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Tag: whiskey

Going bananas: Why banana drinks are everywhere

From infusions to macerations, esters and cocktails, banana-flavoured drinks seem to be everywhere. Millie Milliken speaks to the makers and shakers who are going bananas for bananas. Hands up who…

From infusions to macerations, esters and cocktails, banana-flavoured drinks seem to be everywhere. Millie Milliken speaks to the makers and shakers who are going bananas for bananas.

Hands up who made banana bread as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Thought so. Yes, the nation went banana mad over lockdown. My childhood love of bananas in the form of milkshakes, frozen and dipped in chocolate and in sandwiches with bacon has continued unflinchingly into adulthood. Over the last year, I’ve been happily falling over banana-forward drinks.

“In recent times, banana is a flavour that has been forgotten,” says Giulia Cuccurullo, the recently appointed head bartender at the award-winning Artesian bar at the Langham Hotel. The team reopened with a banana bread-inspired cocktail on its new Connections menu (more on that later). Banana’s current resurgence, however, is seeing not only bartenders playing with it as a flavour, but producers are injecting some of the yellow stuff into spirits too.

RedLeg Banana Old Fashioned

RedLeg Banana Old Fashioned

Perhaps the most popular spirit for the banana treatment is rum. Within the last year, two such rums have been launched: RedLeg Banana Rum and Grand Kadoo Carnival Banana Rum. Where RedLeg’s expression (based on the core rum which is distilled in the Caribbean, rested in oak barrels and infused with Jamaican ginger, vanilla and banana) smacks of pic n’ mix foam bananas, Grand Kadoo’s Bajan-hailing liquid brings more caramelised and banana fritter vibes.

Fruit fusion

My favourite on the market, though, is Discarded Banana Peel Rum – not just for the taste but also its sustainability credentials. “Like all of our Discarded Spirits Co. range, our Banana Peel Rum has two discarded ingredients,” brand ambassador Sam Trevethyen tells me.

First, is a Caribbean rum that was used to season a cask for a William Grant & Sons whisky. Instead of selling on this rum – or even destroying it – it becomes the base for the product.

Second is, of course, bananas – specially, you guessed it, the peels. “When flavour companies extract banana flavour, all they use is the fruit, leading to the peel being discarded,” he continues. “We get our banana peels from a flavour house in the Netherlands in the form of dried banana peel chips. We rehydrate and ferment them, to really boost that flavour, before steeping them in alcohol for two weeks to extract the flavour. After that, we blend the cask rum base and the banana peel extract together to create Discarded Banana Peel Rum. The result – liquid banana bread.” Clever stuff –  and the bottle is now 100% recyclable.

Other categories infusing bananas into their liquids include bartender favourite and award-winning Giffard Banane du Bresil, a liqueur made from the maceration of – mainly Brazilian – bananas and with the welcome addition of a soupçon of Cognac. The result? Ripe banana on the nose followed by a more buttery, roasted flavour profile and a touch of oak from the Cognac. A quick message about it on an industry Facebook group elicited responses including “the most glorious of all glorious liquids”; “it’s pretty damn special”; “it’s gorgeous stuff”, and a barrage of banana emojis.

Giffard Banane du Bresil

Giffard Banane du Bresil

Time to split

There are also plenty of liquids that can impart the aromas and flavours of banana simply through production methods as opposed to using the fruit itself. One such spirit is The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve, owner company Pernod Ricard’s first ever rum barrel-finished single malt, which it launched in September 2020.

During a tasting of the liquid at OurWhisky Festival, master distiller Alan Winchester attributed the banana notes in the liquid – which can be found in its new make spirit – to the use of the rum cask, bringing those specific notes to the fore where perhaps other cask types may not have done.

Another spirit that surprised me with its banana esters is Boatyard Distillery Vodka. Head distiller Orlaith Kelm uses selected Irish wheat which is fermented slowly and at low temperatures with no added enzymes which creates banana-like flavours. Think of the taste of a traditional German wheat beer, that’s an ester called isoamyl acetate (which occurs naturally in bananas). Kelm then accentuates this flavour using the still’s plates to create a seriously characterful – and banana-led, liquid.

Isoamyl acetate and other esters develop during the production process of various rums. Which is why you often get that distinct green banana note in rhum agricole, clairin, and some Jamaican rums. Have a sniff, next time you’re near a bottle of J Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum – banana city!

Master of Malt bucket list

Hampden Estate in Jamaica, home of some banana-laden high ester rums

Flavour a-peel

Bartenders are also turning out banana creations faster than bananas in pyjamas chase teddy bears. East London’s bar and pizza joint Nebula features a Banana Blaster (Jameson, banana and soda); bottled and canned cocktail brand Easy Social (from Nebula’s owner) has a bottled banana Manhattan as part of its product range; while a peanut butter and banana cocktail is in development over at Sexy Fish.

Ryan Chetiyawardana’s Lyaness launched with its Infinite Banana ingredient on the original menu. The team cured, slow roasted and blended banana in a solera system to get its complex and versatile banana creation.

When the Artesian bar emerged from the last lockdown, it reopened with a new menu called Connections, focused on the shared experiences of the nation during the last year. Split into five sections, it is in the Wellness & Mindfulness list that you’ll find Banana Bread 1933. “One of the things everyone was doing over lockdown was making banana bread, so we wanted to make a drink around that relaxing baking memory,” explains Cuccurullo.

The cocktail comprises Woodford Rye Whiskey, Oloroso sherry, Banana Monin, ground spice, cocoa butter, burnt toast and vanilla. Cuccurullo and the team have been playing with banana as an ingredient since even before the pandemic, doing trials with different spirits and using all parts of the banana, including the skin. “As a flavour, it is really easy to work with, plus it gives a more creamy mouthfeel. It’s a flavour you can recognise straight away in a drink but it is never overpowering.”

Going bananas for bananas

Trevethyen has seen Discarded Banana Peel used in a cacophony of cocktails too, from simple serves including ginger beer “that tastes of liquid Jamaican ginger cake with banoffee glaze”, to more traditional whisky serves, like Banana Old Fashioneds, Banana Manhattans and a twist of a Boulevardier, his personal favourite.

For Cuccurullo, banana’s resurgence in cocktails could be a source of comfort for drinkers. “It’s a flavour that reminds you of your childhood, it’s a security flavour, it’s nostalgic.”

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Family spirit: father and daughter/ son distillers

We’re keeping it in the family today as Millie Milliken takes a look at some of the father and daughter/ son distillers around the world – they’re braver than we…

We’re keeping it in the family today as Millie Milliken takes a look at some of the father and daughter/ son distillers around the world – they’re braver than we would be

One of my earliest memories is of my grandad (papa) showing me how to make beer in his garage, probably at a much younger age than I should have been. Luckily, there are some families who actually know what they’re doing when it comes to making drinks. Well-known brands from whisky like Teeling, Glenfarclas and Kilchoman trade on their family name, and there are plenty more out there from bourbon to brandy.

