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Tag: Single Malt Whisky

Take a Global Distillery Tour with Lonely Planet

We visit a lot of distilleries here at Master of Malt, but not as many as Karyn Noble from Lonely Planet. She has put a book together taking in the…

We visit a lot of distilleries here at Master of Malt, but not as many as Karyn Noble from Lonely Planet. She has put a book together taking in the main spirit-producing countries plus a few places that are a bit more off the beaten track. . .

Whether it’s gin, Tequila, rum or whisky, spirits are booming at the moment, with new distilleries coming on stream the whole time, and old ones opening their doors to visitors. Fine whiskies, are now made in Taiwan, India and Sweden, for example. Distillery tourism is big business, and what better way to get to know a country or a region than by sampling its local spirit and finding out how it is made. But with so many distilleries to choose from, where do you start? Thankfully top Australian travel writer Karyn Noble and the Lonely Planet team have put together Global Distillery Tour, a guide that takes the hard work out of planning a booze-centred trip. From Lebanon to Nicaragua, the book profiles some of the world’s most interesting distilleries as well as containing guides to different spirits, some cocktail recipes and a list of interesting bars to try on your travels. Phew!

We were lucky enough to get some time with Karyn Noble (who wrote most of the entries on Australia, the UK, Ireland and Sweden) to find out a little more about the project…

Kilchoman Feis Ile

The beautiful stills at Kilchoman on Islay

Master of Malt:  Where did the idea for the book come from?

Karyn Noble: Global Distillery Tour is part of a series of books under the Lonely Planet Food sub-brand. It follows on from Global Beer Tour, which we published in 2017 and Global Coffee Tour, released in 2018, which have both been hugely popular. By then the drinkers of spirits and cocktails in the office were getting a little twitchy and so a pretty strong case was made for this book. (We have a separate series about wine called Wine Trails, to preempt that question!)    

MoM: What tips would you offer for people visiting a distillery?

KN: Talk to the people who work there. It really would be a wasted trip to walk in and order a drink or buy a bottle to take home and learn nothing about what you’ll be drinking. The distillers and people who work in distilleries are usually extremely passionate and proud about what they’ve painstakingly made and want to help guide you towards enjoying what you might like best or introduce you to a potentially new favourite drink. Don’t feel intimidated or be afraid to ask questions. Quite often, people visit distilleries because they’re dragged along by someone more obsessed about spirits, so say that up front like: ‘I usually don’t like whisky, I prefer rum, but is there something I should try?’. If you’re willing to be open-minded, many distillers will take on the challenge of trying to convert you.

MoM: What was the first distillery you ever visited?

KN: Memories are a little vague but I think it was somewhere near Edinburgh in 1996 and it was the first time I’d tried a dram. I let someone who said he was a descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson drive me there and he told me I’d be killed if I asked for water with my whisky. Whisky has felt somewhat reckless and romantic ever since.

Teeling Dublin

You can’t visit Teeling in Dublin and not have a drink.

MoM: Do you have a favourite distillery?

KN: Yes! When I went to Four Pillars gin distillery in Australia’s Yarra Valley, I had to remind them (and myself) I was there for research and not for pleasure, as I always visit when I travel to Melbourne. It’s a lovely excuse for a day trip to the country (about 90 minutes’ drive from the city). One of my editors lives nearby and gave me the hot tip when it opened in 2015. It’s well-located in a renowned wine region and you can sit in what feels like a modern interpretation of a barn with a killer cocktail list or a tasting paddle of gins with unique Australian botanicals and a plate of gin cheese and be very happy with life.

MoM: What was the smallest distillery you visited?

KN: It was Hartshorn Distillery in Tasmania in Australia. I got distiller Ryan Hartshorn at a really exciting time. He distils his sheep whey vodka in the basement of his family’s cheese farm (Grandvewe) and it had just won the World’s Best Vodka in 2018 and he was starting to realise he needed to hire people to help him. The winning vodka hadn’t even gone out to subscribers yet, it had only been tasted by Ryan and the judges and had homemade stickers plastered all over it cheekily saying ‘World’s Best, don’t even look at me’. That was one of my favourite interviews.

MoM: Do you think that spirits are going through something of a golden age?

KN: I think spirits are catching up with the food revolution in that drinkers are becoming more interested in the provenance of what they’re drinking. More people are going to bars and asking for brands now rather than generic spirits. Cocktails and (especially Instagrammable) cocktail bars are becoming more popular. I was chatting to a mixologist from the Maldives recently (unfortunately not in the Maldives) and he was saying that he would have liked to offer more whisky cocktails at his bar but women never ordered them, which led him to believe that women don’t like whisky. Maybe this is true for people holidaying in sunny locations, I’m not sure, but I promptly set about educating him about the Old Fashioned renaissance I’ve been seeing in London bars over the last few years.

Starward

Starward distillery in Melbourne

MoM: Will the gin boom ever end?

