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Category: Features

Sherry – the bartender’s secret weapon

Sherry shouldn’t be sitting at the back of the cupboard gathering dust. From sweet PX to bone dry fino, sherry’s incredible variety makes it a great friend when mixing drinks,…

Sherry shouldn’t be sitting at the back of the cupboard gathering dust. From sweet PX to bone dry fino, sherry’s incredible variety makes it a great friend when mixing drinks, says bartender Nate Brown. And don’t turn your nose up at Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

I think it fair to say that Mummy Brown had a few of-the-moment tastes: she dressed me in red corduroys and a knitted green jumper, (which when matched with my hair made me look like a 3ft broken traffic light). She married my Dad when he had a mullet. She made a mean pasta salad: tinned sweetcorn, salad cream and all. Her favourite dessert was pavlova. And, most worryingly of all, her Sunday afternoon staple was a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

She made me pour it for her every week as she cooked the customary roast dinner. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I indulged in a sneaky taste. It was somehow both syrupy and sharp, bitter and sweet. It burned my throat despite it’s modest ABV. I hated it and could not for the life of me understand why she chose to drink it. Although, as this habit was partaken shortly after enduring a Church sermon, I assumed it was some sort of penance. The road to perdition it seemed, was drenched in Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, pouring vermouth, thinking about sherry

Fast forward two decades and what was my attitude then seems to be the general consumer attitude now. Mention the word ‘sherry’ to guests in a bar and you’ll likely garner little more than a smirk and a comment about diabetes.  Even the Spanish shun it.

How embarrassingly wrong we all are. Fools, the lot of us.

Is there a booze product out there with a worse, less deserved reputation? Not on your nelly. Even the worst regarded consumables have a serve that lifts them from the depths of disgrace. Tequila? Sure, mass market brands are pretty much widely regarded as nasty. But even cheap Tequila has the Margarita escape act. Absinthe? Still has the association with the Bohemians and mad artists. Sherry’s equivalent doesn’t extend further than lobbing it in a trifle. Ouch.

And yet, I’d argue there isn’t a category on the market better suited to current trends and tastes. Its low ABV backbone, crisp, unapologetic flavours, the variety of styles and expressions (Lustau alone has over 40), and the smaller, friendlier bottle sizes. Sherry is the complete package. You can keep your bitters, this is my bartender’s ketchup.

Take the rising low-ABV zeitgeist. Two years ago if you asked for a Bamboo cocktail you’d have the bartender sneaking off to google it. Today, it’s a staple on the menu of the pioneering Mint Gun Club and ordering one across town has become something of a bartender’s handshake. Simply mix one part dry vermouth with one part dry sherry. Serve stirred down, or over ice. Add orange bitters if you really must, but none in mine thanks. The base provided by the sherry gives license for the aromatics of the vermouth to sing. Prebottle the serve if you like and take it to the park. Just remember, the fresher the better.

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, makers of fine manzanilla

Remember Pedrino, those fino and tonic RTDs (ready to drinks)? Ahead of their time. Fresh fino and decent tonic is as good as any G&T I’ve ever had. But a word of advice: if the dry sherry in the bar fridge (or worse bar shelf) has been sat there for longer than a month and no longer excites the sides of your tongue, throw it away (or in a trifle?). It’s not expensive, anyway.

Not in the mood for a refreshing serve? Take a trip over to the other end of the dry sherry spectrum. Guests are moving further and further away from the dreaded sugary profiles whilst still loving the darker end of drinking. We are seeing low sugar versions of everything, none of which quite fills the void the sweetness has left behind in our cocktails. In steps oloroso with its ‘hold my beer’ attitude. The oxidative ageing has allowed sweet notes to perpetuate without any of the sugar remaining. Look at the descriptors used: walnut, caramel, cocoa nibs, rich orange, this is the equivalent of fat free chocolate cake that actually tastes delicious. How is this not a game changer?

Add a splash of oloroso to your stirred down and brown recipes. 15ml will give your Rum Old Fashioneds dryness and depth. 5ml in a Manhattan will clean up the otherwise cloying finish. Heck, even bung it in a Highball for savoury accents.  

As for PX, the raisiny plump and jolly cousin? It isn’t just for Christmas. Some of these can be over 40% residual sugar, making it pretty much a sugar syrup when used correctly (read sparingly). Stick it in a dash bottle and add a few drops to make a richer Whisky Mac, or Rob Roy. In fact put it in nearly everything richer, I don’t care, just don’t be embarrassed to love it.

Manhattan

I said sherry, not cherry! A drop of oloroso will take your Manhattan to the next level

But best of all is the Martini. Taken more as a style than a recipe, the oh-so-cool King of Cocktails can be opened up to an endless catalogue of variations. Which is appropriate given that gin is no longer a singular profile. Forget the wet or dry, olive or zest approach. Instead, try three parts dry gin to one part fino or manzanilla sherry. Keep the gin classic and green, like Plymouth. Try it before you garnish it. You’ll probably end up going without the fruit. The saline, umami sherry will cleanse your Martini adding more structure and bite than even a fresh vermouth ever could. This is how Martinis are meant to be.

And as for Harvey’s Bristol Cream? That lonely, dusty, ocean blue bottle in the back of the drinks cabinet? It is essentially a blend of all the types of sherry that a bodega produces. Think of it less of slop bucket and more of a team effort. Serve it over ice with an orange slice. Honestly, just try it. It’s bloody delicious. It’s still simultaneously bitter and sweet, syrupy and sharp. Only now it’s everything I could ask for. You’ll thank me for this.

This isn’t so much a revolution as a renaissance. Looks like, as with everything, Mummy Brown was right all along.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

 

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The new faces of alcohol-free

The alcohol-free category is evolving, shaped by growing interest in sustainability, natural, ethically-sourced ingredients, and a penchant for pre- and post-dinner cocktails. We take a look at the new wave…

The alcohol-free category is evolving, shaped by growing interest in sustainability, natural, ethically-sourced ingredients, and a penchant for pre- and post-dinner cocktails. We take a look at the new wave of booze-free botanical aperitifs…

“Sustainability is fascinating because it can mean so many things,” observes bar owner, bartender and conservation biologist Paul Mathew. “Two of our bars, The Hide and The Arbitrager, only serve things brewed, fermented or distilled in London – so the concept of sustainability there is about locally-sourced. Whether it’s reducing the amount of single-use plastics in the bar, switching to sustainable energy, using wonky fruit and veg, or upcycling citrus husks for a zero-waste approach to ingredients, it’s great that sustainability is such an integral part of the conversation we’re having in the industry now.”

