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Master of Malt Blog

Join our Islay celebrations on Instagram Live!

Just because we won’t be heading to Islay this year, doesn’t mean we can’t keep the festival spirit alive! Thanks to the magic of Instagram Live we’ve organised a series of…

Just because we won’t be heading to Islay this year, doesn’t mean we can’t keep the festival spirit alive! Thanks to the magic of Instagram Live we’ve organised a series of interviews with the island’s distilleries that features tastings, chats and Q&As.

This is usually the time of year where we would pack our travel bags, camera kit and 10-litre bottles of midge insect repellent to head north to the beautiful Scottish island of Islay to revel in one of the highlights, if not the highlight of the whisky calendar. The week-and-a-bit from 22-30 May was sure to provide all the whisky-dipped merriment you could shake Dave Worthington’s pipe at.

But we have no intention of letting this period pass by without some recognition of an island that is home to some of Scotch whisky’s finest distilleries. Which is why we’ve put together the next best thing. Through the wonderful medium of Instagram Live, we’ve created our own virtual festival by teaming up with the island’s distilleries (and the fab folk at Jura, of course). We’ve put together a programme of tastings, chats and Q&As with your questions, comments and tasting notes to keep the Islay spirit alive and your tasting glass full from the comfort of your own home.

We thoroughly hope you enjoy our virtual Islay celebration. The schedule for the Instagram Live shows is listed below, complete with accompanying dram. Don’t forget, you can always embrace the Islay spirit whenever you like with Drinks by the Dram’s Islay Whisky Tasting Set! Why not order one for you and a pal and set up your own Zoom tasting?

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Aerolite Lyndsay 10 Year Old

Day One

Who’s joining us? The Character of Islay Whisky Company and its head of whisky, Sam Simmons for a tasting. What a way to kick off proceedings!

What whisky will we be tasting? Aerolite Lyndsay 10 Year Old, Green Isle, Grace Île and Fiona Macleod.

When is it? Friday 22 May at 7:30pm

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Lagavulin will be joining us on day two

Day Two

Who’s joining us? Lagavulin and its distillery manager Colin Gordon for an evening dram and a chat. Grab a tasting glass and get your questions ready for Colin!

What whisky will we be tasting? Lagavulin 8Lagavulin 16.

When is it? Saturday 23 May at 8:30pm.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Head distiller Adam Hannett will join us for a tasting and Q&A

Day Three

Who’s joining us? Bruichladdich and its head distiller Adam Hannett for a tasting and Q&A. Bruichladdich also has its own Laddie Lock-In, while its ballot system to decide who can get their hands on its alternative festival bottling, Port Charlotte 16, has now concluded.

What whisky will we be tasting? The Classic Laddie.

When is it? Sunday 24 May at 6pm.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Caol Ila Distillery, as seen from the skies.

Day Four

Who’s joining us? Caol Ila and its distillery manager for an evening dram and a chat with Pierrick Guillaume.

What whisky will we be tasting? Caol Ila 12.

When is it? Monday 25 May at 8:15pm. 

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

We’ll be spending lunchtime with Laphroaig

Day Five

Who’s joining us? Laphroaig for a lunchtime taste and learn session with distillery manager John Campbell. It will also be hosting its own celebration, #LaphroaigLive from 18:15pm.

What whisky will we be tasting? Laphroaig 10.

When is it? Tuesday 26 May at 1pm. 

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

The beautiful Bowmore Distillery who will join us on day six

Day Six

Who’s joining us? Bowmore for another lunchtime Live, with time with distillery manager, David Turner. We’ll have a chat about all things whisky, so ready your questions!

What whisky will we be tasting? Bowmore 12.

When is it? Wednesday 27 May at 1pm.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Kilchoman founder Anthony Wills will stop by to kick-off our Thursday with a bang

Day Seven

Who’s joining us? Kilchoman and its founder Anthony Wills will be kicking off the day with us. The distillery also has quite the online festival Programme, complete with live tastings and a distillery tour.

What whisky will we be tasting? Kilchoman Machir Bay, Loch Gorm 2020, the new Am Burach, 100% Islay 9th Edition, and the official Festival Bottling!

When is it? Thursday 28 May at 10.30am.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

Bunnahabhain Toiteach a Dhà

Day Eight

Who’s joining us? Bunnahabhain and its global brand director, Derek Scott, who will host a tasting with a very delicious dram, usually distillery-exclusive dram (it will also host its own 8pm tasting, ‘Fèis at home‘). 

What whisky will we be tasting? Bunnahabhain Toiteach a Dhà, Bunnahabhain 25-Year-Old, and the very exciting Bunnahabhain 2003 Amontillado Finish, which is usually only available from the distillery.

When is it? Friday 29 May at 5pm.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

The scenic Jura Distillery makes delicious and subtle smoky whisky

Who’s joining us? Jura and Whyte & Mackay’s Gregg Glass, who will be online with us for an evening tasting. 

What whisky will we be tasting? Jura 10 Year Old.

When is it? Friday 29 May evening.

Fèis Ìle on Instagram Live

The stunning Ardbeg Distillery at night

Day Nine

Who’s joining us? Ardbeg and Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks for Ardbeg (and sister distillery Glenmorangie) ,for an Ardbeg Day tasting. You can also join the distillery at 7pm on Facebook for its first-ever online Ardbeg Day!

What whisky will we be tasting? Ardbeg 10An Oa and Blaaack. 

When is it? Saturday 30 May at 3pm.


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Cocktail masterclass with Moët Hennessy

With the promise of warmer weekends ahead, now’s the time to pin down a selection of light, refreshing and unfussy al-fresco drinks. Here, American Bar at The Savoy’s bartender Jake…

With the promise of warmer weekends ahead, now’s the time to pin down a selection of light, refreshing and unfussy al-fresco drinks. Here, American Bar at The Savoy’s bartender Jake O’Brien Murphy and Belvedere vodka brand ambassador Mark Tracey share four simple and delicious Scotch whisky, Cognac and vodka-based cocktails…

Stock up on choc ices and fire up the BBQ – summer might look a little different this year, but it’s so close, we can almost taste it. Technically, we’ve already tasted it, having attended a virtual cocktail masterclass hosted by Moët Hennessy (the French company behind Ardbeg, Glenmorangie, Hennessy and Belvedere). 

Guided by Jake O’Brien Murphy, bartender at American Bar at The Savoy, and Mark Tracey, Belvedere brand ambassador, we re-created four quintessential summer serves designed to make the most out of everyday ingredients you might find in your kitchen. And now we’re sharing the recipes with you, because we’re nice like that. Before you slap that sunscreen on, though, a few words of advice. 

The American Bar at the Savoy

First of all, ready your workspace. Or to paraphrase nineties rapper Ice Cube, prep yourself before your wreck yourself. It only takes a few minutes to make syrups, lay out garnishes and squeeze lemons and limes, and it’ll make assembling your cocktail far easier. “I would always encourage using fresh produce, squeezed as close to making the drink as you can,” says Tracey.

Should your chosen cocktail require shaking – as several below do – don’t skimp on the ice. Fill the shaker as full as you possibly can. Aim to shake for between eight and 10 seconds, or until condensation forms on the outside of the shaker. “You just want to tie everything together and add a load of tiny little micro-bubbles into [the drink],” says O’Brien Murphy. “That’s the idea of shaking: We’re trying to get it cold, dilute it, and alter the texture.”

The same goes for your glassware, too. “If you pour the drink over one cube of ice, that cube of ice will lose its thermal integrity quicker than a big glass full of ice,” O’Brien Murphy continues. It might help to think of ice as an ingredient that makes your drink more consistent from start to finish. “The less ice, the more dilution,” says Tracey, “which means the drink is going to change, it’ll heat up and it’s not going to be as palatable.” 

Finally, use a fine strainer if you have one. Not only will it catch citrus remnants and pulp from other fruits (if you’re shaking with berries, for example) but it’ll also capture smaller shards of ice, potentially affecting the dilution, and nobody wants that. 

Well, we’ve done our bit. You’re free to get cracking on the cocktails below – but if you fancy watching the professionals do it first, Tracey and O’Brien Murphy are hosting this very masterclass live on Moët Hennessy’s Clos19 Instagram account this Wednesday, 20 May at 5pm.

Belvedere Almond Milk Punch

Tell me more… A light and silky take on the traditional milk punch.