In celebration of this year’s Father’s Day, I’ve unearthed some of the father and daughter/ son distillers from around the wide world of drinks. From Florida to Manchester – and including a touching tribute to a recently lost father – they’re an eclectic bunch, and testament to the benefits of keeping their distilling and blending secrets in the family. Maybe it’s true: blood is thicker than whisky.

Jimmy and Eddie Russell at Distillery

Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey

First up is one of America’s most famous bourbons, Wild Turkey. Master distiller Eddie Russell and his father, the legendary Jimmy are a team with around 100 years of whisky making experience between them. And it was all down to Eddie’s mother, Joretta.

“I really wanted to move away as a young man, when I got the chance,” says Eddie. “I played football on scholarship at Western Kentucky University, but when I came home for my first summer break, my job options were the distillery or… the distillery. The mandate wasn’t Jimmy’s, but at my mother, Joretta Russell’s insistence.”

Eddie started at the bottom, rolling barrels, mowing lawns, painting houses before Jimmy moved him into the distillery to learn about yeast and mashing. Now Eddie sits alongside his father on the illustrious Bourbon Hall of Fame. Jimmy isn’t hanging his whisky making boots up any time soon either. “I’ve never thought of it as work. I’ve always said ‘the day it becomes work, I’ll retire.”

Where Eddie gets his father’s strong work ethic, Jimmy benefits from Eddie’s honesty: “When Eddie tells you something, it’s true. If he doesn’t like it, he will tell you!” Between the two of them, they’ve grown an empire that now Eddie’s son is getting in on, and there are now four generations working at Wild Turkey.

Until that day that working at Wild Turkey feels like work, though, Jimmy Russell will (for Eddie at least) always be the reigning patriarch: “For my dad, it took about 17 years before he became a master distiller. It was 34 years for me because my dad is still working – you should really only have one master.”

Father and son at Prestwich gin

Michael and Jack Scargill, Prestwich Gin

This Manchester born and bred gin was the result of a family dinner. “With my Dad approaching retirement, we were talking over dinner about what he was going to do with his spare time and the idea of starting our own gin cropped up,” explains Jack. “I didn’t think much of it but the next time I went round, Dad had bought a few books and a small still and started working on a few recipes and it went from there.”

With a background in chemistry, Michael takes on playing around with recipes and tweaking them as he sees fit, while Jack prefers tasting – as well as sales and marketing, which he has a professional background in.

The father/son duo’s love for gin came long before the gin boom, with birthday and Christmas presents often coming in the form of a bottle of the botanical spirit. Now, they can enjoy the fact that other people are giving theirs as gifts on special occasions – maybe a few fathers will receive one this Father’s Day.

Kristy and Billy Lark

Bill Lark and Kristy Lark-Booth, Killara Distillery

“Working with my Dad can be super amazing and at times very exasperating!” So says Kristy Lark-Booth, founder of Killara Distillery in Tasmania. Having spent years working at the family whisky business, Lark Distillery, with her father Bill, she branched out on her own in 2016 to set up her own venture.

Despite not working together as regularly day-to-day, Bill’s tutelage of Kristy on all this whisky distillation is testament to their working relationship: “I have learnt so much from him, not only how to distil amazing whisky but also a great work and personal ethic. Things like how to relate to people and to see the best in others, to follow your dreams and never give up. Working with him has given me the opportunity to explore and develop my own distilling style and certainly develop my palette.” 

Kristy’s integration into the family business wasn’t always a given. She had her eyes on a career in Air Traffic Control – and while she got a coveted place at the ATC school, having spent some time working at the distillery, she changed her mind: “They were, of course very supportive of that so I began learning whisky making from my Dad, and gin/liqueur making from my Mum. We worked closely together right up until Lark was taken over by investors.”

Looking to the future, Kristy and Bill will be working on a few projects that will see them come together again in a father/daughter – or daughter/father – capacity, including bringing back the old distillery school. Anything about distilling you don’t learn in there, ain’t worth knowing.

Wayne&Holly Bass & Flinders Distillery

Holly and Wayne Klintworth, Bass & Flinders Distillery

From the Bass & Flinders Distillery in Mornington Peninsula, Australia, head distiller Holly Klintworth produces gin, liqueurs and brandies, including a recent Maritime Gin with locally-foraged samphire, salt bush and kelp, as well as  Heartbreak Gin infused with Pinot Noir. The distillery started its life in 2009, but it wasn’t until a few years later that Holly decided to join her dad.

“Over the years dad would ask my opinion on a product or packaging, and here and there I would help out on weekends with bottling, or peeling oranges for our gins. I got a good feel for the passion my dad had for the craft spirits industry and I suppose it was pretty infectious.” Having previously spent time working in marketing in the wine industry, Holly joined her father’s distillery in 2016.

It didn’t come easy: Holly found getting up to speed so quickly a challenge without having a science background and not being initially too familiar with the production process. She was also one of few women working in the Australian distilling industry, although her father was keen to not let that deter her: “He would say to me, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t as capable as a man in production’… He really empowered me to take ownership of the still, of the spirit and of the product from start to finish.”

Sadly, Wayne Klintworth passed away in early 2020, but his mentorship and inspiration have fuelled his daughter’s love and passion for producing fine spirits. “My dad was a real mentor and inspiration for me as I stepped into the distilling world. Having him mentoring me and him also being my dad, meant I learned the ropes extremely quickly as I had access to his knowledge and expertise at all hours of the day or night and he was always ready for a chat about the business.”

Rollins Distillery, father and son

Paul and Patrick Rollins, Rollins Distillery

If you look closely at the Rollins Distillery logo, you’ll notice it’s two rams butting heads. Florida isn’t known for its rams, so it’s probably more likely that those rams represent Patrick and Paul Rollins, the son and father who distil their 100% Floridian molasses rum.

It all started with father, Paul, whose time at the Naval Academy saw him studying chemistry and growing an interest in distillation. Several years later, the family was stationed in Scotland, where Paul spent some time studying operations at the Old Fettercairn Distillery. Back in Florida, with grown up kids, Paul decided to take the plunge, being sure to utilise Florida’s agriculture in the process.

Patrick was more interested in beer when his father approached him with the idea of setting up a distillery. Dreams of a brewpub slowly faded when he started learning more about distilling and rum – attending lectures and seminars – and he fell in love with the craft.

For Paul and Patrick, two heads are better than one: “Dad is a very inside-the-box technical thinker. He sees the trees. I am a very outside-the-box creative thinker. I see the forest. Together we are able to create so much more than we could separately.”

Paul agrees, with a slight caveat: “Let me be frank, I would have tried to make the distillery happen with or without Patrick, but I cannot say it would be as successful as it is today without him.”


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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

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 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

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

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

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

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 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 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

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 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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IWD 2021 interview: Lisa Roper Wicker, head distiller at Widow Jane

Career discussions often focus on those just starting out. But what if you want to get into whisky (or whiskey!) a bit later on? Lisa Roper Wicker, Widow Jane president…

Career discussions often focus on those just starting out. But what if you want to get into whisky (or whiskey!) a bit later on? Lisa Roper Wicker, Widow Jane president and head distiller tells us her story.

