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Explore 20 years of the London cocktail scene

Join us as we step inside the MoM time machine, back to the heady days of the late 1990s and the notorious Met Bar. We talk to Ben Reed about…

Join us as we step inside the MoM time machine, back to the heady days of the late 1990s and the notorious Met Bar. We talk to Ben Reed about the 20 defining moments of London cocktail scene

Don’t call Ben Reed a legend of the London bar world. He prefers the word ‘stalwart’. And at Gridiron (the site of the old Met Bar) on Park Lane last Wednesday night, the room was full of such stalwarts including Salvatore Calabrese, Ago Perrone, Erik Lorincz, Emily Weldon, Claire Smith-Warner, Peter Dorelli and Tristan Stephenson. They were all there sipping Pineapple Martinis and literally partying like it was 1999, only a little more sedately, and with more grey hairs.

Gridiron/ Met Bar

Gridiron, formerly the Met Bar, note brown spirits, and food. You didn’t get those in the ’90s

We were there to celebrate and discuss the ‘20 defining moments of the London cocktail scene’. It’s a look at the most important events in drinks culture over the last 20 or so years like the launch of CLASS magazine in 1997; the creation of the Match Bar group in 1998 with Dick Bradsell as head bartender; the opening of Milk & Honey in 2002, London’s first speakeasy-style bar; and the foundation of Sipsmith gin in 2009. It’s an initiative by Ben Reed, formerly head bartender at the Met who now runs a drinks consultancy firm, Cocktail Credentials. We caught up with Reed before the event where he explained the concept.

“We asked 30 of the top bartenders in London to submit three to five of their personal defining moments. And then we cross referenced that to see which ones were mentioned most often,” he explained. “There is an element of this being a work in progress, and us seeing where we go with this. This being a list that could be written again in another ten years because things are moving so fast in this industry.”

Reed began his career working in some rough pubs in Hackney before moving to the somewhat swankier PJ’s on Fulham Road. After that, there was a stint at Mezzo, Terence Conran’s gastrodome on Wardour Street, before he was, in his own words, “headhunted to head up the Met Bar”. “Whether by fortune or by destiny, it became the place where the glitterati of the London scene met,” he continued. “It was one of the seminal places where cocktails started to be taken a little bit more seriously.” The Met Bar was the epicentre of ‘90s and early ‘00s swinging London, frequented by Kate Moss, Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn.

It was a very different world back then. “In those days you were really only a bartender if you weren’t much good at anything else, there was no gravitas in the industry,” Reed recalled. “And then, piece-by-piece, through a number of pioneers like Dick Bradsell who stuck at it rather than getting a proper job, we developed an industry.”

Reed’s signature drink was the Pineapple Martini, which was tasting good (if extremely sweet) at the event last week. “We created a style of drink called ‘the fresh fruit Martini’ which involved using fresh and sometimes exotic ingredients. So exotic fruit as ingredients rather than garnishes,” he told me.

Ben Reed the Met Bar

‘If your name’s not down you’re not coming in’. Ben Reed (centre) and the Met Bar team.

Vodka was king in those days. If you look at the invite above it’s from the front cover of an early edition of CLASS, with Reed and the Met team looking very cool in all black DKNY. Now look behind the bar; it’s pretty much all vodka with only a couple of gins, and whisky nowhere to be seen. It’s not just the spirits that have changed; the role of the bartender is much more complicated, according to Reed. “Now we’re looking towards chefs, learning from them and understanding some of the tricks of their trade whether that be using sous vide machines or otherwise.”

Being a bartender is now a proper career. “20 years ago most bartenders were still trying to find a way of getting out from behind the bar to open consultancies, or work for brands,” Reed said. “Whereas now the trend is much more to stay in the industry, to stay ‘behind the stick’ by opening their own places. That is testament to how the industry has evolved.”

That’s not the only way it has changed. 2013’s ‘defining moment’ was the opening of the environmentally-friendly White Lyan bar in Hoxton Square. 2017’s was a focus on bartender wellbeing. The industry now has to look at “the bigger picture: diversity within the industry, gender and racial equality, wellbeing and sustainability,”Reed told me.

But not all recent developments have been quite so positive, he added. Another ‘defining moment’ was the 2010 appearance of Instagram, which Reed isn’t convinced has been entirely beneficial to the experience.

“It’s now less about the interaction with the bartender, and more about how instagrammable the drink is,” he reckoned. “So there’s an element, perhaps, in a rise in the quality of cocktails, and a dip in the standard of service. By service, I don’t mean how fast your drink comes, but how you are treated by your bartender. Some of the older guys such as Pete Dorelli, Salvatore Calabrese and Nick Strangeway were great raconteurs, people who could really give you the warm and fuzzies. I would rather go to a bar, get a good drink and my interaction with the bartender be the memorable part of things, than go to the bar and get an awesome drink but not really remember who has served it to me.”

Reed himself hasn’t worked ‘behind the stick’ for a long time. He started one of the first cocktail consultancies in Europe in 2001. Five years ago he set up Cocktail Credentials. “I think the difference between my consultancy and other consultancies is that I’m the only guy in my consultancy that’s ever stepped behind a bar. My other partners have marketing expertise and agency expertise. We can see the industry from outside of the bubble.” Reed and his team have come up with innovative ways to present brands, such as a taste experience with Absolut Vodka in its brand home in Åhus, Sweden. “We tried to find a new way for consumers to understand flavour differentials in vodka by creating a 360-degree taste experience.”

Pineapple Martini

Pineapple Martini, one sip and you can hear M People

The night wasn’t just about nostalgia. Alongside the ‘90s classic cocktails, we tried updated versions by Max and Noel Venning that were more attuned to less sweet modern palates. Looking to the future, Reed is very excited about some of the new talent in the business. He mentioned Joe Scofield, formerly of The Tippling Club in Singapore, and Jack McGarry, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit in New York, as young bartenders he admires. According to Reed, thanks to the internet, the cocktail business is international. “You’ll find guys who don’t really work in one bar anymore, they just traverse the world, doing guest shifts in different bars, learning and understanding from bartenders, bars and countries around the world.”

It will be interesting to see what the next 20 years has in store for London’s bar scene. But it’s fun to look back, too. What are your defining cocktail moments from the nineties, noughties and now? Let us know on social or in the comments below.

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St George Spirits: The home of dynamic distilling

California’s St George Spirits knows no bounds when it comes to distilling invention. We travel to Alameda to meet the team. Across the Bay from the contrasts of San Francisco…

California’s St George Spirits knows no bounds when it comes to distilling invention. We travel to Alameda to meet the team.

Across the Bay from the contrasts of San Francisco – the confines of the street grids and the expanse of sky, the nostalgia and the novelty, the big business and the homelessness – is a startling stretch of nothing. After the colour, the noise, the sharp undulations of the city, arriving the St George Spirits Distillery in Alameda is disorienting.

