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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

Five eco-friendly distilleries

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car…

From carbon emissions to wasteful byproducts, spirits production is a strain on nature, with the average 750ml bottle producing more than six pounds of CO2* (equivalent to a seven-mile car journey), according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. The second part of environmental series this week, we shine a light on five eco-friendly distilleries that take sustainability seriously…

Distilling is an art. It’s an expression of nature, creating complex flavour patterns – from delicate floral to powerful smoke – using little more than some combination of raw ingredients, yeast, water and occasionally wood. And yet, despite being au naturel in spirit, the production chain is liable to wreak havoc on mother nature. Generally speaking, the higher the ABV, the higher a product’s carbon footprint.

There’s the environmental impact of farming the base ingredient, be it sugarcane, grain, agave, grapes, or potatoes. This includes fertilising, watering, harvesting, processing and transporting the crops, as well as the impact on local wildlife and biodiversity. Distilling, as you’ll know, requires lots of energy (and creates plenty of waste) as does bottling, packaging and storing the resulting booze. Then, that precious liquid is freighted by air and sea across the globe – usually heavy glass bottles wrapped in plastic and cardboard boxes – for our drinking pleasure. Yikes.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. From multinational companies to fledgling distillers, spirits producers of all sizes are busy taking steps towards a greener future. Looking across renewable energy, water use, philanthropy and more, we’ve highlighted five spirits distilleries that are going above and beyond to make sure their craft is kinder on the planet without compromising on taste. That’s the spirit.

The absolutely lovely Absolut distillery in Sweden

The Absolut Company, Sweden

One of the most sustainable spirits-makers in the world, Absolut Vodka’s Åhus-based site only uses green energy generated by hydro power, and its entire distillation process is carbon neutral. The Absolut Company works with local farmers to ensure minimal amounts of fertilizers and pesticides and little-to-no irrigation. Wheat stillage, a byproduct of production, is sold to local farmers and feeds 250,000 pigs and 40,000 cows a day. The site aims to be entirely zero-emissions, zero-waste and 100% recycling by 2040.

Belgrove Distillery, Tasmania

Not only is Belgrove Australia’s first dedicated rye whisky distillery, it’s also home to the only biodiesel-powered still in the world (a type of biodegradable fuel made from waste cooking oil – in this case, sourced from a local chip fryer). Owner Peter Bignell grows his own grain, ferments, distills and barrel ages on-site. A reclaimed laundromat tumble dryer is used for malting and spent mash is fed to his sheep (apparently he’s thinking of using sheep dung instead of peat in the malting process – watch this space). The water used to cool his still is sourced from an on-site dam, while any waste water is either recycled or used for irrigation.

Square One Organic Spirits, US

From wind-powered energy to carbon-neutral labels, every aspect of Square One’s Wyoming-based distilling operation is organic and eco-friendly. Founded in 2006 by environmentalist Allison Evanow, each of its various spirits is made from 100% organic American-grown rye and water from the Teton Mountains, with no GMO yeasts, chemical additives or synthetic de-foaming agents used in the production process. Not only are the bottle labels paper-free – made with bamboo, sugarcane and cotton – but the ink is soy-based too.

Jimador harvesting agave for the Patron distillery

Patrón Tequila, Mexico

Hacienda Patrón is big on sustainability, being the first distillery to use a natural gas pipeline as its proprietary energy source in a bid to reduce its carbon emissions. The Jalisco-based site uses a reverse osmosis water treatment to recycle 70% of the stillage from the distilling process – used in its cooling towers and for cleaning – and creates more than 5,500 tons of compost every year in agave fibres, which it donates to fertilise agave fields and green spaces in the surrounding community. Oh, and since 2015, the distillery has reforested around 16,000 trees.

Greensand Ridge Distillery, UK

The UK’s first carbon neutral distillery, Greensand Ridge, works with local farmers to transform surplus produce rejected by supermarkets into delicious rums, gins and fruit brandies. They’re big on ‘reuse or recycle’ – the team’s total non-recyclable waste output is one bag every six to eight weeks, a remarkable feat – and pride themselves on using non-biodegradable chemicals. Any plastics used are plant-based. From heat recovery systems to chemical-free production, environmental savviness is a top priority. And they make some cracking spirits, too.

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Drinks industry eco-myths

This week, we’re looking at environmentalism in the drinks industry. We all want to do more to take care of the planet, but when it comes to imbibing, certain ‘green’…

This week, we’re looking at environmentalism in the drinks industry. We all want to do more to take care of the planet, but when it comes to imbibing, certain ‘green’ solutions are in danger of causing more harm than good. We talk greenwashing with award-winning bar owner Ryan Chetiyawardana – whose low-waste, ingredient-centric ethos can be felt across the entire drinks industry – and attempt to sort sustainability fact from fiction…

The booze world may not have a reputation as the greenest of industries, but over the course of the last decade bars and brands have made some serious in-roads in containing their carbon footprint. Ever since Ryan Chetiyawardana flung open the doors to his former London haunt White Lyan, with its strict ‘no perishables’ policy, the cocktail scene has been awash with environmental initiatives, from foraged botanicals to closed-loop drinks.

And not without good reason. Countries and communities across the globe are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, be it through droughts, floods, or more intense and frequent natural disasters, with the poorest and most vulnerable being hit the hardest, according to the World Bank Group, a cooperative made up of 189 member countries. The stakes are high. Climate change could push more than 100 million additional people into poverty by 2030, it says, so keeping global temperatures below 2°C requires coordinated action at an unprecedented scale and speed. 

Ryan Chetiyawardana aka Mr Lyan

In the face of an ecological disaster, doing something is (usually) always better than doing nothing. But we need to consider the environmental impact of knee-jerk sustainability solutions before we take them on board. “The really difficult thing about the topic is that it’s a Hydra,” says Chetiyawardana. “You cut off one head, and two more appear.” He highlights California’s almond industry. “The American dairy industry is one of the most fucked things in the world, it’s horrific, and from whatever perspective – health, environmental, cost, welfare for the farmers, welfare for the animals – people realised it wasn’t good, so they went, ‘Cool, we’ll switch to almond milk, it’s high in protein and it behaves like milk’. All of a sudden they’re pulling out crops in California and planting almond trees, because they want to satiate that demand or maybe get a quick buck, and almond milk becomes an issue in itself.”

At least part of the problem is that we aspire to adopt an absolute approach where none can exist. Climate change isn’t one problem, it’s millions of small ones. And each region has its own unique backdrop of challenges, says Chetiyawardana, who points to Belvedere Vodka’s bartender training roadshow tour, on which he and other London bartenders collaborated. “It wasn’t about sustainability per se, but being inspired by nature and delving into ‘natural’ food systems to increase deliciousness and creativity,” he explains. “In certain parts of the world, our stories were super-applicable, but in India they don’t have monoculture or industrialised crops in the same way, so that same ethos needed to be pivoted to their conversations. It was really fascinating.”

