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Tag: Single Malt Whisky

Master of Malt Tastes… Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

It’s been a long wait, but Israel’s first single malt whisky from Milk & Honey has finally arrived. Does it live up to expectations? We find out. When I asked Milk & Honey’s…

It’s been a long wait, but Israel’s first single malt whisky from Milk & Honey has finally arrived. Does it live up to expectations? We find out.

When I asked Milk & Honey’s distiller Tomer Goren how he felt about launching Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt, the Israeli distillery’s first whisky, his response was exactly what you imagine. “It feels great, we have waited for a long time and it is great to finally be able to taste, share and talk about our whisky. We are very proud of our initial outcome and for sure climb higher mountains in the future”. 

It’s a proud moment for any distillery. Launching your first whisky is like watching your child leave for the first day of school. You’re excited and anxious in equal measure, desperate for everything to go well. However, this day could have come much sooner for Milk & Honey. Before it was founded, there were no whisky distilleries in Israel. That means no regulation or rules anything like what, say Scotch whisky, has to follow.

The brand, however, resisted naming any of its releases ‘whisky’ until now, opting to name its previous expression ‘Young Single Malt Aged Spirit’ instead. “We try to make the best quality single malt whisky we can and want it to sit alongside with other international brands, so we decided to follow the Scotch Whisky Regulations,” Goren explains. “It is a big challenge to be the pioneer of the industry in Israel with no knowledge or regulation to follow. So, even though the hot and humid climate causes fast maturation, we still waited at least three years before calling our expression whisky”.

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Introducing: Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

The climate (winter doesn’t dip below 16°C, summer highs can top 40°C and humidity is in the 50-90% range) poses quite the challenge. The extent of the angel’s share and the risk of the cask influence being too extreme means long maturation is pretty much out of the question for Milk & Honey. As such, most of the whiskies in Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt are 3-4 years old.

Maturation took place in ex-bourbon casks (about 75% of the whisky), shaved, toasted and re-charred red wine-seasoned STR casks (about 20%) and virgin oak casks (less than 5%). “The ex-bourbon casks that bring vanilla sweetness, caramel and honey and our special red-wine STR casks that bring spiciness and fruitiness and a lot of colour. There is also a touch of virgin oak that gives the whisky depth and oaky notes,” Goren explained.

We’re not going into the production process or history of Milk & Honey here, because we’ve already said pretty much everything there is to be said about the distillery. Both Henry and Kristy reached the same conclusion: Milk & Honey is a promising, intriguing and experimental distillery. Tasting the brand’s first single malt, you’d expect to taste a whisky that reflects this approach. We’re sampling the result of an extreme climate, which isn’t just affected by heat but also the location of the casks (some are matured on the shores of the Dead Sea) and witnessing how this impacts the new-make, which Kristy described as being “surprisingly soft, bursting with pear, apple and green grain notes”. We’re also tasting an unadulterated whisky, which was bottled without chill-filtration at 46% ABV.

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Milk & Honey is Israel’s first and biggest whisky distillery

We’re also tasting history. Which makes this all rather exciting. While we love that there is a vast array on whisky to enjoy in the present day, the consequence of this is that there is a fair amount of spirit being created using similar production processes in similar conditions and matured in similar barrels. This is not one of those drams.

Goren says that stylistically, the brand wanted its first release to be a “whisky for everyone, something well-balanced and welcoming”. It’s certainly gone down well in the arena of award shows, picking up a multitude of medals already. While Goren says it’s great to get recognition, he remarks that it is just as good to get feedback from people in the industry and from worldwide consumers. “It is easy to fall in love with what you do, so it is better to get outside recognition to see that you are on the right track”. 

Which brings us nicely on to the review of Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt. It’s a very pleasant sipper. There’s a lot going on, with distillery and cask character in abundance. I recommend you give it a little time to breathe and you’ll be rewarded with an array of flavour. It does lack some integration, harnessing that swift maturation speed is going to be an on-going process, but it’s a drinkable, distinctive dram and a strong foundation to build on. I poured a couple more drams after I’d finished my tasting, which is always a good sign. I also realised I’d written down ‘honey’ as a description a couple of times, which is very pleasing. Here’s the full tasting note:

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt Tasting Note:

Nose: There are aromas of caramel flapjacks, dark chocolate, lemon shortbread and vanilla initially, with notes of summer flowers, orange zest and Manuka honey drizzled on porridge in support. Some really interesting fruity notes add depth – predominantly gooseberries, melon and drying red grape skins – among hints of marzipan and a little nutmeg.

Palate: Oak and spice make much more of an impact on the palate, with barrel char, polished wood, black pepper and prickles of cinnamon and clove making their mark. It’s less integrated than the nose but full of interesting and enjoyable flavours: red apple, creamy barley, Werther’s Originals and milk chocolate then beeswax, salty and sweet popcorn, red berries. 

Finish: Some of the spice remains but the finish is a little sweeter, with hints of vanilla, boiled orange sweets and a bit of honey and almond granola.

Milk and Honey Classic Single Malt is available from Master of Malt

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How your taxes help small distillers

Ever fancied investing in a small distillery? Well, you might not realise it but you already have. Through various regional development funds, taxpayers’ money has been pouring into the drinks…

Ever fancied investing in a small distillery? Well, you might not realise it but you already have. Through various regional development funds, taxpayers’ money has been pouring into the drinks sector. Ian Buxton takes a closer look at what we are getting for our hard-earned cash.

Do you, in economic terms, favour more of a New Keynesian approach to government expenditure or do you lean towards Ayn Rand’s Objectivist view? Or, to put this in terms more immediately relevant to a drinks blog, do you believe that new distillery start-ups should be funded with taxpayers’ (i.e. yours and mine) money? Perhaps you’ve never thought about it, or perhaps you didn’t know but across the UK many of the new boutique distilleries that have been springing up in recent years have benefited from the largesse of our public sector. 

There are, of course, any number of ways of financing a distillery project. The promoters may be in the fortunate position of having all the necessary capital themselves in which case there’s no need for outside finance. Or they could seek angel investors, or borrow from a bank or other lender, or turn to crowdfunding. That’s been an increasingly popular route: from Burleigh’s Gin to Salcombe Distilling; Cotswolds to Glen Wyvis and Nc’nean to Sliabh Liag examples abound of enterprising entrepreneurs tapping a worldwide and growing community of drinks enthusiasts willing to back new distilling projects. And not just for small beer – some of these projects have raised over £1m from their backers, most of them hoping for a Sipsmith-style payday sometime in the future when the nascent brand attracts the greedy attention of an industry giant seeking some craft credibility.

Nc’nean distillery – you helped pay for this

But there’s another route open to the ambitious promoters of a new business, particularly in Scotland or some of England and Wales’ less prosperous areas. Here the secret is to find the relevant local economic development agency and plead your case for support. Their backing could come in the form of equity (i.e. a share of the business) or more probably a soft loan, outright grant or support for specialist consultants to help develop your business. There’s quite a lot of free money out there if you know where to look and if you don’t, an army of consultants are all too willing to help.

