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Master of Malt Blog

Drinks billionaires – keeping it in the family

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are…

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are still in family hands.

Do you ever wonder who might raise a glass to you when you, to coin a phrase, raise a glass yourself? It’s an intriguing question. After all, drinks companies are fond of maintaining the façade of family owners. Think Bulleit Bourbon – it’s actually a Diageo brand (which arguably was mainly developed under Seagram’s) but a very high profile is maintained by Tom Bulleit and, until recently, his daughter Hollis. They’re speaking via their lawyers now. The story behind their acrimonious break-up is a rather unfortunate one and perhaps for another day, but sadly illustrative of the potential problems lurking in any family.

The Nightcap Drinks billionaires

Bulleit bourbon, a family business?

But back to Diageo. In its Scotch portfolio we’ll also find the Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Haig brands. Now, once upon a time, there were real-life actual people answering to Walker, Buchanan and Haig who owned the distilleries that made these products – but no longer.

Today Diageo is a publicly-quoted company. That means you can buy a share in the business and be a part-owner. Actually, if you have any kind of a pension plan (whether through your employer or direct) you probably already own a share in some shares. Diageo is one of the UK’s largest and most successful businesses, and most well-balanced pension portfolios will have a holding in the company.  To declare an interest, I certainly do (I checked), and I’m very happy with its recent performance.

Many large industries have evolved in this way. But the drinks trade is something of a curiosity as a number of important brands remain in the hands of the descendants of the founding family.  Though some, like the Walkers, Buchanans and Haigs have long since cashed in, other companies remain determinedly independent and make great play of the long-term planning required in the spirits business. This, they suggest, means the industry is well suited to family ownership rather than being driven by the short-term demands of the financial community.

Some of the smaller examples are well known. Glenfarclas, for example, is happy to stress the fact that the distillery has remained in the Grant family since 1865 with chairman John Grant and son George directly and actively involved in every aspect. Grant Snr even lives on site, and you can’t get more hands-on than that.

Whisky Advent 2018 Day #18 Drinks billionaires

George Grant from Glenfarclas

Glenfiddich too is a family concern so, along with the various brands they own – think Balvenie, Hendrick’s Gin, Tullamore D.E.W. and Sailor Jerry rum among others – the forty-odd descendants of the founder William Grant thank you for every bottle you buy.  Oddly, though, while the public face of the company is largely represented by the Gordon branch (Peter Gordon and Grant Gordon in recent years) the major shareholder is believed to be the intensely private Benedicta Chamberlain. If her reputed 29.9% of the business is anywhere close to accurate, she’s comfortably in the billionaire class. Think of that next time you pour a dram of the world’s best-selling single malt.

As you’d expect, the family take the whole business very seriously. So much so in fact that Peter Gordon has even published a book on the subject. Family Spirit: Stories and Insights From Leading Family-Owned Enterprises looks at the strategies of eleven other family-owned businesses, though mainly not in the drinks industry. One of the companies he might have studied is Bacardi.  Yes, every drop of Dewar’s or Aberfeldy single malt or William Lawson’s (a million case-plus blended Scotch you’ve probably never heard of) adds a few coppers to the eponymous descendants of Don Facundo Bacardi.  A Bacardi and Coke puts a smile on their face, as does your call for Grey Goose, Martini, St-Germain or Patrón tequila.

Alexandre Ricard Drinks billionaires

Alexandre Ricard

Now the Bacardi family is very disciplined, borrowing if necessary to fund its acquisitions (over US$2 billion in 2004 for Grey Goose, then reputedly the largest purchase price in spirits business history for a single brand, and now a cool $5.1 billion for Patrón), but the equity isn’t sold. Much the same story could be told about Suntory Holdings, still controlled by the Saji and Torii families.

Elsewhere, public listing to raise capital hasn’t entirely removed family control as the tight grip of the founding dynasties at Davide Campari SpA, Brown-Forman and Rémy Cointreau SA clearly demonstrates. The Ricard family still retain 16% of the giant Pernod Ricard operation. It’s no coincidence that one Alexandre Ricard is both chairman and CEO, even if activist US investors Elliott Management are pushing to shake things up.

So, the reality and scale of family control is something to ponder as you part with your hard-earned cash. As you raise their brands to your lips, the question can’t be avoided: ‘what are the drinks billionaires sipping tonight?’

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New Arrival of the Week: Clouded Leopard Gin

This week’s shiny new recruit is so new to the market that we just couldn’t wait to get our paws on it… and it’s all in a good cause, too!…

This week’s shiny new recruit is so new to the market that we just couldn’t wait to get our paws on it… and it’s all in a good cause, too! Say hello to Clouded Leopard Gin! Words: Victoria Sayers

We’re generally cat people here at MoM Towers. From the teeniest tabby up, we’re all on-board for feline-related content. Gastropub owner and chef Will Phillips seems to be no different, except his kitty of choice is the endangered clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa to be sciencey). He loves the cat so much, he’s launched an actual gin to raise money in its honour! 

Clouded Leopard Gin

Behold, the clouded leopard (aka Neofelis Nebulosa)

Clouded Leopard Gin doesn’t just do good, though; it’s pretty tasty, too. Botanicals are sourced from Southern Asia, home to the cautious leopardy one, and distilled in Bristol. This gin is produced from British wheat spirit using one-shot distillation in 30-litre copper pot stills. 15% of the profit will be donated to the Born Free Foundation, which works to protect the clouded leopard (if you do the sums, that means at least £1 from each bottle will go to the fund). It is important to Phillips that the quality of the product’s botanicals is as powerful as the message that the gin will deliver. 

Typically a rainforest resident, the clouded leopard can be found in Southeast Asia, just like the botanicals in this lively, energetic spirit. We have the classic London dry juniper (obviously), with coriander seeds, angelica root, cassia bark, tropical mango, fragrant black pepper and lemon zest. The recipe is then macerated in the wheat spirit for 24 hours pre-distillation. Basically, this gin is glorious with a slice of fresh mango if you can, and meets with a paw-some cause. 

Clouded Leopard Gin

In all its glory

We need to address the design of the bottle, too. Its frosted (or cloudy) glass features a silhouette of a leopard striding across a branch, designed by Sarah Rock and illustrated by Jonathan Gibbs. The wax seal is particularly pretty, with a print of leaves fluttering down. It would very happily star in a gin shelfie. Purrfect.

But what of the clouded leopard itself? It is a tiny carnivore, only measuring around 6ft from nose to the tip of its tail, weighing up to 50lbs. Named for its stunning spotted coat, it’s rarely even seen in the wild due to its mysterious habits. The cat is listed as vulnerable with populations decreasing rapidly due to habitat loss from industrial logging and land development. It’s also illegally hunted for its beautiful coat, and some wrongly believe clouded leopard bones and teeth have healing powers… Heartbreaking.

“The clouded leopard is a fantastic and elusive animal rarely seen in the wild, and in grave danger of extinction,” said Phillips “I really want to help save this fantastic animal in its natural habitat and riding the crest of the gin wave sounds like an ideal place to start.” We love gin.  We love leopards. Combine them, and you’re winning!

A fun fact to round off on: Malaysians call this cute cat the ‘tree tiger’. Possibly because of the unique markings, or the fact it’s double jointed, allowing for easy tree climbing mayhem. Bit envious, TBH.

Clouded Leopard Gin and mango

Clouded Leopard Gin – a treat with mango

Clouded Leopard Gin tasting notes:

Nose: Soft fruit, lots of tropical mango transitioning to spicy pepper with zesty lemon.