We’ve all got a part to play in tackling climate crisis, and a little extra knowledge can help to make your efforts meaningful. Below, you’ll find five misguided green initiatives along with their planet-friendly solutions…

Cub's Ardbeg Americano, made with Ardbeg 10, English cassis, Somerset pommeaux and soda

Ardbeg Americano served at Cub in Hoxton Street, London

#1 Locally-sourced produce

Reducing food miles seems like an obvious way to cut emissions, but the reality is more nuanced. We may frown over tomatoes trucked hundreds of miles from Spain to the UK, but their carbon footprint is less than a third of those grown in heated glasshouses over here, a study by the UK government revealed. Plus, there are serious discrepancies in food miles among different modes of transport. A single air food mile is the equivalent of almost eight road food miles and more than 75 shipping food miles, New Scientist reported.

#2 Paper straws

There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. But straws make up just 0.025% of total plastic waste in the ocean, and  the microplastics our clothes shed during washing are far bigger an issue. When it comes to sipping our drinks, the battle isn’t between paper and plastic (there’s an argument that producing paper products is more harmful, requiring more energy and water, and emitting more pollution) but against single use items. Just say no.

#3 Foraged produce

Wild ingredients look cool on the menu, but for most bars, foraging is best kept to the confines of the farmer’s market. Reckless foraging damages soil and vegetation and disturbs wildlife, throwing off the equilibrium of the ecosystem and threatening the future of the very habitat you’re trying to interact with. Either leave foraging to the professionals or forgo the hand-picked garnish entirely.

#4 Zero-waste

Achieving zero waste is seriously commendable, but it isn’t a realistic goal for every bar (not without government-enforced changes across, for example, food packaging regulations and waste disposal infrastructures). Using clever kitchen kit to make waste products last longer might make your compost heap smaller, but if the machines are heavy on electricity it’s doing more harm than good. The entire process needs to be sustainable to be worthwhile.

 

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How to write a bestselling whisky book

This week Ian Buxton shamelessly plugs the new edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die and takes a look at how the industry has changed since 2010 when the…

This week Ian Buxton shamelessly plugs the new edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die and takes a look at how the industry has changed since 2010 when the book appeared.

Your editor must have been in a very benevolent mood recently.  He’s invited me to write about the new edition of my book 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, which goes on sale this week. So, if your gorge rises at the prospect of an author blatantly plugging his own work, look away now.

Still here? Some background then. The first edition appeared nearly a decade ago and, I’m very happy to say, was an immediate, albeit somewhat surprising success. But the fact is that the book had a difficult birth, being declined by publisher after publisher on the grounds, back then, that there were already more than enough whisky books (this would be late 2007).  With the exception that is of one very small Scottish publisher, a friend, who I pitched it to more out of desperation than any expectation he would take it on. “I can’t publish this,” he said, “because if it’s the success I believe it will be I couldn’t possibly manage it – the cashflow alone on printing would wipe me out”. 

That, I thought, was the sweetest and kindest way for anyone to tell me they didn’t want the book so I dropped the idea. And then, by a very strange set of coincidences and some further setbacks it was picked up by Hachette, whose Scottish arm (now defunct) was looking for some Scottish-themed titles. Published in Autumn 2010 its immediate success surprised us all and there were several hasty reprints. The book even made it into some national best-seller lists that Christmas.

whisky crash

Ian Buxton about to drink some whisky

And that, we all thought, would be that. One big Christmas and then it would be done. But in 2011 sales were even better and it continued its onward march. Pretty soon though, as whisky moves so fast, it began to feel outdated so I revised a new edition for 2013, and then a third in 2016 and they have continued to sell very well indeed. Over 200,000 in total so far (he bragged, with inexcusable vulgarity).

Why has it been so well received?  Readers tell me there are several reasons: they like the convenient format; the irreverent approach appeals (too many drinks writers take themselves far, far too seriously in my opinion) and the fact that I try not to preach and avoid imposing my opinion encourages readers to develop their own point of view – which is all that really matters. In that spirit I’ve never awarded scores and now I’ve even dropped my own tasting notes. Let your own mother-wit, nose and palate guide you – you are the surest guide to your own taste.

And why a new edition now? Well, to be honest, there are two reasons: firstly, because it has continued to sell and sell the publisher is keen to keep the momentum going but, secondly, I wouldn’t have revised it now if were not for the fact that whisky keeps changing. Looking back to 2010 we’ve seen the rise and subsequent decline of NAS whiskies, the incredible growth in whisky’s popularity in new markets, the spread of the pernicious virus of ‘investment’ in whisky, especially Scotch, and the amazing quality and value offered by many unheralded producers or previously forgotten styles.

There have been lots of revisions and amendments in this new edition. Whiskies have been dropped and new whiskies included. To spread my net as widely as possible, I’ve decided that there will only ever be one expression from any one distillery and, seeking what seems to me best value, I’ve included unfashionable distilleries and countries I’ve previously neglected

101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is a book about tasting and enjoying whisky, not collecting and certainly not ‘investing’ in it. Sometimes I’ve surprised myself with the whiskies I’ve included but they are all there for a reason (you’ll need to read it to find out what they are). So I’m not going to bang on. Apparently the market thinks there’s room for at least one more whisky book and I hope that this can be it.  Thanks to the Editor for his indulgence and thanks to you for reading this far. The fourth edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is available now and I very much hope you will enjoy it.  Oh, and Christmas is just around the corner. In case you hadn’t noticed.

101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (4th edition) is published this week by Headline, £14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The connection between Jura Seven Wood and the French forest

The opportunity to see the journey of a whisky from tree to barrel to glass is a rare one. Imagine our delight then, when we were invited to witness exactly…

The opportunity to see the journey of a whisky from tree to barrel to glass is a rare one. Imagine our delight then, when we were invited to witness exactly that in the forests near Bordeaux, following the evolution of Jura Seven Wood

Wood is a huge focus for whisky but how many of us know about the processes before the wood becomes a cask? Probably not that many. We marvel, understandably, at whisky that has been aged for 40 or perhaps even 50 years. And yet, the process really begins centuries before in the forest, which is where our trip began. But first, a brief introduction to Jura Seven Wood. The no age statement lightly peated single malt is initially aged in American white oak bourbon barrels, before it’s finished in six different types of French oak: Limousin, Tronçais, Allier, Vosges, Jupilles, and Les Bertranges. To save you counting on your fingers, yes, that adds up to seven wood types.

Jura Seven Wood

The Loches forest looking particularly magnificent.

As we travel north on what looked like was going to be a rather grey day, the scenery becomes greener until we arrive at the Loches forest, a stark contrast to the stone buildings and baking heat of Bordeaux itself. Forest guard Fabien Daureau emerges from the trees to greet us. The forest is crucial to French history; back in the 1600s wood was predominantly used for energy and ship building. Rather sensibly, to ensure it was protected and managed correctly, the French government split the forest up into parcels, and guards like Daureau were put in place to manage each part. The forest is still divided up the same way, though now the primary use for wood has changed. In the parcel we’re visiting, it’s making casks. 

Oak trees destined to become casks are like the A-listers of the tree world. They must be straight, tall and without branches lower down the trunk. Every 10 years, the guards will comb through the forest, deciding which trees they should cull and which they should keep. It’s a ruthless process. There are an overwhelming number of factors which will exclude a tree from making the cut (pun intended). These include knots in the wood (which would cause barrel leaks), branches low down on the trunk, or tiny imperfections that an untrained eye would never see. We come across a 100 year old tree with something called a ‘pippy’ trunk, a miniscule little nubbin on the trunk caused by a beam of light. Generally other trees act as a barrier to these beams, though clearly this one got through. The ‘pippy’ tree is now unusable as a cask, a century of growth gone to waste!