Unlike a venture capitalist, such an agency is not risking its own money. On the contrary, the business enterprise network is funded by the public purse; that’s to say from the taxes, on both income and consumption, which you (hopefully) have been paying, more or less willingly. Most, of course, pays for the schools, hospitals, roads, welfare system, defence and so on that we all rely on but a modest percentage finds its way to the enterprise agency network and a smaller part of that builds distilleries.

So what is the case that they can make for the cash? It’s hardly a capacity argument. The UK has more than adequate production volumes to make all the gin and whisky we need and it would be hard to argue a strategic requirement for making spirits – they’re hardly a coronavirus vaccine, tempting though the thought might be.

No, the magic words that unlock the loot appear to be job creation, tourism or exports – or, better still, a combination of all three. As their name suggests, development agencies are seeking to promote economic regeneration in their local area. Thus the boom in craft spirits and distillery tourism is seen as a lever to create sustainable businesses that attract visitors, creating employment for local people who spend their new wages locally, thus creating more employment in the immediate area. It’s a classic Keynsian multiplier effect and considerable numbers of new distilleries have benefited.

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

To take a few examples at random, Scottish Enterprise has put funding of various types into Isle of Harris Distillers, Nc’nean, The Clydeside Distillery, Holyrood Distillery and a number of others. The recently opened Annandale Distillery was helped to get off the ground with financial assistance from Historic Scotland and the Scottish Government through a Regional Selective Assistance grant and later enjoyed additional support from Interface, another agency funded by the public sector. As a leading Scottish accountancy practice Johnston Carmichael puts it, the “Scottish Government [is] very supportive, [via] Scotland Food & Drink [and] Scottish Enterprise Investor Ready assistance with business planning costs and other costs”. Their professional recommendation: “Max out on free money!” [That’s an actual quote from Johnston Carmichael.]

But the support doesn’t stop at Hadrian’s Wall. Situated in the Peak District National Park the tiny Forest Distillery were backed by Cheshire East Council’s Economic Development Service and went on to collect two separate double-gold medals at the San Francisco Spirit Awards. And from England’s south coast another example: a beneficiary of the Isle of Wight Rural Fund, HMS Victory Navy Strength Gin recently collected the ‘Best in Category International Navy Strength Gin’ accolade in the American Distilling Institute’s Spirit Competition.

However, it can be tough surviving in the global drinks industry and prospering is even more demanding. So, as it’s our money they’re handing out, let’s hope our civil servants are backing winners. Regardless of where you might place yourself on the political spectrum we can all drink to that!

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Jim Swan: a legacy of style

With the arrival (and swift departure) of the much-anticipated first single malt from Nc’nean, we thought it a good idea to look at the legacy of the man who consulted…

With the arrival (and swift departure) of the much-anticipated first single malt from Nc’nean, we thought it a good idea to look at the legacy of the man who consulted for the distillery before his death in 2017, Jim Swan. Ian Buxton looks back at one of the most influential people in modern whisky and ask whether there is such a thing as a Jim Swan style.

As many readers will know Dr Jim Swan, hailed as ‘the Einstein of whisky’ and arguably one of the most important figures in distilling engineering and design since J.A. Nettleton (author of The Manufacture of Whisky and Plain Spirit, published in 1913 and probably the single most influential technical book on whisky ever published, in case you didn’t know), died in February 2017. He’s far from forgotten, though, and with a number of the whiskies he was involved in creating now coming to the market, I thought it timely to look at his legacy and ask if there is such a thing as a Jim Swan style. First, though, a brief reminder of his exceptional career.

Starting in 1974 with the forerunners of today’s Scotch Whisky Research Institute he collaborated closely with more than twenty Scotch whisky distilleries. It was a unique ‘apprenticeship’ and introduction to the industry which is probably unrivalled and, during this period, working with Sheila Burtles, Paul Rickards and George Shortreed (the latter two both highly-regarded blenders), he developed the original flavour wheel. If he had done nothing else, he would be remembered for this alone.

In 1993, he became an owner-partner in R.R. Tatlock and Thomson, the well-known technical consultancy and, in 2002, branched out on his own to offer his services to spirit producers worldwide. And he was in high demand.  From Scotland to Taiwan, Israel to Latin America, he criss-crossed the globe trouble-shooting, advising new distilleries and cooperages (he was, above all, an expert on every aspect of wood) and serving on leading competition judging panels.  His clients – those that can be mentioned, because the work was often commercially sensitive – are a roll-call of the most distinguished companies across the spirits industry.

Dr Jim Swan (right) with Ian Cheung from Kavalan in Taiwan

But where Jim Swan will be particularly remembered is in his work over the past twenty years for new world and craft distilleries, notably Kavalan. Shortly before he moved on from that company I asked their then master distiller Ian Chang to assess Jim’s influence. “We will all be forever grateful and in awe of him” he said, adding that: “He drove the creation of a second wave, a New World in the world of whisky. He pushed the frontiers of whisky production right across the world. He opened up an industry that many people thought was untouchable and he innovated and adapted and created new philosophies. He used his decades of research and his sharp mind and flexible thinking in each project and in this way, he has deepened and enriched the entire world’s knowledge, understanding and appreciation of whisky.”

Others happily agreed. According to Cotswolds‘ head of production Nick Franchino “Jim will be viewed as someone who helped change the public perception of whisky and how to make it. His pioneering production methodology enables distilleries to greatly reduce the number of years it takes to create a wonderful whisky, allowing new and exciting distilleries to enter the industry and create a wider choice of high quality whiskies.” As to a style, Franchino had this to say: “His methodology was to create a fruit forward, clean spirit and so there will be that similarity between distilleries that he worked with. However, we all have different stills and local conditions for production and maturation, so there will be welcome variations between us all too.”

From Canada’s Victoria Caledonian Distillery, founder and whisky maker Graeme Macaloney paid generous tribute to Swan, crediting him with “creating a cadre of non-Scotch single malt producers who are making single malts in the traditional Scotch style which are as good as or even better than most single malt Scotches. In the long term, I hope this will lead those Scotch distilleries who make an acceptable but not stellar single malt to realise they will need to ‘up their game’ if they wish to contribute to Scotch’s domination of the global single malt market.”

Milk & Honey

Casks maturing at another Jim Swan-influenced distillery, Milk & Honey in Israel

While Anthony Wills at Kilchoman agrees that a Swan style can be discerned, he made a further important point: “Jim liked up-front fruit character with the new make and as far as I’m aware all the new distilleries he worked with had this character. This allowed for the whisky to mature relatively quickly if put into good quality wood.”

Now, Jim Swan was an acknowledged authority on cask selection. We were both involved in the early evaluation of the mature stock at Glenglassaugh when this changed hands and I vividly recall him assessing this as “undoubtedly gold medal winning”. Entered for the 2009 IWSC awards the whiskies we tasted that day collected the top trophies for both 30 and 40 Year Old single malt and the special IWSC 40th anniversary trophy – remarkable achievements for a then largely-forgotten distillery and a small testimony to Jim’s unerring nose for quality.

