fbpx
Created by potrace 1.12, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2015

We're just loading our login box for you, hang on!

Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Classic bars – The Gibson

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to…

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to The Gibson.

Head to 44 Old Street and you’d be forgiven for thinking the petite Edwardian building is a natty little boozer, complete with a hanging pub sign and green-tiled exterior walls. Venture inside, however, and you’ll find one of London’s most lauded bars.

The Gibson was opened by bartender Marian Beke in 2016 and won sixth place in the World’s 50 Best Bars soon after. Since then this 1930s-style tribute to the glamour and ceremony of cocktail culture has drawn visitors on the search for Beke’s famous Gibson Martinis (incidentally, my favourite cocktail), cigar collection, stellar service, treasure-trove decor and nightly changing live music.

It’s an industry favourite too, attracting bartenders from around the world wanting to get behind its uplit, copper bar to take advantage of Beke’s many homemade ingredients, house pickles and one-of-a-kind glassware. So, where did it all begin?

The Gibson Bar London

It looks like an ordinary boozer in Old Street

Pickle me this

“I used to work at Nightjar which is a great place, and I think it was just the next step,” explains Beke of his decision to set up shop solo. “In our industry you work 18/19 hours a day and I was thinking, I’m 30/31 now, if I wait until I’m 36 or 37, it might just be too difficult.”

To find the perfect spot, Beke had to have three or four ideas for his bar in the bag to account for the unknowns of location, size and licensing laws of his new venture. And then he found an 1870s listed building off the crossroads of Old Street and Clerkenwell Road, and the rest fell into place.

“When you look at the outside, it looks like a pub, it’s very English and with gin being very British, we asked what drink was the king of gin – the Martini.” Back in 2016, although some bars were championing the famous cocktail, Beke found that there was a distinct lack of Gibson culture (a gin Martini with a pickled onion).

The original cocktail is thought to be named after Charles Dana Gibson, a turn-of-the-20th-century American illustrator. He created the Gibson Girl, a pictorial representation of an independent Euro-American woman which Beke adopted as his logo, hung her image outside his bar, and The Gibson bar was born.

Gibson Girl

It’s a Gibson Girl!

Drinking time

The 50-odd-strong cocktail menu starts, of course with three iterations of the famous Gibson Martini. Its signature, inspired by William Boothby’s 1908 book The World’s Drinks, combines Copperhead Gin, pickling spice, Martini Ambrato Riserva, house double-pickled onion and a twist of lemon. This is followed by the Redistilled Gibson which macerates its ingredients for 72 hours; while the Aged Gibson Martini is aged in ex-balsamic barrels for six months.

The rest of the menu doesn’t escape Charles Gibson’s influence either. “I was looking for something different,” says Beke of what he wanted to create back in 2016. He found inspiration in Gibson’s 1901 Life’s Gibson Calendar. “The calendar concept is interesting, because people do relate to different months,” says Beke. “January has its own flavours, slowly moving through to June, July and August relating to summer with more fruity flavours, and then to December with the likes of whisky cocktails.”

Described as a ‘time machine’ the menu includes cocktails with names such as Gnome Alone, Royal Warrant, Jaffa Cakes and Bread & Butter with each month having four cocktails, one for each week of the month, and drinks comprising up to as many as 10 ingredients. As with his homemade pickles, Beke has also introduced some standout additions into his drinks. The house Red Snapper includes lobster broth and horseradish squid ink; the Shanghai Sling uses a duck fat-washed rum; you’ll find cannabis syrup in your Lindo Gaucho; and if you’ve ever wanted to try preserved salty duck egg Advocaat, do yourself a favour and order The Frying Dutchman.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the tiki-esque glassware. Think cocktails served in a golden foot, an open hippo mouth, as a lightbulb, swimming in a paper hat and hanging from a monkey’s tail. Of course, what’s inside the glass is most important for Beke, but he’s been clever to recognise the role that social media can play in a bar’s success. He also saw first-hand guests’ reactions when he took those visuals away: “For the first time after five years, we decided to do something simple, seasonal and served in the likes of Champagne flutes with 30% off. So many people were like ‘no, no where is the proper glass?’ – it was so funny to see what happens when you take the glass or garnish away.”

Inside the Gibson

Inside the Gibson

Gibson on wheels

Thankfully, Covid hasn’t stopped Beke turning out his creations and the Gibson Boutique is a one-stop shop for all of our home drinking needs. Cigars, cocktail art and even pieces from the back bar (Gibson Lager, Electric Bitters, The Gibson’s Del Professore Pickled Vermouth) can be purchased, as well as a selection of garnishes – beer lego jellies, porcupine quills *add to cart*.

Drinks include Gibson Martini sets, all three signature Gibsons, Buttered Old Fashioneds, a Pink Death in the Afternoon and the three-pepper Kiss of a Scorpion.

It goes without saying though that I and the bars many other fans can’t wait to get back inside (or outside) the building. Beke’s focus on service is one of The Gibson’s most defining features, with seated only service, side pickles to nibble on, live music, and digestif shots and chocolate arriving with the bill, the whole experience of drinking at 44 Old Street is a memorable and unexpected one. “I always prefer it when people don’t know us and are passing by and imagine they’re walking into a pub,” explains Beke of what he hopes guests feel when they visit, “I want them to think this is the best experience they’ve had in a long time.”

The Gibson bar

I just popped in for a pint, and now this…

No Comments on Classic bars – The Gibson

What are worm tubs and why do they matter?

Today, Lucy Britner takes a dive into one of the more geeky aspects of whisky production, worm tubs, and asks what effect these traditional condensers have on the finished spirit. …

Today, Lucy Britner takes a dive into one of the more geeky aspects of whisky production, worm tubs, and asks what effect these traditional condensers have on the finished spirit. 

Anyone who enjoys visiting distilleries will likely remember their first worm tub. Mine was at Talisker on a freezing cold March morning. As I stood outside, looking at the large wooden tubs filled with steaming water and coiled copper worms, part of me wondered what on earth they were for. But most of me wanted to jump in and warm up (obviously I didn’t do that). For a few reasons, worm tubs are a relatively rare sight. But for those that have them, they represent a vital part of a distillery’s character…

Worm tubs at Talisker

Fancy a dip? The worm tubs at Talisker

Worm what?

In short, worm tubs are a type of condenser. They are a traditional way of turning spirit vapour back into liquid and they work like this: The lyne arm at the top of the still is connected to a long, coiled copper pipe (worm) that sits in a huge vat of cold water (tub), which is usually outside. As the vapour travels down the worm, it condenses back into liquid form.

There are only a handful of distilleries that still use this method to condense their spirits, with most now preferring the more modern and efficient ‘shell and tube’ approach.

The general assumption is that because the cold water in a worm tub causes the vapour to condense fairly rapidly, there isn’t as much copper contact, generally making for a heavier style of spirit. But, like with all things whisky, this is only one part of the process and there are many factors that combine in each distillery to influence the style of a spirit.

“Some believe that worm tubs tend to create heavy spirits, but that’s not necessarily true as they are capable of producing lighter characteristics depending on how they are used it’s a fine balance,” explains Jackie Robertson, site operations manager at Talisker on the Isle of Skye. “At Talisker, we are passing a lot of cold water through the tub, condensing the vapour quite quickly to reduce the copper contact, so you’re going from the vapour phase to the liquid phase. If you retain warm water in your worm tub, you can slow down that condensing process and allow much more of a copper conversation with the vapour.”

Enter relative newcomer Ballindalloch, which started making whisky in 2014 and uses slightly warmer tubs to create a lighter style. Distillery manager Colin Poppy explains that the distillery was built inside an 1820s listed building, so the design had to fit the site. “There was no room inside for shell and tube condensers,” he explains. “We could’ve put them outside but we decided early on that we wanted to be traditional, so we decided on worm tubs.”

Ballindalloch’s tubs are about 10,000 litres each and the copper worms are about 70 metres long. “The most common statement I get from guests is ‘how come your spirit is light and fruity when you use worm tubs?’.” Poppy explains that at Ballindalloch, the worm tubs operate using a closed loop system that recycles the water. This means it is never quite as cold as other worm tubs, where water is often drawn from a river.

He says this allows the vapour more copper contact in the worms before condensing. Not only that, the distillery carries out a very slow distillation, which also means lots of copper contact.

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas from Ian Macleod Distillers

Traditional practices

Like Ballindalloch’s desire to adhere to traditions, the soon-to-be reawakened Rosebank distillery in Falkirk will feature new worm tubs that mirror the original production style alongside the same still designs.

