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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: vodka

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 teaspoon 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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The philosophy of Suntory

At the turn of the 20th century, a pharmacist called Shinjiro Torii embarked on a one-man mission: create Western-style spirits with a Japanese influence. Fast forward to today, and the…

At the turn of the 20th century, a pharmacist called Shinjiro Torii embarked on a one-man mission: create Western-style spirits with a Japanese influence. Fast forward to today, and the company he established – Suntory Spirits – is the world’s third largest spirits maker. Here, James Bowker, Suntory UK brand ambassador, talks MoM through the Japanese philosophies that formed the basis Haku Vodka and Roku Gin.

Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, “was the first person to start making Western style spirits in Japan,” Bowker says, “and that didn’t just come out of nowhere.” Due to the isolationist foreign policies enforced during the Edo period – which ended a little over a decade before Torii was born – the island country had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world for more than 250 years, and the effects of this were felt long after Japan opened its borders.

“Those 250 years coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the development of so many modern spirits we enjoy now; the invention of whisky, rum, gin and vodka,” says Bowker. “There was a period between 1850 and the turn of the 20th century where lots of people in Japan were trying to recreate these spirits, in particular whisky. But no one knew how to make them. They were taking saké, shochu, and neutral spirits and infusing them with herbs and spices to try and capture the same flavours that you would find in Western booze.”

Master distiller Shinji Fukuyo

By 1899, their efforts had captured the attention of Torii, then a pharmaceutical wholesaler, who identified an opportunity to quench Japan’s thirst for Western spirits – around the same time as chemist Masataka Taketsuru, it should be noted, who went on to establish Nikka – by creating a style of spirit that complemented the country’s palette. Ramen and sushi are far lighter and more delicate than heavier dishes common in Western cuisine, and his liquid reflected that.

“This also applies to drinks,” says Bowker. “In Europe, our wines are big, bold and tannic if they’re red, and big, bold and acidic if they’re white. In Japan, they have sake. Think about tea – British tea tends to be far more bitter than the light green teas we see in Japan.” Influenced by the atypical Japanese palate, Torii and Taketsuru created whiskies and spirits that “tend to be much lighter and more delicate,” guided by three Japanese philosophies specifically.

The first is In-Yo, which means balance. ‘In’ tends to refer to that which is gentle and tranquil and delicate, while ‘Yo’ refers to that which is exciting and vibrant and powerful, says Bowker. The two main religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto, “and in both of those faiths, the idea of balance is paramount,” he explains. “You should be living a balanced life. All good things in the universe exist in balance. The universe is constantly divided in some light and dark, rich and poor, happy and sad, and all of these dichotomies must exist in balance.”

The second is Kaizen, which means ‘change for better’. “It’s about finding the person who has truly mastered that skill,” says Bowker, “getting a complete and thorough understanding of how to be the best of the best, and then asking yourself – only when you’ve mastered it – how can I take this further? How can I ensure that the next generation of craftsmen receives a better set of instructions than I have received?”

The third and final philosophy is Yūgen, which refers to a sense of indescribable beauty underlined by the ethos: show, don’t tell. “When you see those incredible Japanese ink paintings, there’ll often be sections that are obscured or faded or unclear,” says Bowker. “The idea is that your brain will fill in the gaps… There’s a big belief in the idea of show, don’t tell. Don’t give everything away at once, allow people to explore in their own time.”

Only sushi rice goes into Haku Vodka

Japanese craftsmanship

The tradition of craftsmanship in Japan is called Kōgei, which translates as ‘engineered art’. In order for a product to be officially recognised as craft, it must meet five government-mandated requirements: be practical enough for regular use, predominantly handmade, crafted using traditional techniques, crafted using traditional materials, and crafted at its place of origin.

For Suntory, the first and fifth elements came relatively easy – so long as they’re reasonably priced, spirits are practical enough for regular use. And since Tokii’s Yamazaki distillery was the first of malt whisky distillery in the country, he’d created the ‘place of origin’. As for the other three?

“Firstly, we must begin with the perfect raw material,” says Bowker. “Secondly, we should respect that perfect raw material – and that means using the best tools. The third is knowledge and technique; the mastery that comes from generations of master and apprentice applying Kaizen.”