His early work on wood chemistry helped unravel how different parts of the oak tree contribute to flavour. In particular, he was a pioneer and advocate of STR (shaved, toasted and recharred) red wine casks seen at many of his consulting clients, such as Kilchoman, Annandale, Kingsbarns, Nc’nean, Cotswolds, Penderyn, Kavalan and Israel’s Milk & Honey

Lindores Abbey Distillery

Swan’s final job, Lindores Abbey distillery

Graeme Macaloney describes it as having “a style of its own whereby the heat-treated red-wine-saturated cask sweetens the wine through a natural caramelisation process yielding variously caramel, toffee, butter-scotch or other similarly related notes”. The innovative use of a previously under-exploited cask type was a trademark Swan innovation and undoubtedly something that he will be associated with long into the future.

Jim Swan’s final project was with Lindores where, fittingly, the records of Scotch whisky distilling begin. Co-founder Andrew McKenzie Smith remembers him thus: “his in-depth knowledge of maturation, his massive success with Kavalan (and others) will be long remembered as will his modesty in an industry not overly populated by modest, shy and retiring people.” He went one to say: “He was a genuinely nice man, a gentleman indeed,” and Graeme Macaloney remembers “an inspiration and amazing coach when it comes to making great whiskies, and a true gentleman and scholar, yet very humble.” What finer legacy might anyone wish for?

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New Arrival of the Week: Highland Park Cask Strength

There’s never been a cask strength Highland Park in the core range… until now. As a load of 63.3% ABV Orkney single malt arrives at MoM towers, we caught up…

There’s never been a cask strength Highland Park in the core range… until now. As a load of 63.3% ABV Orkney single malt arrives at MoM towers, we caught up with brand ambassador Martin Markvardsen to find out more.

Martin Markvardsen has had an interesting journey into whisky. He was in the Danish Navy when he was bitten by the whisky bug and decided that he had to move to Scotland to learn more: “The only way I could learn more about whisky was actually to take some time off from the navy and then I went over to Scotland to work at different distilleries.” He eventually left the navy, managed World of Whiskies in Copenhagen Airport and then took over the whisky bar at the legendary The Craigellachie Hotel up in Speyside.  By this time he was already a massive Highland Park fan: “When I was working at Craigellachie Hotel, it was probably the only bar in Scotland that had the same ‘malt of the month’ for four or five months because that was the Highland Park 18 and I loved it!”

Martin Markvardsen, bet the Scots are glad he didn’t turn up 1200 years ago

Someone at the Edrington Group noticed Markvardsen’s enthusiasm and 15 years ago he became a brand ambassador for Highland Park. It makes perfect sense for a Dane to get the job because the Orkney Islands, the home of Highland Park, have such a strong Nordic culture, as he explained: “I think it was very easy for me to fit into the role about being the face of Highland Park, being a Dane, and having the natural Viking soul as we talk about at Highland Park. But also I think it was probably easier for me to understand the culture in Orkney than most other people.” 

The distillery is firmly rooted in the islands’ culture and landscape as Markvardsen explained: “We are one of the last remaining distilleries in Scotland still to do the floor malting. The climate up there when we do the maltings, the humidity and these kinds of things have an effect on the barley. The Orkney peat from Hobbister, where we get our peat from, is nowhere else to be found in Scotland at the same quality and the same content in the peat. We tried many, many years ago to use peat from the mainland but it didn’t really work for us. It changed the flavour in the whisky.” 

The climate also affects the maturation of the whisky according to Markvardsen: “When you look at the climate on Orkney compared to the rest of Scotland, we never have very, very low temperatures, like frost or snow but we definitely don’t have warm summers either, like they can have in Speyside and so on. That makes a difference in the maturation as well, very slow and very paced maturation.”

The distillery at dusk

Then we came on to the reason for our phone call, the new cask strength expression: “It’s something we wanted to do for a long time and we had a few cask strengths on the market in the past but we’ve never had cask strength in our core range,” Markvardsen explained. “The strength might change from batch to batch but the first batch that will come out now is 63.3% ABV and it’s an absolute cracker. It’s a non-aged statement but if you know the spirits of Gordon Motion, our master whisky maker, we know that it’s not a young whisky, it’s full flavour. I’m actually sitting here with a sample in front of me and it’s amazing how it develops after a few minutes in the glass”.

It’s aged predominately in American oak, a mixture of sherry and refill casks. Markvardsen told us: “It’s extremely easy to drink and even at full strength, which I’m probably not allowed to say, it’s extremely gentle to the palate and I would say the American oak sherry casks that we’ve used here will give it this fruitiness and smoothness that that Highland Park is known for. It’s definitely not a heavy sherry product.”

Talking to Markvardsen, you can see why Highland Park snapped him up, his enthusiasm is infectious. He finished up by saying what he loves most about this new cask strength bottling: “Here we can give people a choice to enjoy the whisky exactly the way they want. If they want to have a huge kick with the high alcohol, we will let them do that. And for a lot of people that never made it to Orkney, this is the closest they can get to come in and take a sample from the cask.” A whisky that transports, just what we need in these peculiar times. 

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Wafts of sweet peat and brown sugar simmering in a pan, with jammy sultana and buttered crumpet in the background.

Palate: Ginger, nutmeg, heather honey, apricot and orange oil. Continued smoke builds, introducing earthy spices later on.

Finish: Warming peppery notes and a lingering hint of caramelised nuts.

Highland Park Cask Strength is available from Master of Malt

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Five minutes with… Dr Nick Savage at Bladnoch Distillery

When it comes to Scotch whisky staying power, Bladnoch has it by the bucket load. The Lowland distillery has a whopping 203 years of near-continuous operation under its belt, – and…

When it comes to Scotch whisky staying power, Bladnoch has it by the bucket load. The Lowland distillery has a whopping 203 years of near-continuous operation under its belt, – and you better believe it’s primed and ready for 200 more. As the ink dries on a new distribution partnership with S.E.A Spirits, we took five with Dr Nick Savage, master distiller at Scotland’s most southerly whisky distillery…

Bladnoch distillery was founded in 1817 by the McClelland brothers, who were among the first in Scotland to acquire a license to make Scotch whisky. Some 198 years later – and around five years after it had been mothballed – the site was bought Australian entrepreneur David Prior, who set about returning the distillery to its former glory.

A little over a year later, in late 2016, Bladnoch Distillery officially relaunched, introducing three brand new expressions created from existing stocks by then-master distiller Ian MacMillan: a NAS dram named Samsara, along with 15-year-old Adela and 25-year-old Talia (now available as both a 26 and 27-year-old whisky). They were soon followed by contemporary blended bottling, Pure Scot.

After a mammoth re-fit that saw Bladnoch fitted with a five-tonne mash tun, six Douglas Fir wooden washbacks, two 12,500-litre capacity pot stills and two 9,500-litre spirit stills – enabling an annual distilling capacity of 1.5 million litres – the distillery celebrated its 200th anniversary year by restarting production. Liquid ran off the stills at Bladnoch once more.