On a recent video call a friend was lamenting not enjoying her job. “It’s too late for me!” she cried. “Why didn’t I realise what I wanted to do in my twenties?” Another chimed in: “We see all these 30 Under 30 lists. I want the stories of people who found their calling later in their career.” It was serendipity most glorious when the following week, I found myself chatting with Lisa Roper Wicker, president and head distiller at Widow Jane Distillery

Her screen is set up in the distillery itself, a site in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Stroll just a few moments from the door and you’ll be at the waterfront, looking across to the Statue of Liberty. The brand has small-batch blending at its heart (think five barrels at a time), and, now in its ninth year, combines sourced bourbon and rye with its own liquid. There’s a focus on heirloom grains, too, and its unusual proofing water which comes from a limestone mine in Rosendale, Upstate New York. As we talk, there are the sounds of production in the background and I can just about glimpse some barrels. It’s almost like being back in a distillery; all that’s needed is the aroma of production to permeate through the screen. 

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

A varied career

“When I was growing up, I never knew what I wanted to do,” she opens. Initial focuses included pursuing careers in journalism, then law. “If someone told me I would have been a whiskey distiller in the second part of my life, I never would have believed them.”

Wicker spent a number of years moving around the country with her husband and young family before setting up a costume design enterprise. Her first foray into drinks was working as a farm hand during the harvest at a vineyard. She quickly fell in love with the production side, and embarked on eight years of winemaking study.

“There weren’t any sacrifices but there were certainly trade-offs,” she says, when I ask about juggling work, study and family. “It’s not a sacrifice if you love it.”

Wicker then moved to Kentucky to build a winery, and it was there that distilling caught her eye. She learned to distil at Limestone Branch, before joining Starlight Distillery, and then launched a consulting business, Saints & Monsters. An early client was Samson & Surrey, which owns FEW Spirits and Brenne among others, plus Widow Jane. She held the position as director of distilling across the entire portfolio, before honing in on the Brooklyn distillery with its corn growing, distilling and blending programme two years ago.  “I’m so grateful that I didn’t have it overlap too much with raising my kids, because it really has been an obsession!” she laughs.

Lisa Roper Wicker from Widow Jane

Lisa Roper Wicker from Widow Jane blending at the distillery

Whiskey career pathways

“I’m not unusual coming to it a little bit later in life,” she says. “There’s not a lot of us, but it’s also not unusual.” She says when talking to women in their twenties and thirties, it’s about stressing the myriad pathways available to them. “Whatever you study, whether it’s marketing or HR or chemistry or food science, culinary skills, there’s a pathway to whiskey through all of it.” Plus, there’s the career change option: “I get that from young women a lot. Like, oh my gosh, I get to change my mind?” The answer is yes!

To highlight the space women can move into at very senior levels, she recalls a panel she sat on a couple of years back. “I was with Pam Heilmann, she was just retiring as the master distiller for Michter’s, and with Joyce Nethery of Jeptha Creed. It was so interesting how many jobs we’d all had before we got into whiskey.” All in the same age group, they’d previously held roles like school teachers, designers, engineers. With eight children between them, they’d also managed to “patch together” roles to ensure they had the flexibility needed to balance family. 

Wicker is also keen to shout out women who demonstrate the significant progression opportunities in the industry. “Like Jane Bowie at Maker’s Mark,” she says. “For years, she was in the UK as the brand advocate. She came back to Kentucky, and went back to work within the distillery. Now she’s the director of maturation for Maker’s Mark.” Responsibilities include the Maker’s Mark 46 programme. “It’s a pretty amazing progression, and we see this a lot in whiskey.”

Casks at Widow Jane Distillery

Barrels are funny things, you never know what you’re going to get

For the love of whiskey blending

Right now whisky is a dynamic sector with lots going on. “I love that it’s not stagnant. I love that there’s so much opportunity.” The increasingly positive standings of both blending and sourcing liquid are particular sources of excitement for her. “I think it’s because whiskey used to be vatted and not necessarily blended. They were just ‘let’s take all these barrels and dump them together’. Blended whiskey got a very bad reputation.” Thankfully times have changed. “Then it was just about elevating really good whiskey!” Sourcing too is starting to be better understood. “Now you can get the good barrels and it means you’re high up on the list and working with the best brokers and the best whiskey houses.” She explains. “I love seeing blending coming into its own.” 

Wicker’s responsibilities at Widow Jane are wide-ranging. She oversees the heirloom corn project (for two years, the largest of its kind in the whole of the US), distilling itself, barrel sourcing (including likes of maple casks), and blending. All while splitting her time between Brooklyn and her home in Bardstown, Kentucky. 

“The barrel game is a game!” She laughs as the blending conversation picks up again. Each one will behave differently. She sources both fully- and part-matured stock, and looking after them can be tricky. “The largest lot I purchased was several years ago and it wasn’t drinking as old as an age statement,” she recalls. “We moved those barrels and now they have taken off and are where they need to be. But it was crazy.”

There’s one delight that comes from whiskey making that will never change, and that’s seeing her creations on-shelf in a store. “I’ll never get over the thrill of that. You don’t tell people who you are or what you do. You just go in and you pat your bottles and buy one.” Even better if there’s product from previous ventures there, too.

Widow Jane 10 year old whiskey

Widow Jane 10 year old whiskey

An optimistic future for women in whiskey

As we say our goodbyes, I recall an earlier part of the conversation where I asked Wicker about what needs to change for more women and underrepresented groups to be aware of the opportunities whiskey can offer. “I think getting more and more women in front of tastings where they realise I am somebody’s grandmother and I love what I do and I’m passionate about it and I won’t ever retire. My mentor, he’s 75 and he still picks and chooses his projects, right? More than anything it’s about setting the example that the business is flexible, it’s definitely something that someone can pursue as a career and stay in it forever.”

There can be a sense that we’ve somehow ‘missed the boat’ if we’ve not kicked off our dream careers by 25. If you’re a woman, that pressure could be compounded by a desire to start a family. In male-dominated industries, this can feel like even more of a weight. Wicker is proof that it’s not only possible to switch it up, but you can excel too. This evening, I’m raising a glass of Widow Jane to Lisa Roper Wicker, the women like her, and all the women who could be about to join our wonderful whiskey industry.

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23 distillers share their Christmas wish lists

The production teams at our favourite distilleries have bestowed the gift of delicious booze upon us all year long. But what are they wishing for this Christmas? We asked 23…

The production teams at our favourite distilleries have bestowed the gift of delicious booze upon us all year long. But what are they wishing for this Christmas? We asked 23 distillers across the globe to share their festive wish lists. Here’s what they told us…

Hands up if you’d love to work in a distillery? The idea of playing mad scientist with spirits all day certainly sounds like fun to us. And while we can’t speak for their day-to-day reality, from the outside looking in, the folks behind our top tipples are living the dream. Which begs the question: in the season of gift-giving, what could they possibly want for Christmas?

