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Tag: vodka

How Reyka Vodka got ahead of the curve

Every now and again a spirit ahead of its time appears and helps define what the category will become. Reyka Vodka is one of those spirits. Here’s its story. Iceland…

Every now and again a spirit ahead of its time appears and helps define what the category will become. Reyka Vodka is one of those spirits. Here’s its story.

Iceland isn’t exactly the first place that would come to mind if you were asked to name great vodka-producing countries. You couldn’t even legally sell beer there until 1989. And the country isn’t exactly teeming with distilleries now. But it is home to one brand that has had an enormous impact on the vodka category.

William Grant & Sons first launched Reyka Vodka in 2005 as the ‘world’s first green vodka’. The name is derived from the Icelandic word for ‘smoke’, and the spirit makers chose to base its identity on Iceland’s unique culture and geography while emphasising purity, sustainability, and craft. 

It has since been at the centre of an era of evolution for vodka. Gone are the days when people simply demanded a smooth spirit to mix and a fancy bottle. Story, taste, and responsible production have become the cornerstone for many new brands. So how did William Grant & Sons get ahead of the curve?

An unlikely home for success

Caitlin Robertshawe, brand manager for Hendrick’s & Reyka at William Grant & Sons, says that the inspiration to make Icelandic vodka came from one of the Grant family members who used to holiday regularly in the country. “They loved going to Iceland due to its rugged and pure landscape full of volcanoes, waterfalls, and glaciers,” she explains. “It wasn’t a huge stretch to realise that an island famed for its pure glacial water and clean air made perfect sense to make a clean and pure vodka”.

Where the family-owned spirit makers decided to create its signature vodka was Borgarnes. You know Borganes, right? It’s a tiny fishing village around 75km north of Reykjavik with a population of around 2000 people. Yep, that Borganes. The air here is so clean that Co2 levels are actually falling. It’s also said to have the highest population of elves in Iceland, with an elf village supposedly located about 100 yards from the distillery with an elf church, school and, of course, houses. Yes, that information made the edit.

The village is so small that master distiller is Þórður Sigurðsson (Thordur Sigurdsson) is also the local fireman and policeman. He’s not just an entertaining character though. Sigurdsson is a methodical spirit maker who takes great care in his process and has worked with the brand from the start, becoming master distiller in 2012. 

“Thordur often makes a joke (we think) that his nose is insured for millions,” Robertshawe says. “In a lot of countries, the spirit safe must remain locked by law. However, in Iceland, this is not the case and Thordur keeps the spirit safe open throughout distillation as he uses his nose to first determine when the spirit changes from heads to hearts to tails. His grandparents lived on the farm close to where the distillery site is now, so he’s familiar with the water and lava fields. Thordur actually hand selects the lava rock used for filtration which needs to be changed every few months”.

Reyka Vodka

The enigmatic Thordur Sigurdsson

Truly craft vodka

The vodka is made from barley grain spirit, which, unfortunately, isn’t sourced locally. Reyka’s hands are tied there due to Iceland’s volatile weather, which means only sturdier forms of wheat/barley grow well, which don’t have quite the right starch content to make vodka. But Robertshawe says there are some exciting changes coming in the near future which will certainly address the environmental cost – and then some.

Once this spirit arrives it is distilled once for six hours in one of the few Carter-Head stills in the world (there are also two at Hendrick’s Gin), specially designed by Forsyths. Carter-Head stills specialise in purifying spirits through an efficient separation of the different weights of alcohol molecules. In the tall copper column, a series of plates encourage reflux (repeated condensation and evaporation) which in turn allows only the lightest molecules through first before the medium weight (pure ethanol) and then the heavier stuff to follow last. This helps to make an incredibly accurate cut of the ‘heart’, which is what gives us Reyka its characteristic vanilla flavour.

As Robertshawe touched on before, the brand uses the delightfully Icelandic method of filtering its vodka through lava rocks. Sigurdsson loads them into a basket at the top of the still that would hold botanicals if Reyka made gin. The distilled vapours pass through this as they are being condensed into a liquid. Lava rocks have a coarse structure that acts as such an effective natural filter they’re often used in ponds and aquariums. The water for dilution, meanwhile, is drawn from a glacial spring that runs through a 4,000-year-old lava field, making it so pure it forgoes the need for treatment or demineralisation before it is blended with the vodka. 

Reyka Vodka

Reyka Vodka

Ahead of the trend

The distillery is heated in a unique and sustainable way, with energy from geothermal heat and hydroelectricity (derived from 10% of the country’s 10,000+ waterfalls). It’s quite a sight. Great clouds of steam emerge from the springs thanks to the countries numerous underground volcanoes, creating enough heat o boil an egg in around four minutes. The bottle, meanwhile, is made with 85% recycled glass.

The distillery’s efforts to be green has always been front and centre of its branding. But this has truly been part of the process since 2005, long before it became necessary for brands to boast environmental credentials. This suggests the distillery isn’t interested in greenwashing or hopping on recent trends. In fact, Iceland as a country has always been forward-thinking in this regard. “Around 90% of homes and industries in Iceland use renewable energy. Why? Because it’s everywhere and super accessible,” says Robertshawe.

Reyka’s also unique in that, despite being a decidedly modern brand, it has never embraced the world of flavoured vodka. In its home country, an advertising campaign states ‘In Iceland, the only flavoured vodka we make is vodka-flavoured vodka’. Robertshawe explains that, while you should never say never, one is unlikely to come because William Grant & Sons believes in growing brands for the future and that means thinking long term. The flavoured vodka category may be growing fast, but for Reyka the focus is on unlocking the potential of the core brand.

It’s not surprising Reyka is so confident given the quality of its spirit. Across 92 reviews on our site, the vodka averages 5 stars. It might be filtered and have a smooth, elegant texture, but this isn’t completely neutral vodka. It tastes of something. Pepper. Citrus. And a trademark creamy, sweet vanilla element. In an era (the noughties) when the cleaner the vodka, the better, Reyka managed to still appeal to those who enjoyed the purity of that modern style while creating something with personality, reminiscent of the old styles that hailed from the vodka belt of Russia and Poland. And it just so happens the latter is on the comeback.