In mid 2019, Bladnoch’s state-of-the-art visitor centre was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay – a.k.a Prince Charles and Camilla – joined by Dr Nick Savage, as he stepped away from his role as master distiller at The Macallan to join the team. With year one under his belt, we caught up with Dr Savage to find out what’s been happening at the distillery…

Dr Nick Savage in the blending room

Master of Malt: Cheers for chatting with us, Nick! Could you tell us a little bit about how you started out in the whisky industry?

Nick Savage: I did a PhD in mechanical engineering out in Melbourne in Australia, came back and lived in Sheffield looking for factory work. I was looking for something I’d enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll take an interest in it, and if you’re interested, everything else takes care of itself. There was an advert for optimising whisky casks and God bless all my friends, they all like whisky and they said, ‘You’ve got to try that’ – just for the perks, I can imagine. It was with Diageo, they were looking for a mechanical engineer to look at trying to reduce Angel’s share, the lifecycle of casks, how thin you can make them, and also the general design. We got a couple of patents out of that in the end. It wasn’t necessarily that I went to study to be a master distiller or anything involved in whisky – it was much more across technical skills. And then you’re immersed in the industry, the people who surround you and your customers, so to speak, they bring you in. My first manager was Jim Beveridge at Johnnie Walker. You end up on sensory panels, and you start off by nosing, and it evolves from there. You learn from the people around you. And then it was more about covering off as many parts of the industry as I possibly could, I guess. Which is how I ended up here. 

MoM: You joined Bladnoch in July 2019. Could you talk about the decision to leave one of the world’s most popular Scotch whisky producers for a recently-regenerated historical distillery?

NS: That decision wasn’t taken lightly, as you can imagine. If it had been a new build distillery then it wouldn’t have even been a question. But this came with opportunity, it’s got all the credentials to be a successful luxury single malt – 200 years’ history, stock, a beautiful estate, a great team and great brands. It had all the building blocks of a successful brand, which was one criteria. The second criteria I looked at was, ‘How am I going to do the role?’. I’ve been in Diageo, Grants, Edrington, I’ve operated with the big brands and the big corporates. This was an opportunity for me to stretch myself in a much more entrepreneurial world, higher pace, completely different challenges, and be part of a brand in its infancy rather than at its maturity. It’s a completely different environment to the one I’d been in for the last 10, 15 years. So, it had all the building blocks, and it was the next challenge for me. That’s what drew me to it. And it’s going to be a hell of a journey. 

Bladnoch 10 year old, snazzy packaging

MoM: Have you put your stamp on production in any way, or are you focused on getting into the swing of things and planning ahead for the future? 

NS: Both are key for this type of role. You inherit the stocks, so I’ve gone through each cask. We know where some of the golden nuggets are, and we know where some of the more regular releases will be – the 11 year old, the 14 year old, these are some of the regular releases that are coming out. We’re also able to look at single casks, where we showcase some of the absolute gems and anomalies in the stocks. So, understanding the stocks is one thing. And then also setting the stocks up, that future planning that you spoke about. I’m not going to be in this chair forever, someone’s going to sit in it after me. [Bladnoch] is 200 years old, and it’s going to do another 200 years, no issues. And it’s about what sort of treasure chest you lay down for the future. You’ve got to make sure you hand it over in a better position than you found it, to use a cliché. From a production perspective, getting it much more fine-tuned, more consistent in regards to the operating processes, and working with the team on that. That was the easy bit, being a brand new distillery there’s not much more you can do with it. It’s more about, ‘How can we do something different in the future, two or three years from now? What are the levers in production that we can pull?’. We’ve gone from two thirds capacity to full capacity running over the last few months. That’s a great testament to the team and to the direction of travel of the business, 24/7 production is no mean feat. And to lead the team on that during my first year is a great feather in my cap, so to speak.

MoM: What else has been going on at the distillery that you can tell us about?

NS: Well, the visitor centre opened last year – we had a great plan for this year and then Covid hit, but we managed to reopen in early August, and it’s been brilliant, the demand has been there. All tours are fully booked. It’s great to see people back on the site and enjoying the estate and learning about our whiskies. In amongst all that, we launched products – the 11 year old, the 14 year old,  we launched single casks. That type of stuff takes years in a big corporate, and we’ve done it in the last six months. One of the reasons I moved to a smaller company is that it’s much more flexible and can move a lot faster, and for me, we’re leveraging that asset. We know we can’t do big volume, we can’t do millions of cases. But what we can be is flexible and decisive. We can be honest about our brands and provide that integrity around the stories. We’ve managed to do that regardless of coronavirus, and it’s a great achievement for the team. To put it in the context of the industry, something like less than 10% of [Scotch] distilleries remained in production. We never actually turned off, we reduced for three weeks purely to give an opportunity to our employees [to adjust]. If you want to go on furlough for a three week period, we will offer that. Nothing’s held against anybody and nothing’s praised – it was a very odd time and we appreciated that. As soon as everybody came back, we pretty much went 24/7. And during a time where [so few] distilleries were operational, that’s a massive achievement. 

Bladnoch Distillery, 200 years and still going strong

MoM: What sets Bladnoch apart from other Scotch whisky producers in terms of the resources and equipment you use?

NS: When David purchased the distillery in 2015 it was mothballed and pretty much needed rebuilding inside, so all the kit is new. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all new technology. We have got some screens, but there’s no production room where the computers sort things out, it’s very much done by hand and by eye in a craftsman’s way. Our washbacks are wooden, there’s no stainless steel, no cooling in there. When David embarked on this [project], he was adamant about [inkeeping with] the traditional way of doing things. Buying new equipment doesn’t mean we have to have the latest technology. The water comes straight from Dumfries Hills, it doesn’t necessarily impact the flavour although I do think it’s important that we engage with our local environment as much as we possibly can. For example, we own a portion of the Bladnoch River, and it’s up to us to protect that, working with people like CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) and the Fisheries Trust. We use that water source, therefore we should be accountable for it.

MoM: Bladnoch’s new make has varied a far bit over its long history. How would you describe the distillery character now?

NS: The flavour and profile are very similar to where it was before mothballed, though it’s slightly fruitier than it was. It’s got that classic Lowland floral grassy note in the background. You’ve got this sweet malty style body, is how I describe it, almost like a biscuit-y note. On top of that, there’s this light, fruity, almost pear drop-style note. So you’ve got pear drops at the top, a big cereal body, and then a subtle grassy floral note just in the background. That allows us to be quite flexible in our cask lay down. We fill 95% first-fill barrels, only because it gives us flexibility for when casks over-perform – you don’t want them too woody, you want a second-fill there. We probably fill in the region of about 40% sherry, whether it’s Oloroso, PX or so forth, and another 40% would be first-fill bourbon. The light, fruity style with a hint of grassiness in the new make allows us to have that as a base by which we can showcase these different cask types and therefore produce different products. An 11 year old is different to a 14 year old – it’s not just an additional three years, it’s a different cask type and style. Whereas if we were very heavily peated, for example, everything is very heavily peated and it’s slightly more difficult to produce different products from one single malt distillery. That excellent new make gives us a really good base to showcase the different casks in the stocks. 

Dr Nick Savage in the stillhouse

MoM: Great stuff. Before you go, could you tell us what you’re working towards over the coming months?