Rosebank was of course a triple-distilled Lowland malt but also used worm tubs a juxtaposition in whisky production,” explains Gordon Dundas, senior brand ambassador at Rosebank’s parent company Ian Macleod Distillers. “Triple distillation promotes a lighter style in a whisky (more copper contact and reflux) but then using worm tubs is more associated with a bolder and heavier style of spirit.”

Dundas also points out that the role of condensers must be looked at in relation to the whole distillation process and “what the spirit is like before it passes through”. He continued: “How that manifests itself during maturation is key and in Rosebank, I always get a light floral style, as it is a whisky predominantly matured in refill but a little weight in the palate.”

From the Lowlands to the height of the Highlands and the Pulteney distillery has been using worm tubs since 1826. Distillery manager Malcom Waring says that “using worms in our process at Pulteney allows us to have a long, slow spirit run, with the spirit vapour picking up the bolder, beefier characteristics in the first part of its journey in the worm. Once in the cask, these develop into notes of butterscotch, vanilla and coconut, giving Old Pulteney the distinctive taste and character we’re looking for in the finished whisky”.

The overall structure and design of the worm tubs used at Pulteney today are the same as the originals. “We tend to replace sections of the worm tub when needed, so some bits of the current equipment are older than others,” he explains. “They were installed as you see them today when Pulteney was refurbished in the 1920s and six original stills were replaced with two.”

Ballindalloch Distillery

New worm tubs at Ballindalloch Distillery

Why aren’t they everywhere?

In theory – and indeed in the glass – worm tubs seem great. So why don’t more distilleries have them? In short, they have been substituted for a more efficient condensing method.

Distillery equipment company Forsyths says they have largely been replaced by shell and tube condensers because shell and tube offers a “more compact design and are easier to repair and replace”.

Indeed Pulteney’s Waring says it takes more effort to use and maintain worm tubs. “There’s a lot of copper, so they wear out more quickly, plus the equipment needs quite a lot of space and water,” he says. “But I think it’s worth it for the qualities they bring to our whisky. We are one of only a handful of distilleries still using worm tubs, and unlike many others, there has never been any pressure for us to change our production process. I see this as a huge advantage, allowing us to make Old Pulteney using the traditional equipment in the way it has always been made here in Wick.”

And as more distilleries are revived or built with certain traditions in mind, it will be interesting to see if the worm tub will become a more popular fixture.

No Comments on What are worm tubs and why do they matter?

Realising Devon’s whisky potential with Dartmoor Whisky Distillery

A few years ago a group of friends visited Islay to learn all about whisky and asked why no one ever made whisky in Devon. That idea eventually turned into a…

A few years ago a group of friends visited Islay to learn all about whisky and asked why no one ever made whisky in Devon. That idea eventually turned into a brand. This is the story of Dartmoor Whisky Distillery.

If you’re interested in founding a distillery in England, there’s plenty of great places to choose from. But few areas tick quite as many boxes as Devon. While sandy beaches, medieval towns and national parks will appeal to tourists, whisky lovers will note the abundance of high-quality barley, pure spring water and a coastal climate perfect for maturation. Devon native Greg Miller realised all of this back in 2009. He and a group of friends had ventured to Islay to take part in an intensive distillation course at Bruichladdich. The experience made him realise his home county had everything needed to make great whisky. So he teamed up with partner Simon Crow to found the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery.

The first thing they needed was a still. The duo immediately hit a roadblock, however, after visiting Forsyths of Rothes in Scotland only to return with a sizable quote and a potential spot on a two-year waiting list. Old connections and happenstance provided the solution. A lifelong friendship established with a French exchange student as a child caused Miller’s love-affair with France, where he owns a house. While there in the summer of 2014 it occurred to him that there’s an awful lot of distillation going on in Cognac. He wondered if he could find a still down there. 

As luck would have it, there was a tiny advert for one posted on a French agricultural website by Miguel D’Anjou, a third-generation Cognac master distiller. His still was built in 1966 and was in operation until 1994 when the family upgraded to two larger stills and it was mothballed. Miller and Crow were able to purchase and refurbish the still, even establishing a relationship with D’Anjou who ended up teaching the duo a lot about distillation.

The Dartmoor Distillery's unique Cognac still

The Dartmoor Distillery’s unique Cognac still

Making Devonshire drams at Dartmoor Whisky Distillery

While Dartmoor Whisky Distillery is not the first or only whisky distillery to use a Cognac still, it’s certainly rare and there are some significant differences between it and a traditional whisky pot still. The shape of the head on the 1400-litre Alembic still is very bulbous, while the swan neck is very narrow. This creates a very high level of reflux. Crow explains: “Before the vapours get up the swan neck they fold back on themselves an awful lot. Then the swan neck is very narrow so it distils our spirit very slowly, probably about a quarter to a third the speed of a traditional whisky pot still. This creates an incredibly smooth, sweet new make”. Then there’s the central copper ‘wash warmer’ which sits between the still and the condenser. While the first charge of beer wash is distilling, this holds and preheats the next charge, both saving energy and doubling the time that the wash is in contact with copper.

Despite inspiration striking on Islay, it was never Miller and Crow’s intention to make peated whisky. Partly because the local barley traditionally wasn’t peated and Crow says the duo is determined that the whisky is a product of Dartmoor. All of its barley, 50 tonnes a year, is sourced from Preston Farm, which supplies a lot of Devonshire breweries too. The barley is malted at the legendary Warminster Maltings, then it goes to Dartmoor Brewery who make a 9% ABV beer wash. Post distillation that 9% ABV beer is a 70% ABV spirit which is reduced with water down to the barrel strength of 63% ABV. That’s pure Dartmoor spring water sourced from a 200-foot deep borehole up on the moor at Holne that’s been filtered over the course of two centuries through peat, granite and more. 

The first releases are expressions matured in ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso sherry and ex-Bordeaux red wine casks, which make up the bulk of Dartmoor Whisky Distillery’s wood programme. There are some Port and Madeira casks that are being used to finish some ex-bourbon expressions, however, and Miller’s love of smokier drams means some new make has been popped into ex-Laphroaig casks. The first 50 casks are stored underneath the distillery, but the majority are housed in a local warehouse to make the most of that Dartmoor climate. The plan was to vat whisky from the three primary casks together, but after master distiller Frank McCardy tasted each spirit after a year of ageing he advised Miller and Crow that each expression was too interesting and should stand on their own.

The Dartmoor Distillery

The Dartmoor Distillery

A beautiful building and a bright future

If you’re wondering, yes that it is the Frank McCardy of Springbank and Bushmills Distillery, who brought his 50+ years of experience to Dartmoor. An old friend of Miller and Crow, the Cognac still and integrity of the process was intriguing enough to McCardy to tempt him to lend expertise, despite being in semi-retirement. “We consult him on everything we are doing”, Crow says. With D’Anjou and McHardy guiding them, Miller and Crow currently handle the bulk of the distillation. This year they will be employing a distiller, however, who will have the pleasure of working out of one of England’s most scenic distilleries.

You’ll find Dartmoor Whisky Distillery in the Old Town Hall in Bovey Tracey. It became available when the council moved to a new building. “It would be easier to have a more logistical space with a big modern warehouse. But it’s such a beautiful building. It dates back to the 1860s and for us to be able to give that lovely historic building a new lease of life was great,” Crow says. The striking still sits on a stage while the rest of the hall is a visitors centre complete with a bar. A retail shop is now open and when tourism picks back up, you can bet the Dartmoor Distillery is handily placed to take advantage.

Crow tells us that a gin distilled in another old copper Cognac still, this one from 1890, with some local Dartmoor botanicals is on the way. But for now, we’re most interested in Dartmoor’s three core expressions and tasting them we found plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Bourbon Cask is delicate, refined and balanced, with plenty of distillery character (sparkling orchard fruit, warm biscuit crumble and a honeyed element) and some solid cask integration. The Bordeaux Cask melds pleasantly with the new make and adds some intriguing elements. But the Sherry Cask is the standout dram so far. Those dense, sweet and rich Oloroso notes mask any immaturity and you can tell the quality of the cask itself is first-rate from how complex its flavours are. All three have had not enough time in their respective casks yet and demonstrate some raw spirit qualities (particularly in the Bourbon Cask). But it’s promising to taste a forming distillery character and to see another emerging producer resisting the urge to overload the oak in an effort to mask its youth.

There’s a lot of potential here. And thanks to the local barley, water, floor maltings, it’s whisky that’s Devon through and through. To grab yourself a bottle head to the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery page.