Making a characterful, sustainable spirit with a story was not what was in demand in 2005. But as the vodka category evolves, Reyka continues to thrive because it has all of those things. In fact, looking at the direction vodka is going in, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Reyka vodka helped change the spirit. Who knew a Scotch whisky maker creating a brand in a tiny fishing village in Iceland would make such a difference?

You can purchase Reyka Vodka by clicking this link right here.

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Return to the Copper Rivet Distillery

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of…

There’s been so much going on at the Copper Rivet Distillery since we last visited in 2018: the release of a single malt, a column malt and the opening of a fancy new restaurant. But that’s not all! There’s a grain whisky coming soon too. We took a trip to Chatham to find out more.

Distilleries often come with spectacular views but on a sunny day, it’s hard to think of a better one than Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery and its surroundings. It’s housed in a beautifully restored Victorian Italianate pumping station on the River Medway with boats sailing by, and historic Rochester with its castle and cathedral across the way. 

If it was in Sydney or Porto, there would be hoards of Instagrammers trying to get the perfect shot but because it’s in a rundown bit of Kent, nobody bats an eyelid. 

We visited back in 2018 but since then the team has released two single malts whiskies, a column and a pot still, and opened a restaurant overlooking the river. Plus there were rumours of an exciting new whisky which might be released in time for Christmas. How could we resist another invitation?

Copper Rivet Distillery

They built some beautiful things did the Victorians

Steeped in alcohol 

As distiller Abhi Banik was on holiday we were shown around by his number two, Aaron Fayose, a former engineering student from the University of Greenwich, and Bob Russell from the family who founded the distillery.

The Russell family have been, as Bob put it, “steeped in alcohol since the 1980s.” The business began with a wine bar in Rainham progressed to a group of off-licenses, and then supplying boozy gift packs to supermarkets and department stores.

But they always wanted to create their very own drinks brand. Eventually, after much searching, they found the perfect site for a distillery, the old pumping station in Chatham Dockyard. They needed a building with a high roof as they had to have space for a column to make their own neutral alcohol – something very rare among gin distillers. 

They bought the derelict building in Chatham dockyards in 2015. It was first used to pump water in and out of dry docks, the giant cast iron pump is still in place, and then later as a training venue for the sailors. The town’s economy had for 400 years been built around the ships, and it suffered greatly when the Royal Navy pulled out in 1984.

Much of the dockyard’s infrastructure was left to decay. There was no gas, electricity or water when they were allowed in the pump house in November 2015, and according to Russell, what is now the car park was a quagmire. They managed to get it operational by October 2016, ready for the official opening by Princess Anne in December 2017. It is named the Copper Rivet Distillery as a tribute to the town’s rich shipbuilding heritage. 

The Banik still

Photo of a man taking a photo, with Banik still in the background

The Banik still

The Russell family, Bob and his sons Stephen and Matthew, put their dream in the hands of Abhishek Banik, a young Indian distiller who graduated from and was teaching at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh.

He designed the entire set-up from scratch and it was built using local engineering works. According to Russell, there’s still a lot of skills around from when Chatham was the dockyard to the Navy. 

At Copper Rivet, there’s a single pot still, a 40 plate column still and a very special gin still which recently received a patent. Called a Banik still after its inventor, it can macerate heavier botanicals and infuse lighter botanicals at the same time, while protecting the more delicate ones from the heat source.

Bananas all the way

One entering the still room, the first thing I could smell was a distinct banana note from the wort. It’s a flavour that carries through into Copper Rivet’s final products. 

The gin, vodka and grain whisky are all made from a mixture of 40% wheat, 25% malted barley, 25% barley 10% rye. All the grain comes from one farm on the nearby Isle of Sheppey.

On our last visit, Banik told us that at the mashing stage, the aim is to create a clear wort for a fruitier new make. This is then fermented slowly, over the course of about seven days, using two different yeast strains. In order to make sure it happens slowly, Banik uses about half the normal amount of yeast.

This multi-grain wash then goes through a pot still followed by the column where it comes off as neutral alcohol at 96% ABV. I say neutral but when you taste the spirit diluted in the form of Vela Vodka, there’s no shortage of flavour: that banana note, a creamy mouthfeel and a hit of rye on the finish. Bring on the Baltic snacks! No wonder it won double gold in the San Francisco Spirits Competition.

You can taste the sheer quality of the spirit in Dockyard Gin, a beautifully balanced citrus-led classic dry gin. We also tried a strawberry gin, made by macerating Kentish strawberries in Dockyard for around 10 days – and that’s it. No flavours or colouring. With its subtle yet pronounced taste of fresh strawberries, I can imagine it would work wonders bolstering a Pimm’s and lemonade.

Masthouse whiskies

The two Masthouse whiskies with Bob Russell in the background

Whisky business

Most excitingly, since our last visit, Copper Rivet has released two Masthouse single malt whiskies, a pot still and a column. Both are made from Isle of Sheppey barley, malted at Muntons in East Anglia. The Russell family has issued something called the Invicta charter, a set of rules for how whisky should be made and labelled. 

The main points are that grains have to come from within 50 miles of the distillery, all operations after malting but including fermentation must take place under one roof and it includes a system for labelling whisky that is clear to the consumer stating the grains and type of still used.

The same slow-fermented malted barley wash is the basis for both single malts. Following distillation in a column or pot, they are aged predominantly in ex-bourbon casks with some virgin American oak. The ageing is interesting, with all casks spending one year in the distillery where it gets very hot in the summer, up to 40 degrees Celsius, but goes down to 6 degrees in the winter. So not dissimilar to bourbon ageing. They then send the casks to a temperature-controlled bonded warehouse in Liverpool. So far they have filled around 600 barrels.

Bob Russell told me that an unnamed Scots distiller had said that the three-year-old Masthouse malts had the maturity and balance of eight-year-old Scotch whiskies. 

Tasting Masthouse whiskies

This focus on quality and precision every step of the way has really paid off. You can read what I thought of the pot still malt here in detail. To summarise, I’d say it was about the best young single malt I’ve ever tried: fruity, harmonious, packed with flavour but not overworked, the use of oak is just perfect. Banik has avoided the two pitfalls of young malts: trying to get too much flavour in from different cask types and making the resulting whisky rather hard work, or just creating something pleasant but a bit bland.