Ingredients: 40ml Belvedere, 25ml fresh lemon juice, 15ml honey water*, 60ml almond milk, mint to garnish

Method: Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into ice filled highball glass. Garnish with sprigs of mint.

*Honey water: combine 3 parts honey and 1 part boiling water (3:1)

Ardbeg Shortie’s Dirty Daiquiri

Tell me more… A smoky twist on popular summertime classic, the Daiquiri.

Ingredients: 50ml Ardbeg Ten Year Old, 20ml apple juice, 20ml fresh lime juice, 10ml vanilla syrup*

Method: Shake all ingredients over ice before straining into a chilled coupe.

*Vanilla Syrup: combine 1 part caster sugar and 1 part boiling water (1:1). Stir until clear and then simply add a dash of vanilla essence or vanilla paste.  

Glenmorangie Ginger & Honey Highball

Tell me more… Fresh and light, combining the fruity notes of Glenmorangie with sweet citrus.

Ingredients: 50ml Glenmorangie Original, 15ml fresh lemon juice, 15ml honey water*, sparkling water to top, lemon wedge, slices of raw ginger

Method: Mix all ingredients together (excluding the sparkling water) and strain into an ice-filled Highball glass. Top with sparkling water. Garnish with a lemon wedge and thin ginger slices.

*Honey water: combine 3 parts honey and 1 part water (3:1)

Hennessy & Ginger

Tell me more… A perfectly-balanced sweet and spicy highball.

Ingredients: 50ml Hennessy VS, ginger ale, fresh lime to garnish

Method: Pour Hennessy VS into a tall glass. Add ice cubes, top with ginger ale and stir with a bar spoon. Garnish with fresh lime.


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New Arrival of the Week: Tio Pepe Fino En Rama

As we can’t visit Andalucia, we have the next best thing, a limited edition fino taken from Gonzalez Byass’s bodega in Jerez and bottled with no treatment whatsoever. In the…

As we can’t visit Andalucia, we have the next best thing, a limited edition fino taken from Gonzalez Byass’s bodega in Jerez and bottled with no treatment whatsoever. In the words of winemaker Antonio Flores, it’s “Jerez en una botella.”

Even for those who aren’t particularly into sherry, visiting a bodega when near Jerez is high on most tourist’s list. The traditional warehouses with their soaring roofs stacked with slowly-maturing butts of wine are known in Spanish as ‘catedrals’ and provide a similar respite from the summer heat. They don’t just look spectacular, the layout is designed to keep the sherry cool but humid so that the flor (protective layer of yeast) can grow on the surface. I was lucky enough to visit Gonzalez Byass in Jerez a few years ago in the company of head winemaker Antonio Flores. As we walked around he would dip his trusty venencia, the cup on the stick thing that you have to learn how to use if you want to be taken seriously in Jerez, into a barrel, and effortlessly pour fresh sherry from a height into glasses. The wine was fresh, alive with the taste of apples and almonds, and often with bits of yeast floating in it. 

Antonio Flores wielding his venencia like a pro

After this sensory experience, ordinary Tio Pepe seemed a bit humdrum. As the world’s bestselling fino, it’s blended to create a consistent product and filtered to ensure it’s absolutely stable and clear. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious wine but it doesn’t quite capture the bodega magic. But you can buy a version that’s a close as possible to the straight from the barrel experience. It’s called Tio Pepe En Rama, and the latest limited edition batch from Gonzalez Byass has just arrived at Master of Malt. 

‘Rama’ literally means ‘branch’ or ‘on the vine’ which translates roughly as ‘in its natural state’. The first company to bottle an ‘En Rama’ sherry was Barbadillo in 1999. Gonzalez Byass launched its Tio Pepe En Rama in 2010. There’s no legal definition but they tend to be only very lightly filtered and are from a single cask or a blend of some of the best casks in the bodega. 

Back in 2010, though Flores and his team were not convinced En Rama would work. “We were nervous about bottling a sherry without any treatment. It seemed very risky,” he said when I saw him last year. Without the filtering, he was worried the wine might start to refer to the bottle. The first release said ‘drink within three months’ on the label, “like yoghurt,” he joked. Furthermore, would anyone buy it? They needn’t have worried, the first batch sold out very quickly and now every release is much anticipated. Furthermore, the wines remained stable, changing with time in bottle without deteriorating. It’s now become an annual thing, released every May with a new label each year.

Tio Pepe en rama is the next best thing to visiting Jerez

Like most sherry, Tio Pepe En Rama is a blend of vintages created using the solera system but as Flores only picks the best barrels (this year 69 casks from the Constancia and Rebollo bodegas), it is different every year. For example, the 2018 was extremely rich with butterscotch type notes like a Palo Cortado. In contrast, the 2020 is more lithe but intense with flavours of cooked apple and almonds. The back of the bottle will have the saca date, when it was taken out of the barrel.  

Flores commented: “This is one of the most spectacular editions of Tio Pepe En Rama that I have had the fortune to select. At the bodega we view the biological ageing of the sherries as our second terroir.  It is this second terroir that enables us to maximise the unique character of the albariza soil– a delicious chalkiness with almond and floral notes – resulting in a seductive cocktail of flavours.”

It’s not just Gonazlez Byass, all the sherry companies now release En Rama bottling and there’s always a sense of excitement about the year’s releases. Not only are these always interesting wines, but they provide something new for the sherry lover to try each year. Think of them as the equivalent of single cask whisky. Nothing tastes better drunk chilled on a hot summer’s day. Close your eyes, take a sip and you could be in Jerez.

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Rich brown apples, layers of nuts, almonds and cobnuts, Marmite.

Palate: Full texture, creamy with a strong herbal quality, lots of almonds.

Finish: Refreshing and saline with lingering nuts. 

Tio Pepe En Rama is now available from Master of Malt.

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10 mindful drinking tips for spirits lovers

With the world’s watering holes temporarily off-limits, our social lives are awash with virtual happy hours and pub quizzes, and for better or worse, we’re in charge of the jigger. Don’t let…

With the world’s watering holes temporarily off-limits, our social lives are awash with virtual happy hours and pub quizzes, and for better or worse, we’re in charge of the jigger. Don’t let your relationship with your drinks trolley sour – here, industry experts share their top tips for drinking mindfully during lockdown…

There’s no question that enjoying a glass of something lovely can be a tonic for the soul, but regularly overdoing it on the booze weakens your immune system and worsens anxiety – not exactly ideal in the midst of a global pandemic. During times like these, fostering a healthy relationship with alcohol has never been more important. Enter ‘mindful drinking’.

“It’s all about becoming more conscious about how you are consuming alcohol, and taking time to slow down and really savour your drink,” says Jacob Briars, global head of advocacy and education for the Bacardi group. “Just like fine dining, with a great cocktail there’s the excitement of preparing it, the pride of presenting it, and the enjoyment of relishing every sip.”

Last year’s mindful drinking festival in Spitalfields

As Briars alluded, mindful drinking doesn’t mean going teetotal, ditching your favourite spirits or sipping on uninspiring serves. Put simply, it’s about paying attention. “Being a mindful drinker is about paying attention to how alcohol affects you, and how it shapes the world around you,” explains Laura Willoughby, co-founder of mindful drinking movement Club Soda.

“As a mindful drinker, you will pay attention to where and when you drink, who you drink with and what you drink,” she says. “You’ll notice how you feel after one drink, rather than mindlessly ploughing on to the next. You’ll become aware of the effects of alcohol on your physical and mental wellbeing, and you will begin to see the role it plays in your life.”

Let go of any misconceptions about mindful drinking being boring, says Camille Vidal, founder of mindful cocktail website, La Maison Wellness. “For me, it’s all about experimentation,” she says. “Since we have more time on our hands to be with ourselves and reconnect, now is the time to explore and create, and very importantly have fun while doing so.”

Camille Vidal mixing up some wellness, mindfully

Ready to foster a more mindful approach to drinking in lockdown (and beyond)? Below, you’ll find 10 simple and easy-to-action habits and hacks you can adopt today:

1. Self-moderate

“Just like we track our steps, you can keep count of your weekly cocktail consumption and set limits,” says Briars. “My advice is don’t drink at times that you wouldn’t usually – but still treat yourself to a great cocktail when you’d normally have one, whether that’s to celebrate the end of the working week, or a virtual Saturday night get-together with friends.”