Paul Mathew

The man himself, Mr Paul Matthew!

When Mathew embarked on the project that would eventually become responsibly-sourced aperitif Everleaf, he set out to create a non-alcoholic drink with body and texture, something he felt other booze-free brands were missing. “Whenever we talk about wine, beer, spirits and cocktails, we talk about mouthfeel and texture in the same way as the colour, aroma and flavour, so for me it was an important missing part,” he says. “I wanted to make something that has a beginning, middle and end – from light and aromatic through to bitter and long.”

A hot, creamy drink traditional to Turkey and the Middle East made with herbs and spices, and thickened with powdered orchid root drew Mathew’s attention. Salep was popular in London centuries ago, he says, but fell out of favour when tea and coffee became popular. “I dug up some test orchids from Dad’s garden – he’s a botanist – dehydrated and ground them, before mixing with herbs and spices until I got the texture and flavour I was looking for,” he says. “When I tried to scale it, I couldn’t find any sustainable sources for orchid tubers. With a little more research, I found the same thickening components in voodoo lily, so it seemed the perfect solution.”

He spent a year researching, sourcing, dehydrating, macerating and extracting various plants to perfect the final recipe, which contains vanilla from the north-east of Madagascar, saffron from Spain, cassia from south-east Asia, iris from Italy, vetiver from Haiti, angelica and liquorice from Europe, quassia from Central America, gum arabic from Senegal, Peruvian pepper from Peru, and voodoo lily from China, among others – 18 botanicals in total.

Everleaf, looking very classy

“There were a few ingredients I really wanted in there,” Mathew says. “My father wrote two of the definitive works on iris and crocus while I was growing up, so the smell of saffron and orris root are really emotive for me. I wanted vanilla for mid-palate sweetness and gentian for bitterness at the finish. Most of the other ingredients filled the gaps between the beginning-middle-end parts of the flavour profile, making it a journey across your palate rather than start-stop. The flavours should develop like they do in a good wine.”

To make Everleaf, Mathew heats voodoo lily and gum arabic, to make a textured base, to which he adds the botanicals. The resulting mix is rested before bottling. “Each of the botanical ingredients is made in the best way to obtain the natural characters I’m looking for from the plant,” he says. “The saffron is a maceration, for example, as is the vanilla. The orris is a tincture, the fennel seed a vacuum distillate, and vetiver an essential oil distillation – as it is made for perfumery.”

There’s no question that Mathew’s travels as a conservation biologist shaped his vision. Much of his work focused on “conservation through adding value” – making natural ecosystems work for people so that they want to look after them. “If you can find a high-value crop that makes a forest worth more in the long-term rather than as timber in the short term, people will want to look after it,” he explains. “Similar to Fairtrade principles, if you pay a higher price for vanilla grown under natural forest shade rather than under netting after the forest has been cleared, hopefully more will be protected.”

For Everleaf, sourcing is key. His vetiver, for example, hails from a Haitian project that protects communities and their livelihoods through reforestation, food security and empowering local women. “We’re trying to ensure that everything we get for Everleaf leaves a positive impact on the people and places it comes from,” Mathew explains. “We’re also working out how to offset the carbon produced in the supply chain so that we can be carbon positive – in a way that benefits biodiversity as well as emissions.”

Aecorn Bitter Spritz

Aecorn Bitter Spritz

A huge part of the sustainability focus echoing throughout the industry has been the burgeoning trend for locally-sourced ingredients – something newcomer Aecorn Aperitifs is channeling with its range of alcohol-free aperitifs made from English grapes. As the sister brand of alcohol-free spirit Seedlip, which was launched by Ben Branson back in 2015, the ethos behind Aecorn is to “work within the realms of what’s familiar”, says co-founder Clare Warner, “but create our own rules about what you can do with something non-alcoholic”.  

Inspired by the trend for low-abv drinking, aromatised wines and the rise of the aperitif, the duo set about creating a range of alcohol-free cocktail modifiers. When Bransen created Seedlip, he took inspiration from a 17th century manuscript called the Art of Distillation. “We went back into that book and found a recipe for acorn wine,” says Warner. “The recipe read exactly like an aromatised wine. It contained all the ingredients you would expect in a vermouth, plus acorns.”

Many traditional European aperitifs had a wine base, she adds. “Looking back at the 16th and 17th century we were consuming a lot of verjus in the UK, before we had citrus, and also when we had a lot of grapes”. Today, the supply is not quite so abundant – sourcing an English verjus was tricky to say the least, but eventually the duo found a producer who grows grapes specifically to make the acidic, complex juice, and foraged acorns from oak trees across the UK.

Aecorn range

The complete Aecorn range

Together, Warner and Bransen set about aromatising the verjus and acorns along with other herbs, roots and bitter botanicals to create the three-strong range: Dry, which embodies a dry vermouth; Aromatic, which resembles a sweet vermouth; and Bitter, in the style of a classic bitter aperitif.

While bartenders have been busy experimenting with Aecorn in weird and wonderful ways – the range features in both low- and no-alcohol drinks at London’s Lyaness – Warner recognises the desire to create complex, great-tasting drinks at home. “If you’re a bartender you’ve got all the tools at your disposal, if you’re a chef you’ve got the kitchen, but at home you’re limited in terms of what you can do,” she says. “We wanted to create a range of aperitif-style products that opens up the possibilities for [alcohol-free] classic cocktails but equally if you’re at home and just want to add ice and soda to create a spritz, then you can do that too.”

 

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Watch out, Islay – Team MoM is Fèis Ìle-bound!

It’s that time of year again, folks – and we’re buzzing. Fèis Ìle is just around the corner, we’re going to Islay for the frivolities, and here’s how you can…

It’s that time of year again, folks – and we’re buzzing. Fèis Ìle is just around the corner, we’re going to Islay for the frivolities, and here’s how you can join in!

Ah, Islay. It really is a whisky-lover’s paradise. We returned to the Isle after a significant hiatus last year, and we loved it so much we bounced right back. In fact, two of our number are already on the road!

The best part? Whether you’re on the island for Fèis Ìle or not, we really, really want to make you part of the action. Why? Because whisky is way more fun when it’s shared. How?! Read on, friend!

