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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Mezcal

The peculiar allure of smoked drinks

Whisky, salmon, salt, mezcal, paprika – you name it, we’ll put smoke in it. But why do we love the flavours and aromas of smoke in our drinks so much?…

Whisky, salmon, salt, mezcal, paprika – you name it, we’ll put smoke in it. But why do we love the flavours and aromas of smoke in our drinks so much? Millie Milliken asks those in the know, and tries to explain the peculiar allure of smoked drinks.

Most summers of my late teens were spent sitting around a firepit into the early hours, a bowl of Strongbow cider in one hand (we’d run out of cups) and a powerless, useless Nokia in the other. For the weeks that followed everything smelt of smoke. Everything, no matter how much vinegar or baking soda it was bathed in.

Corte Vetusto

Mezcal cooking the traditional way (image courtesy of Corte Vestusto)

While the smell of smoke certainly isn’t for everyone, for myself – and countless Scotch and mezcal drinkers – the addition of smoke aromas and flavours are (if well balanced) a welcome characteristic in a drink. When I ask Deano Moncrieffe, owner of agave bar Hacha in London, whether he thinks smoke is becoming a more popular flavour for customers, his answer is less than vague: “100% yes! We now have many customers coming to a bar and asking for smoky cocktails,” he tells me.

He’s also seen more and more bars using the word ‘smoke’ on their menus to describe a cocktail in the knowledge that “consumers won’t be afraid of the word when they see it”. Smoked Negronis, Smoked Daiquiris and Smoked Old Fashioneds – even Smoky Martinis – have all passed my lips.

Getting lit

Smoke in drinks isn’t anything new. There’s the use of peat in Scotch (particularly from Islay) whisky production which, when burned, produces a range of smoky flavours (or compounds called phenols). Or while the traditional method of cooking agave in pits to make mezcal imparts a smoky flavour ranging from the subtle to the volcanic. But why do we like the smell and taste of smoke so much? And why in our drinks?

In a 2014 article for the Washington Post, ‘Smoke: Why we love it for cooking and eating’, barbecue and grill expert (yes) Jim Shahin traces it all back to our ancestry: “Of the three elements of flavour [taste, physical stimulation and smell], it’s smell that rocks our dawn-of-man world,” he writes. “That’s because the sense is lodged in an ancient part of the brain called the limbic system, which houses emotion and long-term memory. Smells trigger personal memories as well as atavistic, or ancestral, ones. ‘In evolutionary terms, we all started cooking with fire,” Marcia Pelchat, a sensory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says. “That smoky smell is a really strong stimulus’.”

When relating this directly to whisky, Charles MacLean in his 2004 book MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky agrees. “Perhaps the big Islays, the smokiest of all malt whiskies, recollect the whiskies of the past. And perhaps one of the reasons for their current popularity is their ‘authenticity’, their ‘heritage’. An atavistic folk memory, like candles and open fires, Christmas trees and stormy nights.”

Burnt Ends

Burnt Ends – it’s pretty smoky

Let it burn

For Sam Simmons, head of whisky at Atom Brands (Master of Malt’s sister company), seeking out smoke can be something to boast about: “Seeking out smoky whisky is almost like a badge of honour in the [same] way [as] higher ABV, or IBU (International Bitterness Units) in beer or SHU (Scoville Heat Units) in chilli sauces.” One product to come out of Atom Labs in the last year is Burnt Ends, a blended whisky from Scotland and the USA, combining a 4-year-old Tennessee rye whiskey with a heavy sherried 10-year-old Islay whisky. As the name suggests, the liquid conjures plenty of smoke.

Simmons also mentions the other methods Atom uses to get smoke into their whiskies, such as using casks that held peaty whisky to hold unpeated malt to get some of that character. He also notes that in the USA, he knows distillers who infuse raw materials (corn, wheat, rye or malt) with hickory, cherry, apple or other woods to obtain a certain flavour that get carried through mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation. While others infuse the final spirit with smoke from particular woods, aerating or allowing the smoke to flow through the spirit itself. And when it comes to Iceland and Australia, “I know distillers who use dried livestock dung to dry their barley”. Tasty.

When mezcal brand The Lost Explorer came onto the scene in 2020, the agave category was going from strength to strength and bringing more smoke into peoples’ palates. “The Lost Explorer is what I would describe as agave led or agave forward in its flavour and as you progress through the varietals, the smoke aroma changes and develops in different ways,” explains Moncrieffe who acts as the brands ambassador in the UK.

What determines the smoke profile in the three expressions is the cooking time, the amount of volcanic rock and the reclaimed wood used. He describes the Espadin as having “sweet smoke”; the Tobala a “more cigar kind of smoke” and the Salmiana as “more spiced smoke”.

1881 shots

The still at 1881 distillery in Scotland

Smoke on water

It isn’t just whisky and mezcal that can bring the smoke. The Chase Distillery (previously of Tyrells crisps fame) launched an oak-smoked vodka in 2010, designed to use in Bloody Marys while more recently, Scotland’s 1881 Distillery (which opened in 2018) launched its own smoked gin, Rafters. The distillery, which is housed within the Peebles Hydro Hotel takes inspiration from a fire that ripped through the original hotel in 1905.

“We use fresh oak smoked water to achieve a light, savoury smokiness,” says head distiller Dean McDonald of how they created the smoky expression of their original 1881 Gin. “We didn’t want heavy peat smoke-style phenolic flavours that may have overwhelmed the carefully considered balance of our botanicals.”

Achieving that sweet spot of smoke intensity is judged by taste and smell alone, as the smoke intensity in the water can vary. For McDonald the smokiness of the gin brings out the spicier notes while also adding a velvety creaminess, and is an expression that would suit smoke lovers as well as drinkers of dark spirits like rum or whisky.

That whisper of smoke – as opposed to a shout – is something that Simmons finds appealing too: “In blending, a little smoky whisky goes a long way and, in tiny amounts, doesn’t always even register as smoke but as some sort of umami, some memory of Maillard effect – it just adds that yummy yummy.”

Header image courtesy of Kilchoman.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Disco Picante

This week we’re shaking up one of the snazziest-looking cocktails we’ve seen in a while. It’s sexy, it’s spicy and it’s called the Disco Picante! And for the second week…

This week we’re shaking up one of the snazziest-looking cocktails we’ve seen in a while. It’s sexy, it’s spicy and it’s called the Disco Picante! And for the second week in a row, we’ve mentioned Tom Cruise in Cocktail. There must be something in the air.

There’s something that just screams ‘80s about a blue cocktail. It’s Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, summer holidays in Tenerife or Tom Cruise in Cocktail. In that film. Cruise shakes up a drink called a Turquoise Blue, aka a Turquoise Daiquiri, combining white rum, triple sec, lime juice, pineapple juice and the all important blue Curaçao. 

Brilliant blue

For a long time, blue Curaçao was perhaps the naffest ingredient in a bartender’s armory. It’s not authentic, it’s not small-batch, nobody is going to get a blue Curaçao tattoo, unless they’re really drunk. But that’s part of its charm. Cocktails aren’t meant to be about beard stroking and willfully obscure ingredients, they’re meant to be fun and blue Curaçao is nothing if not fun.

It’s just orange Curaçao so it is sweet, orangey with a little bitterness but with the addition of a synthetic food colouring known as Brilliant Blue. You probably ate your bodyweight in synthetic colouring as a child, I know I did, and it never did me any harm. 

Disco Picante

None more blue

Blue planet

For a couple of years now, bar trend types have predicted that fun cocktails would be coming back in.  You know the sort of ones that you would order on holiday with a giggle like the Sex on the Beach or the Screaming Orgasm. The fact that this is the second week in a row we’ve mentioned Tom Cruise in the CoW slot, suggests that there is indeed something going on. Perhaps, the post-Covid roaring ‘20s really are happening. Heaven knows, we could all do with a bit of light-hearted fun at the moment. 