Rather than ponder aimlessly, we put the question to distillers of all disciplines. Whether it’s crystal wine glasses, a special bottle of booze, three days off over new year, a homemade custard tart, or peace to all mankind, we probed spirits-makers from across the globe for their deepest festive desires and recorded their revelations. 

1. Ms. Lesley Gracie, master distiller, Hendrick’s Gin

“As always my Christmas list has pets on it – my husband is always a definite ‘no’, but my daughter has bought me hamsters in the past. A few years ago I asked for a pet rat but husband was not to be swayed and even said that it was either a rat or him – he could at least have made it a tough decision! As for this year’s Christmas wish list… It’s any pet I can persuade him to let me have!”

2. David Stewart MBE, malt master, The Balvenie

“I’d like the Monopoly Ayr Edition which has my football team, Ayr United, featured on one of the squares and where I was born.”

3. Christopher Hayman, master distiller, Hayman’s Gin

“This Christmas I’ll be asking for two things: an aeroplane ticket because I’m desperate to be able to travel again, and a life with more real people and less Zoom calls!”

4. Simon Hewitt, distiller, Nc’nean Distillery

“On my wish list this year is Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Flavour. I am inspired by him as a chef – in my opinion he is one of the best in the world. I’ve visited his restaurants in London and they are the best I’ve ever been to. He is also an amazing human – he has a degree in philosophy and when you hear him speak on topics other than food he is very inspiring.”

5. Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller, Woodford Reserve

“This Christmas I am asking for a set of large rocks glasses. We have some nice rocks glasses at home which are pretty and get the job done but they are on the smaller side. What I would like is a set of large rocks glasses with a thick glass bottom for a nice weight and giving me plenty of room for my ice and bourbon. One of my favourite ‘cocktails’, which isn’t really a cocktail is the ‘evolving cocktail’, Woodford Reserve on ice. As the ice melts different flavour notes are highlighted – it’s the perfect way to sip and savour a long drink of Woodford Reserve.” 

6. Tom Hills, head distiller, East London Liquor Company

“I’ve asked Father Christmas for a new head torch to aid in the search deep in our cluttered cellar for a long-lost bottle of expensive white burgundy that my housemates swear they didn’t drink whilst drunk, although suspicions remain. Beyond that I’d like a new woolly hat which is a more cost-effective option than ever actually turning our heating on, and a comprehensive support package for the incredible UK hospitality industry from the government, who so far seem hellbent on inflicting irreparable damage on the sector and fail to realise the unparalleled importance of our irreplaceable venues and the teams running them.” 

7. Chris Garden, head distiller, Hepple Spirits Company

“I’m very much looking forward to my traditional Christmas Eve glass of Blossa, a Swedish mulled wine, in front of the fire with my wife while we wrap the kids presents.”

8. Gregg Glass, whisky maker, Whyte & Mackay

“As with many people this year, the greatest gift more than ever is about spending time with family and friends, whether in person or virtually. The one thing that’s on my Santa list this year is a particular book on forestry – I can’t wait to enjoy a spot of festive reading with a special dram. At this time of the year, I usually treat myself to opening a nice bottle of Port and this year will be a lovely Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos. I’ll also be mixing things up with Whisky Amaro created by Edinburgh-based Sweetdrams, a truly unique flavour experience – festive mince pies and cocktail creation, here I come!”

9. Mike Melrose, distiller, Dà Mhìle

“After this busy time of year, the ideal Christmas gift for me would be the entirety of January to spend working on R&D. Turning my dreams into tasty reality, at my own relaxing pace with my headphones in. If there was a way I could do it in my slippers too, it’d be perfect.”

10. Chris Molyneaux, master distiller, Daffy’s Gin 

“It’s been a hugely busy and exciting winter for us here at Daffy’s HQ and a couple of weeks off over the Christmas hols will be pure bliss. We are so lucky that our distillery is located in the midst of some of the most beautiful mountains of Scotland, and with the snow now having arrived, we’ve all been dying to get into the hills and ski. So that’s the gift I want the most this Christmas – a massive dump of snow to get out there and make lots of first tracks in!”

11. Michael Henry, master blender, Loch Lomond Whiskies

“I am asking for a bottle of Blue Spot Irish Whiskey. I always have a whisky with my dad when I’m home, with coronavirus restrictions this year I won’t make it back to Northern Ireland from Scotland for Christmas. It will have to wait a while for me to open it as I’ll be keeping it for the next time I can go home to see my parents.”

12. Conor Hyde, master blender, Hyde Irish Whiskey

“I would like a fancy Oji Japanese style cold coffee dripper! Without hurting the integrity of the original whiskey, this dripper creates amazing whiskey coffee infusions. You cold brew the coffee in the cold-dripper using Irish whiskey instead of water. The whiskey slowly filters through the coffee filter over six to nine hours, trapping the coffee flavour and aromatic compounds, to make a mind blowing Irish coffee base.”

13. Ben Weetman, head distiller, 58 Gin

“This year, top of my Christmas list is a new pair of glasses and a really nice fresh hot shave – COVID-safe of course! 2020 has been the distillery’s busiest year yet and the constant cleaning of stills and being ‘in the thick’ of it has taken its toll on my specs. So that’s the practical present and the real ‘treat’ gift would be the hot shave for a bit of Ben time!”

14. David Fitt, head distiller, The English Whisky Company

“My wife Sarah and I always give money to charity at this time of year so I would like (for my peace of mind as a human being) to know a child somewhere in the world benefited from us giving some money. We usually give to UNICEF. We are privileged to live in a society that can provide – a lot can’t. I am looking forward to a couple of days off after a very busy, strange year, spending time with my wife, daughters and maybe other family members and enjoying a drink over the festive period.”

Ewan George, Warehouse Manager, BenRiach Distillery, Aberdeenshire

15. Ewan George, spirits logistics and warehouse manager, The GlenDronach, Glenglassaugh and Benriach distilleries

“Don’t know if Santa will be able to deliver, but from the letter I posted… one, health and happiness for my family, also the workers and families of the company over the festive period. Two, not having to wake up on Christmas Day before sunrise. Three, a bottle from all three of our Scotch brands so I can choose what goes on the table at Christmas – albeit I’ll be the only one enjoying it! – four, snow on Christmas Day with someone else walking the dog! And five, a fresh start to 2021 with a brighter year ahead for all!” 

16. Paul ‘Archie’ Archard, co-founder, Black Cow Vodka

“This Christmas I’m wishing for a set of Sophie Conran Champagne coupes. Perfect for serving our Black Cow Christmas Spirit Champagne cocktail with a twist of orange zest – yum! I’d also love one of our gold-plated cocktail shakers, made by Yukiwa in Japan. Christmas is a time for indulgence, so I want to serve my cocktails in style.”