Firstly, whether or not you’ll be at Fèis Ìle is irrelevant for this. We’ve got access to the island’s most exciting distillers, ambassadors, ops managers, blenders and more. We’re going to be quizzing them every single day. But we want YOU to ask the questions. That’s right! If you’ve ever dreamed of putting one of your Islay heroes on the spot, drop us a line. We’re videoing the whole shebang, and will give you a shout-out, too. Want in? Send us your questions on social or leave a comment below!

There’s more! Regardless of whether you’re on the Isle or not, you can still experience it all through the medium of taste with our fancy MoM-exclusive All-Islay – Islay Blended Malt bottling! Apparently we’re not allowed to say much, but I will just put the emphasis on its name: ALL-Islay. And it’s ALL been made possible thanks to our pals over at That Boutique-y Whisky Company. Oh, and it’s bloody lovely, too. It’s available right over here!

Feis Ile

Mouthwatering stuff

That’s all great, you may say, but what else is going on?

Boo. I’m not going

In the first instance, fret not. We’ve got your back! We’re going to be reporting every dram, tasting, tour, masterclass, adventure, dog (there were loads of excellent hounds last year) and more on our social channels, especially Instagram Stories. So follow with haste! (It’s @masterofmalt, FYI). There will, of course, be action over on Twitter and Facebook, too.

Want more? Good, because that’s just the start. You can also expect daily bulletins right here on the blog, plus video interviews, and more. MUCH more convenient than that epic journey.

Feis Ile

The whisky awaits…

I’m at Fèis Ìle!

Ace! See you there, pal! Seriously, we’re gearing up for a right fun knees up. We’ve got drams of our very own aforementioned All-Islay – Islay Blended Malt bottling, released with our friends over at That Boutique-y Whisky Company, to nab. We’ve got some pretty nifty MoM Islay 2019 t-shirts to give away, too. Want to get your mitts on the swag? We’ll be at every distillery day; come find us! We’re keen in selfies too, so why not snap yourself in your shiny new shirt and tag us in your post?

Phew! That’s it for now. We’ve got packing to do. Well, except for the bonkers duo of Dan and Jake who are literally driving all the way to Islay from MoM Towers in Kent… Godspeed, chaps.

All that’s left to say is stay tuned for all the fun of the Fèis right here on the blog and @masterofmalt on social!

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Where to drink in… Berlin

David Bowie once deemed Berlin “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine”, and his words still carry weight decades later. Here, we champion five of the German capital city’s…

David Bowie once deemed Berlin “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine”, and his words still carry weight decades later. Here, we champion five of the German capital city’s standout bars – and find out what happens when you age rye whiskey on volcanic stone from a vineyard…

Berlin has long boasted a thriving creative scene, and its cocktail culture is no exception. Ageing spirits in former wine casks is cool, sure, but ageing spirits using the very material that cultivated the vine? Ingenuity on another level. The idea was the brainchild of Australian native Matt Boswell, bar chef at stylish and sustainable cocktail haunt Tiger Bar, which lies across the courtyard from its pioneering sister, Panama Restaurant.

“I really wanted to figure out how we could add extra minerality and a little bit more depth and complexity into the cocktails we were making,” Boswell explains. He contacted German wine producers and asked them to send whatever they could from their vineyards. Three out of 30 responded, sending cases of rocks.

Tiger Bar Berlin

Get your rocks off in Berlin

Working closely with the sommelier team at Panama, Boswell determined which wine characteristics were common across certain soils and set about pairing spirits with each stone. “It was very much a matching game,” he explains. “If we got laser focus and really clear minerality and tropical notes from blue slate, we’d pair it with gin. If we got extra tropicality and spice from red slate-grown wines, we’d try mezcal. Based on that intuition, they all paired pretty well.”

The ageing period varies according to spirit variety and ABV – lighter spirits like vodka evolve far quicker than a big, bold mezcal, for example – but there are variables between the stones, too. “Some of them are porous, some of them are really dense,” explains Boswell, “we’ve been resting white dog rye whiskey on volcanic stone and it can take more than two weeks before it starts to develop any specific flavour or character.”

The first menu combined rhum agricole with limestone, gin with blue slate, mezcal on red slate and pisco on phyllite. “We were really shocked at the development and character changes that happened,” Boswell adds. “Not only was there extra minerality and nuanced flavours; often it changed the character of the spirit entirely.” Once aged, the team create two cocktails with each spirit: a lighter highball serve and a shorter stirred drink.

Tiger Bar is a great place to start, but Boswell and his team are not the only bartenders drinking outside the box. Whether it’s through ingredient selection, menu style or spirits stock, we’ve championed the must-visit Berlin bars that aren’t afraid to do things a little differently….

TIger bar Berlin

On the rocks has a whole new meaning at Tiger bar

Tiger Bar

Potsdamer Straße 91, 10785 Berlin, Germany
Where? Tiergarten
Why? Terroir-based cocktails
What? Four base spirits aged on German terroir, with one long and one short cocktail created from each. Take the black basalt-aged rye – it can be ordered as Rye & Dry, which sees it mixed with smoked tea and Moroccan soda, or combined with small batch vermouth and vintage cherry wine in a Boulevardier.

Velvet bar Berlin

Seasonal cocktail at Velvet bar

Velvet

Ganghoferstraße 1, 12043 Berlin, Germany
Where? Neukölln
Why? Seasonality taken seriously
What? An intimate cocktail bar in hipster district Neukölln, which forages ingredients “from Berlin and the surrounding nature”. Cocktails are named according to the main seasonal ingredient within, processed on a weekly basis. On the current menu? Sorrel, Young Pine Cone, Strawberry and White Asparagus.

Lebbensstern Berlin

They have comfy sofas at Lebbensstern

Lebensstern

58 Kurfürstenstraße, 10785 Berlin, Germany
Where? Schöneberg
Why? Mind-boggling spirits selection
What? Aside from the fact it used to be an illegal casino for Berlin’s most boujie residents, it stocks more than 600 kinds of rum, 400 whiskies, 150 gin bottlings and a plethora of other boozes that brings the total spirits count over 1,500. Oh, and Quentin Tarantino filmed Inglourious Basterds there.

Stairs bar in Berlin

Stairs bar in Berlin

Stairs Bar

Uhlandstraße 133, 10717 Berlin, Germany
Where? Charlottenburg
Why? Sustainable cocktails made three ways
What? Six cocktails are on the menu, split down into three variants: classic, twist, and in-house creation. Take the Manhattan, traditionally made with whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, the twist, Brooklyn, sees the addition of maraschino and bitter aperitif, while the in-house version Womanhattan uses Scotch, sherry and plum liqueur.