Like our Cocktail of the Week. Called the Disco Picante, let’s just pause there to reflect on what a great name this is, it’s a sort of halfway house between an ‘80s holiday cocktail and something a bit more grown-up. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s blue, and quite sweet, but it’s also spicy and made with smoky mezcal so there are some quite challenging flavours in there. For the spice element, you can use a spice liqueur like Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur or Giffard Piment. Or make your own chilli liqueur, it’s very easy, or just add something spicy like brine from a jar of jalapeno peppers.

Blue juice

The Disco Picante was created by Sarah Ben Saoud who swapped the corporate world for a life behind the bar. She said her favourite cocktail is a Dry Martini but she also has “an extreme weakness for a disco drink” when she’s in the mood. ‘I like disco drinks because they come from a time before roto vaps, sous vides, infusions and fat washing. There’s basically zero wankiness attached to them and I like that. They are just unapologetically garish and in your face, and more often than not they are absolutely delicious!” she explained.

And today’s Cocktail of the Week is nothing if not a disco drink: it’s blue and it has the word ‘disco’ in the title. You could use ordinary orange Curaçao but then it wouldn’t be blue and therefore not disco. Saoud explained: “we all know blue drinks are the best drinks. Seriously though, the colour is just wonderful. A drink with blue Curaçao in it makes me happy just looking at it. I couldn’t live without it.”

Following a stint at a bar called Bandra Bhai beneath an Indian restaurant which is described in the press bumf as: “delightfully tacky,” Saoud is just about to start a new role at The Duchess of Dalston in East London. She said that it’s “currently a building site but in the process of being finished in the next few weeks.” Let’s hope she puts the Disco Picante on the menu.

Right, stick on some  appropriate music, and get shaking. Do you wanna funk with me? Yes, yes I do.

Here’s how to make a Disco Picante

45ml Recuerdo Joven Mezcal
10ml De Kuyper Blue Curaçao
25ml lime juice
10ml agave syrup
15ml spice liqueur such as Giffard Piment D’Espelette or Ancho Reyes 

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Serve in rocks or Highball glass over fresh ice. Garnish with lime or jalapeño pepper.

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A spotlight on… Sin Gusano

The Sin Gusano range is all about small-batch, authentic, and delicious agave spirits. The kind of booze we probably would have never tasted were it not for founder Jon Darby….

The Sin Gusano range is all about small-batch, authentic, and delicious agave spirits. The kind of booze we probably would have never tasted were it not for founder Jon Darby. We spoke to him to find out why he swapped the city for spirits, how he aims to introduce people to a whole other world of mezcal, and more.

Jon Darby doesn’t have a background in drinks or hospitality. He worked for a decade in finance, then tried his hand at being a financial journalist. Frustrated with his career, he took a break to Mexico in 2016. There he was introduced to mezcal, inspiration struck and everything changed. “I didn’t really know anything about mezcal before then. My friend Alvin Starkman runs a company called Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca and he developed these relationships with these really small-time producers. You head out with just him in the car and see all kinds of family-based production. It was mind-blowing for me. I realised I wanted to work in mezcal,” he says.

He called his boss from the beach and quit his job, eventually extending a ten-day stay into three months, hiring cars, knocking on doors, and asking around looking for small-batch mezcal to enjoy. “I would just go in looking for telltale signs of mezcal production, usually a big stone wheel in a field. Generally, people were welcoming and friendly and you could buy a little copita (a plastic shot) from the local tienda (store). When I came back, I thought I’d go to London’s mezcal bars. As it turned out, there was really nowhere that was anywhere near the level of interest that I’d found in Mexico. That was a lightbulb moment”.

Darby exploited this gap in the market and turned this passion into his own brand: Sin Gusano. It means ‘without worm’ in Spanish, which Darby describes as a “piss-take of the outdated perception that mezcal is just rough tequila with a worm in the bottle”. The idea for his brand was to bottle some of the family-made spirits he tasted and leave behind the gimmicks and slick marketing. Before he could source and import his own spirits, he opened a pop-up in Brunswick East, a cafe in London, in May 2017 mainly selling other brands and a couple of samples he brought back. 

Sin Gusano

A trip to Mexico changed everything for Jon Darby

Sin Gusano: a different kind of brand

An almost year-long residency followed in 2018 in Haggerston, then in 2019 a collaborative pop-up with Pensador Mezcal in Soho. For obvious reasons, the pop-ups dried up, but Darby now runs a subscription service called the Mezcal Appreciation Society, which fills the gap of a place where people can engage and get to know the product better. This is not a typical brand, so education is key. “I want people to see what I found in Mexico because the reason I got so inspired because it was such a rich experience. These kinds of mezcals can seem unattainable and hard to get your head around if someone just puts it in front of you with no information and a hefty price tag”. Eventually, he has plans to have his own space with a tasting room, bar and shop.  

So far Darby has bottled 18 different distillates from 12 different producers in three different states under the Sin Gusano name. Another 12 are on the way. They are all limited releases, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s certainly not the easiest way to create a brand. Doing it Darby’s way means more distance traveled, shipping, bottling, and labeling. More relationships to build. “It’s a massive logistical headache. But this has been a passion product for me. I’m rejecting the typical brand approach where you find one producer, strike a deal, buy as much of their product as you can and put all your money into branding to tell everybody that that’s the best version of that product in the world. I’m saying ‘there is no one best; they are all fascinating and it’s up to you to decide what your palate prefers’. It’s like the opposite of Casamigos”. 

The Sin Gusano range is also a tremendous example of the terroir that exists with agave-based spirits. “That’s where mezcal should be going, talking about agave variety and regional varieties. Three Espadíns made in three different places taste completely different. It’s an internal debate within mezcal right now, as the industry promotes certain standards of production but it doesn’t give any particular kudos to regionality. And if mezcal is going to grow sustainably then different regional variations are going to need to be protected and understood”. 

Sin Gusano

Education is crucial to understanding what Sin Gusano is trying to achieve

Not quite mezcal

Darby is not a fan of the regulatory body that protects mezcal, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. And you can understand his frustration. Everything he bottles is essentially mezcal but cannot always be called that because the legislation is too constrictive. “It doesn’t protect all these massively different profiles. Take our spirit made from the tepextate plant. It’s the rarest agave and takes the longest time to reach maturity, some people say 30-35 years. It has a lower sugar content, yield, and higher methanol levels, about 450mg, or 0.45%. But the legal methanol limits imposed on the mezcal certification is 0.3%. It’s an arbitrary number. The EU legal limit for methanol is 1.5%. It’s not that it’s safer to drink, it’s just that they haven’t thought about the perspective of protecting biodiversity when they’ve made the mezcal regulation. It’s been thought through from the perspective of ‘how do we commercialise something and sell shitloads of it’. 

Championing the craft and heritage of these small-batch agave spirits doesn’t just extend to creating the Sin Gusano brand, however. The project is now officially carbon neutral, with Darby carrying out a full analysis of his supply chain and purchasing credits to offset it. The aim will be to reduce that creation year on year and, in line with the legal requirement, he plans to make the full report and certification visible on my website in the coming days. Darby adds that “this might make us the first carbon-neutral agave spirits bottles in the world,” and to be honest I can’t evidence of another at present.

Darby also donates 10% of UK profits back to Mexican charities. The main charity partner is the Chicago-based S.A.C.R.E.D (‘Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development’), who work with NGOs and people on the ground in Mexico to improve local communities and ensure more sustainable practices. “They implemented a rainwater-catching system to reduce their need for imported water, they built a library in a mezcal-producing community, they have a project that donates agave pups to an agricultural school that’s teaching people how to grow more varied types of agave from seed. As I said before, this is a passion project. The ambition is not to sell my brand for millions of dollars. It’s to go to Mexico and engage in the craft I really enjoy while supporting the things that I think are deserving of support”. 

Sin Gusano

You can find plenty of the Sin Gusano range right here at Master of Malt!

