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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: whisky

Your guide to the emerging New World whisky category

Where once whisky was solely the product of Scotland, Ireland and the US, today more than 30 countries produce the amber nectar. Free from the ties of tradition, New World…

Where once whisky was solely the product of Scotland, Ireland and the US, today more than 30 countries produce the amber nectar. Free from the ties of tradition, New World distillers are treading new ground with customised yeasts, heirloom grains, and alternative oak species to boldly take whisky where it’s never been before. With insight from industry accelerator Distill Ventures, we take a fresh look at the global category…

From Australia’s wine cask-matured whiskies to Scandinavia’s wholegrain rye bottlings, our tasting glasses have gone global in recent years. In turn, our cupboards are fuller, too; the whisky category grew by 7% to 440 million nine-litre cases in 2018, according to the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis Global Database (one case is typically 12 x 750ml bottles, FYI. So, more than five billion bottles). While the projected forecast – 581m cases by 2023 – is likely to be rattled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, whisky’s meteoric rise is only set to continue, with New World producers ‘setting the stage for a new defining era’, as The New World of New World Whisky, a whitepaper by Distill Ventures (Diageo’s venture capital arm), described it.

To be clear, the New World category doesn’t just encompass distillers in regions not typically associated with whisky production – such as Bolivia, South Africa and Russia – but also unconventional whisky made in established whisky-making countries. The report defines New World Whisky as: 1. A whisky not produced in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the US or Japan OR 2. A whisky made in a style not traditionally associated with the country that it is made in – for example, American single malt or Scottish rye. With flavour development the ultimate goal, producers are ‘manipulating raw materials and processes in ways that reflect their own locality and cultural identity’, it states – and that’s true whether they’re in Scotland or South Korea.

For one, whisky-makers are looking beyond yield to create a wider spectrum of flavour through their grain selection. “This is part of a trend of distillers wanting complete traceability of their ingredients and working with farmers,” says Frank Lampen, Distill Ventures’ CEO. “If your grain is being grown next door, you don’t want to send it hundreds of miles away to be malted – so we’re seeing more distilleries like Stauning [in Denmark] taking control of the whole process and doing 100% of their own malting” (see photo in the header.)

Stauning whisky

The nine founders of Stauning distillery in Denmark

There’s a focus on diversity – exploring local, heirloom, and non-traditional grains – and the concept of terroir. “Diversity is about going beyond single varietals of grain to harvest fields that contain multiple varietals, as pioneered by [England’s] Oxford Artisan Distillery with their Oxford Rye,” Lampen says. “Terroir is about seeing how the same varietal grown in different places produces different results, and preserving those differences in flavour through distillation, as Waterford Distillery [in Ireland] is doing.”

New World producers also tend to be big on brewing techniques; customising their own yeasts or cultivating wild strains, and often roasting and smoking their malts with locally-sourced plants, wood or peat. They’re passionate about the ‘beer’ they produce, says Lampen, and utilise longer fermentations and different yeasts “to create something that is delicious and full of flavour before it goes into the still”. American single malt producer Westward Distillery is a great example of this, he adds.

In terms of maturation, producers are looking beyond French and American oak to explore alternative oak species and woods – including acacia, mizunara, chinquapin, and garryana – as well as collaborating with local beer, wine and spirits producers in cask exchange programmes, and toying with new maturation techniques. “Casks which might previously have been used for a short ‘finish’ are being used for the full maturation of the whisky,” says Lampen, “such as the red wine barrels used by Starward [in Australia] to house their spirit from the moment it comes off the still to the moment it’s bottled.”

Starward Nova

David Vitale from Starward in Melbourne

However, as the whitepaper aptly points out, with greater choice can come greater confusion – New World Whisky can quickly go from exciting to overwhelming. “The strength of the category – and what makes it so exciting – is the diversity and range of what’s on offer,” says Lampen. “But this is also a challenge, as it can make it hard for whisky drinkers to navigate and find things they’re going to love, unless they’re prepared to do lots of research themselves.”

That’s where we come in, of course. Below, we’ve picked out 10 New World Whiskies that we think you’ll love. Not only are these distillers bringing something new to the category, but better yet, they’re really only just getting started on the long road to whisky greatness. Behold!

Mackmyra Grönt Te

A Swedish single malt from Mackmyra Distillery finished in casks seasoned with Oloroso sherry and green tea leaves (!!) sourced from Japanese tea specialists Yuko Ono Sthlm.