KN: I agree the gin market is fairly saturated at the moment, which is why a book like Global Distillery Tour is really handy to help direct people towards craft distillers with compelling stories and unique products. One insightful experience I had when researching this project was at Snowdonia Distillery in North Wales where distiller Chris Marshall got me to blind-taste some mass-market gins (he wouldn’t tell me what they were) before and after trying his small-batch Foragers Gin. They were awful, yet it’s all most people know.

MoM: Do you have a favourite spirit?

KN: I do have a soft spot for gin, especially Four Pillars because it’s so delicious, vibrant and pure, but my head has been turned recently by some complex rums and you can’t peat me too much with whisky: I love a smoky whisky.

MoM: And finally, what’s your favourite cocktail?

KN: Tough question but I’m going to go with what we’ve ranked number one in the book’s World’s Best Cocktails List: I love a Negroni like no-one’s business.

Thank you Karyn! You can buy Global Distillery Tour direct from Lonely Planet.

Domaine de Tourelles in Lebanon, distillers of Arak Brun

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5 tips for pairing whisky with food

Whisky has long been overlooked as a food beverage, but Ghillie Başan is on a mission to change that with her latest cookbook, Spirit & Spice. Here, the Cordon Bleu-trained…

Whisky has long been overlooked as a food beverage, but Ghillie Başan is on a mission to change that with her latest cookbook, Spirit & Spice. Here, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef shares five tips for pairing Scottish single malts and blends with your favourite meals…

Typically, when you encounter whisky with food it’s either within a dish – added to a sauce, for instance, or in a pudding – or as part of a distillery tasting, which “tends to be a very easy style of pairing,” Ghillie Başan observes. “People go, ‘there are nutty flavours in there, so we’ll put a walnut out’ – it isn’t really about the depth of flavour and how you can enhance it so that the food and whisky are working together”.

There’s also the M factor. Marketing. Historically, whisky was positioned as an after-dinner drink, she adds, and for a very long time a drink solely for men. “It’s quite a recent thing, this idea of whisky being a drink of conviviality, a drink to enjoy your meal or put into cocktails, a drink for both men and women and a drink to market to young people.”

Ghillie Başan

Ghillie Başan!

Still, the concept of drinking a dram with food remains a little bit ‘out there’ for whisky purists. So what makes the spirit a worthy mealtime pairing? As well as its flavour pairing potential, whisky is exceptionally robust – which means its a great match for dishes from North and West Africa, the Middle East, India, South-east Asia and the Caribbean, where spice is used in abundance.

“Think about when you have a glass of red wine,” says Başan, “it fills your mouth with a kind of full-bodiedness and fruitiness that looking for. But the minute you have spicy food with that, it’s killed, and you’re left with something that ends up a bit more watery in your mouth, all of that full-bodiedness is gone, all of the fruit flavours have gone, because it’s a much more fragile product, it hasn’t had the same type of treatment that whisky’s had.”

In Spirit & Spice (Kitchen Press, £25), Başan unites exotic flavours from around the world with liquid from her own backyard in the Highlands of Scotland. The end goal is to prepare a dish that “does something very similar in your mouth to the whisky, so the two of them are enhancing one another and you end up with this incredible experience within your mouth,” Başan explains. “You’ve got all these flavours either contrasting or complementing one another – it’s a little journey you go on.”

gravadlax

Gravadlax + whisky = delicious

5 tips for pairing whisky with food
  1. Get to know your dram

You can’t match the dish without a flavour reference, so pour yourself a finger and get acquainted. The first step is to nose and taste to identify the key aromas, tastes and textures in the glass. Jot your musings down on paper so you can reference them later – the more detailed, the better.

  1. Consider the key whisky regions

You don’t have to start from scratch each time, suggests Başan – use regional similarities to your advantage. “One could say that there is in Speyside whiskies a general sense of fruitiness and toasted notes, perhaps burnt sugar and honey in some of these whiskies depending on the distillery and maturation,” she says. “You can compare that to something like Islay whiskies, which again are all different but often have a smokiness and saltiness running through – so there are a few things that you can generalise about.”

  1. Highlight background flavours

Don’t just plum for the obvious flavours. Sure, you might think about pairing an Islay dram with something smoked – aubergine, perhaps, or halibut – but by highlighting background flavours you could elevate both the dish and the dram. For example a smoky whisky might also have a hint of pineapple in it, Başan points out. You could combine that with the smoky element of the dish, or take the ingredient in a different direction entirely. The bottom line? Use whisky’s more subtle notes to complement and contrast.

  1. Experiment with cooking techniques

Smoking, curing, pickling, infusing, caramelising, conserving, smoking, barbequing, marinating and fermenting are just some of the ways you can take a specific ingredients and transform the flavour into something unique. Don’t be shy about playing with spices, too, whether roasting, grinding or creating a paste.

  1. Don’t forget texture

You always appreciate food more if it has texture, Başan explains. Take the humble smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. “Made with ordinary bread, it’s all soft and ends up cloying in your mouth, so you don’t get a real sense of appreciation,” she says. Add texture – switch the bread for toasted thin focaccia, or add a few slices of cucumber to give it a crunch – and you’ll enjoy it far more. The same applies to your dram. Is the whisky creamy or silky? Or is it perhaps watery or chewy? Bear that in mind when designing your dish.