Palate: Juniper berries, citrusy lemon, Love Hearts sweets, mango and peppery spicy notes.

Finish: Medium-length and pleasantly warming.

Clouded Leopard Gin bottle

Get yours right here!

Clouded Leopard Gin is priced at £34.95, and a Phillips-approved serve involves Fever-Tree Indian Tonic, garnished with fresh mango and black pepper. You can even grab some now in time for 4 August, which is of course International Clouded Leopard Day!

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Five important beer trends to wet your whistle

From brooding dark ales to crisp, refreshing lagers, beer is just as complex and compelling as its distilled and barrel-aged cousin, whisky. We chat with Lex Spasic of London bar…

From brooding dark ales to crisp, refreshing lagers, beer is just as complex and compelling as its distilled and barrel-aged cousin, whisky. We chat with Lex Spasic of London bar Beer Rebellion to uncover the innovations, trends and transformative movements bubbling away in the beer industry…

Beer is booming the world over, and craft beer especially so. There are now more than 19,000 breweries worldwide, according to data assembled by global biotechnology company Alltech, of which 94% are classified as craft*. While the US is home to the most sites – a whopping 4,750 craft breweries in total – the UK boasts the most craft breweries per capita, with 25 breweries per million people.

With so much brewing going on across the globe, there’s plenty of activity to wet your whistle. Here Lex Spasic, operations manager at London-based craft beer bar Beer Rebellion, reveals the five key beer trends currently shaping what – and how – you drink…

Beer Rebellion

Beer Rebellion – it’s where beers happen

Going back to basics

While there’s no shortage of maverick brewers playing mad scientist with wild yeasts and Brut IPAs, many breweries have arrived at a simpler conclusion: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “Some breweries still specialise in using wild yeasts, but from what I understand strains such as Brettanomyces can be difficult to use as they are extremely aggressive – meaning even a residual amount left in a tank can infect a whole brew,” says Spasic. “The use of these yeasts and ingredients tends to reflect the experimental and restless nature of many small brewers, rather than any permanent changes.” In fact, if anything the movement has birthed the rise of an anti-trend – “a move towards producing lagers, helles, and pilsners,” says Spasic. “This may be either commercial necessity or as a reaction to the more experimental varieties, or both.” Instead, many sites have created dedicated barrel-ageing projects “as a more premium, longer term way of experimenting with ingredients and flavours”, such as Beavertown’s Tempus Project taproom and London Beer Factory’s barrel ageing site.

Sustainable production

Producing beer requires a lot of water, gas and energy, and it creates a hell of a lot of waste. Over the last few years, breweries large and small have been exploring ways to reduce their environmental impact, be it through striving to reduce their resources, trialling creative methods for repurposing production byproducts, introducing recycled materials into their packaging or taproom, or exploring solar energy. Other breweries are philanthropic in their waste-reduction efforts. “We have recently started stocking Toast Ales on draft,” says Spasic. “They produce a range of beers brewed using leftover bread from bakeries and then donate the profits to charity.”

Beer Cans

Always knew tinnies were the future, but it’s good to have confirmation

Style and substance

The industry has also largely shifted from bottles to cans, “touting the infinite recyclability of metal cans as one of the key benefits”, Spasic says; a move that has, perhaps inadvertently, modernised the category. “The rise of cans has also offered greater scope for design and artwork – this appears to be one of the biggest industry shifts in recent years,” Spasic adds. After Beer Rebellion fridges switched to exclusively stocking cans, they team noticed something interesting: the brightest cans sold the quickest, since they “offer far more options for bold and colourful branding than bottles”. Perhaps we’re not as immune to advertising witchcraft as we like to think. As for the next trend in beer marketing? Augmented reality, Spasic predicts. From can labels to supermarket displays, brands and breweries have already started dabbling with AR technology to create a more interactive and entertaining experience for the imbiber. Watch this space.

Low ABV = the new gluten-free

Purists might scoff, but non-alcoholic beer and low ABV beer appears to be on the rise everywhere at the moment, says Spasic. “Low abv seems to have a better variety at the moment, probably because brewers can still retain more of the flavour profile,” Spasic says – but don’t sleep on alcohol-free, which looks set to seriously take off over the next couple of years. “Gluten-free beers seemed like a real compromise for a long time, then all of a sudden it seemed that brewers cracked the magic formula, so hopefully this will happen with zero alcohol beers too.”

Brewery

Fancy snapping up a brewery?

Breweries buying breweries

As long as craft breweries innovate, there’ll always be a conglomerate with deep pockets casting a watchful eye over the industry – whether they’re “buying up smaller breweries or producing their own versions of popular beers, as Guinness is doing, in order to get a piece of the market,” says Spasic. Ultimately, what does this all mean for the hops enthusiast? “The upside of this will hopefully be that breweries are forced to be even more inventive with their products in order to stand out,” says Spasic. Delicious innovation that drips down to your local? We can get on board with that.

*For the purposes of the survey, if a brewery had less than 30 staff or produced less than 5,000 hectolitres per year, or more than 50% of the business was privately owned, it was deemed ‘craft’.

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The Nightcap: 26 July

You know what Friday means by now, it can only be the Nightcap! This week we’ve got all the digs on The Macallan’s newest release, Coupette’s mouthwatering Summer menu, the…

You know what Friday means by now, it can only be the Nightcap! This week we’ve got all the digs on The Macallan’s newest release, Coupette’s mouthwatering Summer menu, the rise of the Tequila cocktail and even a Jack Daniel’s shoe.

Happy Friday, folks! But before we get into the thick of all the wonderful booze news of the week that was, we thought we’d have a quick chat about the weather. Because, we don’t know about you, but nobody has mentioned the weather this week. At all. Was it warm? Was there sun? We tried to enjoy a refreshing Spritz here at MoM Towers, but apparently the whole of the UK had run out of ice. All we know is that it’s now raining again and the quintessential British summer is back on. Thank goodness for that. It was a steamy few days. Step away from the SPF 50 and settle down with a drink, the Nightcap is here!

On the blog this week, we kicked off Monday with a recap of all the Fèis Ìle 2019 fun, while Kristy chose a sherry-tastic single malt for our New Arrival of the Week, took a peek at the mysterious 2019 Diageo Special Releases, and reported back on a magic trip to Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery! Meanwhile, Henry mixed up a Tequila Sunrise for his Cocktail of the Week, chatted rum with Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation, and found out what on earth Uncle’s Day is with Uncle Nearest’s Fawn Weaver. Last but not least, Annie gave the 411 on where to grab a drink in Amsterdam, Nate Brown scooted over to Dublin’s Roe & Co, and our Jess carried on the Tequila and mezcal fun with a round up of agave spirits. Phew. But that’s not all – on with the news!

Beam Suntory

Behold, The Fred B. Noe Distillery!

Beam Suntory breaks ground James B. Beam distillery

In big American whiskey news, Beam Suntory announced this week that it’s investing a whopping $60 million to build a new craft distillery and bring back The James B. Beam Distilling Co. name to Clermont! The James B. Beam Distilling Co. was the company’s name immediately after Prohibition, and will now serve as the name of Beam Suntory’s Clermont operations, as well as encompassing the production operations for the Jim Beam brand and small-batch brands such as Booker’s and Knob Creek. This investment will also build the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery on the Clermont site, named after seventh generation master distiller Fred Noe, which will house the exploration of exciting new fermentation and distillation techniques. “Beam Suntory is excited to honour our roots by investing in the James B. Beam Distilling Co., and setting ourselves up for a bright future in Kentucky and around the world,” commented Albert Baladi, President and CEO for Beam Suntory. “With nearly 225 years behind us, we are proud of our history of entrepreneurialism, craftsmanship and innovation. As the world leader in bourbon, we are thrilled to be laying the foundation for the next 225 years.” Goodbye Beam Suntory, hello The James B. Beam Distilling Co.!