Driving down West Midway and onto Monarch Street, you feel like you’ve landed on a different planet. The scale is extraordinary; cavernous buildings set back from the road, each in acres of space, barely another car to be seen. The proportions, the flatness, the emptiness are the opposite of the city across the water. I was half an hour ahead of schedule when my Lyft pulled up outside St George, one of the last buildings on the island. I’d enormously overestimated the time it would take to drive over from the city, and was feeling as worried about my early arrival as I was surprised by Alameda’s quiet. It all felt mildly post-apocalyptic.

St George Spirits

Storm incoming: the view from St George back to San Francisco on a grey day. We promise the city is there somewhere

The weather didn’t help. A winter storm was about to roll in; sensible types were already safely harboured from the forecast deluge. My driver had inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, dropped me on the wrong side, keen to get back over the bridges into the city before the worst of the weather. The St George building was as huge as all the others, and I wondered if anyone would hear my knock. They did. A warm, friendly welcome greeted me, completely at odds to the starkness outside; one of the distilling team led me through the impressive 65,000 sq ft production and warehouse space. There were two banks of gleaming stills, vats and tanks galore, and near-floor to ceiling racking – more on all that shortly. It somehow felt far smaller on the inside that it did from the outside, stack after stack of maturing spirits filling the vast space to the brim. Out the other side, right by the really rather obvious entrance I should have arrived at, was a generous visitor area, with two bars and a shop at the far end. Windows down the exterior wall provided a glorious view back to San Francisco, with all its towers. There’s nothing between the distillery and the city except for a wash of wetland, the Bay itself, and an expanse of concrete which turned out to be a disused runway.

St George Spirits roof

St George barrels and the original WWII hangar roof

“This is World War II construction, an old aircraft hangar,” confirmed Dave Smith, St George Spirits head distiller and vice president, an animated yet softly-spoken fellow who joined the team nearly 14 years ago. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me despite my poor timekeeping, and welcomed me with literal open arms. “The last squadron stationed in the hangar prior to the base’s retirement was Atkron 304, known as the Firebirds, which were made up of Grumman A-6 Intruders.” The scale of the buildings now makes sense, and when I looked into the site afterwards it turns out it was a Naval air base that only closed in 1997.

‘Creating a movement’

St George Spirits dates back to well before the airfield closed, though in a different location. Jörg Rupf, widely considered to be the father of American artisan distilling, set up St George way back in 1982 – long before hipster beards and ubiquitous quirkiness overran the territory marked ‘craft’. He travelled to the US on an assignment from the Ministry of Culture in his native Germany, but it was San Francisco, and his family heritage as Black Forest brandy makers, that shaped his course. It started with eaux-de-vie, pear in particular, made in a tiny “20ft by 20ft” room, Smith told me. Times might have changed when it comes to production scale (the team moved to the current site in 2004) but fruit brandy remains an integral part of the St George offering today.

St George Spirits

St George Pear Brandy in front of the distillery – a starting point for the brand

The breadth of the distillery’s product portfolio is one indicator as to why a visit to St George Spirits is high on the bucket list for so many drinks lovers, myself included. And that’s where we began, hunkered down at one of the gleaming bars as the storm swept in across the Bay. As he poured St George Pear Brandy, Smith was keen to stress just how much of a catalyst Rupf was for the US spirits scene. “Jörg was really thoughtful about helping other distillers,” he said. “He really had a sense of ‘all ships will rise’; he created a movement.” Under his mentorship, other distillers set up shop, and he shared his expertise in fermentation and distilling, especially with regards to eaux-de-vies and fruit spirits – drinks totally new to the market, at the time. It’s a category that makes perfect sense for California, with its lush fruit harvests.

And that’s what you get with Pear Brandy – a hit of fresh lushness. It’s made with Bartlett pears, and a lot of them: there are 30-35lb of pears in each bottle. Why Bartlett pears? “We want small fruit, so the essential oils are very concentrated,” Smith said. The cinnamon spice, pear drop notes develop during a two-week fermentation, with the spirit eventually made in a 250-litre pot still. “Our job as distillers is to be expressive of the raw materials,” Smith stated. It’s this pear spirit that is the base for so many other St George products, including the All Purpose Vodka. That vibrant pear note is like a signature sillage you pick up throughout the portfolio.

St George Spirits

All kinds of distilling options at St George

We tasted our way through the vodka line with California Citrus and Green Chile Vodka. It’s here that the St George philosophy to showcase raw materials really hits home. The spirit is made with five different chilies (jalapeños, serranos, and habaneros, then red and yellow bell peppers) in a mix of infusions and distillations, depending on what flavours, textures and heat levels each technique extracts. “We separate these things out, and then recombine,” he explained. “I can use alcohol as a solvent, I can distil, I can infuse… But I don’t want things to be complex for the sake of being complex.” The creativity, the technicalities, the detail… it’s mind-boggling. And this is just for one bottling among 20 or so – not including limited-run expressions.

Transparent production

We moved on from the vodkas to the trio of St George gins, each distinct, each characterful, but each clearly St George. We start with Dry Rye, which, as the name implies, uses 100% pot-distilled rye spirit as a base. It’s juniper-forward, with just five other botanicals: black peppercorn, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel and lime peel, combining for a rich, warming hit, but never overpowering the rye character. “We’re trying to find things that are expressive, and that have a statement to make,” Smith said. Next is Botanivore, Smith’s “botanical leader” made with a whopping 19 botanicals with a mix of infusions, macerations and distillations. It’s deliciously complex on the palate, still with that vital juniper but with a St George eccentricity, too.

St George Spirits gin

The trio of St George gins

Next up: Terroir Gin, which was actually the first St George gin, Smith explained. It was master distiller and president Lance Winters who came up with the concept. “He was picking up his son from summer camp, when he had the idea,” he detailed. When you taste the gin, you can picture the scene: the mountains, the forests, the sea. It’s California in a bottle, an evocative, aromatic gin made with Douglas fir, California bay laurel, coastal sage and other local botanicals. The flavour is earthy, outdoorsy, and especially effective with a building storm as a backdrop.

Time to segue into whiskey. First stop: the latest batch of Breaking & Entering, an intriguing expression that blends sourced bourbon and rye with some of St George’s own California malt whiskey. “We want to be really transparent that we’re not making it all in-house,” Smith stated. “And as none of the four grains are more than 51%, there really isn’t a category that we can label it as.” The rye, barley, corn and wheat mashbill is balanced so that none is prominent, but all is delicious. The 2018 edition was bursting with rich, pastry notes, jammy red fruits and dash of menthol, all wrapped up in a sweetcorn smoothness. A treat, indeed.

Just one of the very many barrel types

The final thing we tasted before stepping back into the distillery was St George Single Malt, a fascinating expression that Smith described as a “brandy made from grain”. Winters’ background is brewing; combine that with the eaux-de-vie obsession that underpins operations, and this starts to make sense. The barley at the base of this bottling is malted in multiple ways, including smoking some over beech and alder wood. Different barrels, from ex-Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee, to Port pipes and both French and local wine casks, contribute all kinds of flavours. Maturation spans from four to 19 years. You’d expect it to be bonkers, but it works. It’s batch-produced and changes each year, but the 2018 expression was like a sweetly-spiced hot chocolate, with zesty orange top notes. Lovely stuff. And that’s just part of the portfolio; after the distillery tour we sampled the Raspberry Brandy, Aqua Perfecta Basil Eau de Vie, California Reserve Agricole Rum, Raspberry Liqueur, Spiced Pear Liqueur, NOLA Coffee Liqueur, Bruto Americano bitters and Absinthe Verte, complete with a mischievous monkey on the label. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a range from a single producer. Tasting the whole lot in one morning was quite an experience.