Both are bottled at 45% ABV (there is also a cask strength pot still which I didn’t try) but the column tastes noticeably different. There’s less oak on the nose with oaty cereal, spicy rye and lots of fruit such as peaches, and oranges. When you taste it, the body is lighter, you don’t get the rich mouthfeel and it is a little spirity. Perhaps not as harmonious as the pot still but then flavours of toffee and caramel come in at the end, with a long lingering sweet finish. It’ll make a great Highball. 

Coming soon…

Finally, Fayose had a treat for us, a cask sample of the forthcoming single grain whisky. This comes off the column at a lower ABV than the neutral grain, Russell said around 80%, before going into cask. There’s that banana note on the nose, custard, baking spices and tropical fruit with no raw spirit notes. Then in the mouth, it’s spice city with chilli, black pepper and a feel like popping candy on the finish. Masses of character –  this will be a killer mixing whisky. I think bartenders will love it.

Russell also mentioned, tantalisingly, Banik has been over to Jerez to source some sherry casks from a small producer. Nothing has been filled yet but the thought of a sherry cask Masthouse is extremely exciting. I’d love to see a blended whisky when they have enough casks filled. Wouldn’t that be great?

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery

Skate wing at Copper Rivet Distillery, with THAT view behind

Appreciating that view

Following the tasting, Russell took us through to the terrace overlooking the river. During the lockdown, the team turned this part of the distillery into a restaurant and tapas bar called the Pumproom. The original cast iron pump is still there, in the wine store. They’ve hired chef Will Freeman who makes full use of Kent’s great produce. Bob Russell is a big seafood fan.

I had some beautifully-seared scallops served with cured trout, followed by a minute steak with chips. All around, people were enjoying the food, drinks and that incredible view. Chatham becoming a tourist destination? Why not?

The Copper Rivet is available from Master of Malt.

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The story of Grey Goose vodka

This is the story of Grey Goose vodka, the brand that kickstarted the super-premium movement and changed the face of the category. But did you know that before it was…

This is the story of Grey Goose vodka, the brand that kickstarted the super-premium movement and changed the face of the category. But did you know that before it was vodka, the Goose was a brand of cheap German wine? Lucy Britner has the whole story.

The tale of Grey Goose can’t take flight without talking about its creator, the US booze tycoon Sidney Frank (who with his bow tie and cigar looked just like you hope a booze tycoon would look). It might surprise you to know that Grey Goose wasn’t always a vodka. The brand ‘Grey Goose’ started life as a German Liebfraumilch (like Blue Nun) – registered by Frank in the ‘70s. And although the sweet wine died, the trademark lived on, revived by Frank two decades later, to become a vodka.

The ultimate vodka brand

It was the ultimate vodka brand – it started life with no liquid, no distillery and no bottle. But Frank knew there was a tremendous opportunity. Absolut was already making waves and he had the contacts, thanks to his success with Jägermeister.

You see, Frank started Sidney Frank Importing Co (SFIC) in 1972, bringing Jägermeister from Germany and putting it on the map in the US. Among SFIC’s contributions to its success are the Jägerettes – what the company claimed were the first promotional models in the spirits industry. SFIC also introduced the Jägermeister Tap Machine, which brought the brand out of the freezer and onto the bar. So, Frank and his team were well connected in the US bar world.

Grey Goose vodka advert

Ooh la la!

Super Premium

Frank could see Absolut was doing pretty well, but he had worked out how he might do even better. In an interview with Inc, he points out that Absolut was selling for $15 a bottle. “I figured, let’s make it [Grey Goose] very exclusive and sell it for $30 a bottle,” he said.

And the story of how it came to be made in France is just as ‘matter of fact’ as Frank’s pricing structure. “I said, France has the best of everything. I asked a distiller there whether they could make a vodka. They said sure. The product manager and I tasted about 100 vodkas on my front porch here, and we agreed on one vodka as the best-tasting,” he told Inc.

If you’ve been to Cognac, you might’ve seen the big grey, Grey Goose plant outside of the town. And despite its location among the vines, Grey Goose is made using winter wheat from Picardy, France.

The liquid was created by François Thibault (below), Grey Goose’s own maître de chai. “The vodka was created in Gensac, near Cognac, a region renowned for its high-quality wines and spirits and high mastery of the distillation process,” says Sébastien Roncin, heritage curator for French brands at Bacardi (which now owns the brand). “The pure grain undergoes a five-step distillation process, maximising the flavour at each stage and retaining the unique qualities of fine French wheat. The spirit is then combined with naturally-filtered water from the Gensac spring.”

The vodka quickly won ‘best-tasting’ status with the Beverage Testing Institute and the story goes that Frank put all his projected profit for the year into advertising. The brand went from nothing but a name to 1.5-million cases by 2004. 

Francois Thibault Grey Goose Vodka

Frank becomes a billionaire

And in that same year, Frank sold Grey Goose to Bacardi, for a reported “more than” $2bn.

Bacardi made the purchase to become a “serious player in the strategically important vodka category”. And Frank, though rolling in cash, was a little bittersweet about it. He said of the sale: “One cannot avoid having mixed feelings on the sale of such a great brand. However, I cannot think of a better new home for Grey Goose than Bacardi. The people at Bacardi understand brand building, and this will ensure the development of the full potential of Grey Goose.”

Frank handed out big bonuses to his employees so they wouldn’t quit the company and he also splashed a bit of cash on himself – he bought two big Maybachs and a Bentley. And he gave $100m to Brown university, which is used to provide financial aid to students in need. (Frank himself had attended Brown in 1942 but had to leave after a year because he couldn’t afford the tuition.)

Before he sold the brand, Frank, who was a big golf fan, contributed to the creation of the Grey Goose 19th Hole TV programme on the Golf Channel. This was continued after the acquisition by Bacardi and in 2005, golfer Retief Goosen was endorsed by the brand, then Matt Kuchar in 2012.

The story goes that in his older years, Frank, unable to still play golf, would ride around on his cart, instructing a team of aspiring pros to play for him. And they say money can’t buy you happiness.

Frank died in 2006, at the age of 86, having fulfilled his dream of becoming a billionaire.

And the story of Sidney Frank Importing went full circle when, in 2015, it was acquired by Mast-Jägermeister. Two years later, the company’s name was changed to Mast-Jägermeister US.

Grey Goose is celeb-tastic

Celeb-tastic!

