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Five minutes… with Stephen Davies CEO of Penderyn

As Welsh whisky pioneers Penderyn opens its second distillery in Llandudno, we talk to founder Stephen Davies CEO of Penderyn about inventing a category, last year’s Jim Murray row, and…

As Welsh whisky pioneers Penderyn opens its second distillery in Llandudno, we talk to founder Stephen Davies CEO of Penderyn about inventing a category, last year’s Jim Murray row, and why Wales is the New Zealand of the Northern Hemisphere.

It can sometimes be a frustrating business interviewing people in the drinks industry. Everyone today is so media trained. We’re looking for interesting stories, but brands want you to write the PR line. It’s not just the big boys, often smaller distillers have this corporate attitude too.

Well, there was none of this with Stephen Davies CEO of Penderyn, the pioneers of Welsh whisky. He’s a man who speaks his mind which makes him great company even down-the-line via Zoom.

The occasion was the opening of a £5 million new Penderyn distillery in North Wales, housed in an old Board School in Llandudno, and there’s another on the way in Swansea next year. Combine that with the high profile launch of Aber Falls’ first single malt earlier this year plus Dà Mhìle, Coles, and the Welsh Wind, and you have a thriving the Welsh whisky scene.

Stephen Davies

Stephen Davies next to a pot still at Penderyn’s original distillery in the Brecon Beacons

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus

Things were very different in 2000, when Stephen Davies was looking to start a distillery producing whisky in Wales. There hadn’t been such a thing since nineteenth apart from one rogue operation in the Brecon Beacons that was repackaging Scotch as Welsh whisky before running afoul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Which destroyed the credibility of anyone trying to make Welsh whisky, according to Davies.

People thought the idea of a Welsh whisky was a real nonsense!” Davies said. He continued: “in 2004 and 2005 [when Penderyn was releasing its first whiskies], it was one of the worst ideas you know you could think of!” But through sheer determination or bloody mindedness, Davies managed to get his idea off the ground.

But it wasn’t just Welsh whisky that seemed like a pipe dream. 20 years ago is a lifetime in whisky. This is pre-English whisky, pre-Taiwanese whisky and Australian whisky was just a rumour from Tasmania. And among the major powers, Japanese whisky was still only really appreciated in Japan, there were only three distilleries in Ireland, and high quality aged bourbon and rye could be picked up in America for a song. For many, quality whisky meant Scotch.

Early days

Penderyn was founded in 2000, and straightaway the team was determined to do things a little differently. They use something called a Faraday still which is like a cross between a pot and a column still. It works in batches, like a pot, but comes off at a high ABV, between 88-92%, to produce a light fruity new make. 

One of the investors, Nigel Short, insisted on doing “due diligence on the spirit”, as Davies explained: “the feedback he had had on the Penderyn spirit from a senior figure in the Scotch whisky industry was ‘this is a really fantastic spirit, this is really, really good but the idea of Welsh whisky is a bit rubbish!’”

Jim Swan

Jim Swan was instrumental in setting up the Penderyn style

The Jim Swan legacy

But this perception began to change thanks to Jim Swan who came on board as master blender in 2002. Swan developed the Penderyn style based on this fruity new make combined with bourbon barrels, mostly from Buffalo Trace, and a Madeira cask finish. Plus, Davies said: “He instilled in our people an attention to detail that you actually see in all the Jim Swan distilleries.”

“The other thing he did to build credibility,” Davies Continued, “I travelled the world with Jim between 2005 and 2012. Right up until his death [in 2017] he was a non-exec director of Penderyn so he was with us all the way. Jim would be very happy to put a Penderyn branded shirt on and talk to people about the product.”

Having Swan onboard meant that people began taking Penderyn seriously. Davies has very fond memories of working with Swan: “We would be in Chicago and it would be midnight and I’d say ‘right are we going to bed?’ and he’d say ‘no there’s a jazz club down the road, let’s go and have a few beers’. And then he’d be telling you all stuff about the industry, you’d be learning. So it was a wonderful apprenticeship, you know, not just for me but for, I think a number of people in our team.” It was Swan who recruited the current distilling team of Laura Davies, Aista Jukneviciute, and Bethan Morgans. 

The other Jim

There is another Jim who helped put Penderyn on the map, whose name isn’t as revered as Swan, Jim Murray. Unlike others in the industry, Davies does not try to play down Murray’s connection to the distillery. “Jim wrote very very positively, he’s always done about Penderyn, and those things absolutely helped us to get attention,” he said.

Davies was uncomfortable about how the Penderyn staff were brought into last year’s row when a journalist, Becky Paskin, accused Murray of sexism. “She’s never spoken to me or any of my distilling team but decided to take offence on our behalf,” he said. 

According to Davies, Murray even called up to check that he hadn’t offended any of the all-female distilling team and they assured him that he hadn’t. Davies added: “He’s the only whisky journalist who has come to Penderyn year after year, tasted the product, got to know it, and could speak with authority on it.” 

Penderyn Llandudno

Inside Penderyn Llandudno, the Faraday still is on the right

New whiskies and new distilleries

Since the early days fighting for credibility, the distillery has come a long way. In 2013, on Swan’s advice they installed a couple of pot stills in addition to another Faraday still. This produces small quantities of heavy new make which is used in some bottlings. “We could do with them being a bit fuller bodied,” Davies said. They don’t do this for all whiskies and Davies wanted to keep which ones contain pot still a “trade secret”. But he would tell me that the award-winning (double gold in San Francisco, no less) Penderyn Peated contains about 10-15% pot still.

Penderyn Peated gets its smoky flavour from Islay whisky casks but, at the new £5 million distillery at Llandudno, the team will be making a peated new make. They didn’t know how this would work in a Faraday still so they had a peated wash made for them at the English Whisky Company in Norfolk and ran some trials which proved successful. “With the Faraday still we’re learning all the time,” he said.

We won’t get to taste the results for around five years. “In 2003 there was a fair old pressure to get it out fairly early. I don’t think we’re going to be under that kind of pressure with Llandudno because we’ve got a lot of product on the market,” Davies explained.

Next year Penderyn will be opening a third distillery in Swansea in the former Hafod Morfa copperworks. In addition to the old site, “we’re building a three-storey visitor centre by the side of it. And there’s also the old copper rolling mill building which we’re going to put the barrels in.” 

At the moment the plan is to put one Faraday still in, but Davies has other ideas. “I think we’re going to increase that production capacity as well, which I have not told anybody else yet! So this is fairly new, but we’re looking to scale-up production there from what we originally had planned to do.”

Selling Wales

Both the two new sites will be geared up to receive a substantial number of visitors. The current distillery gets around 40,000 tourists a year but, Davies said: “I think we’ll get a lot more visitors in Llandudno and in Swansea just because the communication links are a lot better.”

Davies is keen for Welsh whisky to get a GI (geographical indication) now that there are other producers with whisky to sell. There’s a great variation in the kinds of stills used so he sees it at the moment as a guarantee of origin rather than a particular style. “You want it to be fermented, distilled, matured, and bottled in Wales, all of the things that I think you’d expect to see in the GI. But I think the challenge then is finding the uniqueness.”

Davies is also involved with marketing Wales in general which is not without its difficulties. “People have not heard of Wales, in the way that they’ve heard of Scotland or Ireland,” Davies said: “unless the country plays rugby.”  He tells a story about a man at a whisky show who kept on referring to Penderyn as ‘Scotch’ and then asked “Wales, that’s an island off Scotland?’” 

So there’s a long way to go.The idea is to market Wales as the New Zealand of the Northern Hemisphere because of the similarity between the two nations with their rugby, sheep, and nascent whisky industries. “We’ve got at least as many sheep as they’ve got in New Zealand!” he joked.

Penderyn Llandudno

Penderyn Llandudno is ready to receive visitors – look at that polished parquet!

Celebrating 21 years of Welsh Whisky

Closer to home, Davies is involved with a campaign called Hiraeth Live. He explained: “‘hiraeth’ is a lovely Welsh word, which means ‘a longing for home’, almost like you want to come home, it’s like a homesickness, but you long for a homeland that may not be there anymore. It’s kind of a belonging feeling.” The campaign raises money for Hafal, a Welsh mental illness charity, and Llamau, which works with the homeless in Wales.

Next month, there will be a special Hiraeth ‘Icons of Wales’ bottling with the proceeds going to charity. Unusually, this will largely be made up from seven-year-old pot still, “which we’ve never done before,” Davies said, blended with some lighter whisky from the Faraday stills. 

But that’s not all. This September Penderyn will be celebrating its 21st birthday in the time-honoured way, by releasing a special whisky. It will be a single cask whisky, one of the first distilled at the distillery, so will be around 20 years old. 

What better way to celebrate a distillery that has been proudly flying the flag for Welsh whisky for 21 years, even when everyone thought they were mad.

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Five minutes with… Colin Gordon, distillery manager at Ardbeg

We spoke to the new Ardbeg distillery manager, Colin Gordon, about being a whisky romantic, the future of the category, and what the distillery and its new stillhouse have in…

We spoke to the new Ardbeg distillery manager, Colin Gordon, about being a whisky romantic, the future of the category, and what the distillery and its new stillhouse have in store for visitors when it reopens. Oh, and a mosh pit restaurant…

Arbeg means ‘small promontory’ in Scots Gaelic, but you’d have to work hard not to spot it perched proudly off the south coast of Islay. The distillery has been producing whisky originally for blends but now bottled as single malts for over 200 years (on and off). The range goes from the youthful Wee Beastie 5 year old, to its newly released 25 year old. Its long-running distillery manager Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads stepped down from his 13-year tenure in late 2020 and now, Colin Gordon (who has held the similar roles at neighbouring Port Ellen Maltings and Lagavulin Distillery) holds the keys to the growing site. So, what has he got in store for us?

Colin Gordon from Ardbeg

It’s Colin Gordon from Ardbeg!

Master of Malt: How have the first few months of running Ardbeg been since you started in October 2020?

Colin Gordon: It’s been brilliant! I already knew the site quite well just from already being on Islay and there is always a buzz here. There’s a close-knit team [about 30 people in the summer] which has been great since coming in – it doesn’t feel like I’ve only been here a few months. It’s been really busy and although Covid has brought its challenges, we’ve been making some fine new make spirits.

MoM: What made you make the move from Lagavulin to Ardbeg?