Jura Seven Wood

Fabien Dareau imparting some serious knowledge.

There are other tricks to reduce the chance of imperfections. To ensure branches don’t grow lower down the tree trunk, Fabien and his team must see that the trees grow close enough together so there isn’t enough light for this to happen. A lack of light also promotes upwards growth, though there’s a fine line. Block out too much light and you’ll no longer encourage the smaller trees, but hinder them.

Choosing when to cut is just as complex as growing them, and Daureau tells us that much like humans, trees have feelings. If all the surrounding trees are suddenly cut, then the remaining tree will go into a state of stress, because of sudden differences in water and light. Older healthy trees are still surrounded by smaller or dying trees, which serve no purpose but to keep the environment stable. As saplings, there are around one million oak trees per hectare. At 250 years old, only between 50 and 100 trees per hectare remain, through both natural selection and rigorous culling from the forest guard. Only a mere quarter of each tree can be used to create casks, as the higher up the tree you go, the less straight it is, lowering the quality of the wood. The very top will be used to make paper or firewood. 

The ideal amount of growth is just incredibly slow, just 2mm a year. Slow growth results in a tight grain, which causes more interaction between the spirit and the wood. Good things take time. It’s incredible to see centuries of growth in one place, with great oaks that are soon to be cut standing tall next to tiny saplings.

Jura Seven Wood

Brownie points if you can spot the pippy trunk, because we certainly can’t!

We leave Daureau and the green wonders of the forest, making our way to the Sogibois stave mill just outside of Bordeaux. Here the oak is cut, revealing if the toils and efforts over the last few centuries have paid off. It’s only here that some trees reveal they’ve been housing bullets from World War I, which have rather poetically turned the wood black. Of course, they can’t be used. That’s not to say there aren’t some happy surprises. We’re shown an eye-catching unique orange wood, its rosy hue thanks to an unexplained mutation and the presence of beta carotene. It’s highly prized and much more expensive, though there’s no way of identifying the mutation until it’s cut. As much as we can try to control these factors, the fact is that nature is unpredictable, which is part of the beauty of the cask.

Jura Seven Wood

Blackened oak from WWI bullets.

Following the journey of the oak, we then head to Demptos cooperage where the staves are made into casks the very casks in which Jura Seven Wood is matured! The wood doesn’t merely pass through the cooperage, but spends a minimum of two years here while the water content is reduced to 20%. Once again, the length of time before the spirit even enters the barrel is just mind-boggling. 

It’s also the cooperage which helps create the flavour profile of the whisky. There are simple differences between different wood types, for example French oak is spicier than the vanilla-heavy American oak. Then, there are more complex layers of wood categorisation, such as micro-porosity, determining how quickly the spirit will age. Demptos has built a menu of 188 different ‘ingredients’, forming a partnership with each whisky blender who will create their own recipe. 

Jura Seven Wood

Many, many staves drying out at Demptos Cooperage.

Having spent much of the day outside, we’re suddenly plunged into a dramatic and fiery warehouse, where the immensely skilled coopers are literally spinning flaming barrels around with their hands. They did have gloves on, mind. The inside of the barrel reaches a scorching 200 degrees celsius, while the outside remains a balmy 35 degrees. A delight to the senses, the barrel smells just like freshly baked bread after one hour of toasting. Of course, there are longer toasting periods, as it’s just another of the many ingredients that can be personalised. Around 150 barrels are made here each day, and it was both astonishing and encouraging how much of the work is still done by hand. Creating a barrel is such a delicate art (albeit with a lot of banging and clanging) that, even in this day and age, it requires a human hand. 

Jura Seven Wood

Talk about playing with fire at Demptos…

Just as we saw the stages of tree growth and barrel-making, we also got to taste each stage of the Jura whisky throughout its ageing. What better place than in the midst of the beautiful Loches forest to taste the evolution of Seven Wood? Naturally, we started with the new make, the majority of which is unpeated, and full of creamy lemon, loads of malt and a hint of pear drop. Then, after maturing in American oak for 10 years, the spirit boasts boatloads of green tea, vanilla, banana and fresh mint.

To really show us the flavour French oak imparts, Glass shows us spirit matured in solely French oak, which is slightly more oily, bursting with mango, baking spices, set honey and chocolate. In Seven Wood however, the six French oak-matured spirits will have spent time in American white oak first, and will be blended with both peated and unpeated spirit that has been aged purely in American white oak. When that all comes together you get Seven Wood, with subtly smoky, nutty notes, vanilla, fresh peach, pear and a prickle of spice.

Jura Seven Wood

Gregg Glass chatting us through Seven Wood in the depths of the forest.

“It’s not just seven woods for the sake of it,” Glass notes as he explains the thought process behind the whisky. “When you look back at the recipes you’ve developed, you don’t realise you’ve used so many. It’s like opening a can of worms in terms of how many ingredients you can use.” Glass and his team found that these specific combinations created the desired layers of depth and complexity, a recipe that was built up over time. “Experimentation has always been very important to me,” Glass continues. “Without that sense of adventure, you’re never going to discover.”

The identity of Seven Wood was found in the French forest, so it’s no surprise Jura wanted to show off the often-overlooked stories of the trees themselves. I know that when I now look at a whisky, I won’t merely see an age statement or time in a warehouse, but will recall the years of growth, nature and talent that begin long before the liquid meets the cask. Glass told us that he was trying to create a harmony with Seven Wood, and harmony he has achieved. A thoroughly delicious whisky, paying its respect to the forest where it all began.

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Five minutes with… Pip Hills, founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

When Philip ‘Pip’ Hills bought with three of his friends a sherry quarter cask from a certain Speyside distillery filled with 10-year-old liquid, little did he know it would mark…

When Philip ‘Pip’ Hills bought with three of his friends a sherry quarter cask from a certain Speyside distillery filled with 10-year-old liquid, little did he know it would mark the beginning of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Today, the Edinburgh-based bottler boasts more than 26,000 members across international branches spanning Austria to Australia. We take five with member #001…

“At the beginning of the eighties I discovered malt whisky,” Hills recalls over the phone. “To be precise, I discovered Glenfarclas.” This Speyside gem would go on to be the first of more than 138 whisky distilleries in Scotland and beyond to have its liquid bottled under The Scotch Malt Whisky Society name. A feat made even more remarkable when you consider the ill-health of the Scotch whisky in the early eighties, a period that saw many producers close their distillery doors, never to reopen. How did his fledgling idea flourish in such a trying climate?

“If you add one thing to another, it’s an arithmetic progression,” outlines Hills. “If you double it each time, it’s a geometrical progression, which leads to an exponential curve. If you produce a really good whisky and I give a bottle of it to somebody, and that person has lots of friends – as most whisky drinkers do – if they love it, they’ll give out drams. So out of one bottle, you may have 50 or more converts to that particular whisky. You don’t have to be an arithmetical genius to figure out that the curve of increase just rockets. It becomes almost vertical.”

