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Category: Features

A spotlight on… Ron Izalco

Founder and CEO of Phenomenal Spirits Karthik Sudhir talks to us about his brand, Ron Izalco, why Central American rum deserves your attention and why the future is bright for…

Founder and CEO of Phenomenal Spirits Karthik Sudhir talks to us about his brand, Ron Izalco, why Central American rum deserves your attention and why the future is bright for the category…

Former Indian track and field athlete Karthik Sudhir is a passionate man. He’s excited when he’s explaining how he founded his company, Phenomenal Spirits, in June of 2017 after leaving behind a software career in the US. He’s excited when discussing the potential of Central American rum. He’s especially excited when we talk about Ron Izalco, the first brand he has created. 

He has good reason to be. His first release, Ron Izalco 10 Year Old, has already become a darling of trade shows and has been showered in awards. From gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Festival to double-gold in the International Spirits Challenge and even Masters awards at the Rum & Cachaça Masters World Masters and The Rum Masters (The Spirits Business) competition, Ron Izalco 10 Year Old has already made waves. It was only launched in April 2018. 

“Every whisky maker, every Tequila maker, every rum maker is going to say ‘my booze is the best booze’. I know Ron Izalco is great, but I also wanted that industry validation,” says Sudhir. “I am beyond overwhelmed with the response that we have received. At the 2018 Paris Rhum Festival all we got was great feedback. For three days in a row, at four o’clock in the evening, we had big lines of people. The smallest booth in the entire Paris Rhum Festival had the biggest line. The response has been really, really positive.”

Ron Izalco

Say hello to Karthik Sudhir!

Ron Izalco 10 Year Old is a blend of Central American rum matured in ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at 43% ABV. “It’s designed to be a full-bodied, complex rum for sipping rum, although it does work in a craft cocktail like an Old Fashioned,” says Sudhir. “The whole idea of Ron was to challenge the status quo. We didn’t want to make a pirate-looking rum. We didn’t want to create a rum that’s very syrupy and sugary. We wanted to make a rum with balance, something complex with a long finish. 

But what makes the early promise of Ron Izalco 10 Year Old particularly intriguing is that it’s casting a spotlight on Central American rum, which Sudhir believes is often overlooked. “Our blend consists of multiple countries from Central America, which we believe is a very underdeveloped market. It hasn’t got the prominence of Caribbean rum, for example. The Caribbean has done a phenomenal job of marketing themselves and they have some exceptionally good products. But Central America has got some really good products too.”

Sudhir hadn’t actually set out to create a Central American rum initially. In the year he and his blending team worked on the recipe, they imported and sampled rums from multiple countries. Through a blind tasting, they decided on a Central American rum to be the foundation of the blend. Every rum that was subsequently chosen for the blend also happened to be Central American. “It wasn’t by design. They were just the best rums we tried,” says Sudhir. “I subsequently started visiting multiple countries and studied the volcanic soil, the sugarcane, the high angel share and the use of ex-bourbon barrels and then I was able to understand why it was so special”.

Ron Izalco

The Izalco volcano in El Salvador, which you can see on the Ron Izalco bottle’s label

Inspired by the new-found Central American identity of his rum, Sudhir looked to the same region to form the basis of his brand. The name he chose references the 6,447 feet stratovolcano in El Salvador. Izalco erupted almost continuously from 1770 (when it formed) to 1958, earning it the nickname of ‘Lighthouse of the Pacific’ was its fire was said to have guided adventurous explorers to safe harbours. But its impact goes beyond its spectacular fireworks, however. Combined with the tropical climate of Central America, its lava has helped create mineral-rich black soil which produces fruitful and succulent sugarcane fields. “Izalco is a true story and a story that’s relevant to the rum. I had to be honest. My great-grandfather’s not a bootlegger. I’m not going to make a story up for my rum, I want to be authentic,” explains Sudhir. 

Throughout the course of our conversation, Sudhir makes a point of prioritising authenticity. He makes it very clear there is no Ron Izalco distillery, nor will there be: “We are not distillers, we do not have a distillery. We are master blenders.” He also ensured that before he blended a drop of rum he had formal education in spirits. He attended Moonshine University in Kentucky to get his distillation degree and then studied blending, ageing and other techniques with the American Distillers Association. It was here that the team behind Ron Izalco began to take shape. “One of the teachers there specialised in rum and happened to be a master blender. That’s was the beginning of how we formed a team together,” Sudhir says. “Our blenders have a multitude of backgrounds and hold multiple jobs. They are veterans in the industry.”