Influences and inspiration

St George lays claim to a number of American-firsts in that list, including the Absinthe, which Smith described as “the worst kept secret in the Bay Area for about a decade prior to its official release”. Many defy category definitions (can you even make Rhum Agricole in California? The answer is yes, as long as you drop the ‘h’), and walking through the production space it all starts to make sense. The team here has an infatuation with flavour and a mastery of raw materials and process. There are five pot stills ranging in size from 250 litres to 1,500 litres, including hybrids with column options and an old Holstein, plus a coffee roaster dating back to 1952. If they can possibly make it in house, they will.

St George Spirits

Creation station: All kinds of stills

Grain for spirit currently maturing is floor-malted down the road at Admiral Maltings (“if you think about the real-estate in the Bay Area and what you need for maltings…” Smith says, as an aside). New cask requirements are met by Burgundy-style barrels. The California climate does hit the angel’s share – as much as 10% is lost in the first year, with 3-6% evaporating every year after that. We stopped for a taste of something really exciting – some California Shochu, followed by some unusual cask samples. It was a real treat, and there were yet more examples of surprising ideas coming out of this distillery.

Cali shochu, anyone?

In terms of newness, the stakes ramp up even higher in the St George lab. We stepped into the experiential space and the energy from all the ideas was almost tangible. On the left was a library of samples. Single distillates, infusions and more stack from floor to ceiling. There were two test stills, one 10-litre, one 30-litre, and all kinds of tanks, one even styled to look like Star Wars’ R2-D2. There’s stuff on every surface – you couldn’t call it clutter because it all felt purposeful, like the next big idea could be in any of those little bottles.

St George Spirits

Dave Smith gets the cask sample spirit flowing

“It’s what we’re influenced by, what we’re excited by,” Smith said. “We need to do more than what we did yesterday, increase our repertoire and techniques.” Not everything is successful, he added. But it doesn’t need to be. There’s clearly no fear of failure here, which goes some way to explaining why the range of St George spirits is not just delicious, but incredibly diverse.

St George Spirits lab

Experimental lab stills!

We headed out of the room and back to the bar. The storm was in full swing; rain pounding against the windows, the old WWII wooden roof hollering in the elements. You couldn’t even see across the old runway, let alone make out any shape of the city beyond. Smith looked around back towards the distillery as if taking it all in, and summed up what seems to be the St George philosophy: “We create things because we can.” And what better reason is there than that?

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Vodka: Ultra-premium is out, terroir is in

Serious spirits fans often consider vodka to be mass-produced and dull, with little to shout about other than questionable marketing fluff – but if you follow the liquid from field…

Serious spirits fans often consider vodka to be mass-produced and dull, with little to shout about other than questionable marketing fluff – but if you follow the liquid from field to bottle, what you find might surprise you. We speak to distillers championing the category’s flavour nuances…

Over the course of the 25 years Jan Woroniecki spent working in eastern European bars and restaurants, he reckons that he sampled almost every vodka known to man. The “crass marketing” and “desperate search for a point of difference” adopted by many brands had left a bitter taste in his mouth, and so a dejected Woroniecki sought to do better. And so Kavka Vodka was born.

Frozen Kavka

Frozen Kavka

“A number of factors have determined the direction that mainstream vodkas have taken over the last century – industrialisation of production, economies of scale, cartels of producers, a drive to satisfy the lower end of the market – where if you can’t have quality, at least you can make it as inoffensive as possible,” he says.

“The idea behind Kavka was to fight back against the idea that vodka should be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or colour – the American legal definition of vodka and to go back to the production methods popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when each distillery would produce spirits that emphasised taste and individuality rather than trying to filter them out.

For many, this mission begins in the field. For, William Borrell, founder of Vestal Vodka (based in London but the liquid comes from Poland), his “eureka moment” occurred after tasting potatoes grown in different fields. “They tasted completely different when cooked, and had almost tropical notes when taken from the soil and lightly steamed immediately after picking,” he says. “By using ingredients grown in different fields during different yearly cycles, you have both terroir and vintage much like viticulture in wine production.”

Vodka has “a long history of outrageous marketing”, Borrell continues, “filtered through diamonds, crystal skull bottles and ‘P Diddy* is my best friend’”. But over the last few years, in vodka and spirits in general the T-word has becoming increasingly commonplace.

Polish vodka Belvedere took terroir to the next level with the launch of its Single Estate Series a few years back. The brand works with only eight local agricultural sources to create Belvedere Pure, and honed in on two of those for the series, global brand ambassador Michael Foster tells me “focusing on the lakeside Bartężek and forested Smogóry to illustrate the variation of terroir on Dankowskie Diamond rye”.

Lake Bartężek looking particularly beautiful

Smogóry Forest is made from rye grown at a single small estate deep in western Poland, he says; a region “known for its vast forests, short, continental weather fronts, mild winters and fertile soils”. Lake Bartężek, meanwhile, is crafted from the same rye strain grown at a single farm in northern Poland’s Mazury lake district, “renowned for its crystal-clear glacial lakes, weather shaped by Baltic winds and long, snowy winters”. The former creates a “bold and savoury” vodka, with notes of salted caramel, honey and white pepper; while the latter is “delicate and fresh”, with notes of black pepper, toasted nuts and cream.

“For many years, there has been a long-standing assumption that all vodka tastes the same, and is largely a neutral spirit,” says Foster. “Although the nuances between vodkas are much more subtle than other liquids, as demonstrated by the Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek, there is an ability to develop vodkas that reflect the environment in which they were created.”

Then there’s the small matter of distillation. Say what you like about vodka, but there’s no scope to improve behind a decade in wood or a wine cask finish. Every step counts. Column still distillation – how the vast majority of vodka is produced – creates a high quality base spirit, “so long as it’s not over-distilled or over-filtered”, says Woroniecki, but using a pot still allows more character to come through, “as you can control the purity levels of the spirit and accentuate the flavours of the raw materials whether it is potato, rye or grain”.

Kavka vodka Martini

Kavka vodka Martini

Then there’s flavoured vodka. It has a long and noble history: not the saccharine birthday cake or Parma Violet flavours that plagued the early 2,000s, but rather herbs and botanicals used to make what’s known as a “bitters” style vodka, says Woroniecki, “Zoladkowa being a classic, as well as Zubrowka, which is made with a wild bison grass”.

“Macerating fruit is a classic country method, cherry being the most well-known,” he continues. “There are, however, subtler variations; traditionally Zytnia was made with the addition of apple spirit, while Stolichnaya used caraway to add extra depth.”