Campari Rum

Campari takes on rum/rhum

Campari Group eyes up Rhum Agricole brands

Got a taste for the vegetal pronouncedness of Rhum Agricole? You are not alone. Campari Group, one of the world’s biggest drinks players, wants in, too. This week it was announced that the owner of the likes of Campari (obvs), Aperol, Wild Turkey and Bulldog Gin entered into “exclusive negotiations” with the parent company of Trois Rivières and Maison La Mauny (and Duquesne rum, too) to acquire the Martinique-based brands. While no price was revealed, the deal would include the brands themselves, the land they sit on, the distilleries and visitor centres, plus the aged rhum stocks. Yes please. In the press release, Campari Group said that if the deal goes through, it will “enhance its exposure to rum, a premiumising category currently at the heart of the mixology trend and growing cocktail culture”. It already owns Appleton Estate and Wray & Nephew, so it would make Campari a significant force for all things rum (and rhum). Ready the Ti Punches, folks!

Diageo

Cheers to a bumper year for Diageo!

Tanqueray and Don Julio drive Diageo sales

It’s that time of year again – financial results are in! And for Diageo, they make for pretty buoyant reading. Sales for the full year to 30 June hit £12.9 billion, up 5.8%, with profits hitting £4bn, (+9.5%). Why such strong results? Two words: gin and Tequila. Gin as a whole grew by 23% in value, with Tequila soaring by a whopping 37%. Brand-wise, Don Julio was a total stand-out, with sales climbing by an incredible 30%, while Tanqueray posted 21% gains. Which brands didn’t do quite so well? The biggest name to see a drop was Cîroc Vodka (-5%), although vodka as a whole actually saw 4% growth, a big deal seeing as the category has fared pretty poorly in recent times. And Scotch? All-in-all, things are going well! The category grew by 6%, with Johnnie Walker seeing values climb 7% on the previous year, and the Scotch malts collectively making 12% gains. Winning!

The Macallan Estate

The Macallan Estate, delicious and super popular

The Macallan unleashes home-grown Estate to the world

We had a thoroughly lovely Wednesday this week. Not only did The Macallan get its new Estate edition ready to ship, the brand also treated us to an utterly delightful lunch! We gathered at the incredible Hide in Piccadilly with Sarah Burgess, The Macallan’s whisky maker, and David Sinclair, brand ambassador to learn about (and of course, taste) the new expression. Burgess told us all about the production process – one week a year, mashing, fermentation and distillation is given over to barley grown exclusively on The Macallan estate. And the sensibly-named The Macallan Estate is the result! It’s an addition to the core range, and more bottles will be released each year (although Burgess stressed to us that she’s working to keep the flavour profile consistent over time). So, what’s it like? Tremendously autumnal, filled to the brim with appley, orchard fruit notes, plus lashings of marmalade on burnt toast, and a wash of sweet spices. Tasty.

Coupette Shimmer

Coupette’s mesmerising Shimmer cocktail

Coupette launches new menu ‘Summer’

Ah, Coupette. Something of a hole in the wall, to the uninitiated the award-winning bar may seem rather unsuspecting from the outside. We excitedly made our way down as just this week, founder Chris Moore launched the new menu in collaboration with local sign writer, Ged Palmer, titled ‘Summer’! One such epitome of the season was Strawberries & Cream, taking inspiration from Wimbledon and seasonal picnics. With strawberry eau de vie, rosé vermouth, wine and a vanilla-scented, clarified milk punch finish, served with a brush of white chocolate around the rim of the glass, it’s totally delicious without being overly sweet. This serve was just flying out from behind the bar, and no wonder in 34-degree heat! There’s a story behind each serve, and an intriguing one was Shimmer, marrying 30&40 Eau de Vie, green apple and sage, wine, genepi and sage soda, served in a mesmerising blue ceramic vessel on a blue geode coaster. Designed to be reminiscent of holidays and blue oceans it certainly accomplishes that, in flavour and aesthetic. Other delicious serves included the Bloody Martini with vodka, vin jaune, a clear tomato consommé and chive oil, part of a series of cocktails which mashes together two iconic drinks. There’s also a take on a Kir Royale, which sees a fabulous serving of blackcurrant sorbet in the cocktail glass. Slightly heavier serves include Obsidian, channelling a Rum Old Fashioned with the addition of cocoa and tangy passion fruit. We’ll certainly be back to try out the rest. Leave any expectations at the door, and prepare to be absolutely blown away with this stunningly complex and yet unpretentious menu. Bravo, Coupette.

Dalloway Terrace

Dalloway Terrace has cocktails on tap… from a flower wall!

Dalloway Terrace unveils new look for summer ’19

On Wednesday, we got to visit what is described by Vogue as “one of London’s most Instagrammable restaurants”. The Dalloway Terrace is now offering a taste of summer with the launch of its Summer Estate, in partnership with Ramsbury Distillery. Master florist, Nikki Tibbles, recreated the English countryside, transforming the Terrace with wild meadow flowers, blending silk daisies, cosmos, larkspur, delphiniums and foliage with embellishments of coral quince blossom. Flower walls are massive right now, and she created possibly the best one ever for the occasion:  a flower wall complete with botanical cocktails on tap. There’s also a bar for G&T drinkers where they can garnish drinks themselves with produce fresh from Ramsbury Estate. The seasonal cocktail menu will offer a selection of summer serves priced at £13. No reservations allowed at the Terrace, so be sure to get in quick – it’s open from 08:00am to11:00pm every day until mid-September.

Slane Irish Whiskey

Delicious and sustainable Slane Whiskey

Slane Irish Whiskey announces trio of winners in sustainable cocktail comp

Earlier this summer, Slane Distillery’s UK brand ambassador, Michael Brown, set a challenge to bartenders to create the most ‘suSLANEable’ cocktails. And this week, not one, not two but THREE winners were selected! Slane is located in the heart of Boyne Valley in Ireland and, inspired by Earth Day, had tasked bartenders across the UK to follow in its green footsteps. And they are big shoes to fill:  the distillery has already installed a “catchment system” to collect rainwater off the roofs of the distillery buildings to reduce the volume of water needed for production drawn from the Boyne River. Cool stuff! Joint winner Jack Riley from Present Company, Liverpool, says, “We should all be taking small steps to help the impact on the environment.” He worked with local coffee shops to create his nameless ‘suSLANEable’ cocktail: 45ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 20ml Spent Coffee-infused Martini Bitter, 15ml Tropical Cordial and 2 dash Bitter. Fellow champ Tom Sutton from H.M.S.S challenged himself to find and use leftover produce to create his “Castaway”, from just 40ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 30ml reclaimed cordial and stir into a frozen embassy. Simples. Finally, we have Leon Back and his recipe for “Little Winner”; 50ml Slane Irish Whiskey, 40ml ghetto cold brew (spent coffee grinds), coconut syrup, 10ml Martini ambrato, 10ml P.X. Sherry and 2 dashes Angostura bitter with some tonic water over ice.  Delicious. Evolving and improving every year, Slane is working to become one of the most environmentally-friendly whiskey distilleries in Europe… Check out this video for more inspo to make eco-friendly drinks.

Patron Tequila

Goodbye Tequila shots, hello Paloma!