Let’s take a look at how that approach plays out across Suntory’s flagship white spirits, Haku Vodka and Roku Gin:

Haku Vodka

Haku is made using Japanese sushi rice (considered the purest form) which is polished until nearly half of the grain is gone, much like daiginjo sake, and then fermented with koji. It’s distilled in a cube-shaped stainless steel shochu pot still – “a super old school distillation method in Japan, and a very rustic style of still,” says Bowker – and then the batch is split into two. Half is sent to Osaka, where “it goes through a traditional vodka still, making a very pure, clean, delicate spirit,” and the other half heads to Chita, to be redistilled in a bespoke column still, which has “four tiny columns” to create an “indulgent, rice-forward vodka”. The two distillates are blended together, diluted with water and filtered through bamboo charcoal, and voila! Haku is complete.

Roku Gin

Roku means ‘six’, after the six Japanese botanicals used in the recipe: sakura flower, sakura leaf, sencha tea, gyokuro tea, sanshō pepper, and yuzu peel. Each is picked, transported and distilled fresh in Osaka during its prescribed ‘shun’ season, where the botanical is thought to be at its peak. Depending on the botanical, this could be as little as two days. Suntory has four different copper pot stills for making gin, one of which is coated in stainless steel and fitted with a pump to create a specially-designed vacuum still. Each botanical is distilled in the optimum still and then Suntory’s five blenders travel to Osaka to set about blending the various distillates into a London Dry-style gin called Suntory Pallet Gin; this is the basis for Roku gin.

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Cocktail of the Week: The White Russian

Today we’re shaking up perhaps the most famous cocktail in cinema, the White Russian, with Black Cow, a vodka distilled from milk. Whatever next! There are some cocktails that are…

Today we’re shaking up perhaps the most famous cocktail in cinema, the White Russian, with Black Cow, a vodka distilled from milk. Whatever next!

There are some cocktails that are inextricably linked with films or TV series: like the Cosmopolitan in ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Mad Men’ and Martinis and the Tequila Sunrise in, um, ‘Tequila Sunrise.’ But the union of drink and film reaches its apotheosis in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 fim, ‘The Big Lebowski.’ It’s now not possible to drink a White Russian without thinking of Jeff Bridges as The Dude in his dressing gown saying: ‘careful man! There’s a beverage here!’ The film, which initially had an underwhelming response on its launch, has become a cult favourite with Big Lebowski-themed evenings involving the consumption of many White Russians.

The cocktail also known in the film as a Caucasian (cos it’s white) is a derivation of the Black Russian (a mixture of vodka and coffee liqueur) with cream and/or milk added to it. Both Russians, Black and White are relatively recent cocktails, the Black was first mentioned in 1949 and the White in 1965. The big question is should you use cream or milk in your cocktail. Well, the Dude uses both. Fans of the film will recall the Dude paying for a carton of half and half in Ralphs with a cheque for 69 cents. For non-American readers, half and half is a mixture of milk and cream weighing in at about 10% dairy fat (and Ralphs is a chain of Californian supermarkets). Personally, I prefer my White Russians a little lighter so would just use whole milk, with about 4% fat. The other ingredients are vodka and coffee liqueur, the Dude uses Kahlua but you can use Tia Maria. Or there are other coffee liqueurs out there, or you could even add a shot of espresso, though you might want to sweeten it a bit then.

With real dairy goodness

Finally vodka, the Dude uses Smirnoff. But we’ve got something that’s custom built to go with dairy products because it is itself a dairy product. Black Cow vodka was launched back in 2012 by dairy farmer Jason Barber and his friend Paul Archard. It’s made by fermenting the whey, the liquid left over from making cheese, and distilling it. They then filter the vodka through coconut-shell charcoal. The result is something distinctly creamy and dairy, but at the same time tasting clean and fresh like a vodka should. It sounds a bit weird, but it really works. 

There are tonnes of variation on the classic White Russian. Our favourite is the addition of ice cream and then blending it to create a decadent boozy milkshake. But today, we’ve just kept it classic. With it’s simple sweet flavours, high dairy content and coffee kick, the White Russian is the perfect cocktail for when you just got up, or look like you’ve just got up. Which is perhaps why the Dude likes them so much. 

Right, got your dressing gown? Got your Creedence tapes? Let’s make a White Russian!

35ml Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka
35ml full-fat milk
35ml Kahlua 

Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled shaker, shake quickly and strain into an ice-filled tumbler. 