The Dartmoor Distillery range

The Dartmoor Distillery range

Tasting Dartmoor Whisky Distillery’s whisky

Dartmoor Bourbon Cask Matured Whisky

Nose: There’s a big malty backdrop (almost into beer/shandy territory) to this one which combined with some heat and raw touches reveal its youth. But it also showcases plenty of Dartmoor distillery character, green apples, Rich Tea biscuits and acacia honey in this case. Among those notes, you’ll find heaps of vanilla, as well as Scotch tablet, flour and a little black pepper. With time comes hints of milk chocolate, nectarines, orange blossom and white wine grapes. Then also a faint nutty quality as well as pencil shavings and a hint of strawberries and cream.

Palate: More of that biscuity, malty goodness at the core, alongside toffee, vanilla, baking spices and a little toasted oak as the cask presence makes itself more known. There’s also a little more of that citrus character from lemon zest. Also some dried grass, toasted almond and cacao powder. Throughout there are more honeycomb and crisp green apple flavours. Underneath there’s touches of marshmallow, melon, apricot yoghurt and cream soda to make themselves known.

Finish: A tad dry and carrying some peppery heat, but plenty of honey, fruit and a little gingerbread keeps things pleasant.

Dartmoor Bordeaux Cask Matured Whisky 

Nose: The wine cask makes itself known from the off with a mixed summer berry compote (blackcurrants, blueberries, raspberries, redcurrants, strawberries) at the forefront alongside tannic red apple skins, plum, clove and some stony minerality. Notes of Manuka honey, caramel shortbread and a hint of sweet tobacco then develop. With more time comes orange peel, crunchy brown sugar, black peppercorn and cinnamon. There’s also some dried earth, melted chocolate and red chilli heat. Throughout that raw new make threatens to derail things slightly but never gets a firm grip on the nose.

Palate: Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre, drying wood tannins and red berries lead, with walnut oil, posh dark chocolate and apple chutney in support. Among hints of candied orange there’s crème caramel, gingernuts, black pepper and damsons. Touches of peppermint, tomato puree and flint are present in the backdrop.

Finish: Medium finish with soft nutmeg, red and black Wine Gums and cocoa powder.

Dartmoor Sherry Cask Matured Whisky

Nose: Classic rich and nutty Oloroso goodness kicks things off with Corinth raisins, figs and stewed plums supported by sticky toffee, marmalade, manuka honey and walnut. There’s notes of damp earth, sherry-stained oak and tobacco leaves in the backdrop, as well as brown sugar, caramelised orchard fruit, stem ginger and brandy butter.

Palate: Through treacle, juicy dark fruits and some woody tannins there’s coconut, vanilla pod sweetness and thick caramel. Toasty cereals, sherried spice and the slightest menthol heat add depth. Underneath there’s dark honey, malt extract, rum and raisin ice cream and a little marzipan.

Finish: Some cinnamon and cacao powder keeps more summer berries company.  

No Comments on Realising Devon’s whisky potential with Dartmoor Whisky Distillery

The mysterious man behind Mossburn distillers

Following on from the excitement of the first release from the Isle of Skye’s newest distillery Torabhaig last week, Ian Buxton takes a look at the chap behind it all….

Following on from the excitement of the first release from the Isle of Skye’s newest distillery Torabhaig last week, Ian Buxton takes a look at the chap behind it all. It’s the low-profile Swedish billionaire Dr Frederik Paulsen, owner of Mossburn distillers. 

What connects Mozart Liqueur with two new Scottish distilleries, both quite modest in scale, an independent bottling company, a revived Japanese shochu distiller now making single malt and a very large Siberian vodka distillery?  Hint: the answer also involves the eradication of rats on South Georgia.

The Torabhaig story

While you think about that, let me divert you with a story about Torabhaig, Skye’s second legal whisky distillery, whose inaugural single malt was released last week.  Nearly fifteen years ago I stood in a derelict steading there, getting very wet, and having an increasingly heated argument with the then owner, Sir Iain Noble. I was helping his architects plan the proposed visitor facilities and trying slowly, carefully and politely to explain to Sir Iain that his ideas were dangerous, unworkable nonsense. He insisted that the visitor centre design must incorporate a working still over an open fire, producing clearic and refused to accept my argument that this would never be permitted by either HMRC or the fire officer at Skye and Lochalsh Council. 

A few weeks later he had declined to pay my fee and I was contemplating legal action. However, shortly after that he died, taking my hopes of reimbursement and any prospect of a distillery at Torabhaig to the grave. Or so I thought.

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

Torabhaig Distillery, the Isle of Skye’s newest distillery

But a couple of years later the site was sold to Mossburn distillers then, as now, probably better known as independent bottlers. They took on the Torabhaig project with some enthusiasm and, after a four year’s restoration and the installation of two copper pot stills from Forsyths, began distilling in 2017. That first whisky is now about to be launched as a limited release, with continuing supplies anticipated to be available from the third quarter of this year.

Mossburn distillers, fingers in many pies

Mossburn is also behind the grain distillery in Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, on the A68 Edinburgh to Darlington road, the first part of what will be a substantial malt and grain complex. Right now, says Mossburn Distillers CEO Neil Mathieson, “we’re taking things slowly, mainly due to the challenges of working around Covid, but producing rye-based spirit and looking to get warehouse space constructed by the end of 2021”.

Mossburn also pops up, along with more Forsyths stills, as the backers of Japan’s Kaikyo distillery, producers of the Hatozaki blend of Japanese whisky. Single malt is being distilled here now but meanwhile we have to be satisfied with the Hatozaki. Just be aware that, like many bottles carrying the description ‘Japanese Whisky’ it comprises, perfectly legally, a blend of whisky produced elsewhere. Perhaps it’s best thought of as ‘world whisky’. [See recent article on this thorny topic].

A mysterious Swedish billionaire

But who is behind Mossburn? And what are their links to Siberia, home to Mamont vodka, Salzburg’s Mozart Liqueur and South Georgia? Curiously everything relates to a Swedish biotech business, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, founded in 1950 by Dr Frederik Paulsen. Today, it remains in family ownership under the control of his son, Frederik Jr, and records multi-billion pound sales of infertility, obstetrics, urology, gastroenterology and endocrinology drugs in around 60 countries. Their Jersey-registered charitable vehicle, The Paulsen Familiae (sic) Foundation, makes extensive grants to support work in the environment, including a reputed $10m backing the South Georgia rat eradication project and many other sizeable donations to a variety of causes.

Dr. Frederik Paulsen Junior

Dr. Frederik Paulsen Junior doing his mysterious billionaire face

Dr Frederik Paulsen Jr himself is something of an adventurer – he was the first person to cross the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia in an ultralight aircraft and first human to tour all eight of the Earth’s poles, including diving 14,196 feet to the floor of the Arctic Ocean in a bathyscaphes to reach the “true” North Pole. That cost $2m apparently, a major part of which he funded.

No comment

However, Paulsen himself, the family and their foundation adopt a curiously low profile, preferring (one assumes) to be judged by their actions rather than a slick PR front. I contacted a senior family member for comment and information but I received a reply saying they had no comment. The precise details therefore remain obscure, but Mossburn, Mamont vodka, Mozart Liqueur, Torabhaig, Kaikyo, a number of wineries and multiple drinks distributors all around the globe are part of his sprawling empire.

And there are two final, curious connections. Sir Iain Noble was obsessively interested in promoting Gaelic and was a keen supporter of Skye’s Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language, Education, Culture and the Arts. For family reasons, the Paulsens are also concerned with the survival of minority languages and in July 2017 Sabhal Mòr Ostaig received a £50,000 grant from the Paulsen Familiae Foundation.

Finally, Sir Iain was a knight of the realm. How fitting then that, just over a year ago this month, Dr Frederik Paulsen Jr, OBE was appointed by HM The Queen a Knight of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Two knights linked by one small Scottish distillery.

Still no open fire in the visitor centre though.

No Comments on The mysterious man behind Mossburn distillers

Brighton Gin: spirit of the seaside

Kathy Caton swapped the radio mic for the lab coat when she founded Brighton Gin with some local friends back in 2012. Since then the brand has gone from strength…

Kathy Caton swapped the radio mic for the lab coat when she founded Brighton Gin with some local friends back in 2012. Since then the brand has gone from strength to strength despite some early setbacks like exploding stills and botanicals disasters. 

Many of us have ideas after some drinks but few of us manage to turn them into a business.  The Brighton Gin story began when Kathy Caton was having a few gin-based cocktails with a friend one night. The following day, feeling surprisingly chipper while running around her home town of Brighton, she had the revelation to create her own brand of gin. She explained: “Gin is the one thing that lets me get away with it. Brighton is a place that needs to get away with it on a frequent basis. Boom! That’s it, I was going to make Brighton gin. It was just one of those proper lightbulb moments.”

