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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: vodka

Inside the English Spirit Distillery

Nestled inside an 18th century barn located in the depths of the Essex countryside you’ll find English Spirit Distillery, which produces the UK’s widest variety of spirits and liqueurs all…

Nestled inside an 18th century barn located in the depths of the Essex countryside you’ll find English Spirit Distillery, which produces the UK’s widest variety of spirits and liqueurs all under one roof, and totally from scratch. With the distillers’ 10th birthday around the corner, and construction on its shiny second distillery in Cornwall taking shape, all signs point to an action-packed 2021. MoM paid the team a socially-distanced visit…

The English Spirit story begins in Cambridgeshire at the former home of Oxford biochemist and ardent cook, Dr John Walters. Inspired by a Radio 4 feature about eau-de-vie made from wild fruits in the east of France, he set about immersing himself in distilling literature; picking grapes from the side of his house and distilling his first spirit on a four-litre still a short while after. According to Walters, it was as smooth, layered and complex as the £140 bottle of Cognac on his drinks trolley. Galvanised by his creation, Dr Walters found a site locally and established the county’s first distillery in 2011 with little more than a single 200-litre alembic still and a reflux column.

Vodka came next, then gin, liqueurs and barrel-aged spirits, all produced with a new make-first philosophy that carries through to this day. “He found that if you really pay attention to the distillation process, it then doesn’t become about the botanicals, the spices, the barrel ageing – you really don’t have to age spirits for years and years,” says general manager James Lawrence. Fast-forward 10 years, and you’ll find an even wider array of spirits and liqueurs at the distillery in Great Yeldham, Essex, where English Spirit has operated for the last six years.

Dr John with one of his little stills

The majority is made from a base of East Anglian sugar beet, which is processed at British Sugar’s factory in Bury Saint Edmunds and arrives at the distillery as a mash. Seax Vodka is the purest expression of the base spirit; single distilled in a 3.9-metre column still and bottled unfiltered. Dr J’s Gin, a London Dry, is pot distilled with juniper, coriander, macadamia nut and citrus zests in 200-litre batches. Coffee Liqueur, one of six liqueurs that make up the core range, sees five Arabica coffee bean varieties partly distilled with the sugar beet base and partly infused using a sous vide.

The distillery’s Single Malt Spirit, meanwhile, is made from malted barley wort sourced from a local brewery (before maturing in English oak barrels). And when it’s time to make one of three rum bottlings – Old Salt Rum, English Spiced Rum, and St Piran’s Cornish Rum – the team source sugar cane molasses from around the globe. Ingredient-wise, nothing is off the cards: English Spirit is the only distillery in the UK to distil sambuca, which is made with elderflower eau-de-vie, and even made the country’s first baijiu from 100% British sorghum grains in collaboration with farmer Pete Thompson.

While the distillery team seeks to celebrate Britain’s agricultural heritage and seasonality, they are by no means bound by it. Peer closely at the labels and you’ll find English strawberries, rhubarb, Victoria plums, cucumbers and red cherries alongside Sicilian lemons and even exotic wood species – Canadian sequoia, Norwegian pine and Omani date palm – which were distilled with sugar cane molasses to make Great British Rum, a recent collaboration with intrepid explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. 

You can see the bones of the 18th century Essex barn that houses the distillery

Compared to the historic barn at Great Yeldham Hall – a Grade II Listed building that dates back 200 years – the new distillery, located at Treguddick Manor in Cornwall “is like being blasted into the 21st century,” says Lawrence. Where the Essex site is home to 20 gas-fired customised copper pot alembics from Portugal, collectively nicknamed ‘Fanny’, the new build will house a vast electric-powered still – around 1,500 litres in capacity – designed by a German engineering firm to English Spirit Distillery’s precise specifications. 

“We use small stills to make an exact cut between heads, hearts and tails,” Lawrence explains. “Sometimes we might want to grab just a fraction of the heads or a few esters off the tails to make a particular flavour profile. The art of distillation is knowing when to make that cut, and choosing how much of those elements to take. Anything over 200 litres in size, you traditionally start to lose the ability to have that precision. You might be at 90%, but you won’t be at 100% accuracy. But John has found a still that can do that in one giant electric-powered self-contained unit.”

The super-still isn’t the only standout aspect of the new site, which will feature a giant waterfall, a restaurant, and five geodesic domes within which the team will grow botanicals and base spirit ingredients, from wheat and sugarcane to Mediterreanean herbs. “Imagine the Eden Project, but smaller, and with more booze,” says Lawrence. The ingredients will also feature in dishes in the kitchen. “We really want to start showing people how you can bring food and spirits together,” he says. “Bespoke drink pairings, cooking with spirits – using them as novel ingredients to get amazing new flavours out of dishes.”

To mark a decade of distilling, English Spirit will return to its roots with the release of an aged brandy made with English wine – fitting, given eau-de-vie started it all. As construction works rumble on at the Cornwall site – “at the minute we’re in deep electrics and plumbing phase,” says Lawrence, with the new still set to be fitted in February – 2021 is shaping up to be a corker for the team. “We’re flying along, it’s amazing,” he says of the project. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

Tasting notes:
Dr. J’s London Dry Gin

The ingredients for Dr J’s London Dry? Single-distilled sugar beet new make, juniper berries, coriander seeds, citrus zests (orange and lemon), macadamia nut, and water. That’s it.

Nose: Clean and herbal at first, a second whiff reveals a gentle sweetness underpinning those initial bright grassy notes.

Palate: Creamy menthol, with a hit of juniper and coriander. A pepperiness with vibrant, fresh lemon zest. 

Finish: Dry, lingering lemon, warmth and a kick of macadamia nuttiness. Supremely fresh. 

St Piran’s Cornish Rum 

Named after the patron saint of Cornwall, St Piran’s is made exclusively from sugar cane molasses and blended with Cornish water drawn from a borehole at Treguddick Manor.

Nose: Grassy and vegetal, with a touch of salt, honey, and soft white pepper warmth.

Palate: Dry on the entry with tart citrus and coconut cream. Evolves into raisin and caramel.

Finish: Medium length with vanilla custard, a hint of agave and a menthol note at the very end.

English Spiced Rum 

Made by macerating the distillery’s Old Salt Rum with cherries, hibiscus, citrus, ginger and a few secret ingredients – referred to by Dr John as ‘pixie dust’ – overnight.

Nose: A huge waft of ginger, wrapped up in brown sugar. Hibiscus follows, with hints of sweet vanilla

Palate: Thick and syrupy with toffee apples, glazed cherries, sweet spices, gingerbread, rich raisin and caramel notes.

Finish: A short finish, with bitter orange, cinnamon and a touch of charred oak.

English Spirit Coffee Liqueur 

The team has taken five different varieties of arabica coffee beans and combined them with a base spirit made from East Anglian sugar beet. Some beans are redistilled with the spirit, others undergo a sous vide process. The two are combined and bottled as a liqueur at 25% ABV.

Nose: Milk chocolate, roasted coffee beans. Rich, earthy and complex with a leathery, almost tobacco element and hints of dates and cherry.

Palate: Freshly ground coffee with demerara sugar, vanilla. Transforms into delicious mouth-coating bitter espresso.

Finish: Long, with lashings of gooey caramel and a lingering coffee cake note.

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Meet MoM’s Own! Your drinks cabinet essentials made simple

Stocking up on the basics? Looking for a wallet-friendly way to cover all booze bases? We can help with MoM’s Own, our quartet of tastiness – London Dry Gin, Rum,…

Stocking up on the basics? Looking for a wallet-friendly way to cover all booze bases? We can help with MoM’s Own, our quartet of tastiness – London Dry Gin, Rum, Vodka, and, of course, Blended Scotch Whisky! 

The perfect cheese selection pack. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The stylish capsule wardrobe. Right across life, grouping things together is very pleasing. Especially when they help make your life easier or bring you immense joy (hello, cheeseboard. ‘Tis almost the season after all!). It seemed high time that we got in on the act of arranging things together, this time in the drinks world. So, give a fabulously warm welcome to MoM’s Own, your new go-to for all things spirits!

Spanning Blended Scotch Whisky, London Dry Gin, Rum, and Vodka, MoM’s Own is our vision of drinks simplicity. You want a constantly stocked up drinks cabinet with all manner of cocktail options. You need it to be delicious. You also don’t want it to break the bank. So we teamed up with our pals at Atom Labs to craft the first of four bottlings that do just that!

We chose MoM’s Own to tick as many boxes as possible. It’s your go-to, easy peasy selection whatever you fancy drinking. It’s also got hosting wrapped up (ready for when we can have dinner parties again..!). Whether it’s for yourself or someone else, we reckon these four expressions will have you well on your way to a useful, versatile and – vitally important! –  delicious drinks cabinet. 

