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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: whisky

Five minutes with… Mikkey Dee from Motörhead

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

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

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

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

Mikkey relaxing before a show with some on-brand booze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skål!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, Mikkey! To toast Motörhead’s excellent taste in spirits, Brands For Fans is offering you the opportunity to get your hands on a Motörhead merch package that includes the band’s Premium Dark Rum, Single Malt Whisky and Vodka. Competition opens this Thursday. Watch this space!

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The Nightcap: 3 July

It’s a bumper week for The Nightcap, with stories about The Macallan, Diageo, competition winners, the artist formerly known as Plantation rum and a new Swift bar. Lovely stuff. It’s…

It’s a bumper week for The Nightcap, with stories about The Macallan, Diageo, competition winners, the artist formerly known as Plantation rum and a new Swift bar. Lovely stuff.

It’s been another busy week and a whole heap of boozy news has occurred. With so many stories floating around it can be hard to keep up. It’s not as if you have some kind of contraption to corral it up into one place to hand, like a big booze news net or one of those massive gloves they have in that American sport with the baseball hats. Lucky for you, we’ve got just the thing. Our delightful round-up of all the drinks industry happenings from the last seven days – it’s The Nightcap!

On the MoM blog this week Kristy recalled her trip to Texas distillery Balcones as our exclusive Balcones Barrel Pick landed at MoM Towers, Adam spoke to John Quinn about the journey to restore Tullamore D.E.W Distillery and Jess broke down why garnishes are so great with the help of some industry experts. Annie then shone our MoM-branded spotlight on Cornwall’s first distillery and then had some advice on how you can upgrade your BBQ beverages, while Henry asks what it takes for a Cognac to be singled out for the vintage treatment while enjoying a new Frapin expression, made one of the world’s most delicious cocktails the way it should be made and celebrated some of our favourite places in London to drink whisky.

For the very last time, we’d like to thank all of you who entered last week’s virtual pub quiz. It’s been a pleasure teasing you with all kinds of weird and wonderful boozy trivia and hopefully, you all had fun. Thomas Knockaert certainly enjoyed himself, as he has the distinction of being the final winner! You can check out the answers to the last quiz (*sob*) below.

The Nightcap

The rum formerly known as Plantation

Maison Ferrand rename Plantation Rum brand 

Plantation Rum announced this week that its brand name will change. While we don’t know what the new name will be yet, we do know that its production methods and the liquid inside the bottle will remain the same. It’s also clear that the move was prompted by the global protests for social justice and racial equality spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement. “As the dialogue on racial equality continues globally, we understand the hurtful connotation the word plantation can evoke to some people, especially in its association with much graver images and dark realities of the past,” says Alexandre Gabriel, Plantation Rum master blender. “We look to grow in our understanding of these difficult issues and while we don’t currently have all the details of what our brand name evolution will involve, we want to let everyone know that we are working to make fitting changes.” Global brand manager Stephanie Simbo added that the rum brand “wants to be on the side of actions and solutions”. This case is a reminder of rum’s complex history and the fact that it is inextricably linked to slavery. But this is so rarely acknowledged, which is why we think this is great news and a meaningful step in the right direction.

The Nightcap

The full Double Cask range. It’s a beautiful sight.

The Macallan adds to Double Cask range

The Macallan has bolstered its Double Cask range with two new aged expressions, the Double Cask 15 Years Old and Double Cask 18 Years Old. The former is said to impart aromas of dried fruit, toffee and vanilla, and delivers a warming finish with a creamy mouthfeel, while the latter is said to be filled with notes of dried fruits, ginger, toffee and a warm oak spice finish that’s balanced by sweet orange. Fans of the distillery will remember The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old was first introduced in 2016 as part of a series that celebrates the union of American and European oak sherry-seasoned casks. The Speyside distillery sources its European oak in northern Spain and the French Pyrenees, and American oak from Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky. Both types are transported to Spain, where they are made into casks, seasoned with sherry and then shipped to The Macallan Estate where they are filled. “Bringing together American and European oak sherry-seasoned casks to achieve the perfect balance of flavours is incredibly exciting for the whisky mastery team, and we are proud to offer two new expressions to this distinctive range for The Macallan Double Cask fans to explore,” says Kirsteen Campbell, master whisky maker of The Macallan. “Oak influence is the single greatest contributor to the quality, natural colour and distinctive aromas and flavours at the heart of The Macallan’s single malts.”

The Nightcap

Each expression is the ‘first and last of its kind’, according to Diageo.

Diageo launches Prima & Ultima and plans carbon-neutral distillery in Kentucky

Diageo has had a busy week! First up is its shiny new whisky alert, announcing the launch of a very luxurious set of single malts, named Prima & Ultima. The first and last. Because each is the ‘first and last of its kind’, according to the press release. See what they did there? There are eight cask strength whiskies in the series selected by none other than Dr Jim Beveridge OBE. “Each of the eight whiskies I’ve selected for Prima & Ultima tells a tale of heritage and craftsmanship and I’ve chosen them from distillers of great personal importance to me,” says Dr Beveridge. You’ll find whisky from Cragganmore, Lagavulin, Mortlach, Port Ellen, Clynelish, Caol Ila, Talisker, and The Singleton of Dufftown, and each bottling marks a significant period of whisky-making for its distillery, with each one accompanied by a limited edition book of personal stories from Dr Beveridge himself, along with a 20ml sample. If you have a spare £20,000 you can get your hands on the entire set, though you’ll have to register first (which opens on 22 July). There are only 238 sets though, so better be snappy! 

 

The other big news is physically much bigger, because Diageo has revealed its plans to construct Bulleit Bourbon brand’s new Kentucky whiskey distillery, and it’s going to be carbon neutral! It’ll run on 100% renewable electricity (even the on site vehicles), using electrode boilers and a combination of renewable energy sources. It’s costing a cool $130 million and is set to be up and running by 2021, with the capacity to produce just over 34 million litres each year. Get ready to say hello to one of the largest carbon-neutral distilleries in North America!

The Nightcap

Congratulations to you, Stephanie Macleod!