17. Michael Duncan, stillhouse operator, The GlenAllachie Distillery

“On my Christmas list this year will be some homemade Scottish tablet from the Visitor Centre team who do their best to keep us sweet!”

Stauning whisky

18. Alex Munch, co-founder, Stauning Whisky

“A Spanish Chair made by Danish designer Børge Mogensen is the perfect place for sipping a glass of Stauning Rye, and what I would put at the top of my wish list. Along with the perfect cocktail bar set to make a delicious Manhattan cocktail – with Stauning Rye, of course!”

19. Alex Thomas, master blender, The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey

“I have two passions in life that I just can’t resist: whiskey and shoes. I will definitely be hoping that Santa drops both into my Christmas stocking this year. I promise I will share the whiskey with my friends and family if I am lucky enough to receive any. After all, that’s what whiskey is for – making memories with our friends and family and toasting the year that is ending and welcoming the one that is just beginning.”

20. Aare Ormus, distiller, Junimperium Distillery

“The best Christmas gift ever is to have all children and grandchildren back at home and spend the holiday-time together. I hope that we can enjoy our lovely traditional Christmas family dinner together this year despite all the problems and worries of the world.  It is also nice to get some little liquid gifts that can be consumed at Christmas time. For this Christmas I wish for friends and partners to keep their promises and have peace of mind. Merry Christmas to you all, and good health!”

21. Simon Rucker, co-founder, Nine Elms

“I would love to receive something delicious to nibble with Nine Elms No.18 over Christmas: a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, a leg of Iberico ham or a selection of paul.a.young fine chocolates – the 75% Papua New Guinea dark chocolate bar is a firm favourite! But the present I’d love most is to see the hospitality trade – particularly my favourite neighbourhood restaurants, The Canton Arms and Maremma [in south London] – making it through this difficult period and coming out fighting in the New Year.”

22. Iain McAlister, distillery manager and master distiller, Glen Scotia

“On the first day of Christmas Glen Scotia sent to me… a bottle of Sherry Double Cask – also available in a shop near to thee!”

23. Nelson Hernandez, maestro ronero at Diplomático 

“2020 has been a complicated and challenging year on many levels which has given me the opportunity to reflect deeply on what was really important in life. For this reason, my true wish this year is for all of us to be in good health and in the company of our families and loved ones.”

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New Arrival of the Week: Blinking Owl Four Grain Bourbon

This is our last New Arrival of 2020 and we’ve chosen something suitably special: Blinking Owl bourbon which is made from four grains, corn, rye, wheat and malted barley, all…

This is our last New Arrival of 2020 and we’ve chosen something suitably special: Blinking Owl bourbon which is made from four grains, corn, rye, wheat and malted barley, all grown within the great state of California.

The Blinking Owl distillery has only been going since 2016 but it already has a cupboard full of awards. At this year’s American Whiskey Masters in London put on by the Spirits Business magazine, it took home a silver medal for its bourbon and a gold for its rye. Based in Santa Ana in Orange County, not far from Los Angeles, the distillery was started by husband and wife team Brian and Robin Christenson and it’s named after a now defunct local bar which had an owl sign that would blink. 

As with quite a few whiskey producers, there’s the obligatory story about illicit distilling in the family’s past. In this case Brian Christenson’s great-grandfather, Fred P. Armbrust. According to the website: “He would covertly provide his local farmers with his ‘good spirits’. Brian’s dream is to carry on Fred’s passion by providing ‘good spirits’ to our very own neighborhood, legally, of course!” Born in 1888, Armbrust lived until the 1970s but stopped distilling soon after World War Two.

It’s actress and creative muse wizard owl Kirsten Vangness

Before founding Blinking Owl, the first legal distillery in Orange County since prohibition, Brian was an artist with his own gallery in Laguna Beach while Robin was a pelvic floor therapist. Her business, which she sold to start the distillery, was called Womanology and she had a blog called The Hoo-Hoo Whisperer. Could this story be any more Californian? Well, yes in fact it can because there is a third investor in the business, actress Kirsten Vangsness, who you might know from the television show Criminal Minds. Her job title is listed on the website as ‘creative muse wizard owl’. Of course it is.

All this woo woo would be amusing, if the team weren’t deadly serious about the quality of its spirits. The head distiller (and ‘owl spiritual leader’, natch), is Ryan Friesen formerly of Journeyman Distillery in Michigan, who worked an internship with Japanese whisky guru Ichiro Akuto at Chichibu distillery. So he knows what he’s doing.

Not only are the founders and the ethos very Californian but so are the raw materials. As of February 2018, everything used is organic and grown by Californian farms, with the high quality of the local water making a big contribution. As the website puts it: “We are locavores, grain nerds, and control freaks so we decided to actually make our booze the long way: from grain rather than pre-made spirit. We mill it, mash it, ferment it, distill it, and, in the case of whiskey, barrel age it.” As well as the bourbon and the rye, Blinking Owl also produces vodka, gin, aquavit and others

We’ve decided to highlight the bourbon because it’s unusual in using four cereals, corn, wheat, malted barley and rye. It’s aged in new white oak American casks, and bottled at 45% ABV. Our very own cocktail expert Jess Williamson is a fan, you can read her tasting notes below.  She recommends just treating it simply, drink either neat or in an Old Fashioned. We think it’s a suitable impressive last New Arrival of the year. What strange one it’s been. Let’s hope 2021 is better and you never know, Britain and American might even have come to an agreement over whisky/ whiskey tariffs.

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Nose: Earthy vanilla pod leads into barrel char, with subtle caramel, milk chocolate and a scattering of pine needles.

Palate: A dusting of cocoa and honeyed cereals, with just a hint of freshly baked brioche and a spoonful of homemade jam.

Finish: Just a tingle of drying spice lingers alongside a drizzle of runny honey.

Blinking Owl Four Grain Bourbon is available from Master of Malt.

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New Arrival of the Week: Black & Gold 11 Year Old Bourbon

Today’s we’re shining our giant New Arrival spotlight on a mysterious long-aged bourbon from Tennessee. We can’t tell you exactly where it came from, but we can tell you that…

Today’s we’re shining our giant New Arrival spotlight on a mysterious long-aged bourbon from Tennessee. We can’t tell you exactly where it came from, but we can tell you that it is delicious. 

It’s not often you see a bourbon with an age statement on the bottle. In fact, to be classed as bourbon in the US, the spirit just has to be made from 51% corn and spend some time in charred new oak casks (there are some other rules but that’s pretty much the basis). But the regulations don’t say how long. So your old timey bourbon could have just spent months ageing rather than years. It’s a bit different with whiskey imported into Europe which due to EU regulations has to be aged for a minimum of three years. To further complicate matters, it’s a bit of grey area whether products sold as bourbon minus the word whiskey have to follow these rules.

All this preamble is to say that your American whiskey is very unlikely to be much much more than three years old. Now that’s not really a problem because whiskeys made from rye and corn do tend to develop delicious flavours at a younger age especially when you factor in the amount of flavour that charred new oak imparts. Combine this with the hot and humid climate you get in the heart of American whiskey country, Kentucky and Tennessee, which leads to much quicker ageing than in the cold of Scotland; the evaporation is quicker but the ABV remains higher.