Shots are out: Brits now prefer Tequila cocktails, according to Patrón

Step away from the salt and lime: Tequila is now officially preferred in cocktail form, rather than as a shot, in new research from Patrón. In a study that suggests Tequila has finally shaken off its hard-partying image, more than 65% of drinkers said they enjoy Tequila cocktails on a night out, over slammers. It makes sense: Tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the UK, according to Euromonitor. Despite the upgraded drinking habits, Tequila knowledge is at a bit of a low. Only 23% of those questioned knew Tequila was made from agave, while just 10% showed knowledge of aged Tequilas. One response? To get tasting! You can find an array of Tequila drams for that purpose right here. What’s your Tequila of choice? Let us know in the comments below!

Nelsons distillery

Nelson’s carbon neutral distillery from the skies

Nelson’s Distillery bags eco award

More green news! Word reached us this week that Nelson’s Distillery & School in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, won a Green Impact Award for its eye-popping efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle. The award itself is the Signal 1 Radio Green Award, given out to recognise and celebrate local businesses making great strides in sustainability. Striving to be totally “off-grid” since 2016, Nelson’s is based at a flashy, futuristic and carbon neutral site with numerous green energy sources, including a wind turbine and super-snazzy anaerobic digester power plants. The site sells energy back to the grid, the team live in the local village to reduce traffic and pollution, they have their own natural water source, and use the reed beds to filter the water used in gin and rum. If this doesn’t sound amazeballs enough, then what about the 10% customer discount you get if you returning or repurposing the bottles?! More distilleries take note.  

Flor de Caña

No lunch, but lots of Flor de Caña!

Boisdale celebrates Nicaraguan rum

Last Friday, we were invited by Ranald MacDonald from Boisdale for an intimate lunch at his Belgravia restaurant with her excellency Guisell Morales-Echaverry, Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United Kingdom, in honour of Ron Flor de Caña. How could we refuse? When we arrived, the intimate lunch was a room heaving with dignitaries including the Bulgarian ambassador. So many ambassadors. It was like a Ferraro Roche advert. Only with less to eat. Of lunch there was no sign. We were whisked upstairs by Matro Ortiz Lima, the Chilean brand ambassador with a strong Scottish accent, to sample three rums, a 12 year old, 18 year old and a 25 year old. According to Lima, Flor de Caña these are minimum ages, as with Scotch whisky and indeed Jamaican rum. Apparently, the company has unparalleled stocks of mature spirit because during the revolutionary period from 1970 to 1990, the family who own the brand hid rum all over the country. We finished with the coffee and tobacco-scented 25 year old, which went beautifully with a big cigar. Something else this country does superbly. But of the promised lunch, there was no sign. 

Jack Daniel's Shoes

Jack Daniel’s takes on footwear

And finally… Jack Daniel’s-inspired… shoes?

Jack Daniel’s has made its first foray into the world of footwear! The whiskey giant has teamed up with the awesomely-named Shoe Surgeon, aka Dominic Chambrone, and together they’ve created seven Jack Daniel’s-inspired trainers (or rather, ‘sneakers’, as they’re calling them across the pond). “Craftsmanship is the ultimate common detonator between what I do and those who make Jack Daniel’s,” Chambrone commented. Each of the seven shoe designs was inspired by an iconic element of the Jack Daniel’s brand. These are grain, Cave Springs, the distillery, charcoal, the barrel, honey, and the Jack Daniel’s bottle. If you want in, then you’ll have to vote online in August, with only 10 lucky voters in to win a pair. We don’t like those odds… Our only question is, can you drink out of them?

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Five minutes with… Fawn Weaver, Uncle Nearest whiskey

It’s 26 July, and Aunt and Uncle’s Day! Don’t panic, UK pals; it’s only in America. Your father’s brother probably isn’t expecting a card. But we thought it would be…

It’s 26 July, and Aunt and Uncle’s Day! Don’t panic, UK pals; it’s only in America. Your father’s brother probably isn’t expecting a card. But we thought it would be a good excuse to celebrate whiskey’s greatest uncle, Nathan Green aka Uncle Nearest. Here to tell us more is the Uncle Nearest brand founder, Fawn Weaver…

You may not have heard of him, but Nearest Green did more to put Jack Daniel’s on the map than anyone apart from Jack Daniel himself. Green was born a slave in the American south, sometime around 1820. He was a master distiller in the mid 1850s, and following the Civil War and emancipation, he taught a young Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, becoming the first master distiller for Jack Daniel Distillery. The rest is, of course, history. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 went on to be one of the best selling whiskeys in the world and a global icon.

Green himself, however, didn’t get the credit he deserved. So when Fawn Weaver, bestselling writer, entrepreneur and daughter of a Motown producer Frank Wilson, found out about his story, she set about righting some historical wrongs. The results were twofold: a great Tennessee whiskey that Nearest would be proud of, and a foundation named in his honour.

Weaver took the time to talk to us about this inspirational figure. 

Uncle Nearest

Uncle Nearest 1856. We can confirm it is tasty.

Master of Malt: What exactly is Uncle’s Day?

Fawn Weaver: The official name is Aunt and Uncle’s Day and it is a time in the US when we celebrate both. However, as Uncle Nearest is the most well-known Uncle in the US, we’ve sort of hijacked the holiday.

 MoM: Who was Uncle Nearest and why does he deserve to be better known?

FW: Uncle Nearest was the first known African-American master distiller in the US, the first master distiller for the Jack Daniel Distillery, and the teacher of the process that has since been made a prerequisite of Tennessee whiskey: sugar maple charcoal filtering prior to the whiskey going into the barrel.

 MoM: Where did you come across his story?

FW: I first learned of the story while in Singapore. On the cover of the New York Times Global Edition was a headline that caught me by surprise: Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Secret Ingredient: Help from a Slave.

 MoM: When did you get the idea to create a whiskey brand around him?

FW: Almost immediately after reading the story. I thought that could be fascinating. But I did not move on actually doing it until after meeting with members of Nearest’s family, as well as Daniel’s, and learned they were both desiring the same thing.

Uncle Nearest

What the finished Uncle Nearest Distillery will look like

 MoM: Where is your whiskey made? 

FW: While our 270-acre distillery is under construction, we co-distill in Columbia, Tennessee at Tennessee Distilling Group. However, all of our whiskey in the market, that is over the age of eight years old, was originally sourced from the one distillery still following Nearest’s process of putting the whiskey in the barrel at a low proof, so the amount of water added post barreling is still minimum. We source and then age for a couple more years, before putting the whiskey through our final two steps unique to our brand. The first step is filtering through diatomaceous earth. If you go into a health food store, you are likely to see this being used as a cleanse to the body. Well, it acts in a very similar manner with whiskey, removing fusel oils and congeners. Following that filtration step, our whiskey rests in a steel tank with natural carbon from coconut shells for 24-48 hours. This filtration step does not add anything but it does remove the majority of the remaining congeners. It is one of the reasons you are very unlikely to get a hangover from drinking Uncle Nearest neat or on the rocks.

MoM: What was the thinking behind how Uncle Nearest is made? 

FW: The original recipes from Lynchburg, Tennessee that we’ve been able to get our hands on, had a corn percentage of 84% (albeit 3.5% of that being corn malt). So, our recipe remains true to that. Ageing for us is all about taste and not the number. Prior to this past week, we have never bottled anything lower than eight years old as Uncle Nearest 1856 is a blend of eight-to-10 year old whiskies. However, we recently debuted Uncle Nearest 1884 at Tales of the Cocktail, and many of the press and bar industry folks who tasted it declared it our best yet. Everything we do, however, is done in Tennessee to ensure we fulfill the requirements of Tennessee Whiskey: distilling, ageing and bottling.