Yushan Blended Malt

A Taiwanese blended malt from Nantou Distillery matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks (and named after the highest mountain in Taiwan).

The ONE Orange Wine Cask Finished

An English blended whisky from The Lakes Distillery that sees its single malt combined with single grain and malt whiskies from Scotland and finished in first-fill American oak casks seasoned with orange wine.

Amrut Madeira Cask Finish

An Indian single malt whisky from Amrut Distillery – the first of its kind to be finished in Madeira wine casks from the Portuguese island.

Langatun Old Deer Classic Cask Proof

A Swiss single malt from Langatun Distillery, matured in an unusual pairing of sherry casks and Chardonnay casks before being bottled as cask strength.

The Cardrona Just Hatched – Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish

A Kiwi single malt from Cardrona Distillery, aged in ex-bourbon barrels before a finishing period in Oloroso sherry casks and, again, bottled at cask strength.

Teeling Stout Cask Finish

An Irish single malt from Teeling Distillery, aged in former stout casks that first aged its own Teeling Small Batch (caskception!) in collaboration with Galway Bay Brewery.

Sonoma Distilling Co. Cherrywood Bourbon

A US bourbon from Sonoma Distilling Company made from corn and rye from California and Canada and Cherrywood smoked barley from Wyoming.

Starward Solera

An Australian single malt from Starward Distillery, made entirely from Australian barley and matured in re-coopered Apera (Australian fortified wine) barrels.

Millstone 100 Rye Whisky

A Dutch rye whisky from Zuidam Distillers, made from 100% rye with 100% small pot still distillation and matured for 100 months in 100% new American oak barrels.

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The Nightcap: 30 October

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

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

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

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

The Nightcap

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

Diageo acquires Chase Distillery

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

The Nightcap

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

WSTA figures reveal rum is the drink of lockdown 

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

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

Revamped Glenkinchie Distillery reopens

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

The Nightcap

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

Laphroaig expands the Ian Hunter series

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

The Nightcap

It’s been quite the week for impressive expressions!

Gonzalez Byass releases sherry from 1878

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

The Nightcap

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

And finally. . .  Jim Beam me up, Scotty

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

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A Long Stride: A history of Johnnie Walker

This year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, a book has been published called A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s no. 1 Scotch Whisky. We talk…

This year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, a book has been published called A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s no. 1 Scotch Whisky. We talk to the author Nicholas Morgan about how a blend from a small shop in Kilmarnock went global.

Before I even knew what whisky was, I’d heard of Johnnie Walker. As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I remember seeing the famous Striding Man on the back of a magazine with the legend, “Born 1820 and still going strong,” and marvelling at this extremely long-lived man.

For nearly half of the brand’s existence, however, the Striding Man didn’t exist and the whisky wasn’t even called Johnnie Walker. I learnt all this and more from a fascinating new book called A Long Stride by Dr. Nicholas Morgan. Morgan is the grandly-titled head of whisky outreach at Diageo but this is no corporate cutting job. Morgan taught Scottish history at Glasgow University before joining United Distillers (forerunner of Diageo) in 1989. In his research, Morgan has delved deep into the substantial Walker archive, with help of research assistant Laura Chilton. Refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to chart the lows as well as the highs, as we’ll see. 

“Hi Dr Nick!”

The result is a fascinating account of how one whisky became one of the world’s best known brands but it’s also a portrait of the Walker family, the town of Kilmarnock, and a rich history of the 19th and 20th centuries. We spent a very pleasurable hour discussing the book…

Early days:

It all began in 1820 when John Walker, son of a local farmer, went into the grocery business with a shop in Kilmarnock. Many grocers had their own blends of whisky – the idea of blended whisky came from tea blending where the grocers would blend teas of different types and qualities into a consistent product – but it was Walker’s blend, known as Old Highland Whisky, that began to build a reputation outside of the town, especially after John’s son, Alexander took over in 1857. Morgan explained why: “I would say consistency. It’s clear from Alexander’s correspondence that they were striving to improve the quality of their product and get this consistency, while doing everything on a bigger scale.” This was based on holding vast quantities of whisky stocks. “But also,” he continued”, “consistency in presentation, a square bottle, for the most part, with a slanty label on it.” This distinctive look that continues to this day began came in in the 1860s. That’s when the firm began to go global. To assist, it had a great sales team in London and later around the world, driven by Kilmarnock men. Morgan explained: “Alexander trusted everyone from Kilmarnock more than anyone else!”