The rum is blended in California, where his team and Phenomenal Spirits is based. Sudhir can’t reveal which distilleries or producers the blends are sourced from, simply because he has non-disclosure agreements with them that he wants to respect. What Sudhir does tell me, however, is some of the countries included and what profile each brings to the blend. “Nicaraguan rum is phenomenal as a base because of its structure. Panama has got this beautiful caramel element and creates a long finish. Then you have Guatemala which has got this molasses, brown sugar and toasted oak notes.” Sudhir pours us a glass each as he describes Ron Izalco 10 Year Old and hand’s one to me with the widest of smiles. In my professional opinion, it’s bloody delicious. 

Ron Izalco

There’s more to come from Sudhir and Ron Izalco

Sudhir has no intention of resting on his laurels, however. There’s more to come from Phenomenal Spirits. Sudhir explains that there are two things which he absolutely loves: rum and rye whisky, the latter of which he is in the process of adding to the Phenomenal Spirits portfolio. But more pressingly, Ron Izalco is preparing to launch a 15-year-old bottling of rum, which will eventually be followed by a 21-year-old expression.

The upcoming 15-year-old is a blend of five rums from five different Central American countries aged for 15 years in their own respective distilleries in ex-bourbon barrels. It will be bottled at cask strength, 55.3% ABV, and according to Sudhir, “It has zero additional ingredients, no sugar, no caramel, nothing”. 

Once again, Sudhir gleefully pours us a glass each. It’s exceptional, and pleasantly it’s also a real departure from the 10 Year Old. “This is a completely different beast from the 10 Year Old. That was intentional,” says Sudhir. “It was designed to create a completely different taste profile with the purist in mind. It’s for people who like Agricole-style rum or cask strength or high-ester Caribbean rum. I don’t think anything of that nature exists from Central America, so that’s what we wanted to create. It’s earthy, it’s a little drier, there’s tobacco but it’s very fruity too”.

Ron Izalco

Sudhir created Ron Izalco 10 Year Old to be a ‘premium rum’

As we talk and sample rum, one thing that stands out is that Sudhir is consistent in his description of Ron Izalco as a premium rum brand. “I don’t believe rum has ever been through premiumisation as a category,” says Sudhir. “Rum is the next big market. It’s already happened for vodka, it’s already happened for gin. Tequila has been done, as has bourbon, rye, Scotch and Cognac.” But it’s clear he thinks that’s all about to change. 

“Spirits enthusiasts and rum lovers are curious and eager to move on to the next level. We are seeing early stages of rum premiumisation in Europe and we are predicting this trend will cross over to North America in the coming year,” he explains. “They want to try something less sweet and more full-bodied, with complex fruity notes that are evenly balanced with a long finish. This is exactly what Ron Izalco 10 has to offer to rum lovers.”

It has been a long time coming. People have predicted the ‘year of rum’ for seemingly every year in this last decade, but after it broke through the £1bn sales barrier in 2018 and became second to gin as the UK’s most popular spirit (according to those lovely folks over at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association), there is renewed optimism. There is four times the number of rum brands in the UK now than there were in 2006, with 200 of them now competing on the market. “It’s going to explode. We’ve only scratched the surface. It’s a matter of time,” says Sudhir. “From Diageo to Pernod Ricard and Bacardi to Havana Club, everybody is investing in super-premium brands, everybody is innovating, investing in packaging, coming up with higher age statements, or newer products, The message is becoming more and more clear,” he says. 

Ron Izalco

Sudhir believes that the future of rum is bright

He attributes this move a couple of factors. The first is the impact of bartenders. “The mixologist is driving this expansion. They’re tired of providing sugary drinks. That tiki bar market will always be there and it’s great. I love the daiquiris, I love the piña coladas, I love all the fizz. But these mixologists are coming up with creative ideas and because there are some really good rums available, not just some deep sugary rums people are willing to explore.”

Sudhir also believes that consumers are much more knowledgeable and that modern drinkers are ready for a change. “That’s why our market strategy is ‘Ron Izalco is the new ritual’. What is ‘the new ritual’? The new ritual means that you don’t have to only drink whisky or Tequila. Sipping rum has arrived! That’s the new ritual.” Tasting Ron Izalco, you can see why Sudhir is so optimistic.