CG: It’s funny, I really wouldn’t have moved for many jobs to be honest. I already knew quite a few people who worked for Glenmorangie, so when the role came up myself and my family were really settled on Islay and we want to stay here. The Ardbeg brand is alive and well, it is such a funky brand, there’s a great team where you’re really involved and I just felt like it was the right opportunity.

MoM: What was your relationship with Ardbeg before you began the job?

CG: Islay is a close-knit place. Where I used to work in Port Ellen is probably the only place in the world where you get told how your malt is going when you’re standing in the queue buying a loaf of bread. I’d already dealt with Mickey quite closely, so I knew quite a lot about Ardbeg, and it was always a great place to visit and get lunch at the cafe. During Islay Fèis Ìle, the last day is always at Ardbeg, and it was always a really great mix between locals and visitors. Of course it’s also a great whisky – Ardbeg as a liquid is a grand dram.

Ardbeg Distillery on Islay

Ardbeg looking all dark and moody

MoM: What’s the best thing about running a distillery?

CG: I love whisky. It’s funny because there are so many people who work in the industry who don’t love it, but I genuinely do, and single malt especially, so I love what we’re doing day to day. Distilleries are so intertwined with the place as well and we’ve still got people working here related to people who worked here before them and as the 21st distillery manager, you’ve just got to come in and keep that going because we have passionate fans all over the world. No day is the same, and Islay often has unique challenges. As an industry though, we collaborate: I think that’s stronger on Islay – it’s like you’re one brand.

MoM: What does it take to be a distillery manager?

CG: I would say you need to be quite calm under pressure because things do go wrong and you will always have challenges, from poorer crop for your malt to process issues, day-to-day managing, customs – you know, all that good stuff. You need to be passionate about what you do and be open to change and innovation which is huge at Ardbeg: you need that mindset. Distillation and making whisky or new make spirit is a process we’ve been doing for a long time, so you need to try things and have an open mind for that. You’ve got to like people too because ultimately you’re a people manager.

MoM: Did Mickey Heads give you any advice on taking over?

CG: Mickey and I didn’t have a long handover because of Covid and everything was delayed. Mickey finished on 1 October which was pretty much the day I started. We went for a walk around the site and in a very calm manner he said: “This is a great site. Use the team and you’ll be absolutely fine.” He didn’t give me anything too worrying, but he did recommend a few things he’d like to see done. 

Ardbeg distillery (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

Ardbeg distillery (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

MoM: Are there any changes you’re looking to implement?

CG: I think the biggest thing for us is really around volume as the demand continues to grow. We have built a new stillhouse and doubled up with two wash stills and two spirit stills. We will hopefully finish at the end of this month and that will be key to help us maintain the brand. Everything [from the original stills] has been replicated, so they’re identical and we need to make sure they run the same, and the spirit we’re running off is the best quality. There will be other bits and pieces, too. 

MoM: What are the nuances of the Ardbeg distillery that are different to what you’ve experienced before?

CG: We’re still quite manual in a lot of respects. A lot of the places I’ve worked before have been automated, but I’m a bit of a whisky romantic at heart so I like that the mash is still very manual. The operators are the sequence, with valves being opened by hand, so that’s one of the biggest differences. We’ve still got a lot of people interacting with the process.

MoM: What do you think will be the challenges for whisky distilleries in Islay in the coming years?

CG: I think there are a number of things that will pose challenges. There are a number of distilleries on Islay that will hit a spate of retirements and we need to make sure we have the right people coming through. There is a fine balance in rural Scotland (and rural UK) in that we need to make sure we keep our young population so that we have the next generation working here. That is a real issue – we need to make sure we have the right people to grow. Long term, it’s all about sustainability. The Scotch Whisky Association has set ambitious targets and we support that 100% as a business. They are good challenges.

MoM: What’s on the horizon for Ardbeg in 2021?

CG: Nothing but exciting times. In terms of the distillery side, we have the new stillhouse and there are some more exciting bottlings and special releases. The visitor centre also plays a large role and when we can welcome people back, one of the things we’ve looked at since Covid is our restaurant. It’s one of the great things people loved here, it was like organised chaos (like a mosh pit sometimes), so we’re looking at how we can develop that and restructure nicely so we have an outdoor eatery. It will be like a big American-style trailer with smoked foods and we’re really looking at what we can do with that. We’re a brand that doesn’t sit still.

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Five minutes with… Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest

Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest, has quite the story to tell. Which is why we were delighted that she sat down with us to talk about her…

Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest, has quite the story to tell. Which is why we were delighted that she sat down with us to talk about her family history and life as the first African-American master blender.

In the UK, October is Black History Month, a programme that was started to teach and remember history that had been ignored or forgotten and to honour achievements that had previously gone unmarked. The story of Nearest Green, an emancipated slave who perfected the Lincoln County process, taught a young orphan named Jack Daniel how to distil and was the first African-American master distiller, is an example of that. 

While Green’s contributions were common knowledge among his ancestors, it wasn’t until author, entrepreneur, and researcher Fawn Weaver brought his story to life by founding the Uncle Nearest brand in 2017, that his story became known by the public. The brand, which is proudly black-owned and operated, has become the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand in history while challenging the old white-washed narratives. Jack Daniel’s even formally acknowledged Green’s role in the formation of the brand’s signature product. In 2019, Uncle Nearest appointed the first known African-American master blender, Victoria Eady Butler. Who happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green.

Butler had initially joined the Uncle Nearest team as the director of administration of the Nearest Green Foundation, which provides scholarships to Nearest Green’s descendants, in March 2019 following retirement from a 31-year career within the Department of Justice. Just a few months later, she was asked to curate a small edition of the brand’s signature 1884 whiskey, as Weaver wanted each batch to be blended by one of Green’s descendants. It was launched in July to such success that by November she was appointed as master blender. 

Now, nearly a year on, Butler reflects on her past year and opens up about her remarkable family history.

Victoria Eady Butler

Meet Victoria Eady Butler!

Master of Malt: You were the first descendant of Nearest Green to be involved in the creation of an Uncle Nearest expression. What was that process like for you?

Victoria Eady Butler: “The first time I went into the lab I was a nervous wreck! I had never done anything like that before. I had already started studying, reading and tapping into the minds of other master blenders, learning as much as I could from my team members and others in the industry. But I was a little nervous at first. As the project progressed I became more comfortable with it. I soon became confident. I had been in law enforcement for 31 years, so this was something totally different for me”.

MoM: Why do you think you had a natural aptitude for blending?

VEB: “I believe what Nearest started all those years ago, that lineage, is in me. I was born with whiskey in my blood! The transition to become the first female African-American master blender was not a big hurdle to cross. It came pretty natural to me. Now we’re into our eight batch, I’m very confident in my abilities and things are going better than anyone could have ever expected”.

MoM: Were you always aware of your family history?

VEB: Absolutely. Growing up, my grandmother Annie Bell Green Eady (who is Nearest’s granddaughter) made sure that her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids all knew who he was. Not just us, but anyone who came to visit. We all had the privilege of sitting at her feet while she told the stories of him. She wanted us to know that he taught Jack Daniels how to distil, that he was an honourable, proud man. Although he was born into slavery, he died a free man and what he contributed to Jack Daniel’s lives on. We like to say that she was one of the first keepers of the Nearest Green story.

Victoria Eady Butler

The brand honours Butler’s ancestor and the “godfather of Tennessee whiskey”

MoM: What does that story mean to you?

VEB: It is very humbling now that I am the first female African-American master blender after my great-great-grandfather had, and still has, the title of the first African-American master distiller. To walk in his footsteps and see our brand grow, the only brand that acknowledges and honours a black man, it’s hard to find the words to describe what that means to me. I’m honoured to be in the position that I’m in, I’m honoured that I work with a group of people who are dedicated to ensuring that Nearest Green’s name and legacy are never forgotten again. It means the world to me.

MoM: Has your family’s involvement in whiskey continued through the generations? 

VEB: There has never been a drop of Jack Daniel’s made without a Green on property. My three siblings, my two sisters and her youngest brother work at the distillery. My oldest sister has been there for 40 years. 

MoM: Do you still learn things from Nearest Green? 

VEB: Absolutely. I’ve known my whole life that he was integral in Jack Daniel’s whiskey, but I’m always learning. Fawn Weaver is a wealth of knowledge. She has done so much research about Nearest Green which means I always learn something talking to her. When I look back and think about things my grandmother shared I can glean from that as well. The education of Nearest Green is ongoing and I’m so happy about that because he not only taught Jack how to make whiskey, he not only perfected the Lincoln County Process but he was his mentor. Jack Daniel’s mum died when he was a boy and by the age of 15, his father died. Nearest took him under his wing and taught him not just about the spirits industry, but he taught him about life. He was a very proud man. He was smart and innovative and these traits passed down the generations.

Victoria Eady Butler

The education of the impact Nearest Green had on American whiskey is ongoing

MoM: What could he learn from you? 

VEB: I don’t know that I could teach him anything, but I could show him that we continue to hold our back’s straight, our heads high and that we keep pushing the needle forward. I’d like to think he was proud of me.

MoM: Does living up to a family name like that come with any pressure? 

VEB: I don’t feel any pressure. I feel that, after all these years, I’m walking in my purpose and with that comes joy. Thanks to Fawn Weaver, I have tapped into a passion that I didn’t know existed until last March. I am enjoying what I’m doing, I’m honoured to be a part of the fastest-growing American spirit in history and I enjoy working alongside a team of dedicated individuals.

MoM: What’s your relationship with Fawn Weaver like?

VEB: I love and adore her. She is a very generous, driven, strong and smart woman. I’ve learned a great deal from being in her presence. I love working alongside her. She’s brilliant. I’m thankful for the relationship that we share. We don’t have a blood relationship, Nearest is not her ancestor, but you would never know that based on the relationship she has with my family. We all adore her and the drive she has to ensure my ancestor’s name and history is all based on love, dedication, respect and honour.

Victoria Eady Butler

The American whiskey producer opened its Nearest Green Distillery in Tennessee in September last year.

MoM: You’ve said before that your mission is much greater than just people enjoying our fabulous whiskey. Can you outline what it is?

