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Master of Malt Blog

The history of Chivas Regal

When Chivas Regal made its debut as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, not only was it the oldest blended Scotch whisky of its era, but it was also…

When Chivas Regal made its debut as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, not only was it the oldest blended Scotch whisky of its era, but it was also the world’s first luxury whisky. Navigating a tumultuous geopolitical landscape in the years that followed, Chivas weathered the storm, establishing its home in Strathisla, Speyside, from where it continues to influence and shape the Scotch whisky industry today. Chris Brousseau, archivist at Chivas Brothers, talks us through the brand’s fascinating history…

Chivas Regal may have hit the market at the turn of the 20th century, but its history can be traced back to a grocery business established in Aberdeen back in 1801, which sold “quality provisions, wine and spirits” – and also with the birth of brothers James and John Chivas. Born into a family of tenant farmers in 1810 and 1814 respectively, they left their rural home in 1836 to work in the city; James as a partner in the grocery business, John at a wholesale firm. 

“A royal warrant was granted by Queen Victoria to James Chivas in 1843, as Purveyor of Grocery to Her Majesty,” says Brousseau. It would be the first of many. “They were supplying the Queen of Balmoral with food, with spirits, with wine – just about anything,” he says. “She even asked for a quiet donkey that she could have to pull her around the ground.”

James Chivas outside King Street shop in 1862 (only existing pic of him)

When James’ business partner Charles Stewart left the grocery in 1867, John took his place, and Chivas Brothers was born. Three years later, the Spirit Act of 1860 came into force, allowing whisky from different distilleries to be blended without payment of duty. “That allowed people like Chivas Brothers to start buying from different distilleries – both grain whisky and malt whisky – and start blending for the first time,” says Brousseau. “It really opened the door. And this is when we think James and John started creating what we’d call branded whiskies.”

Their first blended malt Scotch whisky was a no age statement (NAS) bottling called the Royal Glen Dee. It would be followed by six others over the course of the next 40 years, including Royal Strathythan, a 10 year old whisky, and Royal Loch Nevis, a 25 year old. Over the course of their whisky career, the brothers had amassed extensive knowledge on ageing and blended whiskies, and they’d also built up vast stocks of maturing whisky.

Fast-forward to 1895, and both James, John, and James’ son Alexander – the last of the Chivas lineage – had died. Chivas Brothers was bought by Alexander Smith, said to be the ‘right-hand man of Alexander Chivas’ and then-master blender, Charles Stewart Howard. “The youngest whisky that they were producing in 1895 was five years of age, which is quite amazing when you didn’t have to age whisky until some 20 years later,” says Brousseau. 

Chivas Brothers price list front cover 1890s

Howard decided to pay tribute to the founding brothers with a malt-heavy recipe and launched Chivas Regal as a 25 year old whisky in 1909, primarily for the North American market. “We call this the world’s first luxury whisky, because when you look at what was going on in the market at that time, there was nothing like it; nothing of that age,” says Brousseau. “There were a few branded whiskies, maybe 10 years old, something like that. This was really something very special.”

Just five years later, World War I begins, signalling the beginning of a global downturn that would last decades. Few distilleries would emerge on the other side. “We had Prohibition in the US and Canada,” says Brousseau. “We had the Great Depression for several years. Then World War II comes along, which had a huge impact on the Scotch whisky industry. Chivas Regal went from 25 years, to ‘of great age’ on the label. Then it went to NAS for a while, until it was resurrected in the 1950s,” joining Chivas Regal 12 Year Old, which had launched in 1939.

In 1949, Canadian businessman Samuel Bronfman, head of Seagrams, took a trip to Scotland. He left as the owner of Chivas Brothers, having bought the business from whisky brokers Morrison & Lundie for £85,000. “He always had this vision that there would always be a special market for aged Scotch whiskies,” says Brousseau. “One of the reasons some people think he bought Chivas Brothers as opposed to other companies was not only because it was a great company with great whisky stocks, but because he was a keen royalist.”

Bottling whisky – mid to late 1800s

When Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father George IV on 2 June 1953, Bronfman launched Royal Salute blended Scotch whisky in tribute on the same day. He was even invited to the coronation. Shortly after taking over Chivas Brothers, Bronfman hired Charles Julian – “the best Scotch whisky master blender at the time,” says Brousseau – and paid £71,000 for Milton distillery, renaming it Strathisla, which remains the home of Chivas Regal to this day and produces a key malt component of a blend.

When it comes to telling the story of Chivas Regal, Strathisla is the final piece of the puzzle. Built in 1786 at Keith, Moray in Speyside, it’s the oldest continuously operating distillery in the Highlands. “Just recently, we found an accounts book for the very first year,” says Brousseau. “Because it was built by two people, they listed everything they bought and how much it cost, so at the end of the year they could split it 50/50.” 

What would you buy if you were going to start a distillery in the late 1700s? “On June 22nd 1786,” he reads, “two shovels, a wheelbarrow, a sand harp – which is a sieve – some advice, and some stones. It began operation with a 40 gallon still, and a capacity of 28 tonnes of malted barley per year. They were licensed on the amount of barley they could use. Grain lorries today hold 29 tonnes, so we do in a day what we used to do in a year.”

Chivas Brothers price list inside 1890s

Today, the core range comprises Chivas Regal 12, Chivas Regal 18, and Chivas Regal 25. There’s also Chivas Regal Extra, which contains a higher proportion of sherry casks; Chivas Regal Ultis, a blended malt containing no grain whisky; Chivas Regal Mizunara, which is the world’s first Scotch whisky to be aged in Japanese oak; plus a wealth of limited editions and market exclusives – for example Chivas Regal XV, a 15 year old blend finished in casks that previously held Grande Champagne Cognac.

From a small Aberdeen grocery to the pride of high-end back bars across the globe, the story of Chivas Regal is a lesson in weathering adversity. Now owned by Pernod Ricard, the brand sells more than 4.2 million cases every year, and has retained the sense of grandeur Howard instilled when he launched the world’s first luxury whisky back in 1909. In the words of his business partner Smith, writing in 1904: “The name Chivas may be carried down to posterity as meaning the best service, the best quality, the best value – in short, the name Chivas shall be the equivalent to the hallmark of excellence.”

The Chivas Regal range is available from Master of Malt.

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A spotlight on Storywood Tequila

The brainchild of Scottish chef, whisky lover and bona fide wood expert Michael Ballantyne, Storywood Tequila takes Mexico’s national spirit and treats it to a full maturation in former Speyside…

The brainchild of Scottish chef, whisky lover and bona fide wood expert Michael Ballantyne, Storywood Tequila takes Mexico’s national spirit and treats it to a full maturation in former Speyside Scotch whisky barrels. Here, Ballantyne shares the story behind his creative Tequila range and describes the magic that happens when Speyside meets San Miguel…

Born in Scotland and raised in Texas from the age of eight, Ballantyne – a chef by trade – returned from overseas at 22. “I was trying to get back into the restaurant industry, but being in Aberdeen, there are so many oil companies, I fell into oil and gas,” says Ballantyne. “I started from the bottom, sweeping floors in the workshop and packing boxes, and within six years I was writing up a sales team for oil and gas tools across the world. The problem was, it didn’t really matter how much my salary increased, I just wasn’t happy doing what I was doing.”

He started spending a lot more time over in Mexico, visiting his mum who lives in San Miguel de Allende. Disenchanted with working in the oil and gas industry, Ballantyne resolved to open a whisky bar in San Miguel, and set about planning the venue. His research led him to La Cofradia distillery in Jalisco, which has been producing and bottling Tequila for more than 50 years. There, he met master distiller Luis Trejo.