International Whisky Competition 2020 winners announced

The results are in. The 11th edition of the International Whisky Competition whiskies has concluded after drams from around the world were judged side by side at the event in Estes Park, Colorado from 10-14 June. The top recognition, Whisky of the Year, was awarded to John Dewar and Sons – Double Double 32 Year Old (Blended Scotch), which scored 96.4 points, the highest-scoring whisky of the competition. This meant Stephanie Macleod, the brand’s master blender, became the first woman to win this prize and it was also the second year running that Macleod has won the accolade of Master Blender Of The Year, after she made history in 2019 as the first woman to win the award. John Dewar and Sons also won the Golden Barrel Trophy. “At Dewar’s we aim to push the boundaries of what is expected from the whisky category and have a long-standing commitment to innovation, so we are delighted with our success in the 2020 competition and it is an honour to be named Master Blender of the Year,” says Macleod. “I accept this award on behalf of the whole team at Dewar’s who have shown relentless hard work and dedication to achieving the very best quality and taste for our beautifully crafted whisky, despite the challenges this year has held. It is incredibly rewarding indeed to see these efforts appreciated.” Other winners were Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden who won Master Distiller of the Year, while Ardbeg won Distillery of the Year. You can check out the full list here.

The Nightcap

How Soho may look as it goes pedestrian-only in the evenings this summer.

Soho gets a pedestrian makeover

As Britain wakes up from its lockdown slumber, bars, pubs and restaurants have been working out how to reopen safety. Westminster Council has hit on a great way to help, pedestrianise Soho. So this summer from 5pm to 11pm, London’s original nightlife capital will be out of bounds to motor vehicles as part of the new Summer Street Festival. The pedestrian-only area covers Dean Street, Frith Street, Greek Street and Old Compton Street (map including street closure timings and details can be found here.) We spoke with Simo from Milroy’s yesterday about his plans for reopening which includes 16 tables outside the whisky shop on Greek Street. Other famous venues due to reopen include Cafe Boheme, Dean Street Townhouse, and Bar Italia. Many places are also offering incentives to visit such as one free drink with dinner bookings and discounts for NHS workers. The best thing is, that if this experiment is judged a success, then there’s potential for full or part pedestrianisation to become permanent. So no more diesel fumes in your al fresco cocktail.

The Nightcap

We can’t wait to have those delicious Irish coffees at the new venue…

Swift to open all-day venue in Shoreditch 

Swift, you are really spoiling us! Not only will the award-winning Old Compton Street institution be opening again on Saturday 4 July but the couple behind it, Mia Johansson and husband Bobby Hiddleston, have announced a new location to open at the end of the month. Located on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch, it will serve from 8am during the week and 11am on weekends, offering breakfast, coffee etc. alongside the sort of cocktails that made the original Swift such a destination (though not at 8am presumably.) The team issued a statement saying: “Whilst we’re all still in uncertain times and have a long road ahead of us on our way to recovery, we have faith in the British public’s love of coming together for great food and drink and are hopeful that London’s world-class cocktail scene will rebuild itself to come back stronger than ever. Sticking to our plan to open our second site is just the embodiment of our faith in this and we are so excited to start hosting guests again.” A bit of optimism, that’s what we like to hear. 

The Nightcap

Gordon & MacPhail has gone for the classic Teletubbies look with its new distillery

Gordon & MacPhail distillery gets the green light

Gordon and MacPhail (G&M) is edging ever closer to having a shiny new multi-million-pound distillery near Grantown. The whisky distiller and bottler has given the contractors, Morrison Construction, the green light to begin contruction at the site on the banks of the River Spey in Craggan in Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park. The facility will be the first new malt whisky distillery to be built in the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) area since its creation in 2003. The building was supposed to be already well underway by now, but because of Covid-19 crisis restrictions, the project had to be pushed back. The distillery, which G&M has said will become a “significant local employer,” will have the capacity to produce around 440,000 gallons of whisky a year. Forsyths of Rothes will supply and install the distilling equipment, while the visitor centre, tasting rooms, retail space and coffee shop are projected to attract 50,000 tourists annually. “These appointments are the next major milestone in delivering this long-term project for the company. We look forward to working with these established businesses who are both highly experienced in their own field,” says Ewen Mackintosh, managing director of Elgin-based G&M. “We’ve been really heartened by the warm welcome we have received locally. As a family-owned business located in the north of Scotland, we are very much rooted in our communities, and we are keen to develop strong relationships in Grantown and the surrounding area.”

The Nightcap

Why pour beer down the drain when you can feed it to cattle?

And finally. . . .  Wimbledon Brewery feeds cows with beer

Some of the most heartbreaking stories to come out of lockdown were about pubs having to pour beer that was going out of date down the drain. Oh, the humanity! When Wimbledon Brewery found itself with a lot of unsaleable beer destined for pubs, however, someone had a brainwave: why not feed it to cows? And not just any cows, the excess stock went to the beer-loving cattle at Trenchmore Wagyu Beef Farm in Sussex. The beer helps make Wagyu the tenderest and sweetest-tasting beef on the planet. In return, the brewery will receive its very own Wagyu burgers. This is not the only way the brewery has adapted. According to founder Mark Gordon, the company lost 90% of business when the hospitality industry closed but managed to survive by concentrating on “local home deliveries and increased sales to supermarkets and bottle shops. This went from a very low base to the equivalent of 80% of our pre-lockdown turnover.” He went on to say: “Soon after the lockdown was announced, we initially closed the brewery but quickly took the decision to reopen because beer can be very good for morale.” It certainly is, and that reminds us, it’s probably time for beer. Have a great weekend everyone!

The Nightcap

Pub Quiz Answers

1) In ‘Diary of a Nobody’, what brand of Champagne does Charles Pooter order from his local shop?

Answer: Jackson Freres

2) What’s the nearest single malt distillery to Edinburgh?

Answer: Holyrood

3) What’s the name of the famous copperworks at Rothes?

Answer: Forsyths

4) Who invented the spirit safe?

Answer: Septimus Fox

5) Which brand of whisky does Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) smuggle into prison for her husband (Ray Liotta) in ‘Goodfellas’?

Answer: J&B

6) Which cocktail was supposedly named after Zelda Fitzgerald?

Answer: White Lady

7) In the Jeeves & Wooster stories, what is the “secret” ingredient of the former’s hangover remedy?

Answer: Worcestershire Sauce

8) Which gin does Amy Whitehouse mention in the song ‘You Know I’m No Good’?

Answer: Tanqueray

9) Bernard de Voto’s book ‘The Hour’ is a paean to which cocktail?

Answer: Martini

10) In which of Shakespeare’s history plays is one of the characters drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine?

Answer: Richard III

 

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Five of London’s best whisky bars

With the capital’s venues tentatively opening up again on the 4 July, we thought it as good a time as any to celebrate some of our favourite places in London…

With the capital’s venues tentatively opening up again on the 4 July, we thought it as good a time as any to celebrate some of our favourite places in London to drink whisky.