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Five minutes with… Mikkey Dee from Motörhead

The fastest, heaviest and loudest rock’n’roll band in history, Motörhead’s far-reaching influence on music can’t be overstated – and now, the band is making waves in the spirits world with its…

The fastest, heaviest and loudest rock’n’roll band in history, Motörhead’s far-reaching influence on music can’t be overstated – and now, the band is making waves in the spirits world with its own whisky, vodka, rum, and more. Here, we chat with legendary drummer Mikkey Dee on touring, his favourite drinks and Lemmy’s surprising love of Kinder eggs.

From their prolific back catalogue to their dedicated touring schedule, the trio behind Motörhead – late bassist and singer Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, drummer Mikkey Dee and guitarist Phil Campbell – never did anything by half measures. So when these pioneering rock icons started bottling their own booze, we had a feeling the liquid would be nothing short of incredible.

It took three years and an untold number of cask samples to finalise the recipe for Motörhead’s flagship single malt whisky, made in collaboration with Sweden’s Mackmyra Distillery, and this exacting attitude extends across the entire range: from Motörhead Vödka, made in the Swedish market town of Malmköping using locally-grown wheat, to a rum aged in ex-bourbon casks from the Dominican Republic.

Mikkey relaxing before a show with some on-brand booze

Behind the scenes the creative process has been an uncompromising and hands-on affair, with no detail left unchecked, as drummer Mikkey Dee attests. As Motörhead Premium Dark Rum bags yet another tasting award, its fourth in a little over a year, we caught up with Dee to talk Motörhead Spirits, memorable shows, and the contents of their rider:

Master of Malt: First things first, how did the Motörhead spirits range first come about, who came up with the idea?

Mikkey Dee: Lem always had a dream to make his own drinks brand. We were all on board. Drinking together was a big part of our life, so why not have drinks to call our own! Lemmy also wanted a legacy beyond the music, something else that could keep the spirit of Motörhead alive for years. That’s when the vodka was created, Lem had moved to drinking vodka and orange juice more than other spirits once he was diagnosed with diabetes.  

MoM: Tell us about the process of creating each one – how involved were you, Lemmy and Phil?

MD: It’s got our name on it, so we’re involved in everything. It always started with a product idea – what Lem or we enjoyed drinking, then also thinking of the fans and what they would like and want to see from us. We’re involved in it all, from choosing the liquid, to naming the products and bottle and label design. Lemmy really liked the creative part, he knew how he wanted the bottles to look. I remember we were in the studio recording mixes for Bad Magic when we were brought samples of the Single Malt Whisky – Lem chose it right there. It took three years of tasting to find the right one!

MoM: Motörhead Premium Dark Rum has just won its fourth spirit award. How does it feel for the liquid you created to be recognised in its own right?

MD: We work really hard on our drinks for the quality and we are ready to take on anyone – that’s always been the Motörhead way. The quality was always really important to Lem and will continue to be for anything else we do in the future.

Motörhead’s award-winning rum. Count those medals!

MoM: Could you share a story about a time the band shared a memorable drink together? Where were you, and what made it memorable?

MD: We were doing a show in Stockholm in 2015 at the Hovet Arena. We got together before the show and had some of our drinks there – our lager and the Single Malt Whisky, which was Lem’s favourite. The whisky is made in Sweden by Mackmyra so he called it his ‘Swhisky’ for Swedish Whisky. It was one of the last shows we did together before Lem passed, so I’ll always remember it.

MoM: This isn’t your only spirits project, you also opened Alabama in Paris last year. What made you want to open your own bar, and did you have a specific vision in mind?

MD: Yes I actually got asked by a friend of mine – Sofia – if I wanted to be a part of the bar opening. I had just shut down my other bar in Tenerife which was called Mikkey Dee Rock Lounge. I thought it was a great opportunity and decided to do it with Sofia. The bar is right at Plaza Republic, super central. We have all the Motörhead drinks there and also some merchandise. We really brought in the feeling of Motörhead; a little bit of memorabilia! That was the vision. I try to get there as often as I can but it hasn’t been too much recently.

MoM: What’s your go-to drink of choice when you’re playing a show? And how about when you’re relaxing at home?

MD: I’m not complicated, I like a simple lager. We have our Bastards Lager available around the world – hopefully soon in the UK too!  

Skål!