Uncle Nearest Fawn Weaver

It’s Fawn Weaver!

 MoM: How did you make the change from being a writer to being a whiskey entrepreneur?

FW: For me, there was no change as I’ve been an entrepreneur for the past 24 years. Writing for me has always been more of a hobby I do on the side. For many, they assumed I was a writer full-time because I’m a USA Today and New York Times bestselling author. But I was just fortunate to write books folks truly enjoyed reading. In terms of entrepreneurialism, I opened my first company at the age of 18, and haven’t looked back. My investments have always been in hospitality and lifestyle brands, so moving into the whiskey business was not much of a leap for me.

 MoM: Did you know much about whiskey before starting the brand?

FW: Whiskey was my drink of choice well before I began this brand. My call at the time was E.H. Taylor single barrel, cask strength or Blanton’s. I still enjoy both of these very much. They are the most similar to Uncle Nearest, in my opinion, except they are distilled and aged north of the Kentucky line and we are distilled and aged south of it.

 MoM: Apart from whiskey, what does the Nearest Green Foundation do?

FW: The Nearest Green Foundation is charged with ensuring Nearest’s legacy is not only known around the world but is cemented for many generations to come. To that end, the foundation has 12 different projects at the moment, my favorite being the education of all of his descendants. For each of his college-age descendants, they only have to get into the university of their choice, and Uncle Nearest pays for all of their tuition, books, tutors and whatever else they need to succeed. Their requirement is to pay that gift forward, to someone less fortunate, and to do so in the name of Nearest Green. 

Uncle Nearest

The future home of Uncle Nearest!

 MoM: What’s your favourite whiskey cocktail?

FW: Every year it changes. At one point, it was the Tennessee Gold (similar to a Bee’s Knees but using whiskey instead of gin). Now, it is our signature Nearest Green Distillery cocktail: Tennessee Buck. This combines Uncle Nearest with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, ginger beer (Fever Tree and Peter Spanton’s Dry Ginger work best) topped with lime in a highball glass.

 MoM: And finally, you don’t have to answer this question but, as the daughter of a Motown producer, I have to ask you what’s your favourite Motown record?

FW: You’ve Made Me So Very Happy (ironically, I’m more familiar with the Blood, Sweat & Tears version than the original Motown version) and Keep on Truckin’ by Eddie Kendricks. My dad produced and co-wrote the song, and it could easily be the theme song title for my life.

Thank you! Now let’s raise a glass of some Uncle Nearest to your favourite uncle or aunt. 

 

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Where to drink in… Amsterdam

Characterised by idyllic canals, tilted gabled buildings, and more culture per capita than any other city in the world*, there’s nowhere in the world quite like Amsterdam. We chat with…

Characterised by idyllic canals, tilted gabled buildings, and more culture per capita than any other city in the world*, there’s nowhere in the world quite like Amsterdam. We chat with Ketel One Vodka brand ambassador Helena Henneveld to get the lowdown on the city’s burgeoning cocktail culture – and shine a light on five bars from the Netherlands’ capital…

“Dutch people love to socialise after work and, of course, over the weekend,” says Helena Henneveld, brand ambassador for Ketel One Vodka and Ketel One Botanical at Diageo Reserve Benelux. “We have a specific word for having drinks – ‘borrel’ – and a typical phrase which comes up in various WhatsApp groups is ‘iemand borrelen?’ which translated, basically means ‘anybody up for some drinks?’”

The Dutch proclivity for enjoying a drink or two may not have changed – the Netherlands is, after all, known the world over for its pale lagers like Heineken and Grolsch – but the contents of their glasses is gradually shifting over time. Like most other major European cities, Amsterdam is no stranger to the remarkable cocktail renaissance that has swept the globe. 

Helena Henneveld

Helena Henneveld, always reppin’

“What we tend to drink has definitely changed over the course of the last few years,” says Henneveld. “As a bartender working at Door74 about five years ago, I remember all of a sudden seeing a huge demand for gin and customers – both Dutch and expats living in Amsterdam – asking for Gin and Tonics. We quickly went from having five gins on the back bar to 20 because of the sudden demand for different varieties and flavours.”

Today you’ll find a wealth of cocktail bars nestled among the city’s coffee shops and bruin cafés (old-school Dutch pubs) serving up their own interpretations of the latest trends. “Amsterdam’s bar scene has changed a lot over the last few years and has become very varied and eclectic,” outlines Henneveld. “At the moment, the biggest trends include having a selection of no and low-alcohol drinks on the menu, finding ways to work more with local producers, and introducing new ways to reduce waste.”

As part of its minimal waste ethos, Ketel One has been working closely with bartenders to help them rethink their most popular drinks, Henneveld says, so they have a more positive impact on the environment and the local community. “It can be simple tweaks such as switching out plastic straws or stirrers, or using organic ingredients in cocktails and sourcing these ingredients from local suppliers,” she explains. “We also ask them to use excess produce from their kitchens and repurpose it as garnishes, or use wonky fruit and vegetables as a Bloody Mary base.”

From the progressive to the traditional, Henneveld shares five unmissable Amsterdam bars that deserve a place on the itinerary of any serious cocktail fan. Proost!

 

Vesper

Vesper Bar

Vinkenstraat 57, 1013 JM Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why? “Vesper is progressive and changes its menu monthly, working with ingredients in season and local artisanal producers,” says Henneveld. “The menu is never the same and I think that’s really cool.”

Super Lyan

Super Lyan

Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 3, 1012 RC Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why? “Super Lyan shows us how to make usual flavours into something unusual,” says Henneveld, “for example, the Ketel One Vodka Bay Cosmo on draft, which uses bay leaves, sounds a bit of an odd combination but it works and still reminds me of the refreshing, tart flavours of a regular Cosmopolitan.”

Feijoa

Feijoa

Vijzelstraat 39, 1017 HE Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why? “Feijoa is a bartender’s bar, the drinks are always spot on,” says Henneveld, “you can order any cocktail and they always know how to make it perfectly.”

Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman Cocktails

Singel 460, 1017 AW Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why? “Flying Dutchmen focuses a lot on classic cocktails,” says Henneveld. “They serve drinks you might have read or heard about but never tasted, while educating guests on cocktails and cocktail culture. Plus, their ceiling is to die for.”

 

Cafe De Oranjerie

Binnen Oranjestraat 15hs, 1013 HZ Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why? “Don’t forget about our brown bars, which we call ‘de kroeg’,” says Henneveld. “There is usually sawdust on the floor. People who go there usually just get a beer and a single jenever. You see these everywhere in Amsterdam and they have a big history in Dutch bar culture.”

*A company called Totally Money took data from TripAdvisor and the Michelin Guide to determine which cities have the highest concentration of culture per capita. Amsterdam came out on top, followed by Dublin and Prague. Can’t argue with that.

 

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Cocktail of the Week: The Tequila Sunrise

For International Tequila Day, we’re shaking up a classic with an illustrious history that features the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Kurt Russell! What came first, the song or the…

For International Tequila Day, we’re shaking up a classic with an illustrious history that features the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Kurt Russell!

What came first, the song or the cocktail? Well that’s an easy one, it’s the cocktail. ‘Tequila Sunrise’ by the Eagles came out in 1973 whereas the Tequila Sunrise cocktail has been kicking about in one form or other since the 1930s. Originally it was far closer to a Margarita or Paloma being made with lime juice and fizzy water, and it got its trademark reddish haze from Crème de Cassis rather than Grenadine. 