That, Hill says, is precisely what happened with his syndicate. “Our friends told their friends, who told their friends, who then wanted to join, so we doubled in size. Then, all the friends of friends told their friends, who all thought it was wonderful. Eventually the time came where I said to the syndicate, ‘look, I’m fed up procuring whisky for all your mates. Why don’t we do this commercially?”

Pip Hills, outside The Vaults, with a 1937 Lagonda, the car he used to transport the first-ever cask of SMWS whisky

Prior to the Society, Hills “never had anything that could remotely be considered a career”. A keen mountaineer in his teenage years – until a climbing accident that almost killed him – Hills spent seven years studying philosophy, working as a docker, a truck driver, and other industrial jobs during the holidays. He “bought a pinstripe suit and became a respectful civil servant” working for the Inland Revenue, where he stayed “for the best part of five years, just to show that I was in earnest”.

From there, Hills set up a tax accountancy firm – “it wasn’t a high-flying tax evasion for rich people sort-of-thing,” he clarifies, “but helping my poor freelance mates get out of some of their troubles” – and even helped to raise £7.5 million to bid for the Scottish Television franchise with friends. “We didn’t get it, which was a relief, because I hadn’t really any interest in television but it was a good idea conceived over drinks in the Traverse Theatre bar one night,” he says.

With The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Hills had found his calling. But those early days were not without challenges. “The whisky industry didn’t understand what we were doing,” he explains. “And from what they did understand, they didn’t like it much.” Barring a select few, distillers and brands were initially “very, very cagey”, not least because of the industry battle against people making a quick buck by ‘passing off’ imitation whiskies with the use of similar labels.

Trademark laws meant Hills couldn’t add distillery names to Society bottlings – something he turned to an advantage by numbering each distillery instead. “Since the first one we had was Glenfarclas, we made that number one, and we put a point after the number which indicates the consecutive cask bottled,” he says. “Nobody could take out legal action against us, because we weren’t passing anything off. And if you said in a newsletter, ‘if you go down the A96 past Aberlour and take the second road on the left for about three miles, you might just come to a distillery from which this whisky came’, no court would say that was a trademark infringement.”

Just some of the incredible SMWS range

Navigating legalities in this way proved to be an excellent marketing tactic – people liked the feeling of being in-the-know. Not that there was any real difficulty bringing whisky drinkers on board. “If somebody liked whisky, you say to them, ‘well, why don’t you try this?’, and let them taste it,” says Hills. “It was like starting a really good religion. All you had to do was show people the whisky and they would say, ‘God, you’re right!’, and they’d join.”

Hills adopted a policy that still sticks to this day, in which the Society doesn’t pay for advertising. “I’d always said, ‘if this thing is as good as I think it is, we won’t need to advertise’,” he explains. “However after we’d bought The Vaults [in Leith] and established ourselves, I thought, ‘maybe we ought to reach the wider public’.” He flew to London armed with a suitcase containing five whiskies for a meeting with “famously ferocious” wine writer Jancis Robinson, who went on to write a feature for The Sunday Times Magazine

“The whole thing just exploded,” Hills recalls. “After that I did lots of press – a middle page spread in The Sunday Express, a full page in The Wall Street Journal… David Mamet came over from the US. I took him down to the Society and showed him a few drams and he wrote five pages in Playboy. All that cost me was about £10 worth of whisky. And it went on like that for years.”

While Hills stepped away from the Society in 1995, he’s “absolutely delighted” to see how the company has evolved. “I hadn’t really been back until about a year ago,” he says. “The Society personnel and bar staff are bright and enthusiastic and it’s great, I love it.” Indeed, much may have changed in the decades since the Society was established, but one thing remains constant: Hill’s whisky preferences. “I’m sitting here with a glass of Glenfarclas in front of me,” he tells me, when I ask if his tastes have changed over the years. “Perfectly lovely whisky.” 

 

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Five minutes with… James Doherty of Sliabh Liag Distillers

It’s been a long process for James and Moira Doherty bringing Irish whiskey back to James’ parents’ home of Donegal, but progress has been made and the future is looking…

It’s been a long process for James and Moira Doherty bringing Irish whiskey back to James’ parents’ home of Donegal, but progress has been made and the future is looking bright. Here the co-founder of Sliabh Liag Distillers discusses new distillery details, why he favours a traditional peated style and the lessons he learned being the grandson of renowned poitín men.

If you’re a fan of Irish whiskey or The Nightcap, you probably will have seen the good news. Sliabh Liag Distillers (phonetically: Slieve League) has received planning permission to build its new €6m distillery in Donegal, the first there for 177 years. For managing director and co-founder James Doherty, a former tea planter and executive with William Grant & Sons, Foster’s and SABMiller, this is the realisation of a dream to return to his ancestral homeland and make whiskey. He and Moira, co-founder and wife, left Hong Kong in 2014 to create Sliabh Liag Distillers, which currently produces An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin in a 500 litre copper pot from Forsyths. Production of this will move to the upcoming Ardara Distillery which is set to produce heavily-peated single malt and pot still Irish whiskeys.

This is all very exciting, which is why we had to find out more from the man himself…

Sliabh Liag Distillers

Say hello to James Doherty!

MoM: Hi James! What’s the progress on Ardara Distillery?

James Doherty: The planners have been very positive, there’s still some challenges but we’re working through them. The planning permission is in at the moment for a 400,000-litre whisky distillery, which is roughly Teeling-sized and equates to approximately 1700 filled casks, and over 1.2m bottles of whiskey when the spirit is sold. We want to start building in October and then with a bit of luck and a fair wind, we could be distilling Christmas time 2020. Which would be going some! It was back in 2015 that we bought our first piece of land to build the whiskey distillery on, but that subsequently fell through. In the very early days, someone said to us ‘this will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think’ – and we’ve kind of learnt that they’re right!

MoM: Tell us about Ardara, the distillery location.

JD: Ardara is a mercantile town. It was a town of weavers, shopkeepers and bars and what-have-you, and a proper tourist hub. It’s actually enabled us to design something that works for the village. Our design is a whiskey distillery and a gin distillery that you can visit, not a visitors centre with a distillery attached, which for us is really important. We have no restaurants, no food, it’s all about ‘come and see us as a working distillery and then get yourself into the village and try some of the great pubs, try some of the restaurants’. Rather than you hoover up all the money as a destination, it’s ‘let’s make sure that the money is evenly spread and that we’re all feeding an ecosystem together’. For me, it’s a fascinating part of the world where, I suppose, culturally I’m imbued with it but it also felt to me like an area that was unexploited. Irish whiskey today is a post-industrial revolution and a city-based, post-tax reform pedigree. So we focused on how could you build something that was differentiated, rooted in a place that plays a part, so somewhere very different.

Sliabh Liag Distillers

What Ardara Distillery is projected to look like

MoM: How did you come to form Sliabh Liag Distillers?