MoM: You were in Motörhead for 23 years. How did the band’s approach to touring change over time – were the later tours as rock’n’roll as the earlier ones?

MD: Absolutely. With Motörhead the problem we had was Lem couldn’t stay at home! That old bastard never wanted to stop. We had just got back from four or five months’ touring in Europe and the US, I flew home to Sweden and two weeks later Lem called and said, ‘Hey what’s going on, should we go out again?’. I’d say to him, ‘We need to have time off!’ and he’d say, “Fuck it, we should get going now!” The approach was never-ending, being on the road all the time, even in the later years.

MoM: What might we find on a typical Motörhead rider?

MD: We weren’t really that particular to tell you the truth. We were easy going. Lemmy liked bourbon, whisky, and vodka and orange. On my rider – beer, a bottle of whisky, water. Snacks: fruit. The only weird shit was Lemmy was obsessed with Cadbury Kinder Eggs. He didn’t eat the chocolate but loved the gift on the inside. Sometimes he opened the egg and there was a finished piece instead of one you put together and he’d say, ‘This is a shit batch!’ He liked to make the toy himself. My boys would sometimes be backstage with us and would go into Lemmy’s dressing room before the show to hang out – then they’d come into my room and said to me, ‘Hey dad, Lemmy doesn’t eat the chocolate!’ with shocked faces.

MoM: Motörhead will be remembered as one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Could you share one of your career highlights from your time in the band?

MD: Oh my god, so many. Basically every time you walk off stage – you felt that was it, no one can follow this. You felt you gave it all. I remember we didn’t care much for awards shows and all three of us had the same attitude – how do you compete in music, why should this song or album win an award over this or that. We always got awarded by our fans and that was enough for us. That’s where the real deal is. But, when we did win a Grammy, Lem was very proud. I could see and feel that. And of course me and Phil as well. Not so much because we won – more that someone finally gave us a little bit more space and attention in this world. I thought that was fair. I’m glad Lemmy got to experience that, he deserved it. The band deserved it too after so many years of total rock and travelling the world. I don’t think we had one bad record. It was nice to be awarded for that from the industry.

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Five expert rules for BBQ drinking

The mercury is rising across the northern hemisphere, which means one thing: donning a novelty apron and firing up the barbie. While beer is a valid and worthy barbecue hero,…

The mercury is rising across the northern hemisphere, which means one thing: donning a novelty apron and firing up the barbie. While beer is a valid and worthy barbecue hero, we reckon you can go one better this year – just follow our drinks pairing rules, as told by the experts…

Whether it’s the Australia ‘barbie’, or the South Africa ‘braai’, barbecue cooking is ubiquitous. However, the ways in which different cultures approach the grill – in terms of meat types, sauces, marinades, rubs, and other flavourings – varies wildly from one country to another. Variables like smoke, equipment, fuel, cooking temperature and cooking time (as anyone who has eaten an over-charred, bitter burger patty will know all too well) also have a massive influence on the final flavour of the food. 

“Humans have been cooking over live fire all around the world for hundreds of years, so you can imagine there are thousands of techniques alone, without even getting into sauces, marinades and so on,” explains Helen Graves, editor of Pit Magazine. “In recent years, we have become more aware of the ‘low and slow’ style of cooking associated with American barbecue, but barbecue cooking is so much more than that. It may take the form of skewers such as kushiyaki in Japan, it may be buried in a pit in the ground as with Mexican barbacoa or it might be cooked in a tandoor in India.”

Pit magazine, well worth a read

With so much flavour potential, deviating from the classic ‘beer and a burger’ combination might seem daunting. Fret not. Whether you’re an amateur ‘cue-er or a barbecue legend, we’ve cobbled together five drinks-pairing rules, as recommended by those in the know… 

  1. Choose light – but not delicate – cocktails

“Typically speaking, you want flavours that have a like-for-like quality with the barbeque food,” says Joe McCanta, global head of education & mixology at Bacardi. “I try to avoid anything too acidic and look to pair barbeque food with cocktails such as the Grey Goose Le Grand Fizz,” he says – 35ml Grey Goose vodka, 15ml fresh lime juice, 25ml St Germain, 60ml cold soda water built over ice in a wine glass and garnished with two lime wedges. 