This was in 2010 just before the gin boom. “Gin has always been my drink,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine how wildly unfashionable it used to be when I was at university.” But gin’s image was changing rapidly and it was now much easier for new distilleries thanks to Sipsmith and Sacred laying the groundwork with HMRC. “I thought there was going to be a moment. But I absolutely had no idea that that moment would be what gin is now. People with gin bars at home. Gin festivals. Gin tattoos!” she said.

Kathy Caton from Brighton Gin

Kathy Caton: gin lover (Photo by Liz Finlayson/Vervate)
Brighton Gin portraits on Brighton Beach

Easy does it

Caton had a strong vision for Brighton gin: “I wanted to make something that is of the best quality, that’s built on ethical and sustainable practices, made by a really diverse team,” she said. But her background in radio, with stints at BBC World Service, Radio 4 and Reverb Radio in Brighton, weren’t a lot of help for making gin. “I had very clear thoughts about how I wanted it to taste and the experience of it, but really bugger-all clue about how to do it,” she said. She realised that she would need the help of a scientist. The only one she knew was Dr Easy aka Ian Barry who is a physicist when she really needed a chemist, but beggars can’t be choosers. 

Their first still was a little unusual. It was a glass apparatus which was used in the not hugely successful Samuel L. Jackson film, The 51st State, and Caton picked it up for £100 on Ebay. “We set it up in Easy’s kitchen. Looking back now we were just really dangerous and clueless. But each time you make a mistake you’re like ‘well we won’t do that again!’ and you learn more and more from it,” she explained.

Then she had a lot of fun experimenting. She described the process as like Road Dahl’s book George’s Marvelous Medicine, “everything would go in.” Initial batches were not promising: “They were so overloaded with stuff, they tasted like Domestos. I’m still using that for cleaning around my flat!”

But gradually, through trial and error, she narrowed it down to what she wanted. “Licorice was one of the things that was very early on the list to be booted out, “ she said. She was looking for a classic profile, a gin that tasted like juniper and citrus. Along with Dr Easy, she also called on the palate of top wine writer Johnny Ray who became an investor in the business.

The Brighton Gin team

Oh, they do like to be beside the seaside! (photo by Liz Finlayson/Vervate)

The gin boom!

Horrible early batches weren’t the only problems they encountered. “I popped out for a bag of crisps, which again, I would now never do. I would never leave anything running and just pop out to the corner shop,” she said. “When I came back I discovered what happens when you have windows open, glass and mirrors and quite strong sunlight bouncing around. There was a lot of clearing up to do.” The Samuel L. Jackson still had exploded! Fortunately nobody was hurt.

“I then went down what I now realise is the more sensible route of getting a small copper alembic and really just learning the process of distillation,” Caton said. She found that running the stills slowly got the best results though achieving consistency in the early days was not easy. 

The final recipe uses a “super-smooth organic wheat spirit as the base,” she said, with juniper from Macedonia and coriander seed “from Ringmer just eight or nine miles from where I am at the moment and that’s got quite a lemony spice to it.” They use fresh lime and orange peels, meaning lots of hard peeling work, “but those fresh peels definitely bring a different spectrum of flavour to it really,” she said. They do a cold maceration and then a warm one before distillation with everything in together. Now, though, she has now handed over distilling duties to Paul Revell, “ a former riot copper and also a former prima ballerina.” So Brighton!

Brighton Gin

Strong branding

Brighton belles

Brighton gin hit the shelves in 2013 and had an immediate impact. A delicious product helps as well as a strong brand trading on the town’s image.There can be few more apt places to make gin than Brighton, sharing as they do a seedy sort of glamour. This dates back to when the town was a favourite haunt of the Prince Regent in the late 18th and early 19th century: “the Prince Regent’s favourite breakfast drink, which he called ‘cherry cordial’ was basically a pint of cherry gin. So maraschino liqueur and gin, by the pint.” Caton said.

From the early days, it developed a strong local following and from there it developed into a national brand. It helped having a journalist on board in the form of Johnny Ray who made sure Brighton Gin was served at the Spectator magazine’s famous parties.

Since those heady early days, the gin market has been transformed. Caton said: “There’s been a huge explosion in flavoured and sweetened gins,” which she hopes will get new drinkers into the market. Brighton gin, however, has just stuck to its classic expression with a Seaside Strength version at Navy ABV appearing a couple of years ago. She doesn’t want to release anything unless it is perfect and consistent nor go down the limited edition route. But she hinted that the team is working on a new product, “they’re not ready to shout about it yet but nearly.”

The standard bottling is a wonderful product that manages to be absolutely classic but highly distinctive with its strong orange note. It really is smooth enough to drink neat and so naturally it’s superb in a Dry Martini. Caton said: “Cocktail-wise, I absolutely love and have never really grown out of a Negroni”. It’s a great all round gin making a lovely G&T with a slice of orange to bring out the orange in the botanical mix

Brighton Gin and Tonic

Makes a great G&T

Then comes the lockdown

Their business has changed a lot since the pandemic with the shuttering of the on-trade and not having festivals to go to. She explained: “Our business has been able to change virtually overnight to focus on selling direct to consumers through our website and supporting the off-trade and various other online sellers”. They have been making hand sanitiser as well as making deliveries on their Brighton Gin bikes. “I did quite a lot of public crying delivering to people. I remember delivering to a lovely woman down in Hove who had ordered a couple of bottles and some hand sanitiser and her saying ‘actually I’ve already got five bottles of your gin in my cupboard but I really want to see you all survive and I love what you’re doing with the hand sanitiser’.”

But with things opening up from the 8 March, it looks like the worst will soon be over. “I know that summer is coming again, we will be on the beach again some time!’” Caton said. Amen to that.

Brighton Gin is available from Master of Malt

No Comments on Brighton Gin: spirit of the seaside

Restoring Peerless Whiskey to Kentucky

Peerless Whiskey describes itself as a legacy reborn. But does the Kentucky distillery produce bourbon and rye worthy of its historic name? We find out. There are two main chapters…

Peerless Whiskey describes itself as a legacy reborn. But does the Kentucky distillery produce bourbon and rye worthy of its historic name? We find out.

There are two main chapters to the story of Peerless Distillery. The first starred Henry Kraver, your classic early Kentucky bourbon pioneer. After he purchased the brand in 1899, he spent his reign investing, innovating and merrily making booze. Until he headed into the double trouble of war and Prohibition. A familiar roadblock for many, Peerless eventually succumbed and when the last barrel was sold, it went dormant. 

The second chapter began in 2014, when Kraver’s great-grandson, Corky Taylor, and his son Carson, revived the project. The Taylors constructed a distillery in an abandoned 115-year-old tobacco warehouse in the Bourbon District of downtown Louisville and even got special dispensation to restore Peerless’ old DSP number, KY 50. The team has been producing the good stuff since 2015 an in 2017, a two-year-old rye whiskey became the first whiskey made at a distillery named Peerless for nearly a century. Now, Peerless Rye and Peerless Bourbon make up the core range.

An impressive family history will get you far in this business. But that isn’t what has generated the buzz around Peerless. While there’s a story to tell, there wasn’t a legacy of recipes or a brand profile to follow. The Taylors instead made a decision to take things slow, not purchasing a single drop of whiskey from anyone else and creating a new generation of whiskies that prioritise quality over volume or cost. And it’s paying off. The booze it produces today has received widespread acclaim and picked up a slew of awards.

Caleb Kilburn, master distiller at Peerless Whiskey

Say hello to Caleb Kilburn, master distiller at Peerless Whiskey!

What makes Peerless whiskey unique

In many ways, the new Peerless is embodied as much by master distiller Caleb Kilburn as it is by the family. He grew up on a dairy farm and has no family connections. But his fascination with the science of distilling led him to shadow various producers and a summer job at Peerless. The Taylors were so impressed they invited the young man (he’s only 29 now) to become master distiller. There he had a say in the equipment design and was able to implement his beliefs. “I didn’t have any handcuffs on as a distiller. There was no flavour profile, mash bills, yeast strains, fermentation proofs or even economic concerns to follow. The focus was on crafting something special,” says Kilburn. 