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Talisker video masterclass with malt whisky ambassador TJ

One of only two whisky distilleries on the Isle of Skye, Talisker, has a loyal following. In this masterclass malt whisky brand ambassador TJ shows us how to get the…

One of only two whisky distilleries on the Isle of Skye, Talisker, has a loyal following. In this masterclass malt whisky brand ambassador TJ shows us how to get the most out of its distinctive smoky salty taste.

The rugged maritime setting of coastal Skye is echoed in the taste of Talisker whisky.

One sip of the 10 Year Old expression, and you can smell the sea air and almost hear the squawk of seagulls. It’s one of Scotland’s best-loved and most distinctive single malts. If you’re lucky enough to visit the distillery, you mustn’t miss out on the nearby shack selling fresh and smoked seafood caught in the surrounding waters. A dram of Talisker and a Scottish oyster is a match made in heaven. But you don’t have to drink it neat, Talisker is also delicious in cocktails, hot and cold. 

Talisker Campfire Hot Chocolate

Talisker Campfire Hot Chocolate

To tell us more about Talisker, its affinity with seafood and how to use it in cocktails, we were lucky enough to spend some time with TJ. A former Edinburgh bartender, TJ now works as a malt whisky ambassador for Diageo, spreading the word about the joys of Scotch whisky.

Got your Talisker ready? Take it away TJ!

Here TJ tells us a little about himself and his journey from behind the bar to Diageo whisky brand ambassador.

In this video TJ shows how well Talisker 10 goes with raw oysters.

Talisker Campfire is the ultimate hot chocolate drink.

Talisker Port Ruighe also tastes amazing with seafood.

 

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Mortlach video masterclass with malt whisky brand ambassador TJ

Last month we spent an evening at Diageo’s London HQ with Edinburgh bartender and malt whisky brand ambassador TJ learning about why they call Mortlach the Beast of Dufftown. And…

Last month we spent an evening at Diageo’s London HQ with Edinburgh bartender and malt whisky brand ambassador TJ learning about why they call Mortlach the Beast of Dufftown. And we’ve got the videos to prove it.

Mortlach is a Speyside legend famed for its powerful whiskies that are capable of great ageing (the distillery recently released a 47 year old). Its unique character is down to a peculiar distillation technique known as ‘The Way’ invented by Alexander Cowie who built the distillery in 1823. We won’t go into too much detail about how it works but you can read more about it here. In this technique, the wash is distilled not once, not twice, not even three times a lady, but 2.81 times. So precise!

You can see it for yourself if you enter our Mortlach competition, where you can win a VIP trip to the distillery featuring a private tour, tastings, two nights at The Craigellachie Hotel and more. There’s also currrently 10% off Mortlach 12 Year Old, 16 Year Old and 20 Year Old, so everyone’s a winner!

Mortlach 12 Year Old in all its glory

To talk us through the core range, we were lucky enough to have one of Diageo’s newest and shiniest brand ambassadors TJ. An Edinburgh native, TJ cut his teeth working in some of the city’s best bars before being snapped up to spread the malt whisky gospel.

Drams at the ready, let’s masterclass!

Here TJ tells us a little about himself and his journey from behind the bar to Diageo whisky brand ambassador.

 

The 12 Year Old is Mortlach’s bestselling expression offering all that trademark meatiness at an everyday price.

 

One step up in the range and a move up the complexity scale is the 16 Year Old.

 

And finally the biggest beast in the Mortlach core range, it’s the mighty 20 Year Old!

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Sweden’s High Coast Distillery

Few spirits categories have the power to capture a sense of place like single malt whisky, from the wind-ravaged Scottish Highlands to the sweltering heat of Texas – and the…

Few spirits categories have the power to capture a sense of place like single malt whisky, from the wind-ravaged Scottish Highlands to the sweltering heat of Texas – and the climatic extremes of northern Sweden. As High Coast Distillery’s environmental Origin Series hits the UK, distillery manager Roger Melander talks us through the unique conditions that shape the liquid…

“There are about 17 distilleries making whisky in Sweden, and most of them are really small,” says Melander, addressing the room in the beautiful vaulted cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd in London. The historic wine and spirits merchants have started importing High Coast’s liquid through its trade arm, Fields, Morris & Verdin, and we’re here for a private tasting. “I would say there are three that are big enough to be commercial, and just two of them have whisky on the market – Mackmyra, and us.”

High Coast has come a long way since it began distilling in November 2010, creating Box Single Malt Whisky under the brand Box Destilleri, so named because of the distillery’s location by Ångermanälven river in a former wooden box factory power plant. The brand name changed last summer, “because of a small conflict with another company that had Box in the name,” says Melander, and now refers to the High Coast – or Höga Kasten – region of Sweden it calls home.