“We got to speaking about Tequila and whisky production, and what we realised is the process of making Tequila is very much the same as whisky, the only difference is the roles are reversed,” Ballantyne says. “With Tequila, agave is aged in the ground for long periods of time and then aged in barrels for short periods of time. And with whisky, that rule is reversed, so it’s shorter grown, longer aged. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring our national spirits together somehow?’.”

Storywood Tequila

Say hello to Storywood Tequila founder Michael Ballantyne!

He bought some bottles from La Cofradia and upon returning to Scotland, shared them with his friends – serving the liquid in some fancy shot glasses he’d procured on his visit. “Everybody was asking me where the salt and lime was,” Ballantyne says, “I was trying to convince them that that wasn’t how you were to drink it. You have to drink it like a malt. It wasn’t until my wife said, ‘you know, if you’re telling people to drink it like a malt, you should put it in a whisky glass’. I did this and gave it to a friend of mine. He said, ‘Wow, that’s a really good whisky. What is that?’.”

This was Ballantyne’s lightbulb moment. “I thought, ‘if I can change somebody’s perception of Tequila by changing the glass, what can I do if I put it in a single malt whisky barrel?’.” This interaction occurred in April 2015, and by September, Ballantyne had handed in his notice to go “all in” on the project. “In October, I found out we were having our first baby,” he laughs. “All this crazy stuff was happening. That’s why our tagline is ‘live free, sip slow’. You have to enjoy what you do, that’s the living free aspect of the brand. And ‘sip slow’ is to communicate that Tequila should be treated with respect, just like any premium spirit.” 

The next step was sourcing spent casks from Speyside distilleries, which was easier said than done. “A lot of them were reluctant to work with me because it was such a different idea,” Ballantyne says. “I think they worry that when they give barrels out to people, they might use the distillery names, so it can be very closed off and confidential.” He started working with Speyside Cooperage in Dufftown, which supplies all the barrels for Storywood Tequila. “I go there and hand-select all the casks that we want to use,” Ballantyne says. “We try to make sure we get the freshest casks that have just been emptied. We’re looking for ones that are a little bit sweeter because the Tequila is made from lowland agave, which is quite earthy.”

Storywood Tequila

The 100% Blue Weber agave Storywood Tequila is made from

The entire Storywood Range is made from 100% Blue Weber agave harvested from the lowland region of Jalisco. The piñas are roasted in traditional brick ovens for 72 hours before being crushed using a corkscrew mill. The juice is fermented using the distillery’s wild yeast strains and then double distilled using copper pot stills. The water used in distillation is sourced from a stream that runs through the distillery, which comes from Volcán de Tequila. The new make goes into the barrel at 55% ABV, which is the maximum strength permitted by Tequila production regulations, says Ballantyne. “By barreling right at the top end of the alcohol percentage, you draw out a lot of flavour from the barrel,” he says.

The liquid is aged for between seven and 14 months, depending on the expression – there are three bottlings in the core range, scroll down for details – and the entire process takes place in Mexico. “We buy the barrels here in Scotland and then we ship them in containers to Mexico,” Ballantyne says. “Everything’s aged and bottled in Mexico.” So… how does spending time in a Scotch whisky cask shape the taste of the Tequila? “As soon as you put the Tequila in those barrels, it really changes the earthiness of the agave,” he says. “It becomes very sweet initially, and starts moving into oakier flavours the longer you leave it.”

Take Speyside 7, Storywood’s first expression. “It has a real sweetness to it, with honey caramel notes,” says Ballantyne. “As soon as you take that liquid and age it twice as long, you get a really different style of liquid. It starts to develop toffee toasted oak-style flavours. Just a little bit more time can totally change the liquid. That’s what I’ve been experimenting with since the beginning – ageing the liquid in different barrels for different lengths of time. Roasting agave longer, roasting it shorter. That’s why it’s taken about five years to get a really diverse style of liquids.”

Storywood Tequila

Every barrel has a story to tell

Compiling the range – which has expanded to include two limited edition oloroso sherry cask-aged Tequilas – hasn’t been easy, but that’s part of the fun, says Ballantyne. “I like the challenge of having to wait and experiment,” he says. “The biggest thing has been having the right people around me. When you go through this journey, you meet so many people, from the guys at the cooperage who put the barrels together, to the people at the distillery who make the Tequila. With Jeremy Hill, the former owner of Hi-Spirits, and James Patterson, who was also working for Hi-Spirits, we’re starting to really build a great team. Especially with Proof Drinks, they’ve got some fantastic brands. We’re lucky to be in such a good portfolio.” 

That Storywood’s journey is ultimately a team effort is reflected in the name, says Ballantyne. “Every barrel has a story to tell, and it has this crazy journey before they even get to us,” he says. “The barrels are American oak, so they’re crafted in America and filled with bourbon. Then those barrels are sent to Scotland, where they’re used for whisky. By the time we get them, they’re second fill barrels – then we fly them to tequila. It’s almost like you’re getting a slice of three different spirits in one bottle: bourbon, single malt and Tequila.”

The Storywood Tequila Range

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside 7 Reposado

Aged for seven months in Scottish Speyside whisky casks. Tasting notes include caramel, oak, vanilla and honey on an earthy agave base. Delicious served neat or mixed with ginger beer or coca-cola in a highball glass with ice and lime wedge.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside 14 Añejo

Aged for over 14 months in Speyside whisky casks. Tasting notes include toasting oak, roasted nuts and treacle toffee. Can be served neat, on ice or in an Old Fashioned Cocktail.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Speyside Cask Strength 7 Reposado

Aged for seven months in Speyside whisky casks with hints of oak, vanilla and honey. Perfect neat, on ice or in a Tequila Sour.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Sherry Cask Strength 7 Reposado

A limited-edition expression aged for seven months in oloroso sherry casks, it’s bold and full-flavoured with sweet cherry and jammy dark fruits. Can be enjoyed neat, on ice or in an Old Fashioned.

 Storywood Tequila

Storywood Tequila Double Oak Cask Strength 14 Añejo

Another limited edition expression aged for 14 months in oloroso sherry casks and single malt Scotch whisky barrels. Tasting notes include honey and caramel with cherry and dark fruit notes.

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New Arrival of the Week: Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (COIWC)

Today we’re welcoming a series of exciting bottlings at MoM from that mecca for whisky lovers, the Jewel of the Hebrides itself, Islay, including releases from Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Octomore…

Today we’re welcoming a series of exciting bottlings at MoM from that mecca for whisky lovers, the Jewel of the Hebrides itself, Islay, including releases from Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Octomore and, rarest of all, Port Ellen. The collection is called The Stories of Wind and Wave and it’s brought to you from the aptly-named Character of Islay Whisky Company.

It can be quite an adventure getting to Islay. Many times Master of Malt team members have tried to reach the island only to be thwarted by adverse weather conditions. And should you be lucky enough to have your flight from Glasgow cleared for take off, the wind-blown descent into the island’s airport on the tiny propeller plane can be terrifying for the uninitiated. Or there’s the joy of a two hour crossing on a CalMac ferry through rough seas. The fun doesn’t stop when you arrive down either, on a visit last year to visit Islay’s newest distillery, Ardnahoe, the air was thick with the scent of burnt heather. A combination of high winds, dry weather, and, probably, a stray cigarette end had set much of the south of the island on fire. The air smelt just like Islay whisky. 