MoM’s Own Blended Scotch, 42% ABV 

Looking for a tasty sipper that you could also mix (if the fancy took you), that’s delectable enough to be a treat but affordable to share with friends? Say hello to MoM’s Own Blended Scotch! It’s made with peated Islay single malt blended with a soft, buttery single grain, so you’ve got enough weight and complexity to delight your palate, while being decidedly accessible. Also useful if you’re introducing your pals to the world of whisky.

MoM’s Own London Dry Gin, 40% ABV

Hands up, juniper fans! This one’s for you. We love classic London dry gins, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. All we’ve done to a classic recipe is cold-distil citrus peels for a fabulously refreshing and slightly elevated sipper. We’re a fan of it in G&Ts, Martinis and Negronis alike – oh, and it’s an absolute bargain, too.

MoM’s Own Rum, 40% ABV

Dark rum is having more than just a moment – we’ve collectively got a taste for the stuff that’s delightfully delish and exactingly blended. And that’s what you’ve got right here with MoM’s Own Rum! There’s unaged and aged Caribbean liquid, plus higher ester stuff blended in. Wonderful liquid indeed! 

MoM’s Own Vodka, 40% ABV

Great vodka is essential for any drinks cabinet (how could you indulge in that weekend Bloody Mary without it?), so we knew we needed a top-quality option in the line-up. This one’s made with both wheat and molasses as a base, so it’s soft and smooth, with a gentle mouthfeel. Equally good with soda, other mixers, and in things like Moscow Mules

We reckon that’s a pretty good line-up to kick things off. Between those four bottlings, you’ve got almost all drinking occasions covered – and a whole bunch of classic cocktails, too. But we’re not done there! We’ll release more MoM’s Own products as trends develop and we spot a need. If you’re after something specific, let us know. We might just make it for you!

Enjoy the line-up!

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Top ten: Home bar essentials

As we’re once again going to be spending much more time at home because of lockdown, we thought it would be useful to round-up the essentials bottles you need to…

As we’re once again going to be spending much more time at home because of lockdown, we thought it would be useful to round-up the essentials bottles you need to make great drinks without having to step outside your front door.

We don’t know about you, but we got pretty good at cocktails during lockdown earlier this year. We learned how to make syrups and picked up some tips from the pros. Unfortunately, it seems that it is all happening again just as we thought it was safe to venture out to our favourite bar again. We thought it would be helpful, therefore, to round up some of our favourite bottles.

Just add fresh fruit, soda water, sugar and bitters (Angostura and orange will do), and you’ve got everything you need to make dozens of cocktails. Then all you’ll need is some quality barware, the ultimate home bar book (plug! plug!), and now you can turn your living room into the bar of your dreams. Then dim the lights a bit, put some music on and voila, swanky bar city!

Home bar essentials

Bathtub Gin

Gin is the most important spirit for cocktails. The Martini, the Martinez and the Negroni are all based on gin. We’re huge fans of Bathtub gin because it delivers a great wack of juniper which is what you need but it’s also complex with a great mouthfeel. It’s the consummate mixer but it’s also pretty delicious sipped on its own.

Home bar essentials

Four Roses Small Batch bourbon

After gin, good American whiskey is the next most used spirit in the cocktail repertoire. Most people choose bourbon though many bartenders prefer rye. Small Roses Small Batch solves this conundrum because it has a high rye content giving it masses of spice alongside the sweeter flavour. Also superb value.

Home bar essentials

Dolin Dry vermouth

You’ve got to have dry vermouth and this classic French brand ticks all the boxes for us. It’s delicately flavoured and low in sugar and harmonises beautifully with gin in particular. It’s also extremely handy to have around the kitchen to add a splash to sauces.

Home bar essentials

Martini Speciale Riserva Rubino vermouth

The standard Martini Rosso is a great all-arounder but we think it’s worth spending the extra money on this. It’s much subtler than the standard bottling and unusually is made with red wine from Piedmont giving it a delicious tang. It makes the best Gin & It.

Home bar essentials

Havana Club 3 year old rum

In order to make rum-based classics like the Daiquiri, Mai Tai and Zombie, you’ll need at least two rums in your cupboard. For the white, we’re very taken with Havana Club’s 3 year old. It’s packed full of character but also mixes with pretty much everything. No home bar should be without it.

Home bar essentials

Dunderhead Rum

This is a great dark blended rum made with a good dollop of high ester Jamaican pot still spirit in it. If you love big funky flavours of banana, pineapple and toffee, then this is the rum for you. It’s a superb mixer providing a bass note of funk to a wide variety of cocktails but especially the Mai Tai.

Home bar essentials

Hankey Bannister Scotch whisky

The name might sound like something an Aberdonian builder would say when he’s inspecting your staircase, but this is actually one of the nicest blended Scotch whiskies around. It’s all about sweet honey, heather and toffee flavours making it a great base for cocktails like the Rob Roy or Rusty Nail. 

Home bar essentials

Janneau VSOP Armagnac

In the olden days, it was brandy and not bourbon that was the basis of most cocktails, so if you want to make an old-timey Sazerac, a Brandy Sour or a Vieux Carre, then you’ll need a decent bottle. This Armagnac with its sweet grapey flavours and nutty complexity is a real find and a steal at the price. 

Home bar essentials

Kavka Vodka

Vodka doesn’t have to be boring and tasteless. This delicious little number from Poland is made with rye and wheat and contains a tiny proportion of strongly-flavoured fruit brandies. These give it a depth of flavour rare in this category. Makes one of the best vodka Martinis we have ever had.

Home bar essentials

Campari

And finally, no home bar is complete without a bottle of the red stuff. It’s an essential ingredient in the Negroni and the Americano. It’s delicious with soda water and it’s a great way of perking up a mediocre bottle of white, rose or fizz. All hail the king of the bitter drinks!

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The Nightcap: 30 October

It might be the spookiest time of year, but that can’t stop us from rounding up the latest happenings from the world of booze. It’s The Nightcap! Happy Halloween, folks!…

It might be the spookiest time of year, but that can’t stop us from rounding up the latest happenings from the world of booze. It’s The Nightcap!

Happy Halloween, folks! However you’re choosing to mark it this strangest of years, we hope you’re able to make the most of the sweet treats, pageantry and gothic pomp of it all as safely as possible. And for those who have absolutely no interest in Halloween, we’d like to think you’ve found some alternative entertainment in the form of The Nightcap. It’s filled with all the best kinds of spirits.

This week on the MoM blog some of the finest names in whisky featured, with the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2019 and Ardbeg Wee Beastie making their way to MoM Towers (eek!), Chris Morris filling-us-in on all things Woodford Reserve and Nicholas Morgan giving us a glimpse of the story behind the world’s no. 1 Scotch whisky. We also captured our time at The Lakes Distillery on video and spoke to Victoria Eady Butler about her incredible family legacy, but not before we made sure you can indulge in style for Halloween and Bonfire Night, make the most of overproof spirits and imbibe mindfully.

The Nightcap

See the Chase Distillery for yourself with our amazing VR tour!

Diageo acquires Chase Distillery

Spirits giant Diageo loves nothing more than adding brands to its swelling portfolio, so it was little surprise to see that Chase Distillery has become its latest acquisition. The premium British vodka and gin distillery based in Herefordshire was founded by potato farmer William Chase in 2008, after he created and sold upmarket crisp company Tyrrell’s. Unsurprisingly, the distillery’s spirits are made from scratch using British-grown potatoes, as well as apples and botanicals on the Chase Farm, which also employs steam energy to power the distillery thanks to a biomass boiler fueled by apple orchard prunings. The portfolio is made up of seven gins, four vodkas and an elderflower liqueur, including the very popular Chase GB Gin, Pink Grapefruit & Pomelo Gin and Aged Marmalade Vodka. William Chase said the acquisition, which is tipped to close in early 2021, is “inspiring” and that Diageo “believe in the potential of our field to bottle spirits and will build on our mission to develop our sustainable distillery in Herefordshire.” Diageo certainly believes in gin, given that it’s already bought Ryan Reynold’s Aviation Gin and invested in German craft gin maker Rheinland Distillers GmbH this year. As for William Chase, he’s kind of running out of potato-based business ventures. Maybe I can interest him in an experiment I did at age six when I powered a lightbulb with a humble potato. It’s sustainable energy, after all…

The Nightcap

Rum was the drink of choice for many of you, and a fine choice it is!