Enter the Striding Man:

One thing that John Walker & Sons didn’t do was advertise. That was left up to Johnny-come-lately brands like Dewar’s. One of the big contrasts in the book is between the extravagant Dewars, who saw themselves as the young guns of the industry, and the more diffident Walkers: “I certainly had the Walker’s as my heroes,” said Morgan, “And then if I had villains, there would be the Dewar’s, these arriviste, self-publicity-seeking… ‘narcissists’ was one of the words I used to describe Tommy Dewar.”

The brand had become colloquially known as Johnnie Walker but the firm always referred to itself as John Walker & Sons, and the principal blend as Old Highland Whisky. Morgan explained: “John Walker’s widow lived until 1890 and she exerted a huge influence over Alexander and no doubt over her grandchildren. You can imagine what that was like: ‘Johnnie Walker’ no no no, we’re not going to do that!” It was James Stevenson, a non-family member, who shook things up. Morgan said: “He’d come into the business as an office boy but ended up in effect as marketing director and was a marketing genius. It took Stevenson to persuade the family of the power of this thing called ‘Johnnie Walker’ that lived in the minds of the public.”

Johnnie Walker ad from Punch magazine, 1922

The firm engaged American adman Paul E. Derrick, who was behind the Quaker Oats campaign. “Between Derrick and Stevenson they wrote this brief and rejected all that tartan, old men, Highland chiefs drinking,” said Morgan, “and that was the brief that finally went to a very famous cartoonist Tom Browne.” The result was utterly different to anything else in whisky. A Morgan puts it “A Georgian man walking along, with a dog originally, vigorous, striding, a bit rakish. An interesting sort of fellow. That was the character that suddenly leapt off full colour posters all around the UK in 1908. This was before TV. What are you going to talk about in the office? The adverts you saw. It was popular currency. To suddenly see this figure and everyone say ‘that’s Johnnie Walker! That’s the guy we’ve been talking about for 25 years and suddenly he’s come alive and he’s everywhere!’” Meanwhile, Walker’s blends were rebranded with Old Highland becoming White Label (later discontinued), Special Old Highland Red Label and Extra Special Black Label

The campaign was a huge success: sales went through the roof and transformed the brand. The image is so strong that it has been used to sell Johnnie Walker, on and off, ever since. And the clever thing is that much of the time, the adverts don’t even mention whisky. 

Upsetting the old guard:

It’s hard to imagine now that blends are the establishment, but in the late 19th century they were the disruptors, taking business away from malt whiskies. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Morgan’s take on the famous “What is Whisky?” case. This is usually told from the malt distillers perspective, defending their good name against inferior grain and blended whiskies but, as Morgan discovered, it’s a lot more complicated than that. 

“The rise of blended Scotch whisky disrupted a whole range of very well established economic relationships”, Morgan explained. These included the agricultural lobby put out by the imported grain used in blends and the old Highland distillers, “who did like to think of themselves as the sort of elite of the world of whisky. Suddenly they were simply suppliers of whisky to blenders. And the little interest there had been in malt whisky was taken away because everyone wanted to drink blended Scotch.” Both groups had powerful allies in parliament. 

The final piece in the jigsaw were retailers and wine merchants. “You have a system of retailing which is fundamentally threatened by the existence of advertised or promoted proprietary brands. It takes away the independence of retailers and it takes away the position of those wholesaling companies who have been supplying them.” Biggest of these were Gilbeys, the wine merchants, which, Morgan said, “led a campaign against blended Scotch and grain whisky. From the 1890s they were already trying to get acts of parliament through which would constrain what blenders could do”. In the end, however, the blenders won out and could continue to call their products ‘whisky’.

The evolution of the Striding Man

Tribulations and consolidation:

The 20th century was a turbulent time for Scotch. There was the fall-out from the collapse of Pattisons whisky business in 1898 which, though Walker’s were not involved, reverberated through the industry. Morgan explains: “There was a huge bubble of speculation and the Pattison crash brought that bubble down at a stroke. It depressed prices for new-make whiskies and for mature whiskies which speculators were holding, so a whole range of people suffered financially very badly from that and it knocked a lot of confidence out of the whole Scotch sector and it meant that banks wouldn’t loan.” 