This is the spirit that Peerless whiskey is being made with today. One of Kilburn’s ideals is to ensure the spirit had a low barrel proof (ABV) entry and high bottle strength. This used to be commonplace, but economic factors and a cultural shift towards white spirits in the sixties prompted producers to change tact to achieve a lighter flavour and lower cost. Kilburn, who has a keen understanding of bourbon history, prefers the old way of doing things. “By adding water before maturation rather than after, we’re not diluting the spirit. This way, the water actually becomes an ingredient. It’s a great solvent and really pulls out the caramel and vanilla characteristics,” he says. “So our maximum barrel entry strength is 53.5% ABV and we bottle every whiskey at cask strength without chill-filtration”. 

Another of Kilburn’s beliefs is that sweet mash fermentation creates better booze. The industry standard is sour mash, which involves adding a portion of a prior fermentation batch into the next run. The acidity helps prevent contamination from microorganisms. When bourbon was in its infancy a lack of understanding of microbiology meant it was the only feasible option. “Sour mash produces a consistent, safe mash that makes good whiskey,” Kilburn says. “But there’s also a sour note which gives the process its name that can be magnified in distillation. The workaround was to distil at a higher ABV. But that can cut out some of the fruit, oils and a lot of grain character. It’s a consistent spirit, but it doesn’t have all the flavour that’s on the table”. 

Sweet mash fermentation is key to creating the character of Peerless Whiskey

Sweet mash fermentation is key to creating the character of Peerless Whiskey

Peerless whiskey: flavour comes first

Being a new distillery with no established process, as well as access to equipment and technology that can eliminate contaminants led Kilburn to implement his preferred sweet mash fermentation. That means no recycled stillage, just fresh grains and water fills the brand’s six fermentation tanks, creating sweet, floral and citrus notes. A long, controlled fermentation runs five to six days in order to retain more flavour. Kilburn explains, “Fermenting for two-four days means you get a high volume of alcohol fast. But for a quick ferment, the temperature needs to be high, which stresses the yeast. This produces more heads and tails that you have to cut out.” 

The distillery doesn’t reveal the particulars of its mash bill, but we know it’s a mix of corn, rye and barley. These are grown in the US and malted with Kentucky limestone water. In the bourbon, there’s around 10-15% of both rye and malted barley, but the fermentation character’s floral sweetness keeps the rye’s peppery elements balanced. Similarly, Kilburn ensures the rye isn’t too heavy on its signature grain so the corn’s more grassy, buttery elements shine. Double distillation takes place first in a 26-foot continuous copper still from Vendome Copper & Brass Works which strips the distillate away from the beer. The spirit then goes to a smaller pot still, which creates adds body and weight while allowing Kilburn to work with greater attention to detail so he can more accurately cut the flavours he doesn’t want. 

Peerless also uses a 3,800-gallon beer well which pumps a slurry of grains and alcohol into the column still. It flows down a series of trays and spillways while steam blows up through each level. As that steam blows through the beer, it condenses the water within the steam and boils away the alcohol vapour until it’s roughly 60% ABV at the top of the column. From there it condenses and runs into the pot still. The hearts boil off ahead of tails and the latter is consistently fed back to the beer well to start the process over again, allowing Kilburn to re-distil the discarded spirit and separate the good elements away from the bad (methanol, propanol, butanol and other harsh oils and acids).

"<yoastmark

Peerless by name…

Ageing occurs for a minimum of four years in barrels housed in the Peerless rickhouse on a single-story. Using gimmicks to heat, cool or change the whiskey is out of the question. Kelvin Cooperage supply the casks with a medium toast beneath a number three char. Kilburn says this maximises the red layer of the char. It’s an active layer where the wood’s structure breaks open to allow tannins you can extract during ageing. “This was where a great deal of the colour, flavour and aroma characteristics of the wood comes from, so we have a shallow char to maximise that red layer”. 

Kilburn is understandably excited for the future. Peerless have started looking into different finishes and is already assembling an impressive range of single barrel releases. “I can’t tell you exactly what innovations we’ll be rolling out within the coming years, but there are no restrictions on my creativity with what I can do here. The product just keeps getting better and we’re laying down more and more whiskey all the time in this amazing facility”.

Which is something to look forward too. For now, we have quite enough excitement tasting the Bourbon and Rye, which are just smashing, frankly. The bourbon is mellow, crisp and so beautifully composed. As well as being more Kentucky than any chicken-frying colonel stereotype you can think of. And forget those brash and overly peppery, herbaceous young ryes you’re used to. This is a creamy, deep and complex spirit. It’s also got so much toasty goodness you could sell blankets scented with it. They have both the slightest bit of imbalance in places, but at just four-years-old, these are seriously impressive expressions. So many distilleries are butchering the word craft that it’s losing all sense of meaning. But Peerless is the kind of enterprise we should be reserving it for. I guess they’ll have to make do with calling themselves Peerless.

Peerless Bourbon Small Batch

Peerless Bourbon Small Batch

Nose: There’s brown sugar, chocolate-coated peanuts, golden syrup, posh vanilla ice cream (the kind with the little black specs of vanilla pod in them) and ripe red apples initially. Then lemon mousse, farmhouse loaf, red berries, cola cubes and floral elements. Keep nosing and you’ll find cedar BBQ char, peppermint essential oil and dry earth notes tucked away in different corners of the glass.

Palate: The palate takes its cue from the nose, in that the flavours are clean, well-integrated and persistently interesting. First, there’s toasted oak, butterscotch, cinnamon-dusted almonds and some stewed dark fruits. Underneath there’s earthy red chilli, eucalyptus leaves, wood ash, loose-leaf tobacco, ginger snaps and green tea.

Finish: Warming and of a good length, the finish has hints of cacao powder, dry grass, cookie dough, orchard fruit and the faintest copper penny note.

Peerless Rye Small Batch

Peerless Rye Small Batch

Nose: There’s ripe green apples, cranberry, peanut brittle, buttery vanilla, toasted brown sugar and toffee popcorn bring a wave of complex sweetness while nutmeg, ginger, black pepper add aromatic spice. As it develops there’s orange peel, fennel and baked earth as well as some barrel char. There’s also touches of Dr Pepper, rosewater, Taveners Coconut Mushrooms, fluffy marshmallow and sandalwood in support.

Palate: An impressive variety of flavour emerges from that same core of apple fruitiness, baking spice and nutty woody goodness. Fresh malty rye grains, earthy vanilla, stem ginger and floral honey then emerge. They’re present among touches of chocolate milk, raspberry, black tea and apricots in syrup. Underneath there’s charred pepper, toasted oak and just a handful of dried herbs. 

Finish: Homemade apple juice, salty porridge, marmalade and hints of cedar, clove and menthol linger.

No Comments on Restoring Peerless Whiskey to Kentucky

Five minutes with… John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams

We spoke with head distiller John McCarthy about Adnams’ the grain-to-glass process, being a pioneer British craft distiller and the crucial difference between wash and beer. Oh, and he has…

We spoke with head distiller John McCarthy about Adnams’ the grain-to-glass process, being a pioneer British craft distiller and the crucial difference between wash and beer. Oh, and he has some quite strong views on pink gin.

Created within the Adnams brewery grounds in the picturesque English seaside town of Southwold, the Adnams Copper House Distillery opened in 2010. According to Adnams, it was the first brewery to be legally allowed to install a distillery in the UK. Today, Adnams counts gin, vodka, whisky, cream liqueur and distilled Broadside beer among its spirits. Head distiller John McCarthy has been there since (before) the start so who better to explain the whole thing to us?

Master of Malt: How did you go from an engineer to a head distiller, John?

John McCarthy: I started at Adnams 20 years ago now, in 2001, as an engineer from an electrical background. I came here to look after the electrical stuff that keeps the brewery running. As an engineer, I run projects and a project came along to put a distillery in.

We started talking about it in 2009 and I was deemed the best engineer for the job because I had done some brewing exams. So, I looked into how a distillery works and what you need to do. I did a five-day course in the States, set up by the German stills company, Carl. They were pretty busy in the US at the time, because the craft distillery movement was really taking off. Jonathan Adnams came along with me because it was his idea for the distillery and on the plane home, I asked him who would run it. He said he hadn’t thought about it, so I said, ‘I’ll give it a go’. That was my job interview.

Adnams Copper House Distillery

The lavish stills set-up at the Copper House Distillery

MoM: What was the craft distilling scene in the UK like back then?

JMcC: It was new and exciting. The English Whisky Co. was going, Chase had started. There were very few of us and after that, distilleries were popping up everywhere, within a few years. A lot of people said to me at the time, ‘do you really like all these other distilleries popping up?’ And I thought it was great because the gin category exploded when there was an explosion of gin producers. If there hadn’t been 50 gin distillers, there wouldn’t have been the gin craze. It’s the variety of products that actually caused the craze to happen.