WSTA figures reveal rum is the drink of lockdown 

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) has crowned rum the “drink of lockdown”, as the latest figures show it enjoyed the biggest growth across all spirits during the lockdown. In the three months from April to June 2020, 38% more rum was sold than in the same period in 2019, while total rum sales were worth £119 million in the quarter alone. Rum now places behind only whisky, vodka and gin in value terms. The flavoured & spiced rum category was the biggest mover and shaker, growing 53% by volume between April and June, and outselling white rums over a three month period for the first time. Even though pubs and bars couldn’t open, total alcohol sales in supermarkets and shops are up 8% over 12 months and 35% over the lockdown period. The figures show, however, that the growth in off-trade sales did not off-set the losses seen by the closure of the on-trade – total alcohol sales slumped 20% by volume, showing that, despite all the stories, the British did not booze their way through the lockdown. “Our latest numbers show that rum is lockdown’s champion, as the experimentation Brits liked to enjoy in pubs and bars carried over to their homes. However, this also underlines the importance of on-trade venues as the shop window for new innovations in the spirits category,” explains Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA. “With news just last week of further restrictions being placed on the hospitality sector, the climate for our distillers, many of whom are SMEs and have come to represent such a great British success story of recent years, continues to get tougher”. 

Our favourite feature of the new-look Glenkinchie? The psychedelic Johnnie Walker

Revamped Glenkinchie Distillery reopens

We’ve reported before on Diageo’s £185 million investment in whisky tourism in Scotland. With perhaps not the best timing, it has just been announced that phase one of the plan has been completed and the refurbished Glenkinchie distillery near Edinburgh is once open to the public. The elegant Victorian brick warehouses have been turned into a visitor experience with a landscaped garden and a distinctly psychedelic statue of Johnnie Walker complete with dog. Visitors will be able to purchase a special commemorative release called the first in the Four Corners of Scotland collection, a 16 year old Glenkinchie bottled at 50.6% ABV with just 2,502 available at £150. Barbara Smith, managing director of brand homes (they do love a grand job title at Diageo) commented: “We are acutely aware of the difficult times many people are going through, particularly our colleagues in the tourism and hospitality sector across Scotland. We know there’s a long way to go and a lot of uncertainty ahead. Still, we believe in the resilience of our business and our communities, and we will be doing all we can through our investment to sow the seeds of recovery and future growth.” Distillery manager Ramsay Borthwick added: “Glenkinchie will give people a thrilling first taste of the new visitor experiences we are creating across Scotland. We will be offering people an experience like no other distillery in Scotland at Glenkinchie and that will be followed as we transform Clynelish, Cardhu and Caol Ila over the coming months, and as we build towards the opening of our global Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction in Edinburgh next summer.” Let’s hope they all open as planned.

The Nightcap

Book Two, ‘Building an Icon’, will be available here soon…

Laphroaig expands the Ian Hunter series

Following the huge success and popularity of Ian Hunter Book One, Laphoraig has launched the second instalment in the Ian Hunter Story, which consists of five annual releases and honours the legacy of the last founding member of the Johnston family to run the distillery. Book Two, which is entitled ‘Building an Icon’ and is limited to just four hundred cases, was matured in sherry casks for 30 years before it was bottled at 48.2% ABV without chill-filtration. Hunter, who joined the distillery in 1908, had a lasting legacy, doubling production and managing to sell Laphroaig to America during Prohibition by leveraging the spirit’s unique character, which meant that it could be sold for medicinal purposes. “You cannot enjoy Laphroaig’s exquisitely smokey and complex liquid, without paying homage to the legendary Ian Hunter,” says John Campbell, Laphroaig distillery manager. “His influence in our whisky production techniques and our iconic brand as a whole is undeniable. The second book in our Ian Hunter Story celebrates his legacy in shaping Laphroaig to what it is today.” The limited-edition whisky will be available from MoM Towers soon…

The Nightcap

It’s been quite the week for impressive expressions!

Gonzalez Byass releases sherry from 1878

Tio Pepe isn’t just the world’s bestselling fino sherry, he was also a real person, a winemaker and uncle of the company’s founder Manuel Maria Gonzalez Anger. Now, Gonzalez Byass has released a wine made by Uncle Joe (for some reason Pepe is the diminutive of José) himself. It’s a very special Pedro Ximinez laid down in 1878 to celebrate the investiture of a new pope, León XIII. It was recently uncovered in the company’s vast cellars (think that last scene in Raiders of the Last Ark) by current head blender Antonio Flores. It comes from a single butt containing, after all these years, only 80 litres of super-sweet wine.  It’s unusual because it was made in the days before sherry was routinely fortified so it comes in at only 9% ABV, yet because of all that sugar, it’s has lasted all these years. Mauricio González Gordon, current chairman and fifth-generation family member, said, “This wine was created in the mid-19th century: a Pedro Ximénez, made before phylloxera arrived in Jerez. We are delighted to be able to release this jewel of a wine as part of our rare Finite Wines Collection, but there will only be 78 bottles for sale – the remaining 20 will be stored in the González family’s bottle archive, El Aljibe.” The price is suitably papal at €1800 a bottle. 

The Nightcap

Once you start thinking of Spocktail ideas, it’s hard to stop. Captain Kirsch, anyone?

And finally. . .  Jim Beam me up, Scotty

If you made a Venn diagram of cocktail lovers and fans of Star Trek (Trekkingtons, we believe they’re called), we wonder how big the overlap between the two categories would be. Well, the people behind a new book called Star Trek Cocktails: A Stellar Compendium clearly think there’s a large market. It’s been put together by cartoonist and writer Glenn Dakin in conjunction with ‘mixology consultants’ Simon Pellet and Adrian Calderbank, and with photos by David Burton and Jess Esposito. It’s full of fairly standard cocktails given a Star Trek twist with names like Ferengi Wallbanger or Guinan Fizz. We’re sure they will go down a treat with hardcore fans but we can’t help feeling that the whole thing is something of a missed opportunity in the punning department. So the team here at Master of Malt had a lot of fun coming up with our own Spocktails (see what we did there?) like Star Trek: the next Gineration, Deep Space Wine or the irresistible Captain Kirsch. Live long and Vesper!

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Three-ingredient classic cocktail recipes

The quest for a half-decent home cocktail doesn’t have to involve elaborate equipment, onerous tinctures or fiddly garnishes. Led by the expertise of David Indrak, operations manager at The Cocktail…

The quest for a half-decent home cocktail doesn’t have to involve elaborate equipment, onerous tinctures or fiddly garnishes. Led by the expertise of David Indrak, operations manager at The Cocktail Service, we’ve pulled together a fine selection of three-ingredient classic cocktails you can whip up at home with relatively little fuss…

As anyone who has attempted a home-made Irish Coffee can attest, making bar-standard cocktails in the kitchen typically requires untold prep work, time, effort, and a certain level of skill. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s easier to leave the tricky drinks to the experts. “Making cocktails is similar to creating good food,” agrees Indrak. “It takes practice and an understanding of techniques, flavour combinations and what ingredients are available to enhance your drinks. Cocktail bartenders in top bars are students of cocktail culture and dedicate their lives to the craft. For the best cocktails, there is no other place to enjoy but a cocktail bar.”

The Nightcap

You don’t need all the kit to make a good cocktail

Creating infusions, sherbets, and clarified cocktails frequently requires long preparations, says Indrak – up to two weeks in some instances – and often requires ingredients or equipment you wouldn’t normally have at home. As well as requiring lots of planning ahead, buying fancy produce is often expensive and wasteful. By keeping home cocktail-making simple and using familiar ingredients, you’ll find it far easier to repurpose anything you don’t use. Besides, visiting your favourite watering hole – adhering to social distancing guidelines, of course – may just help the owners weather the ongoing coronavirus crisis. “We are living in more difficult times now, and supporting your local bars helps the businesses to get through this period,” says Indrak. 

With that being said, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘boring’. There are plenty of ways to dress up a three-ingredient cocktail – for example, adding fruit to the equation. “Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries – these can be all kept in the freezer and can be used as a garnish, dropped in a glass of fizz to maintain the temperature, or added in the blender to create delicious fruity frozen cocktails,” says Indrak. On the other end of the spectrum, why not dehydrate your own citrus fruit? “Cut your lemon, lime, orange in slices and keep on the window sill until completely dehydrated,” he says. “This can be stored in sealed containers and will last for some time.” Alternatively, stick to tradition and fashion citrus twists with a potato peeler. 

Another easy way to add a ‘professional bartender’ air to simple drinks is by pre-freezing your glasses to give them a delightful opaque mist effect on the outside. You could also use crushed ice to crown drinks in rocks and highball glasses, Indrak suggests. When it comes to the liquid inside, you don’t need a ridiculously well-stocked home bar to make a diverse array of cocktails. If you’re looking for guidance, keeping a bottle each of vodka, gin, white rum, bourbon and Tequila will pretty much guarantee you cover all classic cocktail bases, along with Angostura Bitters, vermouth, Cointreau, and perhaps a coffee liqueur if you’re feeling extra.