VEB: We want to ensure that when people spoke of those folks who are considered icons or historical figures, like Jack Daniel, Jim Beam and George Dickel, that Nearest Green is spoken in the same sentence and that, long after all of us are gone, that his name and legacy will not be forgotten. That is why we’re building this great distillery in Tennessee, it’s a place of honour for Nearest and his descendants. Our mission is to ensure that after we have brought this legacy to the forefront of this industry after more than 160 years that the contribution of this once enslaved man is something everyone will know. That his merits will stand on their own. And that folks will recognise that he was, and is, the godfather of Tennessee whiskey.

MoM: How important is your role as an example?

VEB: As the first African-American master blender, I hope that I’m setting the bar high and that whoever comes after me will have the same passion and dedication to continue what we have started. We try to do everything with excellence, so I hope people can look at what I’ve done and they will continue in the same manner.

MoM: What advice would you give an outsider of the spirits industry that wants in?

VEB: I recommend they put their fears aside and make sure they understand that if this something they truly want, not just something they think is cool at the moment. We work hard, it’s not for the faint of heart. But you will never know what you can do if you don’t try. You need to learn all you can and be totally dedicated to the craft. This year ourselves and Jack Daniel’s created a $5m diversity initiative to provide expertise and resources to African-American entrepreneurs who want to enter the spirits world and we already have apprentices working at distilleries across the US.

Victoria Eady Butler

The brand’s aim is for Nearest Green’s name and legacy to never be forgotten

MoM: Has the last year emphasized the importance of the story and message of the Uncle Nearest brand?

VEB: Absolutely. When folks look at us I hope they see diversity and they see our brand is inclusive. We invite everyone to have a seat at the table.

MoM: What does 2021 hold for Uncle Nearest?

VEB: Our plate is full, for sure! There is always something new and exciting on the horizon. For the UK, we’re hoping to get my small batch expression over here before the end of the year (COVID permitting) and hopefully roll out a single barrel expression next year. It’s amazing to see how fast the brand has grown in the states and hopefully that will be reflected in the UK!

Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey is available from Master of Malt

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Five minutes with… Johnny Neill, director of HJ Neill Spirits

As the founder of Whitley Neill Gin, Marylebone Gin, Berkshire Botanical Gin and Gelston Irish whiskey, it’s fair to say that Johnny Neill knows a thing or two about booze….

As the founder of Whitley Neill Gin, Marylebone Gin, Berkshire Botanical Gin and Gelston Irish whiskey, it’s fair to say that Johnny Neill knows a thing or two about booze. We managed to grab five minutes with him and here’s what he said:

Johnny Neill has made quite the mark on the spirits industry in the last 15 years. The descendant of Thomas Greenall and JJ Whitley created the Whitley Neill Gin brand in 2005, building it from the ground up as one of the pioneers of the gin boom until it was acquired by Halewood Wines & Spirits in 2009. Working with the family-owned, UK-based distiller and distributor, he’s since developed brands such as Marylebone Gin, Berkshire Botanical Gin and revived the historic Gelston Irish whiskey name as director and owner of HJ Neill Spirits.

Neill took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with MoM to tell us about how he juggles all these award-winning spirits, what it’s like to live up to a family legacy and his ambition to open a distillery in Ireland in the next few years. We also had a taste of an expression from each of his brands, because we’re nothing if not thorough.

Five minutes with… Johnny Neil

Say hello to Johnny Neill!

Master of Malt: It seems like you’ve got distilling in your blood. Were you always destined to enter the spirits industry?

Johnny Neill: I did grow up on gin, to be honest! My father worked as the director for Greenall Whitley, based in Warrington, which at the time was the largest independent brewer in the UK and also owned Greenall’s Gin. His uncle, JD Whitley, was the chairman of the group and my father’s grandfather, or my great-grandfather was a chap called John James Whitley, or JJ Whitley, he was managing director of the company for about 40 years. It goes all the way back to 1762 when Thomas Greenall founded the company. So I’ve got eight generations behind me and I started tasting gin early and always loved it. But my dad left the business in the 70s and I never really had any interest in the company. I went into finance, took some management and accountancy exams and came out of university to work in accountancy firms in London. But I hate numbers, too many spreadsheets! But I always wanted to create my own gin. I decided to leave the finance world and start my own brand around 2003 or 2004. It took about 18 months to create the recipe. I worked with Charles Maxwell, the master distiller of Thames Distillers and then Rob Dorsett, master distiller at Alcohols Ltd, Langley and what we developed together turned into the Whitley Neill Handcrafted Dry Gin

MoM: Whitley Neill gin is an English Gin but with a South African influence. Why was this your source of inspiration?

JN: Originally I wanted to make something very British with some floral botanicals, so things like hyacinth and dandelion and elderflower that would stand out in a classic London Dry. But they were getting a little bit masked by the core botanicals. Then I went to South Africa with my wife, who is South African, and started looking for some different fruits, roots and shoots to distil. I stumbled across two that worked really well. Cape gooseberries (physalis), a bittersweet aromatic citrus fruit that’s quite tart but has a lovely aroma different to orange peel or lemon peel. They worked really well on their own and then as part of the recipe. And then baobab. The tree on the front of the bottle is the baobab tree, which has a fruit with a tart, lemon citrus pulp with a flavour profile not unlike lemon sherbert. I then added a little bit more coriander in the recipe as well and this helped push the character I wanted through. 

MoM: You’re one of the leading producers of flavoured gin. Why was this a category that interested you?

JN: We started having some fun experimenting and we thought that people would like simple, bold new flavours. It’s easy to communicate a ‘quince gin’ as opposed to a product like Whitley Neill, which has got nine botanicals, so we created spirits that led with a predominant flavour. Although the juniper has to sit there still. I think the fact that we chose different colours for the bottles worked really well and had great shelf appeal. Then we were led by how well-received the first couple of flavours were, they just went crazy. The whole thing just blossomed and ballooned. We were drawing people that hadn’t really enjoyed traditional dry gins before as well and helping to grow a category. So it was partly us and partly the consumers enjoying the flavour profiles.

Five minutes with… Johnny Neill

Whitley Neill has become the UK’s number one selling premium gin

MoM: Why did you decide to branch out and create different gin brands in Marylebone  London Dry Gin and Berkshire Botanical gin?

JN:  I always wanted to create a gin that would hark back to something much more traditional which could offer a contrast to the contemporary Whitley Neill. I used to live in Marylebone for about 15 years and so I’ve got that little bit of innate history with the area and knew that I could draw from local stories. One of those was about Marylebone Gardens, a pleasure garden located in the grounds of the old manor house of Marylebone in the Georgian era, a time in which gin was very popular, it was the last gin craze. It got me thinking about the floral botanicals that would have been sitting in those gardens at the time and from there I developed the story, the recipe and the brand because that’s what I enjoy doing. I always wanted to do something around the area, so our pot still is based about 150 metres from where the Pleasure Gardens used to sit and I also commissioned the creation of a tiny 50-litre copper pot still to produce an even more limited-edition spirit exclusively for the 108 Brasserie, in the Marylebone Hotel, which you can see by the bar if you visit.

With the Berkshire brand, I had a desire to create a local brand that would make gin, but that could evolve to make spirits like vodka and rum. I live in West Berkshire now near the Yattendon Estate, a 9,000-acre estate that’s actually one of the largest Christmas tree growers in the U.K, which was great because I was keen to work with new and local flavours. So for the first batch we did, I was allowed to go out on the estate and chop down some Christmas trees and we used Norway Spruce in the recipe! It’s a dry gin but you’ll get a little bit of extra pine in there on the finish and I think it’s a nice balanced gin. We make it right now in a pot still called Harry, who resides in the wonderful The Royal Oak Pub & Hotel right in the heart of Yattendon. But I’ve got a lease on a bigger premises on the Yattendon Estate at the moment and we’re planning to put a bigger pot still in place so we can really start developing the brand and the range. I’m always trying to work on a couple of new flavours and once we have the larger pot still we can play with some rum and do some ageing and stuff like that. 

MoM: Tell us about how you revived the Gelstons Irish whiskey brand.

JN: It was something I started looking at about 11 years ago when I first came to Halewood. The brand was established in 1830 by Samuel Gelston and in 1869, when he died, the business was bought by Harry Neill, who was my great-grandfather. The idea was to build on what Gelstons has historically done as an independent bottler, so we began sourcing whisky and casks to finish some expressions. Our barrels are down in West Cork, we’ve got bourbon casks and some red wine casks, which is an interesting area that we can develop. We wanted to play in the age range with Gelston’s to separate us from the Pogues brand and because cask finishing has got a great history behind it, it’s what my family did 150 years ago so that’s nice to think about too. Talking about family history has reminded me we have some cool stuff happening at the moment. We’ve got some Pinot Noir casks from New Zealand that we are currently ageing some of our new single pot still in which we got from a wine brand called Two Paddocks. It’s owned by my second cousin, Sam Neill, who you’ll probably know as the actor from Jurassic Park, and he’s a lovely gentleman. My great-grandfather, Harry Neill went out to Australia with the gold rush in 1851 with his younger brothers, one of them being Percival, who then went out to New Zealand and Sam is his great-grandson. Harry came back to Belfast and bought Gelston’s and was exporting it over to New Zealand and Australia where the brothers were so it’s nice to bring things back full circle, the two hemispheres are working together again. We’re hoping to bottle in the next couple of weeks actually.

MoM: I heard that a Gelston’s distillery might be on the cards, can you tell us about that?

The end goal is certainly to build our own distillery in Ireland. Unfortunately, COVID hit us at the wrong moment, we had a site that we were going to sign a lease on and in March so as you can imagine that was pretty bad timing. Also, you’ve got Brexit coming up and so, as a business, we’re not ready for that commitment at the moment. But we do want to distil our own Irish whiskey. We’ll see what happens over the next six months and then we’ll definitely start looking at getting over there in the next couple of years. 

Johnny Neill

Neill hopes to have a dedicated Gelston’s distillery in the next few years

MoM: Does your family’s history inform much of what you do?

JN:  It’s definitely not a burden and I don’t feel any pressure to live up to anything. It just gave me a love of the flavour profile of the gin. I’m certainly interested in the history, which you can see from the flavours that we’ve got in the Whitley Neill range. They’re always based on a little story from my family background. The first Whitley Neill flavour that we produced was quince and that was based around my grandfather. He was in the Engineers in the army and had spent time in Palestine and Turkey, at the end of the Second World War and whenever we used to go to his for Christmas he always used to have quince jelly or quince jam. We started working with Turkish quince as a flavour profile, we thought it gave a nice stone fruity flavour and it fitted really nicely with the family history.