For whisky lovers, this very inaccessibility is part of the magic of the island. You have to really want to visit. And the lure is, of course, the extraordinary concentration of distilleries all with their own unique character and the way the whiskies taste of their location, salt, peat smoke and seaweed. There are other peated whiskies from Scotland, but it’s the ones from Islay that get all the attention. 

Laphroaig John Campbell

Laphroaig on a rare sunny day

Those names, Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Laproaig, are music to whisky enthusiasts. And aiming to bottle some of that music, if such a thing were even possible, is a batch of rare malts that has just landed at MoM towers. It’s from our friends at the Character of Islay Whisky Company which previously released whiskies from anonymous distilleries on the island, but for this batch has revealed where they came from. Which is nice of them. The series is called the Stories of Wind and the Wave and includes bottlings from Bowmore, Laproaig and Ardbeg (see below). Plus still to come some Octomore and something tres fancy from Port Ellen.

The one we’re highlighting today is from Laphroaig, the most medicinal of all the Islay whiskies. It gets its distinctive character from only using Islay peat. The distillery has a traditional floor maltings and makes about 25% of its requirements using local Machrie moss peat which cold smokes the barley. The rest of the malt comes from the nearby Port Ellen maltings. Islay peat is largely made from seaweed which is where that love-it-or-hate-it salty iodine flavour comes from. The reason it tastes of the sea is because it comes from the sea, albeit a long time ago. This smokiness is accentuated by taking a late cut, so you get more of that peat smoke. 

The classic expression for lovers of medicinal malts is the 10 year old. But the longer you keep Laphroaig, the less smoky it becomes and the more tropical fruits start to appear. Release No.11693 was distilled in 2004 and aged for 15 years in a refill bourbon cask so you’re not getting that much wood influence. It’s bottled at 50.2% ABV. All that smoky character is still there but it’s been joined by stone fruit and quince (see below for full tastings notes). It’s a great dram to launch a series of rare and unusual whiskies that Islay fans will not want to miss. They’re the next best thing to a visit to the island itself.

Here is the full range of Stories of Wind and Wave whiskies currently available from Master of Malt:

Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11694)

Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11693)

Bowmore 18 Year Old 2001 (Release No.11715)

Bowmore 18 Year Old 2001 (Release No.11714) 

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11698) 

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11699)

Bowmore 16 Year Old 2003 (Release No.11697)

Ardbeg 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11673)

Tasting note for the Laphroaig 15 Year Old 2004 (Release No.11693) from The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Waxy peels, peppermint leaf and smoky black tea with a touch of baked earth to it.

Palate: Sweet smoke with savoury hints of salted butter and cedar underneath, plus stone fruit developing later on.

Finish: Polished oak, a touch of ash and continuing fruity elements.


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Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available….

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available. As Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery launches its custom cask programme for 2020, inviting buyers to tailor every aspect of the process – from yeast varieties to distilling cut points – we take stock of the evolution of cask ownership…

Laying claim to your very own cask of whisky is a dream shared by many. But what if you could choose the precise type of malted barley you’d like, and pick out the yeast used for fermentation? What if you could tinker with the distillation process – cut points and flow rates – choose the cask type, oak species, size and previous fill? What if you could tailor the whisky from start to finish, becoming involved in every stage of the production process to create your ultimate personalised dram? 

At Edinburgh-based Holyrood, you can do just that. “We thought, rather than just making hundreds of the same cask, why don’t we ask people what they would like to make?,” says distillery co-founder David Robertson. The process starts with an in-depth consultation and sample tasting, in order to identify exactly which flavours you’re looking for. From there, the team will come up with several recipe suggestions based on your preferences. “You might say, ‘I’d rather have an extra yeast in it,’ or ‘I’d rather pick that wood rather than this wood’, and eventually we’ll land on a recipe,” he says.

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

Got your heart set on rare Japanese oak, barley from a bygone era, or a cask that previously contained beer? Whatever the request, the team will help you make your dream into reality – but they’ll also guide you to make sure it tastes good. “If someone said, ‘I want you to have a cut point from 75% down to 42%, I want you to put it into a Tokay cask, and I want you to mature it for 247 years, we’d be going, ‘Yeah… That’s probably not the best idea’,” Robertson says. “We want to be there to guide, make recommendations and make sure there’s no mistakes.”

Besides offering more choice for whisky fans, there are other benefits to offering such tailored cask choices. Giving whisky fans control over the whisky-making process provides a unique jumping off point for learning and experimentation. “It’s a real two-way collaboration,” Robertson says. “We might have ideas and suggestions, but we won’t be smart enough to come up with all the best ideas and suggestions. The people we meet through this programme give us stimulus, inspire us and push us in different ways that we maybe hadn’t thought of ourselves.”

It also presents an opportunity for distilleries to engage with fans and expand their community. “I love getting a request from a potential customer to source a unique cask,” says Elliot Wynn-Higgins, cask custodian at Lindores Distillery, which has one of the largest and most diverse private cask offerings in Scotland, and allows buyers to choose from metrics such as cask size and flavour profile. The ownership scheme is seen as “an experience, rather than just a sale,” he says. “Each year we host exclusive cask owner’s events at the distillery, and they also get exclusive early bird offers on our whisky releases in the years to come.”

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

It could be argued that an element of personalisation acts as a deterrent to those viewing cask ownership solely as a money-making endeavour – the type of buyer David Thompson, co-founder and director of Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, is keen to avoid. There, the team offers buyers a choice of first fill ex-bourbon and various ex-red wine casks. “The secondary market worries me to an extent,” he says. “If someone said to me, ‘how much money am I going to make?’, I probably wouldn’t go any further with [the sale], because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’d much rather someone bought a cask because they wanted to get involved in our business, our philosophy, the people.”

While distilleries selling private casks is nothing new – “this was quite a big deal in the nineties,” John Fordyce, director and co-founder of the Three Stills Company, informs me – today’s interested buyers have more say than those in previous decades when it comes to the final liquid. At Borders Distillery, Fordyce and his fellow directors have released 1,837 private whisky casks for sale by invitation only, allowing buyers to choose their preferred filling date and cask type across rum, bourbon, rye and Douro wine. “Not every distiller wants to do this, and those that do tend to engage in an quite intimate way,” he says. “One of the great things about the drinks industry is that you’re always in a position of moving with the times. And these waves sweep across us all, and some react and some choose to stay out. And that’s what provides all the variety and choice for the consumer.”

Having only been distilling for a year, the Holyrood team can afford to be more experimental than most. “We’re lucky in that we’re new and we’re small, which means that we can be as flexible as we want to be,” says Robertson. “If you’re a large, established distillery, you probably have a style of spirit that people expect you to produce. We don’t have that kind of heritage or history. We don’t have a core range that we’re known for yet. Now, that might be different in three, four, five years’ time, because we’ll have to start putting out whisky that defines Holyrood Distillery’s style. But at the moment, we are playing at the edges.”

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

As distilleries become more established, and their spirit comes of age, the custom cask market will inevitably change again. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, many current distilleries offering cask ownership will no longer be doing so, or at least be offering a reduced variety,” says Wynn-Higgins. “The reason being because their whisky will have hit the market, and the majority of their spirit will be required to satisfy customer requirements in bottles on shelves rather than entire casks. This makes now an even better time to buy a cask, as opportunities to do so will become ever rarer.”