Woroniecki adopted some of these methods to create Kavka, which contains a blend of rye and wheat spirits along with small quantities of aged pot-stilled fruit spirits: apple and plum. “The fruit flavours are very much in the background but they combine to create a vodka with length, depth and character,” he explains.

This reflects the taste preferences of a more discerning drinker, says Foster. “With the rise of the ‘craft’ movement particularly in gin people are becoming ever more interested about the provenance of products, production processes and the source of raw ingredients,” he says.

“Now that we’ve passed the ‘Disco Era’ of bartending, quality has become the topic of discussion rather than quantity, and people are looking to expand their horizons to drink better. In relation to vodka, this has led to an upturn in the super premium category, and a wider understanding that vodka can have taste, character and substance.”

*Apparently he goes by “Ciroc Obama” now.

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We chat all things Irish whiskey with Billy Leighton!

St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us! In the spirit of the moment, we caught up with Irish Distillers master blender Billy Leighton to talk Spot Irish whiskey, the ace…

St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us! In the spirit of the moment, we caught up with Irish Distillers master blender Billy Leighton to talk Spot Irish whiskey, the ace cask samples we have up for grabs, new distilleries and innovations for the future.

It’s St Patrick’s Day on Sunday! 17 March brings with it a celebration of all things Ireland, and it would be highly remiss if that didn’t include a splash of something boozily delicious – Irish gin, Poitín, and of course, whiskey! And to help get in the celebratory spirit, we’ve not only taken £5 off each bottle of the marvellous Yellow Spot, but we’re running a competition to win two 700ml bottles of incredible Malaga cask whiskey, too. Hand drawn by Billy Leighton, Irish Distillers master blender, no less!

But Irish spirits are for life, not just St Patrick’s Day. With that in mind, we got Billy himself on the blower to quiz him not only on Yellow Spot and those delicious sample bottles, but the past, present and future of Irish whiskey, too. And from the historical single pot still style to the wealth of new distilleries opening up (Clonakilty became the 23rd earlier this month!), it’s looking bright indeed…

Master of Malt: Hello Billy! First off, in your own words, tell us about the history of Spot and how all the whiskeys came about?

Billy Leighton: I think the Spot range has a really good heritage. It goes back to the family, Mitchell & Son, and they’ve been in Dublin for generations now, close 240 years. And it’s still run by Mitchell and his son; we [Irish Distillers] have a very good relationship with them. They’re a lovely family, Jonathan and Robert are the current father and son. But when their family business started up back in the early 1800s, they were wine merchants, importing wine from all around the world. Casks of oak, fortified wine: sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala, all those fortified wines. And then, about 1880, 1890, they then became whiskey bonders. They had all these empty wine casks, having the wine bottled, and where they’re left with the casks. So they then will have bought new-make spirit from the Jameson Distillery in Dublin and filled that into their freshly emptied fortified wine casks. I don’t know what spawned the colour-coding system, but it was a good idea to colour-code their casks, to designate the age of the whiskey they were going to bottle. For example, they would have put out a green dawb of paint on casks that were intended to be used at ten years old, and that became their ‘green spot’. And likewise, the yellow paint was 12 years old; the red paint was 15 years old. They had a ‘blue spot’ as well, which was a seven year old. So that’s how the whole Spot range came about.

Spot Irish whiskey family

The Spot family of Irish whiskeys

MoM: And that was in Irish whiskey boom time…

BL: Well certainly in the 1970s, 1976-ish I think it was, Irish pot still whiskey had gone through a very, very bad time. Between the early 1900s and right up until the 1960s, Irish pot still whiskey was almost dead and buried! It was brands like Green Spot and Redbreast, two single pot still brands, that endured the bad times. In the mid-seventies, Irish Distillers basically took over the Spot Whiskies – of which there was only one at the time! The Green Spot. It became an Irish Distillers brand but the distribution in Ireland remained with Mitchell & Son. Then we did a bit of a makeover on the brand, and it got a new lease of life. I think the interest in Irish single pot still whiskey was starting to gain a bit more traction again, so we decided then to extend the range. That’s when we re-introduced Yellow Spot with the 12 year old age-statement on it, and then just recently the Red Spot, with the 15 year old statement.

MoM: Why do you think the Green Spot survived and the others didn’t? Was it to do with the age or the flavour profile? Why did one endure when the others fell by the wayside?

You know, it could have been availability of stock. The Irish whiskey category had dwindled away to virtual extinction. They couldn’t have sustained or justified maintaining the full range. The Green Spot is no longer a ten year old, it doesn’t have an age statement. So I think it was just to keep that brand alive. And maybe more for sentimental purposes than anything else, you know?

Bill Leighton Irish whiskey

Billy does his thing

MoM: Sure. And today, aside from age statements, what separates the different Spots, and are they very similar at all to the historical ones?

BL: Well, we like to think so. But the wood management wouldn’t have been as sophisticated as what we have today. So they would have had all of those different fortified wine casks available – sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala – they wouldn’t necessarily have… structured their formulations to call out any cask type in particular. What we have tried to do is stay as close to the heritage of the brand, but we tend now to call out the different fortified wine casks that we’re using. In the Yellow Spot we call out the Malaga cask inclusion, with the Red Spot it’s the Marsala cask, Green Spot has got oloroso sherry casks. It is the only fortified wine cask in there. The Yellow Spot and the Red Spot have a little bit of oloroso sherry in there, but again, it’s kind of doing what the Mitchells did. It wasn’t so much one particular cask type became Yellow Spot and a different cask type became Red Spot. There would have been a mix of casks. Back in the day, the age was the only differentiating factor.

MoM: So we’ve got these two Malaga cask bottles up for grabs, which is incredibly exciting. Tell us a little bit about what sets these apart, and how you go about choosing casks for bottling…

BL: Well for these special bottles that are up for grabs, we went and looked at what Malaga casks we’re currently using in Yellow Spot. We sampled a few of them, and picked out a good one that we felt had a nice balance of the single pot still character and also that Malaga component we’re using in Yellow Spot. How I see the Malaga cask manifesting itself in Yellow Spot is kind of heather-honey sweet note. It takes the sweetness you would see in Green Spot and it takes the sweetness up another level. The Malaga casks, whenever they’re seasoned in Malaga, the wine that’s used is 100% Pedro Ximénez. 30% of the Pedro Ximénez grapes would be sundried, so it’s concentrating the sweetness there. And I’m particularly partial to sweet wine, and the Malaga just fits the bill. Those honey-sweet notes very much complement and balance with the spiciness of the pot-still distillate itself. So it works, it works very, very well for me.

Red Spot Irish whiskey

Red Spot is a recent addition to the Irish pot still family

MoM: Fabulous. More broadly, Irish whiskey is obviously booming. Why do you think that is, and why do you think single pot still Irish whiskies are so popular again?