High Coast casks

Casks at High Coast distillery in Sweden

Initially, the team started distilling with two pot stills and three washbacks, aiming for about 90,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, he says. Last summer, High Coast expanded its capacity to about 350,000 litres, with current production sitting at around 200,000 litres. Melander’s three-strong production team distils seven days a week – on average one or two batches per day – following two new-make recipes: unpeated and heavily peated.

“For the unpeated recipe, we had a lot of inspiration from Japanese style flavours,” he says. “I wanted to create a fruity, clean malted spirit. For the peated recipe – well, you can’t make a peated whisky without looking at the west coast and islands of Scotland. Sometimes I feel it’s more like the Islay style, and sometimes a bit more Campbeltown.”

Finalised in just two weeks, the unpeated recipe is made with a Pilsner malt hailing from the south of Sweden. Creating the peated style was a far longer process, with the base ingredients proving trickier to source. “The only producer making peated malt in Sweden is on the island of Gotland,” says Melander, “but he is making peated malt for homebrewers that want to have 250g in an envelope. I want 25 tonnes each time, it’s a bloody big envelope.” Instead, he must buy from Belgium or Scotland. A French strain of distillery yeast fills the resulting mashes with fruity esters, aldehydes and ketones during an unusually long fermentation time of around 82 hours.

While Melander and his team have experimented with “different malts, yeast strains, fermentation time and so on” throughout the production process, their key focus is on cask variables: oak species, treatment, size, and maturation environment. It’s the latter that makes High Coast’s location northern Sweden, around 500km north of Stockholm, unlike any other whisky region in the world.

High Coast

Swedish winters are COLD!

In winter, the mercury is known to drop below -30 degrees celsius, in the height of summer the region records +30 degrees or higher. “So there could be like 70 degrees difference between a cold winter day and warm summers day, says Melander, “compared to Highland Park on Orkney where they have maybe seven or eight degrees difference between those seasons.”

This see-saw effect causes pressure changes in the cask, increasing the interaction between the oak and liquid and creating some marvellously fruity esters. “Small variations during day and night and big changes during seasons creates a unique maturation profile in our warehouses,” he continues. “You can taste the difference between casks matured on floor level and casks matured just below the ceiling.”

There’s also the small matter of water. Every distiller says they have special water, Melander acknowledges, but the charcoal and sand-filtered water they source from Bålsjön, a spring lake northeast of Kramfors, is exceptionally so. “The quality of the tap water in a normal house in northern Sweden is much better than you can buy in a bottle in England,” he says, adding that in fact, it might even be too clean. “In a perfect world, I would have a bit more salt, magnesium and so on, to increase the power of the yeast during fermentation.”

While there’s usually plenty of chatter about water purity, few producers discuss the relationship between cool water and a characterful distillate. The ice-cool waters of the nearby river Ångermanälven is a huge asset for Melander, who taps the liquid to cool his condensers. “In the winter our new make temperature is two and a half degrees celsius,” he says. Your average Scotch distiller would be “extremely happy” if the temperature falls below 20 degrees at any point of the year, he adds, so it’s quite unique.

All these variables empower the team to create more than 1,000 different products every year, Melander says, including their latest range, called Origin Series. We tasted three out of the four bottlings – the final whisky, Berg, will launch in September 2019 – plus a rather unique special edition, detailed below…

Still at High Coast

Stills at High Coast

Älv, Delicate Vanilla  – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Älv means ‘River’, and is named after the nearby Ångermanälven River. Made from 100% unpeated malt, the whisky has been matured in first fill bourbon casks for between five and seven years. “The first three batches will be mixed between 130-litre casks, called quarter casks, and 200 litre first-fill bourbon,” says Melander. “In two years I won’t have any quarter casks left, so it will be just bourbon barrels.”

Hav, Oak Spice – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Translated as ‘ocean’ in English, Hav is a blend of 25% peated and 75% non-peated malt whisky. The whisky was pre-matured in 40-litre virgin Hungarian and Swedish oak casks for between three and four months before it was transferred into bourbon barrels for between three and four years. American oak will feature in future batches. “[Ångermanälven] is about 2,000 metres wide so it’s technically part of the ocean, but it’s still called a river,” says  Melander. “My house is located on the other side. Sometimes in summer I take the canoe to work, in the winter I have a snowmobile and that’s a bit quicker.”

Timmer, Peat Smoke  – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

Meaning ‘timber’ in English, Timmer is made from 100% peated malt whisky with a phenol level of around 46 PPM. The liquid is matured in first fill bourbon casks in a combination of 130-litre and 200-litre casks for between five and six years. “About 500 metres upstream there was a big timber assorting place in the seventies with about 700 people working there,” says Melander. “If you dive down, the bottom of the river is completely covered in timber that has sunk.”

High Coast distillery

More cold weather at High Coast

And finally. . . .