It’s happening, it’s finally happening! Soon, when you want to have a drink with a friend it won’t mean dropped connections and unflattering camera angles on Zoom, or sitting two metres apart in your garden wondering whether using the loo would break government guidelines on social distancing. No, we’re talking about sitting at a table under a roof while someone brings you a drink, and then you pay for it. Sounds bananas, but it could catch on. So, we’ve rounded up five of our favourite places to drink whisky. Where we know, we’ve put when the venue will be opening again and whether booking is required. Please do contact the bar first though. Right, without further ado, here they are. Let us know about your favourites in the comments or on social media.

The Boisdale buzz

Boisdale, Belgravia

Almost every day, Boisdale owner, the magnificently-monickered Ranald Macdonald, is to be found enjoying lunch in the Belgravia branch. Always a good sign. This first Boisdale specialising in Macdonald’s three favourite things steak, cigars and whisky, opened in 1988, and has since been joined by three other venues, Mayfair, Bishopsgate and a mammoth venue at Canary Wharf. Macdonald also loves music and so there are regular jazz, soul and reggae gigs with some serious talent on offer like Courtney Pine or Horace Andy. The Mayfair branch has a special vinyl and cocktail bar in the basement whereas in Belgravia you can indulge your inner plutocrat on the cigar terrace where Glen Collins will suggest the perfect malt to go with your Montecristo. During lockdown, MacDonald has kept the wolf from the door issuing Boisdale War Bonds where one can buy fine whisky, wine, food and music in advance at a massive discount. The Belgravia branch will open from 8 July. 

You could spend a lot of time and money at Bull in a China Shop

Bull in a China Shop, Shoreditch

This amazing bar in London by Old Street roundabout is a booze wonderland especially for lovers of Japanese whisky. It was founded by brothers Simon and Stephen Chan who created the Drunken Monkey dim sum bar also in Shoreditch. Bull in a China Shop has been open since 2015, and offers an incredible range of Japanese whisky including some Karuizawa at £55 a glass and the biggest bottle of Nikka from the Barrel you have ever seen, plus whiskies from smaller producers like Mars. There’s plenty of Scotch too. Stephen Chan told me he had a soft spot for Tomatin, in particular. There’s Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean bar snacks to wash down with your single malt. 

Milroy’s has been a whisky destination since the ’60s

Milroy’s, Soho

Milroy’s is a Soho institution that was revived and revitalised when Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson took over in 2014. There’s a cocktail bar in the basement and a whisky bar on the ground floor with over 1,000 bottles to try; they claim it’s the largest selection outside Scotland. Simo buys and bottles his own rare casks so there are things here that you can’t find anywhere else. During lockdown, the team kept busy by selling rare casks, offering Zoom tastings and selling bottled cocktails. “We will come out of this stronger than we went in,” he said.  He opened a three story Spitalfields outpost last year which contains a whisky-focused private members club. This will be selling drams to take away while the Soho branch will open up next week with seating at the whisky bar and 16 tables outside as part of Soho’s evening pedestrianisation transformation. He’s taking the opening slowly “we’ll be fully open in September, no one is going to rush back to central London yet.”

Homeboy, a little bit of Ireland in North London

Homeboy, Islington

The aim with Homeboy was to bring a bit of Dublin to Islington, according to founders Aaron Wall and Ciaran Smith. As you’d expect there’s a remarkably range of Irish whiskeys alongside some excellent cocktails along with simple food like toasties or, sure to bring back childhood memories, a crisp sandwich made with Tayto’s cheese and onion. One of London’s smallest bars, it will be reopening on 4 July; Wall told us: “we are just doing table service and blocking off every second table for distancing. We are happy to take walks too and also takeaway. Bookings have been really good for Saturday but really quiet for after that.” Wall has kept busy experimenting with Home Boy Irish Coffee Bitters (why has no one done this before?), which should be coming soon, bottled cocktails and “our own limited release top secret finished Irish Whiskey.” Sounds exciting. 

Unusual whiskeys at Sibin

Sibin, Westminster

We love a bit of theatre here at Master of Malt, and there’s theatre a-plenty at the secret Sibin bar at the recently-opened Great Scotland Yard Hotel. It was so secret that we struggled to find it until a helpful member of staff pressed a discreet button and, James Bond villain-style, a section of bookcase opened to reveal a secret bar. It’s called Sibín, as in an Irish drinking den (sometimes spelt shebeen). The drinks menu takes a turn for the unexpected too with old classics given a tune-up. The Rusty Nail is made with two types of Talisker, and Drambuie, and then left to oxidise for two days to mellow. Bars manager Michal Mariarz adds a little PX to his Smokey Cokey, Lagavulin 16 year old and Coke. For the more classically-inclined there are unusual whiskies like a 2005 Caol Ila part-matured in Hermitage red wine casks. Please note, opening date for Sibin is still TBC.

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Garnish 101: what are they and how to use them

We chat to some industry greats about all things garnishes, from what actually counts as a garnish to their weirdest and wackiest creations, and even some handy home tips. Consider…

We chat to some industry greats about all things garnishes, from what actually counts as a garnish to their weirdest and wackiest creations, and even some handy home tips.

Consider the garnish. It can be anything from a single olive in a Martini to lavish leaves in Tiki cocktails. It can also make or break a drink – I’m sure we’ve all been to a bar with an unwelcome limp mint leaf or mangy strawberry in your drink.  

But lemon peels and olives aside, what exactly is as a garnish, what is its purpose, and how important are they? The aesthetics of a cocktail were important long before the ‘gram, to tell the story of the drink you’re about to savour. We managed to get some words from some industry experts who know exactly how it’s done.

What even is a garnish? 

The first and most important question for anyone looking to jazz up their serves. First up is Ryan Chetiyawardana, of Lyaness (formerly known as Dandelyan), Super Lyan and White Lyan fame, who manages to invent futuristic and simultaneously minimalist cocktails. “To me, it has to be functional, adding a different dimension to something you want in the drink” he tells us, though he doesn’t believe you have to be able to consume it. “A spray, a paint, physical garnish, vessel, theatre, are all things we’ve employed over the years.”

For Belgium’s Matthias Soberon of social media cocktail wizardry @ServedBySoberon, “a garnish is anything that’s added to the drink that elevates it in any sensory way, whether it be visual, auditive, tactile, gustatory or olfactory.” If you can sense it, it’s a garnish.

cocktail garnish

Coupette’s minimalist Shimmer cocktail from last summer’s menu, complete with geode coaster.