It’s a delicate trade-off, acknowledges Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery. Each year, the team offers up 60 casks for sale, allowing buyers to choose which type of cask you want and which of their two new make recipes they’d like to fill it with. “The cask sales are important, obviously, for cash flow,” she says. “And also, we end up with an amazing community of cask owners around us, which is a really important part of that whole process for us. On the other hand, we can’t spend the whole year producing private casks, because we have to actually have whisky to put into bottles at the end of it!”

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MoM Loves: The Sexton Single Malt

If it wasn’t already on your radar because of its awesome bottle and delicious liquid within, The Sexton ought to be, seeing as the Irish single malt was created by…

If it wasn’t already on your radar because of its awesome bottle and delicious liquid within, The Sexton ought to be, seeing as the Irish single malt was created by one of the few female master blenders in the Irish whiskey industry, Alex Thomas! We chatted with her to find out more about her wonderful creation.

Paid partnership 

The Irish whiskey industry has had something of a revival in the last decade or so, and with unique, modern expressions like The Sexton gracing our palates, it’s easy to see why! “I had a dream of creating a whiskey that everyone would enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us,” The Sexton creator, master blender and distiller Alex Thomas tells us. 

The Sexton Single Malt

The wonderful Alex Thomas with her creation

Having worked at Bushmills before venturing to craft her own whiskey, there’s no doubt that Thomas is well-versed in what makes a classic Irish whiskey. But while tradition and history is important to her, there’s no way she’s stuck in the past. “I wanted it to be approachable for those who thought whiskey was not for them, and memorable enough for the whiskey connoisseur to enjoy the experience.” Sounds like an all-rounder to us! “As the Irish Whiskey category continues to rise, I wanted to introduce a liquid that could represent the changing face of Ireland – capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future.” What we have here is a modern whiskey that’s not afraid to be mixed, while still paying homage to its heritage. 

The whiskey

The Sexton is distilled entirely from Irish malted barley, triple distilled in copper pot stills  before it’s matured in some very special casks. European oak from France is dried for a minimum of 16 months before it’s crafted into casks and toasted. They’re not filled yet, but seasoned with Oloroso sherry from Jerez over in Spain.

The Sexton Single Malt

Sherried Irish single malt, what more could we want?

Why sherry? “My grandmother inspired my love for sherry. I was always interested in why sherry was her secret ingredient in her fruit cakes,” says Thomas. “Ageing the liquid in these wine-soaked barrels results in the perfect balance of dried fruits and subtle oak notes, which helps achieve a depth of flavour.” We’d have to agree, with balanced but complex notes of oak spice, marmalade and dried fruit alongside dark chocolate and honey leaping from the glass. 

The bottle!

There is more to this wonderful bottle than just aesthetics, that’s for sure. The shape is inspired by the mesmerising Giant’s Causeway, found over on the North Coast of Ireland, which we’d have to say is rather original.  

The Sexton Single Malt

Giant’s Causeway, or lots of bottles of The Sexton?

The name, Sexton, is derived from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus, meaning custodian of sacred objects, used to describe the man who prepared the grave. “The Sexton challenges you that before you meet the man that will lay your body to rest, to make choices every day that will add up to a life story worth telling.” Well, that explains the skull and top hat on the front of the bottle. We guess you could call Thomas a custodian in her own way, a guardian of her own brilliant Irish whiskey. Too far? Never…

The Sexton Single Malt

It’s all in the detail

We had to ask Thomas what’s next for The Sexton, and as is usually the case with these kinds of questions, her answer was as exciting and cryptic as we hoped! “As a master blender and distiller I am always experimenting, and dream of expanding The Sexton family in time,” she tells us. “But watch this space.” Consider our eyes peeled.

How do I drink it?

Thomas is far from a purist here, and while she herself enjoys it neat she encourages drinkers to try it in a whole range of cocktails. We’ve got a couple of serves here for you, recommended by the master blender herself!

When you treat yourself to a bottle of The Sexton on MoM right now, we’ll (carefully) throw in a branded Sexton Highball glass too! We love it when our bottles match our glassware, so you can sip on Sexton cocktails in style.

Love It To Death

50ml The Sexton

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Top with soda water

Serve over ice and garnish with a lemon peel.

The Sexton Single Malt

It’s all sherry and whiskey in the Laid to Rest cocktail!

Laid To Rest

25ml The Sexton

10ml Pedro Ximénez sherry

20ml Manzanilla sherry

20ml spiced claret syrup

Serve over crushed ice and garnish with mint leaves and dried spices.

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The Nightcap: 4 September

There’s a whole smorgasbord of big Scotch whisky news in this week’s Nightcap, as well as reports on new celebrity booze and Whisky Tea. Yes, really! Intrigued? Then read on……

There’s a whole smorgasbord of big Scotch whisky news in this week’s Nightcap, as well as reports on new celebrity booze and Whisky Tea. Yes, really! Intrigued? Then read on…

We hope you all enjoyed your Bank Holiday weekend. Whether you set off on an adventure, popped down to your local or enjoyed some well-earned R&R indoors, we’re sure you made the most of the opportunity to take a breath and enjoy a break. Fortunately for us, the world of booze never seems to stop churning out new products, projects and passions for us all to get all geeky and gleeful about so The Nightcap this week isn’t any lighter even with a day off. Take a look and see for yourself.

The MoM blog this week was also as busy as ever, and almost turned green thanks to the number of stories we had on Irish whiskey. First Ian Buxton examined its growing pains, then Annie learned why the progress of Sliabh Liag Distillers is proving cause for excitement. Certified organic distilleries also caught Annie’s eye, as Henry gave us a lesson in fortified wines casks to mark the arrival of The Epicurean Rivesaltes Finish. Elsewhere, Adam enjoyed a gin-based delight and one of the finest prohibition-era cocktails in The Southside, before wishing That Boutique-y Whisky Company a happy birthday by announcing another terrific new MoM sale.

Arguably the biggest news of all, however, was our announcement of the launch of Pour & Sip, our all-new, kick-ass whisky subscription service. Check out the blog post for more details. We’re also issuing one last call for you to tune in to our virtual whisky extravaganza Scotch & Sofa, which is taking place tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget, Drinks by the Dram’s incredible booze-filled Advent Calendars are available to pre-order now!

Right, on with the news!

The Nightcap

CEO Jean-Christophe Coutures’ didn’t mince his words for the Scottish government.

Chivas Bros. criticises Scottish government over COVID response

It was a difficult results time for Chivas Brothers, which we’ll get on to in a moment, but the most interesting thing from this week’s press conference was CEO Jean-Christophe Coutures’ strong words for the Scottish government. He talked about a “bumpy period in March/April when we were not so clear about the direction the Scottish government wanted us to take. We know that we were not seen as an essential business to the economy even though Scotch whisky is the second-largest export for Scotland.” Happily (for everyone, not least Master of Malt customers), Chivas Brothers managed to keep the whisky flowing. Coutures praised the workforce and the unions for their helpful attitudes, and now the company is “almost back to full operations”. He added: “I still believe that the Scottish government needs to back us up and they need to understand that keeping this category operating is absolutely critical not only to the Scottish government but as well to the people of Scotland.” Meanwhile, on to those results: total organic sales were down 11%, in large part due to the lack of travel retail, with Ballantine’s shrinking by 8% and Chivas declining 17%. But there are grounds for optimism, with The Glenlivet cementing its position as number one single malt in the US, up 16%, Royal Salute expanding in Taiwan and South Korea, and Chivas growing in 34 markets including Turkey, Russia and Germany. Overall, there was confidence that Pernod Ricard had weathered the COVID storm as well as could be expected. Coutures added: “Our business and brands have responded with agility and resilience in the face of unprecedented market conditions, in many instances outperforming the category. We remain confident in the strength of our portfolio and the Scotch category as a whole, especially in its ability to withstand and overcome external challenges.” Now, if only the Scottish government could be a little more helpful… 