Drinks with bitter, herbaceous notes also work well, says Graves. “This isn’t the time to bring out a drink on the more delicate end of the spectrum,” she explains. “You want something big, gutsy and honestly, quite alcoholic. The spirit needs to come forward to stand up to the ‘cue.” 

Try a  vermouth-spiked take on the G&T – the Rose Spritz combines 50ml Bombay Sapphire, 100ml elderflower tonic, 25ml Martini Rosato vermouth and two orange wedges in a balloon glass over ice. “If you can’t find elderflower tonic, you can opt for a regular tonic with a splash of honey,” says McCanta. “For a less zesty, sweeter serve, try raspberries in place of the orange wedges to garnish.”

It goes without saying that long, refreshing whisky-based serves are a barbecue dream. “Elderflower cordial is such as a simple ingredient that works well with whisky cocktails, such as a whisky highball with soda – so refreshing for summer,” says Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and The GlenDronach distilleries. 

Drop your preconceptions about what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing with a spirit. “We always encourage people to step outside of ‘the classics’” says Quinzil de Plessis, master of wood and liquid innovation at Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey. “BBQ should be an experience, not just a process, so look for a mix of versatile, new and different flavours to add to your experience.”

Le Grand Fizz from Grey Goose

  1. Alternatively, opt for bold – or spiced – serves

Bright and bold flavours stand up and complement the smoky char of a BBQ, says James Chase, director at Chase Distillery. This could be a flavoured gin, for example – Chase recommends his Pink Grapefruit and Pomelo Gin “mixed with Mediterranean tonic and a fleshy slice of grapefruit to garnish”.

Alternatively, you could try a spiced rum. As part of a partnership with London restaurant Berber and Q, Bacardi has explored different ways of using Bacardi Spiced as a key ingredient for cocktails and meat marinades. Something like a Bacardi Spiced & Ginger Ale – using a ratio of 50ml rum with 100ml ginger ale – is a match made in heaven.

Mezcal, too, shines in a barbecue setting. “We have a preference for long, refreshing drinks with a bit of a punch,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto, “so we’d be sipping on a great Mezcal Margarita, a Mezcal Paloma or a Mezcal Collins, using citrus and bubbly effervescence to complement the smoky agave notes of mezcal.”

Whatever you do, just don’t confuse ‘bold’ with ‘rich’ when it comes to drink pairings.Something like a Bloody Mary may be a little too heavy,” says Chase. “A BBQ is all about the food, and the drink needs to complement and not be another meal in itself.” 

  1. Stock up on ice

Temperature is everything in the grill – and the same goes for your glass. “Avoiding anything that is served straight up, as it will become warm in the hot sun,” says Metinee Kongsrivilai, brand ambassador for Bacardi UK. You can never have enough ice, so make sure you’ve got plenty in the freezer. Which leads me nicely to our next tip…

Try making your Margaritas in advance so you can concentrate on the grill

  1. Get your prep work in

A little bit of preparation can go a long way, says Shepherd. “Pre-batching your mezcal Margarita and keeping it chilled in the fridge means you can effortlessly get your guests into the vibe on arrival,” he says. “Marinade your meat overnight to let all of those flavours really sink in.”

Always use the best quality ingredients available to you, suggests Liz Baker, marketing manager at Wilkin & Sons Ltd (creator of the Tiptree spirits range) – and don’t forget the smaller details. “Why not invest in some lovely glasses and take time to think about garnishes,” she says, “this could be a slice of lemon or lime, a sprig of mint or a fresh strawberry or plump raspberry.”

Make sure your guests have a drink in hand on arrival because you might be busy on the grill, and have no time for small talk, adds Chase. “Prop up a table and lay a selection of spirits out, with some random bottles that have been in your drinks cupboard for too long, with pre-cut garnished and cups – preferably red cups!”

Helen Graves’s awe-inspiring goat shawarma

  1. Keep the ‘cue simple

This is meant to be fun. You’re not going to enjoy yourself if you’re trying to cook eight different things at once to perfection, says Paul Human, founder and head chef at We Serve Humans and The Collab in Walthamstow. “You’ll also fail, especially once you’ve had a few beers in the sun,” he says. “Do one thing and do it really well. Try and keep to a theme – do a shoulder of lamb and some flatbreads, tzatziki, a little Greek salad. Summery, simple, all stuff you can prep a day ahead. Sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on it, pass around a glass of retsina or iced rosé and bathe in the glory.” 

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