BL: Taking a step back a little bit, I think it’s fairly well-accepted within the Irish whiskey industry that the whole renaissance has been brought about by the success of Jameson. Around the world, you know?  And where people are getting a taste for Jameson, they’re more inquisitive; a lot of the flavour is being driven by that pot still component. People are always wanting to find out more, and Green Spot would be the opportunity for them to try that single pot still component. I think it’s consumer awareness brought about by the attention that Jameson is bringing to the Irish whiskey category as a whole. ‘Why do we talk about Irish single pot still whiskey, is it not just the same as Scotch malt, only it comes from Ireland?’ When they try it, they find out that Irish single pot still is a completely different style of whiskey from a Scotch malt. And once they get the experience of a single pot still, such as Green Spot, they want to know a little bit more about what other offerings there are. And then of course there are other brands, like Redbreast for example, which is a single pot still Irish whiskey but with a different expression of maturation. I really think the Irish single pot still whiskey is where the future is.

MoM: Absolutely. But Irish whiskey as a whole is changing, not just single pot still. I think one of the reasons is all the new distilleries coming online. And now we’re seeing a lot of new spirit coming into the market. Do you think we’re going to see significant shifts in the structure of Irish whiskey and the character of the category?

BL: There are lot of new distilleries and it’s exciting when you see so many opening up, and they’re all going to want to make their mark and have their own individual style. I think that’s only good for the whole category, consumers included in that. I think for a long time, like ten years ago when we had only four operating distilleries, we didn’t have such a selection. And neither did we need one, to be honest! But each new distillery coming on stream is going to want to make their own mark and do things their own way. The only thing maybe to add there is that [it’s great] as long as all these new styles of whiskey don’t compromise the quality standard that Jameson has set, you know? That’s one thing we want to be careful about, that the perceived quality of Irish whiskey doesn’t slip.

Yellow Spot Irish whiskey

Oh haiiii Yellow Spot

MoM: Yeah, it’s got to be good!

BL: And from that point of view, Irish Distillers has probably been in the business the longest, but our doors are always open. We have a mentoring scheme in place now where new distillers can come along, probably through the Irish Whiskey Association, and see how we do things. We’re not telling them how to make the whiskey because they’d probably all end up making the same sort of whiskey! But it’s just to highlight production methods, even cask procurement, things that people don’t even think about. Like how much freight on casks costs. We’re quite open to tell things as they are, because we want to see everybody succeeding in the Irish whiskey category, making their own contribution to future growth.

MoM: Through the mentoring programme, you and the team must meet a lot of new people and a lot of new minds with a lot of new ideas. Is there anything that particularly excites you?

BL: It’s early days, but a lot of the new brands that we’re seeing in the marketplace now are pretty much different maturation expressions. People are procuring some whiskey for themselves and then doing their own twist on it. That in itself is adding a bit of excitement, maturation styles and tweaks that wouldn’t have been done before. When we had the four operating distilleries [Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills and Kilbeggan], everybody was kind of just set in their ways. They had successful formulations, why mess with them? But now we have the Irish Whiskey Regulations, they’re out there, but they’re there to be tested. There will be opportunities for using different types of wood, for example; Irish regulations allow us to use wood other than oak. So there’s interest there at the moment. We’ve introduced a whiskey finished in chestnut casks with Method and Madness. Bushmills has introduced an acacia cask finish. But also, whenever the new distilleries are up and running there are loads of opportunities for using different cereal types rather than just barley; raw barley and malted barley. There are opportunities there for other grain types, maybe rye or oats, wheat, whatever. I would say in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be seeing a little bit more variation on the distillate type itself, driven by different cereals.

Billy Leighton Irish whiskey experiments

Billy being all experimental

MoM: That’s exciting. And how much of this might be happening at the Middleton microdistillery?

BL: Oh yeah, we do quite a lot of experimentation there in the micro. We have done some trials with various cereals over the past few years. Some of that will actually become whiskey in the next while – it will be over three years old. It’s going along and it’s working very nicely. But we wouldn’t be giving anything away on that or releasing anything until we’re happy that it’s of the quality and the style that we’re happy to share with the consumers.

MoM: And going back full circle to Spot Whiskeys, what’s next for the Spot brand? We don’t have a Blue Spot anymore, might we see a return of that?

BL: We get this on social media all the time: ‘when are you going to complete the family of Spots?’, and it’s not something that we have ignored at all. It’s been discussed, but we don’t have any solid plans at the minute to reintroduce a Blue Spot. There have been discussions. Maybe what could be more likely, I’m not saying it would happen, but we might look at other variants on Green Spot. For example, to add to the Léoville Barton and the Chateau Montelena expressions. So I think there’s a lovely story there that connects Irish families that have left Ireland to go and get involved in the wine business around the world. And the Mitchells are still wine importers, so they have contacts all around the world. So anything we may do in that direction would be in collaboration with the Mitchells. You probably will see maybe the odd single cask offering with the Green Spot label on it. But that’s as much as there is really at the minute.

MoM: Lots of potential developments in the future. Thanks so much, Billy!

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When All is Said: A novel told through whiskey

As you may have already guessed, we love whiskey at Master of Malt. We also love reading, that is why we’re head-over-heels with When All is Said, a novel told…

As you may have already guessed, we love whiskey at Master of Malt. We also love reading, that is why we’re head-over-heels with When All is Said, a novel told through Irish whiskey.

When All is Said is Anne Griffin’s debut, but it reads like the work of a master storyteller. No surprise then that it’s been selling like hot cakes in Britain and Ireland (where it was a number one bestseller), and picking up great reviews. Master of Malt has been conducting whiskey tastings at some of her talks, including one at Waterstones Covent Garden, where Griffin used to work. Before the event started, she told us a bit about the inspiration for the book:

“It must have been July of 2014, I happened into a bar in Mayo and here was an old gent standing there having a pint. He came over to talk to us. He said, ‘you know I used to work here when I was a boy’, and then he said the most amazing thing as he walked away, he said, ‘I’m not going to see the morning’. But he was gone before I could pull him back say ‘so exactly what does that mean?!’ What a statement! The next day that sentence stayed in my head and the idea of Maurice Hannigan, this fictional character sitting at a bar, to drink five toasts to the most five most important people in his life, came to me. And that’s where it all started.”

Midleton whiskey

Midleton Very Rare – so rare that we have sold out

Over the course of the evening, he has a few drinks, and he tells us his whole life. The three whiskeys he consumes are Bushmills to his daughter Molly, Jefferson’s Bourbon to his son in America, and finally something old and rare from Midleton to his long-suffering wife Sadie. He also drinks a bottle of stout to his brother Tony and one to his sister-in-law Noreen. We learn about his upbringing in poverty in Ireland, working in service for the brutal local landowners, his marriage, and children. There’s skulduggery involving a rare gold sovereign, family revelations and more than a little tragedy.

When All Is Said

Fiction chart-topper, When All Is Said

Hannigan is not always a likeable man. He can be stubborn, mean and greedy. As a boy, he grew up with nothing and gradually became the richest man in the area, but this success came at the expense of personal relationships. It’s a story about regret: that evening, Hannigan says all the things he should have said in person to the people he is addressing. I read much of it on the plane back from Dublin and found myself welling up more than a few times (though apparently altitude makes people emotional). Reading When All is Said is like meeting an interesting, engaging, amusing and occasionally maddening man in the pub, and listening to his life story. There’s something very believable about this reticent man opening up over a few drinks. This quote from the book, sums him up:

“As for Irish men, I’ve news for you. It’s worse as you get older. It’s like we tunnel ourselves deeper into our aloneness. Solving our problems on our own. Men, sitting alone at bars going over and over the same old territory in their heads.”