Age statements are rare. In fact, you have to be quite careful because in hot climates the whiskey might become over mature and woody if left too long. Many distilleries in America have special pockets within their warehouses which are cooler so the whiskey matures more slowly. Which brings us on to this week’s New Arrival. We can’t say much about its origins apart from that fact that it comes from Tennessee, which narrows it down somewhat. It might even come from one of the distilleries mentioned in this article. Even though whiskey from this state isn’t usually sold as bourbon, much of it is legally entitled to be.

Black & Gold, a bourbon worth taking your time over

The casks that go into Black & Gold were tasted by top whiskey sniffer Sam Simmons aka Dr Whisky; he told us: “I flew to Tennessee to select these casks in the warehouse. The phrase ‘hand selected’ is so often used and so rarely true, but in this case it actually happened.” He also revealed that the mashbill is heavy on the corn: 84-8-8 (corn-rye-barley). It spent 10 years slumbering in the heat of Appalachia before taking a slow boat across the Atlantic and finished its ageing in rainy old Britain. The result is something richer, more complex, more savoury than you usually get in a bourbon but it hasn’t dried out at all. You’re starting to get cigars there like an old Speyside malt but here’s still plenty of maple syrup, vanilla and apple pie that will appeal to bourbon lovers. It’s bottled at a nice punchy 45% ABV.

It’s very much not a speed rail bourbon for sloshing into cocktails but, though it’s probably best enjoyed neat, it certainly wouldn’t turn its nose up at a carefully made Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Then sit back and savour all those years of ageing. 

Here’s the full tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt:

Nose: Dense vanilla, toasted brown sugar atop apple pie, gingersnaps and cinnamon sticks.

Palate: Caramelised nuts, cask char leading to earthy cigar box and vanilla pod, with a touch of maple syrup hiding in there too.

Finish: Lasting oak and forest floor richness, well-balanced by toffee and chocolate sweetness.

Overall: Everything you could want from a bourbon and more, this expression is simply astonishing.

Black & Gold 11 Year Old Bourbon is available from Master of Malt.

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Five minutes with… Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest

Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest, has quite the story to tell. Which is why we were delighted that she sat down with us to talk about her…

Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest, has quite the story to tell. Which is why we were delighted that she sat down with us to talk about her family history and life as the first African-American master blender.

In the UK, October is Black History Month, a programme that was started to teach and remember history that had been ignored or forgotten and to honour achievements that had previously gone unmarked. The story of Nearest Green, an emancipated slave who perfected the Lincoln County process, taught a young orphan named Jack Daniel how to distil and was the first African-American master distiller, is an example of that. 

While Green’s contributions were common knowledge among his ancestors, it wasn’t until author, entrepreneur, and researcher Fawn Weaver brought his story to life by founding the Uncle Nearest brand in 2017, that his story became known by the public. The brand, which is proudly black-owned and operated, has become the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand in history while challenging the old white-washed narratives. Jack Daniel’s even formally acknowledged Green’s role in the formation of the brand’s signature product. In 2019, Uncle Nearest appointed the first known African-American master blender, Victoria Eady Butler. Who happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green.

Butler had initially joined the Uncle Nearest team as the director of administration of the Nearest Green Foundation, which provides scholarships to Nearest Green’s descendants, in March 2019 following retirement from a 31-year career within the Department of Justice. Just a few months later, she was asked to curate a small edition of the brand’s signature 1884 whiskey, as Weaver wanted each batch to be blended by one of Green’s descendants. It was launched in July to such success that by November she was appointed as master blender. 

Now, nearly a year on, Butler reflects on her past year and opens up about her remarkable family history.

Victoria Eady Butler

Meet Victoria Eady Butler!

Master of Malt: You were the first descendant of Nearest Green to be involved in the creation of an Uncle Nearest expression. What was that process like for you?

Victoria Eady Butler: “The first time I went into the lab I was a nervous wreck! I had never done anything like that before. I had already started studying, reading and tapping into the minds of other master blenders, learning as much as I could from my team members and others in the industry. But I was a little nervous at first. As the project progressed I became more comfortable with it. I soon became confident. I had been in law enforcement for 31 years, so this was something totally different for me”.

MoM: Why do you think you had a natural aptitude for blending?

VEB: “I believe what Nearest started all those years ago, that lineage, is in me. I was born with whiskey in my blood! The transition to become the first female African-American master blender was not a big hurdle to cross. It came pretty natural to me. Now we’re into our eight batch, I’m very confident in my abilities and things are going better than anyone could have ever expected”.

MoM: Were you always aware of your family history?

VEB: Absolutely. Growing up, my grandmother Annie Bell Green Eady (who is Nearest’s granddaughter) made sure that her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids all knew who he was. Not just us, but anyone who came to visit. We all had the privilege of sitting at her feet while she told the stories of him. She wanted us to know that he taught Jack Daniels how to distil, that he was an honourable, proud man. Although he was born into slavery, he died a free man and what he contributed to Jack Daniel’s lives on. We like to say that she was one of the first keepers of the Nearest Green story.

Victoria Eady Butler

The brand honours Butler’s ancestor and the “godfather of Tennessee whiskey”

MoM: What does that story mean to you?

VEB: It is very humbling now that I am the first female African-American master blender after my great-great-grandfather had, and still has, the title of the first African-American master distiller. To walk in his footsteps and see our brand grow, the only brand that acknowledges and honours a black man, it’s hard to find the words to describe what that means to me. I’m honoured to be in the position that I’m in, I’m honoured that I work with a group of people who are dedicated to ensuring that Nearest Green’s name and legacy are never forgotten again. It means the world to me.

MoM: Has your family’s involvement in whiskey continued through the generations? 

VEB: There has never been a drop of Jack Daniel’s made without a Green on property. My three siblings, my two sisters and her youngest brother work at the distillery. My oldest sister has been there for 40 years. 

MoM: Do you still learn things from Nearest Green? 

VEB: Absolutely. I’ve known my whole life that he was integral in Jack Daniel’s whiskey, but I’m always learning. Fawn Weaver is a wealth of knowledge. She has done so much research about Nearest Green which means I always learn something talking to her. When I look back and think about things my grandmother shared I can glean from that as well. The education of Nearest Green is ongoing and I’m so happy about that because he not only taught Jack how to make whiskey, he not only perfected the Lincoln County Process but he was his mentor. Jack Daniel’s mum died when he was a boy and by the age of 15, his father died. Nearest took him under his wing and taught him not just about the spirits industry, but he taught him about life. He was a very proud man. He was smart and innovative and these traits passed down the generations.

Victoria Eady Butler

The education of the impact Nearest Green had on American whiskey is ongoing

MoM: What could he learn from you? 

VEB: I don’t know that I could teach him anything, but I could show him that we continue to hold our back’s straight, our heads high and that we keep pushing the needle forward. I’d like to think he was proud of me.