Ron Izalco

Ron Izalco 10 Year Old

Ron Izalco 10 Year Old Tasting Notes:

Nose: Lovely balance with sweet vanilla, milk chocolate and brown sugar, then some stoned fruits such as dark cherries and dried apricots. Zesty notes of oak and juicy oranges emerge among syrupy dried fruit. It ends with wafts of toffee and caramel.

Palate: Initially it’s quite woody with a lot of spicy oak and some real zesty notes of marmalade. With time comes wonderful complexity of it, subtle sweetness of rum-soaked raisins, dried prunes, dark caramels and rich vanilla. The mid-palate has a slightly herbal feel to it. 

Finish: The finish is long, rich and pretty spicy with a fruity kick to the end. There’s a satisfying note of oak throughout and plenty of nuances to keep things interesting.

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Adventure bottled: Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum

From pirates to the Royal Navy, rum has long been associated with the spirit of adventure. All things considered, no one is better placed to break ground in English rum…

From pirates to the Royal Navy, rum has long been associated with the spirit of adventure. All things considered, no one is better placed to break ground in English rum than British expedition leader Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Allow us to regale you with the tale of his daring Great British Rum – rather than age the liquid in a barrel, the barrel is put in the still… 

As CVs go, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ one is pretty damn impressive. Named the world’s greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of Records, the author, poet, former military man and endurance record holder is the first person to have visited both the North and South Poles travelling only on the surface, crossing the Antarctic and Arctic Oceans. 

In 2009, aged 65, Fiennes climbed the summit of Mount Everest; the oldest Brit to achieve this feat. In fact, he’s climbed the highest mountain on three of the world’s continents, and aims to do so on the remaining four, too. In 2003, he ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents (despite a heart attack that left him in a coma for three days and double heart bypass operation four months prior). And now, he has his very own rum.

Sir Ranulph with Dr John Waters

The idea for Great British Rum has its roots in the late seventies during the Transglobe Expedition, which saw a team, led by Fiennes, circumnavigate the world on its polar axis using only surface transport back in the late Seventies. The trip took seven years to plan and saw the hardy crew cover some 52,000 miles in three years – so huge was the undertaking, no one has repeated the route since. 

To keep spirits high, crew mate Oliver Shepherd devised a plan inspired by the ‘happy hour’ commonplace in military messes. Every day at 17.30, everyone on the ship would congregate in his room and toast the expedition with something tasty – more often than not, rum. In January this year, as a nod to this special memory, Fiennes partnered with the folks at English Spirit distillery to tread new ground in rum. And the resulting liquid is as pioneering as the adventure it stems from.

“It’s bringing back, into this format, memories of an expeditionary type from 50 years plus,” says Fiennes. “The Brits have been at the forefront, not just because of colonialism, of exploring remote areas and getting there first, and to me there’s 50 years of doing just that. Going beyond the limits, that’s really what it’s all about, Some of my moments of joy at completing sometimes 10 years of work – getting to the ship, living instead of dying – have been celebrated with rum.” 

Lovely colour, John

Instead of ageing Great British Rum in a barrel, master distiller Dr John Walters has put the barrel in the still, having sourced wood from the locations of Fiennes’ favourite adventures – Sequoia from Canada, Pine from Norway and Date Palm from Oman – to add during distillation. First, though, the process starts with 100% pure sugar cane molasses from Venezuela, which are fermented with a bespoke yeast for 10 to 14 days. 

The wash is distilled three times in a 200-litre copper pot still, with the three bespoke woods introduced during the final run. Those woods will have their own amount in the recipe, their own time in the still, their own unique shape and their own level of bespoke charring, Dr Walters explains. Then, the rum goes through a micro-oxygenation step that involves cascading distillate through the wood, which gives the rum its golden colour. 

“Ten years ago we bought a variety of different barrels from different places and the first thing we did was break them up to understand how they’re put together – their chemistry, their charring, the rate at which they can bind alcohol, the rate at which they would allow oxygen to migrate through them and other bits and bobs,” he says. “We got a vague understanding – the chemistry is very complicated – about pairing woods with spirits, and so we were able to buy certain woods looking for different chemical subsets to help provide the characteristics we wanted to embellish our rum with.”