But this wasn’t the only problem the industry faced. There was world war one followed by the influenza epidemic. Then prohibition not just in the US, but in Canada and New Zealand plus a real possibility that something similar would be enacted in Britain; Prime Minister Lloyd George was a teetotaler. 

The uncertain times led to a merger between Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, the Distillers Company (which owned grain distilleries) and John Walker & Sons in 1924/5. The Walkers, however, bargained hard not to be subsumed within this new whisky behemoth: “What came out of this merger, which was as the Walkers had intended, were cost savings on the production side but companies that still quite aggressively competed with each other in the marketplace.” Johnnie Walker preserved its semi-independence until the Distillers Company was bought by Guinness in 1986. Alexander Walker II, John’s grandson, was the last family member to run the business. 

Downs and ups:

Morgan’s book is largely a portrait of great men with vision, making bold decisions, and selling a quality product. But the Johnnie Walker board didn’t always make the wisest choices. Perhaps the most bizarre thing in the book was when they  went up against the might of the EEC, which Britain had joined in 1973, over the pricing of Red Label. “They had one set of pricing for the UK and they had one set of pricing for European customers. That was in contravention of the EEC regulations,” says Morgan. “So the European Commission took them [the Distillers Company] to the European Court and a ruling came out that that was not a permissible way of doing business which affected everyone in the trade.”

Rather than put UK prices up, the management decided to remove entirely the Red Label brand, which was selling 1.25 million cases at home, from the British market. The plan was to replace it with a new brand called John Barr,  “which was not a success in any way”, Morgan said with some understatement. This decision had a momentous impact on the industry. You’ve probably heard that the infamous ‘whisky loch’ was caused by overproduction in the 60s and 70s, but according to Morgan “it’s really the Red Label loch because that million cases are out of the market”. 

This  presented an opportunity for other brands like Famous Grouse and Bell’s. But also led directly to the upsurge in single malts:  Morgans explains: “As a member of one of those [single malt] families gleefully told me when we were talking about the book, at a dinner last year, ‘boy when Red Label went it was just hoorah, hoorah!’” Meanwhile at DCL, the management thought that single malts had no future and actively thwarted the rise of Cardhu, a brand which was taking off in Spain and Italy. D’oh!

It’s a great-looking book with lots of illustrations and photos

But Johnnie Walker recovered: the book explains how much of the vigour returned to the brand in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Opportunities for de luxe whiskies, especially in emerging markets, were capitalised on with the launches of Blue, Gold and Green Label. Meanwhile the Striding Man himself was invigorated: “At the beginning of this century, a bit like happened in 1908 with the creation of the Striding Man, that character was absolutely rejuvenated by BBH [ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty] in the ‘Keeping Walking’ campaign, which actually saw the brand grow again, from around ten million cases to 20 million, astonishing in a short period.” He went on to say: “In the same way that the Striding Man had reached out to consumers in the early 20th century, this new manifestation based around this idea of personal progress, captured consumers’ imaginations and it was brought to life with all that same brilliant creativity that had been seen in the Edwardian era.”

As we enter another extremely uncertain period in history, it’s somehow reassuring that Johnnie Walker has come through far worse adversity. Morgan said: “There is a story in the book about resilience which is good for this current moment. “ So, let’s raise a glass to another 200 years of the Striding Man!

A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No. 1 Scotch Whisky by Nicholas Morgan is published by Canongate.

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Master of Malt visits… The Lakes Distillery

Just before lockdown we squeezed in one last trip to the stunning Lakes Distillery – although we didn’t know it was going to be the last. Luckily we captured our…

Just before lockdown we squeezed in one last trip to the stunning Lakes Distillery – although we didn’t know it was going to be the last. Luckily we captured our wonderful time through the magic of video, so you can enjoy it too!

From the glorious landscapes to the wonders of the whisky studio, Lakes whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi showed us all the sites when we made our way up to Cumbria to take a nose around the distillery. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about sherry casks or the burgeoning English whisky category, or both at the same time, then you’re in the right place.

If you like words as well as videos, then you can check out our blog on what we learned at the distillery here!

First up, we chat with Gandhi about how he ended up in the whisky business, having started in the finance industry!

In Part 2 of our interview with Gandhi, we learn more about his unique holistic whisky making process and get an insight into a day in the life of The Lakes whisky maker.

Time for a sneak peek into each of the production processes at The Lakes, including a special insight into the importance of fermentation, with Gandhi as our guide.

Let’s talk all things cask maturation! It’s time to learn about the brilliance of sherry casks and different types of oak.