JD: When I was with Grants, Moira and I started talking about ideas for brands that we could do ourselves. My parents are from Donegal, from the west coast, but left in the sixties and came to the UK. We put together this idea of taking the stories of the Donegal Gaeltachts. The idea of doing a seaweed-based gin actually originated in 2010, but we didn’t do it straight away because we were trying to get the money behind us to be able to do as much of it ourselves as we could. We left Hong Kong in 2014 to live in Donegal, in the village that my mum and dad are from and put a team together to build a distillery with a local businesswoman, Margaret Cunningham, as well as Oliver Hughes from Dingle and Porterhouse, and James Keith, a guy who’s got a construction background but also really good at business modelling and raising finance for early-stage companies. The finance director of SABMiller, Don De Lorenzo, and the legal counsel from SABMIller, John Davidson, were also on the board. From there we kind of then started to pull the whole thing together in terms of how you would tell the story of Donegal, which is probably the illicit distilling capital of Ireland, through a modern spirits brand. It was never just about making one thing, it was always about how do you build a branded business that you can do a lot with all rooted in the authenticity of the area. So not the city-based flavour but profoundly peated single malt and pot still whiskey.

MoM: Can you tell us more about why you wanted to make peated whiskey?

JD: We’re looking to recreate the taste of what would have been the 1850s. If you look at Irish whiskey as it is today, it can only be a city-based flavour because of the lack of peating in my view. If you look at the old mash bills, that’s what we’re going back towards. My grandfathers, both of them, were poitín men and we know from the way that they used to produce their poitín that they actually used peat to dry their barley because they would have had nothing else. I suppose it’s not an Islay style. It’s not about that kind of seaweed, iodine profile, it’s about that dry smoky character. In Donegal when you drive in, with the peat fires and the chimneys there’s a dry smokiness that you get, a kind of dusty smoky aroma. We want to try and get that onto the inherently sweeter styles and smoother styles of Irish whiskey. That’s where it’s coming from.

Sliabh Liag Distillers

Whisky from Ardara Distillery will be peated

MoM: We haven’t seen much from peated whiskey from Ireland, Connemara aside, do you think there’s going to be a market for it?

JD: I think there will. I personally would have liked the whole of the West Coast to be peated and have it as a kind of West Coast identifier. I know that Powerscourt is also looking at it and Peter Mulryan at Blackwater is already using peated malts. I suspect though that most people will go for a kind of safe level of peating, so they’ll try and make it ‘a hint of peat’ rather than profoundly peaty. We’re looking at 55 parts a million, but with triple distilling, you end up at about 35ppm as the net effect of that.

MoM: You’ve settled on triple distillation then?

JD: That’s right. The two spirit stills are inspired by Macallan, while the wash still is a unique one that Richard Forsyth and myself drew up. They will have quite short, quite large balls on them so we can try and drive through as much flavour as we can. You can find that triple distillation can strip out a lot of flavour. Having put all of the effort into creating it, we want to carry as much flavour through as possible.

Sliabh Liag Distillers

The distillery is located on the scenic west coast of Ireland

MoM: What about raw materials, do you know where you’ll source your barley?

JD: The eastern side of Donegal is an enormous grain growing area. We’ve already spoken to Grianán Farm, which I think is the biggest single farm in Ireland, and they’re already talking to us about growing for us. We will do as much as we can in Donegal. We already buy and source as much as we can in the area, which is a challenge because it is remote! So the challenge will be whether we can get enough.

MoM: Have you decided what your cask profile will be?

JD: Yes, we’ve looked at 70% bourbon casks, 25% sherry casks and then 5% specials that are just newsworthy and interesting things. We need the sherry profile to be quite dominant I think in order to get that peated dry smokiness. I remember from my time at Grant’s how Ailsa Bay perfected getting that. So, fortunately, I learned some of these things.

Sliabh Liag Distillers

The new €6m Ardara Distillery in Donegal is the first there for 177 years.

MoM: Your grandfathers were poitín producers. What did you learn from them?

JD: It was my gran who sat with me and gave me some recipes. To my knowledge, talking to my cousins, she never talked to anyone else about it. My mum would tell you that my gran wouldn’t hear talk of it in the house and up until her death, there were people that she didn’t talk to who had shopped grandad to the police and stuff over the years. She told us how he was using molasses to increase the sugar content, and how he was using barley and oats. Unfortunately my grandad had already passed before he gave me the recipe, but we had enough of the recipe and insight into how he did it from my older surviving uncles and gran’s stuff to be able to kind of rebuild grandad’s poitín so we’ll do that anyway as a matter of course, it would be rude not to! My mum is from a farm and if you go up the hill, according to my uncles, grandad disposed of the worm up there somewhere but we’ve been up and had a look and can’t find it… everyone’s being pretty coy about where stuff is!

MoM: Why is Irish mythology a key part of your branding?

JD: It’s an oral history that’s seldom captured. I suppose that, to some extent – and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way – but lots of Irish whiskey is a round bottle with some fella’s name on it, a couple of dates and it’s kind of rooted to a place. We felt that there was an opportunity to build a richer story using the legends and folktales as one element of it. If you look at the illicit distilling heritage of the area, of which my grandads were obviously part of, in 1815 there were 500 and something still seizures in Donegal. And the next nearest county was about a hundred! So this was an area where it’s clear the illicit operations are massively documented. People were part-time farmers and full-time distillers I think, rather than the other way round. If you talk to ‘the old boys’ in the area, they will tell you all of this stuff but they still talk about it as if the police are listening. There’s an element of it which is like distilling is in the soul of that county. My desire was to be back to where my roots are from and tell that story of that place, in a modern way, through spirits brands. So we were trying to do it in a way that takes the Book of Kells and stuff like that but doesn’t do it in a kitsch way. We’re trying to build on the elements of Irish heritage that are rich and newsworthy and interesting and build our story into that and tell it that way. Donegal is a place apart, geographically in the North, politically in the South. It’s a unique place. We live by a mountain and the weather we have is unique. The soils are unique and there’s incredibly soft water. To us, it felt absolutely right. If you’re going to put it somewhere, this is the right place to put a distillery, for sure.

Sliabh Liag Distillers

The unique weather will have an impact on maturation

MoM: Speaking about the weather at the end there and it being unique, you must have a mindset towards maturation and how that would affect it?

JD: What we know is that the mountain has an impact. So if you look at the peninsula we live on, it’s southwest of a 600-metre mountain. The weather in that corner of the peninsula is unique to that area. You get low evaporation rates and a kind of slow maturation that would give you really interesting whiskeys. I hesitate to say ‘terroir’ because Waterford have that done so well. It’s more about that unique place and the impact of the environment on that place. It’s where our heart is, it’s this amazing distilling capital that’s had a history that’s almost been lost or being lost. As it’s a place apart you can be polarising, you can be different, you can try and do different things.

MoM: What do you think the future holds for the Irish whiskey category and where do you see yourself in it?