Anne Griffin

Anne Griffin

Anne Griffin herself is a keen whiskey drinker: “My family, my mum and dad are teetotallers. But around 25, I began to just have a whiskey after dinner. I loved Bushmills and I adored Midleton. And I just felt that Maurice Hannigan had to be a whiskey drinker.” We’ll drink to that.

Master of Malt will be supporting Anne Griffin at the Cork World Book Festival on Saturday 27th April.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin is published by Sceptre, hardback, £12.99.

 

 

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Five minutes with… Knappogue Castle’s Tony Carroll

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, we pinned down Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey global brand ambassador Tony Carroll to talk 15th century castles, defunct distilleries and fighting spirit….

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, we pinned down Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey global brand ambassador Tony Carroll to talk 15th century castles, defunct distilleries and fighting spirit. Plus, three cracking Irish whiskey cocktail recipes from New York bar Pouring Ribbons…

When the Irish whiskey market collapsed in the early 20th century, distillers, blenders and bottlers on the Emerald Isle were plunged into a century-long decline they’ve only recently began to recover from. In the 1890s the island was home to more than 30 distilleries; by the 1990s, just three remained.

Today, the category is the fastest-growing spirit on the planet, but the after-effects of the bust linger. Today, Irish whiskey can be roughly split across three routes: distillers with mature stock; working distilleries bottling sourced whiskey, and traditional bonders. ‘Old’ and ‘rare’ whiskeys don’t appear too often.

For independent bottler Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey, however, those words are part of its DNA. In fact Knappogue Castle 1951, bottled by the brand’s founder Mark Edwin Andrews II, is one of the oldest and rarest commercially available Irish whiskies on the market.

If your palate is yet to be acquainted with Knappogue Castle’s portfolio, its whiskeys are triple distilled and aged for a minimum of 12 years in bourbon oak casks. This makes for a “smooth, mellow and well-balanced” dram, Carroll told MoM, with notes of “fruit, vanilla and peppery spice”. Here, he explains how the brand came to be…

Tony Carroll, Knappogue Castle

Tony Carroll, brand ambassador for Knappogue Castle

Master of Malt: Knappogue’s founder started ageing whiskey in his eponymous castle way back in the Sixties. Could you tell us how the whiskey became the brand it is today?

Tony Carroll: Knappogue Castle Single Malt Irish Whiskey is named after Knappogue Castle, a 15th century castle in western Ireland, which was restored by Texas native Mark Edwin Andrews II and his wife – a prominent American architect – in 1966. A connoisseur and collector, Andrews amassed an impressive and rare collection of pure pot still Irish whiskey. Purchasing by the cask direct from distillers, primarily from B. Daly Distillery which ceased production in 1954, he aged and then bottled the product under the name Knappogue Castle after his beloved building. Andrews’ last bottling – Knappogue Castle 1951 – was made available to the public for the first time in 1998 by his son, Mark Edwin Andrews III, under Knappogue Castle Spirits – an homage to his father’s legacy. Today, the Knappogue Castle portfolio includes the 1951 and the 12, 14 and 16-year expressions along with a range of different limited releases.

MoM: Knappogue Castle 1951 caught our eye, being one of the oldest and rarest commercially available Irish whiskies on the market could you talk about the history behind it?

TC: The production of Knappogue Castle 1951 is very much intertwined with the history of Knappogue itself, being the last of Mark Edwin Andrews II’s original bottlings from the days he collected whiskey at Knappogue Castle. Made from malted and unmalted barley, Knappogue Castle 1951 was triple distilled in copper pot stills in 1951, aged in oloroso sherry casks for 36 years and then bottled in 1987.

MoM: Irish whiskey very much seems to be focused on innovation at the moment. Could you share some insight about Knappogue’s strapline, “Boldly daring to do things the way they’ve always been done”, and the intention behind it?

TC: The strapline very much reflects the ethos and direction that Knappogue has taken throughout its many years. It was bold and daring of Mark Andrews II to purchase the castle and bring it back to its present glory, and it was bold and daring for Mark Andrews III – our current Knappogue chairman – to take the whiskey to America. But that’s the way Knappogue has always been. It’s that simple.

MoM: We love a bit of history here at MoM towers. Could you tell us an interesting story about Knappogue Castle?

TC: In the early 20th century the castle served as the headquarters of General Michael Brennan and the Irish Free State army in Ireland’s fight for freedom. Maybe this is where Knappogue Castle gets its fighting spirit from.  

MoM: We’re dying to know where does Knappogue source its casks from today?

TC: Knappogue, like all Irish whiskey, is bound by the Irish whiskey technical file, which states that the best cask for ageing Irish whiskey is American white oak that has been maturing bourbon for two years and over. This provides beautiful balance and colouring. With regard to our finishes, we source barrels from Spain, France and Italy to name a few. All these casks have matured either port or wine and each contributes its own very unique taste profile to our Knappogue finishes. But trust me on one thing – they’re bloody lovely.  

Knappogue Castle 1951

Seriously rare, Knappogue Castle 1951

MoM: Could you talk about the most exciting or perhaps unusual projects you have done in the past? And any you have lined up?

KC: The new Cask Finish Series is the latest in Knappogue Castle’s history of successful speciality limited releases. With only 1,020 bottles in production, the latest release is The Château Pichon Baron, which is matured in bourbon barrels for a minimum of 12 years, then further aged in casks from the renowned Bordeaux winery. We also have plans for additional Barolo and Marsala wine cask finished expressions, which will find a home in America, Europe and Asia. Earlier this year we unveiled the 21 Year Old Single Malt edition, too.

MoM: Where is Irish whiskey headed – what do you predict the category will look like in a decade’s time, say?

TC: Right now the growth of Irish whiskey is phenomenal, and it’s down to a number of factors. Most of the growing Irish whiskey markets are well-established Scotch strongholds. Scotch has driven an appetite for high-end whiskey, but nowadays choice is king. Years ago, for example, America didn’t have too much choice… Scotch or beer was pretty much it, but these days with the plentiful supply of Irish whiskies, the consumer gets to choose. Secondly, the age demographic has changed, moving from middle aged men that like a snifter to young 28 to 40 year olds enjoying Irish whiskey in cocktails or on the rocks. The next 10 years will be very much ‘foot to the floor’ as we say here in Ireland, but Irish whiskey is a long game player. It takes 12 to 21 years to produce our current range of Knappogue whiskey, so we will stick to the principles that have served us well over the past years.

Thanks, Tony! Below, you’ll find three Knappogue Castle whiskey cocktails created by Joaquín Simó from Pouring Ribbons. Slainte!