Great British Rum

That’s a Great British Rum

The result? Given tasting notes of orange, caramel and spiced Christmas cake on the nose, a hint of tobacco and vanilla on the palate, followed by a mix of milk and dark chocolate and golden liquorice. Very British flavours indeed. If there was just one thing about your rum that you could share with everyone, I ask Fiennes, what would it be? The memories associated with the specific types of wood, he says, pointing to an experience in British Columbia back in 1971. 

“We did the first ever water journey from their northern border, 2,000 miles through the Rockies along nine interlocking rough rivers as part of the country’s centenary,” he explains. “At one point, I ended up by myself in mosquito-laden woods and started smelling burning wood. Now, if you’re in the middle of a forest with no way out and you smell burning wood you’re in trouble. I remember the smell of that wood was delicious, but frightening. And when you taste the wood from those same pines in the rum, you’ll bring amazing memories back to us.”

Great British Rum will be landing at Master of Malt soon. Check the New Arrivals page for more information.

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Drink books of the year 2019

Whether you’re a wine buff, a whisky aficionado or a lager lout, this year’s crop of drink books has something for everyone. We pick our favourites to curl up by…

Whether you’re a wine buff, a whisky aficionado or a lager lout, this year’s crop of drink books has something for everyone. We pick our favourites to curl up by the fire with this Christmas. 

Well, it’s been a bumper year for drink books. There’s new offerings from old pros like Jancis Robinson and Tristan Stephenson, as well as debuts from Felix Nash and Eddie Ludlow. In fact, it was such a good year that we had trouble narrowing the list down so apologies if your favourite is missing. 

All of them will make great gifts for the drink lover in your life. And we can’t think of a better way to spend the holidays than with a roaring fire, a dram/ glass/ pint of something delicious and one of these books, and that includes watching Casablanca on Christmas Day with a belly full of Port and Stilton. 

A Brief History of Lager Mark Dredge

Lager is so ubiquitous, it’s the beer the world drinks, that it’s hard to imagine how 200 years ago it was a Bavarian speciality. At that time, beer in the rest of Europe was essentially ale. But slowly lager spread and along the way mutated from a sweet, brown beer to the crisp golden brew we know today. It’s a great story told with a real sense of fun by award-winning beer writer and TV regular Mark Dredge. 

Sample line: “Lederer kept contact with Sedlmayr and Dreher, and there’s a wonderful photo taken in 1939 of the three of them all wearing top hats and overcoats, each with a thick moustache, and all holding hands.”

The Curious Bartender’s Whiskey Road Trip Tristan Stephenson

Tristan Stephenson aka the Curious Bartender is the author of many excellent cocktails books. In this latest outing, he takes a journey across America sampling whiskeys from 44 distilleries both large and small including some real MoM favourites like Balcones 44, St George, and Michter’s  nice work if you can get it.

Sample line: “Tuthilltown is home to a huge cat call Bourbon (there another cat called Rye that we didn’t get to meet.”

Fine Cider Felix Nash 

You probably haven’t realised it yet but we are living through a golden age of cider. It hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet, but all over England, Wales and the cider-producing world (which is much bigger than you think), producers are waking up to the potential of apple-based goodness. Felix Nash, a cider merchant, has written a heartfelt, in-depth hymn to his favourite fruit and drink.

Sample line: “I wouldn’t be able to tell you about all the apples used to make cider or the pears used to make perry, and no one could. It’s not simply that so many varieties exist in the world, but that they can very localised”.

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! Ben Howkins

We’ve written a fair bit on the blog about how much we like sherry, so this was a book after our own hearts. Written by a man with more experience in the wine trade that he would like to admit, this is a love letter to one of the world’s great wines. Reading this, you can almost smell the bodegas of Jerez. Warning, it’s almost impossible to read this book without developing a serious sherry habit. 

Sample line: “Olorosos are the wines that will emulate rugby players, rather than ballet dancers.”

Spirited: How to create easy, fun drinks at home Signe Johansen

You might know Johansen (the lady in the header) as Scandilicious, evangelist for all things Scandinavian and delicious. Originally from Norway, now living in London, she’s just as good on drinks as food. This book makes a great introduction to cocktails, tips for non-alcoholic drinks and all round guide to stress free non-nerdy entertaining. 