Blending is a huge part of Gandhi’s process, and here in his shiny whisky studio he explains about how blending whisky is a lot like art.

Tasting time! First up is Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3, tasted by the whisky maker himself.

Gandhi tastes us through The ONE Signature Blend, taking us through how the Lakes own single malt works alongside Scotch grain and malt whiskies.

Time for some juniper, as Gandhi tastes and talks us through why The Lakes Classic Gin is indeed a classic.

Last, but certainly not least, The Lakes Pink Grapefruit Gin tasted by Gandhi, including his perfect serve.

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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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How your taxes help small distillers

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

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

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

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

Nc’nean distillery – you helped pay for this

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

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

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

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

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

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

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

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

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Five minutes with… Dr Nick Savage at Bladnoch Distillery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Nick Savage in the blending room

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

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

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

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

Bladnoch 10 year old, snazzy packaging

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

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

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

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

Bladnoch Distillery, 200 years and still going strong

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

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

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

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

Dr Nick Savage in the stillhouse

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

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

Try the Bladnoch range at Master of Malt.

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Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

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

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

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

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

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

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

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

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

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

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

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

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

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

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

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

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Our favourite specialist bars for specific spirits

Whether you have a certain spirit that you know you love above all others, or you want to jump in at the deep end of flavour discovery of a new…

Whether you have a certain spirit that you know you love above all others, or you want to jump in at the deep end of flavour discovery of a new tipple, we’ve rounded up a few awesome specialist bars that are pros in specific spirits!

They say variety is the spice of life, but on the flipside, there’s also the conundrum of being the jack of all trades and master of none. Well, these bars are each the master of one chosen spirit. In the words of Wham!, if you’re gonna do it, do it right.

When it’s safe to go back out to all the wonderful places the world has to offer, make sure you have this list to hand to guide you through the glorious world of spirits!

specialist bars

Hacha

What? Agave spirits
Where? London

Tequila and mezcal line the back bar of Hacha over in East London, which is also home to the legendary Mirror Margarita. Trust me, forget about any misgivings you’ve had about Tequila in the past, it’s like no other Margarita you’ve tried before. There’s a selection of 25 spirits behind the bar, and while you may have been expecting that number to be higher, when a bottle is finished a new one takes its place. Now you’ll never get bored of the same old choices! What’s pretty cool about this place is that owner Deano Moncrieffe (who was previously a Diageo Tequila ambassador) pairs different nibbles with the ever-changing selection of agave spirits. Some come with Monster Munch, others come with Toblerone. It’s all-round awesome. 

specialist bars

Smugglers Cove

What? Rum
Where? San Francisco

Opened in 2009, Smugglers Cove is everything you’d expect from a bar that specialises in rum. The three-story tiki bar boasts the largest rum selection in the country (over 550 behind the bar at one time), and it’s a place that really embraces part of rum’s identity with waterfalls, lots of nautical paraphernalia and an entirely wooden interior. Meanwhile, the cocktail list takes into account the centuries of history behind the spirit. You’ll find both classic and more contemporary serves, and one that has made quite the name for itself is the Smuggler’s Rum Barrel, a punch made with 15 different rums and 20 different juices!

(Smugglers Cove isn’t currently open because of COVID, but be sure to take a trip over there when it’s safe!)

specialist bars

Bobby Gin 

What? Gin
Where? Barcelona

Well, the clue is in the name here, and you’ll find Gin Club in the home of the Gin Tonica, Spain! Specifically, Barcelona. At Bobby Gin you’ll find those classic fishbowl glasses, with almost countless numbers of gins, tonics and garnishes to play with. With a sign on the wall stating ‘the perfect Gin & Tonic doesn’t exist’ (well, it actually says ‘el gintonic perfecto no existe’, but I thought I’d save you the trouble of translating), though you  may as well start here to try and find it!

specialist bars

Black Rock 

What? Whisky
Where? London

Now, choosing just one whisky bar was a near impossible mission. But, finally, Black Rock emerged as a winner, boasting both London and Bristol locations! Aside from the truly jaw-dropping selection of whiskies you’re faced with (over 250), the London site even has the city’s first whisky hotel, along with a blending room where you can take home your very own creation. It’s a brilliant place for people who want to explore the spirit more as well as seasoned drinkers, because each bottle is clearly labelled with one of five flavour profiles and its price. If you’re really stuck, the clever chaps behind the bar will certainly be able to help you out. Whisky for all!