For the remaining ingredients, raid your larder (or your fridge), suggests Indrak. Fresh herbs such as mint, basil, coriander and rosemary make cracking garnishes, while spices such as chilli, nutmeg, cinnamon, and star anise can add an warming element to certain drinks where recipes call for them. Honey and agave syrups are an ideal sweetener – to make cocktail syrup, combine 1:1 honey or agave and hot water – as are cordials, such as elderflower and raspberry.

In terms of making the drink, there are plenty of kitchen-friendly substitutes for cocktail equipment, as Indrak explains. If you don’t have a boston shaker, use a Kilner jar (with lid!) or a protein shaker. No jigger? Stick with the measuring jugs, cups or spoons you have in your kitchen. Instead of a Hawthorne strainer, use a slotted spoon, and if you don’t have access to a muddler, use a wooden spoon or rolling pin. A fine mesh strainer can be subbed out for a tea strainer or sieve, and a bar spoon can be switched for a long tea spoon if you have one, or just a regular teaspoon with some adjustments. “A bar spoon holds 5ml of liquid,” says Indrak. “The standard imperial tablespoon holds around 15ml of liquid.”

As we’ve hopefully illustrated, you don’t need a Michelin star back bar to craft these tasty drinks. They’re a step up from your typical spirit and mixer combo, without resulting in a mountain of washing up. Here, we present an extremely quaffable selection of three-ingredient classic cocktails for every occasion…

Margarita

Ingredients:

50ml VIVIR Reposado Tequila
25ml Lime juice
15ml Cointreau
Garnish: lime wedge

Method:

Fill a cocktail shaker – or kitchen substitute – with ice, then add all liquid ingredients. Shake until the outside of the shaker feels cold, then fine strain into a pre-chilled glass. Serve with a wedge of lime. 

Aperol Spritz

Ingredients:

30ml Aperol
60ml Prosecco
30ml Soda water
Garnish: orange slice

Method:

Build the ingredients into glass over ice in the order listed above, and then garnish with an orange slice. 

Negroni

Ingredients:

25ml Bathtub Gin
25ml Martini Rosso Vermouth
25ml Campari (order a Negroni bundle here)
Garnish: dehydrated orange wheel

Method:

Build the ingredients into glass over ice – in any order – and then garnish with a dehydrated orange wheel. If you don’t have one, use an orange peel.

Moscow Mule

Ingredients:

50ml Reyka Vodka
15ml Lime juice
150ml Fever Tree Ginger Ale
Garnish: lime wedge

Method:

Build the ingredients into glass over ice – in any order – and then garnish with a lime wedge. Don’t like vodka? Try subbing in rum, whisky or gin.

Dark & Stormy

Ingredients:

50ml Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
15ml Lime juice
Top up with Gosling’s Ginger Beer
Garnish: lime wedge

Method:

Build the ingredients into glass over ice in the order listed above and garnish with a lime wedge.

Bees Knee’s

Ingredients:

50ml Bathtub Gin
20ml Lemon juice
15ml Honey syrup

Method:

To make the honey syrup, combine equal parts honey and hot water and stir until the honey has dissolved. Fill a cocktail shaker – or kitchen substitute – with ice, then add all liquid ingredients. Shake until the outside of the shaker feels cold, then fine strain into a pre-chilled glass. 

Manhattan

Manhattan 

Ingredients:

50ml Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 proof
20ml Lustau Vermut Rojo
1 dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish: cocktail cherry

Method:

Fill a large glass or cocktail shaker with ice, then add the liquid ingredients. Using a bar spoon  – or alternative – stir for 20-30 seconds. Fine strain into a pre-chilled glass and garnish with a cherry.

Top 5 drinks films

White Russian 

Ingredients:

25ml Absolut Vodka
25ml Mr Black coffee liqueur
75ml Half and half

Method:

To make half and half, combine equal parts whole milk and cream. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker – or equivalent – stir briefly, and then pour over a glass filled with ice.

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Getting a taste of vodka’s past with Belvedere Heritage 176

What’s the deal with Belvedere’s new and intriguing rye-based expression? We get the low-down and learn all about history of rye in spirits, how Scotch whisky was an inspiration to Polish…

What’s the deal with Belvedere’s new and intriguing rye-based expression? We get the low-down and learn all about history of rye in spirits, how Scotch whisky was an inspiration to Polish distillers and why the brand is looking to the past to create the flavours of the future.

On Friday we attended another cyber-tasting, this time with Belvedere’s brand ambassadors Mike Foster and Mark Tracey for the launch of Heritage 176. The new kid in the town is a “spirit drink” (we’ll explain in a bit) which was inspired by Polish distilling traditions and uses centuries-old rye malting techniques to showcase the taste of the distinctive grain and recreate a historical taste.

I know what you’re thinking. Taste? Vodka? Doesn’t it all taste the same? Well, as we’ve covered before, this is a recent development. Historically, vodka was all about taste and flavour, and those days are coming back. “There’s a renewed interest and energy in the category. When Belvedere first launched vodka was in a very different place to where it is now. Thankfully, the days of these candied, toffee, whipped cream or peanut butter vodkas are gone,” says Foster. “The direction of travel is towards credible vodka innovation. It’s more about being authentic. For spirits that means stories of origin and inspiration”.

Foster dedicates a portion of his presentation to Belvedere’s inspiration, the history of distillation and malting in Poland. Belvedere has spent much of the last decade investing in research to better understand the core ingredient, from its role in Polish culture to its origins, covering traditional production methods and examining the places where it’s grown. We learned about perevera, a strong alcoholic drink made by heating mead together with beer which was consumed across eastern Europe from the middle of the 14th century and how the culture developed from there into widespread distillation and innovation. Did you know the first written record of vodka is from 1405 and is written in Polish?

Belvedere Heritage 176

Historical malting techniques were used to create Heritage 176

“The Poles take their alcohol very seriously; it’s part of everyday life. Given that it was too cold to produce grapes, malt and rye fueled the industrious Poles to develop their own domestic distilling industry on an unprecedented scale. By 1850, the city of Poznan alone had almost 500 distilleries”, Foster explained. This research into Poland’s malting past uncovered some surprising facts. Archival records from the agricultural society in Warsaw revealed Scotland was seen as a source of farming knowledge. Scottish farmers even migrated to Poland, bringing with them an understanding of distillation and malting practices, and many set up their own agricultural distilleries. “From our research, we found that a distilling process more associated with Scotch whisky and beer making was once at the heart of Polish vodka tradition, and that is malting.”

However, with the 20th century came modernisation, the ability to scale up production and with that, the use of malted grain in vodka production began to be phased out. The focus became the neutrality vodka is associated with now. It’s this development Belvedere challenges, which makes sense given it creates vodka solely from good ol’ Polska rye and purified water, which is drawn from a natural well on the grounds of the distillery. No additives or sugars here. Its Single Estate Series demonstrates this outlook, a range created using rye grown on a single estate to show off the terroir and quality of the grain. As does Heritage 176, the brand’s latest innovative malted rye expression. 

Heritage 176 was created from a blend of just 2% malted rye spirit with 98% of Belvedere Pure. Although 2% does not seem like much, it makes a huge difference (the upcoming tasting note will reveal more). “We found the formula to reveal the characteristics that would have been present in historical Polish vodka, but sadly became lost with time thanks to a desire for cheaper and faster spirit,” Foster explains. “We all know that malt is not new news. Distillers, brewers, bakers and milkshake makers have been talking about its ability to give character for years. But our ancient natural process made using only rye, water and heat is not very well understood”. 

Belvedere Heritage 176

Rye is the key ingredient in Belvedere booze and naturally, the brand is pretty passionate about it

Thankfully, Foster was happy to explain the malting rye techniques Belvedere employed, along with its partners in crime at Viking Malt (which has six malt houses across the world, including two in Poland) to create Heritage 176. “Rye is a very challenging grain to malt, it requires a great level of knowledge and expertise. The malt house we worked with was specifically set up to produce special malts with rye for craft producers such as ourselves,” says Foster. “But the principles of malting grains haven’t really changed for centuries. It’s the same three-stage process of steeping, germination and kilning.”

Steeping

The first step entails submerging the grain in water at three different temperatures, 35-40 degrees, 25 degrees and 20 degrees. The water is then drained and the rye is left to rest in the air for 24 hours. “What’s happening is this combination of water and air is used to increase the moisture content of the grain. We need to get it around about 46% to allow the complete modification of starch into sugar,” Foster explains. 

Germination

Once the ideal moisture content is achieved, the grain is transferred to germination drums (big steel drums, basically), which rotates the grain around to keep it loose which allows the funnelled-in air (which is around room temperature) to dry it. At this point, the grain has become green malt, which means it’s started to grow again. For Heritage 176, the green malt is left in the drums for about 4-6 days, in which time the grain is constantly monitored by the maltsters so it doesn’t grow too much. When the sprout reaches the size of the grain, you’re in the money and can stop the process.