Highlights of the range:

Sin Gusano Cuishe & Coyote – Amatlan

Produced from a duo of wild Cuishe and Coyote agave, released as part of the Sin Gusano range. It’s distilled in a copper alembic with refrescador, which is a method using a condenser that essentially allows for two distillations during a single pass through the still. 

Nose: So fragrant and fruity, with roasted apricot, tangy pineapple, creamy coconut, cucumber, and a little corn on the cob with some oaky smoke, black pepper, and some mineral-rich earthiness in support.

Palate: The agave is fresh and sweet and joined by more ripe tropical fruits, toffee, lightly smoked pepper, fresh mint, hints of potpourri, and mixed spices.

Finish: Some orchard fruit joins in the fun among a little caramel and flinty minerality.

Sin Gusano Espadín – San Luis del Rio 

This unaged spirit from Sin Gusano was produced from the most common agave variety, Espadín in San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca, and bottled at 42.8% ABV. 

Nose: Olive brine, charred bell peppers, a little petrichor, and cucumber lead with smoke from a spent bonfire, watermelon, a touch of tropical fruit, and some sweetness from white chocolate and raspberry bar. 

Palate: Plenty of sweet agave is at the core of this palate which has some pleasant earthiness and an almost chalky quality. Notes of wood smoke, white pepper, floral honey, cedar, lime peel, and red fruit are present throughout.

Finish: A delicately sweet finish lingers with some citrus and mineral qualities.

Sin Gusano Tobala & Tepextate – Amatlan

This vegetal number, produced in Amatlan marries the Tobala and Tepextate agave varieties, with 75% and 25% of each variety respectively.

Nose: Bruised pears, roasted agave, dried grass, and some fragrant smoke are present among notes of orange peel, charred pineapple, strawberry milkshake, and wet pebbles.

Palate: Through more of that minerality comes tart citrus, green apple, eucalyptus, garden herbs, vegetal oak, and charcoal smoke.

Finish: Peppery spice flickers through some tangy fruit.

Sin Gusano Tobaziche – Amatengo

This particular release was distilled by Maestro Sergio Juárez Patricio in San Augustin Amatengo using Tobaziche agave crushed by a tahona wheel pulled by two bulls. After a four-day open-air fermentation, the agave is distilled in a copper alembic still with a refrescador.

Nose: Smoke-dried grass, numbing sichuan peppercorn, dried flowers, stone fruit, chilli chocolate, and a little ground cinnamon are supported by a gentle wave of mineral-rich smoke.

Palate: Sweet and aromatic spice weaves through waxy orange peel, soft cooked agave, dried earth, pink peppercorn, anise, and underlying notes of caramelised banana and toffee apples

Finish: Ripe green apple, cinnamon, and flinty minerality.

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Top ten: Mexican spirits for Cinco de Mayo

Today, Cinco de Mayo, is Mexico’s national day of celebration so, if you want to get involved, we’ve picked some bottles to help you get in the mood. And not…

Today, Cinco de Mayo, is Mexico’s national day of celebration so, if you want to get involved, we’ve picked some bottles to help you get in the mood. And not just Tequila and mezcal, there’s also rum, whisky and more!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ll know that we are pretty keen on Mexican’s finest produce. Why only last week we ran a profile of Don Julio Tequila. But did you know there’s more to Mexico and booze than Tequila and mezcal? So as the world gears up to celebrate Mexico’s national holiday, Cinco de Mayo, we round-up some of our favourite bottles from one of our favourite countries. Naturally, we’ve also included some agave-based action in there. We’re not complete mavericks.


El Destilado Rum

If you’re a fan of rhum agricole, grassy pungent spirits from the French-speaking Caribbean, then you’ll love El Destilado. Like agricole, this is made from raw sugar cane rather than molasses and fermented with wild yeasts.

What does it taste like?

Slightly tangy with green apple and white grape, with cut grass and peppercorn spice in support.


Sierra Norte Yellow Corn

Whisky from Mexico, whatever next? It’s made from 85% native Oaxacan yellow corn fermented with 15% malted barley. Sounds like a recipe for a bourbon-like whisky, but the distillate is then aged in French oak for a taste that’s completely unique.

What does it taste like?

Buttered popcorn, vanilla cream and cloves, with smoky barrel char and a nutty floral finish.


Ilegal Joven Mezcal

Don’t worry, this isn’t actually illegal (the spelling is slightly different). We wouldn’t sell anything that wasn’t legal. This unaged mezcal is in Oaxaca using traditional methods, like roasting the agave in an earthen pit for a rich full flavour. 

What does it taste like?

Sweet caramel, peppermint and smoky agave with hints of raisins, dried herbs and black pepper.


Nixta Licor de Elote 

You can probably tell by the name, if not the shape of the bottle, what the star of this liqueur is – corn. This liqueur from Nixta is made from maize grown surrounding the Nevado de Toluca volcano, so it’s packed full of buttery corn sweetness at 30% ABV. 

What does it taste like?

Buttered popcorn and fresh sweetcorn, swiftly followed by silky caramel. This would be great in an Old Fashioned. 


El Rayo Plata Tequila

El Rayo Tequila pays homage to the legend that lightning struck an agave plant, cooking it and creating the first ever Tequila. This particular expression is made from Blue Weber agave distilled twice in 105 year old copper pot stills.

What does it taste like?

Exceptionally smooth and gentle, with an oily mouthfeel, notes of citrus, lots of earthy agave and a hint of flinty minerals, with a warming peppery finish.


Mezcal Amores Espadin 

This is the latest edition of Mezcal Amores’ Espadín-based mezcal. The producers work with small agave growers to plant ten agaves for each one they use, and make sure they’re paying the mezcaleros they’re working with a fair price.

What does it taste like?

Fresh vanilla and citrus blossom, balanced by spicy herbs, wood smoke and leafy coriander.


Drinks by the Dram 12 Dram Tequila & Mezcal Collection 

If you can’t make your mind up what to buy, then why not get this collection? In that stylish box there are 12 different 30ml wax-sealed drams of absolutely delicious Tequila and mezcal from some of Mexico’s best producers. 

What does it taste like?

What doesn’t it taste like? There are 12 delicious agave-based wonders to explore in here.


Ocho Blanco Tequila 2019 (La Laja) 

Sadly, the man behind Ocho Tequila, Tomas Estes died last week. But his son Jesse is keeping the flag flying for single rancho (field), single vintage Tequila. This unaged bottling was made with agave harvested from La Laja, named after a type of flat stone which you’ll find many of in this particular field. 

What does it taste like?

Waves of fresh mint and cooked agave sweetness, leading into dried herbs, green olive, warming, peppery spice and subtle smoke.


Montelobos Joven Mezcal

Montelobos Joven Mezcal is made with espadin agave and distilled by mezcal guru Iván Saldaña. You can read an interview with the man himself here. It also offers a really stylish bottle with a rather ferocious-looking wolf on the label.

What does it taste like?

Wood smoke and green pepper freshness on the nose, with a tropical fruit and powerful smoke character on the nose. 


Storywood Double Oak Añejo

Scotland, Spain and Mexico meet in one bottle thanks to this añejo Tequila from Storywood. This Double Oak expression has spent 14 months in both Scotch whisky barrels and Oloroso sherry casks. It was bottled at cask strength, 53% ABV.

What does it taste like?

Honeyed roasted agave sweetness, with jammy forest fruits, oak spice and dried fig.

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Top ten: Independent spirits brands

Today, we’re striking a blow for independence with ten delicious bottlings from brands that aren’t part of big drinks companies. So, from a Maryland-style rye whiskey to single estate vodka,…

Today, we’re striking a blow for independence with ten delicious bottlings from brands that aren’t part of big drinks companies. So, from a Maryland-style rye whiskey to single estate vodka, here are some of the best independent spirits brands out there.

Most big booze brands are owned by huge multinational companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Not that that’s a bad thing. We love Johnnie Walker Black Label and Beefeater, distilled by Desmond Payne in south London, is one of our go-to gins. But without a thriving independent scene, our drinks cabinet would be a lot less exciting. 