The Tequila Sunrise as we know it is far more recent. It was probably invented in the early 1970s by two bartenders Bobby Lozoff and Billy Rice at the Trident, a bar in Sausalito near San Francisco. It could have just been another cocktail that achieved a modicum of local fame before disappearing into oblivion, but for a chance meeting with an up-and-coming young beat combo known as The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger tried the cocktail, loved it and the band and its entourage took it up as their drink du jour. In his autobiography Life (well worth a read, it’s brilliant), Keith Richards referred to Stones’ 1972 tour of America as “cocaine and Tequila Sunrise tour”. How’s that for a serving suggestion?

With publicity like this, how could the cocktail fail? It quickly became one of the best known cocktails in the world. The Tequila Sunrise’s heyday was the ‘70s and ‘80s. There was even a baffling thriller named after it starring Mel Gibson, Michele Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell that came out in 1988. 

It’s not a difficult drink to make but I am sure that readers like me have had some pretty revolting versions. As always you need top quality ingredients starting with the Tequila. I’m using the delightfully smooth Maestro Dobel Diamond which is a 100% agave aged Tequila that’s filtered to remove the colour – just as how white rums like Havana Club 3 Year Old are made. Next, you must use freshly-squeezed orange juice, NOT juice made from concentrate. Then there’s the grenadine. You can buy grenadine but it tastes better if you make it yourself from pomegranate juice (recipe below).

The basic Tequila Sunrise is nice but it can be improved with some judicious fiddling.  Adding a little lime and/or grapefruit juice freshens it up beautifully and takes it back into Margarita/ Paloma territory. And while we are going there why not go old school and use Cassis to get that pretty sunrise effect, or perhaps Campari or Aperol?

The Tequila Sunrise,

The Tequila Sunrise, if it’s good enough of Keith, it’s good enough for us

Right got your ingredients in place? Stick on Exile on Main Street, and let’s make a Tequila Sunrise!

60ml  Maestro Dobel Diamond Tequila
120ml freshly-squeezed orange juice
Juice of half a lime
2 teaspoons grenadine*

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add the orange juice and Tequila. Shake and strain into a highball glass filled with ice cubes. Slowly pour the grenadine down the side of the glass to get that red haze. Garnish with an orange slice or a maraschino cherry, or both, rock n’ roll!

* Pomegranate juice (make sure it is pure pomegranate juice and not a drink containing pomegranate and sugar) is already sweet so you don’t need to add as much sugar as to water. A ratio of two parts juice to three parts sugar is ideal. Pour the pomegranate juice into a saucepan and gently heat, don’t boil, add the sugar and slowly and stir until it dissolves. Remove from the heat, pour into a sterilised jar (heated in the oven or with boiling water) and it should last in the fridge for months.

 

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Introducing some awesome agave spirits!

From the sudden influx of celebrities promoting their own mezcal to international celebrations of the spirit, it looks like the agave-themed fun just doesn’t stop! We’re carrying on the fun…

From the sudden influx of celebrities promoting their own mezcal to international celebrations of the spirit, it looks like the agave-themed fun just doesn’t stop! We’re carrying on the fun from last week’s London Mezcal Week, while across the pond in the big ol’ USA they’re celebrating National Tequila Day on 24 July.

In light of such festivities, we’ve done exactly what any reasonable folk would do and gathered up nine amazing agave spirits, for your perusal. Put that salt and lime away, these are some tip-top tipples right here.

 

Casamigos Añejo

An Añejo Tequila from Casamigos, a brand founded by some familiar faces, chiefly George Clooney. If you were thinking of another George Clooney, let us just clarify that it is indeed 1997 Batman George Clooney. Funnily enough, Casamigos was never actually intended to be released to the public and was enjoyed solely with friends and family for years, hence the meaning of the name, ‘house of friends’. Luckily for us, Clooney & Co. released it to the world for us to enjoy! Everything about this Tequila takes its sweet time; the Highland agave goes through an 80-hour fermentation process, and is then roasted in traditional brick ovens for 72 long hours, a smashing 10 times longer than average. The spirit is finally aged for 14 months in American white oak, adding those lovely creamy notes to the fresh agave flavours.

What does it taste like?

Roasted cacao and runny caramel balanced by more vegetal notes of agave, with sweet spice and toasty oak on the finish.

El Espolòn Reposado

Produced by Destilladora San Nicholas in Los Atlos, this well spiced Tequila is packed full of rock’n’roll (literally – the factory workers played rock music to inspire the Blue Weber agave). Starting life off as blanco, it rests between 3-5 months in new American oak barrels, gaining a more complex character and a unique, slightly charred flavour.
Inspired by the powerful symbol of pride, the rooster, the brand celebrates Mexican culture. Charmingly called Ramón, the rooster features on every label to tell a different unique story of Tequila. The labels pay tribute to José Guadalupe Posada, an artist, printmaker and rebel most famous for the calavera (skulls) that feature alongside the rooster. The combination is a commentary on social injustices in Mexico, to give the people a voice, and influence today’s pop culture.

What does it taste like?

Earthy roasted agave notes, with a touch of treacle, vanilla pod and fragrant oak influence, with a finish of tropical fruit, namely a lingering note of tangy pineapple.

El Rayo Reposado

El Rayo Tequila is something of a first, blending agave harvested from both Highland and Lowland regions in one bottle! The brand was created a world away from Mexico in the heart of Peckham, by childhood friends Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker. El Rayo translates as ‘the lightning’, after a tale in Mexican folklore which recounts a Blue Weber agave plant being struck by lightning, a phenomenon you can see depicted on the bottle label. Villagers discovered the now-cooked agave, and consequently, Tequila as well! Made up of 70% Highland and 30% Lowland agave, the Reposado has been rested for seven months in barrels which previously housed whisky. The ethos behind El Rayo couldn’t be further from the salt and lime rituals that somewhat plague the spirit. Its signature serve is the Tequila & Tonic, or rather more catchily, the T&T, with a wedge of pink grapefruit. Try it; you won’t be disappointed.

What does it taste like?

Orange oil and orange zest, subtle smoke and oak spice leading into gently salted caramel, toasted almond and hallmark roasted agave notes.

Pensador Mezcal

Produced in Southern Oaxaca, Pensador Mezcal is crafted using methods dating all the way back to the 16th century by Don Atenogenes Garcia and his family. The palenque is located on the Calle Pensamientos, which translates to ‘Thoughts Road’, while the name Pensador also translates to ‘thinker’. The mezcal is made from two species of agave, Espadín and Madrecuishe, both widely cultivated throughout Mexico due to their high sugar content. The piñas are baked in a stone pit for six days before they’re crushed by a traditional tahona wheel. From field to bottle, each batch of Pensador takes around three months, so it’s little surprise that another interpretation of the name means ‘slowness of time’. We reckon the same principle should apply when drinking it; one to sip slowly and savour the smoky goodness.

What does it taste like?

Wood smoke and a dash of citrus peel, with barbecued stone fruit, black pepper and chilli spice, earthy mineral notes with a touch of lychee on the finish.

Mezcal Unión Uno

Mezcal Unión was founded in order to protect traditional mezcal production and benefit the families all around Mexico that are producing the smoky spirit. Indeed, it is a union of sorts, uniting various palenques around Oaxaca while supporting both environmental and social sustainability. Mezcal Unión Uno, a joven expression, is made with Espadín and wild Cirial agave, some of which are at the ripe old age of 20 years old when harvested. After they’re crushed with a traditional tahona wheel pulled by a mule, they go through a double distillation before bottling. This here is a mezcal with a mission, and we’re all for it.

What does it taste like?