Belvedere Heritage 176

The Żyrardów Polmos distillery where Belvedere is made

Kilning

The third and final stage takes the kiln, which Foster explains is “the most vital stage of malting”. Heat is applied to kill the growth and germination and reduce the moisture content back down to 5%. “There are four aspects to this process for Heritage 176 which starts with forced drying, where we’ll push hot air for about three or four hours into all of the grain to dry all the moisture. Next is the pre-break, this is where the air is blown through the grain for around 12 hours, which dries the surface of each of the grains,” Foster explains. “Then there’s the curing, in which the green malt is cured in kilns up to 176 degrees Fahrenheit which stops all the changes, modifications and growth in the grain. Hence why we decided to call it Heritage 176. We’re using the old heritage style of vodka production and the name leads to a sense of intrigue which gives us a chance to explain this process of malting”.

All of these steps occur at one of Viking Malt’s Polish sites and then the entire rest of the production takes place at Belvedere Distillery. Heritage 176 even has its own exclusive distilling team and stillhouse. At the distillery, the malted grain is milled to create a mash which is then placed in small stainless steel vats where yeast (the same strain used for Pure and the Single Estate series) is added to the mixture. The liquid is then double distilled, the first distillation lasting around 16 hours and creates a spirit of 88% ABV. From this spirit, the heads and tails are cut and the heart is distilled for another 16 hours, creating a 91-92% ABV spirit. This malt spirit is then blended with Belvedere Pure in stainless steel vats and left to rest for two days before it’s bottled at 40% ABV.

Belvedere Heritage 176

Belvedere Heritage 176 will be coming to MoM Towers soon

What’s in that bottle is a delightful spirit drink. Why not vodka? Well, because technically the malted ry e spirit was distilled to 92% rather than the required 96% ABV by European law. Belvedere isn’t concerned about this, however. “To us, it didn’t matter if it isn’t legally called a vodka. We’re masters of rye, we want to explore this raw ingredient and to adapt and manipulate in weird and wonderful ways to create flavours”, said Foster. “We’re not trying to adapt to a flavour that hits a certain consumer palate or add anything synthetic or unnatural post-dilation. We’ve just taken this wonderful rye ingredient and processed it in a different, more traditional way. What excites us is getting down to the nitty-gritty and the science of rye”.

Foster also remarked that it opens up the potential for a subcategory for a vodka. After all, as we’ve already learned, vodka made with malted grain and distilled to a lower ABV has its place in history. “I don’t want to as be brash to say we’ve created a spirit category, but we’re on the way to it. It’s a niche product: there are not many vodkas in the world that use malted grain to produce a spirit. To that extent, we’ve probably created a sub-category. I’m quite excited to see if other vodka companies expand to try projects like this and diversify their portfolios,” Foster explains. “The key thing is that vodka does have taste and character. Hopefully, we’ll encourage the rest of the distilling community to create some exceptional vodkas that use different techniques which can showcase to consumers that vodka isn’t just what Dick Bradsell described it as, ‘the coat hanger from which you hang all the flavours onto in a drink’. We want that to be switched around where vodka is the primary flavour of the drink that then accentuates the other ingredients”.

Tracey recommends serving the spirit over a block of ice with a lemon twist, or alternatively in cocktails. He made one during the presentation which combined 60ml of Belvedere Heritage 176, 5ml of honey syrup and three dashes of walnut bitters. It was delicious and easy to make so I’d suggest giving it a go. Equally, you can happily sip this one neat. Heritage 176 is impressive and fascinating in equal measure. It’s a complex, rich and dynamic spirit, filled with multiple aromas and flavours supported by an indulgently creamy texture. It’s such a contrast from the classic Belvedere Pure and I recommend comparing it with a classic vodka so you can appreciate the difference.

Think vodka doesn’t taste of anything? Think again. Belvedere Heritage 176 will be available from MoM Towers in the near future, so keep an eye out for it

Belvedere Heritage 176

Belvedere Heritage 176 Tasting Note:

Nose: Clotted cream, homemade vanilla ice cream and almond butter lead, with toffee fudge, cinnamon and acacia honey in support. Compared to the regular Belvedere, it’s thicker, richer and the spices are more aromatic (think allspice and cinnamon).

Palate: If you thought the nose was creamy, wait until you get to the palate. It’s like liquified vanilla fudge with a helping of salted butter thrown in for good measure. There’s a touch of lemon shortbread, walnut bread, baking spice and some classic rye notes of black pepper underneath.

Finish: Butterscotch, freshly cracked pepper and toffee apple linger.

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The land of fire and ice: Icelandic spirits part two

For the second and final instalment of our series on Icelandic spirits, we explore the island’s native flavours and traditions, from sheep dung-smoked spirits to fermented shark chasers, reveal the…

For the second and final instalment of our series on Icelandic spirits, we explore the island’s native flavours and traditions, from sheep dung-smoked spirits to fermented shark chasers, reveal the regulatory issues faced by distillers, and glimpse the country’s spirited future…

Around three-quarters of Iceland’s total 39,000 square miles is barren of vegetation due to soil erosion. In fact, in around 7,000 of those square miles it’s severe enough to render the land totally useless. Plant life consists mainly of grassland, which is grazed by cattle and sheep (sheep outnumber humans almost three to one). “Icelanders are incredibly proud of their heritage and the harsh weather conditions that have defined their resourceful people,” says Fabiano Latham, brand ambassador for Reyka Vodka. “It’s all about using what’s available, preservation, and survival. Yes, conditions today are much more manageable, but you still see nods towards their adventurous ancestors in all aspects of cuisine, including alcohol.” 

Of the distillers in Iceland who actually make their product locally – more on this later – most utilise the herbs and berries found around the country, such as crowberries, bilberries and moss, explains Birgir Mar Sigurdsson, co-founder of Thoran Distillery. Many of the botanicals grow wild in the highlands, and there’s plenty more to be found in the Icelandic countryside and closer to the coast. “There’s a lot of different seaweed [varieties] that many distillers have been experimenting with, us included,” he says. “We don’t grow any of the classic fruits like oranges, lemons, etc., but there are many greenhouses around the country that do grow things like strawberries and tomatoes.”

Birgir Mar Sigurdsson looking pensive

The most common native tree is birch, which once covered much of Iceland. It’s a key botanical at Foss Distillery, which makes liqueur, schnapps, bitters, and vodka using the historic species. “Icelandic birch is easily recognisable by its delicate dentate leaves and silver-hued papery bark,” says co-founder Ólafur Örn Ólafsson. “About a third of Iceland is thought to have been covered in birch woods when the first settlers arrived nearly 1,150 years ago, which shows that the tree had fully adapted to the windy and changeable conditions in the country. Our policy is to interfere as little as possible with nature, and so we take the sap from the trees at the best time for the trees, and collect the decorative sprigs when cuttings are made by specialists to thin the woods and facilitate natural growth.”

Of the various berries, herbs and spices that grow wild in Iceland – among them caraway, angelica, rhubarb, juniper – one of the most compelling is arctic thyme. “That is our pièce de résistance,” says Óskar Ericsson, CEO and master distiller at Brunnur Distillery. “That is the most beautiful thing that we have. It’s basically this little purple-pink flower, and when it blooms, it smells like lavender.” Ericsson, an artist by trade, had the idea for Himbrimi Gin back in 2013 on a family fishing trip to the West Fjords, where his father-in-law owns land. “Standing in the river, you’re looking at this clean water,” he says. “There’s juniper nearby, angelica on the other side of the bank, there’s arctic thyme. I decided to mix that and use it.”

What started as a warming tipple for family fishing expeditions has transformed into a bona fide microdistillery that has listings in bars across the world. And yet, to this day Ericsson still hand-picks his botanicals and numbers each bottle by hand. It’s a similar story at 64°Reykjavik Distillery, which uses foraged berries and botanics to make its small-batch liqueurs and spirits. Sustainable foraging is embedded in Iceland’s culture, says founder Snorri Jónsson. “These resources are commercialised on an extremely small scale,” he says. “Only a few thousand bottles are made of each spirit.”

Nice bit of copper at Reyka distillery

Distilling local flavours has also put modern producers back in touch with Iceland’s national spirit, brennivin, which is traditionally consumed with fermented shark. A handful of Icelandic bottlings – including Foss Distillery’s Helvíti, 64° Reykjavik Distillery’s Brennivín 50, and Brunnur Distillery’s Thúfa – have seen the caraway-heavy spirit reinvented with blueberries, seaweed, sweetgrass, and other botanicals. “Our goal is to reclaim the reputation of Icelandic brennivin and to take it outside of Iceland and introduce it to the world as this delicious spirit, which it is, instead of something that you use to wash your windows or clean your car or something,” says Ericsson.