Stagger Lee

You’ll be pleased to hear that they also take euros

Stagger Lee

Nollendorfstraße 27, 10777 Berlin, Germany
Where? Schöneberg
Why? The home of American whiskey in Berlin
What? Named after the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song, Stagger Lee is a Wild West-themed 19th century saloon bar, complete with old-school cash till and rustic-looking piano. Don’t get distracted by the decor – the menu is where the magic truly happens, with the likes of Greek yoghurt-washed rum and banana-infused Campari.

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The Diplomático Distillery Collection – Venezuelan rum deconstructed

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at Diplomático in Venezuela. The distillery uses three distinct distillation methods and blends the results together to make its award-winning rums. But…

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at Diplomático in Venezuela. The distillery uses three distinct distillation methods and blends the results together to make its award-winning rums. But 2017 saw the release of two single-still rums. And now the final piece in the jigsaw has arrived. . . The pot still.

Nelson Hernandez has spent most of his adult life at Diplomático – 33 years. He has worked in all parts of the business becoming maestro ronero (rum master) in 2017. So, who better to tell us about the Distillery Collection single-still rums. The company has been going since 1959, but only began exporting seriously in 2006 mainly due to economic problems within the country.

Nelson Hernandez Diplomatico DC3 launch

Maestro ronero, Nelson Hernandez

Export manager Javier Herrera told me that in the last eight years as the situation in the country worsens, Diplomático has become dependent on overseas markets and now exports over 90% of its production. “We are being destroyed by the crisis,” he told me, “it hurts to see the situation where families are suffering here”. Like another Venezualan rum producer Santa Teresa, the company does its best to look after its employees by providing healthcare etc. The company also bottles and keeps three years’ worth of stock in Panama to prevent government pilfering.

But onto happier matters, like rum cocktails. Brand ambassador Jon Lister gave us Diplomático Planas (a white rum aged six years and then filtered) with grapefruit tonic the breakfast of champions. While we sipped, Hernandez told us a little about the production process. Diplomático uses both molasses and cane honey. He gave us some to try side-by-side and the difference was noted: cane honey is sweeter and less processed without the bitter taste of molasses. It’s used to make heavier rums with the molasses saved for lighter ones.

Diplomatico distillery

Rum maturing at the Diplomatico distillery – it gets hot in here

It’s hot in Venezuela all year round, with an average day temperature of 32°C and 24°C at night. Ageing is therefore very fast. Diplomático’s regular range is sweetened using an aged spirit containing sugar, rather like boize used in Cognac. Planas has 3g per litre added, Mantanua has 8g and the Reserva Exclusiva has a whopping 35g to create something closer to a rum liqueur.

The rums in the Distillery Collection are roughly the component parts of Mantanua but with nothing added except water to bring them down to 47% ABV. We tried both the new make (slightly diluted to comply with aviation regulations) and the finished product. Here we go!

Diplomatico batch kettle

That, my friend, is a batch kettle still

No. 1 Batch Kettle Rum

The batch kettle still is an enormous Heath Robinson-esque device that was originally used by Seagram in Canada to make rye whisky. It was brought to Venezuela in 1959. Sugar honey is used for these rums and the alcohol comes off at 95% which is then reduced to 75% for ageing. This rum gives lie to the idea that high ABV equals low flavour.
New make: Strongly fruity with distinct taste of banana.
Finished product: Spends six years in ex-bourbon and ex-Scotch whisky casks; no solera system used at Diplomático. It’s dry, fresh and aromatic with that fruit coming through strongly, with toffee and nutty notes. Lightish body.

No.2 Barbet Rum

The Barbet column still is a French continuous still looking rather like an Armagnac still though the spirit comes off at a higher ABV, 95%. The rum is made with molasses.
New make: Very spicy, with notes of cinnamon and orange.
Finished product: After four years ageing, the cinnamon and orange is still there but joined by creamy notes, “like condensed milk”, according to Hernandez. The result is very elegant and aromatic like a Cognac.

No.3 Pot Still Rum

This rum is double-distilled in 6,500 litre pot stills originally used to make Scotch whisky but adapted for rum. It’s distilled on its lees (like Cognac), and comes off the still at 80%.
New make: Dark cherries, full body, fruity and floral.
Finished product: It’s reduced to 55% for cask ageing and spends eight years in oak. There’s a big meaty nose with maraschino cherries, it’s very full with notes of chocolate and coffee. Intense and complex, this is one that will appeal to Speyside whisky lovers.

Diplomatico pot stills

Ex-Scotch whisky stills with added double retort

After the tasting, the fun started because we got to play rum blenders. My favourite blend consisted of six parts batch kettle rum, four parts Barbet still and three parts pot. Hernandez tried it and pronounced it “very rounded”. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Apparently, I came very close to the taste of the final blend with the batch kettle still providing the backbone, the Barbet the elegance and the pot the meatiness. Perhaps I should jack in the writing and become a rum blender. Or maybe he was just humouring me.

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Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Absinthe has a reputation that means it can be a difficult sell. However, Croque Monsieur, a new bar in Camden, wants to help change this. We spoke to its bar…

Absinthe has a reputation that means it can be a difficult sell. However, Croque Monsieur, a new bar in Camden, wants to help change this. We spoke to its bar manager Jenny Griffiths about how bespoke cocktails, education and silly hats can help.

Have you ever considered going to a bar to enjoy absinthe? You might have been put off by tall tales of astronomical ABVs, potential blindness and harrowing hallucinations. Such myths, legends and soft science have certainly misled people in the past. Gradually, however, absinthe’s reputation is being restored by creative craft producers, educated consumers and bars like Camden’s Croque Monsieur.

Downstairs from the world’s only vampire-themed pizzeria, Lost Boys Pizza (it’s a wild start, but stick with me here), Croque Monsieur opened in December 2018 aiming to spearhead the absinthe revival in the capital. Despite the name, there are no ham and cheese toasties, before any of you ask.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Bar manager Jenny Griffiths in her element

“It’s a spirit that has a lot of misconceptions. We wanted to show people why these aren’t true and give a proper insight into such a misunderstood spirit”, bar manager Jenny Griffiths explains, “Absinthe is absolutely delicious and we wanted to share that with our corner of London!”