The Bacardi years

With Bacardi in the driving seat, Grey Goose has continued to champion the super-premium mentality, with straplines like ‘Fly Beyond’ and ‘Live Victoriously’.

The company has also carried on producing flavours, after Frank introduced L’Orange in 2000 and Le Citron a couple of years later. La Vanille ran from 2003-2007 and was reintroduced in 2018, while La Poire (2007), Cherry Noir (2012) and Le Melon (2014) have kept things fruity over the years.

All the while, Grey Goose has gained traction in popular culture. It was explicitly mentioned in the Sex and the City TV series and in songs such as Stop Playing Games by 8Ball & MJG. Roncin says these mentions contributed to Grey Goose vodka’s popularity.

And ‘sleb’ tie-ups are still on the bill. In 2018, Grey Goose announced a partnership with top Hollywood actor Jamie Foxx. The collaboration included a 9-part digital series called ‘Off Script’, which featured Foxx interviewing other superstars, including Denzel Washington, Benicio Del Toro and Melissa McCarthy.

The brand’s latest iteration, Grey Goose Essences, also got a spot at the Oscars. The 30% ABV flavoured vodka range was launched in February and it comprises three flavours: Strawberry & Lemongrass, White Peach & Rosemary and Watermelon & Basil. The Oscars push included a 30-second ad that ran during the ceremony.

Interestingly, Roncin describes Bacardi’s investment in Essences as the “largest investment in the brand since the original Grey Goose”. 

Today, Grey Goose is available in 152 markets – and it’s not yet 25 years old.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Kamikaze

A shot that mixes vodka, triple sec and lime, the Kamikaze is a party drink. And its most famous slinger is everyone’s favourite fictional bartender… In the words of the…

A shot that mixes vodka, triple sec and lime, the Kamikaze is a party drink. And its most famous slinger is everyone’s favourite fictional bartender…

In the words of the ‘World’s Last Barman Poet’ (aka Tom Cruise’s character Brian Flanagan in the 1988 stone-cold classic movie Cocktail): 

I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make,
America’s getting stinking on something I stir or shake,
The Sex on the Beach,
The schnapps made from peach,
The Velvet Hammer,
The Alabama Slammer.
I make things with juice and froth,
The Pink Squirrel,
The Three-Toed Sloth.
I make drinks so sweet and snazzy,
The Iced Tea,
The Kamikaze…

And so it goes on. And on.

The Kamikaze’s mention in this movie gives you a good indication of the type of drink we’re dealing with here: think ‘70s/’80s disco realness. And according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, the Kamikaze appeared on the bar scene in 1976.

This cocktail started life as a shot. According to drinks experts Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana in their MasterClass series, the recipe contains equal parts vodka, triple sec and lime. Not dissimilar to a Margarita, except with vodka in place of Tequila. Sometimes blue Curaçao liqueur is added to this classic cocktail in place of triple sec to turn it into a Blue Kamikaze,” the pair add.

Like pretty much every cocktail going, there are a few recipe variations when it comes to quantities. But since these are pretty staple ingredients, they are likely to already be in the cupboard/fruit bowl, so you can play around to suit your own tastes. Better still, stick Cocktail on in the background and chuck some bottles around the kitchen.

Disco inferno

In the book on which the film is based, also called Cocktail, author Heywood Gould describes Flanagan’s contempt for the drink, mainly because it’s a pain to make, only to be gulped down in one go.

“The Kamikaze is one of a class of disco cocktails invented by barbiturated teenagers,” Gould writes. “It is a senseless, infuriating concoction made of equal parts vodka, lime juice, and triple sec (some regional variations include Tequila), shaken and strained into an ounce-and-a-half shot glass, and thrown down in one gulp. Its intent is instant inebriation.”

Flanagan laments that a large shot of any spirit would do the job faster but then “these little sadists wouldn’t have the fun of watching the bartender pouring and measuring and shaking and straining to absolutely no end”.

I heard a bartender say once that he would tell customers he had run out of mint, when he could no longer bring himself to make yet another Mojito. Unfortunately for Flanagan, if you ran out of vodka, lime or triple sec in an ‘80s cocktail bar, you’d be pretty screwed.

Boozy Lime and Vodka Kamikaze Shots

The Kamikaze – it’s a lot of work for such a tiny drink

Linger longer

Though the days of disco might’ve been the perfect place for shots and shooters, the Kamikaze of today doesn’t have to be in miniature. In fact, Marrero and Chetiyawardana suggest the drink has “evolved into a fully-fledged cocktail served in a chilled cocktail glass, like a Martini glass or coupe”.

And Sex and the City Cosmo fans will also note that the cocktail isn’t a million miles away from the pink drink enjoyed by Carrie et al. In fact, bartending legend Salvatore ‘The Maestro’ Calabrese says a Cosmo is “basically a twist on a Kamikaze”, but, of course, the Cosmo sees the addition of cranberry juice.

When Gould wrote Cocktail (in 1984), he obviously wasn’t blessed with the plethora of vodkas we have access to these days. He writes that the drink has no particular attributes that would make it a bad or a good one. Now, though, we’ve got access to stuff like single estate vodkas, rye or potato vodkas, making for a more sophisticated Kamikaze. If you want one. 

Serious side

While there is a silly side to this drink, the origin of its name is more serious. The word Kamikaze is Japanese and translated means ‘divine wind’. The word was synonymous with Japanese pilots in World War II, who would deliberately crash themselves into their targets, committing suicide in the process. Why ‘divine wind’? Well, according to the encyclopedia Britannica, it’s a reference to a typhoon that fortuitously dispersed a Mongol invasion fleet threatening Japan from the west in 1281.

And though the Kamikaze cocktail is widely associated with the ‘70s and ‘80s, there is some speculation that its origins can be traced back to an American naval base in Japan, after World War II. Though it really hit the bar scene in the mid-1970s. Indeed its popularity in ‘70s and ‘80s US bar culture no doubt went hand in hand with the popularity of vodka.

Back to Brian Flanagan for some final words on the Kamikaze: “It exists merely to confer a little cachet on these pimpled baboons.”

Still, it’s worth a shot.

How to make a Kamikaze*

30ml Ketel One vodka
15ml Cointreau Triple Sec
15ml Freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake all ingredients over ice and fine strain into a shot glass. Garnish with a lime wedge. 