Happily, thanks to some pioneering distilleries such as Sipsmith, now part of Beam Suntory, there are now countless new brands turning out high quality, delicious and idiosyncratic boozes for all your drinking pleasure. From pungent mezcal to world-spanning Japanese blends, here are ten of the best independent spirits brands money can buy.


Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye

Much of the explosion in whiskey labels comes from independent bottlers who buy and blend spirits to create something a bit different. This is one case in point being a Maryland-style of rye which is sweeter than normal. It’s blended from two whiskeys sourced from Indiana, brought down to bottling strength with limestone-filtered water from Sagamore Farm.

How do I drink it?

Those sweet milky coffee and pistachio ice cream flavours are just crying out for an Old Fashioned


Portobello Road No. 171 Gin

Portobello Road Gin is distilled on the actual Portobello Road in west London. It was founded by top bartender Jake Burger and Paul Lane in 2011. Alongside the distillery, the building called, naturally, The Distillery, houses two bars, a hotel and the Ginstitute where you can learn to make your own gin. Or if that sounds like too much work you could just buy this bottle.

How do I drink it?

With its elegant traditional flavours, this is great in all manner of ginny cocktails like the summery Gin Cup.


Hatozaki Blended Whisky

If you’re a whisky fan, you probably read the recent news about the changing legislation for Japanese whisky which now excludes certain big names from the category. One company that has always been open about using imported spirits in its blends is Hatozaki. This mixes Japanese and imported whiskies and is aged in a mixture of sherry, bourbon and mizunara oak.

How do I drink it?

With those sweet flavours of honey, stone fruit and nutty cereals, this is a great one to put in a Whisky Highball with soda water and plenty of ice.


Casa Noble Blanco

The Casa Noble range of 100% agave Tequilas have proved quite a hit with Master of Malt customers. Agave spirits are a huge growth area as drinkers move away from the lime and salt image of yesteryear to bottles that major on flavour.  This is packed full of earthy, roasted agave notes on the nose and palate.

How do I drink it?

We’re very partial to a Sweet Orange Margarita which involves making the standard version but adding an extra part of fresh orange juice and serving it on the rocks with a splash of soda water.


New Riff Straight Bourbon

Those who like a spicier style of bourbon will love this. It’s distilled by New Riff distillery of Kentucky with a mash bill of 65% corn, 30% rye, and 5% malted barley. Then it’s aged in toasted and charred new oak barrels before bottling at a useful 50% ABV to accentuate all those big spicy flavours.

How do I drink it?

High rye strength bourbons like this one are perfect in a Manhattan. And may we recommend the Hotel Starlino vermouth rosso which is aged in bourbon casks?


East London Liquor Co. Louder Gin

The East London Liquor Co. (ELLC) is one of our favourite small distillers. Founded in Bow in 2015, it produces a big range of spirits including gin, vodka and whisky, as well as rums imported from the Caribbean. As you might guess from the name, this gin packs a flavour punch with oily juniper bolstered by lavender, fennel, lemon peel and more.

How do I drink it?

Some gins get lost in the flavour soup that is the Negroni but Louder can make itself heard above the noise of Campari and vermouth.


QuiQuiRiQui Tobalá Mezcal

Ok, so the name is a bit of a challenge. Apparently, it’s what Mexican cockerells say instead of ‘cock-a-doodle-do.’ But it’s worth getting past the pronunciation to enjoy this delicious mezcal. It’s produced from wild Tobalá aged between 10 and 15 years of age in strictly limited quantities to ensure sustainability. 

How to drink it?

With it’s complex flavours of coconut, tangy pineapple, mint and butter, we think it’s best just sipped neat. But it’s also fabulous in place of gin in a Negroni.


Merlet Crème de Mure

Every drinks cabinet should have a bottle of this in it. It’s made by Merlet in France from fresh blackberries steeped in neutral alcohol and sweetened.  This firm produces a great range of fruit liqueurs like creme de cassis, poire William and apricot brandy all made in the traditional way from fresh fruit. 

How do I drink it?

Well, the classic cocktail for Creme Merlet Crème de Mure is the Bramble but it’s also great in place of cassis in a Kir Royale. 


Ramsbury Vodka

We were so impressed with Ramsbury when we visited a couple of years back. It’s a distillery and brewery set in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside that only uses grains from the surrounding Ramsbury Estate. Each bottle tells you the provenance and variety of the wheat used and the quality really shows when you taste this creamy spicy vodka. 

How do I drink it?

This makes the best Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred, we’ve ever had. Serving it ice cold brings out that gorgeous creamy texture. 


Colonel Fox’s London Dry Gin

This is named after a war hero called Lieutenant Colonel Fox. Apparently, it’s based on his 1859 recipe that was recently rediscovered. We tend to roll our eyes a bit when we hear stories like this. There are a lot of them in the gin world. But there’s now denying the quality of this gin. That old Fox knew what he was doing.

How do I drink it?

People who like gin with plenty of flavour will lap this up. We think it’s perfect in a G&T but it’s a great all rounder, especially as it’s very reasonably priced.

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Top ten: Tequilas and mezcals under £50

Whether you’re in the market for a mixable Margarita base or a serious sipper, you don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some terrific Tequila and mezcal….

Whether you’re in the market for a mixable Margarita base or a serious sipper, you don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some terrific Tequila and mezcal. Here are ten we’re big fans of.

We love our agave-based spirits and we’re delighted to see that both the Tequila and mezcal categories are in rude health. The former is tossing aside its shots-led reputation with every new quality expression while the latter is rapidly helping itself to more of the spotlight as consumers develop a deeper understanding of the Mexican spirit. Now’s as good as time as any to add to your collection or see what the fuss is all about. And both can also be very affordable if you know what you are looking for. 

Lucky for you, we do. So to save you the trouble of trawling the interweb in search of bargain bottles, we’ve created another handy top ten selection. Whether you’re on the lookout for a dependable cocktail base, looking to broaden your horizons without breaking the bank or simply hoping to get your hands something tasty and agave-based, you’ll find it here.

Our top picks for bargain Tequilas and mezcals:

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

VIVIR Tequila Añejo

One of the most exciting new brands on the market, VIVIR has mastered the art of creating a sublime core range. The highlight, however, may well be the Añejo. Made with 100% Blue Weber agave harvested at around 12 years of age, it is aged in bourbon casks for at least 18 months, creating a profile that manages the difficult task of adding plenty of new tasty flavour without overpowering the character of the original Tequila.

What does it taste like?

Roasted agave, home-made salted caramel, BBQ char, dried fruit, fresh herbs, wet stone minerality, baked earth, vanilla fudge, cacao, orange rind and salted butter, with hints of agave underneath.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Ojo de Tigre Joven Mezcal 

This smooth, sweet and herbaceous unaged (or joven) mezcal from Ojo de Tigre was made using sustainable agave from the Tobala and Espadín plants. This profile has helped the brand gain numerous fans, including Pernod Ricard, which invested in Ojo de Tigre last year owing to its “authentic origins, mindful production and inviting taste”. If you haven’t embraced the increasingly popular world of mezcal yet, this would be a great place to start.

What does it taste like?

Apple blossom and toasted spice, with tangy kiwi, fresh herbs and cooked agave sweetness shrouded by subtle smoke.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

El Sueño Tequila Silver

Affordable, great-tasting and sustainable Tequila will always catch our attention. This silver (or blanco, the unaged style of Tequila) expression from El Sueño benefits from five generations’ Tequila producing know-how and is ideal for mixing.

What does it taste like?

Beautifully smooth with a delicate floral quality, refreshing citrus and a prickle of pepper.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Dangerous Don Joven

There are few brands that can boast as awesome a name as Dangerous Don and fortunately, the brand has the spirit to match. The mezcal is produced in a traditional fashion and has a smoky, fresh and refined profile that’s enjoyable neat, but really comes alive in twists on traditional serves such as the Old Fashioned or Negroni.