Croque Monsieur is equipped with absinthe fountains on each table, funky hats, church pews as seating, Art Deco prints on the wall and a newly-launched cocktail menu, transforming a restaurant basement into a bohemian drinking den. For Griffiths, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

“When Pete and Alex (founders of Lost Boys Pizza) mentioned they’d had plans to open a tiny absinthe/dive bar. My eyes lit up and I knew I had to be in,” Griffiths explained. “I’ve been working as the brand ambassador for Chartreuse for two years in the UK, and I actually got into drinking this by being suggested it by a fellow absinthe fan. Chartreuse and absinthe have similar flavour profiles, and anything herbal and punchy has always been my true love.”

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Camden’s Croque Monsieur

Even those passionate about absinthe will admit it’s a risky spirit to back, however. There’s still work to be done separating truth from pseudoscience and propaganda. “If you want to see the lengths the people who banned absinthe went to, Google absinthe and guinea pigs,” Griffiths remarks, alluding to an 1864 experiment in which guinea pigs were most definitely harmed in the making of (another reason to dislike those who fought absinthe).

The lore around thujone, a chemical compound in absinthe, is one of the reasons why it was successfully demonised. But the truth is absinthe contains such a tiny amount of this compound that it’s about as frightening as Kylie Minogue singing The Sound of Music to you while dressed as The Green Fairy. Griffiths summaries, “As with all alcohol, of course, you should drink it in moderation and responsibly, but absinthe will not drive you crazy.”

The task for Griffiths then is to use her passion and position help educate and change perceptions. However, she has no interest in providing dry history lessons. “You go to Croque Monsieur to be educated and have fun,” Griffiths exclaims. “We at Croque Monsieur are here first and foremost to educate everyone who comes through the door. I’ve always been a bit of a booze nerd myself, so being able to share the knowledge I have is great. But we also want people to have fun, which is why the music is always set to party bangers and we encourage everyone to take their pick from our array of silly hats. For me going to a bar should be about learning but fun should always be at the forefront!”

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Griffiths and the Lost Boys founders enjoying their labour of love

It’s difficult to deliver a dry lecture while your guests are wearing cowboy hats listening to Prince’s 1999 as a waiter brings them black charcoal pizza from a vampire-themed restaurant that was named after a 1987 American horror comedy film. Seriously. What more can ask for from a bar?

Well, how about a tailored guest experience? One method Griffiths employs at Croque Monsieur to demystify absinthe is a masterclass in which unlimited hot snacks and three drinks of either of absinthe or a cocktail are provided while you learn about the spirit (though you had me at unlimited hot snacks).

“This experience offers our guests a full masterclass on all things absinthe, from its vast history to the different liquids we offer and how to serve them,” Griffiths says. “We serve all of our absinthes louched with iced water at your table, where your fairy [as she calls her staff members] shows you the precise amount of water to add, explains the chemical reactions you see happening and answers any questions that may pop into your head.”

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

The delicious and playful Sneaky Vimto cocktail

Then there’s the cocktail menu: designed to make absinthe approachable, it aims to ensure that no matter what your experience is with the spirit, there will be a drink to suit your palette. “The menu is divided into three distinct parts; ‘Beginner’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’. All of the drinks contain absinthe in some shape or form (duh!) but this allows our guests to choose how much absinthe flavour they want in their drink,” Griffiths explains. “Beginner drinks simply have a spritz or two of absinthe above the glass, intermediate contains around 10ml absinthe per drink and are a little boozier. The advanced drinks use absinthe as the base (around 25ml) and are for our guests who are already into the flavour.”

The menu includes some unique fruity numbers such as the Sneaky Vimto (my favourite cocktail name of all time) and punchy offerings such as Death in the Afternoon, a potent combination of absinthe and Champagne, as well as some reworked classics like the Chocolate Old Fashioned (a personal highlight) and the Grasshopper, which is Griffiths’ stand-out on the menu.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

The superb Chocolat Old Fashioned, a personal favourite

“For me disco drinks have always been a guilty pleasure I’ve embraced, so our Grasshopper #245 is my proudest drink creation to date” she explains. “We use a split base of Combier L’Entêté Absinthe Supérieure and Green Chartreuse, mix it with a chocolate and absinthe liqueur, Giffard menthe pastille and shake it up with vegan dairy. It’s creamy and delicious, with the right hits of chocolate and mint you expect from a grasshopper without the heaviness some dairy can have.”

For those new to absinthe, Griffith recommends the Parisienne Spritz, made with a splash of Combier L’Entêté Absinthe Supérieure, gentian liqueur, citrus, cucumber bitters and tonic. “It’s light and refreshing and a great aperitif”.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Cocktails and capers are par for the course at Croque Monsieur

Griffiths and co. have certainly made a good case for a dedicated absinthe bar. “There are hundreds of whisky bars and gin palaces in the UK and we love what they do, but we wanted to show some love to something a bit different,” says Griffiths. There’s surely always a market for that in the world of booze.

To help you on your absinthe journey, we’ve rounded up a smashing selection of some of the absinthes we adore, including a recommendation from Griffiths. Or you could always enjoy this wonderful Absinthe Tasting Set!

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Maison Fontaine Blanche

“Maison Fontaine Blanche is a great place to start for any absinthe novice. The Blanche doesn’t have a secondary maceration of herbs after distillation (this is what gives naturally coloured absinthes their green colour) so it is a bit lighter and milder, with loads of cacao and sweet peppermint,” says Griffith. Tried next to the Maison Fontaine Verte it is also wonderful, this is a great way to explain to people the difference a few hours of maceration can make to the final flavour of an absinthe.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Sebor Absinth

Sebor Absinth is a Czech take on the historic spirit and one that has proved incredibly popular. Made by blending 13 herbs to a century-old Swiss recipe, this is a rich, mellow and spicy absinthe that was bottled at a reasonable 55% ABV.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

St. George Absinthe Verte

The Californian distillery St. George Spirits has made all manner of delicious booze, so it’s not surprising to find out that great absinthe was in its wheelhouse. Created with ingredients such as star anise, fennel, lemon balm, hyssop and stinging nettles, this was actually the first legal American absinthe to be released after the ban was lifted in 2007!

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

La Fée Blanche Absinthe

Popular among punters and award shows alike, La Fée Blanche Absinthe is a wonderfully sweet, herbal, old-fashioned white absinthe that was based on an old French recipe from the 1800s. Produced in conjunction with the French Absinthe Museum, its white colour is a reference to the days of bootlegging when green spirit could be spotted a mile off.