Projekt 63 – High Coast Single Malt Whisky

A fan of geocaching, Melander soon discovered that the distillery lies 63 degrees north of the Earth’s equatorial plane. “The latitude crosses through the whole warehouse, so I painted a black line on the floor as a fun thing to show visitors,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘We can do something more with this’.” Melander bought 63 PPM malt from Scotland at the price of 6.3 Swedish kr per kilo. It was mashed in 63-hectolitre batches with a fermentation time of 63 hours. “I would say at 63 degrees celcius, but that would be a lie,” he says, “because it was 64”. Each cask – made by a Swedish cooper who was born in 1963 – was filled with 63 litres of liquid and stored at 63 parallel, precisely 63 decimetres from the floor. It was matured for (you guessed it)  63 months and bottled at 63% ABV. “I would really like to have 63cl bottles but… if you take 63 plus 6.3 plus 0.63 plus 0.063 and carry on that, you end up exactly at 70,” says Melander. “And that is the bottle size”. The goal is to make 16,063 bottles.

 

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Whisky innovation – how far is too far?

In this week’s column, Ian Buxton looks back at how whisky has evolved throughout its history, examines some of today’s more outlandish innovations, and asks whether it’s wise or even…

In this week’s column, Ian Buxton looks back at how whisky has evolved throughout its history, examines some of today’s more outlandish innovations, and asks whether it’s wise or even possible to try to control experimentation in the category. 

A long, long time ago – when I last had a proper job, since you ask, and thus a very long time ago – my then-MD warned me in portentous and grave tones that too much innovation would confuse the consumer and encourage promiscuous buying behaviour at the expense of brand loyalty.

‘Pompous git’, I thought, and went right ahead with what proved to be Scotland’s first branded, cask strength, single cask release – a blatant crib from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, of course, but carrying a distillery name (oh alright, it was Glenmorangie) instead of an anonymous number.  The late Michael Jackson loved it and devoted his entire column in The Independent to explaining the concept and singing its praises, a source of considerable pride, then and to this day. Shortly after I left the company (a long story) and shortly after that the product was discontinued. Moral: don’t disagree with your MD!

But, unremarkable as that whisky would be today, it was a definite innovation and one which aroused a certain amount of controversy at the time.  Actually, innovation in whisky has generally attracted some controversy, perhaps because people really care deeply about the drams they drink.

The advent of blending from the late 1860s onwards didn’t go down well with the then-dominant Irish whiskey industry. The passionate opposition of the leading Dublin distillers to ‘sham whisky’ and ‘silent spirit’ (that’s grain whisky to you and me) proved to be a major nail in their collective coffin, albeit one that they hammered in very firmly all by themselves. Leading Scotch blenders such as Walker, Buchanan, Dewar’s and others gleefully seized this opportunity.

Charred oak spindles

What fresh madness is this?

Malting technology has evolved considerably over the past hundred years and as for barley varieties, well, that’s an arms race.  For much of the nineteenth century, Chevallier was utterly dominant, but displaced by Plumage Archer which, in turn, was toppled by Proctor and Maris Otter, only for these varieties to be replaced by Golden Promise. This was once widely used: The Macallan famously going so far as to describe it as one of the ‘Six Pillars’ of its brand, a claim which has since been quietly dropped (marketing messages have an even shorter lifespan than barley varieties). But today it’s long gone and the merry-go-round continues.

It’s all about money, of course. Poor old Chevallier produced around 300 litres of pure alcohol per ton of dry malt, where today the accountants, sorry ‘distillers’, are looking for 450 litres or more.  Unless you’re Bruichladdich, of course, or Mark Reynier at Waterford, where the pursuit of terroir is what counts above all.

Or a ‘craft’ distiller in the USA.  Leaving aside the vexed topic of what constitutes ‘craft’, there are now, I was mildly astonished to learn, approaching 2,000 small-scale distilleries in the USA., Unconstrained by the Scotch Whisky Regulations, innovation is absolutely the name of the game among our colonial cousins – for how else is a nascent distiller to stand out in such a congested and competitive market?

The rise of flavoured whiskies from major brands – think Jack Daniel’s Honey and its many imitators – opened the floodgates and small distillers have followed suit, embracing unusual grains, varying production methods and every kind of cask finish you can dream up (and some you’d rather not).  Finishing, incidentally, is generally acknowledged as beginning, in a conscious and deliberate sense, with the 1982 launch of The Balvenie Classic. But little did Balvenie’s mild-mannered David Stewart MBE imagine what mischief popping some whisky into a sherry cask would unleash.

Ever since then, the sorcerer’s apprentices have been busy.  The US craft distillers are taking their smoked whiskeys, whiskeys made with heritage corn, wheat, millet, oats or triticale (a rye-wheat hybrid which, full confession, I’d never heard of either) and putting them in brand new wood of every possible variety of oak, barrels made from old pieces of chestnut furniture, beer-aged casks, any former wine barrel known to man and, apparently, even a Japanese fruit liqueur cask.

Virginia-Highland whisky

Virginia-Highland whisky, the kind of thing that gives the SWA sleepless nights

And then I learned that the Virginia Distillery Co. imports single malt Scotch to blend with its own American single malt, and age the result in a cold brew coffee-soaked cask.

Oh, please! That’s enough!  Innovation stops right here! Or am I now the pompous git?  What say you? How far should (not can) innovation go?