2. Go ‘low’

“For those who want to drink alcohol but want to drink less, Spritzes are a favourite of mine,” says Briars. “They’re especially great during the summer months, when afternoon drinking in the sunshine is a fixture on many people’s social calendars. The St. Germain Spritz [40ml St. Germain, 55ml dry sparkling wine, 55ml sparkling water] is really delicious and refreshing.” 

“Vermouth and Soda is a great simple serve,” he continues. “My favourite was created by Naren Young at the award-winning Dante café in New York City – one part Noilly Prat and two parts soda, with frozen grapes. For the quarantine kitchen, vermouth is a great staple to have around as you can use a splash when cooking risotto or fish.” 

3. Reverse your serve

“Lighten up some of your favourite cocktails by flipping the formula,” says Briars. “For example, if you fancy a Gin Martini but would like it to pack a little less punch, reverse the measure to two parts vermouth and one-part gin. The same goes for a classic Manhattan where you can swap the portions of the vermouth and the whiskey or rum.”

Always measure your ingredients

4. Measure up

“When drinking in the home, many people don’t have alcohol measuring tools, such as a jigger,” says Briars. “If you don’t have one, grab a measuring jug. A double measure is 50ml, and a single is 25ml. Don’t free pour – with a glass full of ice in front of you, it’s often hard to gauge what a double or single measure looks like. Make sure you use a jigger, or alternate measuring device and keep track. It will also taste better!”

5. Play it forward

You may not have control over the lockdown, but you are in control of how you react to it,” says  Willoughby. “Look ahead to who you want to be when this is all over, and focus on the bigger picture. Where do you want your life to be in 12 months time? What role does alcohol play in this vision of the future you? Ask yourself where, when, who and what you want to drink, so you can make more conscious decisions about the role of alcohol in your life.”

6. Shrink your drink

“Some of the world’s top bars have debuted demi-serves of classic and bespoke cocktails that deliver big taste without the calories and alcohol content of full serves,” says Briars. “Think of this as the cocktail equivalent of choosing a starter versus a main course for dinner. Just cut the measures in half to turn the iconic Dry Martini cocktail into a ‘Dry Marteeny’.”

7. Embrace the aperitivo

“The aperitivo – Italy’s favourite drinking ritual – is fast becoming a global phenomenon,” says Briars. “A respite at the end of the day, a traditional Aperitivo cocktail tends to be a longer and more refreshing serve, for example a Martini Fiero and tonic, served 50:50 over plenty of ice – ideally with something tasty to snack on too.”

Martini Fiero and tonic, lowish alcohol, high flavour

8. Quality over quantity 

“Treat yourself to something really delicious; then sip slowly and savour the moment,” says Briars. “It’s the taste and ritual of the drink that matters, not the amount of alcohol. Also, with so many people looking to gain new skills on lockdown, this is the perfect time to master new cocktail skills and try your hand at mixology – you could even host a virtual cocktail making class via Zoom with your friends. Get creative and dust off the bottle of any classic spirits that have been sitting in your drinks cabinet for years, such as vermouth.”

9. Help yourself

“Do those things you never had time for,” says Willoughby. “Rather than drinking in response to stress, use this time to do things that will make you more resilient in the long term. Invest some time into trying new things. From meditation to computer games, I suspect that your list of ‘things to when I have more time’ doesn’t include getting sozzled! So write everything down, from new hobbies to jobs around the house. Then prioritise.” 

Alternatively, enrol on one of Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking programmes. They also run weekly sessions on HospoLive for anyone working in hospitality.

10. Don’t sweat it

“Mindful drinking isn’t about drinking alcohol or not, it’s about bringing mindfulness into the glass, becoming aware of our drinking habits and making better choices,” says Vidal. “Be kind to yourself, and don’t feel that you’ve messed up if you reach for that glass of wine. Find what works for you – there are no rules.”

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Virtual pub quiz 15 May

It’s the return of our celebration of booze-related trivia, the Master of Malt pub quiz. All entries will get a discount code and one winner a £25 off voucher. And…

It’s the return of our celebration of booze-related trivia, the Master of Malt pub quiz. All entries will get a discount code and one winner a £25 off voucher. And there will be prizes for all!

Yes it’s back and it’s harder than ever, our virtual pub quiz. Well, a couple of the questions are hard. Some are really easy. If you took part in last week’s quiz, you can find out how you did here. If you didn’t then get with the program! All entries get a discount code and one winner will get a £25 off voucher. How brilliant is that? Be aware, it’s strict pub quiz rules, no looking at Google!

So if you fancy your chances, you can take part by hitting ‘click here’! Almost too easy.


People having fun together. Remember?

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The Nightcap: 15 May

It’s the eve of World Whisky Day and there’s no better way to prepare yourself for all its boozy brilliance than with a read of another fantastic edition of The…

It’s the eve of World Whisky Day and there’s no better way to prepare yourself for all its boozy brilliance than with a read of another fantastic edition of The Nightcap…

It’s another Friday, and that means another edition of The Nightcap! Tomorrow is World Whisky Day, so if you’re looking to go into it with a brain full of booze news, you’ve come to the right place. Your internet browser. It’s also a good place to go if you’re looking to find out facts about rare species of birds or get into arguments with strangers about what counts as a soup. Of course, you’ll have to visit other websites for that – although we will say that people who think chilli con carne is a soup should reconsider their stance because it’s absolutely not a soup and they’re wrong.

On the MoM blog this week we announced the good news that That Boutique-y Whisky Company has ensured we can still enjoy World Whisky Day together thanks to its World Whisky Summit, which is sponsored by us! We also launched a flash sale (which ended this morning) containing booze from England’s largest wine producer, Chapel Down, before Annie took a peek behind the scenes at Two Drifters’ planet-friendly production process, Adam learned the story behind the Pearse Lyons Distillery and Ian Buxton returned to deliver the second part of his investigation on private cask sales. Elsewhere, Henry enjoyed five minutes in the company of John Little, of Smooth Ambler fame, a deliciously herbaceous Cachaça-based concoction and a bitter bottling from top vermouth producer Carpano.

Once again we’d like to say a huge thank you to all those who entered our virtual pub quiz last Friday and salute the winner, Conal Wright. We sincerely hope you enjoy your £25 gift voucher! The answers to last week’s edition are listed below and for those who want a chance to get their hands on the prize or just test their boozy knowledge, the MoM pub quiz will be on our blog from 5pm as always.

The Nightcap

Whisky makers Tomer Goren, Dhavall Gandhi and Michael D’Souza – what a trio!

What’s happening on World Whisky Day…

Wondering how to celebrate World Whisky Day tomorrow (Saturday 16 May)? Well, luckily you’re spoilt for choice, as there’s all sort of fun to get involved with! We’re pretty stoked to be involved with the rather exciting Boutique-y Whisky World Whisky Summit, with quite the lineup of industry greats kicking off at 7pm. Then, if you want to gain some worldwide whisky knowledge, England’s Lakes Distillery has partnered up with Israel’s Milk & Honey and India’s Paul John Distilleries for another virtual celebration at 5pm! You’ll be greeted by Dhavall Gandhi, Tomer Goren and Michael D’Souza,  distillers at each respective distillery, exploring the influence of location on whisky maturation. What a trio! Tune into the Lakes Facebook page for all the goods. Royal Salute has also got in on the act with a series called ‘Behind the Kingdom Doors’, a live stream series that discusses three different topics in style and luxury, taking place over the three weeks. It kicked off this week with a live whisky tasting hosted by master blender Sandy Hyslop and whisky blogger Alex Robertson on Wednesday. Coming up next is a Polo & Lifestyle session hosted by Hyslop and polo star Malcolm Borwick on the 20 May, followed by Around The World With Royal Salute, hosted again by Hyslop and Nathan Wood, prestige whiskies brand ambassador, on the 1 June. What’s more, if it’s a challenge you’re looking for, Whyte and Mackay are hosting a series of online events featuring Jura whisky, and special guests including World Whisky Day founder, Blair Bowman! Head over to the Big Fat Online Whisky Quiz at 7:30pm where none other than Gregg Glass will make an appearance, if you want to test your knowledge. Happy World Whisky Day, folks!

The Nightcap

Cocktail hour is back, but this time it’s virtual!