Sweet tropical lychee and delicate floral notes, with earthy vanilla, a good helping of smoke and grassy notes, a tang of citrus on the finish.

QuiQuiRiQui Matatlán Mezcal

This smoky tipple is made in Matatlán, known as the ‘World Capital of Mezcal’. That’s a fabulous start right there. Even better, it has a particularly fun name, QuiQuiRiQui! Try saying that five times fast. This unaged joven expression is produced using Lowland Espadín agave, and is double distilled in the village of Santiago de Matatlán in rather small batches of 1,000 litres. If you were wondering about the name, it’s pronounced kee-kee-ree-kee, inspired by the sound of a rooster, one of which you can spot on the label.

What does it taste like?

Smoky to start, with rich cocoa and sweetly vegetal bell pepper, fresh grass, ripe apricot, and sweet baking spice fading into drying smoked black pepper lingering on the finish.

Patrón Silver

From what could well be one of the most famous houses in Mexico, Patrón Silver Tequila is something of a cult classic. It’s made exclusively from 100% Blue Weber agave, over at the Hacienda Patrón distillery. The agave is crushed using a combination of both traditional tahona wheel as well as more modern rollers. Bottled by hand, each glass vessel is signed and individually numbered, complete with Portuguese cork stopper. This is certainly one to try out all those Tequila-based cocktails you’ve been meaning to experiment with.

What does it taste like?

Lovely agave freshness, with buttery caramel, gently spiced with nutmeg and pepper, with lively citrus on the finish.

Mezcal Verde

From Verde Momento comes Mezcal Verde, a true celebration of all things Mexico, with the artisanal mezcal made with Oaxacan Espadín agave. The piñas are baked for five days in an underground oven using ocote, holm oak, and peppertree, giving its smoky profile a very distinctive flavour. Verde Momento means ‘green moment, and the brand is tackling reforestation, with 10 new agaves planted for every one that is harvested. The funky label artwork features work from Mexican artists, with each batch sporting a completely different design. We know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but when they look that good, what’s not to like?! Not to mention, the liquid inside is top-notch, too.

What does it taste like?

A slightly creamy, nutty note, with dried fruit, peach and sweet grass alongside all those expected smoky notes.

Montelobos Joven Mezcal

Montelobos Joven was created by biologist Dr. Iván Saldaña. That’s a good start, having studied plants, but Saldaña knew nothing about how to produce the Mexican spirit. He sought help from fifth generation mezcalero, Don Abel Lopez, and the duo have been smashing it ever since. Organic Espadín agave are harvested and roasted for around one week in a volcanic stone pit. In a pledge for sustainability, Montelobos has committed to never using wild agave in its mezcal. What’s more, in keeping with age-old tradition, Lopez throws chilli peppers into the fire when roasting the agave, because this is said to ward off evil spirits. Montelobos translates to ‘mountain of wolves’, so we reckon that explains the rather fierce looking fella on the handsome square bottle!

What does it taste like?

Loads of fruity sweetness, with pineapple and mango, lemon zest, a distinctive minerality, rosemary and a good hit of smoke remaining long after the last sip.

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Milk & Honey Distillery: A taste of Tel Aviv

Forget tradition: Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery is taking conventional whisky-making and turning it on its head in pursuit of bold flavour and a focus on locality. This is…

Forget tradition: Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery is taking conventional whisky-making and turning it on its head in pursuit of bold flavour and a focus on locality. This is what meaningful drinks innovation looks like in 2019.

What makes a whisky a whisky? For purists, there are stringent rules to adhere to, especially if you come from a classical Scotch perspective. For others, it’s all about the flavour, and the innovation that comes from experimentation: grains, cask type, yeast strain. Then, for world whisky especially, there’s a growing consideration: locale. And none of these have to exist in isolation, something that Israel’s Milk & Honey Distillery is setting out to prove.

“There’s no whisky-making in Israel,” an El Al representative forcefully tells me at the airport. I’m about to travel out to Tel Aviv to get a taste for the distillery first-hand. The immediate issue: convincing the national airline that I’m not some kind of security threat. 

“There is!” I respond. “And there’s gin, too. I can’t wait to taste the whole range, actually.”

The Milk & Honey Distillery tasting room

The Milk & Honey Distillery tasting room

He looks at me like I may well be both mad and geographically confused. But he lets me proceed. And that perhaps is the first barrier Milk & Honey faces; Israel is known for many things internationally, good and bad, but spirits production isn’t one of them.

It’s something that a group of whisky-loving entrepreneurs set out to change back in 2012. Considered, thoughtful co-founder Gal Kalkshtein describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. Tomer Goren, a contemplative drinks and chemistry geek, is head distiller. Eitan Attir, CEO, is commercially-minded and collaboration-focused. Dana Baran, marketing vice-president, is glowingly cordial and welcomes us with open arms. Tal Chotiner, a more recent addition to the team as international sales director, is an easy-going beer-lover. Tal Gantz is an infectiously boisterous brand ambassador. The team we meet are all so different, but they share a collective vision: to get the world to fall in love with Tel Aviv whisky.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Tal Chotiner and Tomer Goren showcase an STR cask

“There is just no tradition of distilling in Israel,” Kalkshtein tell us when we meet in the distillery’s sleek visitor centre, complete with bar and highly instragrammable wall art. Yes, there’s wine production that dates back centuries, but whisky and gin production is entirely new. Times are changing though, and while Milk & Honey is the “biggest, largest, most serious” distillery, he says, others are coming online. Production details of course sets M&H apart (more to follow!), but the first thing that piques interest initially is its Tel Aviv location.

The non-stop city

Think ‘Tel Aviv’, and you may well conjure up images of beachfront chill, award-winning bars and beautiful people – the Miami of the Med, if you like. Stark Bauhaus buildings bask in 300 days of sunshine each year; the snaking staircases of Old Jaffa hold millennia-old secrets. By day, the city takes to the beaches, the golden sand peppered with bars, colourful lifeguard huts and volleyball courts. By night, there’s a different energy. Tel Aviv becomes fluorescent; neon signs adorn the walls of sleek cocktail bars, meticulously-presented dishes delight elegant diners in the fanciest of restaurants. But there’s no pretence: there’s as much of an appetite for pitta bread feasts from street food vendors washed down with beer as there is for haute cuisine. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

The steps in Old Jaffa

Tel Aviv has become almost as well-known for its food scene as it is for its laid-back, liberal outlook. The Milk & Honey Distillery largely sits at this intersection, keen to align itself more with the city’s international reputation than that of its native country. 

Tel Aviv beach: The Miami of the Med

“We wanted to go global from the get-go,” Baran explained, over a welcome cocktail at the distillery. And it’s an effective philosophy. Work to convert the former bakery to a distilling space started in 2014, five short years ago. The first “serious” distillation took place in 2015, when the visitor centre opened. Already, 72% of production is destined for export. “The ambition is to get to 90%,” Baran explained. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

The colours of Tel Aviv

Good news for international spirits lovers, then. Even better news: whisky is on the way. “There will be a commercial whisky out at the end of the year,” she confirms.  Expect a founders’ edition, followed by liquid for The Whisky Show. And we should anticipate high demand: more than 12,000 visitors have made the trip to the distillery since April 2016, with 10,000 expected in 2019 alone. 

Rescue still

But, back to that fundamental question: what makes a whisky a whisky? However you approach it, production has to play a part. And for the Milk & Honey team, balancing the traditions of Scotch with the challenges (quirks?) of the Israeli climate its physiography has resulted in some really quite stunning spirits.