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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Ardnahoe: A closer look at Islay’s newest distillery

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how…

A new Scotch whisky distillery is always an exciting development, but there’s something extra-special about a new one on Islay. So, when Hunter Laing invited us to visit Ardnahoe, how could we refuse?

Just getting onto Islay proved tricky for many invited to the opening of Ardnahoe Distillery. Gusts of 70 mph meant that all the ferries were cancelled. Luckily, the plucky folk at Logan Air weren’t deterred, and the tiny propeller aircraft I was aboard touched down safely on the island. During the journey from the airport to the distillery, the driver pointed out the scorched smoking landscape. Dry weather, high winds and perhaps someone’s carelessness with a cigarette had set off wild fires the night before. The air smelt like an Islay whisky.

Hunter Laing

We are family: from left, Scott, Stewart and Andrew Laing

Ardnahoe is located in the north of the island, facing Jura and near Port Askaig. “We think it’s the most perfect location from a scenic point of view for a whisky,” Andrew Laing from Hunter Laing told me. It’s a family business run by Stewart Laing and his two sons, Andrew and Scott. The company, which bottles whisky and rum, has been going in its present form since 2013, though the Laing family has been in the whisky business much longer. Stewart Laing is clearly very proud of his sons: “They are the real driving force developing the profitability of the company,” he said.

A distillery of their own was the inevitable next step. “We looked at a couple of options to buy distilleries, but it became apparent that for reasons of cost and for reasons of finding the right project, that we really needed to build one rather than to buy one,” Andrew explained. “ If you’re building a distillery, from our point of view, the only place to build one was Islay.” The Laing family has history on the island. “On my grandmother’s side, on my dad’s side, we have a family connection to Islay going back to the 1700s. More recently my father studied whisky making at Bruichladdich in 1966,” he continued.

Work began on the distillery (the first new one on Islay since Kilchoman opened in 2005) in 2016 and was completed last year. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though. Stewart Laing mentioned some neighbours who had been less than supportive when they were seeking planning permission. Andrew was more diplomatic: “there was some opposition at the planning stage, which is fair enough.”

Worm tub condensers at Ardnahoe distillery

Look at those worm tubs!

The Ardnahoe set-up is sure to get whisky fans hot under the collar. It has Oregon pine fermenters, two lantern shaped pot stills (a 13,000 litre wash still and an 11,000 litre spirit still), the longest lyne arm in Scotland (or so they tell me), and worm tub condensers. “That slower condensing that we get from the worm tubs and the fact that we’ve got more copper contact in vapour form gives us a wee bit more character, texture and complexity,” Andrew explained. We thought even if it makes one percent difference to the whisky, it’s worth the extra expenditure.”

The distillery manager, Fraser Hughes, gave me some new make to try. It’s a complex dram, smoky as you’d expect (it’s made from malt peated to between 40 and 45 PPM from Port Ellen Maltings) but with tropical fruit and earthy cereal notes. Hughes described it as “dynamic but not dirty or in your face” and went on to say “it will be better in a few weeks when you have more foreshots and feints in the system.” According to Andrew Laing, that fruitiness comes partly from a long slow fermentation, around 72 hours.

Jim McEwan, who consulted on the project, joked that finding the cut point in the spirit was a difficult as giving birth. The Laings are clearly delighted to have worked with McEwan and vice versa. “To be honest, he didn’t take very much persuasion to come out of retirement for this project,” Andrew Laing said.”He was very excited and who can blame him! To build a new distillery on Islay!”

The official opening was in April, but the distillery has been filling casks since 2018. “Last year we did an inaugural first year production offer of just over 400 casks, and it was oversubscribed. We sold them all,” Andrew said. These first casks are sitting in the distillery warehouse (though most of the production will be matured on the mainland). He told me these will be split between “about 70% first-fill bourbon barrels; then about 20 or 25% first fill ex-oloroso hogsheads and some butts. And we’ve got some other wines casks, such as Port, Madeira, Muscat, Rioja, and some rum.” As a rum bottler, there’s a decent supply of used rum casks.

Ardnahoe Distillery Still Room

Still room with its beautiful view

It’s a great-looking distillery, modern but fits beautifully into its natural setting. “We made sure first of all that from the experience point of view, it’s a welcoming place and an enjoyable place to visit,” Andrew Laing explained. “It’s very bright, very airy, a comfortable place to spend some time.” He added that whisky tourism is growing “in a big way”. The team is gearing up for Fèis Ìle (24 May – 1 June) with a screening of a new whisky documentary, The Water of Life, featuring Jim McEwan.There will also be some premium Kinship whiskies bottled for the festival and available only from the distillery. “It brings a fair penny in,” joked Stewart Laing.

One of the advantages that Ardnahoe has over other new distilleries is that its owner, Hunter Laing, is a spirits bottler.  Even without its own mature whisky, there are lots of exclusive things to try. Not just whiskies from all over Scotland (including a special local blend called Islay Journey, which you can bottle from the cask yourself), but rum from around the Caribbean under the Kill Devil label. After expressing an interest, Andrew was soon opening bottles from Hampden in Jamaica and Diamond in Guyana, and enthusing about a blended rum that is in the pipeline. We were having so much fun that part of me hoped that the weather would get worse and my flight would be cancelled. Stranded at a distillery on Islay, isn’t that every whisky lover’s dream?