*Recipe from Difford’s Guide.

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Covid spirit start-ups

Many people took up new hobbies during lockdown like cooking or jogging, but some brave individuals went a bit further and started distilling businesses while a global pandemic raged. Ian…

Many people took up new hobbies during lockdown like cooking or jogging, but some brave individuals went a bit further and started distilling businesses while a global pandemic raged. Ian Buxton found out how the Covid spirit start-ups are getting on. 

It’s never easy starting a business. I know; I’ve started a few myself and understand the sleepless nights, the financial strain, the emotional rollercoaster….I could go on. But my entrepreneurial efforts were in relatively benign economic times, at least compared to the last twelve months. I can’t imagine starting a new venture during a pandemic. But these three pioneers have done it and I wanted to find out why.

Old Mother Hunt

Matt and Rebecca Hunt with their little still

Old Mother Hunt in Strathaven, near Glasgow

“I’m proud that we took a really dark moment in our lives and we’re trying to use that turmoil to funnel into creating a new life and career,” Rebecca Hunt of the Old Mother Hunt distillery told me. “It’s been tough and we definitely still have harder days than others, but it’s been a rewarding challenge and we’ve barely even scratched the surface yet.”

So why start at all, I asked. Essentially, because she and husband Matt had to. With her planned teaching career interrupted by the (happy) arrival of a family the Hunts relocated in early 2017 to Strathaven a small village just south of Glasgow. Matt was working a a pilot for FlyBe. Unfortunately, in 2020, FlyBe failed and he was made redundant.

As they very soon learnt employers were not crying out for part-trained teachers or airline pilots. So, as Rebecca says, “we had to create our own space in the world.” What that meant in practice was learning – very quickly – to distil, building their own Old Mother Hunt distillery and home-made still, getting licensed, building a website, brand and packaging, and going out where and when possible to sell their rum. Initially they were rectifying but now have a full distilling licence so as you read this will be producing from scratch.

Why rum? Their view is that the market for gin, the currently-fashionable spirit for start-ups, is now over-saturated and, like all trends, will wax and wane in popularity. Rum they see as offering a five to tenyear opportunity for growth. “The noise is building,” says Rebecca.

Lazydog distillery

The lazydogs

Lazydog in Coalville, Leics

Rum is also the route adopted by Matt and Lauren Thompson of the LazyDog distillery in Coalville. They were inspired by Caribbean distillery visits and a desire to create something “pared back and honest,” as Matt puts it. Once again, experience of furlough and the lockdown was the impetus – “if not now, when, we asked ourselves,” he explains. Though he modestly describes the distillery as a “side hustle” the couple are very fully committed. In addition to daytime careers in property, they work evenings to distil and bottle, and spend weekends manning a sales stall on local markets, where they are already meeting enthusiastic regular repeat customers.

That commitment is also clear in a personal investment of more than £75,000 on plant, equipment, bottles and so on. “I dread to think what it has cost,” admits Matt with a wry laugh. But long-term they aim to create permanent jobs in their own business, seeing rum as a globally popular spirit. The opportunity for a smaller producer comes, he believes, in “keeping our rum as stripped back as possible… it’s the most important thing”, adding “we only use fresh natural ingredients from start to finish (fresh orange peel in the spiced, freshly-picked local sloes in our Sloe Rum), never any artificial colours or flavourings.”

Much of the investment is due to LazyDog’s decision to buy a ready-to-go StillDragon still, rather than building their own, as Old Mother Hunt has done, reflected in their more modest start-up cost of less than £15,000. But then, as Rebecca explains “we’ve done everything ourselves; designed the logo, website and labels and built the still so we’ve kept costs to an absolute minimum.”

Green Room gin

Green Room gin

Green Room in Wandsworth, London

By contrast, Duncan McLean and business partner Seb Frost of London’s Green Room distillery have embraced white spirits, launching with a dry gin and vodka and then quickly adding sloe gin to the range. More ambitiously, single malt whisky is also in their plans.

Both have backgrounds in the technical side of theatre, hence Green Room. Impressively, by starting with a tiny second-hand still bought in France for £500, their start-up investment has been below £10,000 – though that includes a new 60 litre copper pot still from Iberian Coppers as they embark on the first stage of their expansion. The design studio in Duncan’s garden in Wandsworth has been converted to house the distillery.

Duncan handles the distilling, based he says on much trial and error though, as a malt whisky enthusiast, he admits to having taken the five day distilling course at Strathearn distillery and spent a few days shadowing workers at Bruichladdich. The project only started as a weekend hobby to get through lockdown but suddenly got serious when their gin picked up a Bronze award from the 2021 International Spirits Challenge.

The target is to reach 5,000 bottles in the first year. Local pubs, restaurants and off-licences are now stocking the brand; several theatres have promised to carry Green Room in their bars and there are plans for a supper club with wine consultancy Bacchus & Brodie.

A breath of fresh air

Compared to the sanitized, PR-curated corporate statements I encounter in my daily life, there’s a refreshing candour, an honesty, almost an innocence in talking to these neophyte distillers. But then they’ve found ardent spirits to provide a lifeline to better mental health or, like Green Room, supporting a charity, Backup, from their professional life. Turns out that for these new businesses distilling is more than a job, it’s their bright new future.

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A spotlight on… Black Cow Vodka Distillery

How do you create flavourful, sustainable vodka from cow’s milk? We meet the forward-thinking producers at the Black Cow Vodka distillery to find out… This might seem almost impossible to conceive…

How do you create flavourful, sustainable vodka from cow’s milk? We meet the forward-thinking producers at the Black Cow Vodka distillery to find out…

This might seem almost impossible to conceive of now, but you might recall there were a couple of months in the summer and autumn of 2020 when we were allowed to venture out a bit. In September, I got the chance to head down to the rolling countryside of West Dorset to learn all about Black Cow Vodka. It was all very exciting for a couple of reasons. One, I got to go somewhere else. A place that wasn’t just the park by my flat. On a train. The other reason is that Black Cow is a brand with a story worth telling.

It’s the world’s first vodka made from milk. More specifically, using the whey leftover from cheese production (whey being the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained). It’s a brilliant bit of innovation that predates the recent trends in vodka to focus on raw materials and more flavour-led products. And it’s sustainable. Whey has long been regarded as a problem child in the dairy industry. Often times it’s just fed to pigs. But Black Cow Vodka made this by-product the backbone of its spirit.