As we ask our final expert, it looks like everyone is in agreement. “A garnish can have multiple forms,” adds Andrei Marcu, of Bethnal Green’s wonderful Coupette. “It’s the final touch added to the drink, there to complement the drink and boost certain flavours or aromas.” 

So in a nutshell, what our talented trio are saying is that a garnish can be almost anything that enhances a serve in some way. The bad news is that’s pretty vague, but the good news is that it allows for a whole load of creativity.

Does every drink need one?

“I want an olive in my Martini!” says Chetiyawardana. “But only if it’s a decent one – I’ll go sans if it’s a sad, old olive.” We’d have to agree. Having said that, he also acknowledges that sometimes “the confidence to leave it bare is sometimes the best thing to do.” It looks like Chetiyawardana and Soberon are on the same page, who adds “don’t overcomplicate it just for the sake of it. Sometimes the liquid in the glass absolutely needs 100% of the focus.” Be bold, believe in your serve and go bare.

garnish cocktail

Chetiyawardana keeping it simple at Lyaness with the Rook Pool Sazerac

But as we turn to Marcu, he reminds us of the importance of certain garnishes. “A standard Martini would have a lemon twist or an olive as a garnish. But if you add a pickled onion instead, it will be a Gibson Martini which means it becomes a completely different drink.” Now, whether to put an orange or lime with your G&T may not be quite as important as this example, but what you choose to accompany your spirits with does make a big difference.

Some garnishes are integral to the formation of the drink, becoming more of a core ingredient as opposed to a garnish, because as Marcu notes, “an Old Fashioned without orange peel would be just whiskey and sugar.” Easy to make, but not what you’re looking for. While you don’t mess with some garnishes, others are totally divisive, such as “the ‘issue’ with the salt-rim on the Margarita,” Soberon points out. “Some people love the salt, others despise it, that’s why most bartenders will serve the drink with half a rim salted, to make sure that you have the option to either go for it or not.”

Aesthetics 

So far, everything we’ve talked about has altered the taste or smell of the drink in some way, But is there any point in a purely aesthetic garnish? Our industry minds were divided on this one. Marcu takes the view that “drinks are very sensorial, and everything influences the taste. I would only use an aesthetic garnish when we have a conceptual drink.” A bed of sand for a drink inspired by the sea, for example, to enhance the storytelling aspect of the serve, or a colourful geode coaster to imitate the look of the sea (as shown in Shimmer above) have both been used at Coupette.  

garnish cocktail

Soberon’s flamboyant Tiki cocktail!

For Soberon, it’s a yes. “For Tiki drinks, a single orchid doesn’t make any difference to the drink’s flavour profile, but it makes all the difference in how the drink is perceived.” Plus, he’s not going to ignore the fact that social media has a huge part to play in the formation of many drinks these days. “In this day and age where everyone is walking around with their smartphones (and all bars requiring to have social media presence), everything just needs to be prettier.”

Each to their own, and aesthetic garnishes aren’t for Chetiyawardana. “I see what they add, but it’s just not my style.”

Weird and wacky

Now, we couldn’t possibly chat to all these awesome bartenders without getting the garnish gossip. Classic cocktails and olives are one thing, but we want to know about the weird and wacky, the ones that make it onto the ‘gram and into our memories.

For Chetiyawardana, his wildest garnish is the truly awesome whisky Mousetrap contraption at what was formerly known as Dandelyan. Two years in the making, everyone’s favourite childhood game had a few boozy changes; the ball was swapped for ice, and you get whisky at the end! This is definitely taking the notion of a garnish to a whole new level, and you can see it in action here.

Marcu recalls the time he channelled his green finger into his mixology, creating a mini greenhouse with micro herbs planted inside. “Sitting in the middle of that green house was the drink. Every time you had a sip you could pick one of the herbs that were growing and surrounding the drinks and eat it.” It’s a bit like a choose-your-own-ending version of a cocktail. “Every single different micro herb was putting the drink in a different light and bringing out different aromas and flavours.” No surprise this one made it to Instagram fame right here.

garnish cocktail

Soberon’s zaniest creation, octopus arms and all…

Soberon can’t pick just one finest serve, with his cocktail portfolio showcasing squirt guns filled with booze, octopus arms, and veins of blood in the form of dehydrated beetroot powder on top of drinks for Halloween. Sometimes he even adds “small ornaments that people could take home afterwards, as little gifts.” A cocktail with a party bag? We’re in.

Let’s get garnishing!

After all this talk, I’m sure we’re all fancying a drink! But without our own professional contraptions, most of us are going to have to make do with what we have in our homes already. Our industry pals are back to guide us towards what to use, simply reaching for the cupboard rather than the stars. 

So citrus peels are probably the go to garnish for most people, someone always has a lemon or lime laying about. “Citrus peels are obvious, and often you don’t need as much citrus peel as you think,” Chetiyawardana tells us. “Sometimes a big swathe is wonderful, but the oils can also overpower and can become bitter. A small ‘coin’ expressed over a drink can give just the right brightness and lift you need.” Soberon adds, “make sure there’s as little pith as possible,” leading us onto some handy slicing tips from Marcu: “Peel the fruit on a diagonal line and cut the edges into a nice square shape,” to help you to twist it over the drink. Don’t forget to save a slice of your morning orange for that Old Fashioned.

garnish cocktail

Express yourself!

But what about when we leave the fruit bowl? “Everyone should definitely have a little look in their spice racks,” Soberon suggests. “A single star anise or cardamom pod is hugely aromatic. Or maybe dust (sparingly!) some ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon, Chinese five spice powder, pepper.” If you’re looking to try out a handful of different spirits, then Soberon recommends keeping the strongest aromatic spices for darker spirits, such as rum and whisky, and the lighter ones for gin, vodka and Tequila. Though heed his warning: “Just make sure you don’t dust every drink!”

And Marcu’s home suggestions? Pair your Calvados with apple, your tropical drinks with pineapple (or lime, if it’s rum-based), and grate some chocolate for those cream liqueurs.