MoM: You’ve seen gin go through a boom since you started out. Can the category maintain its momentum?

JN: It’s been a hell of a ride from early days when it was very hard to sell a premium gin to a bar and restaurant. It took a lot of time and effort. We were thinking around 2012-14 that things were going to slow down, but actually, it’s accelerated. It may slow down and might become more difficult in the on-trade over the next 18 months for operators to have such a large range of gin, but we’ll see how we go. But consumers are still on board and still experimenting. As long as we’re still producing really good liquids with interesting stories behind them and reasons for them then I don’t see it letting up. There are a number of new distilleries and I suppose we all think ‘gosh, how are they going to get it to market, but if there’s always a story behind the distillery and they’re producing good gin then why not? Everyone’s been very supportive of each other, everyone talks to each other in the industry, generally, every producer is happy to help. Whilst there’s competition, it’s healthy competition, there’s a lot of collaboration.

MoM: Have you got any more brands or spirit categories in your sight?

JN: Right now there’s no ambition to create any new brands. If we did do a rum it would be under one of the existing brands. I’d love to do a spiced rum in the Berkshire range. We’ve got stills that are capable of distilling some quality rum so we’ll do some experiments and see what we get. I have stuff ageing on the estate down in Berkshire and in the Marylebone range I’ve got some rum casks from the Foursquare Distillery which are absolutely spectacular, so whether we play with rum casks or we develop a rum, we’ll have to see. For now, I need to focus and make sure that everything’s working smoothly in this difficult period. 

Five minutes with… Johnny Neil

Whitley Neill Handcrafted Dry Gin Tasting Note:

Nose: Very spicy and rich with juniper upfront and coriander seed, angelica root and lemon sherbet in support.

Palate: A thick and delicately sweet palate combines cassia bark, acacia honey, exotic spices and warming citrus.

Finish: Long finish with spice and zest.

Overall: An exotic, smooth and complex expression, this is a gin that tastes as interesting as its backstory.

Five minutes with… Johnny Neil

Marylebone London Dry Gin Tasting Note:

Nose: Fresh lemon balm, chamomile and a kick of spice from clove create an aromatic, floral opening with underlying hints of pink grapefruit and pine-y juniper.

Palate: Big notes of juniper and sweet orange upfront with a lick of liquorice, more lemon balm and cassia coming in strong in the backdrop.

Finish: More warming citrus, a little anise and some delicate floral notes linger.

Overall: Tastes as good as it looks and makes a smashing G&T, Marylebone London Dry Gin is a well balanced and elegant expression.

Five minutes with… Johnny Neil

Berkshire Botanical Dry Gin Tasting Note:

Nose: Lots of pine, oily citrus and a herbal twinge of coriander root lead with help from deep, concentrated notes of juniper. 

Palate: The palate brings some floral and perfumed qualities with angelica, heather and Parma Violets with piney juniper and orange peel in support.

Finish: The finish brings some aromatic spice and bittersweet grapefruit.

Overall: Fresh, bright and full-bodied, with this gin should make some lovely G&Ts. Garnish with a ribbon of orange peel to bring out the citrus notes.

Five minutes with… Johnny Neil

Gelston’s Single Pot Still Tasting Note:

Nose: Sugary porridge, creamy vanilla fudge and muddled fresh mint with ripe banana, papaya and a pinch of ginger in support.

Palate: Rolled oats, hazelnut spread, floral honey and chocolate bourbon biscuits initially with grassy malt, lime peel and drying spice.

Finish: Marmalade on granary toast, condensed milk and a hint of cinnamon.

Overall: Very clean, fresh and moreish. A whiskey that would work best as a versatile mixer in my mind.

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Five minutes with… Colin Scott, former master blender at Chivas Brothers

Chivas Regal is one of the biggest and most recognisable blended Scotch whiskies in the world. We talk to custodian master blender Colin Scott as he turns in his tasting…

Chivas Regal is one of the biggest and most recognisable blended Scotch whiskies in the world. We talk to custodian master blender Colin Scott as he turns in his tasting glass after an incredible 47 years in the whisky industry. 

Colin Scott has something pretty special in common with both Roger Federer and Tiger Woods… but that’s a tale for later on in his career. Now, we start at the beginning when Scott joined Chivas Brothers in 1973 and in 1989 became Chivas’ fifth Master Blender. As well as being the custodian of Chivas 12, he has seen the brand through an era of innovation – including Chivas Mizunara, Chivas Extra and Chivas 18Both Scott’s father and grandfather worked in the Scotch whisky industry and aside from a brief flirtation with accountancy, Scott has spent his working life in whisky.

Colin Scott

Say hello to the legendary Colin Scott!

Master of Malt: How has the world of the master blender changed since the late 80s?

Colin Scott: When I started blending, it was very secretive. There was no marketing support to be done. From the 90s onwards, that part of the business took off – it was a requirement for us to go into the market to launch products. It has grown and grown. I basically started when there was only The Glenlivet 12, Royal Salute 21 and Chivas Regal 12 – that is what our business was. In the 90s, when Johnnie Walker was adding all the different colours we had to react and that’s when Chivas 18 came along and then others followed that. Today, with social media, the media and communications… the excitement, everybody wants more.

MoM: Do you have to have a natural talent for tasting or can you train your palate?

CS: You have to have a level of nosing ability and sensory acumen. At Chivas, we have an annual test that people go through. For blenders, it’s a different level. The company has a couple of hundred nosers around the country to check products every time a vat is moved or emptied. Some are working on barrels, they have a different test, some are working on vats and they have a different test. But at the end of the day, all of the people in quality have to take that test and pass it. When they empty the casks for a blend, for example, you might have 500–800 casks to check for off notes. This would take a couple of hours.

MoM: How do you go about putting blends together?

CS: When we sit down as blenders and talk about it – that’s when you start to learn about all of the different characters and flavours, the interactions. The whole thing is all about flavours. Blending is like having a football team – you’ve got your star but then you’ve got the workhorses behind them. You’ve got whiskies that keep everything right and then ones that you then have to control. It’s about managing flavours. Every single new spirit from a distillery has its own unique character and flavour that is unique to that distillery. If The Glenlivet blew up tomorrow, we couldn’t go to another distillery and make The Glenlivet. Blenders have to safeguard the integrity of the brand. We have to ensure that Chivas Regal today is what it was 10–20 years ago. We maintain that consistency and that status – that’s very important. Scotch has amazing respect around the world and it’s important to uphold that.

Colin Scott

Scott has spent an incredible 47 years in the whisky industry.

MoM: Could technology ever replace the human nose?

CS: A computer is only as good as the information you put in. You’ve got to train it. There are already sensors on a bottling line that will identify which whisky is being filled. It’ll say ‘Chivas 12’, for example, and if something comes along that’s not, it’ll say ‘no’. It doesn’t know what it is or why it is saying no, but it can recognise that it’s something different. There’s a lot that can be done from a quality control point of view but at the end of the day, the human nose is a phenomenal piece of kit.

MoM: How have drinkers changed over the years and what exciting serves have you tried on your travels?

CS: A lot of people still think you have to drink whisky neat, which is quite strange. We’ve been trying to educate and get people to drink whisky however they like it. A lot of people don’t like the heat of the alcohol, whereas others do. I went to Brazil and had a serve with coconut milk – it was actually delicious. It’s all about balancing flavours – Chivas 12 and ginger ale is a great drink but ginger ale and some other whiskies don’t work because the balance goes haywire. Bartenders are making some incredible cocktails. I got involved when we started the cocktail competition [Chivas Masters] around the world. Some of the innovation was fantastic – cocktails are not reducing the status of the whisky, they are taking it to a different level and giving the consumer a different taste experience. There are no rules.

MoM: How do you drink yours?

CS: Personally, I would recommend you add a little water – 50/50 – that brings out another raft of flavours you don’t get when it’s neat. If you want it cool, add a couple of cubes of ice to cool but not chill. Chilling flattens the flavour. But at the end of the day it’s all personal stuff.

Colin Scott

Scott is particularly proud of the delightful Chivas Regal 18 Year Old

MoM: 47 years is a long time. Can you share a few career highlights?

CS: Chivas 18 has been a phenomenal experience. The expression launched in 1997 and was repackaged in 2004 with my gold signature on the bottle. I’m very proud of it, it’s fantastic to have that on the packaging. One of the best things was watching drinkers taste the whisky and then smile before taking another sip. And the comments; people said it was amazing. The Chivas style is rich and about a balance of flavours and you have this smoothness. But I think Chivas 18 has a real velvety smoothness. And then, of course, it has got rich fruit flavours, toffee, dark chocolate and then a little hint of smoke coming in at the end. It’s basically taking a line up from Chivas 12 to 18 and then selecting the whiskies to keep it in that style and tradition but selecting the whiskies to give it a completely different taste experience to Chivas 12. A new blend will take six months to a year, but generally speaking, the packaging takes longer.

MoM: How many bottles of Chivas 18 have you got at home?

CS: Enough for a wee while. I’m not going to run out, don’t you worry.

MoM: What about Royal Salute 50-year-old in 2003, was that a highlight?

CS: That was amazing – there were only 255 bottles and it was very unusual to have a 50-year-old blend. I launched that in Japan (they had 7 bottles) and meanwhile it was launched in Kathmandu: the first bottle was given to Sir Edmund Hillary because the news of his ascent of Everest came on the same day as the Queen’s Coronation, in 1953. So it was an anniversary for both. The Duke of Argyll [who has a long-standing relationship with the brand] went out to Kathmandu to give Hillary bottle number one. Hillary’s bottle is now back in the archives in Strathisla. We gave a big cheque to his charity just before we gave him the bottle and then just before he sadly passed away, he offered it back. So the Duke went back out and gave him another cheque for the charity – for the Sherpas.

Colin Scott

Cheers to you, Colin Scott!

MoM: You have travelled a lot over the years, any memorable stories?

CS: In the early 90s, we went to China with Chivas 12. We took pipers and we went in kilts and we did a daily programme of education, supermarket visits, KTV visits, meeting people, giving gifts. We played the pipes in the supermarkets, in the KTVs – people loved it. We made a big, big noise. This we did for a number of years and I think it really sowed the seeds, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time, because then China became our biggest market in the early 2000s. I met the most amazing people – that’s the greatest thing I’m going to miss. Not only the people in Pernod Ricard.