The brand’s founders are Jason Barber and Paul “Archie” Archard. The former is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, the latter is an artist who has spent time in California. They ended up becoming neighbours and good friends, where they realised they shared a love of vodka. The duo decided to bring together their farming and creative expertise after a few drinks one evening. “It all happened quite naturally. We both share a love of vodka so almost dared ourselves to give it a go. It was never about making vodka out of milk just for the sake of it; the milk had to make the vodka better. And it does,” Archard explains.

Black Cow Vodka

Black Cow Vodka founders Jason Barber and Paul “Archie” Archard

It all begins with milk

Black Cow Vodka is being made by people who know their dairy products. Barber’s family are the country’s oldest surviving cheddar makers. Their farm, which is just a mile or so up the road from the distillery, was where he headed first on our trip. If you’re on the lookout for a distillery tour now that things are picking up again, I highly recommend it. It’s a stunning area filled with great local restaurants and pubs, while Barber has endless insight into farming practices and really all things dairy. At one point he was telling me all about Araka, a beer-like drink made from fermented mare’s milk used by Genghis Khan and his armies, which was something of an inspiration for him.

The process to make Black Cow Vodka is decidedly more modern and begins with the farm’s cows, who are milked twice a day. Once the whey is obtained it’s spun to take out any excess butter, sieved out and then the leftover whey protein is used to make baby powder. What Barber really wants is the lactose, from which he can extract sugar to make the alcohol. A special form of yeast is added to create a milk beer that is then distilled in a giant copper still from German company A. G. Holstein. A fitting choice, given that the milk comes from a cross-breed of Holstein cows. It’s all designed for maximum copper contact.

Once it’s distilled, the spirit is treated with what Barber describes as “magic water”. Which comes from – you guessed it – milk. “Everything we use is milk. We don’t add water from a bubbling brook. There’s no minerality or that brittle, flinty hardness you get from other vodkas because we don’t add mineral water. It’s soft. And it makes for a great frothy head to an Espresso Martini. Anyone who’s ever washed their hair with soft water will know you get a good lather. It’s the same principle”.  

Black Cow Vodka

The Devonshire farm where Barber’s family have produced milk and cheese for generations

At the forefront of vodka’s flavour revolution

The vodka is triple filtered using charcoaled coconut shells and then bottled by hand with no additives or flavourings. And, with less than six parts per million of lactose, it’s actually suitable for those who are lactose intolerant because all the milk sugar has been converted into alcohol. It doesn’t say lactose-free on the bottle purely because regulations on what you can state differ from country to country.

What you may see on new bottles is a recently obtained gold medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition. The brand has a raft of medals from award shows and has become one of the most notable vodka producers in the country. But what Barber is most proud of is how the vodka was received in Poland. “I went there and had to stand up in front of fifty bartenders and sell it. But they loved it. They said other vodkas are like counterfeit vodkas and this is a new style”.

The vodka world has come on a long way since they launched Black Cow in 2012. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there’s an increasing appetite for spirits with terroir, brand identity or sustainability. Barber likes to think that Black Cow Vodka had a little something to do with this shift. Take a look at the brand’s commitment to the latter, for example, and you can see his point.

Black Cow Vodka

The brand’s latest release is a bottled Negroni

Black Cow’s sustainability initiatives don’t begin and end with whey. Throughout my trip, Archard and Barber make it clear how important it is to them that Black Cow is made in a way that is sensitive to the environment. The packaging is plastic-free. The bottle is produced by Yorkshire-based Allied Glass, in order to support UK businesses and lower the carbon footprint, and incorporates a metal pilfer-proof cap, which allows for the entire bottle to be recycled easily and reduces the need for a plastic security cover. Even the cheese is housed in wool offcuts.  

This outlook led to Black Cow Vodka’s first line extension, English Strawberries, which was made as a means to use local strawberries deemed too wonky to make it to supermarket shelves. The fruit is pressed and then infused in Black Cow vodka over four days, which means that flavour and colour are all-natural. Nothing artificially sweet here.

This is true also of further innovations such as Christmas Spirit, which takes its inspiration from Christmas pudding and the new release, Black Cow Negroni, the brand’s first ready-to-serve cocktail. It’s a blend of vodka, Campari and Spanish vermouth, as well as a secret mix of natural bitters. It was developed during lockdown so it naturally became an expression of what Archard and Barber found themselves missing: British summertime, with a Negroni in hand, good company and a view.

Black Cow Vodka

Black Cow Vodka is sustainable, innovative and tasty. That gets a thumbs up from us.

Making mooves

The innovation won’t stop there, however. The duo says there’s plenty of plans in place and, while they’re sworn to secrecy about any other new products, “this won’t be the last you’ll hear from us in 2021!” 

While there’s lots to enjoy from the newer expressions, at its core the brand is all about vodka. But if you’re picturing a cloudy, overly creamy spirit, however, you’d be wrong. Black Cow Vodka is clean, crisp and versatile, but also full-bodied with an uncanny depth of flavour. White chocolate, floral vanilla, desiccated coconut, a little lemon mousse and white pepper spice are the predominant notes.

There’s enough character to enjoy it neat but as you expect, it makes a beautiful Espresso Martini (use the Strawberry edition for a neat little twist) as well as the kind of strong, salty and sweet Dirty Martini that I’ll go back to again and again. The most fun I had with it, however, was tasting Black Cow Vodka with Black Cow Cheese. That’s truly a match made in heaven. I mean Devon. Sorry, that was cheesy. Wait, no. Please forgive me. The vodka is definitely better than my jokes.

You can purchase the full Black Cow Vodka range from here now.

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Top ten: Independent spirits brands

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

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

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

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

sagamore-spirit-signature-rye-whiskey

Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye

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

How do I drink it?

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

portobello-road-no-171-gin

Portobello Road No. 171 Gin

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

How do I drink it?

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

hatozaki-blended-whisky

Hatozaki Blended Whisky

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

How do I drink it?

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

casa-noble-blanco-tequila

Casa Noble Blanco

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

How do I drink it?

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

new-riff-straight-bourbon-whiskey

New Riff Straight Bourbon

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

How do I drink it?