specialist bars

Le Syndicat Paris 

What? Cognac
Where? Paris

Le Syndicat only stocks French spirits, so it’s not technically a Cognac bar per se, though you will be greeted with a lot of brandies among a scattering of absinthe and eau de vie. You’ll find DJs on the weekend playing mainly hip-hop (with half of the artists played probably sporting their own Cognac brand), French food and French twists on classic cocktails. If you don’t just want to try out the cocktails, you can treat your taste buds to a Cognac tasting, too!

specialist bars

Spirits Bar Sunface Tokyo

What? For when you’re feeling lucky
Where? Tokyo

Here’s a fun one. Over in Shinjuku, Spirits Bar Sunface doesn’t actually have a drinks menu. They serve brilliant cocktails, make no mistake, but instead of you choosing a drink (how normal that would be), you have a chat with the folks behind the bar and then your drink will be made to suit you. We’ve heard that it sports quite an extensive collection of Tequila, though its back bar spans quite a range of spirits! The place itself is just as unique, with its centrepiece a fabulous tree trunk which serves as the bar. It’s a bit like a tarot card reading, but with cocktails. Let us know what you get!

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Five minutes with… Julieann Fernandez, master blender at Deanston

Located atop the River Teith, around eight miles from Stirling, lies Deanston – beloved for its delicate, fresh, waxy whisky. On the blog today, master blender Julieann Fernandez brings us up…

Located atop the River Teith, around eight miles from Stirling, lies Deanston – beloved for its delicate, fresh, waxy whisky. On the blog today, master blender Julieann Fernandez brings us up to speed with the latest goings-on at the Highlands distillery…

Deanston distillery started life as a cotton mill back in 1785, designed by Richard Arkwright, the great inventor and entrepreneur of the early Industrial Revolution. It was converted into the single malt distillery we know and love today in 1966, and began bottling its liquid in 1971, starting with a single malt named Old Bannockburn. Its eponymous Deanston single malt followed in 1974. 

Now operated by the Scotch whisky arm of multinational distiller Distell Group – which also owns Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay and Tobermory distillery on Mull – Deanston has lost none of its original charm, and this is reflected in its approach to distilling. A team of 10 local craftsmen make Deanston’s single malt by hand using barley sourced exclusively from local farmers and soft water from the River Teith, which starts high up in Trossachs National Park.

Deanston is housed in a former cotton mill

The site has long led the charge when it comes to sustainability in Scotch whisky. Thanks to its location on the banks of the fast-running Teith, Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity, with power generated by an on-site hydro-energy facility. In 2000, it became one of the first Scottish sites to start producing organic whisky, as certified by the Organic Food Federation.

We caught up with Julieann (sic) Fernandez, who last year became Deanston’s master blender, to chat about her role, delve into the DNA of the distillery’s new make, and learn more about this unique Highland site…

MoM: Tell us about your career – what was your journey into your current role?

Julieann Fernandez: My journey was a little bit different, I never really planned to work in the whisky industry at all. I studied Forensic Science at university and between my third and fourth year, they were really big on us doing placements. I got a placement in Chivas Brothers’ laboratory doing a lot of analytical testing for the spirit samples they were getting in. I did that for about a year, and during that time I started doing a little bit of work with them on new product development – they were working on making a whisky for younger people and females to try and break the mould of whisky typically being an older gentleman’s drink. So I was involved in that project, which was absolutely fantastic. I really started to get a passion for whisky through that. I went back to university, finished my fourth year and graduated, and started working in the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, which does a lot of the analytical support for the whisky industry. Again I was working in a lab, and as much as I enjoyed it, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to do. A job came up at Chivas Brothers’ grain distillery right in the centre of Glasgow, so I went back to work for them. I learned about the grain whisky process and from there, I worked in some of their malt distilleries to build my knowledge on how the whisky is actually made. I spent a lot of time with them, did a lot of organoleptic stuff and really, really enjoyed it. And then the job came up with Distell, so I moved over to them just over three years ago now, starting as a blender – working on our malt portfolio and our blends, getting involved in our limited editions. I was promoted to master blender at the tail end of last year, and now I’m in control of all our malts, our blends, all of our inventory. So it’s been a crazy journey, but it’s been excellent. 

Deanston single malt whiskies

MoM: Could you bring us up to speed with what’s been going on at Deanston over the last few years – any new equipment, ongoing projects, experiments, etcetera?