Long-time master distiller Jeff Arnett is to step down from his role at Jack Daniel’s

Jack Daniel’s master distiller to step down

Big news from Tennessee this week. Jeff Arnett, the man at the production helm of Jack Daniel’s for a whopping 12 years, announced he was leaving his role. This is significant stuff for Jack Daniel’s, the world’s biggest selling American whiskey. Arnett oversaw milling, fermentation, distillation, charcoal filtration and maturation, so these are some pretty sizeable shoes to fill. Parent company Brown-Forman hasn’t said why he’s leaving, or given word of his replacement. But Jack Daniel’s senior vice president, Larry Combs, did say: “Jeff has worked tirelessly on behalf of the distillery and brought with him the creativity and the expertise that makes Jack Daniel’s the most valuable whiskey brand in the world.” Arnett said his time with the brand had been “an incredible chapter”, but didn’t say what he’d be up to next. We’re thoroughly intrigued by the proceedings, and wish Arnett all the best!

The Nightcap

Is there anything he can’t do?

Snoop Dogg announces his latest creation: INDOGGO Gin

Not content with being a hip-hop legend and all-round entertainment icon, Snoop Dogg has once again turned his attention to conquering the booze industry. The creator of the classic hip-hop anthem ‘Gin and Juice’ has founded his own gin brand: INDOGGO Gin. Following a partnership with Treasury Wine Estates to release a California red blend under the 19 Crimes brand called Snoop Cali Red earlier in the year, Snoop Dogg teamed up with his friend and spirits veteran, Keenan Towns of Trusted Spirits and spirits importer Prestige Beverage Group this time to release INDOGGO Gin. The expression, which is housed in a purple bottle features a white logo with upturned ‘G’s in a hat tip to the fruit-infused gin being a remix on the classic juniper-dominant style, was distilled five times and features seven botanicals, including orange, coriander and cassia and is infused with “all-natural strawberry flavour” with no added sugar. “I can’t wait for the world to taste my remix on gin! When I wrote Gin & Juice back in ’94 it was about good feelings and real experiences, it just naturally became an anthem,” Snoop Dogg said. “When creating Indoggo, I wanted to give those feelings new life with an approachable juicy gin that’s smooth like the D.O. Double G.” INDOGGO Gin will first launch in Snoop’s home state of California in late September before it’s released throughout the rest of US through 2021, so if you can’t get your hands on it you can at least pour yourself something delicious and sing those seminal words: “Rollin down the street, smokin’ indo, sippin’ on gin and juice/ Laid back (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind.”

The Nightcap

It’s rare to see Ardbeg of this age so it’s particularly exciting news!

The second batch of Ardbeg Traigh Bhan is (nearly) here!

The second batch of Ardbeg Traigh Bhan is here! Or nearly here, it will be arriving at MoM towers soon. We liked the first release so much that we travelled up to Edinburgh with a film crew to listen to Brendan McCarron wax lyrical about it, video link here. The series is named after the beaches of Traigh Bhan (pronounced tri-van) on Islay which are known locally as ‘the singing sands’ because the noise the tide makes on the sand. This latest batch was matured in American oak and oloroso sherry casks for 19 years and bottled at 46.2% ABV with an RRP of £199. There’s a higher proportion of first-fill bourbon casks in the blend alongside refills and sherry casks. Dr Bill Lumsden commented: “To me, this whisky is the epitome of an aged Ardbeg. It somehow manages to balance the complex with the classic. It’s a truly unique bottling and we hope Ardbeggians everywhere look forward to comparing notes with the previous batch. I know I did!” Not only is the whisky special but the packaging is innovative too: each Traigh Bhan whisky carries its own unique batch code, batch symbol and signature from one of the Ardbeg team; this year it’s Jackie Thomson, the visitor centre manager. She said: “the small quirks and originalities on the bottle itself make it highly collectable – something we know our Ardbeg fans love.” They certainly do. Watch the New Arrivals page of the MoM website. It should be with us soon. 

The Nightcap

We can’t wait for this book to come out in October

Johnnie Walker book is coming

Have you ever wanted to know more about the man behind the world’s best-selling whisky, Mr John Walker? No? Well, we do. And now our curiosity is about to be sated with the imminent arrival of a new book called Johnnie Walker: A Long Stride. Its author, historian and Diageo’s grandly-titled head of whisky outreach Dr Nick Morgan, has been labouring in the company’s extensive archives for a good few years, and we can’t wait to find out what he has uncovered. It’s not just the story of the man, but also the brand up to the present day. According to the press release: “By doing things their own way, Johnnie Walker overturned the conventions of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, survived two world wars and flourished despite the Great Depression to become the first truly global whisky brand, revolutionising the world of advertising along the way.” And you thought they just made delicious whisky. We’re hoping to host Dr Nick on the blog sometime soon to tell us more. 

The Nightcap

We’re very jealous of whoever gets their hands on this 47-year-old single cask whisky

Gordon & MacPhail launches 47-year-old whisky to mark 125th anniversary

Gordon & MacPhail has announced that it will launch four rare bottlings of single malt Scotch whisky to commemorate the company’s 125-year history. The independent bottler and distiller has been doing its thing since 1895, releasing all kinds of delicious single malts from over 100 celebrated, little-known, or closed distilleries. Each exceptionally rare whisky will come from casks from a closed distillery or made on Lomond stills that are no longer in production and will be released periodically during the rest of 2020. The first of which is the Gordon & MacPhail 1972 from Coleburn Distillery in Speyside, which is particularly fitting given the distillery is situated just four miles from the company’s Elgin home. The 47-Year-Old single cask whisky is said to be sweet, intense and complex with notes of butterscotch, apricot, cooked apples and mint, a profile it attained after spending its entire maturation in a refill sherry puncheon (cask 3511) before it was bottled at cask strength, 62.4% ABV. “The whiskies we have chosen to commemorate our 125th Anniversary are all truly unique and seldom seen in the market,” says Stephen Rankin, a fourth-generation member of Gordon & MacPhail’s owning family and the company’s director of prestige. “They are bottled from the last remaining casks we have from these distilleries, and marks an emotional moment for my family as they leave the Gordon & MacPhail warehouse after being left to mature by my grandfather many decades ago.”

The Nightcap

We’re delighted to see one of London’s finest bars return

Tayēr + Elementary opens its doors

Award-winning cocktail bar Tayēr + Elementary re-opened its doors following its closure during the lockdown period. Alex Kratena and Monica Berg will stagger the return in two phases, Tayēr will return in October and the venue’s front bar concept Elementary opening from at the beginning of this month from 3pm until midnight Tuesday and Wednesday, and 3pm-1am Thursday – Saturday. Its new outside terrace to help enable social distancing will make its debut and food from new chef partners Kitchen FM will be available, including the pig’s head croquette (mmmmm, pig’s head), served with kimchi and oyster mayo, deep fry chicken, with a smoked and spicy maple glaze and pickles and desserts such as the plum jam with ginger ice cream. Elementary’s drinks offering will feature the bar’s signature classics such as the One Sip Martini, Whey Sour and ēe Frozen Coffee alongside new highballs, beers, wines and seasonal cocktails. The Bottle Shop will be available for takeaway, serving all of the bar’s own ready-to-drink cocktails, which were launched by the team during lockdown, such as the Bergamot Margarita and Palo Santo Gimlet, as well as a selection of beers and wines to takeaway. 