Happy mixing! Though seeing as bars are back open this weekend, perhaps you could get somebody else to do all the hard work for you…

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Dram Club – July 2020

Say hello to July, and to another month of Dram Club! Here’s what this month has got in store for members, where another load of lip-smacking Tasting Sets await… Though…

Say hello to July, and to another month of Dram Club! Here’s what this month has got in store for members, where another load of lip-smacking Tasting Sets await…

Though the weather may not have got the memo, today is the first day of July! That also means it’s time for another nail-biting Dram Club reveal. A handsome box packing five smart wax-sealed drams will be arriving on each member’s doorstep, giving them something delicious to sip on while trying not to talk about the weather.dram club july 2020

Dram Club Whisky for July:

dram club july 2020

Dram Club Premium Whisky for July:

dram club july 2020

Dram Club Old & Rare Whisky for July:

dram club july 2020

Dram Club Gin for July:

dram club july 2020

Dram Club Rum for July:

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Five expert rules for BBQ drinking

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

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

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

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

Pit magazine, well worth a read

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

  1. Choose light – but not delicate – cocktails

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

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

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

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

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

Le Grand Fizz from Grey Goose

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Stock up on ice

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

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

  1. Get your prep work in

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

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

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

Helen Graves’s awe-inspiring goat shawarma

  1. Keep the ‘cue simple

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

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And that’s a wrap

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s…

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s the full story. . .

You may have noticed that the artist Christo died recently. He was 84. His wife and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and thus Christo’s passing marks the end of a remarkable creative duo. They worked together but always under the name of Christo.

You will remember them of course as the guys who wrapped things. Starting in the 1950s with mundane household objects such as chairs and bicycles they graduated to wrapping trees, fences, bridges, monuments, buildings and, on occasion, islands. They wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and even the Reichstag (below). 

Imagine getting one of these for Christmas!

They were colourful and sometimes controversial characters. Not everyone cared for their work; there were frequent objections to their planned installations and one lady even died when one of their Umbrellas (1991) was toppled in high winds and struck and killed her.

We didn’t seem to ‘get’ them here in the UK, though after Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo was able to install his London Mastaba in Hyde Park in 2018. So what’s this got to do with whisky you may be wondering.  Well, if I had been a more persuasive advocate, they might have completed their first UK work in Scotland, nearly twenty years earlier. It’s an unusual story, strange but true.

Prior to this writing lark I worked almost exclusively in consultancy, building on my previous career in marketing. Together with my wife (note the parallel), we established a consultancy business in Edinburgh where we had a number of whisky clients. However, in early 1999 one major client appointed a new president of global brands. This is generally not good news for the incumbent agencies as, determined to make their mark, the newcomer looks to shake things up. Based in the USA, the lady concerned did not appear impressed with anything other than the most fashionable of trendy New York agencies. It was imperative that we come up with a suitably grandiose idea. And fast.

So I proposed that we ask Christo to wrap the client’s main distillery. To bait the hook, I suggested we pay them £1 million, cover all the costs, give them complete creative control and see what they came up with. But I had a cunning plan: to get the client their money back I also proposed a special Hommage à Christo limited edition of wrapped bottles of single malt. 1,000 bottles at £1,500 should do nicely, I reckoned.

How long would it take to wrap a distillery?

Well, the client loved it and I was instructed to go and see Christo immediately and make it happen. Through friends of friends we were put in touch and, in the summer of 1999, I found myself in New York visiting Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their combined store, workshop, gallery, studio and home in an old warehouse in the Meatpacking District (not in those days the most salubrious part of town).   

I was received with great courtesy and we toured the studio, looking at the concept studies for their current project, Over the River. Later abandoned due to local opposition, this envisaged suspending 5.9 miles of fabric panels along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Cañon City and Salida in south-central Colorado. They told me that they needed $5m to fund the project. My hopes rose – compared to a river, wrapping a distillery would be a breeze and surely a million quid would come in handy.

Some whisky was shared, and then some wine, and they agreed to look at the drawings I had brought. Scotland seemed to appeal; the drawings received close and apparently sympathetic attention and some practical issues were discussed. All seemed to be going well.

But then we hit a snag. Quite a big one, as it happens. Rather gravely and, I thought, a little sadly they explained that, on principle, they never ever accepted commissions. There were no exceptions; they were both completely clear that a commission would not be their artistic vision and thus fatally compromised. A little recklessly – both bottles had been well sampled by this stage – I assured them (quite without any authority) that my client would surely want to increase the fee. I mentioned figures, increasingly extravagant figures, but they were unmoved. So I returned, older, wiser and empty handed to my client to report my failure.

And, you’d assume, we lost their business.  Well, no.  Along with my Christo project I’d also proposed building a visitor centre and they loved that idea as well. So Aberfeldy distillery got Dewar’s World of Whisky – but, sadly, neither of us will ever feature in the history of art!

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Easy guide to blender cocktails

Your kitchen blender is a lean, mean cocktail machine, and it’s time you started treating it as such. Quit churning out bland hummus and flavourless smoothies – below, you’ll find…

Your kitchen blender is a lean, mean cocktail machine, and it’s time you started treating it as such. Quit churning out bland hummus and flavourless smoothies – below, you’ll find eight blender cocktail recipes to make at home, plus bartender-approved tips and tricks to help you master those slushie-style serves…

The blender cocktail isn’t the technicolor toothache it once was. With artificial flavours swapped for fresh produce, lurid liqueurs replaced with natural syrups, and all from-concentrate juices ditched for freshly-squeezed, these (often) slushie-style drinks have been reimagined and premiumised by modern bartenders, with their sense of fun very much intact. 

“Nothing says ‘summer in a glass’ better than a frozen tipple,” says Sebastian Stefan, head bartender at London’s Jim and Tonic. “Rising alongside the craft cocktail movement, frozen drinks have merged into gastronomy. These fun concoctions have made their way not only onto cocktail bar menus but in fine-dining establishments as well as a multitude of boozy desserts and sorbets.” 

There’s some debate about the origin of the first blender cocktails – as there is about most aspects of booze history – depending on how you define them. However, it was the introduction of the Waring blender in 1937 that really brought mechanically blended drinks to the masses for the first time, with the Daiquiri and Piña Colada among the first to receive the frozen treatment.

By the time the seventies rolled around, Frozen Margaritas were iconic; even spawning the creation of the Margarita Machine, a purpose-designed blender, says Stefan. “It was around this time that merchants started adding bright colourings as a marketing strategy,” he says. This sparked a surge in “sugary, almost glow-in-the-dark drinks”, that eventually saw frozen cocktails fall out of favour.

This is not what you’re aiming for

Today, bartenders across the globe are looking beyond those founding frozen trio to create new blender drinks. As well as experimenting with blender versions of other classic serves (G&Ts, Negronis, Sazeracs), they’re also “playing about with less common spirits such as herb liqueurs, amaro and eaux de vie to create a new palate of flavour,” says Stefan. 

“There are no clear rules on what to mix and not, so this is where a bartender’s skill and knowledge can shine through,” he says. “Tiki drinks can easily be turned into a frozen, as the packed fruity flavour allows a lot of water dilution – but with the right adjustments you can twist any classic cocktail.”