JD: There’s a couple of things that are at play that are quite interesting. One is that if you believe the numbers that the Irish Whiskey Association is putting out there, if you think those are realistic, then there’s not enough capacity in the industry. We’re not putting in enough scale, very few people are. John Teeling is putting in scale. I suppose Royal Oak has got some scale to it but actually nobody else really is. So there isn’t enough capacity. The other thing that strikes me is that, if you look at the way spirits companies grow generally, they either stay as a boutique business that don’t grow fast enough because they don’t have the capacity to go further or their positioning is not one that communicates well enough to a wide enough consumer group, or you’re going to get businesses that are built to grow rapidly, to scale. Hopefully, that’s kind of what we’re building. There comes a point where that kind of brand either catches fire and it goes into mainstream distribution, Hendricks would be a classic example or Monkey Shoulder, they suddenly just take off. Undoubtedly there will be a shake out with some of the guys who are undercapitalised or just ran out of cash. With distilleries, generally, that’s what happens – they run out of cash or they can’t sell what they make. The challenge is you can get a route to the markets that are owned by the bigger players, but what happens then? Are you different enough that they can live with you in their portfolio? Do they come after you? Maybe you become like Teeling and Bacardi, people take small stakes because they want a piece of you but you’re very clear that you’re not for sale. At the moment we’re all straddling around to win 5% or 7% of the category, but you would hope that Jameson, Tully and Bushmills would build the category. Then we keep it noisy and relevant so as they continue to grow, we continue to grow. But the share of our share overall is 25%, 30% of the category. I can’t see it being like malt whisky where Glenfiddich had 100% of the market and now it has 20% of a massive market – I don’t see that kind of change. But that’s a 50 year change. But that’s because I probably won’t see 50 years so I could be wrong!

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Accessories to elevate your whisky appreciation

Today we are delighted to welcome a guest writer to Master of Malt, Ian Wisniewski author of The Whisky Dictionary which is published this week. Here he argues that the…

Today we are delighted to welcome a guest writer to Master of Malt, Ian Wisniewski author of The Whisky Dictionary which is published this week. Here he argues that the right accessories add a sense of occasion and enhance the enjoyment of your evening (or morning) dram. Take it away, Mr W. . . 

Of course, it’s about the taste, but there’s more to drinking whisky than that. It’s also an experience that can be enriched with matching accessories, and elevated into a ritual. When tasting, I arrange everything in the usual manner: glasses in a row, aligned with a water jug (not to dilute whisky but to provide a palate cleanser between sips). With a notebook in position, and a pen on stand-by to write tasting notes, I’m ready to begin.

But rather than pouring from the bottle, the whisky can be transferred into a decanter. This continues a tradition, as before whiskies were sold in bottles (a practise that gathered momentum from the mid-19th century) whisky was purchased on the premises of a grocer or wine and spirit merchant, and dispensed straight from the cask. This meant arriving armed with a jug (or other container), and once the whisky had reached its new home, the whisky was relocated into a decanter. Small labels (also known as tags) stating ‘whisky’ could be hung around the neck of the decanter, for ease of identification, as port, sherry and other favourites were also decanter-ed. Ornate tags, whether silver or porcelain, can be purchased on the antiques circuit, with plenty of streamlined, contemporary options on-line.

Check out these beauties: Islay Whisky set from LSA at Heals

Dedicated whisky decanters, whether taller and cylindrical, or shorter and shapelier, create a natural sense of elegance, which raises another question of good taste. Does decanting and aeration have an additional influence on the whisky, compared to pouring from a bottle? And if it does, is this considered an improvement ? As ever, it’s a case of conducting experiments and logging results (let’s start a group discussion).

If you take the decanter option, then why not display it in a tantalus, an unusual name which raises the question of etymology. Could this have evolved from the verb to tantalise? It would be appropriate as a tantalus is a case, typically wooden, fitted with a lockable handle that allows the decanters to be displayed while remaining incarcerated. This gives the owner complete control: the whisky doesn’t have to be hidden to protect it from unauthorised consumption. The tantalus was at its peak in the nineteenth century, and numerous examples have survived, ready to be re-homed by antique dealers (not losing the key is vital).

Scotch whisky used to be served exclusively in a quaich. The original drinking vessel, this is effectively an elegant bowl with two lugs (handles). The earliest examples were fashioned from wood in the sixteenth century, with different types of wood used to create patterns. Silver quaichs first appeared in the seventeenth century, and offered more scope for ornamentation with variously shaped lugs, while the bowl could be engraved with a monogram or crest.

Some lovely quaichs from the Quaich Company

As glassware became less expensive during the nineteenth century, the quaich spent more time on the shelf, and only made an appearance at formal occasions such as a wedding. But quaich-manship continues to thrive in Scotland, with the ‘a la carte’ option being to commission a silver or wooden quaich as a gift, or be presented as a prize.

It’s not always possible to predict when the desire for a malt whisky will assert itself. If it happens once tucked up in bed, there’s no need to get up and head for the drinks cabinet, as a noggin is an ideal bedside companion. Stylish and convenient, this small glass jug with a hinged lid contains a measure of whisky for one person, which hosts traditionally placed on bedside tables for house guests to serve themselves (as required). Noggin is also a traditional term for a quarter of a pint, around 15 cl, and if the noggin is filled to capacity it’s a generous amount.

And there’s no reason why you should ever be stranded without a dram, when a hip flask safeguards against this (a briefcase, handbag, or pocket can easily accommodate). This is why a hip flask is considered an essential accessory by some, and its come a long way since the original design, which was a leather strap that utilised the owner’s hip as a resting place for the flask. A hip flask can also make an aesthetic statement as well as being a status symbol, engraved with a monogram, decorative graphic or motto, with another option being a flask covered in leather, or Harris tweed for an additional Scottish accent.

Hip flasks offer a range of delivery options: the most direct being straight from the opening onto the palate, while some have a cap that unscrews and serves as a drinking cup. Deluxe versions comprise a small case fitted with two flasks and matching cups for sharing with a companion. Or one for each hand.

Adapted from The Whisky Dictionary: An A-Z of whisky from history & heritage to distilling & drinking (Mitchell Beazley) by Ian Wisniewski

 

 

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A little learning can be a dangerous thing

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week,…

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week, Nate Brown has an issue with those who think they know best.

“Excuse me, but I ordered a Daiquiri. This is not Daiquiri”
“Uh yeah, I believe it is.”
“It’s not.”
“But… it is. I made it. Rum, lime, sugar. Bish bash bosh.”
“No. It isn’t. Trust me, I know.”
“I can assure you…”
“Have you ever been to Dylan’s. Do you know Sergio there? He’s the best, and he makes me the best daiquiris.”
“I have not. I do not. He does not.”
“Well, you obviously don’t know what a Daiquiri is, then. Some bartender you are.”
“Enlighten me.”
“It was red, and frozen, and the best.”
“See, what you had there was a frozen strawberry Daiquiri.  It’s not quite the same.”
“A frozen strawberry what….?”
“I can make that for you if that’s…”
“A frozen strawberry what…?”
“Daiquiri.”
“Exactly.”
“Fuck you, Sergio.”

Miseducation. Fake news. Arrogance, mismanaged expectations. Call it what you will, but that’s a toxic cocktail of ingredients right there. Stirred together and they help form the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sociological phenomenon whereby a person’s perceived competence is hugely over-inflated with the smallest amount of knowledge. Bad education, between peers or across the bar, is breeding a generation of rabid, jacked up on the power of knowledge fools. Dangerous, dangerous fools. 

A lot has been said about what we sell in our bars. Is it drinks? Is it atmosphere? Is it escapism? Is it experience? Maybe. But no matter your thoughts on the matter, one universal truth is that guests pay for value. Anything you can get in a bar or restaurant can be achieved in the home, albeit at such an extraordinary cost that the value evaporates. It is the value that keeps bums on seats. And this value is becoming eroded. The second a guest knows better than the host, the system is in trouble. And those guests with a little bit of knowledge are being created by us.