Another one – having launched Chivas 25 in New York, we then flew to Dubai and there we actually flew across Dubai in a helicopter and around the Burj Al Arab twice and we landed on the helipad where there were all these people waiting for the launch party. Not many people have been on the helipad at the Burj Al Arab. At that time, it had only been Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, of any importance. In Dubai every year after that we arranged a Legends dinner and we had a celebrity as a guest of honour. That included people like Sir Colin Firth, Sir David Frost, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ben Kingsley. It was just a wonderful experience. During the day, we would have lunch and chat with them. David Frost was a wonderful, amazing person. They are all incredible in their own different ways and I’ll never forget that.

MoM: Master blender aside, what did you want to do for a job?

CS: I always wanted to be a fighter pilot. But I think it would’ve scared the living daylights out of me!

MoM: What will you do now you’re retired?

CS: I’m going to enjoy myself, spending time with friends, family, fishing and golf. I will travel, not at the moment of course, but I’ve got some air miles to use up. Maybe a wee trip. The thing is that when you travel for business, you’re in a hotel, you’re in a restaurant, then you do tastings and things, back to the hotel ad then you come home. I’d like to explore Japan more, it’s a beautiful country, as is Taiwan.


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Five minutes with… Elwyn Gladstone from Hotel Starlino

Today, we talk to the marketing guru behind such brands as Sailor Jerry rum, Hendrick’s and, most recently, Malfy Gin. His latest venture, Hotel Starlino, aims to bring Italian aperitivos…

Today, we talk to the marketing guru behind such brands as Sailor Jerry rum, Hendrick’s and, most recently, Malfy Gin. His latest venture, Hotel Starlino, aims to bring Italian aperitivos to a whole new audience. If anyone can do it, Gladstone can. 

You probably haven’t heard of Elwyn Gladstone but will have drunk something he has worked on. He’s not a distiller or a blender, instead he’s the person who supplied the marketing magic behind brands including Sailor Jerry, Hendrick’s gin and Kraken Rum. He worked in-house at global multinationals before forming his own company  Biggar & Leith which had a notable hit with Malfy Gin which launched in 2017. Last year, he sold the brand to Pernod Ricard. So you could say that Gladstone has the midas touch when it comes to drinks. We were particularly excited, therefore, to talk to him about his latest venture, a range of Italian aperitivos, including a bourbon-cask Vermouth Rosso, an Arancione and a grapefruit-scented Rosé, under the Hotel Starlino brand. All of them share the Gladstone ethos of delicious bright flavours, stylish packaging and an eye for an untapped corner of the market. 

Welcome, Mr Gladstone!

Elwyn Gladstone with Carlo Vergnano from Torino Distillati

Master of Malt: How did you get into the booze business?

Elwyn Gladstone: I worked in Edinburgh in the Oddbins there and they used to do really good single malt programmes and lots of champagne stuff. I got really interested in wine and spirits; I travelled a lot in France and with my dad and learned about wine. I decided after university I would go to UC Davis [wine school of the University of California] and I got a scholarship to go there. And I found it really, really interesting. I actually decided to move back to the UK  – my wife didn’t want to live in California, which perhaps was a mistake but anyway…  Then I went to work for Bulmers Cider, in Hereford, when it was family-owned.

MoM: How did you make the change to spirits?

EG: I went to work for William Grant & Sons in London. And that was the time that we started brands like Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum. And my business partner now, is a guy called Mark Teasdale and he was really the one who started up all those brands. He did them in the US, I was based in the UK. It was really interesting: William Grant’s at the time was really a Scotch whisky company, they didn’t have anything that wasn’t Scotch. And they really didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t Scotch. So it was a really interesting challenge to both get brands like Hendrick’s Gin going. And what was most interesting about it was actually they worked, which is quite unusual with these new brands. 

MoM: Why did you decide to strike out on your own? 

EG: I went to work for Jose Cuervo, the Tequila company, in the US. And we did a lot of good brands there, like we created one called Kraken Rum. And then after a while I didn’t enjoy it anymore and started my own little company called Biggar & Leith and created a brand called Malfy Gin, from Italy, and grew it really, really well to become a big million bottle brand in a very short space of time and we sold it to Pernod Ricard. 

MoM: Can you just tell me a bit about the idea for Malfy because it was a very strongly-branded gin?

EG: We wanted to do something that was a little bit different to the traditional juniper-heavy gin, there’s so many of those that are really good, it didn’t seem like the world needed another one. We found this really interesting factoid that gin maybe came from Italy originally with monks adding juniper to alcohol, way, way back, on the Amalfi coast. Citrus fruits are really interesting flavour profiles and they fit with the whole gin thing. Strong juniper flavours are possibly the reason that gin was limited in terms of consumer acceptance. Brands like Hendrick’s did a much softer, easier-to-drink profile.  We just thought ‘people love Italian stuff’ and there were no Italian gins at the time. It has a great connection with cocktail culture, Italy and all that kind of thing. The packaging was bright and stood out and very good-looking. And it really caught people’s imagination, we created a brand that took you to the Amalfi Coast. What was interesting to me was it had such international acceptance, we got it into about 90 different countries, Japan and Russia and China and all sorts of places, and that whole Amalfi thing works all over the world. 

Hotel Starlino vermouth

MoM: How did Hotel Starlino come about?

EG: Another category that I think is really interesting is vermouth. Which is sort of the wine equivalent of gin. It’s wine that is infused or flavoured with various different botanicals and herbs. It’s lower in alcohol than gin. The people we work with, that made Malfy, are Torino Distillati, it’s an old distillery and bottler. And we became enormous friends with the family that owns it, the Vergnano Family, and all the people that work there. And they’ve been making vermouth for a long, long time. But people don’t really know what aperitivos and vermouths are. I don’t know whether people understand what Aperol is. But anyway, this nice family was making lots of interesting products, they just weren’t particularly well marketed or nicely presented. And so that’s our expertise: making interesting brands with really nice, easy-to-drink, good high quality liquids and making a story around them that hopefully will interest consumers and grow the category overall. 

MoM: So how do you think yours are different from other vermouths or aperitivos on the market?

EG: In the US most people drink red vermouth as a cocktail mixer with bourbon. And so we came up with the idea finishing the red product in bourbon barrels. And then in terms of the pink and the orange, we really wanted to make something very friendly. I think some might critique Aperol as being a little chemically, a little overdone perhaps, a bit mass-market. So we wanted to try and do something that was an easier flavour profile but still had that interesting bitter and sweet combination. It has pink grapefruit in it which is a very popular flavour at the moment and it’s something that grows a lot in Italy. We created an interesting brand story with nice modern-looking packaging but it also has traditional hues in it as well. I come back to this thing like we did with Malfy Gin, the world doesn’t need another very traditional bitter-style aperitivo. So again, we try and do stuff that has the heritage but is much more approachable, interesting-tasting and drinkable.

Beppe Ronco and Carlo Vergnano in the blending room

MoM: How long did it take you and who was it who worked on the recipes?

EG: We do everything with Torino Distillati. There’s a guy there called Beppe Ronco and a very nice man called Denis Muni. They have a lab and they have all various botanicals and they have lots of miniature stills and access to all different types of wine and stuff. It took maybe three or four months of experimenting with various different flavour profiles and different blends and mixes. And the feedback we’re getting at the moment is people seem to like them, they’re pretty well-accepted. 

MoM: We hear a lot about vermouths and aperitivos being the next big thing. What do you think about that?

EG: I think the drinks industry is guilty of saying everything is the next big thing: mezcal, Islay whisky and absinthe, that was a classic one that was going to be the next big thing! I think they [aperitivos] hit a lot of good spots which is that they are lower in alcohol compared to spirits, but they look like spirits. This is just me pontificating but people have bottles of Martini in their drinks cabinet, so they don’t think of those things as wine. They think of them more as a spirits-type product. They last once you open them for a while. And I was reading a very interesting article about Treasury Wine Estates and their belief is that these sort of hybrid wine products, of instance one they were talking about is red wine with coffee in it sounds bad, don’t judge! I do think there is something interesting in terms of categories blurring more and more. And I do think the aperitivo ‘moment’ in places like the UK and in France and in Germany is a real thing because consumers go on vacation, they go to Italy or they go somewhere and they really do have that great moment of a pre-dinner drink. A very refreshing drink. And that’s the other thing, I think it sounds a bit stupid but global warming, as things get hotter and hotter, I think people do want more and more refreshing drinks. And I think they fit into that very well because you can have a decent glass of it and not fall over. 

Bright vivid flavours and strong branding

MoM: What’s your favourite way to drink them in cocktails or just very simple with tonic or soda?

EG: I think really simple. I think with soda is great. Tonic is delicious if it’s good tonic. And then the spritz with some prosecco or… we launched a range of sparkling Moscato, with the same branding, to give the consumer an idea of what to do with it. 

MoM: What else are you working on?

EG: We have a big number of different brands. We’ve got our cherries; we’ve got an amaro, that we’re going to bring out, that we think is also a really interesting category. It’s made with traditional amaro botanicals etc. but then we distill cherries around it, again, to give it a slightly brighter, easier to drink, less bitter flavour. We’ve got a very fun blended malt brand that we’re bringing out, all around Gladstone, my ancestor, who is receiving some not-so-good press recently! My great-great-grandfather was Gladstone and my mum and dad live in his old house. He was the one in 1860 who signed the Spirits Act which allowed blending of Scotch whiskies together. And his relatives had all been in the Scotch whisky trade as well, back in the 1780s and later. Then we have an interesting Tequila project that we’re working on, which is really fun and cool, called Butterfly Cannon. And some of them have some flavour in them, no one’s cracked flavoured Tequila really, and I think that’s an interesting opportunity to try and bring people into the category.

MoM: What are the rules on flavouring Tequila, can you still call it ‘Tequila’?

EG: There is no such thing as ‘flavoured Tequila’ but you can communicate on the packaging that it has Tequila in it. So that’s a fun one and Tequila is obviously very fancy at the moment. We have a few new brands coming out and we’ll kind of roll them out one-by-one and we’re trying to create a portfolio of interesting brands and do them in categories that are perhaps a little bit overlooked. I think to say it’s the next big thing is a bit pompous but overlooked things that are interesting but perhaps haven’t had the magic unlocked yet. 