The Nightcap

Congratulations Pierrick!

Lagavulin gets a new distillery manager

Big transfer news on Islay: Pierrick Guillaume is moving from Caol Ila to take up the role of distillery manager at Lagavulin. Frenchman Guillaume has been with Diageo for eight years with stints at Mortlach and Talisker before the move to Islay and Caol Ila in 2017. Having met and tasted with Guillaume we can vouch that not only is he a lovely chap but extremely knowledgeable. He commented: “It is a great honour to be asked to take on the role of Lagavulin distillery manager. Lagavulin is a whisky that is revered around the world and it’s a great privilege to be joining the outstanding team that makes this exceptional Scotch whisky and I can’t wait to get started.” Meanwhile, there are some big boots to fill at Caol Ila and stepping up is Samuel Hale who is currently the manager of Port Ellen Maltings. If you want to know more, why not tune into our Scotch and Sofa whisky festival tomorrow, 5 September? At 2pm both Guillaume and Hale will be taking a boat trip to Islay alongside Colin Dunn from Diageo and Henry Jeffreys from Master of Malt. 

The Nightcap

The Delevigne sisters are the latest celebs to embrace the world of booze

Celebrity booze continues with Pimm’s competition and Delevigne Prosecco

Celebrities and booze go together like caviar (the celebrity of the seafood world) and Champagne (the celebrity of the wine world). As such, we’ve got double trouble on the celebrity booze front for you this week. First up, we have the Delevigne sisters who have launched their own Prosecco! The sisters, Chloe, Poppy and Cara, called their creation Della Vite, which, although it sounds a lot like their last name, actually translates as ‘of the vine’. Having partnered with the Biasiotto family, two expressions are being launched this month, Della Vite Prosecco Superiore (DOCG) and Della Vite Prosecco Treviso (DOC). “Placing sustainability first and using agricultural methods that don’t rely heavily on the industry is at the core Della Vite’s values,” said Cara. “We spent four months looking for the perfect winery to align with our vision and are so proud to have created two exceptional Proseccos that are both sustainably produced and 100% certified vegan.” There’s no label, with the bottle sporting the brand signature created by Poppy Delevingne. Well, that’s one way of getting her autograph. From Prosecco to Pimm’s, the latter has launched a competition to try and make up for the strange summer Britain has had! Louise Redknapp is spearheading this one, giving the public the chance to win an afternoon with the Pimm’s O’Clock Truck! The winner will get to enjoy it at home for the day with a small gathering of friends and family (complying with COVID regulations, obviously). If you want to enter, snap a photo-sharing Pimm’s with your pals onto Instagram. Make sure you follow @Pimmsgb on Instagram, tag @Pimmsgb and use #TheOriginalTasteOfSummer. You have until 7 September to get your photos up, so get the pitcher out quick!

The Nightcap

Keep an eye out because this historic whisky is on its way to MoM Towers!

Isle of Raasay inaugural release sells out (yes, we will be getting some in)

If you were hoping to get your hands on a bottle of Isle of Raasay Distillery’s inaugural single malt, set to launch in November 2020, we have bad news. It’s already sold out. Before it’s even been bottled. Okay, let us explain. Out of its expected outturn of 7,500 bottles, the distillery set aside 4,350 bottles for an online pre-sale. Obviously these went like hotcakes, while the rest of the bottles have been snapped up by a selection of international markets, specialist retailers, restaurants and bars. It’s no wonder too, with the lightly peated whisky matured in first-fill American oak and set to be finished in 21 first fill Bordeaux red wine casks. “We are delighted to have sold out of our Isle of Raasay Single Malt Inaugural Release before it’s bottled in November,” said Isle of Raasay co-founder Alasdair Day. “This is the first legal whisky from an island rooted in centuries of illicit distilling, so it really is a piece of Scotch whisky history!” There is still hope for a bottle though! Make sure you keep an eye out on MoM new arrivals because we’ve got your back and will be stocking the historic whisky. Keep your other eye on its social channels (@RaasayDistillery), because we also heard that the distillery is launching a competition in October with the chance to win one of the prized bottles. 

The Nightcap

We recommend this tea made with whisky. It’s much nicer than it sounds.

And finally… WHISKY… TEA?

When we heard about Whisky Tea, we thought of the great Peter Kay and his cheesecake routine: “WHISKY…. TEA? Are my ears playing tricks on me?” Well, this is no joke, it’s the latest product from Edinburgh-based Pekotea. We were sent some samples and suitably impressed. These are quality teas, not a gimmick. One of the brains behind it, Jon Cooper, filled us in: “There are some close analogies between whisky and tea and we wanted to create something that would reflect this in tea blends. Just like the different regions of tea giving different flavours and aromas, we thought it would be great to make teas that reflected the main Scotch whisky regions. Each of the teas contains a different blend of base tea with added fruit and spices as well as the whisky and a little flavour oil to highlight the nose of each of the whiskies. We wanted to bring out the main aromas associated with each area.” For example, the Campbeltown expression is made from a blend of black tea with cacao nibs, currants and cornflower steeped in high strength whisky with essential oil and then dried. It tastes rich and fruity, the perfect after-dinner tea instead of coffee, or indeed a dram. 

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Introducing Pour & Sip: a new subscription club for whisky lovers

Hey, look! There’s a new monthly whisky subscription service in town. And it’s powered by us! It’s called Pour & Sip, and we’d love to tell you all about it….

Hey, look! There’s a new monthly whisky subscription service in town. And it’s powered by us! It’s called Pour & Sip, and we’d love to tell you all about it.

Do you ever wake up and decide you’re going to do things differently? Like convincing yourself that you’re going to start running 5 miles every morning (I’d take making it to the kitchen without pulling a muscle at this rate) or that you’re going to stop staying up until 2am every night arguing with strangers online that Girls Aloud’s Biology is a masterpiece of pop music composition (it is, and I regret nothing).

Well, here at MoM Towers we decided to change things up and have actually gone through with our big idea. Which is how we’ve arrived at Pour & Sip. It’s a new monthly whisky subscription service we created to change the way whisky lovers engage with and share the spirit while still providing the newest, most exciting and much-loved expressions around.

Pour & Sip was built to be a flexible platform for drinks discovery, tailored to customers and with community, accessibility and inclusion at its core. The founding team recognises that whisky can be intimidating, and has worked to develop a club that is welcoming for all (apart from those under the legal drinking age, obviously). Whisky is for anyone who enjoys flavour experiences, regardless of gender, ethnicity, background, or anything else. It’s basically one big happy family that welcomes connoisseurs to novices alike, all enjoy tasting and talking about the water of life. Sounds neat, right? 

Pour & Sip

Welcome to Pour & Sip. It’s as badass as it looks

Here’s how it works. Each month, customers who subscribe will receive five different 30ml measures of very tasty whisky. How do we know it’s so delicious? Because the selection has been curated by our passionate expert buyers and writers who boast years of experience in the whisky industry. Yay for us! Members are encouraged to join twice-monthly online tastings which provide an opportunity to explore each taster in detail, ask questions, and generally immerse themselves in all things whisky. 