Crossing Currents

Ingredients: 60ml Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey, 20ml Contratto Bianco, 1 tsp Kalani Coconut Liqueur, 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Glass: Cocktail
Garnish: Trimmed, expressed and inserted lemon peel
Method: Stir and strain

Sweater Weather

Ingredients: 60ml Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey, 1 tsp Grade B Maple Syrup, 1 tsp Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao, 1 tsp Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Glass: Rocks
Ice: Cylinder
Garnish: Trimmed, expressed and inserted orange peel
Method: Build in glass

MacNamara Rose

Ingredients: 60ml Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey, 20ml Lillet Rosé, 15ml Aperol, 2 slices muddled cucumber, 1 pinch sea salt
Glass: Cocktail
Garnish: Skewered cucumber ribbon with 1 drop rose water
Method: Muddle lightly, stir and double strain

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IWD 2019: Meet our content assistant, Jess Williamson!

Want to get into writing about whisky? On International Women’s Day, we meet our content assistant Jess, who does just that! It’s International Women’s Day! All week, I’ve been chatting…

Want to get into writing about whisky? On International Women’s Day, we meet our content assistant Jess, who does just that!

It’s International Women’s Day! All week, I’ve been chatting to just some of the women who work at Master of Malt, in all different departments across the business. We’ve met Emma, our head of service; Mariella, our PR manager; Rachel, our trade service manager; Laura, our campaign executive; and earlier today, Charlotte, our digital marketing assistant.

Now, wrapping up our Q&A series, we have Jess, the newest member of the MoM marketing team. She joined Content in January 2019 and immediately hit the ground running, helping to research and write about – and, most importantly, taste! – the very many products we get live on the site every day. She also contributes to The Nightcap, the blog, and a whole host of other drinks and words-related things.

Intrigued about getting into drinks writing? Want an insight into content at MoM? Over to Jess!

Tell us about you and your role at Master of Malt.
I’m the content assistant at Master of Malt, so I mainly help with the shed-loads of new products that flood in, and write some (hopefully) witty and informative content for them!

Talk us through a typical day…  
Mostly I’ll be looking through all the new product listings and writing content for those, with some social media content on the side. Occasionally, we have brands come in to show us their products; those days are always educational and delicious. I contribute to The Nightcap posts each week, and if I’m lucky then I’ll also have some tasty drams to write tasting notes for!

How did you get into content and writing?
I graduated from Bristol University with an English Literature degree, so I’ve always loved writing, and have written for online music magazines in my spare time for nearly three years. I also worked in an extensive gin bar for a while (it had 64 gins!), which is when I realised that drinks were really a thing – when I say that, I mean more than just vodka and squash, which happily I shall never drink again. I started temping in another department within the company for a few months, during which time the industry got me hook, line and sinker, and I applied for my current role at MoM!

Jess, who loves music and booze, is our content assistant!

What’s one of the most surprising things about your role?
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was (happily) surprised at how varied it is, and how everyone is happy to pitch in, and for me to pitch into projects. I don’t think I’d quite understood the scale of the industry and the level of discernment involved – I was blind but now I see! Also, three cheers for the hands-on nature of actually tasting the drinks I write about. Yum.

What makes the drinks industry such an interesting place to work?
As someone fairly new to the industry I’ve learnt so much in such a short space of time, and I don’t think that’ll slow down any time soon! Everyone involved is so enthusiastic; there’s such a great combination of tradition and innovation. The whole nature of drinks is so subjective as each consumer is unique, so it feels like the possibilities are endless!

Recommend a drink!
Just one? I’m a big fan of trying any new and exciting cocktail when I’m out, but I love a Bramble. Although if I’m making a drink for myself, then it’ll probably be a Gin & Tonic!

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IWD 2019: Meet digital marketing assistant, Charlotte Gorzelak!

It’s International Women’s Day! All week, we’ve been celebrating by interviewing some of the women who work at Master of Malt. Today, we chat to our digital marketing assistant Charlotte…

It’s International Women’s Day! All week, we’ve been celebrating by interviewing some of the women who work at Master of Malt. Today, we chat to our digital marketing assistant Charlotte Gorzelak, who landed at MoM Towers after working in Germany and LA. Kent is very different in comparison…

8 March is here and it’s International Women’s Day! To mark the occasion, we thought we’d take the opportunity to quiz some behind-the-scenes faces at Master of Malt. Not only have you got to meet some of our dream team, hopefully it’s potentially sparked some drinks industry career ideas, too…

Today we’re chatting to Charlotte Gorzelak, who joined MoM in July 2018 as our digital marketing assistant. Charlotte’s career path so far has certainly been geographically diverse, and she’s also our resident detective with her Criminology degree. Intrigued? Read on!

Tell us about you and your role at Master of Malt…
I’m the digital marketing assistant at Master of Malt, so I do a little bit of everything from pay-per-click, to email and social marketing. I mainly build the social media posts which go out on all channels, and I go to a few events to post stories on Instagram to give our followers an insight into the interesting new things happening in the industry. Most recently, I was in Mayfair for the launch of our new MoMer’s Web Page Gin, and the week after that I was in Covent Garden for an Irish whiskey tasting and book signing with Anne Griffin, the author of When All is Said.

How did you get into digital marketing?
I actually got into marketing by applying for a waitressing role after graduating with a degree in Criminology. They saw I had media and PR experience on my CV, and offered me a different role in the interview. Cue four years of me working in a microbrewery, helping during brewing (read: getting malt in my wellingtons and generally making a mess), making cocktails and serving drinks, and doing marketing for a few drinks businesses. I also did a short stint in Los Angeles working with a film company as their marketing person, and in Germany filming with Audi at the Nürburgring. I then came back to England (and the drinks industry!) to work at MoM.

She might not be a GoT fan, but Charlotte is queen of the Iron Throne.

What makes the drinks industry such an interesting place to work?
It’s varied and fun. It’s such a broad industry. From the making of the drink to the selling and then the serving, you need lots of different skills at each intersection and I think that’s why you get such a mix of people working in our industry. There’s a place for everyone. When I worked in brewing, we used to do the brewing process in these steel vessels next to the bar. I was inside cleaning out the malt one day and popped my head out of the hatch. I totally surprised this couple eating their lunch next to the tank! It was hilarious, and it made their day that they could talk to someone who was really involved in the drink they were drinking at the time.

Tell us about a career highlight…
When I was just starting out at MoM I was asked to go to the Macallan Magnum exhibit to celebrate the opening of the new distillery. It was the first event I attended at MoM. I was able to take an in-depth look at the distillery and chat to people in the industry, while sipping amazing whisky cocktails – and I got to sample the Macallan Magnum expression bottled especially for the opening. I also went to Diageo’s Game of Thrones Johnnie Walker White Walker launch which was amazing, even though I have never seen the TV show! As we were filming, I even made a tiny cameo.

Recommend a drink!
The Penicillin cocktail. Smoke, ginger and sweetness. I’m still yet to perfect it at home but whenever it’s on a menu, it’s my go-to drink.

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IWD 2019: Meet trade service manager, Rachel Matthews!

