spirit is no mean feat, particularly one revered for its pioneering and unconventional approach, but take it from us, the folks behind Irish whiskey brand Kinahan’s are relishing the task. We chat with Lewis Johnstone, global sales and marketing officer, as their most daring bottling to date, The Kasc Project, hits shelves…

“I think we’ve gatecrashed the party a little bit,” Johnstone says of Kinahan’s re-entry into the burgeoning Irish whiskey category. “If you ask some of the smaller privately-owned whiskeys who have been quite happily trotting along the last few years, they would probably say ‘where the hell did they come from?’. But we didn’t gatecrash it with the same kind of whiskey. We gatecrashed it with something a little bit different, and that is really our pathway to the future.”

If it’s proof you’re after, look no further than their first-of-its-kind creation, The Kasc Project. The unusual bottling sees a blend of malt and grain whiskeys aged in handmade hybrid casks made of five different wood varieties – Portuguese, American, French, and Hungarian oak, and chestnut – each selected for the flavours they impart into the whiskey. But then, Kinahan’s is no stranger to experimenting with wood. 

Kinahan's Kask

Krazy Kinahan’s Kasc

The brand first appeared in 1779 as a family-run operation, explains Johnstone, almost entirely exporting its creations to the US. “We were the first whiskey to start experimenting with wood types and use wood as a maturation device rather than just transportation, which is what everybody else was doing,” he says. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in particular took a liking to the liquid and insisted all casks were to be marked with L.L. – a practice acknowledged today across Kinahan’s Heritage Collection.

He wasn’t the only fan. The brand was also the whiskey du jour of esteemed bartender Jerry Thomas, who referenced Kinahan’s in his various cocktail tomes alongside Jamesons. Unfortunately, even Thomas’ backing was not quite enough to protect the brand once Prohibition reared its sobering head. Since 98% of its exports were US-based at the time, Kinahan’s would be resigned to the history books for the best part of a century. Fast-forward to now, and the team, led by distiller Quinzil du Plessis, have harnessed the renegade attitude of the whiskey-makers who came before them to bring the brand back to life. 

“We have arguably the biggest selection of different barrel types than anybody in the business, certainly in Ireland and maybe even beyond that, because that’s who we are and that’s what we do,” says Johnstone. “When we restarted the Kinahan’s project, we had stock in a variety of warehouses all over Ireland, and the first thing Zac [Oganian, managing director] had to do was to find it all and make an audit of everything, what he could use, what he couldn’t.”

They pooled their stash into three third party warehouses and Quinzil set about altering the barrels to confuddle prying eyes and disguise the product inside. “He writes about 20 letters and numbers across the top of the barrel and only half a dozen of those letters or numbers might mean something, and only to him,” says Johnstone. 

Kinahan's

Kinahan’s, goes beautifully with a fine pair of trews

As of next week, the team will start the process of moving each and every cask to a brand new purpose-built Kinahan’s warehouse, away from curious noses. “Now Quinzil can go absolutely nuts without tiptoeing around, because we use some quite significant characters’ warehouses,” he continues. “They’re always looking over our shoulder to see what we’re up to and trying to discover what’s inside the barrel.”

And with whiskeys as curiously compelling as The Kasc Project, there’s little wonder. Currently, the wider range comprises Kinahan’s Single Malt 10 and Kinahan’s Small Batch, which Johnstone refers to as “our nod to the past”, as well as an annual single cask bottling that goes by The Special Release Project. Armagnac and amarone barrels are just two of the casks the team is experimenting with.

As for a distillery – well, Kinahan’s does own one, the Birr Distillery, established in the 1820s in the centre of the Republic of Ireland. Whether the team will fire up the stills remains to be seen, but for now, they’re pretty content making waves with wood. “At the moment we acquire whiskey from two or three distillers of note and then we bring [the casks] in and do what we want to be famous for – making great whiskey with our wood expertise,” says Johnstone. “Others might be doing it differently, but for us, a distillery isn’t critical to that end game.”

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