Championing absinthe at Croque Monsieur

Morveren Absinthe

Ok, so Cornwall might not cross your mind initially when you think of absinthe, but this expression from Pocketful of Stones might just change all of that for you. Made from wormwood and additional botanicals from the local area, this bottling was named from a legendary mermaid of yore…

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Sweden’s High Coast Distillery

Few spirits categories have the power to capture a sense of place like single malt whisky, from the wind-ravaged Scottish Highlands to the sweltering heat of Texas – and the…

Few spirits categories have the power to capture a sense of place like single malt whisky, from the wind-ravaged Scottish Highlands to the sweltering heat of Texas – and the climatic extremes of northern Sweden. As High Coast Distillery’s environmental Origin Series hits the UK, distillery manager Roger Melander talks us through the unique conditions that shape the liquid…

“There are about 17 distilleries making whisky in Sweden, and most of them are really small,” says Melander, addressing the room in the beautiful vaulted cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd in London. The historic wine and spirits merchants has started importing High Coast’s liquid through its trade arm, Fields, Morris & Verdin, and we’re here for a private tasting. “I would say there are three that are big enough to be commercial, and just two of them have whisky on the market – Mackmyra, and us.”

High Coast has come a long way since it began distilling in November 2010, creating Box Single Malt Whisky under the brand Box Destilleri, so named because of the distillery’s location by Ångermanälven river in a former wooden box factory power plant. The brand name changed last summer, “because of a small conflict with another company that had Box in the name,” says Melander, and now refers to the High Coast – or Höga Kasten – region of Sweden it calls home.

High Coast casks

Casks at High Coast distillery in Sweden

Initially, the team started distilling with two pot stills and three washbacks, aiming for about 90,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, he says. Last summer, High Coast expanded its capacity to about 350,000 litres, with current production sitting at around 200,000 litres. Melander’s three-strong production team distills seven days a week – on average one or two batches per day – following two new-make recipes: unpeated and heavily peated.

“For the unpeated recipe, we had a lot of inspiration from Japanese style flavours,” he says. “I wanted to create a fruity, clean malted spirit. For the peated recipe – well, you can’t make a peated whisky without looking at the west coast and islands of Scotland. Sometimes I feel it’s more like the Islay style, and sometimes a bit more Campbeltown.”

Finalised in just two weeks, the unpeated recipe is made with a Pilsner malt hailing from the south of Sweden. Creating the peated style was a far longer process, with the base ingredients proving trickier to source. “The only producer making peated malt in Sweden is on the island of Gotland,” says Melander, “but he is making peated malt for home brewers that want to have 250g in an envelope. I want 25 tonnes each time, it’s a bloody big envelope.” Instead, he must buy from Belgium or Scotland. A French strain of distillery yeast fills the resulting mashes with fruity esters, aldehydes and ketones during an unusually long fermentation time of around 82 hours.

While Melander and his team have experimented with “different malts, yeast strains, fermentation time and so on” throughout the production process, their key focus is on cask variables: oak species, treatment, size, and maturation environment. It’s the latter that makes High Coast’s location northern Sweden, around 500km north of Stockholm, unlike any other whisky region in the world.

High Coast

Swedish winters are COLD!

In winter, the mercury is known to drop below -30 degrees celsius, in the height of summer the region records +30 degrees or higher. “So there could be like 70 degrees difference between a cold winter day and warm summers day, says Melander, “compared to Highland Park on Orkney where they have maybe seven or eight degrees difference between those seasons.”

This see-saw effect causes pressure changes in the cask, increasing the interaction between the oak and liquid and creating some marvellously fruity esters. “Small variations during day and night and big changes during seasons creates a unique maturation profile in our warehouses,” he continues. “You can taste the difference between casks matured on floor level and casks matured just below the ceiling.”

There’s also the small matter of water. Every distiller says they have special water, Melander acknowledges, but the charcoal and sand-filtered water they source from Bålsjön, a spring lake northeast of Kramfors, is exceptionally so. “The quality of the tap water in a normal house in northern Sweden is much better than you can buy in a bottle in England,” he says, adding that in fact, it might even be too clean. “In a perfect world I would have a bit more salt, magnesium and so on, to increase the power of the yeast during fermentation.”

While there’s usually plenty of chatter about water purity, few producers discuss the relationship between cool water and a characterful distillate. The ice-cool waters of the nearby river Ångermanälven is a huge asset for Melander, who taps the liquid to cool his condensers. “In the winter our new make temperature is two and a half degrees celsius,” he says. Your average Scotch distiller would be “extremely happy” if the temperature falls below 20 degrees at any point of the year, he adds, so it’s quite unique.

All these variables empower the team to create more than 1,000 different products every year, Melander says, including their latest range, called Origin Series. We tasted three out of the four bottlings – the final whisky, Berg, will launch in September 2019 – plus a rather unique special edition, detailed below…

Still at High Coast

Stills at High Coast

Älv, Delicate Vanilla  – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Älv means ‘River’, and is named after the nearby Ångermanälven River. Made from 100% unpeated malt, the whisky has been matured in first fill bourbon casks for between five and seven years. “The first three batches will be mixed between 130 litre casks, called quarter casks, and 200 litre first-fill bourbon,” says Melander. “In two years I won’t have any quarter casks left, so it will be just bourbon barrels.”

Hav, Oak Spice – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Translated as ‘ocean’ in English, Hav is a blend of 25% peated and 75% non-peated malt whisky. The whisky was pre-matured in 40-litre virgin Hungarian and Swedish oak casks for between three and four months before it was transferred into bourbon barrels for between three and four years. American oak will feature in future batches. “[Ångermanälven] is about 2,000 metres wide so it’s technically part of the ocean, but it’s still called a river,” says  Melander. “My house is located on the other side. Sometimes in summer I take the canoe to work, in the winter I have a snowmobile and that’s a bit quicker.”

Timmer, Peat Smoke  – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Meaning ‘timber’ in English, Timmer is made from 100% peated malt whisky with a phenol level of around 46 PPM. The liquid is matured in first fill bourbon casks in a combination of 130-litre and 200-litre casks for between five and six years. “About 500 metres upstream there was a big timber assorting place in the seventies with about 700 people working there,” says Melander. “If you dive down, the bottom of the river is completely covered in timber that has sunk.”

High Coast distillery

More cold weather at High Coast

And finally. . . .