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

east-london-liquor-co-louder-gin

East London Liquor Co. Louder Gin

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

How do I drink it?

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

quiquiriqui-tobala-mezcal

QuiQuiRiQui Tobalá Mezcal

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

How to drink it?

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

merlet-creme-de-mure-liqueur

Merlet Crème de Mure

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

How do I drink it?

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

ramsbury-vodka

Ramsbury Vodka

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

How do I drink it?

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

colonel-foxs-london-dry-gin

Colonel Fox’s London Dry Gin

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

How do I drink it?

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

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Top ten: Great value vodkas

Need some good vodka recommendations? Then you’re in the right place. We’ve got some great value vodkas from Russia, Poland, England and more to suit all needs. Vodka continues to…

Need some good vodka recommendations? Then you’re in the right place. We’ve got some great value vodkas from Russia, Poland, England and more to suit all needs.

Vodka continues to be an enormous seller. And why not? At its best, it’s a versatile, tasty (yes, really) spirit that has a long, interesting history. But, the problem with having a category so vast is that it can be difficult to navigate. There’s no shortage of options in the classic style and that’s before you get to the huge range of flavoured vodkas available (which we’ll cover another time).

This is where we come in. The following expressions are all exceptionally well made, taste great and cost less than £35. Because bargain vodka doesn’t have to be some horrible Smirnoff imitation. Not on our watch!

Our pick of great value vodkas

great value vodkas

Tovaritch! Russian Vodka 

Tovaritch! claims to be the world’s most awarded vodka. While we’re not in the business of verifying such things, we can see why plenty of judges were impressed with its profile. This Russian vodka is made using 100% organic grain from Volga which is distilled five times before the liquid is filtered twenty times through birch charcoal and silver. This creates a pure, subtle and crisp spirit. 

What it tastes like: Fresh and clean with some marshmallow and coconut sweetness and a bready note underneath.

What to do with it: Embrace the classics with a Moscow Mule.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Ramsbury Vodka

A seriously impressive demonstration that England is home to some top-notch vodkas. This vodka is distilled, blended and bottled in a beautiful Wiltshire countryside belonging to Ramsbury Estate. Each and every bottle can be traced back to the very field in which the wheat originated. It’s refined, full-bodied and brimming with flavour which means it will be smashing in a number of serves, but has enough going for it to be enjoyed on its own too.

What it tastes like: An elegant blend that’s silky, light and lusciously creamy. Lavish chocolate notes meld into fresh bursts of aniseed and a juicy citrus tang rounds it off.

What to do with it: Nothing at all. This is the kind of expression that will show you how flavourful vodka can be. Drink it neat.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Reyka Vodka 

Reyka made waves when it arrived on the scene thanks to its claim to be the world’s first ‘green’ vodka. The Icelandic brand distils wheat and barley using sustainable energy from geothermal heat. In fact, there’s really no end to the aspects that make its production process unique. This might explain why it’s currently averaging 5 stars across 85 customer reviews on our site. 

What it tastes like: An enjoyably full, rounded mouthfeel carries soft notes of vanilla, lemon and earthy pepper.

What to do with it: Whip up a killer Espresso Martini.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka

An innovative creation of West Dorset dairy farmers, Black Cow is made using whey, which is what is leftover from the milk after making cheese. It’s a fantastically sustainable use of the by-product and the result is that it creates a creamy, smooth and distinctive drink that we’re big fans of.

What it tastes like: Through clean mineral notes, there’s creamy white chocolate, floral vanilla, desiccated coconut and a little lemon mousse and white pepper spice. 

What to do with it: Take a page out of The Dude’s book and enjoy a White Russian.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Haku Vodka

This list has already demonstrated that great value vodkas don’t have to come from Russia and Poland and this beauty from Japan is further proof of that fact. This vodka is from the legendary Suntory, which is better known for making all kinds of delicious whisky. The same outstanding production standards were used to create Haku Vodka, which is distilled twice from hakumai (Japanese white rice) and filtered through bamboo charcoal. The word ‘haku’ actually means ‘white’ in Japanese. Which is a neat little fact you can impress your friends with.

What it tastes like: A complex grain undertone with lingering sweetness on the finish.

What to do with it: Japan is the spiritual home of the Highball cocktail and so it makes sense that this vodka works a treat in one. The Haku-Hi is simple, but effective. And fun to say.

great value vodkas

Ephemeral Vodka

Vodka-based cocktails usually call for a clean, pure spirit that can amplify the other ingredients and showcase their flavours. Ephemeral Vodka, which is made exclusively of grain, is a perfect example of that kind of spirit. Plus, it’s got a pretty rad label. Which is always a good talking point.

What it tastes like: Wonderfully bright and pure, with a creamy mouthfeel and subtly earthy hints of soft wheat.

What to do with it: Treat yourself to a Cosmopolitan. Seriously, don’t underestimate this drink.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Ketel One Vodka

If you’ve been making booze since 1691, it’s safe to assume you know what you’re doing. People don’t keep giving you business over three centuries unless you’re creating something pretty great. Which explains why the family-run Ketel One distillery continues to make tasty spirits to this day. Its vodka is proof of this and mixes brilliantly while possessing an array of really beautiful notes of citrus and honey that means you’ll happily sip it neat, too.

What it tastes like: Lemon zest, marmalade, toffee, acacia honey, cut herbs and little tingles of sweet spice.

What to do with it: The Dutch brand has an excellent Bloody Mary recipe that’s worth trying.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Au Vodka 

Au Vodka is a rising star in the vodka world. Something of a gold standard, if you will… Don’t let all the bling fool you. The brand only uses British-grown grain to make its vodka, which it distils five times and filters twice. First through charcoal and then in a high-pressure chamber containing gold. It’s something of a gold standard and, wait, I already made that joke, didn’t I?

What it tastes like: A refined mouth-feel, with touches of mint and barley on the finish.

What to do with it: Keep things simple with a delicious Vodka Martini. Just combine 60ml of Au Vodka and 15ml of dry vermouth to a mixing glass filled with cubed ice. Then stir until chilled and diluted before straining gently into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Wyborowa Vodka

An outrageously good value and ever-popular bottle, more people should know about the wonders of Wyborowa. The brand creates its signature spirit with a recipe inspired by 500 years of Polish vodka making. This means it exclusively uses winter varieties of rye grain because they have a high starch content. Whatever else it says to do in its closely guarded, traditional recipe is obviously working wonders, because this beauty just keeps impressing.