NS: Ironically we’re on our peated campaign for 2020. We’ve got about three weeks of peated, so the distillery is smelling lovely at the minute, even more so than normal. In terms of releases, the 14 year old has absolutely flown, that’s a brand new release and we’ll be doing more in January, I believe. We’ll launch year two of our single cask programme in early 2021. Year one was 2020, we ring-fenced 25 casks in the stocks to be released as single casks, given their unique characters, at a rate of five per year. There are a couple more aged products coming in the same time period – I can’t say too much more on those, but they will showcase a few of our cask types at some higher ages than the 14. We’re also working on a distillery exclusive, which will be a five-year series and should be starting in October or November time. Every year a limited amount of bottles will be released primarily or exclusively through the distillery. Given Coronavirus we might release some on our e-commerce site, as we’re appreciative that not everyone can get to the distillery, but going forward, we’d like to invite everyone to the distillery to collect their bottle.

Try the Bladnoch range at Master of Malt.

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Master of Malt tastes… Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Whisky

After two years of fundraising, two years of building, and three years of distilling and ageing, 100% organic Scotch whisky distillery Nc’Nean has bottled its very first single malt, a…

After two years of fundraising, two years of building, and three years of distilling and ageing, 100% organic Scotch whisky distillery Nc’Nean has bottled its very first single malt, a sustainable dram aged in a combination of STR* red wine barrels and ex-bourbon casks and presented in a 100% recycled glass bottle – a first for the UK spirits industry. We caught up with founder Annabel Thomas for a first taste of Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky…

Building a Scotch whisky distillery from the ground up is no mean feat. Designing a zero-waste, synthetic chemical-free distillery, powered by renewable energy, to produce certified organic whisky made exclusively from Scottish barley? Well, that takes a little extra planning, as you might well imagine. Seven years on, Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky is ready to grace our glasses, and we could not be more thrilled for founder Annabel Thomas and the team.

We’re not the only ones getting excited about the Highland distillery’s inaugural release. Nc’Nean set a new world record in August when bottle number one of its first single malt whisky went under the hammer for £41,004 – quadruple the previous record held for a first bottle from a new distillery to be sold at auction. It was one of 10 bottles sold on Whisky Auctioneer, which attracted over 850 bids from 13 countries, raising more than £92,000 for five charities.

Annabel Thomas from Nc’Nean

As Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky hits the shelves, we took five with Thomas to find out more about the much-anticipated release…

Master of Malt: Thanks for chatting with us Annabel, and huge congrats on the release – how did you decide it was ‘ready’?

Annabel Thomas: We were so happy with where it was even six months ago – when we couldn’t have released it as whisky – that there was no last-minute ‘is it ready?’ decision. We’ve been playing around with cask combinations for probably nine months now, and we knew it would only get better. We felt like, ‘You know what? We’re going to have a spirit that’s ready age-wise come the middle of the summer, so let’s just go for it!’.

MoM: How did it feel knowing it was time to debut it to the world?

AT: Well, some of it is wonderful, like picking the casks. Up until recently, we hadn’t gone through the comprehensive, ‘Which actual casks are we going to put in it?’. You pick a few casks, taste them individually, put them together and see what happens. But when it actually comes to the, ‘Is it going to be number 66 or 67?’, that’s an amazing process. Blending has always been the bit I’ve been most excited about, it’s the most magical thing, the melding of flavours. We’re doing relatively small batches at the moment, only 5,000 bottles, so that’s only 13, 14, 15 casks – one cask can really make a difference, and I find that totally fascinating. The bottling process, however, is not nearly so much fun. We don’t have a proper bottling hall at the moment, which means the team are having a real struggle. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare, but they’re doing an amazing job.

MoM: Could you share some detail about the bottle – it’s a 100% recycled clear glass bottle and potentially a first in Scotch whisky?

AT: The bottle is amazing, we love the bottle. It’s been nearly a year of work. We started working on a bottle last July – which looked nothing like this – and then found an amazing 100% recycled glass bottle in October last year. That took on a life of its own, and we ended up designing the whole thing around this bottle, rather than the other way around. You normally look at all the bottles out there and say, ‘Which one do we want?’. But as soon as we found this 100% recycled one we were like, ‘This is it’. We just feel so lucky to have found it, it was amazing timing and felt very fortuitous, like it was meant to be. 

Nc’Nean Distillery on the west coast of Scotland, doesn’t it look grand?

MoM: What can you tell us about the production of the liquid?

AT: We have multiple spirit recipes that we run in the distillery, but everything we’re releasing this year will be what we call our ‘young’ recipe. There are lots of tiny things in the spirit-making process that we tweak for this young recipe. It starts with the mashing. We let the mash sit for an hour and make sure that we have really pure wort coming off it. We use two different yeasts, Fermentis and Anchor, and ferment for up to 114 hours, which is a relatively long time. We then have a very slow distillation, and very high cut points. All of the tweaks are for either greater flavour or more purity – the idea is that it tastes amazing when it comes off the still, which makes for a great three year old whisky. The cask choice has been very tricky, we have probably spent 18 months testing different cask combinations with friends and family, but also at all of the whisky festivals and events we’ve been to. We also did a send-out to various newsletter subscribers. Most of the casks in our warehouse are either ex-bourbon or ex-red wine STR casks, so we were trying to hone in on the proportions of STR to bourbon. Bourbon casks are lovely; relatively delicate, lots of vanilla flavours, quite sweet, and [they] show more of the spirit,  whereas the STRs are much more impactful and bring spicier, deeper notes to the spirit – so the proportions have a massive impact on what the end spirit tastes like. After much debate, we ended up with 65% STR, 35% bourbon. 

MoM: How would you describe the character of your first release, what are the key flavours?

AT: We’ve picked out three flavour areas – the first we describe as ‘lemon posset’, which is really a combination of citrus and malty almondyness. The second is stone fruit, so peach and apricot and things like that. And the third is spiced rye, caraway-type notes. That last flavour definitely comes from the STR casks. The stone fruit, I think, comes from a combination of the underlying spirit and the bourbon casks. You also get some lovely barley nutty notes from the underlying spirit as well. 

MoM: Were you looking for a specific flavour profile, or was it more of a trial and error process?

AT: A combination of the two! We knew that we wanted a light, fruity, floral spirit, but you can’t really predict that accurately how everything is going to come together. One of the things we were looking for, which influenced the decision of the cask mix, is something that works brilliantly in a whisky soda. And the ‘oomph’, for want of a better word, of the STR casks, really helps in that drink. 

Beautiful liquid in a beautiful bottle

MoM: You released a limited maiden run to investors and fans which sold out within 36 hours. What response have you had from those who have tried it?

AT: Well, so far hardly anyone has tried it. This is the frustration, I think, with first releases. We have had a few people who’ve said it tastes amazing, but to be honest, most people have just been commenting on the packaging so far. In reality, a lot of people have said, ‘I’m waiting for so-and-so’s birthday to try it’. They’re probably not cracking open a £100 bottle of whisky on a Monday night when they receive it from DPD.

MoM: Looking back over the last seven years, what have been the biggest learning curves you’ve faced?