The Hotel Starlino is available from Master of Malt. If you’re looking for some cocktail inspiration, go to the website.

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Five minutes with… Ron Welsh from Beam Suntory

As master blender and strategic inventory manager for Beam Suntory – which owns Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan and others – Ron Welsh has a better idea than most about what you’ll…

As master blender and strategic inventory manager for Beam Suntory – which owns Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan and others – Ron Welsh has a better idea than most about what you’ll be drinking in five, 10, and even 20 years time. Here, we discover how he and his team bring the company’s Scotch whisky forecasts to fruition…

You mightn’t have thought about it before, but the whiskies you’ll enjoy over the coming years are more than likely maturing in cask somewhere already. And the whiskies you’ll sip over the next few decades? They’re being distilled right about now. The work that goes into assembling our favourite drams is an intricate operation that relies on complex whisky forecasting, a decade or more in advance. 

As master blender and strategic inventory manager, Welsh is responsible for more than 800,000 individual casks of all ages destined for Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, Ardmore, McClelland’s and Teacher’s bottlings. Some casks will go into each brand’s flagship whiskies, while others will make up new expressions that are yet to be conceived. Here, Welsh shares insight into his unique role, lifting the lid on an aspect of whisky production we don’t often think about, but that is a fascinating and crucial one nevertheless. 

Ron Welsh in the tasting room

Master of Malt: Thanks for chatting with us, Ron! First things first, how did you start out in the whisky industry?

Ron Welsh: I’ve been in the industry for 27 and a half years, not long before I get to my 30th which looks set to fly by. It wasn’t an intentional start in the whisky industry, I’d previously had a role in steel making. I moved away from that voluntarily and was looking for a job in production and one of the jobs I applied for happened to be at Strathclyde grain distillery. I got the job and that was my start in whisky. I hadn’t really thought much about the final product – it was a couple of years before I realised what I was producing at the distillery was going to be in a bottle in a few years’ time! 

MoM: Could you share some insight into your role as master blender and strategic inventory manager?

RW: My main priorities are spirit quality, from new make to bottling, and inventory management: Do we have the right amount of stock in the right place to fulfil the forecasts that are coming in? [This means] planning all whisky movement. Moving new make from distilleries to filling stores, new make in cask from the filling stores to the warehouses. My team picks out all the casks for all our expressions that are going into a bottle when [the liquid] becomes mature, set to a recipe that I have laid down. They ensure that we get the casks out of the warehouses and through to the draining facility, so that we’ve got the whisky in vats and ready for bottling when they’re asked for. There’s a lot of stock moving around. We’ve got casks that are over 50 years old, so we’re looking back across 50 years of what we’ve laid down and matured. When we get a forecast, we look at what we’re going to use in the next 20 years, which is part of the inventory that’s already there. It also means looking at what we’re going to produce as new make spirit from each of the distilleries over the next five to 10 years, to give the business an idea of where we might need to expand, where we might need to invest in terms of warehousing. It’s also my role to put together what we require in terms of empty casks for filling, and what we need to purchase each year, and making sure we’ve got suppliers that meet our quality standards. 

MoM: Balancing inventory and planning production requirements for so many global Scotch brands simultaneously is a huge undertaking – how do you plan for the future?

RW: The sales forecast is put together by the commercial and marketing teams – they will dictate which markets we should be trying to invest in and how they see each individual expression growing over the next 10 to 20 years. They’ll send me a sales forecast for 20 years for all our expressions, so all the Laphroaigs – 10 Year Old, PX Cask, Triple Wood, etc. – all the Bowmores, all the Auchentoshans, all the Ardmores, all the Glen Garioch, the McClelland’s, and the Teacher’s, and from that I can then work out how many litres of alcohol we should’ve put in a cask at any given time. So, do we have enough 10 year old for this year’s Laphroaig 10 Year Old? And do we have enough 9 year old for next year’s 10 Year Old? And enough 8 year old for the 10 Year Old in two years’ time? And so on.

Wooden washbacks at Auchentoshan

MoM: What about expressions that haven’t been invented yet, how do you factor for those?

RW: We’re running quite a lot of new products these days and quite a lot of them are limited time offers (LTOs). If you do that every year, you know you’re going to consume some stock, so I put in a provision for LTOs and I’ll work closely with marketing to decide what we’re going to do over the next five to 10 years. We have a very good idea of what expressions we’re going to bring out over the next five years, and I’ve got a good idea of maybe from 5 to 10 years after that as well. What you tend to find is when you bring in a permanent new expression for a brand then you may well lose an expression that you already have, so you just need to ensure you’ve got the right stock to allow you to change from one to the other. 

MoM: There must be whisky coming through now which you helped lay down years ago. How does it feel to see fans of say, Laphroaig or Bowmore, rave about a release that you’ve seen progress from start to finish? 

RW: It’s really nice to see expressions that I have put a lot of work into over the years appreciated. For me, the biggest one would have to be Laphroaig Lore, which Jim Murray recognised as the best non-aged single malt in 2019. That was an eight-year development, just accentuating the peat smoke from Laphroaig to bring it up to another level. Really good. I’ve been in the industry long enough to see my work coming through in terms of inventory management from 10, 15 years ago. Did I do a good job at the time? Have I got the right stock ready to perform a forecast? I haven’t come across anything too bad at the moment!

MoM: Stylistically the new make from each distillery is very different, is there one in particular that feels especially exciting to experiment with?

RW: Well, they’re all really interesting to work with. You look at Laphroaig and you think, ‘oh, it’s such a powerful Islay, what could you do with a Laphroaig that would be exciting?’ but it can take some changes in maturation. Bowmore is just as exciting – it’s got a unique character which I haven’t often seen in terms of the way it changes over the years. It starts off with ripe orchard fruits and then as it gets older and older, that transforms into syrupy tropical fruits. It’s amazing when you’ve got a flight of Bowmore in front of you. Auchentoshan is triple distilled, it can take flavours on really quickly without getting totally lost. Because it’s a city distillery and a bit more edgy – an urban malt as we like to call it – you can do a bit more experimenting with slightly different casks. We’ve just brought out a Sauvignon Blanc-finished Auchentoshan which is lovely. Ardmore’s a really nice whisky as well – we’ve been making some changes at the distillery in terms of new make, and that’s starting to come through. And Glen Garioch – I’ve got a wee soft spot for Glen Garioch. It’s a very small brand and quite boutique. Great things are going to happen for that distillery. 

Whisky maturing at Bowmore

MoM: Do you think we are creating better and more complex malts and blends today than when you first started out?

RW: The industry has more control over how it makes whisky. It’s got better knowledge of how to make good whisky, and I think that those changes over the past 10 to 15 years where you’re controlling your mash, your fermentation, your distillation, are resulting in a more consistent product which is at the best quality that the raw materials can provide. That’s one side of it. The other side is that the type of barley that’s being used has changed over the decades to give a more agronomic yield, so you get more tonnes out of an acre of field, and better distillery yield, so you get more litres of alcohol per tonne you bring in. And that process has, in my opinion, changed the flavour profile of whiskies, and it’s changed it for everybody. Unless you’re still using some of the old varieties, like Golden Promise. So there’s making more consistent whisky that [is at the] best quality for the raw materials, but there’s also a change in the raw materials, which are probably not providing as much flavour as they were before – so it’s up to the distiller in making sure they produce the best flavour out of that malted barley.

MoM: And how about casks – has anything changed in that regard?

RW: The biggest change is probably in the sherry industry. Sherry sales have declined rapidly over the past 30 years, which means that the number of casks coming from sherry bodegas has declined. They’ve been replaced by seasoning houses, which make new casks and season them with whatever style of sherry you want, and for however long you want. That process has resulted in more consistent cask quality.

Bowmore looking all moody and windswept

MoM: So for distillers, it’s almost changed things for the better?

RW: In some instances, yes. When sherry producers put their casks into storage when they weren’t using them, they would often put sulphur candles inside and light them to ensure they didn’t get any fungus growing inside the casks. But those would be the casks that would then come across to Scotland to be filled with new make spirit, and that sulphury note would come through in the final product. Seasoning houses don’t use sulphur candles, so you don’t get that problem. Some of the casks over the past few years have been absolutely exceptional. But then again, if you had a good cask from a sherry bodega that hadn’t been sulphured, it would produce a really good whisky as well. 

MoM: When was the last time you were bowled over by something in the whisky industry?

RW: There’s a couple of different cask types we’ve purchased recently, I can’t divulge what they are, but they knocked my socks off in terms of the quality of spirit that they’re producing. I’m hoping to use some of those casks in a couple of products over the next 12 months. In terms of outside Beam Suntory, Brian Kinsman is producing some really nice single malts at Glenfiddich, the guys at Ardbeg produced a nice Pinot Noir-finish which is interesting. It’s good to look at what other people in the industry are doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Five minutes with… Cleo Farman from Diablesse Rum

Cleo Farman, the creator of the Diablesse Rum, joins us to talk about challenging preconceptions, betting her house on the brand and receiving a ‘Guardian of Rum’ commemorative coin from…

Cleo Farman, the creator of the Diablesse Rum, joins us to talk about challenging preconceptions, betting her house on the brand and receiving a ‘Guardian of Rum’ commemorative coin from Foursquare Distillery

In case you missed it, July is now the month of rum. In the spirit of things, we began this week with not one, but two new arrivals of delicious rums, then suggested some terrific expressions for you to enjoy, and we’ve still got National Piña Colada Day (10 July), National Mojito Day (11 July) and National Daiquiri Day (19 July) to look forward. And that’s not all, today we’re lasering in on one of the most exciting new brands to have launched in the UK recently, Diablesse Rum.

Its founder, Cleo Farman, joined for a virtual chat during the lockdown. Most of the previous year had entailed meetings, staff training and talking about her rums in person. Her focus had to shift to account for the pandemic, which means she’s been increasing her social media presence, responding to questions and comments, hosting live cocktail sessions that are then posted on YouTube, taking part in online rum tastings, overhauling the website with a rebrand and balancing all of the above with homeschooling her son. There’s already a lot to do given it was only a year ago that the Manchester-based brand launched a new range consisting of two signature products, Diablesse Caribbean Rum and Diablesse Clementine Spiced Caribbean Rum

The former marketing manager for Richard Branson’s Necker Island, Farman “fell in love with rum”, as she put it, on press trips to the Caribbean. For thirteen years she was also one of Manchester’s most well-known bar owners, with Odd, Oddest, Odder and the Blue Pig all being part of her roster, which provided a platform to further explore rum. By 2018 Farman had decided that her next adventure would be to launch her own brand and began formulating a plan to do so in March of that year. 