Daiquiri Naturale

That’s not a Daiquiri!

That guest that knows cucumber is the best garnish, or that Schweppes is the only tonic for that gin, or that gin should really be drunk from balloon shaped coppas for flavour, they know their gin. This is the guest that knows that a Manhattan should be stirred 30 times in 15 seconds in a clockwise motion, that water belongs nowhere near a Scotch, or that the cork of the vermouth should be waved over the Martini; the guest also knows that rum is sweet because it’s made from sugar and that Daiquiris come in passion fruit or raspberry. Well, that guest is Frankenstein’s monster.

Behind the stick is no better. The archetypical bartender who holds dearly the phrase “that’s not how we did it in my last bar”. That bartender that stirs a Negroni in a mixing glass because that’s what they did in the hotel he came from. You know the one, he’s the one describing every spirit as smooth and fruity, and uses polishing cloths to clean his bar top and discards his used tools in the sink for the long-suffering bar back to clean because that’s how he earned his stripes. This is the chap who knows, and I mean really knows, what whisky goes in a Rob Roy, because the brand ambassador himself bestowed the burden of knowledge upon poor Barry’s special shoulders. Well, I don’t give a fuck, Barry. Where I come from we used to meet disobedience with kneecapping, shall we return to the good old days you miss so much? Thought not.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer. Is it too clichéd to quote some old wise character here? Like that lunatic Gandhi: “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom,” or Socrates and his paradoxical “I know that I know nothing.” Humility is in short supply in our industry. To be seen to change one’s mind is perceived as weakness, which is a dangerous spiral. One of the theories of bartending I was taught was the ‘failure of success’, which decried that if you think you’ve made it, you’ve failed. Some of you may know this as ‘sharks don’t sleep’. Only progression and learning are worth praise, and that’s worth remembering.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer.  Look up the Dunning Kruger if you don’t know it already, for forewarned is forearmed. Just don’t go preaching it – a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

 

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Five minutes with… Cape Byron Distillery’s Eddie Brook

Head to the hinterland of Australia’s Byron Bay and you’ll find Cape Byron Distillery nestled among 96 acres of lush greenery and macadamia orchards. Here, co-founder Eddie Brook talks about…

Head to the hinterland of Australia’s Byron Bay and you’ll find Cape Byron Distillery nestled among 96 acres of lush greenery and macadamia orchards. Here, co-founder Eddie Brook talks about distilling the sub-tropical pantry on his doorstep in collaboration with former Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan…

More than 30 years ago the Brook family bought a run-down dairy farm (see photo in header) in Australia’s Byron Bay region and set about regenerating the rainforest that once stood there. Today, Cape Byron Distillery co-founder and CEO Eddie captures native flavours from the incredible natural larder he calls home and sends his bottlings across the globe for our drinking pleasure.

Sustainability, community and regeneration are the core principles that underpin the distillery’s approach to spirit-making. Brookie’s Dry Gin came first, co-created with mentor and master distiller Jim McEwan, featuring 26 botanicals – 18 of which are native to the Byron Bay area, followed by Brookie’s Slow Gin, made in the traditional English sloe style using native Davidson’s plums.

Eddie Brook, Cape Byron

Roll out the barrel! Eddie Brook in action

Cape Byron’s most recent creation? A roasted macadamia nut liqueur called Brookie’s Mac.  Roasted macadamia nuts, macadamia nut shell and wattleseed are steeped in wheat-based spirit before Mount Warning spring water and natural sugar cane syrup is added, resulting in a moreish butterscotch, cacao and coffee-flavoured sipper that tastes incredible over ice with a squeeze of lime, stirred through an Old Fashioned, or mixed into affogato.

We called Cape Byron Distillery co-founder and CEO Eddie Brook for the 411* on potent botanicals, rejuviated rainforest, and soon-to-be Australian whisky…

Master of Malt: Hey Eddie! Congrats on the launch of your latest product, Mac. Let’s start by talking wattleseed. Can you give our readers a little introduction to this botanical? 

Eddie Brook: Wattleseed is from the world of bush food. If you look at Australian food culture we’ve got the most incredible pantry of native flavours to pull from and wattleseed is one of my favourites. The best way to describe it is ‘bush coffee’ – the beautiful aroma of roasted coffee meets dark chocolate and semi-burnt popcorn. It’s like coffee in that the quality is only as good as the grower that grows it and the roaster that roasts it. Mac is macadamia and wattleseed, simple in its own right but showcasing those flavours in the best way possible. The macadamia shell in particular has never been used for production before which is pretty exciting. We don’t use any colourings or flavourings, it’s all down to steeping freshly-roasted macadamia and wattleseed in wheat spirit when they’re at absolute optimum flavour for around three months on average, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

Rainforest, Byron Bay Region

Just a bit of local rainforest

MoM: Cape Byron distillery is surrounded by a macadamia orchard and a sub-tropical rainforest. Did you always intend to forage a large portion of your ingredients, or did this idea develop over time?

EB: When my family bought the 98-acre farm it was completely run-down, there was barely a tree growing on the land, so my upbringing was regenerating rainforest. We hacked away weeds and replanted trees so I suppose I had a connection to our landscape, which is an area called Northern Rivers. We are blessed with this densely-populated thriving ecosystem of incredible native flavours and that was the world I was brought up in. Every year mum and I would harvest Davidson’s plums from the rainforest and made jam with them. When my journey through the food and spirit industry led me to meet my absolute idol, and now mentor and business partner Jim McEwan, I learned how to bring those products together. We’ll go walking through the rainforest and harvest native ginger and raspberries, we’ve got rye berries growing, we’ve aniseed myrtle and cinnamon myrtle – it’s honestly like having a massive pantry, you’ve just got to work a bit harder to get the ingredients. 

MoM: Having previously worked for a spirits importer and distributor, did you feel daunted about being a newcomer in the industry? Or was the idea a no-brainer because of the incredible Australian ingredients growing in, quite literally, your back garden?

EB: Oh for sure, of course you can’t help but look to see what other people are doing. I’ve always been in awe of these great products, in particular I was lucky enough to be an ambassador and brand manager for The Botanist. The story of that spirit represents more than just product in a bottle, it came about by working with botanists to showcase the flavours of Islay. Through knowing those brands and also working with Jim, I knew our foundations were real and strong, too. The world of native Australian flavours, especially rainforest botanicals and ingredients, is mind-blowing. When I take people through the farm and they taste native raspberry or I pick some aniseed myrtle, you can see that child inside them come to life; it opens up their eyes to the flavours and that’s what I wanted to bring through our spirit. We want our gin to taste like gin, but by bringing in those native Australian flavours we’ve created something new and exciting.

MoM: As a distiller, what are you especially proud of? Was there a botanical or ingredient that was harder to work with, for example?