They can also enjoy bespoke blog content, and will even receive access to exclusive discounts on full-price bottles at Master of Malt. Pour & Sip boxes ship monthly, with members at complete control of their subscription. Deliveries can be paused and resumed at any time at no cost, and set two- and three-month gift options are also available. Oh, and new customers receive a welcome pack containing a pair of tasting glasses, a ‘how to taste whisky’ card, detailed tasting notes, plus the first five 30ml whisky samples. 

“I am absolutely thrilled to announce the launch of Pour & Sip. We’re so excited to share our new whisky finds and passion with everyone, making this an experience less intimidating,” Giovana Petry, Pour & Sip lead, said of the launch. “Every monthly box is distinct, different, and filled to the brim with flavour. All our members have to do is sit back, Pour & Sip!”

Pour & Sip

Sit back, relax and let us do the hard work for you. All you need to do is pour and sip!

Pour & Sip is now open to new members, with the first welcome packs shipping in September. So, check it out: https://pourandsip.com/

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Exciting times for Sliabh Liag Irish whiskey

It’s been a momentous few months for Ireland’s Sliabh Liag Distillers. Husband and wife team James and Moira Doherty filled their first cask, bringing legal whiskey distilling back to Donegal…

It’s been a momentous few months for Ireland’s Sliabh Liag Distillers. Husband and wife team James and Moira Doherty filled their first cask, bringing legal whiskey distilling back to Donegal for the first time in almost 200 years. Weeks later, having turned the turf at their future distillery in the historic town of Ardara, they launched a €1.5m crowdfunding campaign to fuel the next phase of their expansion. MoM took five with James to find out more…

When the time comes for distillery founders to fill their very first cask, we can only imagine how magical and poignant that moment must be. And when said cask will incubate the first legal whiskey distilled in the region for almost two centuries – the same region your poitín-producing ancestors distilled in – well, it must be a feeling like no other. “There’s a lovely sense of coming full circle,” said co-founder James Doherty, whose grandfather “was creating a smoky, double-distilled spirit under the authorities’ radar” long after the last legal producer, Burt Distillery, ceased production in 1841. “I think my grandfather would approve,” he added.

Looking happy in their distillery, it’s James and Moira Doherty!

Made from Irish Craft Malts barley grown in Meath, malted over peat from Mín na bhFachraín, double-distilled and filled into a first fill bourbon oak cask, the smoky profile of the new make is said to be true to what was being distilled in Ulster 200 years ago. Flavour-wise, James described the liquid as “soft and smoky sweet, with a fresh pear note and a hint of treacle”. And later: ‘exceptionally soft and is fresh, citrusy and has rich chocolate notes to complement the pronounced smoke’.

The new distillate is in rather good company. Sliabh Liag Distillers (pronounced ‘sleeve league’, named after a mountain on the Atlantic coast) currently produces Silkie and Dark Silkie blended Irish whiskeys, which James says “paints a picture of what will come from the distillery in the future,” and is also home to An Dúlamán gin and Assaranca Vodka, made on a copper pot still called Méabh at its current Carrick facility. Heavily-peated single malt and pot still Irish whiskeys will follow at the new site, but right now, space and equipment are limited. 

“The still we have at the moment is a 500-litre copper pot made by Forsyths in Scotland,” James told us. “It’s a very traditional still with quite a long neck on it, which creates a really soft gin. And we knew it would create a really soft whisky. But it’s a very conventional gin set up.” At the moment, around one week of each month is dedicated to distilling new make for whiskey. This small-batch approach to production represents a valuable research opportunity for the Doherty’s as they fine tune the recipe ahead of the move to Ardara.

Artist’s impression of the new distillery at Ardara. We particularly like the rock feature.

“It’s more of a learning and development exercise than full commercial production,” says James. “When we go to Ardara, we’re using an all-grains-in process, which will be fundamentally different. So, instead of using a mash tun, separating the grains out, taking the wash through and fermenting on, we’re actually leaving the grains in the process through the fermenter and into the wash still. It’s prevalent in America, I think there’s one distillery in Scotland doing it, and there’s certainly no one in Ireland doing it.” The new-make will also be triple-distilled, rather than double-distilled. And there’s production scale to account for – “instead of making batches of 500 litres at a time, we’ll be making 10,000 litres at a time,” he adds.

When it comes to the core character of their whiskey, the team at Sliabh Liag have a very specific flavour profile in mind. “I’d say it’s almost a triple-distilled peated Macallan, if you could imagine that,” says James. “Lots of congeners in there, but probably still at the lighter end of the flavour profile – not going into those oilier tastes that you get with the later cuts that say, Lagavulin would use. This is my view of where smoky whiskies from Ireland should be – a more general overlay to the core flavours that come from the barley. The smell of my grandfather’s pipe, if that makes sense, overlaid onto a triple-distilled absolutely-Irish-to-the-core single malt and pot still.”

Progress is being made on the new site. Of the 10 acres that will house Ardara Distillery, four have required lengthy flood mitigation works, which are now complete. Next, contractors will begin working on the road that leads to the main entrance of the distillery. “The stills and the distilling equipment is arriving at the end of February, so we will have to have the sheds ready for then,” says James. “Late spring, early summer is when we’ll be in production, and it’ll be mid-summer by the time we really get things ramped up and we’ve learnt all of our lessons.”

They bloody love their whiskey.

For Sliabh Liag, the next focus is fundraising, with the launch of a €1.5m crowdfunding campaign. Previously, a direct investment in the distillery was €25,000, whereas now, you can own a share for £75 pounds, says James. “Lots of people have said to us, ‘we’d love to come with you on the journey’, and it’s been really difficult to try and work out a mechanic to open the shareholding up to a wider group,” he says. “Crowdcube seems to be a really effective way of doing that.”

There are a range of rewards on offer – having your name etched on a copper still, receiving a bespoke Donegal ‘Silkie’ fishing fly, bagging a bottle of exclusive Rioja-finished Silkie. “My uncle is a weaver of many years, and he’s designed tweed especially for the distillery so we’re making scarves out of that and they’re beautiful,” he continues. “It’s great that fans and supporters can take part and there’s some cool rewards. But also, it’s an equity investment in a business that’s growing pretty rapidly – a 75% [increase] in case sales year on year despite Covid.” 

When James and Moira moved to Donegal in 2014, their dream was to reignite the county’s distilling heritage. Today, they hope to make the Sliabh Liag peninsula to Irish whiskey what Islay is to Scotch. “When we talk about reclaiming the distilling heritage of this county, we want to make something that’s true to Donegal and then Ireland, not Ireland and then Donegal,” James explains. “And if that makes us the Islay of Ireland, that would be job done.” 

The Sliabh Liag range is available from Master of Malt.

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The growing pains of Irish whiskey

It’s an Irish whiskey double-bill today. This morning we had exciting news of developments at Sliabh Liag, and now this afternoon Ian Buxton looks at problems and disagreements behind the…

It’s an Irish whiskey double-bill today. This morning we had exciting news of developments at Sliabh Liag, and now this afternoon Ian Buxton looks at problems and disagreements behind the much-heralded Irish whiskey renaissance.

According to James Joyce “the light music of whiskey falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude”. Ironically, though, that was written in 1914 when Irish whiskey was in near-terminal decline; a hiatus rather than an acquiescent break. Two years earlier, in 1912, a group of Scotch whisky distillers had founded the Wine & Spirit Brand Association, the body which thirty years later evolved into the Scotch Whisky Association. Their goal was to create a united industry voice, just one step in Scotch’s march to global domination. In fact, things were to get a great deal worse for the beleaguered Irish industry. By 1930, William Ross of the DCL was able to observe that “Ireland is an irrelevance.” Cruel, perhaps, but at the time entirely accurate.