The Cocktail Hour is back… and it’s virtual 

Though the circumstances that have led to this are less than ideal, we bring you cheerful news: the cocktail hour is back! The last time the cocktail hour was at its peak in Britain was the roaring ‘20s, so it looks like we’ve come full circle. We’ve got some fun cocktail facts for you from a survey by Bacardi for World Cocktail Day (which was this Wednesday, 13 May), which revealed that more than half (53%, if you want numbers) of the Britons asked believe that the cocktail hour has made a comeback in recent weeks, though this time, of course, it’s online. What’s more, it’s not just any old tipple they’re whipping up, with 43% revealed to be experimenting with drinks, and the Mojito taking first place as the number one lockdown serve. Nearly a third are getting real fancy and fishing out their cocktail glasses and shakers, too! Could we be expecting another cocktail renaissance? The good news is that over a quarter of those surveyed said that they will continue hosting virtual cocktail hours with friends and family beyond lockdown. Cheers to that!

The Nightcap

Congratulations on your double win, Dave!

Double win for Dave Broom at the Fortnum and Mason awards

In what will be a popular move in the world of booze, it was announced last night that Dave Broom has won Drinks Writer of the year at the annual Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink awards for his words on whiskymanual.uk. Rather than the usual riot of B list celebs, A-grade champagne and Claudia Winkleman, that normally makes up the awards, it was done online, though still with Claudia Winkleman, obviously. It was a double celebration for Broom as his film, The Amber Light, won the best programme too. Well done Dave! Other winners include the nicest man in food Tom Parker-Bowles as Restaurant Writer of the ear for his column in the Mail on Sunday, Rachel Roddy got the Cookery Writer gong for her mouth-watering Italian food column in the Guardian and we were particularly pleased to see Just the Tonic by Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt pick up Best Debut Drink book. Congratulations to all the winners and fingers crossed that next year we will be allowed near enough to other people to have a proper party.

The Nightcap

The vineyard features a small quantity of a ‘secret experimental variety’…

Pig hotel man plants vineyard in the South Downs

Imagine you have founded a group of acclaimed upmarket country hotels around England. What’s the next challenge? A racehorse? A football team? A crack at the America’s Cup? Well, the choice was easy for Robin Hutson, he’s long championed English wines in his Pig hotels, so rather than any of the above, he’s just planted his first vineyard in the South Downs. It’s located by Madehurst Lodge which will be the next Pig to open sometime next year. This two-acre south-west-facing site has been planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and a small quantity of a ‘secret experimental variety’. Oooh, mysterious! Hutson enlisted the help of some of his winemaking chums including Ian Kellett from Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire and Charles Simpson from Simpsons Wine Estate in Kent. He’s unlikely to see any fruit until 2022 and wine may take even longer depending on whether he makes still or sparkling. Apparently he hasn’t decided yet. Hutson commented: “I can’t wait to taste that first glass, albeit a couple of years away yet. The investment further endorses our complete commitment to home-grown, to local produce and to local contractors.  We will post regular updates from the vineyard as we progress. Wish us luck!” Good luck!

The Nightcap

Gautier Cognac 1762

And finally… Sotheby’s auctions one of the world’s oldest surviving Cognacs

Sotheby’s certainly know how to put together an auction and it’s latest online sale is no exception. The auction, titled Distilled – Iconic Samaroli, Dalmore 62 and The World’s Oldest Cognac, comprises of 216 lots and is estimated to bring a combined total in the region of £1.1 million. The headline item has to be the oldest vintage Cognac ever to be sold at auction, a bottle of Gautier Cognac 1762. Only three bottles of this vintage still exist, having been held in the same family for generations with their original labels attached. It’s the last and largest of these remaining bottles, known as ‘Grand Frère’, or the ‘Big Brother’, that will feature in Distilled and is expected to fetch between £80,000-160,000. Should your bid prove victorious, you’ll also get to enjoy a bespoke experience at Maison Gautier, courtesy of the distillery. Some people have it all. “The Gautier 1762 is renowned and revered across the world as a Cognac that transcends the world of spirits collecting. This bottle represents not only an example of pre-phylloxera viticulture but also of early cask maturation from the dawn of Gautier’s production and even precedes the French Revolution. This bottle contains a distillation not only of superb brandy, but also of Cognac’s history,” commented Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s spirits specialist. Alongside one of the world’s oldest surviving Cognacs, there’s the aforementioned collection of Samaroli goodies, which comprises of 55 bottles, including three of the legendary Bowmore Bouquet 1966 (estimated at £40,000-55,000 per bottle). Sotheby’s also has two bottles of The Dalmore 62 Year Old which are estimated to fetch £75,000-100,000 each and its first-ever collaboration with a rum distillery. A cask of Dictador’s 1980 single vintage rum will go on sale with the bidding starting at £50 with the proceeds being donated to the Dictador Art Masters Charity Fund to develop an art gallery within the Colombian Jungle, an anchor point for the conservation of the area. The Distilled auction is open for bidding from the 14 to 28 May.

The Nightcap

Pub quiz answers

1) Which classic cocktail is mixed up on a train in Some Like It Hot?

Answer: Manhattan

2) Where was the inventor of the modern carbonation process, whose name is on bottles to this day, born?

Answer: Germany

3) What does Kesha brush her teeth with in the song Tik Tok?

Answer: Jack Daniels

4) In the Friends episode “The One Where Ross is Fine”, which cocktail is Ross drinking?

Answer: Margaritas

5) The founder of which distillery was famous for packing a pair of pistols to deter criminal distillers?

Answer: Glenlivet

6) In the film Sideways, Miles says, “I am not drinking any f**king —–”. What wine does he say?

Answer: Merlot

7) Which fictional character said “I love Scotch. Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.”? 

Answer: Ron Burgundy

8) What is Captain Jack Sparrow’s favourite drink?

Answer: Rum

9) Which whisk(e)y does Rihanna drink in her song Cheers (Drink to That)?

Answer: Jameson

10)  This year which Champagne house opened some recently-discovered bottles of wine that were buried when a cellar collapsed in 1900?

Answer: Pol Roger


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Creating a legacy with Pearse Lyons Distillery

We spoke to global brand ambassador Conor Ryan to learn about one of the standout brands from the Irish whiskey resurgence, Pearse Lyons Distillery, founded by a self-made billionaire and housed…

We spoke to global brand ambassador Conor Ryan to learn about one of the standout brands from the Irish whiskey resurgence, Pearse Lyons Distillery, founded by a self-made billionaire and housed in a deconsecrated church in Dublin.

If you’re anything like me, planning a trip to a city means you immediately make a note of all the distilleries in the area. When it comes to Dublin, you’re spoilt for choice. The city that once ruled the whisky world is very much back on its feet and is now the home to a number of exciting new projects. But it’s hard to imagine you’ll see a more striking sight across all these delightful sites than a distillery housed in a church, complete with pot stills sitting on top of an altar. 

A short distance from the Guinness storehouse is St. James’ Church, a structure that dates back to the 12th century but has spent much of the last few decades in disrepair. Now, it’s home to the Pearse Lyons Distillery. Stained glass windows and all. I’m a guest of brand ambassador Conor Ryan, who tells me that, despite the distillery’s young age, it has a rich and remarkable history. He was initially brought on board to communicate what he describes as the brand’s “amazing message”. But his role soon expanded. “What I do with them now has ended up being more in the realm of liquid innovation,” Ryan explains. “I do the blending for the whisky, the cask management and the recipes for the gins. I was also involved in the liquid development for a ready-to-drink gin and tonic and worked with the marketing team on the branding”. 