Diablesse Rum

Say hello to Cleo Farman, founder of Diablesse Rum!

Most of the early days of Diablesse Rum were spent visiting multiple distilleries and bringing back samples to experiment with, which Farman did in collaboration with The Main Rum. Every blend she made she would send to people in the trade, from chefs to bartenders, before she settled on the final blends n February 2019. “I’m fortunate to know a lot of wonderful industry professionals who helped, like Main Rum and Stephen James. What they don’t know about rum isn’t worth knowing in my opinion. They’ve offered me a lot of advice and information and most importantly told me not what to do”.

Farman makes it sound like a simple process. You know rum, you love rum, so you launch your own rum. But the process of creating a brand is rife with difficulties. “It’s insane! It’s so hard. You don’t realise something is going to be a hurdle until you’ve tried to overcome an obstacle and then find out there are even more obstacles you missed before. Raising the money and sorting the legislation is really tough. I put my house on Diablesse. That’s how much I believed in it,” Farman explains. “There’s a lot of conversations and inspections done with HMRC. You can’t start trading until you get the licenses but they take months to process, so what I did was develop the rum while I was waiting and hoping that I would be granted them”.

In the twelve months of trying, testing and tasting Farman had two basic principles: one being to, as she puts it, “let the rums speak for themselves,” which meant no adding any sugar or colouring and the second being that she would work with “establish, respected distilleries that have been doing this for a long time and have a lot of provenance and cultural relevance”. The three distilleries that ended up supplying the Diabelsse brand with rum with certainly fit that description: Foursquare, Worthy Park and the Diamond Distillery (fun fact: the latter still uses a 19th-century wooden Enmore column still which is thought to be the only still of its kind in operation today). Main Rum helped establish the connection, but Farman expertise and vision clearly sold the project. So much so that she received a ‘Guardian of Rum’ commemorative coin from Foursquare. A Richard Seale of approval, if you will. “It’s a massive honour and it means I’m on the right track. When I was given it I nearly burst into tears,” Farman admits, laughing. 

Diablesse Rum

Worthy Park Estate is one of three distilleries Farman has collaborated with

Diablesse Caribbean Rum features all three distilleries, including an eight-year-old pot and column still Bajan rum from Foursquare Distillery, a four-year-old Jamaican pot still rum from Worthy Park distillery and a three-year-old Guyanese (wooden) column still rum from the Diamond Distillery. All the rums in the blend have been aged in ex-bourbon casks in the Caribbean, so our friend tropical ageing plays a role here, before the rums are shipped to the UK, blended by Main Rum and bottled in Manchester to Farman’s preference, with no additional colouring or additives. 

Diablesse Caribbean Rum is refined rum that’s not overly sweet, which is the profile that Farman herself enjoys. “There’s this smooth, light Bajan rum at the core, with the power and funk of the Jamaican rum adding body and then the natural sweetness of the Demerara rum rounds it out,” she says. “This is a rum for people who know and love rum and value provenance and authenticity. They’ll want to know all the details of how it’s produced, which I’m transparent about”.

Diablesse Clementine Spiced Rum, by contrast, is an expression to welcome people into the delightful world of rum. A single origin and unaged Demerara rum from the Diamond Distillery which was flavoured with clementine and spices, it’s sweeter and has an accessible and delightfully mixable profile. Farman thinks this kind of premium spiced bottling can seduce gin drinkers who are looking for their next spirit love. She’s seen the beginnings of rum establishing a wider dominance in her role advocating her brand and trade shows and tastings. “When I began doing this at a show there’d be five gin stalls there. Now there are five rum stalls. Prior to the pandemic, I saw that the on-trade was increasingly requesting tastings and talks because they wanted to increase their rum range. Even during the lockdown, there’s been a wave of people wanting premium rums that they can experiment with at home”.

Diablesse Rum

Farman and Jones have created some truly delicious cocktails

Farman’s appreciation of cocktail culture has her well-placed to meet this demand. Along with award-winning Cottonopolis bartender Gethin Jones, she has created a number of delightful serves. She suggests the classic Daiquiri as a wonderful way to enjoy Diablesse Caribbean Rum and recommends the Chocolate Orange Negroni for the Diablesse Clementine Spiced Rum (I can confirm it’s also delicious in a regular Negroni), while both work well in Old Fashioneds and Sours. Her favourite, however, is Jones’ creation, the Mama Dlo. It represents Farman’s desire to create sophisticated, delicate and high-end serves. “Everyone immediately thinks of rum and Coke or ginger. But I want to help promote rum’s versatility. It’s great with all kinds of tonic water and can be used to make a number of amazing cocktails you might associate with different spirits”. 

This ability to challenge preconceptions of rum is of great importance to Farman as she’s aware that the category still carries some negative connotations. “Some people still think rum is a cheap party spirit that lacks versatility or sophistication. It’s worth remembering that gin overcame this problem. People used to call it mother’s ruin. Now look what’s happened. It’s about education,” Farman says. This perspective has also fuelled Farman’s desire to ensure that women don’t feel excluded from the joys of rum, which influenced her brand story and name. “I wanted to create a female inclusive brand. A lot of rum imagery is very bullish, featuring gods of the sea or pirates and captains. My rum is for everybody, but I wanted to have that female perspective. Hence why I chose La Diablesse, who is brilliant. She was a beautiful temptress from ancient Caribbean folklore and legend has it she had deals with the devil and would cast spells on unsuspecting men and lure them to their fate in the night”. 

Looking forward, Farman reveals that she’s currently working on a new expression, saying “I can’t tell you any more than that or I’ll have to kill you…” She’s hoping to launch relatively soon, but with the current climate, she’s biding her time to see when the best moment is. Farman admits that she’d love to release some cask strength, small-batch rums from the Caribbean. She also reveals she trademarked another brand that will release English rums but that it won’t be seen until much further down the line, adding that “I’d also love to have my own distillery, but that’s pushing it right now!” At the moment, the focus is on spreading the word about Diablesse Caribbean Rum and Diablesse Clementine Spiced Caribbean Rum. For my money, it should be an easy sell. These are well-balanced, versatile and delicious bottlings. You can taste the quality of the base rums in the blend and both have enough character to stand out even when mixed. I’ve had a very enjoyable time experimenting with them and I’d really recommend trying some of the Diablesse cocktail recipes on the website

You can both purchase Diablesse Caribbean Rum and Diablesse Clementine Spiced Caribbean Rum here.

Diablesse Rum

Diablesse Caribbean Rum Tasting Note:

Nose: The first thing I get is a really pleasant dose of Jamaican funk, with dunder notes and plenty of tropical fruit with overripe banana, chargrilled pineapple, papaya and citrus peel. There’s then plenty of sweet spices and vanilla fudge, as well as toffee apple, brown sugar, melted white chocolate, fresh herbs and a hint of sweetened coffee.

Palate: Dry, clean and delicately sweet, the palate has more of that tropical fruit blend (pineapple cubes mostly) and vanilla, with hints of lime and gooseberry adding a slightly sour and tart element. Peppery oak, black tea and the slightest touch of wasabi add real complexity as butterscotch and molasses make things sweeter as the palate moves towards the finish.

Finish: Long and lightly spiced, with a combination of vanilla and butterscotch making the finish quite sweet. 

Diablesse Rum

Diablesse Clementine Spiced Caribbean Rum Tasting Note:

Nose: Like a thick, full slice of Jamaican Ginger Cake that somebody has spread a huge heap of Seville orange marmalade on. That might sound strange but it’s beautiful. The blend of spice is complex and well balanced, with nutmeg, cinnamon, red chilli, then clove and star anise which give it a slight East Asian element. There’s a dollop of golden syrup, as well as dried fruit, vanilla and red cola cubes underneath. 

Palate: The palate is sweet, slick and has a liqueur-like delivery, which is then lifted by an aromatic and full-bodied hit of spice, mostly ginger. In fact, it’s like a slab of gingerbread. With marmalade on it. I’m not sure who’s spreading marmalade on all these desserts in my mind, but it’s definitely working for me. The clove is more pronounced here, as is the dark fruit note, adding more sweetness which Demrara sugar, toffee apples and another handful of cola cubes enhance.

Finish: The finish is a good length and has more of that spicy blend I like.

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Five minutes with… Mikkey Dee from Motörhead

The fastest, heaviest and loudest rock’n’roll band in history, Motörhead’s far-reaching influence on music can’t be overstated – and now, the band is making waves in the spirits world with its…

The fastest, heaviest and loudest rock’n’roll band in history, Motörhead’s far-reaching influence on music can’t be overstated – and now, the band is making waves in the spirits world with its own whisky, vodka, rum, and more. Here, we chat with legendary drummer Mikkey Dee on touring, his favourite drinks and Lemmy’s surprising love of Kinder eggs.

From their prolific back catalogue to their dedicated touring schedule, the trio behind Motörhead – late bassist and singer Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, drummer Mikkey Dee and guitarist Phil Campbell – never did anything by half measures. So when these pioneering rock icons started bottling their own booze, we had a feeling the liquid would be nothing short of incredible.

It took three years and an untold number of cask samples to finalise the recipe for Motörhead’s flagship single malt whisky, made in collaboration with Sweden’s Mackmyra Distillery, and this exacting attitude extends across the entire range: from Motörhead Vödka, made in the Swedish market town of Malmköping using locally-grown wheat, to a rum aged in ex-bourbon casks from the Dominican Republic.

Mikkey relaxing before a show with some on-brand booze

Behind the scenes the creative process has been an uncompromising and hands-on affair, with no detail left unchecked, as drummer Mikkey Dee attests. As Motörhead Premium Dark Rum bags yet another tasting award, its fourth in a little over a year, we caught up with Dee to talk Motörhead Spirits, memorable shows, and the contents of their rider:

Master of Malt: First things first, how did the Motörhead spirits range first come about, who came up with the idea?