MoM: So, is that what you set out to make first? Gin?

JMcC: Gin first, but Jonathan’s angle, always, is that because we’re a brewer, it’s going to be grain to glass, we’re not going to buy neutral grain spirit. I have used NGS in the past, but only for contract gins, which we make for a couple of different people. We buy NGS for that because the vodka I make to make our gins is quite precious to us, it’s quite labour intensive to make.

MoM: Tell us about the grain to glass process…

With our grain to glass approach, the brewers had to learn to make a distillery wash. There are differences that happen in the brewhouse. When you mix your malted barley or whatever grains you’re using with warm water, you’re getting enzymes to break down the starches into sugars. When you brew beer, you want that to be at a certain temperature so you get a make-up of sugars that are fermentable and non-fermentable, you want long chain sugars like dextrin, because you want sweetness. And you want sugars that are smaller, like maltose and glucose, which will ferment into alcohol. You want alcohol, but you also need to retain some sugars that will not ferment. That’s beer. When you make a distillery wash, you want it all to be fermentable because you can’t distil sugar – you’re just wasting starch.

Barrels at Adnams Copper House Distillery

Wood experimentation in an important part of McCarthy’s job

MoM: Speaking of beer, how’s Spirit of Broadside doing? Have you made spirits from any of the other beer brands?

JMcC: We haven’t. Lots of people love Spirit of Broadside but the problem we have is it’s a hard sell. We basically did it as a stepping stone to making whisky. It helped us to have a brown spirit early on. We’ve still got some, we still make it. The big advantage of having our own shops is we can get people to try it before they buy it.

MoM: Rumour has it you use a pretty interesting yeast strain…

JMcC: Adnams yeast is two different strains, which we’ve had since about 1940. They are called class one and class three and we like to have 50% of each. If we have 50% of class one and class three, we get good, steady, vigorous fermentation – a good performance. We get the right amount of alcohol, everything’s lovely. If it gets out of 50/50, then we get problems: stuck fermentations, cloudy beer, all sorts. The problem we have is class one is a chain-forming yeast – it is very vigorous, and dominant. Class three (you can see the difference under a microscope) is ones and twos [as opposed to chains] and it is not so strong, it tends to get dominated by the other one. So, we have to propagate class three and do regular yeast counts. That’s the yeast we use for everything. And it’s free!

John McCarthy head distiller Adnams

John McCarthy in action at the Adnams Copper House Distillery

MoM: Adnams is also known for its wine business – are you doing anything exciting in the distillery with wine casks?

JMcC: We filled some Port and sherry casks with new make. They’ve been laid down for five years now. We have our three whiskies – our rye, a triple malt and a single malt. The single malt has gone into the sherry and Port casks, which I’m keeping. I’m into the idea that we need to do special releases. I want to do distiller’s choice-type releases, where I’ll just pick a single cask and bottle it. The sherry and Port might go for that.

I did buy some TGS (tight grain selection) barrels. They cost an awful lot of money but the tight grain, apparently, in the fine wine industry, gives a more refined wine, it just takes a lot longer to get there. So, I bought some of those to see what they did with spirits. I’ve got an experiment that’s been going with those for about seven years now. I’ve not even tried it. I will soon.

I’d say over 90% of the barrels I buy have never been used – freshly made and freshly toasted, straight from the cooperage in France. We do fill some ex-bourbon because our single malt is a blend of French oak and ex-bourbon, 66:33. If this distiller’s choice idea kicks off, I will buy some wine barrels to do some finishes in.

We’ve also made one barrel, about eight years ago now, of brandy from locally grown grapes. There’s a vineyard about 14 miles away from here and I bought a couple of thousand litres of wine off them and distilled that into brandy. Suffolk grapes making Suffolk brandy. It is a mix of Seyval Blanc and a bit of Müller-Thurgau.

Adnams Copper House Distillery

Southwold’s famous lighthouse reflected in a still window

MoM: Any other future plans you want to share?

JMcC: I’d like to grow whisky. I think English whisky is going to be a thing. There are around 20 people making whisky in England and Wales. So, it would be nice to get together and become a category. We’ll continue with gin, we’re doing seasonal gins. To come up with another great gin is always a good thing.

MoM: Do you think gin has still got legs?

JMcC: I think it’s on the wane. I don’t think that’s an issue, I think that’s probably a good thing. There are some gins that I don’t agree with – pink gin.  Hold my hands up, I make a pink gin but I try to make a pink gin that still tastes like a gin. There are a lot of gins out there that don’t. You can’t really call them gins but they’ve got gin on the label. I know the WSTA and the Gin Guild are working very hard to get rid of some of those.

MoM: Do you do any alcohol-free spirits?

I have played with it. I thought I ought to find out because someone is one day going to say, ‘John, make an alcohol-free spirit’, and I need to know how to do it. But we did some research and there really isn’t much money in it. It’s not a big category. There’s a lot of shouting about it, though.

MoM: What has been the biggest surprise when it comes to distillery life?

JMcC: How much fun it has been. When you’re an engineer, you just get called to install stuff and fix stuff. Going from that to actually being someone who makes something and gets good feedback for things I’ve made, or a recipe – that’s one of the highlights.

MoM: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

JMcC: I’d probably still be an engineer. I’d be fixing someone else’s distillery, on my hands and knees in a puddle.

The Adnams spirits range is available from Master of Malt.

No Comments on Five minutes with… John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams

Master of Malt tastes… Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky!

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky launches tomorrow, so we thought we’d let you know what to expect from one of the most anticipated releases of the year.  No matter how many…

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky launches tomorrow, so we thought we’d let you know what to expect from one of the most anticipated releases of the year. 

No matter how many times you see a distillery release its inaugural whisky, it never stops being exciting. When that whisky distillery is the first to be built on Skye in 190 years and only the second legal site to operate on the island, that really ramps up the anticipation. Torabhaig has been firmly on whisky fans’ radar ever since the plans to build it were announced. At long last, its first expression, Torabhaig Legacy 2017, is here. Well, it is tomorrow. Keep your eye out on the MoM blog for details of how you might be able to get hold of a bottle (UPDATE: The post is now live).

A peak behind the curtain

Today, we’re going to look at how this whisky was made, how this production process has influenced its profile and review the spirit itself. But before we get to that, the first thing to note about this release is how Torabhaig is doing things a little differently. The inaugural whisky is not a permanent expression. Instead, it will be the first of four bottlings in the Legacy Series which will straddle Torabhaig’s formative years until a single malt that has been aged for ten years (which we can expect to see in 2028) is ready. That means that what we’re tasting today is more of a peek behind the curtain. The brand is letting us see the process of its whisky’s evolution into what will eventually become its signature style.

Neil Mathieson, chief executive at Mossburn Distillers, the company behind Torabhaig, explains that since production began in January 2017 various changes have been implemented to achieve the ideal style. Over the last four years, the distillers have experimented with the peating levels, yeast and barley varieties (single farmer’s grain and speciality malts etc.), the effect of the harvest and how the mashing, fermentation and distillation process affects the Torabhaig spirit. “For the first few years we’ll be possibly surprising ourselves and hoping that everybody enjoys the journey,” he says. 

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

Are you excited to try Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky?

Mathieson reveals the initial inspiration for Torabhaig whisky was the earthy, vegetal aromas of Lagavulin and the piercing phenolics on the Laphroaig. The intention was never to make a whisky that tasted like Talisker. “There is room on the island for two distinct styles. It would be a great privilege to be spoken of in the same tone as Talisker, however, because they are a standard-bearer”.

Constantly evolving process

Through this constantly evolving process, the brand has defined its ideal profile as an island-style malt whisky with “well-tempered” peat profile and a fruit-forward character that’s been “shaped by Skye”; the factors contributing to this are pure island spring water sourced from the Allt Breacach and the Allt Gleann burns and the tempestuous climate the maturation takes place in. We’ll see elements of this in the first release, but Mathieson also says that peatiness is even more gentle than people might expect and that we won’t see this profile again since then the grain and phenol levels have since been changed. “The next two releases are looking like they will be heavier in peat”. 

That gentler quality was influenced by the shape and size of the 8000-litre wash still and 5000-litre spirit still made by Forsyths of Rothes, which have traditional downward sloping lyne arms and condensers but a wider neck than typical. This adds an element of reflux which allows aromatic phenols and a more gentle flavour to come through, according to Mathieson. It was built this way due to height restrictions within the distillery, which is housed in a listed 200-year-old farmstead.