What does it taste like?

Loads of green grass and fresh agave sweetness, with waves of aromatic smoke throughout and a touch of citrus on the finish.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Cazcabel Reposado 

Reposado Tequilas spend two months to one year in oak, a measured amount of ageing that rounds and softens the spirit into a style that can be more palatable for those more used to matured expressions like rum, brandy or whisky. Reposados are also perfect for Margaritas and this one, from the Cazcabel range, makes a particularly good cocktail.

What does it taste like?

Earthy at first, before light hints of cinnamon, caramel and dried fruit begin to appear. Vegetal agave still sits at the core of this expression, with the other notes supporting it handsomely.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Sin Gusano Espadín – San Luis del Rio

Sin Gusano is not a conventional brand. These are agave spirits, not technically mezcals, that founder Jon Darby sources from small producers. These truly extraordinary expressions wouldn’t ordinarily leave the village they are produced in, never mind the country! This particular bottling was produced over in San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca and is the perfect introduction into the brand’s diverse and delightful range, which is all about educating and preserving artisan agave spirits. An aim we’re happy to get behind.

What does it taste like?

Vegetal, slightly sweet notes of bell pepper, cucumber and white chocolate, shrouded by a layer of smoke.

1800 Cristalino Tequila

Cristalino is the trendy new style of Tequila and this is one of the finest examples. Cristalino is aged Tequila that has been filtered (often through charcoal) to remove the colour picked from the barrel and some of the harsher tannins without comprising the spirit’s flavours. Think of it as possessing the crisp, fresh notes of a blanco and the rich, sweet notes of an añejo. 

What does it taste like?

Buttery agave with a crack of black pepper, caramelised raisins and almonds, a touch of oak warmth, subtle vegetal salinity (think green bell pepper and lemongrass).

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Pensador Mezcal

A beautiful, family-made mezcal, Pensador is crafted using methods which remain largely unchanged since the 16th Century. It’s also worth noting that it’s made from a combination of two popular strains of agave – Espadín and Madre-cuishe. This is one for Mezcal geeks to get really excited about.

What does it taste like?

Oak-y smoke, roasted apricot, black pepper and a mineral-rich earthiness supported by citrus and grape.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Pancho Datos Plata Tequila

A Tequila with a story, the Pancho Datos Plata brand was formed to champion the work of Ricardo Grijalva de León, a beloved historian and poet of the Mexican Revolution (Pancho Datos is a character he created). The spirit itself is traditionally made using Weber Tequilana Azul agave which was matured for eight years and then cooked in stone ovens for 48 hours. The agave syrup is then extracted with a train of roller mills and fermented.

What does it taste like?

Vegetable and herbal notes complement sweet vanilla and icing notes, as well as hints of toasted fruits.

You don’t have to break the bank to get your hands on some seriously good Tequilas and mezcals

Storywood Sherry Cask Reposado

Here we have something a little bit different to finish up with. Scottish chef and whisky lover Michael Ballantyne, who founded the Storywood brand, makes use of Speyside Scotch whisky barrels to add new flavours to Mexico’s national spirit. This 100% blue weber agave reposado Tequila was aged in Oloroso sherry casks for seven months, bringing heaps of bold, spicy and jammy dark fruit notes.

What does it taste like?

Cherry jam and dried berries, with roasted vegetal agave and peppery oak.

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Our top drinks trends for 2021!

From agave spirits to the advent of at-home cocktails, 2021’s drinking trends look set to cement this year’s seismic shifts, rather than usher in a spirits revolution. It’s that time…

From agave spirits to the advent of at-home cocktails, 2021’s drinking trends look set to cement this year’s seismic shifts, rather than usher in a spirits revolution.

It’s that time again – time to get out the [Glencairn] crystal ball and look ahead to what we’ll be drinking in 2021! And if this year taught us anything, it’s that you literally cannot predict what will happen… but in terms of what will be in our glass, we’ll give it a good go..!

We’ve picked out our forecast based on sales patterns here at MoM HQ, plus we’ve kept an eye on social media hubbub, and checked out Google Trends’ search analysis. If you could sum it up in one, we reckon we’ll see more of the same: 2020 largely forced us away from bars, meaning if we wanted a cocktail fix we had to get it at home. At the same time, we all got a little more comfortable with shopping online for spirits (wine and spirits have lagged behind other eCommerce sectors for a while now – think about fashion or electronics). And with a far wider range to shop from than the traditional supermarket aisle, smaller brands and lesser-known categories have got more of their fair share of airtime. 

With all that in mind, here’s what we reckon we’ll see in 2021. Onwards and upwards, folks! 

We made a lot of cocktails at home in 2020

More at-home cocktails

Remember when we were all afraid of getting it a bit wrong when it came to mixing cocktails at home? Now, we’ll literally try anything! From Instagram Live tutorials to dedicated TikTok accounts, we’ve become emboldened when it comes to mixing our own drinks. It’s something we’ve seen in bottle sales, too – vermouth was one of our fastest-growing categories this year to date. Sales of mixers have soared, too. Even the less adventurous among us are buying into pre-bottled cocktails for at-home treats. We think this trend will continue on into 2021 (although let’s face it, as soon as we can, we’re heading back to bars. We miss you!).

The Nightcap

Gin boom – not over yet!

Don’t write off gin – yet

For the last three years it’s been the same question: is the gin boom over? In word, no. But growth is flattening significantly. Could 2021 be gin’s last hurrah? We think there’s still a little more longevity than that. Instead of seeing a proliferation of outlandish flavours, we’re seeing a small but significant return to classic styles, and a few much-loved flavours. This is partly driven by a change in shopping habits – why brave the supermarket for longer than necessary if you can order your favourite gin online instead? A pattern we noticed from Google Trends that’s worth highlighting is a sharp uptick for ‘gin’ searches in the UK as the first lockdown was announced. In tough times we apparently turn to juniper – and long-live classic gins!

bargain rum

Rum was big this year

The continued rise of rum

If flavour fans are deserting gin, where are they heading? The answer continues to be rum. Our rum sales more than tripled in 2020 – driven in large part by the continued taste for spiced and flavoured concoctions. Some of the biggest sellers for the year included Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum, Two Swallows Cherry & Salted Caramel Rum, and sister company Atom Labs’ Jaffa Cake Rum. Sweet stuff indeed. The question for us is, will the wider rum category benefit, and do we need some tighter definitions for what makes a rum a rum? Even if they exist in terms of labelling, do we as drinkers understand them? One thing’s for sure, rum is set to get even hotter in 2021.

Storywood Tequila

Blue Weber agave (photo courtesy of Storywood Tequila)

All hail agave spirits!

Here’s an interesting one. We’ve talked a lot about the fast-growing mezcal category, and asked whether it could ultimately upend Tequila. Turns out, in 2020 Tequila’s growth slightly outpaced that of its smoky cousin! We think Tequila has finally outgrown its shots-led reputation, and is growing into itself as a serious sipping and mixing drink. And about time, too – Tequila is thoroughly delicious! It also makes sense in line with wider drink-less-but-better consumption trends. 2021 looks to be Tequila’s year as this trend continues to develop, and we are here for it. 

The Nightcap

Glenmorangie’s striking new campaign

A new age of single malt Scotch

For some time now, single malt Scotch whisky has been trying to reinvent itself. With one eye on the developments of world whisky, American whiskey, and the growing interest in other categories, there’s been a sense of needing to up its game to stay relevant and attract new drinkers. Some of our favourite recent moves in this direction include Glenmorangie’s gorgeous It’s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful ad, and Glenlivet’s Original Since 1824 spot. Marketing is increasingly featuring women, people who aren’t white, and single malt being enjoyed long and in cocktails. There’s genuine excitement around whisky again. Just check out Instagram to see who’s posting about the category, and the imagery put out by this new generation of drinkers. We’re excited to see what 2021 holds for the category.