Before you wipe down the blades and give the jug a rinse, read through the following five tips for making top-notch blender cocktails at home:

1. Start from scratch

Avoid pre-mixed products and choose fresh ingredients where possible. “Make your recipe from scratch instead of buying a ready-made option from the supermarket,” Stefan says. “This way you avoid using stabilisers, colouring, preservatives and it also allows you to calculate and control the amount of sugar that goes into your drink.” And try to only use fresh fruits, ideally in season, as they tend to have more flavour and aroma, he adds.

2. Be picky

Even though you’re blending it with other flavours, be sure to choose a high-quality base spirit. “This will give body and influence the character of your drink,” Stefan says. “Don’t think you can get away with cheaper options by masking the flavour.”

3. Lay the foundations

“Pre-chill your ingredients beforehand, as this will slow down water dilution in your glass,” Stefan says. You could also rinse your glasses and pop them in the freezer (or fill them with ice and leave them to stand) for a few minutes before you make your drink.

4. Don’t fear DIY

“Make your own sugar syrup,” Stefan says. “Most cocktails require a sweet element to balance out the acidity. If you want to avoid sugar altogether, you can use honey or agave nectar.” 

5. A word on ice

Most – but not all – blender cocktails are made with ice. Avoid using large cubes, and opt for crushed if you can, suggests David Indrak of The Cocktail Service. If you are using crushed ice, don’t blend for too long. “The final drink should be blended into a fine vortex of liquid folding over itself and not sloshing,” he says.

When it comes to ice quantity, as a rule of thumb, double the amount of the serve, he says. “For example, the Margarita contains 75ml of liquid in total, therefore you need 150g of ice.” But you should always add ice slowly.

Here, we’ve picked out eight blender cocktail recipes to take for a spin, from frozen classics to brand new serves:

Frozen Daiquiri

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
50ml Mount Gay Eclipse gold rum
25ml lime juice
20ml simple syrup

Method: Blend all ingredients with 190g cubed ice. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with a lime wedge.

The Pineapple Express

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
50ml Jamaica Cove pineapple rum
25ml lime juice
40ml pineapple juice
10ml simple syrup

Method: Blend all ingredients with 250g crushed ice. Serve in coupe glass, garnish with pineapple leaf and pineapple wedge.

Frozen Braemble 

By Glasshouse Whisky

Ingredients:
40ml Glasshouse Whisky
10ml Braemble Liqueur (sic)
5ml honey
10ml lemon juice
100ml ginger beer

Method: Blend with 4 ice cubes. Garnish with star anise.

Cherry-Boozy Milkshake 

By Remy Savage, of Bar Nouveau and Le Syndicat, in association with Love Fresh Cherries

Ingredients:
30ml Ephemeral vodka
5 fresh cherries (pitted)
30ml milk
1 large scoop of vanilla ice cream 

Method: Blend all ingredients in a home blender for 30 seconds or until thick. Pour milkshake into a tall glass, and garnish with a cherry.

Strawberry & Watermelon Slushie

By Black Cow Vodka

Ingredients:
180ml Black Cow Vodka & English Strawberries
1 small watermelon
1 punnet of strawberries
Juice from 2 limes
Half a chilli (optional)

Method: Cut watermelon into cube sized pieces, taking care to remove the seeds. Remove the stems off the strawberries and cut in half. If adding chili, deseed it first. Add all ingredients to the blender with 1 cup of ice and blend. Garnish with 1 sprig of mint.

Tin Can Cocktail

By The Highland Liquor Company

Ingredients:
50ml Seven Crofts gin
1 tin of peaches
Tonic water

Method: Chill all the ingredients. Blitz half the can of peaches (with syrup) to form a puree. In a large wine glass, combine 25ml peach puree with gin. Top with tonic water and garnish with a mint sprig and orange slice.

Frosé 18

By Timeless Drinks Ventures

Ingredients:
1 bottle of Nine Elms No. 18
1 punnet of strawberries
2 teaspoons of sugar or sugar syrup (optional)

Method: Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Fill a shallow, wide pan with the liquid and place in the freezer for 1 hour. Break up the freezing liquid with a fork, and refreeze for another 20 minutes (up to 1 hour if necessary). Break up the contents again with a fork to achieve a slushy granita consistency, and spoon into a glass. Garnish with a fresh strawberry.

Frozen Cosmopolitan

By David Indrak of The Cocktail Service

Ingredients:
35ml Ephemeral vodka
15ml Cointreau triple sec
40ml cranberry juice
5ml simple syrup
5ml lime juice

Method: Blend all ingredients with 200g crushed ice. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with expressed orange peel.

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Yeast: the unsung hero of distillation

Until relatively recently, conversations around yeast tended to be entirely functional, centred on efficiency and yield. But a handful of distillers have taken an altogether more experimental approach, treating yeast…

Until relatively recently, conversations around yeast tended to be entirely functional, centred on efficiency and yield. But a handful of distillers have taken an altogether more experimental approach, treating yeast as a flavour tool in its own right. We speak to the distillers, researchers and industry experts unlocking the potential of this single-celled fungus…

Yeast is one of three essential ingredients used to make our favourite spirits. From a purely technical perspective, fermentation is the process by which yeast converts sugar into alcohol; it turns wort to wash. But thanks to a vast array of funky little compounds created during this process – known as ‘secondary metabolites’ – fermentation has a far greater influence on the final flavour of the new make than spirits marketing will have you believe. 

Yeastie boy, Ryan Chetiyawardana

“Think about tasting a small-batch lager vs a commercial one, or a mass Pinot Grigio vs a wild-fermented one – the yeast produces the precursor flavours, which you’re simply concentrating when you distill them,” explains award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan), owner of Lyaness. “Not always for the best – there are many notes that are faults caused by ‘dirty’ fermentation and unwanted microbes – but it gives more variety, and more opportunity for a more diverse selection of aromas, textures and flavours.”

Having been “playing around with microbes for a decade now”, Chetiyawardana is familiar with the magic of yeast – even launching a range a whole range of ‘biologically aged cocktails’ including the Champagne Gin Fizz (made using Champagne yeast), one simply called ‘The Living Cocktail’ and a Manhattan that was “made using fermentation, akin to a port”. 

“The thing I always loved about working with microbes is the lack of control,” he says. “You can give a nudge, but you’re working with a living organism that does what it wants. The parameters that aid or hinder them can be controlled though, so you can make their life easy, you can stress them out – all lead to interesting results. Replicability, consistency and certainty removed yeast’s freedom historically, but with better science and understanding, we can hopefully balance these out and give us more diversity in the products we can create.”