Botanical infusion isn’t the only way for Icelanders to utilise their natural resources. “In terms of native flavours and traditional techniques, the drying and smoking of meat and fish using birch and sheep dung is something we’ve been doing for centuries,” says Sigurdsson. “This technique lends itself perfectly to the drying of barley used in whisky. So instead of using peat as the Scots do, we’d be using birch and sheep dung.” Iceland currently has little in the way of whisky, but the future is promising. The country’s first (and currently only) single malt, Flóki, was made by Eimverk Distillery, located in the town of Garðabær a few minutes from downtown Reykjavík, and the distillery also produces a ‘young malt’ made with sheep dung-smoked barley.

“When we started the company in 2013, the idea was to make whisky,” says Sigurdsson. “That’s still very much on the table and is still where our passion lies.” The immediate success of Thoran Distillery’s initial release, Marberg London Dry Gin, saw the team “put the whisky on ice, pun intended” to give Marberg a chance to thrive, “but recently we’ve been putting things in motion and can hopefully start whisky production this year,” Sigurdsson says. “We do have a few hundred litres maturing in various casks, but those are for research and development purposes. We did a lot of experiments with various barley strains – both local and imported – developed innovative malting and drying techniques, tried different types of oak to see which would complement our spirit…. The groundwork is there, and we’re ready and excited to take it to the next stage.”

Cocktails with Marberg gin

It’s certainly an exciting time for distilling in Iceland, but the industry is not without challenges. One of the struggles brewers and distillers have had to deal with are the regulations regarding the sale of beer and spirits, says Sigurdsson. “Right now, the state has a monopoly on all alcohol sales, which makes it illegal for me to sell a bottle of Marberg to anyone visiting our distillery,” he says. “The fees and taxes added to alcohol are also among the highest in Europe.” 

Authenticity issues are another thorn in the side of the country’s distillers. For a long time, most of the ‘Icelandic’ spirits were made abroad, imported to Iceland and mixed with Icelandic water, according to Sigurdsson. “There are a handful of awful producers – here, as well as internationally – bottling bulk spirit as something authentic,” says Jónsson. “They use financial resources to build their image as quality producers, but are merely bottling plants or business makers.” This can be tricky for drinkers to detect, he continues, since it’s applicable to producers both big and small. “The result for us is: hard competition for the attention,” Jónsson continues. “A competition that the small authentic producers will lose, because our interest and resources are in the products, not the marketing.” In response, distillers are in talks about how to best protect the reputation of their spirits. Right now we are drafting an application which specifies what should be considered an Icelandic spirit,” says Sigurdsson.

Given its subarctic climate, Iceland might not be the first country you associate with distilling, but thanks to its environmentally-conscious inhabitants, the country’s natural resources – the geothermal steam from its volcanoes, the abundance of pure, mineral-free water, the unique botanicals that thrive on the country’s wild terrain – practically lend themselves to spirits-making. “In terms of negatives, there really aren’t a whole lot of challenges that come with distilling in a colder climate,” Sigurdsson says. “Maturation in casks is a bit slower because of the cold, and the Icelandic legal system gives me a headache once in a while. But we roll with it. We knuckle down and do the best we can with what we got. And more often than not, that actually turns into something great.”

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The land of fire and ice: Icelandic spirits part one

From dramatic glacier-cut fjords to lunar-like lava fields, cascading waterfalls to black sand beaches, Iceland’s surreal and mesmerising landscapes have been shaped by the forces of nature over millions of…

From dramatic glacier-cut fjords to lunar-like lava fields, cascading waterfalls to black sand beaches, Iceland’s surreal and mesmerising landscapes have been shaped by the forces of nature over millions of years, all the while remaining relatively untouched. In the first instalment of a two-part series, we explore how the country’s natural resources and Viking history have shaped the Icelandic approach to making spirits…

Located in the tiny fishing village of Borgarnes – approximately 75km north of capital city Reykjavík – William Grant & Sons-owned Reyka fired up its stills for the first time in 2005, becoming Iceland’s first (legal) distillery in the process. It was shortly followed by 64°Reykjavik Distillery, a family-owned operation in the town of Hafnarfjörður, around five miles south of the capital. Then came Foss Distillery, in a town called Kópavogur, which lies immediately south of Reykjavík. It was co-founded by chef Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, who also co-owns Dill, the first restaurant in Iceland to be awarded a Michelin star.

While spirits were being produced in Iceland prior to Reyka, they were focused on “blending rather than distilling,” explains Thorfinnur Guttormsson, sales manager at Foss Distillery (one of just three employees). “Today, Iceland has six distilleries and quite a few producers that are focusing on blending spirits. At the end of the year, there is a massive distillery being built in Sauðárkrókur where the focus is on making ethanol from whey. Once that is up and running, an estimate of 1.3 million litres of neutral grain spirit will be in local production. Very exciting stuff.”

Most stories concerning the nation’s distilling history begin with Prohibition, which came into effect between 1915 and 1989. But in order to fully understand the history of distilling in Iceland, “we have to look way back into Iceland’s rich Norse history,” says Fabiano Latham, brand ambassador for Reyka Vodka. “Iceland was settled in the late ninth century by the Vikings. In 1262, Icelanders became subjects of the king of Norway, and then in 1397, the union between the Nordic countries put Iceland under the Danish crown.”

Icelandic spirits

Fabiano Latham is the brand ambassador for Reyka, Iceland’s first legal distillery

Malt and honey were freely traded between Scandinavia and Iceland, Latham continues, and Icelanders could make their own mead, and occasionally beer. “In 1602, the Danish King instituted a trade monopoly – the ‘Einokunarverslun’ in Iceland,” he says. “Only Danish merchants could trade with Iceland, and Icelanders could not trade with anyone else.” Unfortunately, mead, beer, honey and malt took up valuable space on the ships. 

“Spirits, however, took up less space, didn’t spoil, and could be sold for a much higher price – no brainer,” Latham says. “The distillation techniques of the day, known as ‘burning’, meant that the resulting spirits – known as ‘burnt wine’ or ‘brann-vin’ – were often grim. One way to improve the taste was to infuse the spirits with herbs. Even in the harsh climate of Iceland, caraway was widely available, so it was used to flavour the shipments of spirits from Denmark.”

In a 1908 referendum, Icelanders voted in favour of a ban on all alcoholic drinks, effective 1 January 1915. The ban was partially lifted in 1922, when “Spanish wines were imported due to pressure from Spain,” says Snorri Jónsson, founder of 64°Reykjavik Distillery. “Spain imported a lot of salted cod from Iceland, hence the ban was lifted.” When it was modified once again to legalise spirits following a national referendum in 1935, the caraway-heavy spirit that once flavoured shipments from Denmark was launched by Iceland’s state-owned alcohol company as Brennivin; a clear, unsweetened schnapps that would become the nation’s signature spirit.

Beer with an alcohol content of more than 2.25% remained off-limits until 1 March 1989, a momentous 74 years after Prohibition came into effect (now celebrated nationally as ‘Beer Day’). The blanket ban on drinking – and making – booze may be a distant memory for most Icelanders, but certain controls still linger. You won’t see any drinks ads in Iceland, since alcohol advertising is illegal. Moreover, you can only buy bottles and cans from one of 46 state-owned off licences, called Vínbúð. 

Icelandic spirits

Iceland: The land of fire and ice

When Led Zeppelin stopped off to play a show in Reykjavík in 1970, frontman Robert Plant was so taken by Iceland’s natural wonders, he penned a song referring to ‘the land of the ice and snow’ with ‘midnight sun, where the hot springs flow’. The band performed it for the first time in concert six days later, and the song – Immigrant Song – went on to be one of their best-known hits. 

It’s easy to see why Iceland made such a bold impression on the singer-songwriter. Home to around 200 volcanoes, one-third of all lava flows on Earth can be found in Iceland, and yet 11 per cent of the country is covered by glaciers – including Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which is around 1,000 metres thick at its thickest point. This unique combination results in some pretty unique natural features, including hot springs, waterfalls, geysers, icebergs, basalt cliffs, black sand beaches, lava fields, fjords and more. 

Icelanders are pretty good at harnessing all this natural power. Around 85 per cent of the primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from natural renewable sources, says Latham, mainly in the form of geothermal and hydroelectricity. “The geothermal energy is drawn from subterranean volcanoes,” he explains. “Water is pumped into mile-deep boreholes and then flashed into steam due to the intense heat upon re-entry to the surface. The steam powers turbines and the remaining hot water is pumped around Iceland in huge zig-zagging pipes to be used for central heating and melting snow on driveways. The hydroelectricity comes from a handful of the country’s most powerful waterfalls.”