Stop trying to make hard seltzers happen

… And did our 2020 predictions come true?

As we do each year, twelve months ago we posted our trend predictions for 2020. Did they come true? After a quick glance, we’d give ourselves a solid 8/10 (while cutting ourselves some slack – it’s hardly been a regular year!). Rums were just getting started, world whisky has increased its airtime, vodka continues to grow here at MoM HQ, American whiskeys beyond bourbon are proving popular, we’ve seen more unusual cask finishes come through, and liqueurs have turned a little more traditional. Calvados sales have even soared by almost 300%! However, hard seltzers didn’t make the huge breakthrough promised (although summer parties were off… maybe next year), and while Aquavit and mezcal sales are in significant growth, they didn’t fly quite as predicted. There’s always next year…

What do you think? What are your trends for 2021? What will you be drinking? Let us know on social @masterofmalt, or leave a comment below!

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New Arrival of the Week: Dos Hombres Mezcal

This week Dos Hombres Mezcal has found its way to MoM Towers. You might know the founders of the brand. It’s the stars of Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. No,…

This week Dos Hombres Mezcal has found its way to MoM Towers. You might know the founders of the brand. It’s the stars of Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. No, really.

Back in 2016 two friends in a New York bar shared a conversation about life and what kind of project they should embark upon together. They decided to found a booze brand, settling on mezcal as their spirit of choice. Not an unusual story in our industry, only those two friends were Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, the stars of one of the finest pieces of television ever broadcast: Breaking Bad. 

Cranston explained in an Instagram post. “We had the time of our lives while shooting Breaking Bad and truly built a very special bond. Knowing that we couldn’t share the screen for quite a while – our thoughts turned to a new project,” he said. “The younger one looked at his drink and said, you know what we should do? A really special mezcal. The older one said, you mean the liquor with a worm at the bottom? Nah, that was just some bullshit gimmick, I mean real, artisanal mezcal made by hand in Mexico.” 

The idea took hold and the duo started travelling to Oaxaca together to see if they could find the kind of spirit they had in mind. In a remote section of Oaxaca in a tiny village called San Luis del Rio they did just that and met its creator seventh-generation mezcalero Gregorio Velasco, who is most notable for making Piedre Almas. In another Instagram post, Cranston said that “Gregorio isn’t just a beautiful human being, he’s our maestro. Without Gregorio’s artistry and passion for perfection, our mezcal doesn’t exist. That’s not hype. All we did was find him and his brilliant spirit in the hills of Oaxaca”. Thus, Dos Hombres was born.

Dos Hombres Mezcal

Cranston and Paul found their ideal spirit on a dirt road in a remote part of Oaxaca

Velasco makes mezcal in a traditional way, harvesting his espadin agave after at least six years and cooking it in underground pit ovens for four days. Once the agave is transferred to an above-ground pit, it’s milled by a donkey-drawn ‘tahona’ (essentially a big stone wheel which breaks down the agave into a mash). The mash is fermented in wooden tubs for 7-10 days with mountain spring water where it becomes ‘tepache’, which is then loaded into copper pot stills and double-distilled over the course of two days.  

The production process behind Dos Hombres isn’t just in-keeping with the heritage of the spirit, but it’s also made in a manner that prioritises sustainable agriculture, a pressing concern for the mezcal industry. Velasco only uses natural fertilizers available in the Oaxaca region, including the agave waste from distillation (bagazo). After harvest, the soil is maintained intact for three-to-four years before agave is planted again. Dos Hombres also plans to build a cooling system to exclusively treat water used to cool our copper stills so this may be repurposed. Nice work, fellas.

Now, it’s understandable to take a sceptical view of celebrity-backed boozes; there are an awful lot of them. But to their credit, Cranston and Paul seem genuine about their passion and have gone about their business admirably so far. “We love all things mezcal. Love the process and the community behind this beautiful spirit,” Paul explained when the brand launched in July 2019.

Dos Hombres Mezcal

The guys have done good, we’re fans of Dos Hombres Mezcal and look forward to what comes next

Plus, their status and social media reach has the potential to draw some deserved attention to this still underappreciated spirit. We’ve already seen the effect that charismatic, humorous and engaging characters can have thanks to the likes of Ryan Reynolds and George Clooney, who have both sold their brands (Aviation Gin and Casamigos, respectively) to Diageo for big bucks. 

Fame doesn’t make the liquid inside the bottle taste any better, however, which is ultimately the most important thing. It would appear that Cranston and Paul have little to worry about in this regard, though. Dos Hombres stormed the awards circuit in this first year, being named Mezcal of the Year in New York International Spirits Competition 2020, taking home a gold medal in the London Spirits Competition 2020 and also receiving 96 points, the highest rating a Mezcal has ever received in Cigar & Spirits Magazine’s nearly ten years of rating spirits. 

Awards are one thing, but the most important question remains: does it live up to our high standards? (stop laughing). M’colleague Henry had a try, and described it as such: “It’s a delightfully easy-going Mezcal, great for sipping and mixing. It’s really the perfect mezcal for people like me who don’t like the whole burning tyre thing you get in some.” Sounds wonderful. He also put together this terrific tasting note and we’ve included some suggested serves so you can really get stuck in and enjoy it. Right now the only Dos Hombres expression available is made with espadin agave, but a tobala mezcal is en route and expected to land in 2021, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.

Dos Hombres Mezcal

Dos Hombres Mezcal Tasting Note:

Nose: Toasty rather than pungently smoky, like a wood fire, vegetal green olive and lime notes.

Palate: Super smooth and creamy, lovely mouthfeel with tangy citrus notes, and lingering smoke and black pepper.

Finish: Subtle smoke with that creamy mouthfeel persisting.

Suggested Serve: The Dos Hombres recipe page has plenty of interestingly and wonderfully named cocktails, such as the Cranstonian, a combination of Dos Hombres Mezcal, cranberry juice, Aperol and fresh lime juice, or Naked & Famous which swaps the lime juice for lemon juice and the Aperol for Chartreuse Yellow and the Mango Jalapeño, which sounds right up my street and features the little spicy delights alongside lime juice and mango puree.

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Brill bottles for Bonfire Night!

Here at MoM Towers, Bonfire Night means peaty treats and smoky spirits and so we’ve rounded up some of our favourites right here. Tempted? Of course you are. Like pretty…

Here at MoM Towers, Bonfire Night means peaty treats and smoky spirits and so we’ve rounded up some of our favourites right here. Tempted? Of course you are.

Like pretty much every event in 2020, Bonfire Night is going to be a little strange. But you can still make the most of the occasion by stocking up on warming, smoky and tasty spirits. And we’re happy to help you pick out some corkers, from peated whisky, to gin made with smoked botanicals and a sensationally smouldering mezcal.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Seaweed & Aeons & Digging & Fire 10 Year Old 

This beauty has fire in the name, which is already a good start. A 10-year-old single malt from an undisclosed distillery on Islay, with 25% of it having been finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry octaves, Seaweed & Aeons & Digging & Fire 10 Year Old is a smoky, sherried, coastal dram perfect for those who love uncompromising Islay whisky.

What does it taste like?

Rich, powerful sherry, peat, red apple sweetness, oaken-vanilla goodness and chargrilled well-aged steak.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Smoked Rosemary Gin (That Boutique-y Gin Company) 

Rosemary won’t just make your steak taste fantastic, it also makes a great gin botanical, particularly when smoked. If you love the idea of making all kinds of bonfire-based cocktails, then this herbaceous treat from That Boutique-y Gin Company is for you.

What does it taste like?

There’s a strong herbal note, plenty of juniper, saline seashore smells, lemon, cracked black pepper and a hint of smoked bacon.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Burnt Ends Blended Whiskey 

If love burnt ends, which you should do, then you’re going to be salivating at the prospect of this whisky. Inspired by those charred, smoky morsels, Burnt Ends Blended Whisky marries Tennessee rye whiskey and sherry cask-finished peated single malt Scotch whisky to make one meaty, smoky, rich and satisfying expression.