Any attributes that might make a yeast strain particularly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for spirits production really depends on the style you want to create, Chetiyawardana says. “You might want a meaty, sulphury make for long ageing, or you might want a super fruity spirit to give brightness to your blend. I think it’s more about knowing what style you want to create, and realising that them little yeasty bugs can help you achieve that.”

Magical yeast turning sugar into booze

Some yeast strains have been handed down through generations – Maker’s Mark uses a 150-year-old heirloom strain; Jim Beam’s yeast dates back to the end of Prohibition – while others reflect the local terroir (the team at Herradura Tequila, for example, use 100% wild yeast to spontaneously ferment their agave mash). Some distilleries, like Japanese whisky-maker Nikka, cultivate their own strains from a wide variety of sources from yeast strain libraries to local breweries. A great many more simply buy distillers’ yeast from professional suppliers.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, these kinds of commercial yeasts are reliable, consistent, and optimised for the job. For New York Distilling Company, they’re an ideal stop-gap. “While we are taking the time to experiment with yeast strains that could, in the future, be proprietary, we use a commercial distillers yeast to ensure consistency in our production,” says co-founder Allen Katz. “As young distillers, with our oldest barrels now approaching eight years old, we’re constantly learning about our whiskey on a seasonal basis.

“Our specific varieties of rye – Pedersen Field Race Rye and an 18th century variety called Horton – tend to result in honeyed floral and stone fruit notes,” he continues. “As we contemplate specific yeast strains for the future, or even propagating a ‘Brooklyn rooftop yeast’, we will look to experiment with attributes that either compliment or enhance these natural and recurring characteristics, or that provide interesting contrasts. For now, our approach with regard to yeast has been to focus on yield.” 

Yeast beyond yield

Across the pond, a two-year research and development programme between Edinburgh’s Port of Leith Distillery and Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing & Distilling (ICBD) is drawing to a close. Together, they have experimented with a range of yeast varieties, “including Belgian brewing strains, German ale strains, lager strains and a number of wine strains to name a few”, says Victoria Muir-Taylor, distiller and head of whisky research at Port of Leith.

Victoria Muir-Taylor from the Port of Leith distillery loves having her photo taken while she is working

Despite the yeast strain being the only variable – fermentation, distilling and so on remain constant – during in-house sensory sessions, the panel has actually been able to identify characteristic differences between the new make. “With some, the new make spirit may have more fresh stone fruit notes, for example, whereas other strains are more on the dried fruit end of the spectrum,” she says.

Identifying the key characteristics of influence of each strain means it’s far easier for distillers to create their own bespoke blend. Sutherland-based Dornoch Distillery has used more than 30 different strains over the last three years, and experimented with countless more. Today, the team uses spent brewers’ yeast sourced from local breweries (a process that has a historical precedent).

“Sometimes we’d pitch in multiple yeast varieties together,” says co-founder Simon Thompson. “Or we’d blend new make made from three or four different yeast varieties to try and combine elements that we liked. Maybe one yeast variety was giving us really good fruity esters, and another really nice phenolics, so we would combine the two bills to try and blend those flavours.”

Adding yeast solution to wooden washbacks at the Dornoch distillery

On top of the individual yeast strains, other variables such as temperature, PH levels, oxygen and nutrient levels and bacteria all influence the flavour of the spirit. “Fermentation time is quite a big one as well, because the longer you leave it in the washback, the more room you’re giving for the influence of bacteria and wild yeast,” says Thompson. “We’ve got wooden washbacks that we leave open, and earlier this week we didn’t pitch any yeast for about 36 hours to allow a natural fermentation to start. The results flavour-wise were outstanding. I suspect the yield will be significantly decreased, but there were some really interesting things that happened. After the 36 hours the wash had soured, it smelt really sulphuric. And then 24 hours after the addition of the yeast, the sulphur had been cleaned up and transformed into some extreme tropical fruit.”

This is because most of the flavours that we perceive from a spirit (excluding any interactions with wood) are due to the formation of esters – a combination of ethanol and acid, Thompson says. “Your yeast will form esters in order to try and clean up its own environment. So the more acids and the more complexity of acids you have in your wort, the higher you can potentially drive your levels of ester formation.” 

As to whether these effects are detectable after a spirit has been barrel-aged – well, the answer may surprise you. “Fermentation creates the chemical complexity for further evolution within the cask,” Thompson explains. “Given the chemistry of the cask and the ethanol solution, you’ll have spontaneous ester formation over time as well as other compounds,” he says. “The more chemical complexity you can pack in at that front end, the more potential for evolution – and variation within that evolution – you have over time.”

While there’s much scope for experimentation, it comes at a price. “Whisky is already a very inefficient process, but it’s within the inefficiencies that the flavour lies,” says Thompson. “By any measurable metrics we’ll be the worst performing distillery in Scotland by a very large margin, because your cost of production skyrockets. But it’s a trade-off in exchange for infinitely greater variation on flavour.”

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Whisky making at the Lakes Distillery with Dhavall Gandhi 

The Lakes Distillery doesn’t do things by halves, as we found out when we spent a couple of days up in Cumbria with whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi. We were even…

The Lakes Distillery doesn’t do things by halves, as we found out when we spent a couple of days up in Cumbria with whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi. We were even allowed into the inner sanctum of the whisky studio… 

Surrounded by whisky and a field of alpacas doesn’t seem like such a shabby spot for an office. At the Lakes Distillery, Dhavall Gandhi is lucky enough to call this space his whisky studio, where big decisions and tastings take place. Having spent a couple of days at the distillery with Gandhi and his team, we were lucky enough to sneak a peek into every step of the whisky making process.

whisky Lakes Distillery

The picturesque Lakes Distillery

Dhavall Gandhi, whisky maker 

First of all, leaving your job in corporate finance to go and work for a whisky distillery seems like a pretty rogue move, even if that distillery is Macallan. But then Gandhi decided to call it quits at Macallan when he got an offer to work at a small, unknown craft distillery in the Lake District. Gandhi also has experience in the brewing industry having worked at Heineken, which is what really sparked his interest in fermentation.

whisky lakes distillery

Dhavall Gandhi and some fabulous English whisky!

I imagine the move not just from a large, established distillery to a smaller one, but from the Scotch whisky industry to the much lesser-known English must be something of a culture shock. “The size is a big difference,” Gandhi agrees. “You’re working with millions of litres of alcohol a year down to 130,000 litres.” 