AT: I think people underestimate the complexity of actually getting a product to market – the number of steps you have to go through to get the liquid, the packaging, the licences, the logistics, all of these little bits to work together. It’s actually incredibly complicated. In our more distant past, raising the money and building the distillery was incredibly challenging. But that was three years ago now, it feels like a different lifetime. A new business constantly presents new challenges, so now we’re in a whole new phase again. And of course, we’ve had the additional challenge of Covid. Until February of this year, apart from me, our whole team was based at the distillery, which meant it was a very cohesive organisation. I was up there a lot, everyone was in the same place, it was super easy. Now we’ve got people scattered basically all over the country, though the core team at the distillery are still there. We’re still working on it, figuring out the best way to adapt to that and making sure we’re all working together as efficiently as possible. Right now, we’re figuring out how to get significant volumes of bottles, well, firstly to the distillery and then secondly, away from the distillery, in an efficient supply chain. That’s another challenge that we’ll continue to work on and improve as we go. 

MoM: And with the whisky finally hitting shelves, what’s your focus at the distillery over the next 12 months?

AT: Well, there are some really boring things that we’re going to be focused on, like building a bottling hall and a new warehouse. The actual bottling doesn’t take up much space but the storage you need for empty bottles and full bottles and everything else is massive. As well as bottling our first batch, we’re also continuing our experimentation – we’re running some very exciting yeast trials with a special yeast that was originally a wine yeast which the guys at Heriot-Watt have identified as producing really amazing esters. It’s probably not what the team really wants to be focusing on right now – a complicated yeast trial as well as trying to get 5,000 bottles out the door – but it’s one of those things that happened all at the same time. Next year, we hope to have the first of our yeast trials from 2017 ready for release and tasting, which will be exciting because not only will that be a first for us, but there aren’t many other yeast trials that have been released, so that will be really interesting.

*STR stands for Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred, a cask treatment process pioneered by the late Dr Jim Swan, who worked with Nc’Nean Distillery from the very beginning.

Serving suggestion

Tasting Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Whisky:

On the nose, the single malt is said to be ‘bright, with lemon oil, nectarine and fudge’. While initially ‘a little grassy at first’, the aroma develops into ‘buttery toast, wine gums and candied pineapple’. On the palate, given tasting notes are ‘creamy and fresh with a rich spice, lemon posset, peach juice, fresh ginger, a little coconut and caraway rye bread’. The finish has a ‘medium length with a lightly resinous texture’. The spice notes carry well, ‘leaving an almost menthol tingle’.

The team at Nc’Nean believe their creation is best enjoyed in a Whisky Six; a highball serve that sees 2 parts whisky (50ml) and 4 parts soda (100ml) combined in a short glass over cubed ice and garnished with a sprig of mint. Eager to sample the liquid for ourselves, last week we attended a virtual tasting co-hosted by founder Annabel Thomas and Dave Broom – you’ll find his thoughts on the dram below.

Colour: “It’s a beautiful, quite full gold,” says Broom. “This is a young whisky, but it’s already picked up a good degree of colour. Lovely legs coming down the inside of the glass – if you think of the inside of the glass as being like the inside of your mouth, the legs will give you an indication of what the whisky’s going to feel like. The legs are moving relatively, slowly so I’m looking for a decent mouthfeel coming through here.”

Nose: “It’s a fascinating whisky, because it really does develop beautifully in the glass,” says Broom. “Initially you get this really fresh, quite grassy character, and there’s a spicy note that seems to run all the way through – a lovely caraway note. There’s green bracken and moss, and then slowly but surely it begins to sweeten up and more of the fruits begin to come through. As well as that light herbal character, there’s some cookie dough, and then we’re moving into soft, gentle orchard fruits and a little bit of vanilla.”

Palate: “Very gentle and incredibly soft, it’s very sweet to start,” says Broom. “Halfway through that spiciness emerges and begins to deepen slightly towards the back, with darker fruits beginning to come through. It’s a beautiful, supple whisky.” Adding a drop of water softens things down, he says, bringing out juicy fruit notes such as peach, apricot, and nectarine. “Underpinning all of that is this fresh barley character,” Broom adds. “It’s not a nutty, malty, flavour – it’s more fresh barley.”

Our allocation of Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Whisky is now sold out. 

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Master of Malt tastes… Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake

On Friday evening we were fortunate enough to taste and learn all about Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake, the Highland distillery’s latest release which is aged in Hungarian Tokaji casks….

On Friday evening we were fortunate enough to taste and learn all about Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake, the Highland distillery’s latest release which is aged in Hungarian Tokaji casks.

Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s director of whisky creation, has been innovating and experimenting his way to new delights at the Highland distillery for a quarter of a century now. Over the last 25 years, he has challenged himself and his team to take whatever captures their imaginations and turn it into whisky, from a cup of coffee (Glenmorangie Signet), a long balmy day in Madeira, (Glenmorangie Bacalta) the beautiful barley fields near the distillery (Glenmorangie Allta) and more. 

Recently the good doctor (he has a PhD in biochemistry, this isn’t a Doctor Who situation) found himself musing over how some of his most joyful memories involved cake, from baking with his granny to the pineapple upside-down cake his daughter made him for his birthday. So, Dr Bill did what he does best. He created a whisky that could encapsulate the joy of cake in a single malt whisky. It’s called Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake. 

“Like so many of us, some of my favourite memories come from cake, whether it be helping my granny in her kitchen, or the pineapple birthday cake my daughter surprised me with one year. By finishing whisky in Tokaji wine casks, I’ve captured the joy of those indulgent cake moments in Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake,” said Dr Bill. 

Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake

Glenmorangie and Dr Bill aim to celebrate the joy of a ‘cake moment’ with its latest single malt.

It begins with the classic Glenmorangie fruity, fragrant new make, distilled in the brand’s towering copper stills, the tallest in Scotland (the necks are the same height as an adult male giraffe). Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks at The Glenmorangie Company, explains that this expression began life essentially as Glenmorangie 10 Year Old – The Original. “It’s very much the Original turned and twisted into something else. Baked, if you like…” he said. “We deliberately didn’t change the cut points or use a different strain of barley because it was all about making that classic Glenmorangie house style and using the casks to build extra layers and flavours”. 

Speaking of casks, you won’t be surprised to learn that the spirit has been initially matured in bourbon casks for a period before Dr Bill transferred into a style of cask that could make things a bit cakeier. For that, he turned to Tokaji casks. They might sound like a species of Japanese wood but actually, Tokaji is a highly-prized dessert wine from the Hungarian region of Tokaj, created using noble rot grapes. This noble rot fungus (Botrytis cinerea, for those who like to get geeky) causes the grapes to shrivel up and concentrate their sugars. 

It’s a pretty singular style of wine. It has a deep gold colour which gives it an almost single malt appearance and balances a high sugar content with plenty of acidity. Unsurprisingly, Dr Bill had quite the fascination with the cult status of these wines and their sweet and distinctively honeyed and citrus notes. He sourced a range of largely Hungarian oak Tokaji wines casks from a leading producer. McCarron said that he’s not allowed to say which one but did drop a hint that it’s a ‘regal’ one. So work that one out. A Tale of Cake is the result of his Tokaji tinkering.

Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake

The brand’s signature tall stills help create a light, fruity and fragrant new male

You might be wondering at this point if this single malt tastes particularly delicious alongside real cake? Well, Dominique Ansel, a pastry chef hailed as “the Willy Wonka of New York” and the creator of the ‘world-famous’ Cronut® (a doughnut-croissant hybrid that I’m pretty sure I invented after a night out at uni but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie) seems to think so. He’s created a twist on a pineapple boat cake inspired by A Tale of Cake and paired with a pineapple Old Fashioned cocktail made by expert mixologist Jeremy Le Blanche. Welcome to the world of ‘caketails’, folks, it’s sure to be as fun as it sounds. 

“When I first tried Glenmorangie, it opened my senses to this amazing world of colour, texture, taste, and aroma. It’s a new adventure each time,” says Ansel. “I never guessed I could enjoy whisky this much, but there is a friendliness to the way Glenmorangie tastes. Baking and whisky making are different worlds but they have a lot in common. If you stir Dr Bill’s passion for single malt with my love for cake, you get the best of both our worlds!” The duo has also invented ‘caketail’ pairings for The Original, The Lasanta and The Quinta Ruban. These delights will be available to a lucky few from his bakery in New York, but to ensure everyone can indulge, they’ve released the recipes so you can recreate them at home. We’ve popped The Cake Old Fashioned recipe below so you can partake. 

I can’t speak to the cocktail’s taste because I haven’t made one yet, but I can confirm that Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake is a really lovely dram. It’s well balanced, moreish and super-interesting. The cask finish suits and enhances the Glenmorangie profile, similar to the effect the Sauternes wine casks have on Nectar d’Or. It doesn’t taste like any one particular cake, but there are plenty of sweet, fruity and creamy elements for those who are expecting a dessert of a dram to enjoy.

Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake is available from MoM Towers now! If you get your hands on a bottle, be sure to let know what you think in the comments.

Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake

Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake Tasting Note: 

Nose: There’s plenty of classic Glenmorangie goodness here, orchard fruits, acacia honey and creamy vanilla initially, followed by stewed orange, golden sultanas and a little Amalfi lemon. Then there’s white chocolate and crème brûlee with hints of elderflower, a fresh wholemeal loaf and a little mint among an array of fruity elements like nectarines in syrup, dried mango and apricot yoghurt.

Palate: The palate is complex, tart and has some slightly tannic wood notes which cut through flinty minerality tones as well as tinned peaches, orange chocolate, apricot croissant and more vanilla. There are honey roasted almonds and a little dark fruit underneath. 

Finish: The finish lingers for an age with notes of marmalade, honeycomb and some fresh pear.

The Cake Old Fashioned (at-home version) 

50 ml of Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake
7.5 ml of coconut water
7.5 ml of pineapple syrup
1 dash of Peychaud’s bitters
1 pinch of black pepper 

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass over block/ cubed ice. Garnish with a twist of orange zest and a walnut.

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A world of flavour: Behind Benriach’s new look

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get…

Speyside Scotch whisky distillery Benriach has undergone something of a makeover, with a refreshed core range and revamped presentation. We chat to Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach master blender, to get the inside scoop.

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Benriach is a distillery with a storied history. It dates back to 1898 when it was founded towards the north of Speyside by a chap called John Duff. Over the following decades, and like many distilleries, it faced periods of closure and changed hands multiple times. Since 2016, Benriach has been part of the Brown-Forman’s family, marking the Jack Daniel’s- and Woodford Reserve-maker’s first foray into the world of Scotch. At the time, the deal made the whisky headlines. But now, with its new look, a refocusing on flavour, and a compelling narrative around innovative cask combinations, Benriach is making waves all on its own.

Dr. Rachel Barrie has developed the range

“I’ve been with the company three-and-a-half years now, and I’ve really got to know all of the whiskies,” said Dr. Rachel Barrie, Benriach’s master blender. We’re speaking on the day of the relaunch. The line-up has been unveiled to the world, and drinks social media is in a chatter about the news. And it’s been a while in the works. Even within six months of taking on whisky development at Benriach, Dr. Barrie said she was thinking ‘what’s next?’.

“I had thousands of casks,” she said, outlining the process. “I’ve described it like discovering all these paint pots; it’s like painting with flavour.”

She mentioned she’d always admired Benriach from afar. “I’ve always loved the balance of the fruit and the malt,” and this balance is at the heart of the new core range. 

So what have we got in the line-up? Dr. Barrie took it back to Benriach’s Speyside home (Did you know it gets 40 more days of sunshine a year than anywhere else in Scotland?” She quipped.). A key source of inspiration was the 1994 Benriach 10 Year Old expression, the first bottling that really cemented the distillery as a brand in its own right. It’s balance, body and mouthfeel underpin the philosophy behind each new expression.

All about the cask: the new core range lines up

At the heart of it all, there’s The Original Ten, The Smoky Ten, The Original Twelve, and The Smoky Twelve, all bottled at natural colour. Two fundamentals thread through the quartet: production (essentially peated versus unpeated), and the cask make-up. These are all a blend of three different cask maturations. Move higher up the range to The Twenty One, The Twenty Five and The Thirty, and you’ll find four different cask types. The entire line-up was crafted to offer accessibility to whisky newcomers, and established enthusiasts alike. And the clear positioning does just that.  

When it comes to the malt specification itself, it’s useful to look at the calendar. Each September is devoted to ‘smoke season’, where malt processed to 55ppm using local Highland peat prior to distillation tracks its way through the distillery. Then malting season (yes, Benriach has its own malting floor), takes place each spring. There will be dedicated Smoke Season and Malting Season limited editions to come in due course, too. 

“My job was to create this perfect world of flavour, a journey of taste, many different layers all perfectly integrated,” Dr Barrie continues. “There’s a rainbow of flavour as the spirit comes off the still, which you can then amplify with casks.” 

And why such an overt focus on smoke? “It’s such a sweet smoke with Benriach, it opens the door to new consumers,” she explained. “Just saying ‘peated’ is too simple, it’s a different character.” 

The core quartet

In the tasting glass first is The Original Ten. “It’s like sunshine on Speyside,” Dr. Barrie described it. “A fruit orchard, ripening peaches, a patisserie.” Interestingly, while it’s barely perceptible, there is still a wisp of that Benriach smoke running through. “It’s less than 5ppm,” she said, adding that it adds more of a depth, a textural quality, rather than contributing flavour as such. Going into the Original Ten is liquid from bourbon barrels and sherry casks, plus virgin oak. “It’s got layers of perfect balance,” she continued. 

Benriach is embracing its smokier side

Next up was The Smoky Ten with an intriguing cask mix indeed: bourbon barrels, toasted virgin oak, and Jamaican rum casks. She confirmed the latter previously held high-ester, pot still liquid. “It amplifies the esterification that happens with the maturation,” she got technical for a moment. “It brings out the vanilla, coconut, lactones, the sweetness.” The result? “Exotic fruits charred on a barbeque.” Delicious!