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

The beautiful Torabhaig Distillery is on the site of a 19th-century farmstead

The site for Torabhaig was actually chosen by Sir Iain Noble, who founded Pràban na Linne in 1976 (we have an article from Ian Buxton coming up delving further into this story). Sadly, Noble passed in 2010 before he could see his plan through and Mossburn Distillers took advantage of the established planning permission. Work began in July 2014, but it was a complicated construction (the roof had to be removed to get the stills in and the master stonemason actually ended up living there during the rebuild). The reward for patience and perseverance, however, was a scenic distillery that’s rich in history and local lore, which will surely appeal to tourists and whisky geeks alike. 

How the whisky is made and matured

The latter will be intrigued to learn that all of Torabhaig’s barley is sourced from Scotland and is milled on-site on a roller mill and then mashed in the 1.5-tonne capacity mash tun. The grain is currently peated to at least 75ppm, an increase for the initial 60-65ppm standard. In order to attain a more full-bodied, peaty profile, the dominant barley strain was also changed, from Concerto to Laureate, as has the strain of yeast and fermentation times. Fermentation currently lasts between 70-100 hours, on some runs as long as 120, in eight traditional Douglas fir wooden washbacks. There’s also a cooling pond on-site, which is a method of cooling hot water from the condensers before it’s returned to the river not often seen anymore. 

As for maturation, more than 50% of Torabhaig whisky is currently being aged in first-fill bourbon casks and the remaining percentage is predominantly refill. The wood programme also includes Port, Madeira, Cognac, Sauternes, Bordeaux wine and virgin European oak casks between the 200-500-litres in size, however. Each batch produces 80-100 barrels, and once you account for grain and yeast variations as well as the various cask styles Mathieson estimates there are about 40 different profiles of Torabhaig whisky currently maturing. The spread of warehouses includes dunnaged, racked and palletised, so Mathieson says an assessment on what effect these different styles of storage have will be undertaken in the coming years.

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

Iona Macphie, one of the nine distillers who make Torabhaig whisky

All of this work is overseen by a total of nine distillers. Initially an experienced team of consultant brewers, distillers and malts men helped the apprentices learn the craft while they studied and achieved their qualifications before all nine were ready to take on the roles themselves. This remarkable approach was informed by a desire for a team who understood every stage of production, which in turn breeds an environment of constant experimentation and innovation. Mathieson says the influence of each distiller is profound. They’ll each have their names printed on the labels and he hopes they’ll all stay to see through the full maturation of their own distillate.

First impressions

This brings us to the whisky itself: Torabhaig Legacy 2017. It’s a single vintage expression aged solely in ex-bourbon from the first quarter’s distillation made with Concerto barley and Pinnacle MG+ yeast. The label also informs us that the in-grain phenols are 55ppm and the residual phenols are 16ppm. It was bottled at 46% ABV and there are just over 3,000 bottles available in the UK. 

The first thing you notice about Torabhaig Legacy 2017 is that it’s not full of youthful aggression or imbued with too much wood character to give the impression of more years in cask. Instead, there’s a harmonious balance of the distillery’s fresh and fruity new make character with the influence of first-fill bourbon barrels and a tonne of coastal characteristics which give it the sense of a good young island dram. It’s every bit as gentle and mellow as we were told to expect, however, and this does mean it lacks some presence and texture initially. Give it time and let it breathe though, and complexity is your reward. All in all, it’s a very promising first chapter for Torabhaig.

 

Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky

Look, it’s Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky!

Torabhaig Legacy 2017 tasting notes:

Nose: Whispers of coastal peat pass through vanilla and a rich, warming apple note, like the inside of a freshly baked crumble. There’s also wet oak, limestone, mineral salts, seaweed, cockle brine, dried grass and a slight vegetal element among a very pleasant note of sherbet lemons. Underneath there are touches of toasted almond, darker fruits, sugary latte, white pepper and toffee.

Palate: The peat is more pronounced here and has an ashy profile with a touch of iodine. More briny sweetness and orchard fruit (apples and pears mostly) are present too, as well as notes of tinned apricots, wild herbs, fennel, brown bread with salted butter, shellfish doused in lemon juice and freshly cracked black pepper. Throughout there are some light floral and medicinal elements, while the cask adds flavours of vanilla, banana and roasted nuts.

Finish: The finish is lightly charred with wood smoke and has plenty of that salty, seaside charm (cockle brine, rock pools etc.) There’s also browning apples, eucalyptus, a little chewy liquorice and dark fruit.

6 Comments on Master of Malt tastes… Torabhaig Distillery’s first whisky!

The new faces of absinthe

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and…

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and why the category might just surprise you.

Among my taxidermy collection are a mouse with a Jacobean collar (Blackadder), a Victorian menagerie of hummingbirds (The Jackson Five) and a sleeping mouse (Cheese). None of them, however, come close to the specimens that inhabit absinthe parlour, The Last Tuesday Society, in Hackney. One of my last visits to the curio-stuffed absinthe bar saw me take a perch next to a stuffed lion called Leonora (see header) sitting upright and wearing a red top hat. Directors Allison Crawbuck and Rhys Everett sure know how to do whimsy.

They also know how to make absinthe, having just opened London’s first absinthe distillery. It’s where they make Devil’s Botany from a small base in Leyton, using British wheat base spirit and 14 botanicals, including grand wormwood, green anise, devil’s claw root, meadowsweet and elderflower.

It’s part of a new wave of absinthes that includes Hendrick’s version, launched in 2019, which join more established brands such as St George and, of course, La Fée in changing people’s perceptions of this misunderstood, historically demonised and enigmatic spirit.

Yet, there’s still plenty of work to do. Those stories of hallucinations, green fairies and setting sugar cubes on fire still abound, and it’s ban for nearly a century, in the US in 1912, France in 1915 and the rest of Europe, hasn’t done its reputation many favours. But a world-wide repeal throughout the early noughties led to its re-emergence.

With so much history, ritual and romance, not to mention famous drinkers including Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, it’s a category that home drinkers are starting to rediscover. So fix yourself a Death in the Afternoon, pop some Piaf on the record player and settle in.

Alison Crawbuck & Rhys Everett Devil's Botany Absinthe

Rhys Everett & Alison Crawbuck enjoying a glass of absinthe

A new horizon

“It’s always been the dream,” explains Crawbuck when I ask her why she and Everett decided to make their own absinthe. “We opened the bar in 2016, importing our absinthes from other artisanal distillers in Switzerland and France, sharing their stories, learning from their history, and seeing where we could make our own mark.”

It was important for them to highlight the complexity of absinthe, converting the naysayers who voice their dislike of aniseed and showing that there is so much more beyond it. “Our research found lots of 18th century recipes for herbal elixirs, so it was a mixture of finding out what went into the absinthe and making sure that we’re using botanicals used pre-ban and creating our own twist on it,” says Everett. “We chose herbs that grow around Hackney Marshes, but also those that make a difference to the absinthe to give it a more unique flavour. That’s how we landed on elderflower and meadowsweet.”

They also wanted to highlight the ‘bleue’ (clear) style of absinthe, as opposed to the more famous ‘verte’, which originated in Switzerland and was perfected during absinthe’s ban to cleverly trick officials looking for the giveaway green liquid. The absinthe also ‘louches’, turning a beautifully milky white on impact with water, a mark of a high-quality absinthe.

Someone else who has a keen eye on absinthe is Lesley Gracie. She may be better known for being the master distiller for Hendrick’s Gin, but 2019 saw the bar world in a frenzy when she presented them with the brand’s very first absinthe. 

From her lab up in Girvan, she set herself the challenge of creating one that showed the best of star anise, but also made it approachable – not to mention giving people a lower ABV.

“The way that we produce gin is very similar to how you make absinthe,” she explained. After all, absinthe is also a botanical spirit. “I really like absinthe, but some of them that are out there are so strong: if you have something at 70% ABV, you drink it and your ears melt and fall off. We pulled the strength down to 48% abv which means that when somebody makes a cocktail with it, they can pour a proper measure and really allow that flavour to shine through.”

The La Fee absinthe green room

The La Fee green room

The great re-awakening

None of this would have been possible without the help of a chap called George Rowley. The brand owner of La Fée, which was launched in 2000, also helped kickstart the repeal of absinthe’s ban in Europe. I (virtually) meet him in The Green Room, the very square footage where it all happened.

In the late 1990s, he set about making his own absinthe. He travelled to France to meet Marie-Claude Delahaye, owner of Musée de l’Absinthe to discuss how to go about it. It didn’t go well. “A week later I decided to write her a letter that said, ‘I understand where you’re coming from and we know absinthe is legally banned in France, but if we could find a distillery that used to make absinthe would you be the source of the recipe from the museum so we could guarantee that what we were selling was real absinthe?’ She agreed.”