Icelandic spirits

The country’s spring water is ideal for distilling

Iceland’s culture of sustainability is evident across many aspects of Icelandic life, and this extends to the spirits industry. Indeed, every distillery in Iceland uses geothermal steam to heat its stills. “The ‘Icelandic brand’ is very focused on keeping the country clean, unspoilt, natural, green and what have you,” says Birgir Mar Sigurdsson, co-founder of Thoran Distillery, which is based in a town called Hafnarfjordur approximately six miles south of Reykjavík. “So making our spirits with the smallest carbon footprint possible is always a priority.” 

Given that 95 per cent of all drinking water in Iceland comes from springs, the country’s water is ideal for distilling, too. “The water in Iceland is arguably the purest in the world – and when I say pure, I also mean devoid of minerals, due to the time glacial water spends travelling underground through porous ancient lava rocks,” Latham says. “It’s ideal for distillation and bringing spirits down to their required strength, due to mother nature doing all the filtering – rather than having to treat the water at a demineralising plant.” 

This is due to the surface tension of Icelandic water, says Arturo Illán Illán, global brand manager for Martin Miller’s Gin, which uses Icelandic water to reduce its (English distilled) gin to bottling strength. Surface tension refers to “the barrier between air and water, formed on the surface of water by electrically-charged molecules”, he says. The strong surface tension “inhibits the evaporation of the distilled spirit from the water” to make a softer and more complex spirit.

Icelandic spirits

Look out for part two of our spotlight on Icelandic spirits…

“Early experiments blending Martin Miller’s Gin showed dramatic differences between blends using demineralised waters and Icelandic water is drawn straight from source,” Illán Illán says. “The trials using demineralised water lacked the soft mouthfeel of Martin Miller’s Gin and delivered a less complex nose with a more ’ one-dimensional’ aspect where juniper was too dominant. In addition, the ‘burn’ from alcohol was more intense.”

Of course, water is just one aspect of the production process. There’s also the small matter of ingredient sourcing – no mean feat given the country’s wild terrain and challenging weather conditions – from hardy Icelandic barley to hand-foraged berries and herbs. In Iceland’s dazzling and yet extremely delicate ecosystem, only the hardiest plants can thrive, and often in limited quantities, as we’ll explore more in Part Two. This has made Icelanders an extremely resourceful people.

“What I really enjoy in Iceland is that it’s a barren rock,” says Óskar Ericsson, CEO and master distiller at Brunnur Distillery, producer of Himbrimi Gin. “There are so few things that grow here, so you have to make most of what you have. You never have a glut of anything. Maybe fish, but everything else is just scarce. If you find wild strawberries or blueberries or crowberries, or some reindeer moss or some seaweed, you can make great things out of it. But you don’t have a glut. You never do.”

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Linden Leaf Botanicals: turning science into booze

Molecular gastronomy has revolutionised our understanding of flavour in food, and now this approach has found an application in spirits-making. Founded by three Cambridge scientists and engineers, Linden Leaf Botanicals…

Molecular gastronomy has revolutionised our understanding of flavour in food, and now this approach has found an application in spirits-making. Founded by three Cambridge scientists and engineers, Linden Leaf Botanicals uses state-of-the-art technology to create organic spirits molecule by molecule. We chat with co-founder Matthew Webster to delve into the art of extraction and blending…

Flavour science has “come on leaps and bounds over the last 20 or 30 years”, says Webster, who heads up Linden Leaf Botanicals with co-founders Paul Bennett and Mukund Unavane. But when it comes to making booze, the industry is lagging behind. “As you look at spirits – especially spirits which have botanical extracts in – they’re never quite as good as the things they’re meant to taste like,” he says. Think about twisting an orange peel or tearing coriander leaves – “there’s a particular freshness, and we were very curious to see, well, why is it that people can’t do this?”

Linden Leaf

It’s a barrel of laughs at Linden Leaf

The trio started by sourcing ingredients that were “real archetypes” of the key flavours they were looking for, says Webster, and examining them at a molecular level using gas chromatography and ‘time-of-flight’ mass spectrometry. “With gas chromatography, you put the [botanical extract] down a very long, thin capillary tube,” Webster explains. “The lighter molecules move faster through it and the heavier molecules, broadly, move slower through it. And it breaks the mixture down into all of the different individual molecules.” Time-of-flight mass spectrometry allows the team to weigh each molecule “incredibly precisely” in order to identify it. “We have these huge databases and models that tell us exactly how much each molecule weighs, and it’s precise enough that you can pinpoint it,” he adds.

This means you can take a botanical extract such as juniper and separate the molecules out in order to pick out the various aromas and flavours within. “You can pull out an incredibly strong smell of lilacs from juniper, or you can pull out a pure Christmas tree pine smell, or some really nice warm clove and winter spices smells, and they’re all there together,” says Webster. “The thing is, if you take all of those smells and join them together and sniff it, it smells like juniper. But you can [alter the flavour] by extracting more of this bit or less of that bit.”

Of course, we’re talking about one variety of juniper. In reality there are hundreds of varieties, even different species of juniper, says Webster. “From species to cultivar to how it’s prepared, what season it’s picked, there are incredible differences even in that one ingredient,” he says. And so they began building a library of flavour molecules using a huge array of ingredients, from the conventional (e.g. supermarket melons) to the barely-edible (oak moss, walnut husks, etc.), all the while experimenting with extraction variables. 

Watermelon Martini with Linden Leaf 8 gin

There are a wealth of different options, each more technical than the last, spanning traditional (hot) distillation, vacuum distillation, chill distillation, and supercritical CO2. “sCO2 (sic) is this fascinating process where high pressure liquid CO2 dissolves all the flavours,” says Webster.  “You let the CO2 boil off – you capture it, so it’s reused – and you’re left with a very different set of flavours. We’ve tried all of these, and we use them as appropriate for each individual flavour.” “Traditional distillation can bring out an interesting flavour profile if you get the parameters right”, he says, “but for the majority of things, the more complicated and scientific approaches do better.” 

Fascinating as the molecular analysis is, it only tells half the story, since individual people perceive flavour in different ways. “We wanted to try and build a flavour model; an atlas of how these molecules interact when people taste them,” says Webster. “Does the average person prefer marmalade-y orange or fresh, zingy orange? We asked our friends to taste different gin candidate blends, and asked if any of their friends were interested, and it ballooned… Thousands of people ended up participating in the taste testing.”

The Linden Leaf team sent rounds upon rounds of samples to participants, asking for flavour feedback and tweaking the contents. “Also inside of that, we would try single botanical extracts, where we take one ingredient that is just incredible by itself,” Webster says. “We did everything we could to try and understand what people liked and disliked.” The results were fascinating. “Coriander is a really clear example,” he says. “Around 90% of people think fresh coriander smells and tastes beautiful. The other 10% of people like the smell, but when they taste it, they think it’s horribly bitter. It’s a genetic variation in people that makes them perceive the flavour differently, and it can be up to 15% depending on where people come from.” Understanding this allowed them to adjust the blend accordingly. 

We love a bit of science here

Many of their findings were entirely unexpected. “We found that the strongest orange smell that we can make – the most satisfying, beautiful rounded orange smell – actually comes from a variety of pepper, not from oranges,” says Webster. “We found that there are some incredible extracts which don’t taste of much themselves, but they soften the bitterness of other things. We were also able to map these flavours over time as someone takes a sip of the gin; map which flavours come up at what point in the arc of the finish in the person’s mouth. It’s really good fun stuff.”

Currently the range consists of Linden Leaf 88 Gin – named for the total number of molecular flavour notes derived from each of its 28 botanicals – and Linden Leaf 8 Organic Molecular Gin, which contains eight botanicals and eight molecular flavour notes; plus Arabic Single Note Coffee Spirit, which showcases the full flavour profile on a fair trade organic coffee from Peru, as well as the super-smooth Singularity Organic Molecular Vodka. 

There’s plenty more coming on the classic spirits front, including absinthe and aquavit, as well as a top secret project that looks set to revolutionise your home bar (and beyond). Considering the distillery kit they’re working with, seemingly no botanical is off-limits. The team at Linden Leaf don’t distil their base alcohol – at least, not yet – instead outsourcing their organic neutral grain spirit from third party distillers. The selection process is always led by tasting, says Webster. Organic alcohol varies batch by batch, depending on the season and the producer, and so every step along the way alters the flavour.

“We taste and analyse the various organic alcohols available on the market and when we think a batch will work particularly well with our products, we buy it in bulk,” he explains. “I’d love to get to a point where we can make our own, not only because it gives us the most control – and is kind of fun – but there are so many opportunities for making distilled alcohol manufacturing much more energy efficient and we’d really like to have a play with that. But honestly, I’m jumping the gun. That’s many years ahead.” 

The Linden Leaf range is available from Master of Malt.