MoM: Does living up to a family name like that come with any pressure? 

VEB: I don’t feel any pressure. I feel that, after all these years, I’m walking in my purpose and with that comes joy. Thanks to Fawn Weaver, I have tapped into a passion that I didn’t know existed until last March. I am enjoying what I’m doing, I’m honoured to be a part of the fastest-growing American spirit in history and I enjoy working alongside a team of dedicated individuals.

MoM: What’s your relationship with Fawn Weaver like?

VEB: I love and adore her. She is a very generous, driven, strong and smart woman. I’ve learned a great deal from being in her presence. I love working alongside her. She’s brilliant. I’m thankful for the relationship that we share. We don’t have a blood relationship, Nearest is not her ancestor, but you would never know that based on the relationship she has with my family. We all adore her and the drive she has to ensure my ancestor’s name and history is all based on love, dedication, respect and honour.

Victoria Eady Butler

The American whiskey producer opened its Nearest Green Distillery in Tennessee in September last year.

MoM: You’ve said before that your mission is much greater than just people enjoying our fabulous whiskey. Can you outline what it is?

VEB: We want to ensure that when people spoke of those folks who are considered icons or historical figures, like Jack Daniel, Jim Beam and George Dickel, that Nearest Green is spoken in the same sentence and that, long after all of us are gone, that his name and legacy will not be forgotten. That is why we’re building this great distillery in Tennessee, it’s a place of honour for Nearest and his descendants. Our mission is to ensure that after we have brought this legacy to the forefront of this industry after more than 160 years that the contribution of this once enslaved man is something everyone will know. That his merits will stand on their own. And that folks will recognise that he was, and is, the godfather of Tennessee whiskey.

MoM: How important is your role as an example?

VEB: As the first African-American master blender, I hope that I’m setting the bar high and that whoever comes after me will have the same passion and dedication to continue what we have started. We try to do everything with excellence, so I hope people can look at what I’ve done and they will continue in the same manner.

MoM: What advice would you give an outsider of the spirits industry that wants in?

VEB: I recommend they put their fears aside and make sure they understand that if this something they truly want, not just something they think is cool at the moment. We work hard, it’s not for the faint of heart. But you will never know what you can do if you don’t try. You need to learn all you can and be totally dedicated to the craft. This year ourselves and Jack Daniel’s created a $5m diversity initiative to provide expertise and resources to African-American entrepreneurs who want to enter the spirits world and we already have apprentices working at distilleries across the US.

Victoria Eady Butler

The brand’s aim is for Nearest Green’s name and legacy to never be forgotten

MoM: Has the last year emphasized the importance of the story and message of the Uncle Nearest brand?

VEB: Absolutely. When folks look at us I hope they see diversity and they see our brand is inclusive. We invite everyone to have a seat at the table.

MoM: What does 2021 hold for Uncle Nearest?

VEB: Our plate is full, for sure! There is always something new and exciting on the horizon. For the UK, we’re hoping to get my small batch expression over here before the end of the year (COVID permitting) and hopefully roll out a single barrel expression next year. It’s amazing to see how fast the brand has grown in the states and hopefully that will be reflected in the UK!

Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey is available from Master of Malt

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How to get the best out of overproof spirits

From barrel proof bourbon to navy strength gin, it’s hard to know how – and when – to use punchy overproof spirits in cocktails and mixed drinks. Here, we explain the…

From barrel proof bourbon to navy strength gin, it’s hard to know how – and when – to use punchy overproof spirits in cocktails and mixed drinks. Here, we explain the different ways you can incorporate these high-octane sippers into your cocktail repertoire without overpowering your palate (or doing yourself a mischief)…

Before we get into the spirits, let’s tackle the etymology of overproof. The term was coined in the 18th century, when sailors would mix their spirits with gunpowder and light it with a match. If the booze caught alight and burned steadily, it was ‘proof’ the spirit was of adequate strength and hadn’t been watered down. They were often paid partially in alcohol rations, and after all, no one likes being short-changed. 100% proof corresponds to around 57% ABV in new money.

We may no longer feel the need to set our spirits on fire before accepting a booze delivery, to the relief of postmen and women everywhere. But potency pyrotechnics aside, our obsession with ABV remains otherwise unchanged since the 18th century. Whether we’re sipping cask strength Cognac, overproof rum, or navy strength gin – or exploring the emerging no- and low-alcohol category – the potency of booze remains a key talking point among drinkers, distillers and bartenders to this day.

The just-released Highland Park Cask Strength was bottled at a mighty 63.3% ABV

The vast majority of our favourite spirits are diluted with water before they’re bottled, settling somewhere around 40% ABV. This isn’t necessarily a negative – if you have a preference for cask strength Scotch, there’s a solid case for diluting the dram with a touch of water before you drink it – but it does mean boozier bottlings, typically from 50% ABV upwards, are fewer in number. Beyond upping the alcohol content in the bottle, less dilution with water means a greater concentration of esters, fusel oils and other compounds – collectively known as congeners – in the final spirit, which carry through as flavour and complexity.

Not only does a great overproof spirit bring flavour by the bucketload, but it also makes the other flavours in the drink “more concentrated and intense”, says Georgi Radev, owner of London bar Laki Kane. “When you add high-ABV spirit to a cocktail, you are adding more flavour and viscosity to it,” he says. Up to a point, of course. Overproof spirits are notoriously difficult to enjoy neat, and can be extremely challenging to work into short cocktails, “because the high volume alcohol numbs our taste buds, so we can feel only the strength of the alcohol,” he says. “The flavours are there, but we can’t enjoy them.”

However, overproof spirits are perfect for “long drinks with more ingredients using multiple strong syrups,” says Radev, with “Tiki-style tropical cocktails,” being a prime example. For example, the Piña Colada. “Overproof rum makes a perfect Piña Colada,” he says. “The cream balances the high alcohol content. In a normal Piña Colada, the rum is almost undetectable. The main flavours are pineapple and coconut. With overproof rum, it’s a different game.” These kinds of drinks need flavourful spirits to stand out, and they’re one of the few circumstances where such powerful sippers ought to be used as a base.

The Piña Fumada

The Piña Colada tastes even better when made with overproof rum

If you’re set on shorter drinks, though, you don’t necessarily have to steer clear of overproof spirits. You can use such tipples as a modifier by incorporating a little into the body of the recipe, rinsing the glass before you pour, or floating a small amount on top of the finished cocktail. Adding just a few meagre millilitres will turbocharge the flavours in the drink and also add texture, as Radev alluded to earlier when he mentioned viscosity. A higher ABV cuts through citrus and syrups to bring a rich, almost oily mouthfeel to a cocktail that’s near-impossible to replicate with any other ingredient (just ask any lab-weary alcohol-free producer). 