Mikkey Dee: Lem always had a dream to make his own drinks brand. We were all on board. Drinking together was a big part of our life, so why not have drinks to call our own! Lemmy also wanted a legacy beyond the music, something else that could keep the spirit of Motörhead alive for years. That’s when the vodka was created, Lem had moved to drinking vodka and orange juice more than other spirits once he was diagnosed with diabetes.  

MoM: Tell us about the process of creating each one – how involved were you, Lemmy and Phil?

MD: It’s got our name on it, so we’re involved in everything. It always started with a product idea – what Lem or we enjoyed drinking, then also thinking of the fans and what they would like and want to see from us. We’re involved in it all, from choosing the liquid, to naming the products and bottle and label design. Lemmy really liked the creative part, he knew how he wanted the bottles to look. I remember we were in the studio recording mixes for Bad Magic when we were brought samples of the Single Malt Whisky – Lem chose it right there. It took three years of tasting to find the right one!

MoM: Motörhead Premium Dark Rum has just won its fourth spirit award. How does it feel for the liquid you created to be recognised in its own right?

MD: We work really hard on our drinks for the quality and we are ready to take on anyone – that’s always been the Motörhead way. The quality was always really important to Lem and will continue to be for anything else we do in the future.

Motörhead’s award-winning rum. Count those medals!

MoM: Could you share a story about a time the band shared a memorable drink together? Where were you, and what made it memorable?

MD: We were doing a show in Stockholm in 2015 at the Hovet Arena. We got together before the show and had some of our drinks there – our lager and the Single Malt Whisky, which was Lem’s favourite. The whisky is made in Sweden by Mackmyra so he called it his ‘Swhisky’ for Swedish Whisky. It was one of the last shows we did together before Lem passed, so I’ll always remember it.

MoM: This isn’t your only spirits project, you also opened Alabama in Paris last year. What made you want to open your own bar, and did you have a specific vision in mind?

MD: Yes I actually got asked by a friend of mine – Sofia – if I wanted to be a part of the bar opening. I had just shut down my other bar in Tenerife which was called Mikkey Dee Rock Lounge. I thought it was a great opportunity and decided to do it with Sofia. The bar is right at Plaza Republic, super central. We have all the Motörhead drinks there and also some merchandise. We really brought in the feeling of Motörhead; a little bit of memorabilia! That was the vision. I try to get there as often as I can but it hasn’t been too much recently.

MoM: What’s your go-to drink of choice when you’re playing a show? And how about when you’re relaxing at home?

MD: I’m not complicated, I like a simple lager. We have our Bastards Lager available around the world – hopefully soon in the UK too!  


MoM: You were in Motörhead for 23 years. How did the band’s approach to touring change over time – were the later tours as rock’n’roll as the earlier ones?

MD: Absolutely. With Motörhead the problem we had was Lem couldn’t stay at home! That old bastard never wanted to stop. We had just got back from four or five months’ touring in Europe and the US, I flew home to Sweden and two weeks later Lem called and said, ‘Hey what’s going on, should we go out again?’. I’d say to him, ‘We need to have time off!’ and he’d say, “Fuck it, we should get going now!” The approach was never-ending, being on the road all the time, even in the later years.

MoM: What might we find on a typical Motörhead rider?

MD: We weren’t really that particular to tell you the truth. We were easy going. Lemmy liked bourbon, whisky, and vodka and orange. On my rider – beer, a bottle of whisky, water. Snacks: fruit. The only weird shit was Lemmy was obsessed with Cadbury Kinder Eggs. He didn’t eat the chocolate but loved the gift on the inside. Sometimes he opened the egg and there was a finished piece instead of one you put together and he’d say, ‘This is a shit batch!’ He liked to make the toy himself. My boys would sometimes be backstage with us and would go into Lemmy’s dressing room before the show to hang out – then they’d come into my room and said to me, ‘Hey dad, Lemmy doesn’t eat the chocolate!’ with shocked faces.

MoM: Motörhead will be remembered as one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Could you share one of your career highlights from your time in the band?

MD: Oh my god, so many. Basically every time you walk off stage – you felt that was it, no one can follow this. You felt you gave it all. I remember we didn’t care much for awards shows and all three of us had the same attitude – how do you compete in music, why should this song or album win an award over this or that. We always got awarded by our fans and that was enough for us. That’s where the real deal is. But, when we did win a Grammy, Lem was very proud. I could see and feel that. And of course me and Phil as well. Not so much because we won – more that someone finally gave us a little bit more space and attention in this world. I thought that was fair. I’m glad Lemmy got to experience that, he deserved it. The band deserved it too after so many years of total rock and travelling the world. I don’t think we had one bad record. It was nice to be awarded for that from the industry.

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Five minutes with… Simon Rucker, co-founder of Nine Elms

Tannic and full-bodied like red wine, aromatised like vermouth, Nine Elms No.18 is the first in a range of alcohol-free drinks specifically designed to complement good food. Here, we speak…

Tannic and full-bodied like red wine, aromatised like vermouth, Nine Elms No.18 is the first in a range of alcohol-free drinks specifically designed to complement good food. Here, we speak to co-founder Simon Rucker to find out the story behind his game-changing creation…

Nine Elms No.18 is unlike any other low-and-no alcohol option on the market, having been developed specifically to complement gastronomy. Initially modelled on the characteristics of wine – “acidity, tannins, fruit, flavour, body, length; the retronasal smell,” says co-founder Simon Rucker – it has evolved into a wine-vermouth hybrid that’s delightful served as a straight pour, stirred into a cocktail, or simply enjoyed with a splash of tonic, ice and a slice of citrus.

You might not know Rucker’s name, but you’ll likely recognise his work. A product designer by training, he’s designed shoes for Paul Smith and Caterpillar, worked on the Ford Fiesta, shaped Diageo’s provenance-led approach to Guinness, and helped transform Samsung into the premium consumer electronics brand it is today. “I had some ability to spot trends and understand what they meant in terms of changing consumer needs,” Rucker says. “And because I was a product designer, I was also able to conceive what the new products that would fit into that demand space would be.”

His biggest and lengthiest project came about when the company Rucker worked for was asked to “solve the smoking problem”. He spent almost 15 years working on e-cigarettes – and e-cigarette-type products – and became fascinated by the “supertanker of death” tobacco industry. It was there he met future business partner Zoltan Szucs-Farkas, who was head of strategy and insights at British American Tobacco. “We bonded on this interest in, ‘How do you turn around a massive supertanker of death like the cigarette industry and deviate it to something more sustainable?’,” he says. 

It was in a corporate dining room on the eighth floor of British American Tobacco’s vast London office building where the duo first identified the need for a non-alcoholic drink designed for upscale dining. The tobacco company was among the first to frown upon boozy business meetings and banned alcohol outright early on, so lunch and dinner guests were offered cans of Diet Coke and bottles of J2O instead. “It was incongruous,” says Rucker. “It’s a bit like going to a fine dining restaurant and eating with a plastic fork. The conversation came up between us, ‘Why isn’t there anything that fits in this space?’, but it was always just out of intellectual interest. There was no, ‘What if…?’.”

Nine Elms works as a cocktail ingredient as well as a standalone drink

The ‘what if?’ would come five years later, when Rucker and Szucs-Farkas – working for different companies and ready for a career change – met for lunch in Shoreditch one afternoon. “We were both at a stage of our lives, middle-aged white men – the classic ‘male, pale and stale’ – slightly jaundiced by 20 to 30 years of suckling from the corporate teat, but with a bit of money in the bank,” he says.Normally I’d have a glass of wine or two if we had lunch, but Zoltan couldn’t because he had a client call, and the conversation popped up again. We decided to go for it.”

Motivated by the concept of “a non-wine product that behaved like wine”, they spent 18 months talking with universities about the intricacies of hydrocolloids (gums that stop drinks from separating) and liaising with drinks innovation specialists who were hell-bent on creating a slightly fancier version of Shloer (a sparkling grape juice drink). Not only does alcohol trigger your brain’s reward system to release dopamine, the ‘feel good’ hormone, but it’s also an excellent flavour carrier with a mouthfeel that’s nigh-on impossible to recreate. Unless you add heapings of sugar, of course, which didn’t fit with their vision.

Eventually the duo met a former technical developer from Diageo, who found the solution in plant form. “When you break wine down into its components, you want something fruity, spicy, and a bit bitter – and that basically means botanicals and fruit juices,” says Rucker. “Grape juice is pretty boring until you ferment it, and then the yeast creates all these crazy natural chemicals, which is why wine tastes so good. And typically what yeast is producing is often replicated by a plant somewhere else in a different form.”

After much experimenting they settled on the 18th recipe (hence the name), which married the juice of four types of berry with distillates and extracts of 20 different flowers, herbs and spices. A gastronomy journalist and Master of Wine were among the first to sample Nine Elms No.18, paired with a medium-rare steak (plus a glass of house Pinot Noir and house Merlot for comparison’s sake) at private members’ club Soho House. It went down a treat. In fact, both experts preferred Nine Elms to the wine options they were served. 

Nine Elms answers this question of what to drink when you’re not drinking

After years of research and development, Rucker and Szucs-Farkas had realised their goal: to create a viable non-alcohol alternative for high-end eating occasions. “Rather than trying to regulate away – or prohibit – problematic behaviour, my approach has always been to come up with a product that encourages people to make better choices,” Rucker explains. “It’s a truism in life, the carrot and the stick. You need to persuade people, and the best way of persuading people is by providing a better alternative.”

They finally had the liquid. But what about the name? “We realised that the past is a good starting point,” Rucker says. “Most creativity is looking back on what’s been done before and imagining it differently, so we started looking at the history around Vauxhall and the Pleasure Gardens.” Set against the backdrop of the gin craze, Jonathan Tyers’ gardens, adjacent to the Nine Elms area south of the river, defined the city’s nightlife in the 18th and 19th centuries. “He created a walled garden of delights where entertainment was the alternative stimulation versus alcohol,” Rucker says. “Tyers was one of the first people to publicly display art and sculpture, one of the first to put an orchestra in public on a dais. There was food and music. He basically invented mass entertainment, and it was all because he was trying to get Londoners off the booze.”

We’ve come a long way since the rampant alcoholism of the early 18th century. But even in 2020 – whether we’re in a high-end restaurant or enjoying dinner at home – a rich and indulgent meal can feel incomplete without a glass of something-or-other in-hand. And it’s this mealtime occasion where Nine Elms really shines.

Nine Elms no. 18 is available from Master of Malt.

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