It’s probably fairly obvious that we love and sell all kinds of delicious boozes here at Master of Malt. But did you know that we also work with the likes…

It’s probably fairly obvious that we love and sell all kinds of delicious boozes here at Master of Malt. But did you know that we also work with the likes of bars, restaurants and pubs? It’s Rachel Matthews and her team who look after this side of proceedings, and in today’s instalment of our International Women’s Day series we’re getting stuck in to all things Trade!

Rachel joined Master of Malt five-and-a-half years ago, and has been instrumental in building the Trade team out. Her hospitality background is a huge advantage, as is a love for the hundreds of new products we see each week. Over to Rachel!

Tell us about you and your role at Master of Malt.
I’m the trade service manager.  What do I do, I hear you ask… well, I’m here to support and help develop the team to provide the best service to our customers that have businesses in the world of booze. We give our on-trade customers a service which is knowledgeable, product-filled and a cut above the rest. And we continue to make Trade a thriving sector at Master of Malt!  Each year we gain more customers through word-of-mouth because of the service we proudly provide.

How did you get into trade service?
I’ve been at MoM for five-and-a-half years; before that, I was waitress at a cocktail bar when I met you (love that song – The Human League!). Sadly, it wasn’t as cool as that – it was a seafood restaurant. I’d worked in the hospitality industry for long period of time after university and I was ready to get out, but I still wanted to continue dealing with customers as I enjoyed that aspect of my work. This is when I decided I wanted to work for MoM, I knew a fair bit about alcohol, but my main love was dealing with customers. I finally, got an interview (after stalking the website daily) with Emma Golds, and they accepted me for a stock assistant role (not what I wanted but it developed my understanding of the company). I quickly transitioned into the Trade department. From there, I grew within the department, continually learning and building my knowledge about how to give our customers the best service possible. I’ve always been a believer that you have to work hard for what you want and always push yourself, learn from your strengths and weaknesses.  

Master of Malt International Women's Day Rachel Matthews

Meet trade service manager, Rachel!

What are the particular challenges to working in Trade?
I love a challenge; it is the only way you learn about yourself. But one particular area I find challenging is keeping up with the constant flow of new products. There are thousands of them, and it is not slowing down! For instance, the gin industry is still booming, and I believe there are 315 distilleries in the UK according to from HM Revenue & Customs figures, and gin drinkers helped category sales exceed more than £1.9bn in 2018. It’s absolutely mind-blowing!

What makes the drinks industry such an interesting place to work?
The industry is ever-changing, you never stop. People said after the EU referendum that the alcohol industry was in danger. Well, I can confirm that Trade is seeing sales climb 65% year-on-year.  People are wanting to spend more on the quality of the liquid, and are more focused on the ingredients and stories behind the bottles. This is great, as we are able to help our customers expand their knowledge on the products available, as well as our own knowledge, too! We are constantly learning, and no day is the same.

Recommend a drink!
Tough question! If I’m needing a pick-me-up then I’d go for an Espresso Martini. If I’m putting the world to right with my friends, then I’ll have a wee dram of the Glenfarclas 15 Year Old.

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The Golden Dram: A new whisky film coming soon

Master of Malt was lucky enough to attend a preview of new documentary The Golden Dram, set to hit cinemas from 8 March. So, what’s it all about? If you…

Master of Malt was lucky enough to attend a preview of new documentary The Golden Dram, set to hit cinemas from 8 March. So, what’s it all about?

If you like your whisky on screen, then you are spoiled for choice at the moment. A couple of years ago the BBC made Scotch! The Story of Whisky, there’s The Three Drinkers Do Scotch Whisky, which we wrote about recently, and Dave Broom has a crowdfunded film in the pipeline which sounds great. Now there’s The Golden Dram, and it’s directed by a man called Andrew Peat. How perfect is that?

The film features some of the biggest names in whisky including Charles MacLean, Richard Paterson (on magnificently hammy form) and Dr. Bill Lumsden. But at the heart of the film is Jim McEwan. Peat has been clever in constructing the film around this industry legend on the verge of retirement. This gives the story an elegiac, end-of-an-era quality.

Jim McEwan

Jim McEwan, standing in a barley field, thinking about whisky (probably)

McEwan was born on Islay near the Bowmore Distillery. The distillery was the heart of the town, and from an early age all he wanted to do was work there. He began as an apprentice in 1963. It was a different world. Bill Lumsden, who began his career in the 80s, tells the story of how, on his first day as a fresh-faced graduate, the distillery manager flicked his cigarette butt into a fermentation vat, just to show the college boy who was boss. There are stories about taking a dram of cask-strength whisky at 8am and another a lunchtime. Oh, for the days before health and safety!

Today, many in the business are university graduates but in McEwan’s day you worked your way up from the floor. He did shifts in all parts of Bowmore, including  coopering, malting and distilling. He quickly rose through the ranks and, after a spell blending whisky in Glasgow, in 1986 he was named Bowmore distillery manager.

Under McEwan, Bowmore became one of the most highly-regarded distilleries in Scotland. When Suntory took over in 1994, head office in Japan realised what a treasure they had in McEwan and sent him off around the world spreading the word about whisky. And you can see why – when he’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. To hear him talk is to hear a master storyteller with a deep love and knowledge of whisky.

Tired of all the travelling and missing his family– there are some moving contributions from his daughters – McEwan surprised everyone by leaving Bowmore in 2000 to take over a dilapidated distillery nearby, Bruichladdich. “When Bruichladdich died the community died,” McEwan tells us at one point in the film. This is the best part of the production, seeing how McEwan and the team rebuilt the distillery and reemployed all the old team who had been laid off. No, that’s just something in my eye. His relationship with distillery manager Duncan McGillivray is particularly warm and amusing.

Lynne McEwan

Lynne McEwan who works at her father’s old distillery, Bruichladdich

It is all beautifully shot with shimmering barley, sparkling water and lambs gamboling in the fields. As well as an intimate portrait of McEwan and Islay, the film also tells us some of the history of Scotch whisky and shows us how that barley is turned into the golden dram. Here, I think, it is less successful. If you don’t know how whisky is made you are probably going to be none the wiser after watching. The history element is similarly rushed. There’s stuff about the wild days of distilling before it went legal with the passing of the Excise Act in 1823, but then it jumps straight to the present day. I think something on the booms and busts that plague the industry would have been helpful in explaining why Bruichladdich and other distilleries on Islay closed. The directors could have cut many of the talking heads; there were so many that at times it reminded me a little of those 80s nostalgia shows featuring Stuart Maconie. A long segment about glass blowing also added nothing to the story.

But whenever McEwan is on screen, the film is nothing less than spellbinding. It ends with McEwan shutting the gates at Bruichladdich, we assume for the last time, to go into retirement. His work is done; Bruichladdich is back to its former glory and distilling on Islay is booming. But then, just before the credits roll, we are told that McEwan has been lured out of retirement for one final caper, building Islay’s newest distillery, Ardnahoe, which opens next month. You can’t keep him away from the business he loves.

To find out about screening for The Golden Dram go to: www.scotchthegoldendram.co.uk/cinemas/

 

 

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