This “amazing message” is rooted in man behind the brand, Dr Pearse Lyons. The Irish entrepreneur sadly passed in 2018 at the age of 73, but not before he had a chance to realise his dream. While he made his money in the animal nutrition industry, Dr Lyons was always a booze man at heart. “He was the first Irish man to get a formal degree in brewing and distilling from the British Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He did his internship in John’s Lane, Powers Distillery in the 70s before it closed down. He then worked with Guinness and after that, he was one of the main engineers that built Midleton Distillery,” Ryan explains. “He eventually went to the USA and his love of brewing and distilling made him curious about the subject of yeast. He did a PhD in biochemistry and yeast & fermentation and then he set up Alltech in 1980”. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Dr Pearse Lyons and his wife Deirdre, who painstakingly restored St. James’ Church

Dr Lyons then used the wealth and influence he generated to start his own brewing and distilling empire. “In 1999 he bought the oldest brewery in Lexington, which was closing down. He renamed it into Lexington Brewing and Distilling and made beer first, before then commissioning a distillery over in Lexington on the same site called Town Branch, making a bourbon, a rye and a single malt,” Ryan explains. “Dr Lyons was an innovator. In 2008, we started distilling single malt in Kentucky, the first single malt in bourbon country since 1919. He brought Scottish stills to Lexington and was one of the first people on the Kentucky bourbon trail to distil pot still only because that was his preferred method of distillation. We celebrated our 20th year in Lexington last year and we’ll launch a special edition whiskey to mark this. It’s a 12-year-old single malt, and we haven’t seen any other American 12-year-old single malts”.

Knowing Dr Lyons history, it seems inevitable that we would return to his homeland to make whiskey. The Dundalk man imported two Kentucky Vendome stills, Mighty Molly & Little Lizzie (named in honour of the Lyons family’s distant relatives), to Carlow in 2012, making it the first distillery in Carlow in 200 years and the first distillery in the south-east of Ireland in 100 years (interestingly, it’s also technically the first lost distillery of the new wave of Irish whiskey). But Dr Lyons went about his business without much fanfare, quietly distilling spirits that he could launch when his distillery in Dublin was ready. “When we actually opened our distillery to the public in a site in Dublin, in two of the expressions of whiskey that we had on the market included our own malt,” Ryan says. “It was produced on the stills that are in the Pearse Lyons distillery today, but while they were in a different location in Carlow in O’Hara’s Brewery”.

Dr Lyons made no secret about his dream to create an Irish whiskey distillery in Dublin and was always drawn to the rich history of The Liberties. He presumably never would have imagined this dream would be realised thanks to his old family church. “The first funeral Dr Lyons was ever at was his grandfather’s in that church. We know of nine relatives of his buried in the graveyard there, alongside James Power, the man who founded Powers Whiskey, and many more amazing characters,” Ryan explains. “He has a deep-rooted family connection with the area. Sixth generations of his family have been involved in Irish whiskey, including himself, and five generations before him on his mother’s side, the Dunnes, were coopers who had their own cooperages. His grand-aunt was actually the first female cooper ever registered in Ireland. Incidentally, distillery operations are now overseen by Pearse and Deirdre Lyons son, Mark Lyons., who himself holds a masters in brewing and distilling and a PhD in Biochemistry and has become the 7th generation of his family involved in the Dublin Whiskey industry”.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

The Pearse Lyons Distillery and visitor centre

While St. James’ Church seemed like the perfect location, logistically it wasn’t easy. The church, which was deconsecrated in the sixties, was almost falling to rack and ruin, so there was a huge restoration required. Then, two weeks after Dr Lyons and Mrs Lyons bought the church, it got turned into a national monument. “That turned an 18-month project into an almost five-year project that cost close to €20 million. The church had to be renovated to a point would’ve been the day it was built. Which meant a quarry reopened in Wales to get the exact same slate; a quarry reopened in France to get the exact same limestone and beams for our roof were brought up from South America because there were no trees long enough to do the beams for the roof that was required,” Ryan says. “We’re delighted with what we built. The church itself is an amazing place to see as a visitor attraction. It’s so meticulously done and there’s amazing history in the church itself, and why wouldn’t there be? There’s been a church on that site for nearly 800 years. Dr Lyons used to always say, ‘whiskey is only part of our story’. He always wanted us to ensure we told the full story of the site and that we’re only caretakers of the place”. 

The location of the Pearse Lyons Distillery means that it’s part of the remarkable revival in The Liberties area of Dublin. At one time, close to 40 distilleries were in operation in Dublin, nestled in a one-mile radius better known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. Pearse Lyons Distillery is part of a recent revolution that has seen the likes of Teeling, Roe & Co. and Dublin Liberties all open in the area in the last decade. “The Dublin identity is important as a distillery because there are such strong Dublin connections with Pearse Lyons’ family and the Dublin story is very much ingrained in our history. This area of Dublin used to be the focal point of Irish whiskey back when Irish whiskey was the focal point of whiskey globally, so it’s synonymous with great whiskey,” Ryan says. “It’s an incredible community, we’re all new together, we’ve got a great relationship with everyone. Everybody’s got their own whiskey, everybody’s got a very different visitor experience and everybody works together, to rise together. We’re all in the same camp. We don’t think of ourselves as being in competition with each other, we’re in competition with other categories like rum, Cognac and other whiskey countries. The more unified we can be, the better it will be for everyone”.

Inside the Pearse Lyons Distillery, I found one of the most polished and presentable distillery floors I’ve seen in this job. Flanking me as I walk around are stained glass windows, which depict four stories associated with the art of the cooper, Irish whiskey and St. James, as well as the Camino de Santiago. But the most striking detail of all is the stills, sitting proudly at the centre of the church on the altar.  Mighty Molly, the wash still, was designed with a neck and ball configuration to assist in refining the spirit character, while Little Lizze, the spirit still, is somewhat unusual as she has four rectification plates installed in her neck to further purify and refine the spirit. The stills that we use in the church today are genuinely unique to Ireland. We have our own inclusion in the Irish whiskey technical file because of Little Lizzie’s swan neck and rectifying plate. They allow the distilling team to create a different type of spirit because they’ve got control to produce a different liquid through flavour differentiation and the temperatures that they bring it to,” Ryan explains. What they create is a single malt new make that Ryan says is as good as he’s ever tasted from anywhere. “It’s absolutely spectacular. It’s got a beautiful, clean freshness to it, but I suppose what makes it different is the balance of the malt flavours with higher fruit notes, it really does stand apart,” he says. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Mighty Molly and Little Lizzie, taking pride of place on the altar

Milling takes place elsewhere and the grist is broken down to specification, but every other stage takes place at St. James’ Church, from the mashing and fermentation to the distillation. “Our brewhouse is a little bit unusual, it’s like a craft beer set up than what you’d see in the bigger distilleries. We ferment in steel first and then we put the spirit into our Oregon pine open washbacks. Our wash goes into the stills at about 7.5% ABV and then we distil slowly enough for the size of the wash,” Ryan explains. “When it comes off the back of the still and we’ve taken the heads and tails off, it’s about 72-74% ABV, which we then bring down to a cask strength of 62.5% ABV”.

The Pearse Lyons Distillery matures its whiskey using an enviable resource, barrels imported directly from its sister distillery, Town Branch in Kentucky. “We’ve got access to incredibly fresh barrels because when they’re disgorging in the US they let us know and we bring them over straight away. We use the ex-bourbon from Town Branch, as well the ex-rye ex-single malt and, most interestingly of all, two different ex-beer barrels,” Ryan says. “It’s fantastic when we use our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, which has a huge cult following in the USA, because when I tell people who are craft beer drinkers what some of our whiskey was aged in they can relate to it straight away. It’s basically an Irish red beer that’s been rested for 40-60 days in a refrigerated warehouse in B1 barrels and to freshly decanted bourbon barrels. We also do our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout, which have a heavy, dark, roasted chocolatey, burnt and almost smokey note. The beer barrels add nice diversity to the range”. 

All Pearse Lyons whiskies are bottled at 43% ABV (it was previously 42% ABV, as you’ll see with some of the bottlings on our site) with no chill-filtration or additional colouring (there are tasting notes for all of them are at the conclusion of this feature). The entry-level expression of the Pearse Lyons range is Pearse The Original, a blended Irish whiskey that contains malt whiskey produced in the distillery’s own stills. “When we opened up in 2017 we brought out The Original, which initially was a no age statement ‘three to five-year-old whiskey’. The proportions of it were that it was 36% malt and the remainder was grain. Half of that malt was aged in Kentucky bourbon stout barrels and the other half was aged in bourbon barrels, as was the grain,” Ryan says. “The whiskey now has a five-year-old age statement and the malt is the same percentage so it’s quite a malt-forward blend and the inclusion of the stout gives you a slightly smoky wisp. It’s also very citrusy and beautifully crisp, it’s a real aperitif style whiskey and it goes superbly well with sour cocktails. It also pairs beautifully with food, like a soft goat’s cheese or even cold white seafood like a crab tian or something like that”. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

How many distilleries inside a church have you been to?