JF: There’s been a few things going on! We replaced our mash tun last summer, that was a big project. The old mash tun had been running since about 1966, so it really needed replacing. It was a huge open-top mash tun, I think the biggest open-top mash tun left in any distillery – typically distilleries have a copper dome covering the mash tun, whereas ours is open, so it’s great when you come and visit, because you can see right inside. We decided to keep it very traditional, so it looks like an old mash tun, even though it’s new, which is lovely. It’s given us a clearer wort, which is what we are looking for, for the character. We’ve also recently moved from oil to gas, to boost sustainability at the distillery, because it burns a lot cleaner – that was a massive project. We’ve also got new limited editions coming up. We’ve just launched Deanston Kentucky and Deanston Dragon’s Milk, which are different to what we typically do with our portfolio. Deanston Kentucky is filled into bourbon and new oak barrels from Kentucky and soft-filtered. All of the malts in our portfolio are non-chill-filtered whereas with this one, the ABV’s a little bit lower, and we soft filter it instead – just making it a little bit more accessible and easy to drink. So there’s a lot of different projects on the go.

MoM: How would you describe the distillery – and the character of its new make – to someone who didn’t know much about it?

JF: The distillery is absolutely beautiful. It dates all the way back to 1785, when it used to be a cotton mill, and it was transformed into a distillery in 1966. It overlooks the River Teith, which is where our water supply comes from. Being an old cotton mill, it doesn’t look like a distillery when you first see it, and so many bits of it are very different. Our warehouse, for example, was an old weaving shed; they used to weave the cotton there, so it’s got big vaulted ceilings on it. The distillery has been a backdrop for Hollywood productions, because it’s such a lovely setting. They filmed Outlander there – the cast actually signed a couple of the casks that sit in our warehouse. The tour guys tend to point out where bits were filmed, and once you’ve been to the distillery and go back and watch Outlander, you can match it up and see which bits are Deanston. The stills are really tall, and have a gently-inclining lye pipe, so that encourages a lot of reflux which gives us a really light, fresh spirit. It carries a sort of strong cereal note and has beautiful hints of crisp apple. We also have a waxy character in the new make that’s quite unique – not just on the nose, but it’s almost a mouthfeel as well, which is really nice.

Master blender Julieann Fernandez

MoM: Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity using hydro power and is also certified by the Organic Food Association. How do these environmental credentials shape the whisky?

JF: The River Teith is the second fastest flowing river in Scotland, so it’s absolutely perfect for producing electricity for the distillery. We use what we need and sell the rest back to the National Grid, so we are giving back as well as powering our own distillery. We’re certified by the Organic Food Association as well, which is a really difficult certification to get, because so much work goes into it. You need to make sure your cleaning process is up to scratch. After a shut down – where we’ve maybe shut the distillery down for maintenance work – we’ll clean the entire distillery, and when we bring it back up, that’s when we [distil] organic. We also need to take great care on where that malt comes from, making sure that we’ve got the malt passport for it and can follow it back to the farm, which is also organic-certified. [The new make] then goes into new oak barrels that haven’t held anything. There’s a lot going on at Deanston that makes it special. 

MoM: In terms of production process and equipment, what else sets Deanston apart from other Scottish distilleries? 

JF: The River Teith flows over granite, so it makes the water really soft, which is just absolutely perfect for making whisky. At Deanston all of our malt’s Scottish – in Scotland we can’t grow enough to support the Scotch whisky industry, so naturally, people have to buy from England or Europe or wherever it may be. But at Deanston we only use Scottish malt. We only use traditional techniques, there are no computers, so it takes a lot of skill and craftsmanship to make our whisky.

MoM: Deanston has always fostered a sense of community – what is it about the distillery that makes it so special and well-loved among whisky fans?

JF: When you visit the distillery, you can see the passion the guys have for it. For a lot of the men who work in the distillery, it goes back generations. A lot of them live locally and the fathers or their grandfathers worked in the distillery, it’s lovely. During lockdown our kitchen stayed open and provided soup for the local community, which was really nice, because it was a difficult time for so many people. We’ve got a big meadow at the back of the distillery, which we’re planning to donate to the local school. Obviously that would’ve happened by now but it’s been pushed back a little bit with lockdown. They’re going to make it into a wildflower garden, so that it’s right at the heart of the community. 

The Deanston single malt range is available from Master of Malt.

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