What it tastes like: Creamy, warming and slightly spicy with citrus, liquorice black pepper, buttered bread and cinnamon.

What to do with it: This makes a great Vodka Sour. Alternatively, add some freshly squeezed orange juice if you want to make a Screwdriver that will knock your socks off.

These are our picks of some truly great value vodkas

Master of Malt Vodka 

Whoops! How did this get in here? Yes, we make vodka too. The idea was to create something with a balanced profile perfect for cocktails and mixed drinks. And we like to think this blend of wheat and molasses spirits does just the trick. We wouldn’t have made it otherwise, to be honest. 

What it tastes like: Crisp, light and delicately fragrant with soft wheat, floral hints and a subtle build of pepper in the background.

What to do with it: Make any of the above. Experiment, find a favourite and enjoy!

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Why bartenders love vodka with flavour

For the first time in years, there’s real excitement about the vodka category among bartenders. From bottles made with Chardonnay grapes to gin producers getting in on the act, Millie…

For the first time in years, there’s real excitement about the vodka category among bartenders. From bottles made with Chardonnay grapes to gin producers getting in on the act, Millie Milliken looks at the brands putting the flavour into vodka.

The words ‘exciting’ and ‘vodka’ probably weren’t natural bedfellows 10 years ago. The gin boom put paid to vodka’s reign as the clear spirit of choice, saturating the market with juniper, coriander seeds, orris root and any other botanical you can shake a balloon glass at. But behold – the thirst for standout, complex and interesting vodkas is returning.

Vodka with character

As well as the likes of milk-based Black Cow, Iceland’s eco-friendly Reyka and even a Chardonnay-based liquid from winemaker Chapel Down, there are more and more brands that bartenders can’t get enough of. Even gin makers are getting in on the act, we’re looking at you Mermaid Salt Vodka.

For Anna Sebastian, bar manager of the Artesian bar in London, vodka is back: “I have always loved the vodka category. Everybody still loves gin, but people’s love of vodka has definitely grown in the last year and a half. A lot of people thought vodka was really boring but some of the products on the market now have really changed things.”

Alex Mills from Lab 22 in Cardiff pouring vodka

Alex Mills from Lab 22 in Cardiff

The leaning of today’s customer towards more premium spirits, classic and nostalgic cocktails, and a strong, ethical brand identity puts vodkas in good stead for the future. Though vodka makes up a hearty percentage of bar sales in terms of volume, a focus on terroir, brand identity and sustainability shows how vodka can carve out a premium nice.

Vodka with flavour

“We’re massive fans of Chase Vodka, mainly because my colleague Max loves crisps,” explains Alex Mills of Cardiff’s Lab 22. Indeed, the distiller which started as the maker of Tyrells Crisps has added what Mills calls a ‘bucolic vibe’ to its potato vodka, just as it did to elevate Britain’s favourite crunchy snack.

About 250 potatoes go into each bottle, while the peelings are fed to the cattle on the Chase family farm in Herefordshire. They also get some of the spent mash post-distillation – and what they don’t get goes into fertilising their fields. Chase’s still and rectification column are called Fat Betty and Maximus respectively. The water they use is drawn from the Malvern Hills. We feel wholesome just writing about it.

The liquid tells its own story too, with Mills and co liking to take advantage of its creamy and vanilla notes, and buttery texture in a Russian Martini alongside gin and crème de cacao: “If you use Chase as the largest measure in that you’ve basically got this milkshakey base.”

Sapling sustainable vodka

A bottle of Sapling vodka spotted in its natural habitat

Vodka with ethics

The setting of where Sapling vodka is made in London’s Clapham may not be as bucolic as the rolling Herefordshire hills, but the sustainability focus of co-founders Ed Faulkner and Ivo Devereux makes it an ethical choice for the modern consumer. While turning a tree planting party (yes, you read that right) into a music festival, they found the hardest element was stocking the bar with sustainable products. Now, with their own eco-friendly brand, for every (100% recyclable) bottle of their 100% British wheat vodka bought a tree is planted and customers can even track their tree via its own unique code.

Their story certainly caught the ear of south London bar Funkidory owner Sergio Leanza who uses Sapling as his house vodka: “We chose it as our house vodka as it’s made in south London, very close to our venue, and the product which we get in 5L pouches is really good.”

In the bar, Vodka Martinis (using another premium vodka) have been a surprise off-menu order, while Sapling is the vodka of choice when it comes to other big sellers, Cosmopolitans and Espresso Martinis.

These more classic, nostalgic cocktails are indeed a great showcase of vodka, and Sebastian noticed a  surge in these styles of drinks last year at the bar. “Looking at classic cocktails, the Vodka Martini is probably one of our highest sellers, even more than Gin Martinis,” she says while also nodding to the vodka-friendly cocktails on the Artesian’s Disco-themed menu which launched last year.

Pleurat Shabani founder of Konik's Tail

Pleurat Shabani founder of Konik’s Tail

Vodka with elegance

Another vodka that sets bartenders’ tongues wagging is Konik’s Tail. Part of the reason is its founder, the dedicated and charismatic Pleurat Shabani who literally slept in a field in Poland to understand the three grains used in his vodka. “The first base is nutty, earthy spelt, which I call the smiling grain; then you have wheat, the happy grain, which gives butterscotch and vanilla; and final the dancing grain, or golden rye, bringing oiliness and white pepper spice,” he told me.

Daniel Alonso, bartender at Manchester’s Bunny Jackson’s, was charmed by both Shabani and his vodka when he was first introduced to Konik’s Tail. “I ended up going out in Manchester with him and he just had this rolodex of serves and drinks in his head, including using Konik’s Tail with whisky and Giffard Banane Liqueur.” For Shabani though, Konik’s Tail served simply chilled with a slice of lemon peel is the best way to drink his vodka.

There is still a lot of work to do to grow the vodka category back to its previous heights. Something that Shabani is well aware of. “I was a lonely voice on the vodka side when I launched Konik’s Tail. I’ve been praising and preaching for the last two years, but the quality has to be there from producers small and big, working with consumers, who are wanting to have more elegance in their drinks.”

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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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