Also in the core range is Distiller’s Choice, again a blend of several malt and grain Irish whiskies, which was a category winner for Blended Irish Whiskeys 12 Years and Under at the World Whiskies Awards 2020. “Distiller’s Choice is your more atypical blended Irish whiskey. It contains seven to nine-year-old whiskey with our own malt in it and sourced grain, so its 38% malt and the remainder is grain whiskey. The malt that’s used is a combination of whiskey mature in Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale barrels and bourbon barrels that were finished in sherry, while the grain is a combination of some that were only aged in bourbon and some that were finished in sherry,” Ryan explains. “We wanted to create diversity within the range, we know that every palette is different”.

One of the most interesting whiskeys in the core range is Pearse Lyons Founder’s Choice, which was created to honour Dr Lyons and bring together his two creations from across the pond. “It’s supposed to bridge our Irish whiskey with the kind of sweeter flavour notes that Dr Lyons was working with at the Town Branch Distillery in Kentucky. It’s a 12-year-old whiskey, but we weren’t distilling 12 years ago so it’s probably the one that we’ve put our least personal stamp on as this is a fully sourced liquid. But every drop was re-casked into Town Branch barrels to make sure that even if we didn’t distil it, we had it in our own barrels at least. When we brought out that whiskey in 2017, it would’ve been in Town Branch barrels for a minimum of three, three and a half years at that stage,” Ryan explains. “The barrels were all B1 and B2 bourbon barrels that we decanted, recast into first-fill bourbon barrels again, which gives it a huge vanilla influence with crème brûlée and custard notes. I’ve tasted sourced whiskies from all different brands and it’s an important part of the evolution of Irish whiskey, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I could tell our whiskey separate from other bourbon-barrel-aged expressions, because Town Branch bourbon contains a rye element and that extra spice comes through in our Founder’s Choice, with ginger and clove”.

The distillery also released a limited edition bottling, The Cooper’s Select, named in tribute to the vital job coopers do and owing to Dr Lyons own personal connection with the craft. It’s is a no-age-statement blend of grain and malt Irish whiskey that was aged in bourbon barrels and then at about four and a half years, that was vatted together and then it was refilled into first-fill oloroso sherry hogshead. “When it came out it was teetering anywhere between eight to nine years old from when we started and finished bottling. It’s an exceptionally wooded whiskey, as you’d guess for a salute to Pearse’s family heritage. Dr Lyons wanted to almost bring people into a full immersion of the barrel. So when you smell it and taste it, you get a profile of caramelised orange, burnt treacle, toasted wood and lovely rich sherry notes. It was a real sit at home, delve into it and give it time whiskies,” Ryan says. “Sadly, it was a limited edition that’s pretty much finished now. The Cooper’s Edition was the first Irish whiskey in living memory, certainly, we can’t identify another one, where someone made a blend and then they aged the blend. Instead of bringing together your component whiskies to create a blend, Dr Lyons created a blend and then aged it for three and a half to four years before releasing it. He always looked to do things differently, to set us apart”.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Dr Lyons’ legacy is secured

Arguably the most significant release from the distillery was the Pearse 5-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey in 2018, which was the first five-year age statement Irish Whiskey to appear from a new distillery in the whole of Ireland in more than 25 years. Presented in 4,000 individually numbered bottles, this limited release was the first showcase of the distillery’s own spirit in its entirety. “This was a whole new whiskey DNA coming onto the Irish whiskey market, a whole new bloodline. We made sure that this was not a very casked wood flavour for the whiskey, we made sure that it was more of a spirit-forward whiskey because it was more important that we were showing people our distillery character, a new and different flavour profile. Subsequent versions will have a more wood influence to show how the spirit interacts with wood,” Ryan says. “The quality of the spirit, its crispness and maltiness are amazing. There are so many fantastic fruity, citrusy notes with this beautiful clean, fresh malty backbone. There’s a lemon drizzle note that always sticks out to me and you’re going to get spirit-based spices too. There’s a lovely toasted wood spice in the whiskey without it being overpoweringly oaked.”

The future for Pearse Lyons Distillery is clearly very exciting and we’ll watch with interest as its considerable stock of ageing whisky reaches maturity. But it’s future isn’t all whisky. The Ha’penny Gin School is due to open on the distillery grounds, housed in a newly restored early 20th Century townhouse. “People will be able to distil their own unique gin across two-hours, with help from in-house experts who will guide guests through the history of gin. There’s also a sensory experience to enjoy while you choose your botanicals before you’ll be able to put your miniature copper pot-still to work,” says Ryan. “While they’re bubbling away, local food will be served and paired with a Ha’Penny Gin and Tonic. Once your gin is distilled, you can seal the 70cl bottle before adding a personalised label ready to take home”. On the cards is also an Irish hard seltzer. “We’ve seen over the last two years the rise of the hard seltzer in the USA, it’s taken the place by storm. Our edition is made in a similar fashion to those in the US and we’ll have two flavours, a pineapple punch and a peach fizz. The brand is called Flying Flamingo. It’s going to be 5% ABV and it’s going to be under 90 calories, vegan-friendly, gluten-friendly and just a really clean, crisp drinking experience,” Ryan adds.

Current global pandemic aside, Dr Lyons couldn’t have picked a better era to reignite his Irish whiskey journey. “The leg work has been done, the money has been spent and we arrived as everyone was becoming aware that Irish whiskey exists. The future is increasing the international appreciation of Irish whiskey as a category and, even in the countries where you’re known, developing more customer base. But the interest is going in such a positive direction,” Ryan explains. “We’re creating great whiskey, being innovative and offering new flavour profiles. Our innovation and releases demonstrate that we’re trying to offer something new to our customers and the whiskey market as a whole”. With the distillery that bears his name, Dr Lyons has made his mark and secured his legacy. Credit where it’s due, it’s a bloody tasty legacy.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Original tasting note:

Nose: Honey toasted oats, lemon sherbets and dry grass lead. Toasted oak and dry nutmeg aromas arise among mellow malt, sweet spearmints and vanilla elements.

Palate: Crisp spice trickles through milk chocolate and caramel shortbread. A hot flash of spearmint emerges among ripe apples and dry oak.

Finish: Creamy vanilla and buttery malt linger.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Distiller’s Choice tasting note:

Nose: Through oily barley and double vanilla bourbon ice cream, there’s stewed apricots, wet grass and touches of fruitcake. Subtle spices percolate throughout.

Palate: Complex fruit notes come from white grape and tinned pear, while a creamy element continues to sweeten things, developing into rhubarb tart and custard. There’s a suggestion of black fruit and ripe malt on the mid-palate among cooking apples and dark caramel.

Finish: The finish dries slightly with a chestnut-like note and hit of clove spice.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Founder’s Choice tasting note:

Nose: Crackles of woody tannins lead among buttered toast and rich vanilla. Orchard fruits add depth in the backdrop.

Palate: The fruit develops to become ripe and juicy against big oak notes and prickles of nutmeg underneath. Butterscotch adds a complex sweetness throughout.

Finish: The oak spice tingles away in a composed, long finish.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Cooper’s Select tasting note:

Nose: Rich and refined, there’s hazelnut buttercream, flamed orange peel and traditionally Sherry notes of raisins, dates and figs initially. A hint of toasted oak and star anise linger underneath.

Palate: Milky coffee and dark chocolate lead with plenty of juicy citrus, dark fruits and gingerbread.

Finish: Sweet stewed pineapple lingers alongside a touch of vanilla.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Five-Year-Old Single Malt tasting note:

Nose: The nose is light and malty and filled with notes of citrus peels, dusty apples and fresh oak. Touches of marshmallow, green grass, golden syrup and vanilla ice cream add depth among wood spice, almond pastries and sticky toffee pudding.

Palate: Full-bodied and fruity, the palate begins with plenty of orchard fruit, mostly honey-drenched pears, as well as vanilla and toffee. There’s some oiliness and metallic elements among hints of dried herbs and darker fruits, which mingle with black pepper and clove spice.

Finish: Candied fruit, baking spices and more of that vanilla sweetness lingers.


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Five minutes with. . . John Little from Smooth Ambler

Almost by accident, John Little built a business around his ability to sniff out great mature whiskey for his award-winning Old Scout brand. But what happened when other people got…

Almost by accident, John Little built a business around his ability to sniff out great mature whiskey for his award-winning Old Scout brand. But what happened when other people got in on the act and those sources dried up? We find out. . . .