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Cooking with booze: tips from industry experts

If the closest you’ve ever been to using alcohol as an ingredient is a splash of red in your bolognese or a haphazard festive flambé, you’ve been missing a trick….

If the closest you’ve ever been to using alcohol as an ingredient is a splash of red in your bolognese or a haphazard festive flambé, you’ve been missing a trick. Incorporating booze into your recipe can take the flavour potential of your dish to dizzying new heights. We asked the experts for tips on cooking with rum, whisky, mezcal, gin, vodka and more…

From savoury dishes – in marinades, brines, sauces, glazes – to desserts, like ice cream or sorbet, cooking with alcohol can add body and depth to your food, says Carlo Scotto, chef and owner of Xier | XR in London. “It can really bring out the best of the ingredients you are cooking with,” he says. “Just like how you know to pair a quality piece of steak with a full-bodied red wine, there’s an abundance of food-alcohol pairings that will take your cooking to the next level.”

Let’s take a peek at the science behind it. Our perception of flavour is linked to the aromas in the nose – more so than the mouth – and how quickly molecules dissolve, says Neuza Leal, head chef at Bar Douro in London. “Because alcohol molecules evaporate really quickly, you can straight away feel the aromas carried by the beverage, and this heightens the flavour,” she says.

Prawns at Bar Douro

“Alcohol also bonds with fat and water molecules,” explains Chris Riley, recipe developer, culinary expert and founder of The Daring Kitchen. “This helps to close the gap between smell receptors, which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat and food that consists primarily of water.” This means the alcohol will enhance the flavours found in the other ingredients, too. 

Generally speaking, “fruit or coffee liqueurs, brandy and Cognac suit desserts better as they are quite sweet and thick,” says Leal. “Because their sugar content is higher, they caramelise better, which gives a stronger flavour. Where savoury dishes are concerned, spirits like vodka, Tequila, gin and whisky can add a kick, acidity, spice or smoky notes.”

You also need to consider the ABV. “Depending on the strength of the alcohol you are using, it will affect the structure of the food you are preparing,” says Jorge Colazo, head chef at Aquavit London. For example, vodka’s high alcohol content, he says, will affect the structure of ice cream, which freezes at a much lower temperature.

“If you’re unsure about which alcohol to use when cooking, think about what alcohol you’d like to drink while eating that dish – that’s usually a good place to start,” Colazo continues. “Also, remember that the alcohol will change the flavour during the cooking or marinating process, so it is a case of some trial and error.”

Aquavit in London

1) Start small

“The best way to get started is really just to experiment, add a little bit of alcohol to dishes you’re making here and there and just taste it, make adjustments accordingly, and see what you like,” says Scotto. 

2) Think simple

“Always think as simply as possible when cooking with alcohol,” says Ioannis Grammenos, executive chef of Heliot Steak House in London. “Only use as much as your recipe requires – more alcohol doesn’t always mean more flavour. Make sure the alcohol evaporates fully.”

3) Measure it out

“Avoid adding the alcohol straight from the bottle,” says Riley. “This way is inaccurate and can lead to the alcohol igniting. Use a measuring cup so you add just the right amount and avoid accidents. When you are adding the alcohol, pull the pan off the flame to prevent flare-ups.”

4) Colour match

As a rule of thumb, “darker spirits work with darker meats, sauces and dishes that are heavy on proteins,” says Peter Joseph, chef at Kahani in London. “On the other hand, lighter-coloured spirits belong with lighter and white meats, sauces and low-protein food.”

5) Don’t use top or bottom-shelf boozes

“While the alcohol will burn off during cooking, some flavour will remain,” says Helen Graves, editor of Pit Magazine. “That said, don’t expect many nuances, so aim to use something which has a stronger base flavour that you enjoy and want to include in a marinade, for example, rather than the really good stuff.”

Don’t cook with this stuff!

Ready to give cooking with booze a crack? Whet your appetite with the expert suggestions below, split across whisky, rum, mezcal, vodka, gin, vermouth and wine, and beer:

Whisky

“There are three main ways to infuse your food with whisky: infusing a sauce as an accompanying side, basting your dish throughout cooking or simply having the whisky on the side, using it neat almost as a dressing,” says Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and The GlenDronach distilleries.

“Each way will offer a different level of intensity of the whisky flavours coming through,” he explains. From here, you can choose your preferred style of whisky to either complement or contrast with the other ingredients. “Rich sauces are normally complimentary, whereas dressings and jus are more commonly contrasting,” Buchanan adds.

And don’t be shy about thinking outside the box. Whiskey is great for marinating chicken wings with, says Quinzil de Plessis, master of wood and liquid innovation at Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey, or even for glazing salmon. Be bold!

Mezcal

Mezcal’s characteristically smoky notes can bring a really unique dynamic to your favourite dishes. The spirit “pairs beautifully with grilled foods and it is versatile enough to enhance a marinade for steak, chicken or seafood,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto Mezcal.

“We love to use mezcal in sauces, salsas, marinades and as a quick cure for salmon, as the smokiness in the mezcal works well with the salmon, without the need to smoke it,” he continues. And it would be remiss to mention mezcal’s cooking potential without referencing ceviche. “It works so well with citrus and the saltiness of fresh seafood,” Shepherd says. “Alternatively, mezcal can give the tomato base of a prawn cocktail a nice boost.” 

Kavka vodka

Vodka

Given vodka’s relatively neutral profile, you might not think it could bring much to a dish – but it makes for an excellent carrier of flavour.

“We use vodka as a marinade for things like Gravadlax – usually caraway or dill infused,” says Jan Woroniecki, owner of Ognisko and Baltic restaurants in London, and founder of Kavka vodka. “It’s a simple dish but gives great results. A small amount of flavoured vodka added to the dry cure helps the marinating process while giving an extra flavour profile.”

Vodka is also ideal for use in desserts, too. “We use our home-made fruit flavoured vodkas and the infused fruit in desserts – the sour cherries after marinating are especially good,” says Woroniecki. “The fruit flavour is still very strong but you get a nice alcohol hit as well.”

Rum

Often bold, sometimes spiced, and usually featuring caramel notes – either from the cask or added in – make rum the perfect candidate for cooking, be it in marinades, stews, baked dishes or desserts.

“I like to add Bacardi Spiced to a reduced glaze, which you can use to brush on meat or fish as it cooks, and helps to add a burst of flavour all the while enhancing existing taste and aromas of the food,” says Metinee Kongsrivilai, brand ambassador for Bacardi UK.

Gin

Gin might not be the first spirit that springs to mind in cooking, but the wide range of botanical ingredients make the spirit super versatile. “Look out for savoury gins featuring flavours such as rosemary, basil, thyme or sage – it can really work wonders in cooking, but you only need a minimal amount,” says Scotto. 

Gin works especially well with seafood, particularly grilled fish, suggests Joe McCanta, global head of education and mixology at Bacardi. “The botanical flavours add another level of spice,” he says.

You can make some nice marinades with gin, adds Jamie Baggott, master distiller at The British Honey Co. “A favourite is gin, ginger, lime and chilli on prawns or squid,” he says, “you can get a bit of flambé from the left over marinade!”

Tio Pepe sherry is a great friend in the kitchen

Vermouths, wines etc

An easy way to start cooking with booze is by using wine to deglaze a pan after cooking meat or fish while you sear it in a pan, or added to a sauce to enhance its flavours, says Colazo. “I’d say always use your leftover wine to make a reduction for future sauces or marinades – it’s a very simple way to add alcohol to your cooking.”

Don’t shy away from the fortified stuff. “I probably use sherry and Marsala more than anything in my cooking,” adds Paul Human, founder and head chef of We Serve Humans and boozy burger bar The Collab in Walthamstow. “It’s so versatile and just adds that elusive depth, it also cooks out a lot more easily than hard liquor.”

And you’re eyeing up the vermouth cabinet, “look for a spirit that is aromatic and can add extra flavour to your food,” says Grammenos – for example, you could use Martini to marinate your vegetables before you grill them. “The key is to complement rather than overpower,” he says. Finally be aware of how much sugar is in your vermouth or fortified wine. If it’s at the sweeter end, like a Marsala Dolce, then you only want to use a little in savoury dishes. Even a dry vermouth like Noilly Prat contains about 20g of sugar per litre. 

Beer

Beer is very versatile, and can be used to marinate or cook meat. “It can also be used in preparing batters and gives a lovely flavour,” says Joseph. “A lot of the time you’ll see a recipe call for water or stock – this is a good opportunity to replace the liquid with a nice craft beer.”

With that said, try to avoid overly hoppy beer. “A lot of craft beer these days is so hoppy it can actually end up being quite bitter in a sauce or marinade,” says Human. “I tend to use lager like Moretti when I’m making jerk sauce, for example.”

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