And so La Fée was born. It was launched at The Groucho Club, helmed by none other than legendary bartender Dick Bradsell who chose Bohemian Sours to showcase it. Fast-forward 21 years and Rowley has just added a new 20cl version of his Parisienne bottling to the collection. It comes complete with an autopourer (for a fuss-free serve) and a menu including cocktails such as the French Mojito, Spider Highball and the La Fee Sour. Drinks that bring absinthe into the 21st century.

The French Mojito made with La Fee absinthe

The French Mojito made with La Fee

Expect the unexpected

Crawbuck too suggests simpler drier serves a world away from the traditional ritual of resting a slotted spoon with a sugar cube on top of an absinthe-filled glass and slow-pouring water over the top. “For the home bartender, absinthe as a Spritz is a great afternoon pick me up,” suggests Crawbuck. “It’s a time and setting most people don’t think to have absinthe, sitting in the sun, but it works, especially with our recipe being floral and herbaceous.”

Jenny Griffiths, previously manager at absinthe-bar Croque Monsieur, champions Spritzes too, switching vermouth or amaro with absinthe and adding a dry wine and some fruit. She also found a myriad of other ways to transform classic recipes into something a bit different with the help of absinthe. The Absinthe Grasshopper was popular “despite how boozy that drink should have been”, while a twist on the traditional fountain brought with it some refreshment: “We filled the water part with cucumber and the smallest bit of sugar and rose liqueur. That always went down really well,” she said.

Strawberry and vanilla are flavours that Kelley Hill of The Distillery London picks out as unlikely bedfellows of absinthe. She’s created the Lady Claire, 40ml Chase Rhubarb, 10ml absinthe, 10ml Byrrh, 10ml crème de cassis, 1 bar spoon strawberry jam, shaken and double-strained into a coupe as well as the Pulp Fiction, a mix of Portobello 171, absinthe, cloudy apple, lemon juice, black grapes and mint, designed to share Pimm’s-style in a jug.

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

For bar manager of FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir, creating a frozen absinthe cocktail is an intriguing idea. That or a Daisy: “something quite light that if you found the right gin, you could play around with something bright and zingy. Like grapefruit, which would work with the floral notes in absinthe in quite a pronounced way,” she said.

If there’s a cardinal rule for Rowley though, absinthe should be drunk with ice, and lots of it.

“The activator within any drink with absinthe is the ice, the water acts as a catalyst for all the flavours.” He should know; he’s drunk absinthe every week for the last 21 years. I doff my drinking partner’s red top hat to him.

No Comments on The new faces of absinthe

The history of Beefeater gin

What stories lie behind famous drinks brands? In the first of a new series, Lucy Britner looks into the history of Beefeater gin from its foundation by James Burrough in…

What stories lie behind famous drinks brands? In the first of a new series, Lucy Britner looks into the history of Beefeater gin from its foundation by James Burrough in 1876 to the launch of a new 20% ABV light version earlier this year. 

The year is 1876. Tchaikovsky has just finished Swan Lake, Alexander G. Bell is applying for the telephone patent and James Burrough has created Beefeater gin.

Early days in Chelsea

Devon-born Burrough, a chemist by trade, purchased the Cale Street distillery in Chelsea for the princely sum of £400, back in 1863. He embarked on making liqueurs, fruit gins and punches and counted Fortnum & Mason among his customers.

About 13 years after he set up shop, the first mention of Beefeater, named after the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, is said to have been recorded in the company’s papers.

Burrough died in 1897, aged 62, leaving his sons to run the business.

James Burrough founder of Beefeater Gin

James Burrough founder of Beefeater Gin

Move to South London

The Burrough boys must’ve been doing a pretty good job because by 1908, the distillery had relocated to Lambeth. The new site, which retained the Cale Street name, was equipped with the very latest stills, allowing for increased production. According to local historians, the new site also gave the company access to a well, capable of supplying London water with the right taste profile for the company’s gins.  

Beefeater poured out of Lambeth for 50 years but by 1958, the distillery had outgrown its surrounds and the Burroughs sought new premises. They relocated to the old Haywards Military Pickle factory at Montford Place in Kennington – the same site the distillery occupies today.

Conquering America

Advertising campaigns from the late ‘50s show that Beefeater had established itself as a premium brand: “A little more to pay, a little more to enjoy”, reads a UK campaign from 1959. And the following decade, the gin was enjoying success Stateside. According to the company, Beefeater made up “three out of every four bottles of gin imported into the US”. Then, in 1963, it was the only gin selected to be on board the maiden voyage of the QEII to New York.

The Burrough family sold Beefeater to Whitbread, the brewing giant, in 1987. From there it went to another behemoth, Allied Domecq, before coming under the ownership of Pernod Ricard in 2005 – as part of Pernod’s £7.4bn acquisition of Allied Domecq. The purchase catapulted Pernod onto the world stage, as the second-largest global drinks company after Diageo.

Desmond Payne, Beefeater Gin

Master distiller Desmond Payne enjoying a Gibson (photo credit: Chivas Bros.)

Desmond Payne, gin royalty

Along with both Plymouth and Beefeater, Pernod also inherited a man who has come to be a bona fide gin legend – and synonymous with the Beefeater brand: Desmond Payne. After 24 years at Plymouth, Payne returned to London in 1995 to make Beefeater. And he’s still there today. In fact, Payne’s life in gin was recognised in the 2018 New Years Honours list, when the master distiller received an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for services to the British gin industry.

Payne and his team have created many expressions of Beefeater over the years, as the brand looks to keep up with the fashions.

London wet gin?

Before the gin boom really took hold, the company went against the ‘Dry’ terminology associated with its London Dry Gin, to launch Beefeater Wet, in 1999. The gin-based drink was described as “sweeter and more fruity” and flavoured with pear essence. Although I’ve never tried it (it was discontinued ages ago), I’ll wager it was designed to appeal to the vodka drinker.

Almost a decade later, by 2008, the gin movement was gathering pace and Beefeater’s ‘Forever London’ marketing campaign cemented the brand at the heart of the London gin scene. In the same year, Payne created Beefeater 24 – a super premium brand extension, named after the 24 hours it takes to steep the gin’s botanicals. 

The Burrough name has never been far away from Beefeater and in 2013, Payne released Burrough’s Reserve. The gin, which is designed for sipping, was “rested” in Jean de Lillet oak barrels, giving it a straw-coloured hue. (Incidentally, the Burrough name is also connected to another well-known London gin maker – James Burrough was the great grandfather of Christopher Hayman and the Hayman family have been distilling gin ever since.)

Beefeater Distillery in Kennington, South London

Beefeater Distillery in Kennington, South London

Beefeater becomes a tourist attraction

But back to our story, and in 2014, a multi-million pound visitor centre opened at the Kennington distillery, marking what Pernod Ricard claimed at the time was the first gin distillery in London to have a visitor centre attached. (How times have changed!) To coincide with the opening, Payne created Beefeater London Garden gin, which was available only at the distillery.

Constant innovation

The following year, Beefeater relaunched Crown Jewel as a “thank you” to bartenders who lobbied the company for the 50% ABV gin’s return. The gin, which first appeared in the early ’90s, featured the same botanicals as Beefeater, though with the addition of grapefruit.

Innovation marches hand-in-hand with consumer trends and in 2018, Beefeater blushed: the launch of Beefeater Pink saw the addition of natural strawberry flavour to citrus and classic juniper botanicals. “Beefeater Pink really captures what gin has become, a modern, vibrant, colourful and innovative category, where consumers are not afraid to challenge the classics and conventions,” said Beefeater brand director Eric Sampers at the time.

Since then, we’ve seen the likes of Blood Orange and Blackberry join the flavour ranks and in answer to the low- and no-alcohol trend, the company released Beefeater Light. The 20% ABV product was launched in Spain only earlier this year. So far, it hasn’t appeared in the UK but never say never.

In the most recent results announcement, for the six months to the end of 2020, the Beefeater brand saw sales decline 20% on the same period a year prior. It’s a tough comparison to make, though, given the world has changed so much in that time; this is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Spanish bar and restaurant market where the brand had a dominant position. 

The company did, however, say that flavours were proving popular. And as if by magic, Beefeater Peach & Raspberry has just joined the fold. According to Pernod, it is “inspired by two historic recipes from founder, James Burrough, who created Peach Liqueur and Raspberry Gin in the 1800s”.

Beefeater 24

Beefeater 24 premium gin

No Comments on The history of Beefeater gin

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search