After the introduction in the bar space, we embarked on a tour. “We doubled the size of the distillery a year ago,” said Baran as we moved through. The space is substantial but not cavernous, and it’s already pretty full with tanks, stills, casks, the lab, and even a bottling line.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Different casks line up in front of the Milk & Honey lab

“Everything is operated by steam,” said Goren, almost wryly as we walked through the distillery. “There’s no cold spring for us to use.” 

The Israeli climate is perhaps the fourth ingredient in this whisky (alongside malted barley from the UK and peated barley from the Czech Republic, yeast, and of course, the water, which is filtered before use). Winter doesn’t dip below 16°C, while summer highs can top 40°C. Humidity is in the 50-90% range. This isn’t just an environment for rapid ageing, it’s positively breakneck.

Good job, then, that the team set up the distillery under the wise and watchful eye of the late Dr. Jim Swan. His legacy is everywhere, from the still design to the widespread use of STR casks (shaved, toasted and re-charred). Everything is purposefully set up to harness that swift maturation speed, and channel the character into whisky that thrives at a younger age.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Casks in the Tel Aviv sunshine

We start off by the mash tun, which processes 10 one-tonne batches each week. Production stops on Fridays and Saturdays (the resulting whisky will be kosher) with as much as 450 tons of malt processed each year. It’s then on to the Israel-designed one-tonne mash tun, interesting because it operates with two waters, rather than the traditional three.  

Fermentation is perhaps longer than expected, given the climate. The process is allowed to bubble away for up to 72 hours, in four stainless steel tanks. The team uses M yeast (“typical, really”), and the resulting wash is bursting with orchard fruit (we were there during unpeated production). 

The great rescue still!

Distillation is where it really starts to get interesting. The 9,000-litre wash still was literally salvaged from Romania – “like a rescue still!” I remarked – and dates back to the 1980s. The team think it was made in Spain for Spanish brandy-making, but it’s impossible to be certain. The 3,500-litre spirit still came from CARL in Germany. “We want ‘Scottish-style’ single malt,” said Goren. And why did they plump for the Romanian still? “Go to Forsyths and you’ll have a 10-year wait,” he commented. “We take a very, very short, very high cut,” he continues, with the spirit coming off at around 73% ABV, bursting with big, round fruit notes. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

Gin botanicals!

While Milk & Honey is very much in the whisky business (even if most liquid is still to come of age), gin is a massive part of its activity, too. Local botanicals, sourced from the famous Levinsky market, include cinnamon, coriander, chamomile, black pepper, lemon peel, verbena, and hyssop. These are macerated in the dedicated 250-litre pot still for 48 hours prior to distillation. There’s even a Levantine Gin – Tel Aviv 2019 edition specially blended to capture the essence of the city. We explored the labyrinthine Levinsky market after the distillery tour – this expression really is a taste of Tel Aviv, with its zesty citrus and fresh spice.

Dead Sea maturation

Milk & Honey makes use of a tremendous array of casks. Along with the mix of ex-bourbon, STR and virgin oak (at around a 70%/20%/10% ratio for what will become the classic whisky expressions), there’s a whole load of esoteric vessels, too. Think: Israeli wine casks (“Israeli wines are kosher”), STR red wine casks hailing from Portugal, and even a pomegranate wine cask. This is perhaps where operations diverge from the strictly Scotch-style approach. We gather in a warehouse space, fittingly surrounded by casks, for a tasting session.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Dead Sea spirit!

But it’s not just what you mature spirit in; where that cask rests will have a massive impact on flavour. This is most marked when we taste spirit from casks matured on the shores of the Dead Sea – the lowest place on Earth. After the new make (surprisingly soft, bursting with pear, apple and green grain notes) and a couple of samples of maturing spirit (including exceptionally rounded liquid from an ex-bourbon cask just one year and seven months old), we move on to the Dead Sea liquid. “This one is six months old,” Chotiner explained. I was stunned. The liquid was almost garnet in colour, an astonishing hue given the short time exposed to oak.

I’ve not visited the Dead Sea, but photographs will show you it shares a similarly jewelled complexion. Turquoise and sapphire waters lap at lemon quartz shores – and then there’s the salt factor. It’s 430.5 metres below sea level, and the Sea is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean. Temperatures can reach 50°C in summer. Milk & Honey was the first distillery to mature spirit in these “incredible” conditions.  

The casks chosen to reside here? Ex-bourbon, ex-red wine and more of those STR casks. The first impressions of the spirit (at six months it’s WAY too young to be called a whisky) was its overwhelmingly velvety quality on the palate. Young spirit is usually spiky, lively, harsh. Not this stuff. It was super well-integrated and soft, with dark fruit and chocolate notes. I had to double check with Goren that I’d written down the age correctly in my notes. But yes. Six months it is.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Tasting in the warehouse space

“We could never fully mature there, it would be too much,” he added. Anticipate future Milk & Honey whiskies to spend a short finishing period at the Dead Sea though – and expect them to be incredible. 

We taste some more young spirits, including a delectable rum cask-matured expression, an ex-Islay cask, and even a sample from the aforementioned ex-pomegranate wine casks. Each added another dimension to the Milk & Honey vision: yes, this is ‘proper’ whisky, double-distilled and treated to thoughtful processing from raw materials to maturation. But this is a team unafraid of showcasing its inventive side – or its Israeli heritage.

We walk back through to that sleek bar and event space for a quick cocktail before heading back out into the sparkling Tel Aviv sunshine. I ask Kalkshtein whether among all the iterations, the distillery expansions, the international growth, if he ever takes a second to appreciate everything he and the team have already achieved. 

“You never stop and think, ‘wow, we did it’,” he pauses for a moment. “But the stills are the most amazing thing. That’s the point where you say, ‘wow, we did something good’.” Watch out, world whisky: Israel is about to arrive on the scene. 

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Diageo Special Releases 2019 details are here!

Diageo has just this moment released early details of its Special Releases 2019 collection – eight cask-strength Scotch whiskies under a ‘Rare by Nature’ theme. We’re excited! While pricing, full tasting…

Diageo has just this moment released early details of its Special Releases 2019 collection – eight cask-strength Scotch whiskies under a ‘Rare by Nature’ theme. We’re excited!

While pricing, full tasting notes and availability have yet to be disclosed, the octet features liquid from Mortlach, The Singleton of Glen Ord, Cragganmore, Cardhu, Lagavulin, Talisker, Pittyvaich and Dalwhinnie. So no Port Ellen, and no single grain this time round.

The ‘Rare by Nature’ theme refers to the surroundings of each distillery, as well as the distillers and blenders who made them, and “the whisky lovers who will enjoy them”.

So. What’s in the line-up?

Cardhu 14 Years Old

Said to be a “supremely elegant” expression of the “warm-hearted” Speyside Scotch.

Cragganmore 12 Years Old

A “complex and intriguing” bottling, bringing together Speyside character with “a touch of spice and smoke”.

Dalwhinnie 30 Years Old

And “extra matured and unusual” one, with an “undeniably” gentle character.

Lagavulin 12 Years Old

“Truly spirited yet youthful” – one from the classic Islay distillery.

Mortlach 26 Years Old

The Beast of Dufftown apparently at its “most impressive”.

Pittyvaich 29 Years Old

A “rare sighting” from the closed distillery.

Talisker 15 Years Old

“Sweet yet deep and spicy”. Delicious.

The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 Years Old

“Different and delicious” expression, said to never have been previously bottled.

We know they’re only skeleton details, but which of the Special Releases 2019 expressions are you most excited to taste? Let us know on social or in the comments below!

Diageo Special Releases 2019

Such mystery

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