Indeed, the difference a handful of extra ABV percentage points can make, even to the same spirit, is fascinating. “On a trip to Guatemala I was introduced to an aged rum that was 46% ABV, in comparison to its regular counterpart at 40% ABV, and it completely transformed the experience,” says James Shearer, global beverage director for London restaurants Oblix, Zuma and Roka. “In my opinion, a higher ABV is the distiller’s way of perfecting the product for the drinker.”

However, what overproof giveth, poor bar technique taketh away. In exchange for flavour by the bucketload and money-can’t-buy mouthfeel, you have the challenge of adapting your drink to accommodate the extra punchiness. Overproof spirits – especially at the higher end of the ABV spectrum – redefine the character of a cocktail, so it’s not just as simple as subbing your usual gin choice for a Navy strength sipper. You’ll likely need to rethink the proportions of the drink, and potentially your ingredients. For example, if you’re making a Manhattan with barrel proof rye whiskey, choose a robust, powerful vermouth to pair with it and drop the pour size of both.

A Negroni is a great foil for navy strength gin

If you’re stuck for classic recipe recommendations, Shearer recommends balancing navy strength gin in a Negroni, “to bring out the citrus and bitter notes”. Overproof Tequila “can add a slap of flavour to a Zombie,” he says, while high-strength Cognac works well when utilised with overproof rum in a Between the Sheets. Overproof rum shines in a Nuclear Banana Daiquiri or classic Mai Tai, and cask strength whisk(e)y goes down a treat in a Prescription Sazerac.

With a bit of planning, overproof booze is nothing to shy away from, providing you treat it carefully and use a delicate hand. “You need to start working with overproof spirits to get to understand them,” says Radev. “Most people think that overproof is mainly for lighting up cocktails, but it’s so much more than that. Start using it in drinks and you will grow to love it.”

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The joy of distillery pets

From man’s best friend to an ostentation of peafowl, many distilleries are home to more than just the people behind the brands. Today, we talk tail feathers, snooze spots and…

From man’s best friend to an ostentation of peafowl, many distilleries are home to more than just the people behind the brands. Today, we talk tail feathers, snooze spots and botanical snacks with the proud owners of several distillery pets

Once upon a time, distilleries would employ mousers fearless, often semi-feral cats with the job of keeping the mice out of the barley. These days, all kinds of creatures can be found sleeping by warm stills, entertaining visitors or patrolling the grounds. Some even have their own Instagram accounts. MoM found five distillers willing to share the stories of their four-legged or feathered friends.

Darcy from the Cambridge Distillery, England

You could say that Darcy is the brains behind the entire operation: it was walks with her owners, (Cambridge Distillery founders) William and Lucy Lowe, through Grantchester Meadows that sparked the idea for the business. “There wouldn’t be a Cambridge Distillery without Darcy,” explains Will. “We made the decision to start making gin whilst out on a walk with her and it was out on a walk that we discovered the amazing array of botanicals that surround us, which inspired us to create the world’s first truly seasonal gin. Everything went from there.”

Darcy the black lab even has her favourite botanicals, including nettles, apple and pear blossom, blackberries and blackcurrants. She can usually be found overseeing operations by following the sunny spots around the distillery and then cooling off with a swim in the river Cam, which flows behind the site. It really is a dog’s life. 

Chicken from FEW Spirits, Chicago, Illinois

Don’t be fooled by the name, chicken is a dog. Though he is also a bit of a chicken: “He is a very good boy but he hates the noise and smells at the distillery,” says FEW founder and Chicken’s human, Paul Hletko. “It’s a very scary place for him and he just wants to sit in my lap when he’s there.” Chicken enjoys hanging out with his brother, Elvis, and naturally the pair have their own Insta – @chicken_and_elvis (chicken is the foreground above, Elvis behind).

The big question is how did the family end up with a dog called Chicken? “I have three kids, two wanted a dog. One wanted a chicken. She’s still mad and thinks she got ripped off,” explains Hletko. Elvis’s name choice was a bit more conventional – he came home when Hlekto’s oldest child was in a big Elvis Presley phase. “My wife and I wanted Egbert (or Egg, for short) to answer the ‘chicken/egg which came first’ question forever, but we lost to the kids.

“Elvis is also a very good boy.” MoM wonders how often he leaves the building…

Ginny from Manifest Distilling, Jacksonville, Florida 

Ginny the cat walked into the distillery right off the street. “She hid in our ‘high-proof room’ for the first couple days before she realised that we were her friends,” says general manager Jim Webb. 

It wasn’t a great start for Manifest’s new feline friend – she needed a trip to the vet to get her jabs as well as get rid of what Webb describes as “FLEAS FROM HELLFIRE”. They also discovered she had a broken leg, right at the knee, that couldn’t be fixed. Luckily, it healed on its own and restored Ginny with the majesty and mischief of a good distillery cat: “She can climb and jump and set off the motion detector alarm at all hours of the evening and early morning,” says Webb.

In less unusual times, Ginny’s favourite job was to go on tours and meow to get all sorts of attention from new people. Now, though, tours are on hold so Webb and the team have a new full-time job, paying Ginny attention. “She likes finding confined places to nap and currently is in our front-of-house stock closet snuggled up in a case of plastic shot glasses (safely wrapped for their future shooter’s protection),” says Webb. 

Ginny’s also on the ‘gram: @manifesting_ginny

Otis from Badachro Distillery, Scotland

Otis, the long-haired Weimaraner, joined the Badachro menagerie just before lockdown. “We already have two Labradors, Ellis, our old lady (13) and Timo (10) who were only mildly amused – to be honest, we think Ellis wanted to give him back straight away, but Timo quite enjoys having a little brother to go out for walks with,” says Badachro co-founder Vanessa Quinn.

Izzy the cat “tolerates” Otis, while the chickens are having to take a temporary break from being free range and the ponies believe him to be crazy. “One of the highlights of Otis’s life at the distillery are the delivery drivers and the posties, always prepared with a dog biscuit. They are more than welcome and he will let us know when they come up the drive,” says Quinn.

As lockdown life eases, visitors have started to return to the distillery and many are keen to meet Otis, who has become a hit on the Badachro Insta (@badachrodistillery).

Otis is nearly six months old now and Quinn says he might be trained as a gun dog, though he hasn’t yet decided what he wants to be when he grows up.

Rowan from Lux Row Distillers, Bardstown, Kentucky

Most distilleries have cats or dogs. Rowan, however, is a peacock. In fact, Lux Row inherited a handful of peacocks from the property’s former owners, the Ballard family. When the distillery opened in 2018, the folk at Lux Row say there were about half a dozen birds. “Now we’ve got at least 17 four new babies this year.”

While most are tricky to tell apart, Rowan boasts the longest tail feathers and so the ambassadors named him after a prominent historical Bardstown figure, who also gives his name to the road on which the distillery is located. Handy. Rowan enjoys strutting his stuff for the visitors and allows himself to be photographed after all, every side is his best side.

“No other distillery on the Bourbon Trail (that we know of) has such unique animals,” the team at Lux says. Mr Ballard still comes to feed the peacocks two or three times a week, but every now and then they may snack on some spilled leftover grain.

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