Sample line: “Life is too short to worry about what anoraks and bores think so now I happily enjoy whichever drinks I’m in the mood for.”

The Whisky Dictionary Ian Wisniewski

Someone who is certainly a bit of an anorak but never a bore is Ian Wisniewski. He’s the one on distillery tours who will always be asking more questions than anyone else. We know as we’ve been round a few with him and we always learn a lot. This book, which we have already found an invaluable reference guide, is a testament to that insatiable curiosity. 

Sample line: “Do enzymes ever get the applause they deserve? Rarely. If ever. It’s time to make up for that with a standing ovation.”

Whisky Tasting Course  Eddie Ludlow

Like many of the best people in the drinks business, Ludlow began his career at Oddbins. Since then he’s become an expert at opening up the often confusing world of whisky. In this book, Ludlow breaks it down into easily digestible segments, explains why whiskies taste as they do, and talks the reader through the most common styles of whisky such as single pot still Irish, small batch bourbon and Islay single malt. Before you know it, you’ll be saying “bonfires on the beach” or muttering “mmm, Jamaica cake” like an old pro.

Sample line: “Your mouth and tongue are actually quite inefficient at detecting all but the most basic flavours.”

The World of Whisky – Neil Ridley, Gavin D. Smith and David Wishart

Lavishly-produced guide to the every-expanding world of whisky by three of the best writers in the business. And you do really need three to cover what is now such an enormous topic. Inevitably the majority of the book is on Scotland with a page devoted to each malt distillery, but the Irish, US and Japan sections are also impressive.

Sample line: “Would even the most discerning of palate be able to detect a differences made using barley grown in Mr McTavish’s bottom field and the one, over yonder hill, behind the tree and the babbling burn?”

The World Atlas of Gin Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley

Another book part-written by Neil Ridley! How does it do it? We suspect that he has actually cloned himself to spread the workload. There’s a lot of gin out there and it’s expanding all the time, meaning that this book can only be a snapshot of what’s available but you know with these two that everything in here is going to be worth drinking. Also extra points for not being afraid to put in the big names, like Beefeater, rather than going for hipster obscurity points.

Sample line: “France has embraced the gin revolution with a charismatic style and charm of its own.”

The World Atlas of Wine Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson

This is the 8th edition of an all time classic book, first published in the 1970s and updated every few years. Originally just written by Johnson, Robinson joined the team in 2003. It’s hard to think of a better looking book with its lavish photos and intricate maps of the world’s greatest wine regions. The words are pretty nifty too as you’d expect from (probably) the world’s top two wine writers. 

Sample line: “For centuries, Hungary has had the most distinctive food and wine culture, the most varied grape varieties, and the most refined wine laws and customs of any country east of Germany.”

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Could too much alcohol cause spontaneous human combustion?

Some readers may have done things they regret after a bit too much to drink but in the 18th and 19th centuries, a surfeit of alcohol was thought to cause…

Some readers may have done things they regret after a bit too much to drink but in the 18th and 19th centuries, a surfeit of alcohol was thought to cause spontaneous combustion! Ian Buxton investigates this curious phenomenon.

Do you sometimes wonder if you’re drinking too much? Despite the health warnings, I know that I do. The risks are well-known and widely publicised, and yet we carry on tippling regardless (at least, I know that I do). But have you considered – and, ladies, I’m looking particularly at you – the horrific risk of spontaneous human combustion?  Yes, the all too dreadful prospect that after a few drinks too many you might burst into flames and be consumed by fire?

Consider the case of Mary Clues. Following the death of her husband the unfortunate widow was, understandably perhaps, “much addicted to intoxication” and for the next year reputed to consume at least half a pint of rum or aniseed water (presumably something resembling today’s pastis) each day.  Struck down by jaundice she was “incapable of much action and not in a condition to work, [but] still continued her old habit of drinking every day”.

Late on Saturday 1 March 1773, she was helped to bed and left to sleep. At 5:30 the following morning, smoke was seen pouring through the window of her humble lodging. Neighbours broke down her door and rushed in. Mary’s body—or what was left of it—was found between her bed and fireplace. “The skin, muscles, and viscera were destroyed,” it was reported and “the bones of the cranium, breast, spine, and upper extremities were calcined and covered with a whitish efflorescence.” Only one leg and one thigh remained intact of the poor woman.