It took a long time but, eventually, things did get better. Much better, as it happens as up until coronavirus’s rude interruption, Irish whiskey was enjoying its biggest boom since the mid-1800s with new distilleries being opened at a furious rate, existing distilleries expanded and a bewildering range of new brands being launched.

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

Irish whiskey has welcomed a hoard of new brands, distilleries and whiskies in the last few years

Not that everything went smoothly. In particular, many of these new brands seemed to be little more than marketing labels – whiskey from one of Ireland’s major producers repackaged by third-party bottlers. Some went further leading to the misleading impression, according to their critics, that such bottles were produced by one of the new wave of boutique distilleries. As the ever-outspoken Mark Reynier, now distilling in Waterford summed it up earlier this year in a fascinating interview for The Irish Times. “Most of the whiskey business in Ireland is independent bottling. Almost all Irish whiskey comes from three distilleries, so while there may be over 100 labels on display at Dublin airport, most of it comes from the same few sources. It is a charade and it risks doing untold damage to Irish whiskey.”

So you would think that an Irish equivalent to the Scotch Whisky Association is just what the industry needs. And indeed there is such a body. Founded in 2014 as the Irish Whiskey Association (now Drinks Ireland and covering all Irish alcohol) it boldly identifies the number one objective of its ‘work plan’ as: “To protect the integrity and high standards of the Irish Whiskey category by securing and enforcing the strongest possible legal protection for the Irish Whiskey category name and Geographic Indication.”

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

Reynier says the proliferation of whiskey repackaged by third-party bottlers could do lasting damage  

That would seem to be a wholly laudable objective and Drinks Ireland played a key role in defining Irish whiskey in a Technical File for the EU which became law in 2014. Indeed, according to DI’s William Lavelle, “Since the Technical File was adopted in 2014, Irish whiskey has benefited from increased exports, increased whiskey tourism to Ireland and a rise in the number of new brands in Irish whiskey.”

Quite possibly, but a lot has happened in the last six years, and not everyone seems to agree that the growth noted by Drinks Ireland is a consequence of their work rather than a coincidence. Mark Reynier for one regards them with some concern as under-resourced and “trying their best but pretty disjointed”. His main concern is that, as Irish whiskey grows in world markets, cynical competitors will take the opportunity to point to the proliferation of labels and suggest, through their crocodile tears, that ‘sadly, you can’t trust Irish whiskey’.  

Others, such as the relatively new Blackwater Distillery in Waterford point to what they see as an inherent bias in the regulations that favour the larger producers who were well established when the rules were written.  In a provocative entry on their hard-hitting blog, they are particularly critical of Irish Distillers, the Pernod Ricard subsidiary. 

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

The promise of Irish whiskey is great, but so are the challenges facing the industry

Is this I wonder, any more than the inevitable growing pains that come with such a rapid expansion in the industry and the arrival of so many new producers, all with their own ideas, enthusiasm and desire to innovate? After all, as the Scotch whisky industry knows, new ideas and methods of production can be adopted into the regulations if the demand is there and the industry can show a need.  

Change can come, albeit over time. Irish whiskey has been around for centuries and survived any number of crises, some self-inflicted. As the world emerges from the current disagreeable interlude, as eventually, it will, perhaps this is the moment for all the players, large and small, to seize this opportunity for self-reflection and build the credibility and integrity that their trade association seeks to promote.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Southside

Some people know it as Al Capone’s go-to cocktail, others as gin’s answer to the Mojito or the signature serve of New York’s famed 21 Club. This week we’re making…

Some people know it as Al Capone’s go-to cocktail, others as gin’s answer to the Mojito or the signature serve of New York’s famed 21 Club. This week we’re making the Southside, folks!

There are plenty of prohibition-era cocktails that have enjoyed a resurgence renewed in the last few years. But one classic serve that is still hardly ever seen: I’m talking about The Southside, a delicious combination of gin, simple syrup, freshly squeezed citrus juice and mint leaves. You can think of it as a minty Tom Collins and it has plenty in common with The Mojito, but even in an era where gin is all the rage, The Southside hasn’t received the kind of love its exotic, rummy cousin gets. Which is crazy. It’s incredibly refreshing, looks great and is easy to make. What’s not to love?

Well, back in the day, in all likelihood, the gin. Hence why this cocktail was made in the first place. Like the Bronx and the Bees Knees, the Southside was an elegant solution to the lack of quality gin. So, where exactly did it come from? I’m going to shock you with what I’m about to say next. Its origins are subject to speculation. Where have we heard that one before? Seriously, if we did a documentary on cocktail history it would mostly be Henry looking down the camera and shrugging. I know I aired this gripe a couple of weeks ago but for goodness sake, it’s not like it was the Dark Ages. 

At least Harry Craddock was on the ball (like he was for the Blood and Sand, shout out to you Mr Craddock). His Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) featured a recipe for the Southside in his book which included soda, which suggests the first edition of this drink was actually what we now consider to be a variation, the Southside Fizz. However, there are plenty of other origin stories that challenge this narrative. The most notable of which traces the drink’s history to the Southside of Chicago in the 1920s where bootleggers ruled supreme, using lemon juice and sugar to mask the harsh taste of black-market alcohol. Al Capone was said to be a big fan of the drink (though you’d think he’d have had no problems getting hold of some decent gin.)

The Southside

Legend has it the drink was a favourite of Al Capone’s

Others suggest the cocktail was invented at the Southside Sportsmen’s Club in Long Island, a private members’ club for the hunting, fishing and drinking set frequented by such notables as Ulysses S. Grant. The Southside is still a common sight at similar establishments today. Probably the most commonly shared history of the cocktail, however, involves New York’s 21 Club, which during prohibition was a speakeasy. The bar’s ingenious design meant all of the alcohol and the bar itself could be quickly hidden via an intricate maze of levers and chutes should the police show up (it’s basically like this iconic Simpsons scene). The 21 Club is still running today and continues to serve a mean Southside.

The debates around the Southside don’t just extend to its origins. There’s little consensus regarding which is the correct citrus fruit to use. Depending on which bar you go to, you might get a lemon or a lime-based Southside. The 21 Club traditionally makes their Southside with lemon juice and we’re actually going with the latter in this one, mostly because I had a lemon to hand. Make yours according to your own preference. One thing everyone can agree on is that your mint needs to be fresh and that you’ll want to ensure you muddle the leaves gently so you don’t bruise them. When you’re garnishing, spanking a mint sprig against your hand to release the oils is customary. And terrific fun.

As for your choice of gin, feel free to try some different options and go for the style that suits you. Bathtub Gin works beautifully and keeps the prohibition theme going, while a vibrant, clean and classic London dry expression like 6 O’clock Gin really allows the other elements of the cocktail to shine. Here’s a recipe for a simple syrup. Don’t be afraid to experiment with alternative versions as well. Add soda water and you get the Southside Fizz, a longer cocktail ideal for summer days. If you’re in the mood to celebrate, top up your drink with Prosecco or Champagne and you’ve got yourself a Southside Royale. Here’s the classic recipe to get you started:

The Southside

It’s The Southside!

50 ml 6 O’clock Gin or Bathtub Gin
25 ml fresh lemon juice
15 ml simple syrup
1 handful of fresh mint leaves

In a cocktail shaker, gently muddle mint leaves with simple syrup. Add all other ingredients and then ice and give it a good firm shake until chilled. Double strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a sprig of mint.

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