The Twelve is a “new to world” expression, Dr. Barrie continued. “Everything changes with maturation. You’re going to have more oxidation, and therefore more of those top notes.” She reckoned the esterification reaches a “sweet spot” at this age for Benriach. Plus the addition of Port pipes to the bourbon and sherry make-up “lifts and lengthens”, with a “dark chocolate note on the end”.   

Rounding off the four at the heart of the range is The Smoky Twelve. “This is unexpected in its cask combination,” Dr. Barrie said, referencing the bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala cask recipe. “It’s a collision of the rugged side of Benriach with the sweet side,” she added. “Plus, I love Italian food, I love Sicily. You can see how I was drawn to this.”

An experimental approach

It’s true that there are some unusual cask combinations across the four expressions we explored. How does that come about, and will there be more experimentation to come?

“There’s like a ‘eureka!’ moment with all of the whiskies,” she detailed. “It’s a constant quest. You have all the casks, you blend, you go back and think, ‘imagine…’. Eventually to get to the point where you’re, 80%, 90% there, and then you raise the bar even further.”

Announced alongside the new range was an intention to release esoteric limited editions in the future. Are there any experiments or cask types she’d like to play with yet but hasn’t?

“Oh, there’s so much experimentation,” she said, referencing what’s going on in American whiskey with mashbills and developments within wine. “And within our group [Brown-Forman], there are so many different types of spirit… Tequila with Herradura. Now, that would be interesting. Never say never!”

The range takes on the character of the distillery and the surrounding Speyside region

Other ongoing projects include working with the R&D team at Brown-Forman’s Louisville HQ to investigate the impact of different types of oak on flavour, another area of interest. It makes the whisky lover incredibly excited to see what might come next from Benriach as part of this new programme. 

“There’s plenty to try, and then different combinations to try!” There’s an energy to her statement that makes you long for a sneak peek around her blending lab, just to see what’s there. There’s lots to taste in the new range, and there’s certainly deliciousness to come. Dr. Barrie best sums it up: “There’s an everlasting world of flavour.” 

Benriach’s new-look line-up

The Original Ten, 43% ABV

Bourbon, sherry and virgin oak casks with a trace smoke level for orchard fruit, honeyed malt and marmalade on toast notes. 

The Smoky Ten, 46% ABV

Bourbon barrels, virgin oak and Jamaican rum casks combine for smoky sweetness with barbecued fruit notes. 

The Twelve, 46% ABV

Sherry rich maturation and layers of dark berry fruit encapture the flavours of Benriach in the autumn.

The Smoky Twelve, 46% ABV

Made with an unusual combination of bourbon, sherry and sweet Marsala casks for a rich smoky sweetness with dark chocolate, almond and charred orange notes. 

Plus coming soon, three older bottlings which we were given a sneak preview of:

The Twenty One, 46%

Bourbon, sherry, virgin oak and red wine cask liquids with elegant smoke. Lashings of orchard fruit, pinewood and honey smoke. 

The Twenty Five, 46% ABV

Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Madeira wine casks combine for an intensely rich mouthfeel with baked fruit, cinnamon spice and caramelised smoke. 

The Thirty, 46% ABV

The oldest peated Speyside ever bottled. Sherry, bourbon, virgin oak and Port casks result in chocolate raisin, smoked walnut and cinnamon cocoa notes. 

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New Arrival of the Week: The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel…

Back in August, we heralded the imminent launch of a rather special whisky from The GlenDronach – a wonderfully well-sherried 29 year old single malt, created by master blender Rachel Barrie to coincide with the upcoming release of The King’s Man. Ahead of the GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage hitting shelves this week, MoM took a moment to sample the liquid. Here’s what we thought…

The folks at The GlenDronach certainly know their way around a sherry cask, and this latest release is no exception. Created in collaboration with the Kingsman film franchise director Matthew Vaughn – and also MARV films and Disney – The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage has been exclusively matured in oloroso casks before a delicious finishing period in Pedro Ximénez casks from Spain. Because, well, why not?

For those unfamiliar with Kingsman, the action-comedy film franchise is centered on a fictional secret service organisation of the same name (it’s also a screenplay of a comic book series, but we digress). Set during world war one, the latest instalment – The King’s Man – delves into the origins of the intelligence agency. While most of the plot details remain under wraps, here’s what we do know: There are tyrants. There are criminal masterminds. They have nefarious plans that involve inciting some kind of war that will wipe out millions. Saving the world is down to one man and his protégé, who must figure out how to stop them in an exhilarating race against the clock.

It’s proper fancy…

A combination of six casks distilled in 1989, the new release is said to be inspired by the oldest bottle of whisky housed at The GlenDronach Distillery – a 29 year-old whisky bottled in 1913, just before the outbreak of the first world war. The story behind it goes like this: three friends bought a bottle each before the war, promising to open them together once they came home. Only one returned. Having never opened his bottle, his family donated it to the distillery, where it’s displayed in remembrance of fallen friends. What a tragic tale.

Master blender Rachel Barrie commented: “This expression is deep in meaning, paying homage to ​fallen friends who bravely fought during WWI, and the depth of character and integrity shared by both The GlenDronach and the Kingsman agency. This is none other than a whisky truly fit for a King’s Man.”

There are just 3,052 bottles available, all labelled, numbered and wax-sealed by hand, and signed by Barrie and Vaughn – who also shared his thoughts on the release. “There is an important line which says, ‘Reputation is what others think of you, character is what you are’,” he said. “Strength of character and dedication to upholding the highest values perfectly encapsulates the true spirit of both the Kingsman agency and The GlenDronach Distillery.”

The packaging is quite smart too

So, what does it taste like? Flavour-wise, Barrie described “smouldering aromas of dark fruits and sherry-soaked walnuts, vintage leather and cedar wood”. On the palate, “dense autumn fruits meld with date, fig and treacle, before rolling into black winter truffle and cocoa”. Throughout the “exceptionally long” finish, she said, you’ll find lingering notes of “blackberry, tobacco leaf and date oil”. 

Sounds rather tasty, doesn’t it? So, without further ado, here’s our take on The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage:

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage tasting note:

Colour: Pouring the whisky into a glass, you’re instantly struck by how dark it is – almost a mahogany brown. There’s no colouring added, we’re assured. Spending 29 years in Sherry casks is a heavy enough influence on the colour, with no need for any extra ‘assistance’. Ahem.

Nose: Dark brown sugar, cherries, plums and salted caramel with a touch of aniseed. Another whiff and you’ll find raisin, vanilla and a hint of citrus peel.

Palate: Thick waves of juicy dark fruits give way to tart pluminess that evolves into powerful and pronounced dusty oak spice.

Finish: Incredibly rich and long. Rum-soaked raisins, leather and tobacco dryness, rounded off with dates and a touch of clove and cinnamon.

Overall: Sweet and intense. Remarkable how it transforms on the palate. Like Willy Wonka made his Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum in an orchard.

The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage is now sold out. That went fast!

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Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

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

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

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

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

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

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

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

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

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

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

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

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

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

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

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

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