Does your room look like this after a night out? Then you may have been the victim of spontaneous combustion

Now if she had been paying attention, she might have been warned by the fate of Grace Pitt, an Ipswich fishmonger’s wife. On the 9th of April 1744, overjoyed by the news that one of her daughters had returned safely from a trip to Gibraltar, she celebrated not wisely but well with “a large quantity of spirituous liquors”. The next morning another daughter found her burnt remains in the kitchen, “having the appearance of a log of wood, consumed by a fire without apparent flame”. Pouring water on Grace resulted in a “foetid odour and smoke which exhaled from the body” almost suffocating some neighbours who had come to help.  “The trunk…..resembled a heap of coals covered in white ash” and her head, arms, legs and thighs were also burnt. There was little or no damage to other items in the room.

These are several similarly chilling accounts to be found in scientific and popular literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Even novelists took up the idea. In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) the rag and bottle merchant Krook, “an eccentric individual of intemperate habits, far advanced in life” is discovered to have been completely destroyed, leaving only “a smouldering suffocating vapour in the room, and a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling.”

Further similar accounts pop up from time to time.  Curiously, they were quite frequent in pre-Prohibition America but still appear, most recently in September 2017 in Tottenham, north London when a 70-year-old, John Nolan from County Mayo in Ireland, appeared to spontaneously burst into flames while walking in the street. The coroner later concluded that the luckless pensioner had accidentally set fire to himself while lighting a cigarette proving, we might conclude that smoking holds even greater hazards than excessive drinking.

whisky crash

Ian Buxton at Glenfiddich, happily not about to burst into flames

But most of the earlier cases have something in common: they occur in temperance and prohibitionist literature. I’ve selected the instances of Mary Clues and Grace Pitt from a number that may be found in Robert Macnish’s The Anatomy of Drunkenness, a highly-influential work from the 1830s which enjoyed multiple reprints (my current bedtime reading, if you must know). “In speaking of drunkenness,” he writes, “it is impossible not to be struck with the physical and moral degradation which it has spread over the world”.

To be completely fair, Macnish does quietly admit to some scepticism about the whole idea of spontaneous human combustion but included a lengthy chapter on the subject just to be sure.  And many of the cases have something else in common: they involve women, generally of lower social class. Drinking to excess is bad enough seems to be the moral here, but especially wicked when working class women are involved!  Ladies, you’ve been warned: best to abjure the demon drink altogether and embrace a life of abstinence and Christian virtue.

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Introducing Glasshouse Whisky: Blended Scotch, but not as you know it

The bartending trio behind Langstane Liquor Company have reverse-engineered the Whisky Highball and bottled the ultimate blended Scotch for the base. We sipped a Glasshouse Whisky and Soda with co-founder…

The bartending trio behind Langstane Liquor Company have reverse-engineered the Whisky Highball and bottled the ultimate blended Scotch for the base. We sipped a Glasshouse Whisky and Soda with co-founder Alex Lawrence – who you might also recognise as global head of bar operations for Mr Lyan Group – to find out more… 

“Fruity, bright, banging,” says Lawrence. “That’s the gist of it”. And honestly, we have to agree. If there are three words that best describe Glasshouse – the second spirit from Scottish trio Alex Lawrence, Ben Iravani and Josh Rennie, following on from Porter’s Gin – fruity, bright and banging are, well, bang on the money.

That’s because it was developed with the whisky Highball in mind, “All the big brands are doing whisky Highballs now, but no one’s actually sat down and gone, ‘I’m going to make a whisky for that drink’,” Lawrence says. “It’s just convenient that it’s nice. So that’s what we set out to do – we set out to make a highball, and this is just one component of it. I find that really exciting.”

Alex Lawrence

It’s only Alex Lawrence!

So, what’s in the bottle? Glasshouse is a blended malt whisky made from 100% malted barley. Just two whiskies make up the bottling: one column still distillate and one pot still distillate from Highland distillery Loch Lomond, both aged in American oak. The resulting blend is bottled non-chill filtered at 46% ABV. 