Projekt 63 – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

A fan of geocaching, Melander soon discovered that the distillery lies 63 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane. “The latitude crosses through the whole warehouse, so I painted a black line on the floor as a fun thing to show visitors,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘We can do something more with this’.” Melander bought 63 PPM malt from Scotland at the price of 6.3 Swedish kr per kilo. It was mashed in 63-hectolitre batches with a fermentation time of 63 hours. “I would say at 63 degrees celcius, but that would be a lie,” he says, “because it was 64”. Each cask – made by a Swedish cooper who was born in 1963 – was filled with 63 litres of liquid and stored at 63 parallel, precisely 63 decimetres from the floor. It was matured for (you guessed it)  63 months and bottled at 63% ABV. “I would really like to have 63cl bottles but… if you take 63 plus 6.3 plus 0.63 plus 0.063 and carry on that, you end up exactly at 70,” says Melander. “And that is the bottle size”. The goal is to make 16,063 bottles.

 

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Bars should make all guests feel special

This week our in-house bartender, Nate Brown, gets hot under the collar with highly-regarded bars that have two levels of customer service: great for those in the know, lousy for…

This week our in-house bartender, Nate Brown, gets hot under the collar with highly-regarded bars that have two levels of customer service: great for those in the know, lousy for the ordinary punter.

There’s a universal truth in the hospitality world: “We don’t go to the bars which we know best, we go to the bars that know us best.”

There’s little more comforting or uplifting that acting like a character from Cheers and strutting into your favourite bar, being greeted by name by the bartender who already has a hand on your favourite glass for one of your usuals. This is magical. It makes sense to reciprocate and lavish praise on these places that make you feel so special. They deserve it.

Having a great time!

They’re receiving excellent customer service, but are you?

However, if this is true, then the inverse is also possible. Walking into a venue and being met with an unwelcoming lack of interest and a feeling that you’re not wanted can be a pretty destructive experience. The bigger chains can try to sidestep this with scripted steps of service and welcomes, although a little repetition exposes the shallow illusion. At times, the generic ‘Is everything alright with your food/drinks?’, can be as fake as TOWIE. An old friend counters this with a big grin and a nod whilst mumbling vile obscenities. It seldom gets a reaction.

We all want to feel special, or more accurately to be first, best or different. To balance the oxymoronic stance of making everyone in the room feel special is the art of the hospitality trade. Only the best can manage it.

Unfortunately, the more hype around a bar, the further wide of the mark they seem. The bar community is a close-knit affair. This can be a great thing, with lots of potential to do a hell of a lot of good. It can also be a bit of a clique.

I’ve been in hip East London cocktail bars, sitting excitedly at the bar and being ignored for 20 minutes whilst the bar team offers high fives and free shots to a brand rep sat next to me. I watch closely. I know the brand rep, I know what’s happening. Their bill appears with no charge, only a smiley face drawn onto a bit of till roll. That’s all fair and well, but I also see the other guests sat three yards away with empty glasses in front of them on a dirty bar top in desperate need of wiping. The most they can hope for is a ‘yes, guys, what do you want?’

This is bad for everyone. The brand ambassadors and industry visit each other’s bars, enjoy a stellar time, leave feeling like a million dollars, and preach the good word of how awesome that new bar is. Potential guests might hear of these recommendations, the ‘have-you-been-to-such-and-such-yet’, hurriedly visit and are told this is what a good bar is even if the experience fails to live up to the hype.

At which point, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than the wave of underwhelming responses lowering expectations, the hype increases. No-one wants to admit that this place they’ve been to isn’t all that. They want to join in, to be a part of it. So the hype continues. New guests hear, arrive, don’t enjoy, at worst they don’t return. In any other town, this would be dangerously short-lived. London’s masses, however, can sustain an of-the-moment bar for months or even years.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, making a stranger feel special

As industry professionals, we have a responsibility to be aware of the situation. We know how the system works. Instead of commenting on how our friends made us feel, we should be looking closer at how our friends made others feel. When was the last time you heard a colleague observe how a bartender rocked a stranger’s day? Surely that’s the name of the game? Dare I say that we as an industry can be guilty of being a little self-indulgent from time to time? Lord knows I can.

We could do with moving the goalposts back to where they belong. The quality of a bartender should be determined by how they make the room feel, not just those that they know. The paying guests, should always take precedence. We should look to treat everyone like a superstar, not just those who return the favour.

I guess all guests are equal, just some are more equal than others.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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Whisky innovation – how far is too far?

In this week’s column, Ian Buxton looks back at how whisky has evolved throughout its history, examines some of today’s more outlandish innovations, and asks whether it’s wise or even…

In this week’s column, Ian Buxton looks back at how whisky has evolved throughout its history, examines some of today’s more outlandish innovations, and asks whether it’s wise or even possible to try to control experimentation in the category. 

A long, long time ago – when I last had a proper job, since you ask, and thus a very long time ago – my then-MD warned me in portentous and grave tones that too much innovation would confuse the consumer and encourage promiscuous buying behaviour at the expense of brand loyalty.

‘Pompous git’, I thought, and went right ahead with what proved to be Scotland’s first branded, cask strength, single cask release – a blatant crib from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, of course, but carrying a distillery name (oh alright, it was Glenmorangie) instead of an anonymous number.  The late Michael Jackson loved it and devoted his entire column in The Independent to explaining the concept and singing its praises, a source of considerable pride, then and to this day. Shortly after I left the company (a long story) and shortly after that the product was discontinued. Moral: don’t disagree with your MD!

But, unremarkable as that whisky would be today, it was a definite innovation and one which aroused a certain amount of controversy at the time.  Actually, innovation in whisky has generally attracted some controversy, perhaps because people really care deeply about the drams they drink.

The advent of blending from the late 1860s onwards didn’t go down well with the then-dominant Irish whiskey industry. The passionate opposition of the leading Dublin distillers to ‘sham whisky’ and ‘silent spirit’ (that’s grain whisky to you and me) proved to be a major nail in their collective coffin, albeit one that they hammered in very firmly all by themselves. Leading Scotch blenders such as Walker, Buchanan, Dewar’s and others gleefully seized this opportunity.

Charred oak spindles

What fresh madness is this?

Malting technology has evolved considerably over the past hundred years and as for barley varieties, well, that’s an arms race.  For much of the nineteenth century, Chevallier was utterly dominant, but displaced by Plumage Archer which, in turn, was toppled by Proctor and Maris Otter, only for these varieties to be replaced by Golden Promise. This was once widely used: The Macallan famously going so far as to describe it as one of the ‘Six Pillars’ of its brand, a claim which has since been quietly dropped (marketing messages have an even shorter lifespan than barley varieties). But today it’s long gone and the merry-go-round continues.