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Scotch bolsters UK economy by £5.5bn

We all know Scotch is delicious – but did you know it’s also thoroughly good for the UK economy? The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has crunched the numbers, and discovered…

We all know Scotch is delicious – but did you know it’s also thoroughly good for the UK economy? The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has crunched the numbers, and discovered that it now adds a whopping £5.5 billion pounds each year!

The amount the Scotch industry adds has climbed by 10% year-on-year, as exports reach record highs (£4.7bn in 2018) and new distilleries come online. We reckon that’s as good a reason as any to raise a dram.

“This research shows the Scotch whisky industry’s huge contribution to both the Scottish and UK economies,” said Karen Betts, the SWA’s chief exec. She also praised the “consistent investment” from whisky companies, with over £500 million going into production, distribution, marketing and tourism in the last five years.

Scotch whisky

Scotch whisky, delicious, convivial and good for the economy

“Despite the challenges of Brexit, this investment continues to flow, with further projects planned and more distilleries set to open – a sign that the Scotch whisky industry remains confident about the future,” she continued.  This is great news for our many employees, our investors, our supply chain and, of course, for consumers all over the world who love Scotch.”

What does this mean for Scotch? According to the SWA, the industry contributes more than the life sciences sector does to Scotland’s finances (£1.5bn), meaning it is a vital part of the economy. It also supports more than 42,000 jobs throughout the UK, including 10,500 people directly in Scotland, and 7,000 across rural communities.

Scotch is a super-productive business to be in, too. Apparently, the sector generates about £210,505 GVA per employee, more than the energy sector at £173,511 per person. In comparison, life sciences contributes £93,735 per head, while the creative industries stands at £60,712 per person.

Some more fun stats (we know you like them): for every £100 of added value Scotch produces, another £45 is generated in the broader economy. Plus, Scotch accounted for an enormous 21% of all UK food and drink exports in 2018, and 1.3% of the value of total exports.

Hurrah for Scotch!

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Five new Scotch distilleries we can’t wait to explore

With around 30 new Scotch whisky distilleries in the planning or construction phases, it’s an exhilarating time to be a dram fan. Here, we’ve picked out five of the most…

With around 30 new Scotch whisky distilleries in the planning or construction phases, it’s an exhilarating time to be a dram fan. Here, we’ve picked out five of the most hotly-anticipated producers preparing to join the fold…

The last few years have been a ride, haven’t they? Scotland’s best-known distilleries are expanding, new players are making waves and old favourites like Port Ellen, Brora, and Rosebank are en route to resurrection.

While there are many more Scotch whisky distilleries in progress and no doubt plenty others to be announced over the coming year – we’ve picked out five we’re particularly excited about. What’s yours? Let us know where and why in the comments below…

port of leith distillery

Port of Leith Distillery (it doesn’t quite look like this yet)

Port of Leith Distillery, Edinburgh

We’ve had a soft spot for Port of Leith Distillery for a little while now. A whisky crush, if you will. Not only will the Leith-based site be Edinburgh’s first single malt whisky distillery for more than 100 years, but its ground-breaking design means it’ll be Scotland’s very first vertical distillery too. It’s expected to be up and running by autumn 2020, with the first whisky bottles slated for release in 2023, but that hasn’t stopped co-founders Paddy Fletcher and Ian Stirling from giving us a flavour of what’s to come. Last year the duo released Port of Leith Distillery sherry, sourced from Bodegas Baron in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Lind & Lime Gin, produced at nearby The Tower Street Stillhouse which will later house the Port of Leith’s whisky development programme. Expect unusual yeast strains, fermentation experiments, and a whole new world of flavour.

Clutha Distillery

Clutha Distillery

Clutha Distillery, Glasgow

Situated at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay development on the south side of the River Clyde, Douglas Laing’s project Clutha – meaning Clyde in Gaelic – isn’t just a single malt whisky distillery. Oh, no. The £10.7m building will also house a bottling complex, visitor centre, whisky laboratory, whisky archive, bar, bistro, and corporate head office. The family-owned business plans on producing whisky with a heavy sherry influence that will differ from traditional Lowland styles: think macerated fruit, dark fruit, chocolate and cocoa character. Last year, third generation family member Cara Laing told MoM to expect a “down-to-earth, very honest distillery” that focuses on “everything from the barley to the finished bottle”.

Cabrach Distillery

Cabrach Distillery as it will look when finished

Cabrach Distillery, Moray

While the stills at Inverharroch Farm in the Highlands – home to Cabrach Distillery and its accompanying heritage centre – are new, the 150,000-or-so bottles of single malt they’ll produce each year will “made with historical methods” according to “the blueprint of an early 19th-century distillery”. The project, operated by The Cabrach Trust, aims to essentially produce Cabrach whisky as it would have been produced in the area in 1820, when wild, remote and rural Moray was at the centre of illicit whisky-making and smuggling. Cabrach Distillery is expected to release its first mature bottling in 2024.