“We’re not going for ultra-nuanced, multi-layered whisky,” says Lawrence. “I don’t know how to do complicated blending. I’m a bartender. I put two things in a glass and it tastes great, and that’s what we’ve done here. The only thing we did play with was the ABV – at 46%, it’s a little punchier, but it needs that for it to be flavourful and lengthened [in a highball]. ”

On the nose, given aromas including bobbing apples and breakfast cereal. On the palate, pear drops and malt, with Toffee Crisp on the finish. That’s as far as the tastings notes go. But then, Glasshouse isn’t meant to be a geeky brand, Lawrence says, or even a complete product. That it tastes phenomenal sipped neat was a happy coincidence. “When I was blending and tasting it was always with soda water, never by itself,” he says. 

The name Glasshouse is inspired by the Victorian glasshouses within which exotic fruits, like pineapples, were grown in Scotland back in the 1800s – a nod to the tropical fruit flavour notes found in the whisky. The colour scheme is modern and fresh; a contemporary blend of green and pink hues – an intentional sidestep from the overt boujiness* of single malt marketing. 

Glasshouse whisky

Glasshouse is a whisky designed to be mixed

“The pantone of the brand isn’t traditional,” says Lawrence. “It’s designed to be a little bit disruptive, but not in an aggravating manner. Put it this way, I’m not sure all the old guard of whisky are going to love this brand. But ultimately it’s not for whisky drinkers – it’s for more people that are gathering in a certain way. 

“With that single malt that sits on your shelf, you have to wait for a special occasion,” he continues. “When you go to a party or a barbeque you want to take something fresh and bright that feels nuanced and grown-up but not packed with sugar. It shouldn’t feel precious, it shouldn’t feel un-consumable.”

At just under £30 a bottle, Glasshouse is intended to be consumed in a more disposable manner than a single malt. In fact, that’s the entire point of it. Ultimately, this is about democratising the Highball; making it easy to enjoy an uncomplicated, unfussy, super tasty drink so you can focus on more important stuff, like catching up with your mates. You don’t need fancy ice or elaborate glassware for that, as Lawrence points out.

“There’s so much to think about when you order a drink now,” he says. “It’s good because people are more discerning, but at the same time, you have a 10-step process to get a gin and tonic. Are you joking? Just put a lime in it, pal. And listen, I’m from that world – I still make cocktails, I still work in cocktail bars. But at the end of the day, I just want to sit down with some soda water and some whisky and have fun with my pals.”

*Young person’s term meaning snobbish or stuck-up.

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Bartender for life: Alessandro Palazzi from Dukes Bar

The bar at Dukes Hotel is a London institution. The same could be said about the head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, who talks to us about Ian Fleming, moving with the…

The bar at Dukes Hotel is a London institution. The same could be said about the head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, who talks to us about Ian Fleming, moving with the times, and what is and isn’t a Martini. 

Dukes Hotel isn’t easy to find. Located just off St James’s Street, the first time I went there, it felt like I had been initiated into one of London’s great secrets. According to Alessandro Palazzi, the dapper Italian gentleman who runs the bar, “we are hidden away, so it’s a destination place. It’s like a club, but without being a club.” Following stints at the Ritz in Paris, The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz), and running his own bar in Perugia (“a big mistake” as he puts it), Palazzi took over at Dukes 13 years ago from Gilberto Preti, who himself was handed the baton by Salvatore Calabrese. You don’t have to be Italian to work at Duke’s but it certainly helps: “Maurizio, my assistant, he’s been with me 13 years. Then I have another gentleman, Enrico, as well, who’s been thirteen years,” Palazzi told me. 

1. Alessandro Palazzi

You don’t have to be Italian to work at Dukes but it helps.

It might surprise people who find Dukes a bit old-fashioned, but the first thing Palazzi did when he took over was to relax the dress code. Previously it was jackets and ties; now it’s just smart casual. He told me that they lost some of their old customers when he took over and modernised the place. Other changes have also gone down badly. “One lady, an important politician, complained when we removed the awful green carpet,” he said.

Others, however, have embraced the changes. “We have a lot of old customers who actually introduced their children and they carry on coming,” he continues. We still have lots of old customers, because they come here for the drink and the building.” It was a different world when Palazzi first came to London in the 1970s: you would be sacked if you were seen in hotel bars like the Savoy. Customers shouldn’t see the staff out drinking. The clientele of Dukes, according to Palazzi, was dominated by politicians and the military, like its most famous customer, Ian Fleming. “Some people think that I used to serve him! I’m not that old,” Palazzi said. “Now you have people in the arts and music. And also younger people now, because this place has become fashionable. People come for their first date, and people propose here because of the place,” he told me. According to Palazzi, younger customers are happy to spend money. “People don’t put money in the bank anymore because they might go bankrupt.”