What does it taste like?

Deliciously rich and spicy with peat, apple juice, rye, barbecue sauce and smoky sausage all the way. 

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Dangerous Don Joven 

Firstly, can we appreciate what an amazing name Dangerous Don is? Straight out of El Beano. Secondly, let’s acknowledge how awesome mezcal is. If you’re not familiar with it then here’s what you need to know: this is a smoky, zesty and smooth spirit that was made exclusively from Espadín agave using traditional production methods. Be sure to try this one in a mezcal Negroni or Old Fashioned.

What does it taste like?

Loads of green grass and fresh agave sweetness, with waves of aromatic smoke throughout and a touch of citrus on the finish.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Lagavulin 16 Year Old

When you need a smoky single malt whisky for sippin’ on Bonfire Night, then look no further than Lagavulin 16 Year Old. Unless you don’t like the sound of a profile so rich and complex it stole the heart of Ron Swanson….

What does it taste like?

Lapsang Souchong tea, iodine, sweet spices, figs, dates, sherry and creamy vanilla.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Mackmyra Svensk Rök (Swedish Smoke) 

Swedish distillery Mackmyra makes plenty of delicious whisky and this bottling demonstrates that it’s not just the Scots who know how to make cracking smoky, peaty dram. In fact, Svensk Rök actually means Swedish Smoke. Don’t expect an Islay powerhouse, though. This is a fragrant, sweet and fruity bottling.

What does it taste like?

Earthy peat, warm smoke, vanilla fudge, bright juniper and a whisper of citrus.

Brill bottles for Bonfire Night

Glenfiddich Experimental Series – Fire & Cane 

What happens when you take peated Glenfiddich single malt and finish it for three months in rum casks selected from a variety of South American countries? You get this delightful expression and the ideal Bonfire Night dram.

What does it taste like?

Billowing soft peat notes, rich sweet toffee, zesty fresh fruit, Highland peat campfire, sharp green fruit, sweet baked apple and soft smoke.

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Understanding the magic of mezcal with Corte Vetusto

Corte Vetusto founder David Shepherd talks to us about being Mexican by heart, how to ensure a burgeoning category grows responsibly and why mezcal is so great. Pride, provenance, history,…

Corte Vetusto founder David Shepherd talks to us about being Mexican by heart, how to ensure a burgeoning category grows responsibly and why mezcal is so great.

Pride, provenance, history, tradition and a distinctive taste. Mezcal has it all. Fancy some? Good, because the category it’s still far too overlooked. Sure, the drinks industry has embraced all of its agave-based goodness for some time now, but if you asked the average person in a bar or restaurant if they’d like some mezcal, how many could answer confidently or even say they know what it is? 

For those who aren’t too familiar, mezcal is a spirit made from any variety of agave. In fact, the word mezcal derives from the Nahuatl mexcalli, which basically means ‘cooked agave’. Sounds like Tequila, right? Well, Tequila is technically a type of mezcal from one specific place. Mezcal is made all over Mexico, although there are currently nine states (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacan, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango and Tamaulipas) within the official Designated Origin, established in 1995, which means the only spirit produced here can legally be called mezcal (those outside the DO have to settle for the term ‘destilado de agave’). Over 90% of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca and most mezcal is made from Espadin agave due to its high sugar content and suitability to cultivation but there are between 35-40 agave species in use.

Its origins and that of agave distillate are still a source of some debate. The earliest record of agave distillate being produced was in the late 1500s, making it the oldest spirit in the Americas.  Mezcal and Mexican culture are truly interconnected. It is used to celebrate great moments in life, births, baptisms, and even death. “It’s a liquid produced in a traditional manner, not influenced by marketing. It’s genuinely artisanal and craft,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto. “Those words have been lifted and used heavily by big players in numerous categories, which let’s be honest, are dubious at best. But if you’ve observed mezcal production you cannot help but be drawn in by just the sheer effort and passion that goes into making the stuff. That’s what made me fall head over heels in love with it. It’s unlike any liquid I have ever tasted”.

Corte Vetusto

Agave can take anywhere from 6-35 years to mature. No other raw material used to make a spirit takes as long.

Wider appreciation for the category outside of Mexico has been a long time coming, however, with big strides having been made in the last decade or so thanks to brands like the multi-award-winning Corte Vetusto. Since 2016 it has been a category leader thanks to an uncompromising, traditional approach and an impressive range. The name, which translates literally as ‘the ancient cut’, was inspired by its long history and the fact that both the agave and the liquid are cut during production. 

Shepherd has a keen appreciation of the history and culture of mezcal. He was born in Singapore but grew up in Mexico City before spending his teenage years at school in the US. “Though I’m not Mexican by birth, I’m Mexican by heart. My first memories, my first flavours, were all Mexican and that has carried through my life” he recalls. Shepherd’s recollection of discovering mezcal reads like a spiritual awakening: everything became clear to him once his father brought a high-quality mezcal over to him while studying in Edinburgh, “I had a real love of whisky and the Islay malts. I found that mezcal experience represented the intersection or the coming together of the best parts of 100% agave tequila and these West Coast single malts, or island malts. And that was just a eureka moment”. 

This love didn’t initially lead to a career, however, and Shepherd made his way in brand management and new product development. Tasting mezcal at Nico’s, a famous restaurant in Mexico City over a decade ago made him consider its potential. “That’s when the penny dropped, something happening here. There’s a growing appreciation and celebration of this hidden gem of a spirit,” Shepherd says. “I’d always wanted to do my own thing and I was lucky enough to have a friend able to invest and who was in the liquor trade. But when he first looked at the mezcal numbers he said there’s just no market in mezcal. Fast-forward five years and he recalled that conversation and said mezcal is having a moment and the timing might be right”.

Corte Vetusto

Say hello to David Shepherd!

From the outset, Shepherd’s ambition was to shine a spotlight on artisanal production methods and celebrate the producers. After a lot of research trips to Oaxaca, going round to a number of palenques (small scale distillers), tasting and meeting different producers, Shepherd met Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz, a fourth-generation maestro Mescalero (the equivalent of a master distiller) and knew that he was the right man for the brand. “I fell in love with Juan Carlos’ approach to the premium or wild agaves and approached him. He’s an incredibly passionate and very proud Mescalero,” Shepherd explains. “It was really important that he understood that we weren’t simply coming along to exploit his skillset, undervalue his mezcal or go down the dramatically commercial route as some mezcals have gone. He sensed early on that we were very aligned with our ambition to bring the best of Oaxaca to the world”. 

The process of creating mezcal begins with agave. Corte Vetusto employs traditional production methods, meaning the pencas (leaves) are cut with a machete to expose the piña (heart) of the agave, which is then removed using a coa (a long wooden stick with a sharp, flat blade at the end). The piña is loaded onto trucks or donkeys before being weighed and then individually cut by an axe to ensure even cooking. Tonnes of agave is loaded in the oven by hand to ensure an even roast. “There’s four generations of experience here playing its part. Before the oven is loaded, a ritual is performed where the raw piñas are beaten with a branch of Piru to clear away any bad energy and to ask the ancestors for a successful batch,” says Shepherd. “We only use well-matured plants. We’re talking between 15 and up to 25 years. They cost more but create richer, more flavoursome and more complex mezcals. It’s a profound amount of time for the specific climate and smoke etc. to influence that plant. At the moment the brand is sourcing much of its Espadin agave, but Diaz has got planted stock that’s about one to two years off reaching maturity”.

Corte Vetusto uses traditional hornos (conical earthen pit ovens) lined with volcanic rocks in order to absorb and maintain heat to roast the agave, which converts its natural starches into fermentable sugar over 3-6 days (depending on the harvest’s size). Mesquite wood, chosen for the flavour it imparts, is placed at the centre of the oven and lit and then covered by river stones until they are white-hot. After another ritual to ward off any evil spirits and to ask for a blessing on the oven, the stones are covered with a layer of bagaso (agave fibres) from a previous distillation to prevent the agave from burning and resulting in overly smoked or bitter-tasting mezcal. The agave is then covered with a tarp and then with soil to seal the oven.