Ardgowan Whisky Distillery

Ardgowan Whisky Distillery visualised by digital artist Tom Barnett

Ardgowan Distillery, Inverkip

Lowlands liquid with a maritime touch is what the good folks at Ardgowan Estate (around 30 miles from Glasgow, FYI) plan on serving up at their site, which will nestle across a cluster of ancient farm buildings on their Bankfoot site. The original Ardgowan Distillery was founded in 1896 in Greenock, and made grain spirit and industrial alcohol until it was destroyed during the Second World War. A £12 million distillery and visitor centre, Ardogowan 2.0 will produce three separate whisky styles – heavily peated, lightly peated, and unpeated – which will be available for sale as four, five, and seven-year old drams. In September 2018, the team released their inaugural whisky, the Ardgowan Expedition: a 20-year-old blended Scotch made with liquid that has travelled to the South Pole and back.

Ardross Distillery

Shadowy figures lurking at Ardross Distillery

Ardross Distillery, Inverness

Located in the Averon Valley, 30 miles north of Inverness, Greenwood Distillers’ Ardross Distillery is set on a 50-acre farm complex that dates back to the 19th century. The two-storey still house, tun room, mash house, milling area, blending and product development lab, vaulted cask storage area, tasting room, marketing suite, offices, and staff accommodation will split across steading buildings, farmhouse and cottages that once made up Ardross Mains Farm. Keen to get distilling, the folks at Greenwood recently unveiled Theodore Gin, created with guidance from olfactory expert and perfumier Barnabe Fillion. Our very own Jessica popped along to the launch in London read all about it here.

That’s it, folks! Five new Scotch whisky distilleries we’d love to visit. Which next-gen distilleries are on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below, on social.

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New Arrival of the Week: Mackmyra Äppelblom

Our new arrival this week is Mackmyra Äppelblom, a whisky from Sweden’s original single malt distillery which has been finished in a pretty rare cask. The clue is in the…

Our new arrival this week is Mackmyra Äppelblom, a whisky from Sweden’s original single malt distillery which has been finished in a pretty rare cask. The clue is in the name…

Back in 1999, Mackmyra was the first and only whisky distillery in Sweden. The story began with eight friends who all loved whisky but realised there were no Swedish producers. Naturally, they questioned why, and solved this problem by creating their own!

Today, Mackmyra is actually made up of two distilleries and continues to push boundaries. When it launched in 2002, distillation was carried out at the Mackmyra Bruk site, until 2011 when production was moved to the new Gravity Distillery at Gävle. This innovative feat of construction stands 35 metres tall and seven storeys high. As you might have guessed from the name, the distillery makes use of gravity throughout the whisky-making process. In 2017, the old distillery at Mackmyra Bruk was brought back up-and-running under the name Lab+Distillery, which explores slightly more experimental spirits.

The Gravity Distillery!

Mackmyra Äppelblom, the latest release, is a single malt aged in ex-bourbon and new American oak casks. Äppelblom, meaning apple blossom in Swedish, refers to the very special finishing process in oak casks which previously held Calvados from one of the region’s leading producers, Christian Drouin (Calvados is an apple or pear brandy from Normandy in France). The family-run company began in 1960, and the apples come from the Drouin family orchards, many of them harvested by hand. Mackmyra’s master blender Angela D’Orazio partnered with Christian Drouin and his son Guillaume to create the whisky, which is bottled at 46.1% ABV. It seems it was a match made in heaven; D’Orazio commented that “the choice of Calvados producer was easy. Christian Drouin creates absolutely fantastic Calvados, […] he has challenged French traditions in this area, and is therefore the perfect match for Mackmyra’s approach and our enjoyment of experimenting”.

Since Christian Drouin’s Calvados is aged for an exceptionally long time, a minimum of 20 years, there’s very little opportunity for the casks to be used a second time. For the first 20 years of the business, all of Drouin’s Calvados was ageing and not one bottle was sold. We’d say that was quite an investment, and clearly this isn’t a finish that we’ll see all that often! Guillaume Drouin, managing director at Calvados Christian Drouin stated that he was “happy to see the result of this innovative ageing using one of the very few casks we ship from our cellar”.

We present to you, Mackmyra Äppelblom!

The result is a lightly-spiced and fruity whisky, reminiscent of fresh green apples, just in time for spring! While wonderful served neat, you can also try Mackmyra Äppelblom alongside a warm apple dessert or even apple sorbet.

Tasting note for Mackmyra Äppelblom:

Nose: Toasted oak and orchard fruits galore, namely apple and pear with a hint of lemon, delicate floral notes with sweet vanilla and toffee.

Palate: Well-rounded fruity and spicy notes continue with the marriage of pear and citrus. Cedar wood emerges alongside aniseed, caramelised almonds, white pepper and ginger spiciness.

Finish: Spicy tones linger with gentle oak and zesty lemon and apple.

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