John Little never intended to go into the whiskey business. He ran a number of ventures in West Virginia with his father-in-law Tag Galyean before founding Smooth Ambler in 2009 to make craft gin and vodka. But when they came across casks of quality mature bourbon that nobody else wanted, they saw an opportunity. According to Little: “A lot of people start businesses and they start sourcing and they create a brand, and if it goes really well maybe they build a distillery. Ours was the opposite story”. The result was Old Scout, a range of sourced mature whiskeys. They quickly built a reputation, winning awards and selling in unexpectedly large quantities. But success brought its own problems as good mature whiskey became harder and harder to source, and the Old Scout brand nearly disappeared. In 2016, Pernod Ricard took a majority stake in the company, with Little staying on as CEO. Since then the company has stabilised, producing a range of whiskeys from bought-in new make and spirits distilled by the team at Smooth Ambler. We talked to Little to find out more. . .

John Little nosing out some quality whiskey

Master of Malt: How are things in West Virginia?

John Little: They’re pretty good. Well, as well as can be expected during this crazy craziness. We’re still bottling but mashing and distillation has switched over to bottling hand sanitiser. So right now we’ve committed to 19,000 bottles of hand sanitiser so we’re getting those out. We’ve taken the crew that was doing mashing and distillation over to hand sanitiser.

MoM: When did you set up your distillery?

JL: We had the idea in 2008, my father-in-law and I were in a separate business together. We were trying to showcase what we love about living here in West Virginia: clean water, clean air, really wonderful people. It’s a cheap place to buy land so putting some sort of facility here was great. We’re an eight hour drive from 70% of the US population because we’re so close to all these big cities. We looked at making clothes and doing a customer service centre and making furniture. One day my father-in-law saw an article in Time magazine that talked about the growth of the distilling business. Ten days later there was a conference in Louisville Kentucky and that kind of set us on a path to where we are today. 

MoM: Were both of you keen whiskey drinkers before?

JL: At the time I was drinking a lot of vodka and some red wine and that was pretty much it at the time, and a little bit of whiskey. Our original business we started off was making vodka and gin. All those craft folks, everybody was trying to figure out how to do the shortest amount of time without any sort of profitability! With vodka and gin you can make it today and sell it tomorrow. When we first started we were making vodka and gin and making whisky whenever we had time; whisky wasn’t the focus. We did that for a while and then realised that vodka sells for one of two reasons: it’s either priced very well or marketed very well and ours was neither.

Smooth Ambler warehouses in West Virginia

MoM: How did you get into buying casks of mature whiskey? 

JL: In 2010 we realised that we needed another still to be efficient. We went to buy a still in Kentucky and I met Richard Wolf. He is a broker, he sells barrels for a living. At the time, late 2010/ early 2011, the bourbon business was much different than it is right now. There was bulk inventory available from probably six or seven different places. And we tasted through some of that. I think the tenth or eleventh sample that we tried was this high-rye mash bill from MGP [Midwest Grain Products of Indiana]. As soon as I nosed it I thought ‘yeah, this is what I’m looking for’.

MoM: Where did the name Old Scout come from?

JL: Everything up until that time had been about grain-to-glass. Then I found this juice and I called one of our distributors and I said ‘We have this chance to buy some bourbon that is really good and it’s affordable and we’re going to do different than what some other people have done, which is to say that they made it, we’re going to tell people that we didn’t make it’. That’s where the name ‘Old Scout’ came from, we’re going to say that we scouted this out. I said ‘can you sell it?’ and he said ‘yeah, I think so’ and so we bought 40 barrels. And then we bought 80 barrels. And then we bought 120 barrels. And then my partner said ‘I’ve seen enough, let’s buy all of them that we can!’  

MoM: How important is it to be honest about where your whiskey comes from?

JL: I want to make sure that we’re being open and honest in running our business, whether it’s about this or anything. That’s the way we try to live our lives and certainly that’s the way we’re going to run the business. I remember we won World’s Best Single Barrel in 2016 [at the World Whiskies Awards] with a single barrel of MGP and people were upset because we didn’t make it. A reporter, Mark Gillespie, asked me about it and I said ‘look, let’s be honest, MGP did the heavy lifting, I just made it available’. We have never lied about it, we have always told people the truth.

Inside one of the warehouses

MoM: And now that the American whisky boom has happened is it harder to get these whiskies or are they just a lot more expensive?

JL: Well, both! The ability to be able to buy whisky from other people, that went away quickly, in two years, maybe from 2011 to 2013. There just wasn’t stuff out there, people saw what was happening so fast. Investors were buying barrels and trying to flip ‘em. And that’s really what screwed us, right? Well, a lot of things. We made a lot of mistakes early on right, we just didn’t know. Like we bought a bunch of whisky, at one point in time we had about 3,800 barrels, early on. We were tiny our first still was 175 gallons and we had a little bitty business and we have 3,800 barrels and I thought ‘God, this is going to take a lifetime to sell!’ Turned out it took about three or four years! Our business was booming Old Scout was just going crazy and the plant was expanding and we were adding people and it was enabling us to do all sorts of other things. We kept thinking there were some deals out there, or strategic partnerships that we were going to make that would give us access to more whiskey. They never really materialised. 

MoM: How did this shortage affect the business?

JL: The ability to buy those barrels had gone away. We grew that business explosively from 2011 to 2016, and in 2016 we stopped selling Old Scout Ten, Old Scout Rye and Old Scout Bourbon. We took our three biggest sellers off the market because we just didn’t have the inventory. In 2014, we started buying whisky from MGP but instead of buying it in an aged format we bought it as new-made contract. That whisky that we bought is now just coming available for us at the end of last year. When we first started sourcing Old Scout it was all five years old. Then we went for three years without selling it. From 2016-19 we didn’t have any Old Scout except for a little bit of American Whiskey. And then just last September we bought out some more Old Scout (Revenant) Five Years Old. 

MoM: Have you noticed any difference between the stuff that you were buying in ready-aged and the stuff that you’ve aged yourself?

JL: No, I can’t taste any difference. When we started selling Old Scout it was five years old, the same age as what we’re selling it right now. The problem is that it aged up. So it was five years old and then it was six years old and then it was seven years old. Well then at the end, when we stopped selling it, some of that whisky was eight, nine, ten years old. We changed it from ‘Five’ to ‘Six’ to ‘Seven’ but by the time we got to ‘Seven’ we were big and we had a lot of distribution so we didn’t want to change it to an ‘Eight year Old’ and we’d have some Seven and some Eight so we just understated the age. We were putting eight, nine, ten year old juice in a seven year old bottle. So if you drank Old Scout in 2016, or whatever was leftover from 2016-17 you were drinking an eight, nine or ten year old product. And if you taste that aside the Old Scout that we’re putting out you say ‘well, it’s good but it’s as good’ because it’s a five year old whisky compared to an eight or nine year old whisky. That’s one of the issues that we have but with Old Scout I didn’t really see a way around it right, unless we waited another four years which is something that we just couldn’t do.  

The Smooth Ambler range

MoM: Have you been distilling your own whisky as well and maturing it alongside Old Scout?

JL: Yeah, we do it for Big Level, which is 100% house-made. We think of our business now in three ways: the stuff we make, Big Level and some other products that aren’t even out yet; the things that we don’t, which is Old Scout; and then in 2013/14 we created a brand called Contradiction, and it’s a blend of things that we make and things that we don’t. That’s where the name came from. We used to primarily make a wheated bourbon, that’s what Big Level is. It’s about a third of what we make and two-thirds sourced. So a wheated bourbon mixed with a bourbon made from rye. 

MoM: How has it been working with Pernod Ricard?

JL: There have been some growing pains, mostly from figuring out how a small brands fits in among the big brands. But they have made us a better business, that makes better whiskey, is safer, and more efficient. And they are as much like family as any corporate business can be. We’re proud of our relationship with them.

MoM: And do you still do a vodka or was that left behind?

JL: We stopped selling vodka in 2015-16, and stopped selling gin in 2017. If you go into a store and you have ten minutes of their time, and you only have three things to show them, what do you show ‘em? You show them the three biggest sellers and they were always whisky. So gin was sort of forgotten about. But our gin was delicious and we still have people all the time begging us to make it again. Our response is always ‘well if you had been buying a whole lot more back in the day we wouldn’t have stopped making it!’ 