Corte Vetusto

The process to create Corte Vetusto has been passed down four generations

Once the cover is removed the roasted, caramel coloured agave is allowed to cool so it can be easily chopped into smaller chunks, ready to be milled. A tahona (a large volcanic milling stone) pulled around a circular stone base by a horse called Payaso (Clown), due to the distinct markings on his face crushes the chunks and the resultant bagaso (agave fibres) and juice are then transferred to large, open-topped wooden vats for fermentation. Pure spring water, which runs off the mountains behind Mitla, is added and fermentation is allowed to occur naturally, initiated only by the wild and native airborne yeasts surrounding the palenque. “They’re unique to each palenque and another key factor in the taste of the end product,” says Shepherd. 

This takes anywhere from one-to-two weeks, depending on the season, humidity and the altitude of the palenque, during which time the yeasts convert the sugars to alcohol. Once complete, the resultant tepache (mash) is transferred to either a copper or clay pot still. Diaz uses both for the Tobala and the Ensambles, while the Espedin is twice distilled in the 270-litre copper-pot. “This combination of the copper and then clay distillation makes his product completely unique and represents the best of both worlds. You get the crisp bright notes that come from the copper distillation and then there’s this introduction of some earthiness and minerality and almost layering that comes from the distillation in clay,” says Shepherd. “By using the copper first, there’s still enough of the agave notes and the brightness that’s allowed to shine through at the end, in comparison to pure clay pot-distilled mezcals. It’s just genius and delivers an exceptional mezcal”.

Shepherd will always encourage people to sip mezcal neat and enjoy it like you would a whisky or brandy to appreciate its character. But he has plenty of advice on how to make the most of the spirit in cocktails. “You can start with a few of the classic gin cocktails and substitute it or you can replace the Scotch with mezcal in a Penicillin. I like to find flavours that are specifically Mexican. If you zero in on Oaxaca, pineapple, passion fruit, chocolate and coffee are all key crops so learn how to accentuate those notes that are present in the mezcal itself with ingredients like these and you’re onto something,” he explains. “Recently I’ve enjoyed simple Highball serves. The Japanese have done so well showing how a long serve doesn’t mean dilution or loss of flavour. We’ve been pairing our mezcal with tonic or soda because it’s nice to be able to showcase its versatility and demonstrate you can have a rounded and complex drinking experience with mezcal”. 

Corte Vetusto

The Corte Vetusto has multiple awards for its outstanding range

Mezcal is also a great accompaniment with food and Shepherd says that in Mexico it’s very rare to drink mezcal on its own. “If you are in Oaxaca now and you order a mezcal it’s frequently accompanied by some fresh fruit with a bit of sal de gusano (worm salt) or sal de chapulin (grasshopper salt), so there are some savoury elements, a little salinity and a little heat which then is complemented and then contrasted by sweet fruits like pineapple, oranges, mango and papaya. The broad range of flavours in mezcal means that people can experiment because it’s fairly limitless in terms of the possibilities that are out there”.

While there is growing love and optimism for mezcal, the category still has challenges to face. With success comes the cynicism. Tequila has been plagued by enough mass-market brands which have prioritised highly industrial processes and led to intensive cultivation of the Blue Agave, resulting in a monoculture which has homogenised the flavour and made it more prone to disease. Mezcal is by no means perfect and it faces similar questions about the capability and ethics behind sustainably scaling-up production. “There is a very fine balance and I’m afraid a number of people are already on the wrong side of the fence. Producing at too large a scale is not only damaging potentially to the agave stocks, but it’s also undermining and going against the tradition of the Mescaleros,” says Shepherd. “People talk about sustainability and think immediately only of the plant, but there’s a sustainability argument to be had for the producers and the culture of mescal production as well and that can’t be neglected. All you have to do is look a bit further north and see what’s happened with Tequila and how bastardised that product became thanks to distilleries owned by the multinationals that are all about volume and profit”. 

Perception is another issue for mezcal. From a failure to distinguish it from mezcal to the expectation by some to find a worm at the bottom of their bottle, education and advocacy are needed. “It has taken us a number of decades to overcome this association. Most curious spirits drinkers dismiss it, so thankfully we appear to be on the winning side of that now. It demonstrates that education is key,” says Shepherd. “I hate it when mezcal is referenced as ‘Tequila’s smokier cousin’ because it just doesn’t do the liquid justice. Bartenders need to convey the right messages and there’s an onus on us with our website and trade event presence, as well as the resources and knowledge we can supply retailers. I’ve worked with Hawksmoor, for example, to have a dedicated cocktail menu for mezcal week so we can introduce people to the spirit in an accessible way”. 

Corte Vetusto

It’s vital that both the producer and raw material are respected

If you’re intrigued by mezcal but not sure what a high quality and ethical bottle looks like, Shepherd has some tips for the indicators you should look out for. “As a starting point, you should be looking for the type of agave, which should be prominent. As should a reference to the village that it comes from and any credit to the Mescalero. There are a lot of brands that are buying from multiple sources and then blending into large batches,” he says. “I always urge people to look at the label and have transparency. We put the exact agave type from the scientific names and we also say how many litres went into that batch”.

If you are looking to pick up a bottle of mezcal, we heartily recommend plumping for some Corte Vetusto. The mezcal is delicious and it’s a brand that deserves to have a bright future. For what it’s worth, things are looking good in that regard. “While COVID-19 has made entering the US market a significant challenge, we are back and available in California and in Texas. The key focus is growing in the right way. We want to emulate what we’ve achieved here which is working with some of the very best in the business, Berry Bros, Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnums, The Savoy, Nobu and The Stafford Hotel and then places that are focussing on Mexican and championing regional Mexican and quality Mexican food like El Pastór and Tacos El Pastór,” Shepherd says. “I’d like to see the brand spreading its wings within the UK and start to pick off one or two countries in Europe as well but always looking to work with people who appreciate what it is that we are trying to do and why our price point is what it is. Later this year, we’ll launch our first ancestral mezcal which excites me when we’re producing small batches and are able to bring something to market that is unique to them. Hopefully Master of Malt will play a part in that evolution and story”. 

We’ll certainly do our bit. The Corte Vetusto range is available here and tasting notes of its core expressions are below.

Corte Vetusto

Corte Vetusto Espadín 

Nose: There’s a lot of minerality upfront (petrichor mostly) with some earthiness, subtly meaty smoke and crisp agave in support. Underneath there’s some fruity notes from white grape and banana as well as garden herbs, vanilla and salt-cured pork.

Palate: Some honeyed sweetness, fresh mint and more roasted agave initially followed by notes of chamomile, kiwis, aromatic wood smoke and creamy vanilla. In the backdrop, there’s dried herbs, black pepper and freshly cooked sweetcorn.

Finish: Flinty minerals, charred pepper and a touch of vegetal oak.

Corte Vetusto

Corte Vetusto Ensamble II

Nose: Charred agave, green fruit, woodsmoke and garden herbs emerge initially followed by vanilla, cured meat, pickled lime and stony minerality.

Palate: Caramel, candied orange and raisins provide a sweet opening that’s complemented by peppermint, fresh flowers, apricot jam and salty olives.

Finish: It’s a floral, earthy and faintly smoky finish.

Corte Vetusto

Corte Vetusto Tobalá

Nose: So much crisp, fresh agave upfront with some slight vegetal notes as well as cinnamon, leather, wildflower honey and tinned peaches.

Palate: Plenty of flinty minerals, charred pepper and fresh Mediterranean herbs blend with fruity banana, prune sweetness, toasted oily nuts and anise.

Finish: Mineral-rich smoke, cooked apple and more floral honey.

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