Even so, Gandhi took what he had learnt from a large distillery and applied it on a much smaller scale to the Lakes. The best thing about coming to a brand new, unknown distillery? “The freedom and opportunity to create a house style of Lakes single malt,” Gandhi tells me. That’s pretty priceless for somebody with a vision. 

Whisky making 

There is something unique about each stage of the whisky making process at the Lakes, from the fermentation to the oak to the blending. To start with, most distilleries would have a different person (or team) in charge of each of these stages, Gandhi oversees the entire process from start to finish giving him complete creative control. He calls this his “holistic approach to making whisky.” 

lakes distillery whisky

Whisky making in the process

So, what is Gandhi’s whisky making method? “I start at the very end,” he tells me. Gandhi envisions the style of whisky he wants to create, and then works backwards. What kind of casks will help him achieve this style? Then, what new make will suit these casks best, and be robust enough to handle the cask type? How will he achieve this new make through fermentation and yeast types? Each stage is meticulously planned, and ensure that Gandhi knows exactly what he is looking for.

Fermentation

After the mashing to obtain a clear, fruity wort, it’s time for fermentation. Three different styles of yeast are used, Scotch yeast, French yeast and heritage yeast, with each yeast strain giving top, base and middle notes. The wort goes through a lengthy 96 hour fermentation period. Why so long? It results in a lighter, creamier spirit. 

whisky Lakes Distillery

Time to get mashing

Gandhi talks a lot about his “three tier spirit architecture”, and architecture is a good way to describe what he is doing with the whisky, building it from the ground up from his blueprints. The three tiers refers to the three different yeast strains, with different yeasts used on different days in different combinations. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach here. 

Distillation

As well as a long fermentation, the spirit also goes through a slow distillation, allowing the spirit more contact with the still. Gandhi takes a very narrow cut to produce a fruity but robust new make of around 67% ABV. 

whisky Lakes Distillery

Meet Susan the still

The condensers are of particular interest to whisky geeks like us. The distillery boasts both copper and stainless steel condensers, allowing Gandhi to create two different new make spirits. We’ll call them type A and type B. Type A is the light to medium bodied spirit yielded from the copper condenser, while type B is heavier bodied, coming from the stainless steel condenser. Ding ding! This is yet another point in the process which allows Gandhi to tailor his spirit. We’ve lost count! 

Everything at the Lakes is allowed ample time including the slow reduction process at six litres of pure water a minute, where the spirit is diluted to around 58% ABV. It turns out that the spirit can go into a kind of shock if it’s diluted too quickly, so this helps keep it nice and mellow. 

Maturation

The Lakes is all about the sherry influence, which may not surprise you knowing Gandhi’s previous Macallan experience. So, why sherry? “Write the books you want to read,” Gandhi tells me. He isn’t out to create a sherry bomb, rather more of a refined, subtle sherry character. 

It would be easy to simplify the cask maturation into the types of sherry, with fino, oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. But the reality is much more complex than that. American whiskey, Port and red wine casks are also used, but sparingly, sherry casks are Gandhi’s forte. He is also experimenting with amontillado, palo cortado and manzanilla, though oloroso forms the backbone of the single malts.

whisky Lakes Distillery

There’s also the oak type to consider, with American, Spanish and French oak all used. This in itself isn’t unusual, but the fact that both sherried Spanish and American oak are used is (often, European oak is reserved for sherry, while American oak is reserved for American whiskey). Then there’s the size: butts are the most common (seeing as that’s what sherry is usually housed in), but hogsheads, barriques and barrels are all used as well. To generalise, American oak is more creamy and tropical, full of vanillins, while European oak is often responsible for those peppery, spicy notes, so the combination results in something wonderfully complex and rounded. 

Blending

This is where Gandhi’s passion truly lays. The whisky industry seems to have a problem with the word blend, and he wants to banish any inferior associations. Unless you’re sipping single cask expressions chances are you’ll be drinking a blend, even if it’s a single malt, seeing as different malts from the same distillery are blended together to create different expressions. But people rarely associate the word ‘blend’ with single malts.

whisky Lakes Distillery

A hard day’s work of tasting ahead

We enter the whisky studio, and it’s like a whisky lover’s dream come true, with sample upon sample prepared in the futuristic, glistening space. Gandhi noses and tastes 125 samples in front of us in minutes, quickly deciding on which can stay and which don’t make the cut. Sounds like a lot, right? He tells me that he can regularly nose and taste around 300 samples in a session!

Sitting on the fence isn’t something that Gandhi does, and snap decisions define this part of the whisky making process. Crafting a whisky can take anything from hours to months, he tells me, and gut feelings are crucial. 

Cask Influence 

Gandhi picks out random samples and dissects them for us. He pulls up a rather light sample, and at first guess I would have thought it was aged in a refill cask. He tells me that it’s actually drawn from an oloroso American oak butt. He pulls up a much darker bottling, what most people probably expect a sherried whisky to look like, and reveals that this is drawn from an oloroso Spanish oak hogshead. Simply saying knowing something was matured in an oloroso cask reveals little about it, and hammers home the notion that colour can often tell us very little.

whisky Lakes Distillery

50 shades of whisky…

What really stuck with me was Gandhi’s metaphor of whisky as a painting. The new make spirit acts as the canvas (hence why Gandhi wants it to be as clean as possible), while casks and flavours are the colours, and blending is the act of painting. Delving deeper into the metaphor, Gandhi notes that each cask is like a shade of colour. Just like you have lime, forest or emerald rather than just green, you don’t just have an oloroso cask. “For me, whisky making is all about creative expression,” says Gandhi. “A whisky, when you drink it, needs to stir emotion in you. If that happens, my job is done.”

New releases

When we visit, two exciting new whiskies are in the pipeline; Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3 and The One Orange Wine Cask Finish. Well, reader, in the time it took to get these words down, the releases are now ready. 

whisky Lakes Distillery

The shiny new Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3!

But we’re shining a spotlight on The Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3. As the name of the series suggests, these releases are Gandhi’s chance to really show his artistic exploration of oak and blending. The trio of single malts in the series all have the same DNA, though each expression is unique in its own way with different nuances. For No.3, a combination of oloroso, cream and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks work alongside a small number of red wine casks.

Gandhi described Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.1 as more “intense and bold” with more sherry character. Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3 on the other hand, is a bit more “seductive”, with more of that incense and chocolate character thanks to the French and Spanish oak influence.

If all this talk of whisky has got you thirsty by now, then you should try Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.3 yourself. Now that you know the labour and love that goes into it, we’re sure it’ll taste just that much sweeter.

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