MoM: How has the EU/US trade tariffs affected your business?

JL: We’ve had to change our prices on everything, in order to be competitive in the EU and UK. Trade wars, as far as I can tell, are bad for everybody. But you know, I love the market there. London is one of my favourite cities to go to. The best bars in London just also happen to be some of the best bars in the world.

MoM: What are your favourite ways to drink your whiskey?

JL: I’m pretty simple, at home I’ll make bourbon and ginger ale. In a bar I’m going to be pretty basic too. I’ll probably drink it in an Old Fashioned. One of my favourites is a drink called the Brown Derby. A mixture of bourbon, grapefruit and honey, it’s named after a Los Angeles diner that was shaped like a hat, a brown derby [take a look at the picture on Wikipedia].  

Smooth Ambler whiskeys are available from Master of Malt.


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Cocktail of the Week: The Brazil Basil Smash

This week we’re learning about Brazil’s native spirit from the founder of Avua Cachaça Nate Whitehouse and he’s showing us how to make a deliciously herbaceous concoction. What a nice…

This week we’re learning about Brazil’s native spirit from the founder of Avua Cachaça Nate Whitehouse and he’s showing us how to make a deliciously herbaceous concoction. What a nice chap.

It was music that drew Nate Whitehouse to Brazilian culture: “I was originally a musician and always loved Brazilian music with its polyrhythmic complexity”. He had a peripatetic upbringing as a “military brat”, as he puts it, but eventually moved to New York City as an adult. Not knowing anyone, he spent a lot of time in Brazilian bars and it was in one of these, Miss Favela in Williamsburg, that he was introduced to cachaça: “I walked in mid afternoon, there was a big samba band playing and it was filled to brim with people from all over the world. I tried cachaça for the first time and was blown away by the bottles they had imported.” 

Cachaça is similar to rhum agricole in that it’s made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. It was probably the first rum dating back to the Portuguese introducing distillation to South American around 1516, around 100 years before it reached the Caribbean. According to Whitehouse, “it was producers from Brazil who brought cane distillation to Caribbean.” It’s now a massive industry, Brazil is the third largest rum producer in the world with approximately 3000 legal brands and 40,000 illegal brands. 

Team Avua: Nate Whitehouse (far left), Katia Espirito Santo (centre in white shirt), Pete Nevenglosky (centre behind the man with folded arms)

Some brands in Brazil sell for as little as 80p per bottle, and most that is exported is the industrial stuff made in huge column stills. We’re missing out because real cachaça, Whitehouse said, has more in common with mezcal. He wanted to create a brand to show how good traditionally-made cachaça can be. So along with New York-based drinks specialist Peter Nevenglosky, he teamed up with Katia Espírito Santo from Fazenda Da Quinta. The family has been making cachaça since the 1920s. “It’s a pretty remote farm, about four hours drive from Rio,” Whitehouse said. They use only cane from their estate. You can’t transport fresh sugar cane or it will start to ferment and oxidise. They press the cane using a wheel driven by water and then the stills are heated by burnt husks. Fermentation is by wild yeasts. This is followed by a single distillation in a pot still with a two plate column attached creating a spirit with a huge range of congeners. 

Combining Fazenda da Quinta’s traditional methods with Whitehouse and Nevenglosky’s marketing, the result was Avua Cachaça. Whitehouse said, “we worked to design a brand that would express something authentic and Brazilian.” He was inspired by the Brazil of the ‘50s with its bossa nova music, Copacabana beach, modernist architecture and those old Pan Am adverts for flying into Rio de Janeiro. They now sell all over Europe and America though you might be surprised that the biggest market is Germany. The Germans love a bit of cachaça: according to Whitehouse, the Caiprinha is more popular than the Margarita over there. 

The complete range

Most cachaça is drunk unaged but Brazil has something special to offer for those who want wood-aged spirits, an amazing biodiversity. The Mata Atlântica (Atlantic forest) in the bulge between Brazil and Argentina contains over 20,000 species. Traditionally cachaça would be transported in tropical wood barrels to workers in mines etc. in the process picking up the taste of the wood. Avua Cachaca offers a range of expressions aged in different types of wood such as Amburana, Bálsamo, and Tapinhoã.

These aged cachaças, according to Whitehouse, work well in dark spirit cocktails like the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan. The brilliantly-named New York bartender Cervantes Ramirez has come up with a take on the Presidente which he calls the Pan Am. It consists of 50 ml Avua Amburana, 25 ml Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, 25 ml dry Dolin Dry, stirred with ice and served straight up with an orange twist.

But for our Cocktail of the Week, we’re using the unaged version, Avua Cachaça Prata (meaning silver). Whitehouse said: “This is a riff on a cocktail originally developed by Le Lion in Hamburg.” It’s called the Brazil Basil Smash (above), and here’s how to make it:

50ml Avua Cachaça Prata
25ml fresh lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup
1 bunch basil leaves

Place the basil and lemon juice into a cocktail shaker. Gently muddle the lemon and basil. Add sugar syrup and cachaça and top up with ice. Shake vigorously. Double strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with basil leaves.

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Chapel Down flash sale!

Just landed at Master of Malt, a shedload (this is an actual recognised measurement) of wine from England’s largest producer, Chapel Down. But that’s not all, we’ve got some of…

Just landed at Master of Malt, a shedload (this is an actual recognised measurement) of wine from England’s largest producer, Chapel Down. But that’s not all, we’ve got some of its gin and vodka in too, and we’re selling it all at dramatically low prices until this Friday.

English wine is on a roll at the moment. In the last 20 years, it has gone from something of a joke made by retired colonels to a multi-million pound industry stocked in retailers, pubs and restaurants across the country. Nobody will bat an eyelid if you order English wine now. English wines, especially the sparkling ones, are now exported all over the world. Even Champagne houses are getting in on the act; Taittinger planted a vineyard in Kent in 2017. At the forefront of this revolution is Chapel Down, the country’s biggest and best-known producer, with strong branding, wide distribution and most of all consistently excellent wines from everyday sippers to sparkling wines to rival the best of Champagne. But it doesn’t stop there: the company also produces some great spirits. And we’ve just landed a whole load and we’re offering them to you at ridiculous prices. But be quick – these deals end at 11am this Friday!

Bacchus 2018

Bacchus, a German cross, has become England’s signature grape thriving in this marginal climate and producing crisp wines laden with the scene of cut grass, gooseberries and elderflowers. Tastes like a summer’s day in Kent. 

Flint Dry 2018

Another Bacchus, this is made in a leaner, drier style, it’s all flint (hence the name) and citrus fruit with plenty of herbal Bacchus character. This will appeal to lovers of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sparkling Bacchus 2019

This is a really clever wine. The fizz comes not from bottle fermentation but, to preserve all those vibrant Bacchus flavours, it’s simply carbonated. The result is zingy, refreshing and enormous fun. Excellent chilled on its own or in cocktails like a French (or should that be English) 75

Brut NV

A stone cold classic and one of England’s best selling sparkling wines, a blend of Champagne varieties and bottled-fermented, it majors on green apple and fresh lemon with subtle bready yeasty notes. Sheer class in a glass. 

Brut Rose NV

This gets its pretty colour from a little skin contact with red grapes which also impart a subtle cherry and strawberry flavour. Like the Brut it’s bottle-fermented so expect delicate bubbles with some toasted brioche notes on the finish. 

Chapel Down Chardonnay Vodka

English winery Chapel Down doesn’t simply make wine and then call it done. The team uses the leftovers from vinification to make spirits. Ths vodka is made using the skins of leftover Chardonnay grapes so it’s not only delicious but also ecological.

Bacchus Gin

A gin made with a wheat spirit based combined with a grappa-esque concoction made from leftover Bacchus skins (made by the English Whisky Company) before going to Thames Distillers to be combined with juniper, orange peel, lemon, lavender, elderflower, orris, angelica and coriander.

Pinot Noir Gin

Made in a similar way to the above but with leftovers from Pinot Noir. To accentuate the red fruits, the botanical mix is different including dried red berries, rose buds, coriander, angelica, grains of paradise, citrus, rosehip and, of course, plenty of juniper. It is a gin, after all. 


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