EB: Finding the initial balance for our dry gin was an exciting challenge. When we’re talking about native Australian ingredients, the reason they’re not in the pantry or on shelves is that they are extremely potent flavours – incredible in their own right, but you’ve got to know how to use them. Take dorrigo pepperleaf, for instance, which is like Sichuan pepper meets an Earl Grey tea leaf. When you balance that in rye, it completely pops. But the one that I’m most proud of is our Brookie’s Slow Gin. As a country we don’t grow sloe berries, they’re very much cold climate, but we do have the Davidson’s plum – the same one mum and I would pick when I was a young boy to make jam – a type of bush food that only grows in Northern Rivers through small farmers. In our first year we purchased three tonnes, last year was 12 tonnes, and next year we’re looking to purchase 24 tonnes. With the success of this product we’re growing the local industry and connecting people around Australia with native ingredients and the land.

Mac. by Brookie's (2)

Brookie’s Mac liqueur with real macadamia nuts to the side

MoM: Let’s talk about the new make spirit you’ve laid down. Which natural resources lend themselves to distilling in the Byron Bay region? How will the climate impact the resulting whisky?

EB: There’s something quite magical about whisky and the way the barley, the malting process, the yeast, the fermentation time, the distillation, the cask and the environment all have a huge impact on the liquid. We’re quite lucky with the whisky production laws in Australia which give us a bit of flexibility and creativity in how we can approach this incredible category. One of the major ones is that we don’t have to produce our own wort – we’re very lucky that our dear family friends own a brewery just down the road which is Australia’s number one independent craft beer company called Stone & Wood. Jim and I worked with them and selected a certain Australian barley strain and two yeasts, one of which has never been used for the production of whisky before, to make our new make spirit, which has flavours of lychee, kiwi, pear and apple skin. The wash is fermented and twice-distilled with no computers, it’s all down to sensory from the teachings with Jim, and then it goes into full-sized ex-bourbon casks which rest in barrel houses on our distillery located in the hinterland of Byron. You’ve got the sea air mixing with the rainforest, it’s a really unique climate. It’ll take the heat out of summer and the rainforest takes the cold out of winter so that’ll have an impact on our spirit. We’ll see a faster maturation in Australia, the equivalent of maybe a five year old in Scotland we’ll see in about three years. It was a pretty special moment when we found the heart of our spirit – I was running the still with Jim, who was nosing [the new make]. He closed his eyes and when he looked at me a grin peeled across his face and he said, ‘Eddie, hand on heart this is one of the finest spirits I’ve ever produced’. We have to wait two years until it becomes whisky, but there are some very exciting times ahead.

MoM: If there was one thing about you’d like everyone to take away from Cape Byron, what would it be?

EB: I would love to see people reconnect with nature. When people come to our distillery they get a sense of what nature used to be. We had the greatest rainforest in Australia in our backyard and that was destroyed. Regenerating the world might be greater than you and I, but every little bit can make a difference. We’ve brought our land back in 28 years and now it’s a thriving rainforest – giving that sense of empowerment to people is my end goal; to change people’s perceptions and open their eyes to the land.

*slang for information from the American directory enquiries number. In Britain you could say 118 118 instead, though you will get some blank looks. 

 

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Five essential tips for making the most of your distillery tour

Whether it’s your first time getting up close and personal with a pair of stills – or you’ve already checked off the HQ of your entire drinks trolley – you’ll…

Whether it’s your first time getting up close and personal with a pair of stills – or you’ve already checked off the HQ of your entire drinks trolley – you’ll want to make the most of your distillery visit. From unusual questions to tips and tricks, we tapped three distillers for their esteemed insider knowledge…

Take it from us, there’s never been a better time to be a full-on spirits geek. Whether through distillery tours, blending workshops, tailored tasting experiences or cocktail masterclasses, the masterminds behind our favourite sips have flung open their doors, filling both our minds and our glasses with spirited brilliance.

For most distillers, provenance is a huge part of what makes their liquid so unique. Native botanicals, regional production methods, local water, warehouse climate; whatever it might be, these unique factors form part of its DNA. There’s nothing quite like experiencing that sense-of-place first hand. It’s a lesson in history, science and art, all rolled into one.

To really get the best of this unique experience, we quizzed the people for whom distillery tours are their day-to-day. Heed their do’s and don’ts to make the most of your big day out (and remember to scope out the gift shop’s distillery exclusive bottlings while you’re there! It’s the best place to nab a gem…).

Glenrinnes Distillery

Oh, hello there Glenrinnes!

#1 Introduce yourself

Perhaps you’re a huge fan of the distillery and it’s been a lifelong dream to visit? Or maybe the local hotel receptionist recommended you drop by, and this will be your first time tasting neat gin. Whatever the reason you’re there, make it known to your guide. The best tour experiences are always the most interactive ones, says Meeghan Murdoch, operations manager at Glenrinnes Distillery in Speyside, since engaging in visitors’ knowledge helps them tailor the experience to the interests of the group.

#2 Come with the right mindset

For starts, arrive punctual and sober, says Andrew Anderson, head of distillery tours at Balcones Distilling in Texas. For the sake of your tour guide, mainly, but you’ll also enjoy the experience more if both your mind and palate are fresh. By all means, hit the bar up – there’s a certain magic about enjoying a dram on its home turf – but do so on your way out. Remember to turn your phone off (or set it to silent) so your guide has your full attention, and don’t answer it during the tour.

Shh… They’re snoozing…

#3 Soak up the atmosphere

Distilleries are often beautiful buildings with hundreds of years’ worth of history, says Greg Hughes, managing director of Jameson Brand Homes and Education at Irish Distillers, and Jameson’s Bow Street and Midleton sites are a fine example. So, give yourself enough time to take in your surroundings. “Make an afternoon of it rather than coming in, having a quick tour and dashing off,” he says. “You lose some of the magic of these historical sites.” And don’t forget, your guide is a local, so make the most of their travel tips. “We’ve a really friendly team and they loved being asked where to go next, whether it’s a hotel, a bar or restaurant or another whiskey attraction.”

#4 Ask *all* of the questions

Any question that pops into your head. Even the one you feel embarrassed about asking. “We are here to interact, engage, and teach you about our craft,” says Anderson, “[your guide] will not think you’re stupid.” ‘Do you own the distillery?’, ‘Can I drink the dump bucket?’, ‘How many miles of pipe is in the distillery?’, and ‘Can we try the wort?’ are all legitimate questions he and the team have received. While some questions are trickier to answer than others, Hughes adds, “we love to see it, there’s a real enthusiasm there. When people are asking questions you can tell they’re really enjoying the experience – you don’t need to be a whiskey expert to have passion.” So, ask away.

Glenrinnes Distillery

Chances are, the distillers know what they’re doing with those stills

#5 Don’t ‘give it the biggen’*

Perhaps your uncle worked at the distillery three decades ago, or your best friend is involved with marketing the distillery. Regardless of what you already know about spirits production, local history, the brand, and so on, be gracious to your guide. “Don’t try to catch out the tour guide on your own knowledge,” says Katrina Stewart, Glenrinnes’ distiller. “Respect their experience and understanding and have an open discussion.” In the same vein, be open to learning about new ways to approach the production process, says Anderson. “Do not answer questions as if you’re the tour guide unless prompted or opened up to contribute – be attentive, and do not speak while the tour guide is speaking”.

* Urban Dictionary defines this as “When someone attempts to make themselves appear tougher or cooler than they really are”. So now you know.

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