It’s all about money, of course. Poor old Chevallier produced around 300 litres of pure alcohol per ton of dry malt, where today the accountants, sorry ‘distillers’, are looking for 450 litres or more.  Unless you’re Bruichladdich, of course, or Mark Reynier at Waterford, where the pursuit of terroir is what counts above all.

Or a ‘craft’ distiller in the USA.  Leaving aside the vexed topic of what constitutes ‘craft’, there are now, I was mildly astonished to learn, approaching 2,000 small-scale distilleries in the USA., Unconstrained by the Scotch Whisky Regulations, innovation is absolutely the name of the game among our colonial cousins – for how else is a nascent distiller to stand out in such a congested and competitive market?

The rise of flavoured whiskies from major brands – think Jack Daniel’s Honey and its many imitators – opened the floodgates and small distillers have followed suit, embracing unusual grains, varying production methods and every kind of cask finish you can dream up (and some you’d rather not).  Finishing, incidentally, is generally acknowledged as beginning, in a conscious and deliberate sense, with the 1982 launch of The Balvenie Classic. But little did Balvenie’s mild-mannered David Stewart MBE imagine what mischief popping some whisky into a sherry cask would unleash.

Ever since then, the sorcerer’s apprentices have been busy.  The US craft distillers are taking their smoked whiskeys, whiskeys made with heritage corn, wheat, millet, oats or triticale (a rye-wheat hybrid which, full confession, I’d never heard of either) and putting them in brand new wood of every possible variety of oak, barrels made from old pieces of chestnut furniture, beer-aged casks, any former wine barrel known to man and, apparently, even a Japanese fruit liqueur cask.

Virginia-Highland whisky

Virginia-Highland whisky, the kind of thing that gives the SWA sleepless nights

And then I learned that the Virginia Distillery Co. imports single malt Scotch to blend with its own American single malt, and age the result in a cold brew coffee-soaked cask.

Oh, please! That’s enough!  Innovation stops right here! Or am I now the pompous git?  What say you? How far should (not can) innovation go?

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

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Ramsbury Distillery – taking local to a whole new level

Last month we took a trip to the beautiful Wiltshire countryside to visit Ramsbury Estate which grows (almost) everything needed to make gin, vodka, beer and so many delicious snacks….

Last month we took a trip to the beautiful Wiltshire countryside to visit Ramsbury Estate which grows (almost) everything needed to make gin, vodka, beer and so many delicious snacks.

If you want to start making gin, there’s an easy way and a hard way. You could order a little Portuguese still on the internet for £500, get a licence, buy neutral alcohol, some botanicals and off you go. You can make very nice gin this way. Or you can buy a farm, grow your own wheat, ferment it, equip a distillery with an expensive column still to make neutral alcohol, distill your gin and then use the leftover botanicals to cure meat which, of course, you have raised on your farm. No prizes for guessing how they do things at the Ramsbury Estate in Wiltshire.

The estate covers around 20,000 acres and it’s owned by a Swede called Stefan Persson. He’s not the most high profile billionaire but the chairman and main shareholder of H&M, he’s not short of a bob or two. When I visited in April, I was shown around by the estate manager Alistair Ewing, head of marketing and sales Will Thompson and Mats Olsson, who used to work with Absolut Vodka. The estate employs 25 people not including the pub staff.

We began the day with a pint of Ramsbury bitter at the pub on the estate, The Bell at Ramsbury. This was followed by a superb meal cooked by chef Oli Clark using ingredients from the estate as much as possible. To finish we had a Gin & Tonic pudding made with, naturally, Ramsbury Gin.

The Ramsbury ethos in diagram form

The Ramsbury ethos in diagram form

“We are a farm that has a distillery”, Ewing explained to me. He then outlined all the activities that take place on the estate in addition to spirit manufacture. There’s brewery which produces a variety of traditional English beers brewed from estate-grown barley. Apparently the soil isn’t good for hops growing so Kentish hops (with some Czech and New Zealand hops) are used instead. There’s cattle and pigs as well as game like deer and pheasants. The estate produces cold-pressed nutty rapeseed oil and grows rye to be used as biofuel. Waste goes into anaerobic digester, and water used in the distillery and brewery is filtered through reed beds. Not all the sustainable practices have worked: “We tried to reuse yeast waste from fermentation to make bread but the results were revolting”, Ewing told me.

Then it was off in the Land Rover for a tour of the estate with Ewing pointing things out to us in his deadpan Devonian burr. Seeing a hare galloping across the Wiltshire hills on a bright April day was a magical sight. When we couldn’t see any pigs, Ewing said, “they probably had a fight with a badger”. Less amusingly, he pointed out ash trees that are dying from a fungal disease. He expects to lose about 90% of the ash on the estate. These will be cut down and put in a wood chipper to be used as fuel.

Massive column still

Massive column still

After the tour, we had a quick look round the brewery (and yes, some beer) before the main reason for the trip, the distillery! And what a set-up they have! Distiller Dhiraj Pujari showed off his kit: Dominating the room is a 42 plate column still and to the side two pot stills. The neutral alcohol is made from wheat grown on the estate, fermented with a distillers yeast. The wash is first distilled in a pot still and then the low wines go through the column to create a 95% spirit. The fact that they have a pot still means that a whisky is a possibility though they haven’t produced any new make yet. Ewing told me that team are currently experimenting with making casks out of local oak which they might use to age their own whisky.

The gin is a classic London dry style partly distilled using juniper growing outside the distillery though they do buy in some too. Other botanicals include cinnamon, orange, lemon, and quince (which comes from the estate). Barrie Wilson, owner of Scotch and Limon, knocked up some drinks including Gin and Tonics and delicious beetroot Martinis, which were a meal in a glass. All the time snacking on delicious meats cured by smoke from leftover botanicals. Other products include a fruity, peppery vodka and a damson gin.  Your bottle will you not only when your spirit was made, but also when the cereal was harvested and which part of the estate it came from. Can’t get more local than that?

All this commitment to sustainability and localism doesn’t come cheap. According to Ewing, the estate owner “takes a long view on profit”. But Ramsbury Estate is much more than a rich man’s plaything. “We are custodians of the land”, Ewing said, “we’re not doing anything people weren’t doing 300 years ago. . . Except with more health and safety.”

Reeds at Ramsbury

Reed beds outside the distillery clean waste water and provide a habitat for birds

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