Duke’s certainly isn’t cheap, at £22 for a Martini. But Palazzi defends the prices: “You get five shots of premium gin, Amalfi lemon, Sicilian olives, snacks, and if you want you can buy one drink and have the table all night.” He compares it to a Savile Row suit. There’s no doubt that Palazzi has a rare gift for making his customers feel special. He prides himself on treating everyone the same and told me a story about turning away a famous actress who wanted to barge the queue. “We don’t have the bling-bling”, he told me. “We probably sell a bottle of Krug or Cristal every six or seven years. We don’t have here that type of clientele. That’s why a lot of people like to come here as well. There’s no showing off, everybody’s the same.” 

3. DUKES Bar

It might look like nothing has changed here since 1953 but Dukes is slowly moving with the times

Customers come for the beautifully-prepared cocktails prepared on a trolley at the table. Palazzi sees being a bartender as a noble vocation. “Bartenders now, they start as a bartender and then they want to become brand ambassador. I grew up in Italy; I knew I wanted to be a bartender for the rest of my life.” In the past, places like Dukes and The American Bar at the Savoy were the only places to get classic cocktails but now, “there has been a bar revolution in London and outside London, in Leeds, in Manchester. You have more and more amazing bars.”

Duke’s has had to move with the times, but do it in its own way. Smoky domes, flames and DJs wouldn’t be quite right. “When I took over the menu was boring”, Palazzi said, “when I say boring, we have the usual cocktails, there was nothing there.” So Palazzi came up with a list inspired by Dukes’ most famous customer, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. There’s a Tiger Tanaka, a Kissy Suzuki and Palazzi’s own take on the Vesper using Sacred vermouth, Berry Bros’s No. 3 Gin, and Polish vodka. Sadly, Palazzi told me, “I cannot use the name Fleming anymore, because they [the Fleming estate] want money.”

Another of Palazzi’s innovations was introducing new kinds of gin. “I knew gin was going to become a big thing,” he said. He was an early supporter of Sacred but his new favourite is the superb (and pricey) Procera Gin from Kenya. So, when the time came to have a drink, he suggested a Martini made with this special gin. When I demurred, as I didn’t think I could manage a full Dukes Martini at 3pm, he suggested a “Martini-ini.” 

The famous Martini trolley

The famous Martini trolley

Out came the famous trolley, which was introduced by Palazzi’s predecessor. Then the Sacred vermouth. Palazzi told me that the ritual of putting it in the glass and then throwing it on the floor began as a joke, but it’s now become his trademark. As I wanted a wetter Martini, mine stayed firmly in the glass. Next the frozen gin and then the heady scent of Amalfi lemon, the droplets of oil floating in the thick cold gin. 

Palazzi has strong views on what and what isn’t a Martini. “For me, a Martini is a drink which has to be strong and three ingredients,” he said. “An Espresso Martini is not really a Martini. A Martini is supposed to be all alcohol. It’s the most simple cocktail to make: it’s the temperature, the quality ingredients, the lemon. There’s the vermouth, gin or vodka, and the oil. That’s what a Martini is.” 

Time to take a sip; it’s the lemon that dominates at first followed by the thick, unctuous flavour of the frozen gin tempered with a little vermouth. It’s delicious, of course, but you can’t separate the taste from the escapism, the sense of occasion and Palazzi’s hospitality.  Maybe I will have another

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Five minutes with… Billy Walker, owner and master blender at Glenallachie Distillery

The wonderful Billy Walker of GlenAllachie Distillery fame has joined us to talk about making his mark, what the future holds and winning the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year…

The wonderful Billy Walker of GlenAllachie Distillery fame has joined us to talk about making his mark, what the future holds and winning the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award.

It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for Billy Walker since he took over GlenAllachie Distillery in 2017. In a preview he gave us back in October of that year, he outlined his ambitions for his new purchase and many have been achieved. Expressions have been added to the core range, including the recently released GlenAllachie 15 Year Old and in July the first Wood Finish range launched, which comprises of three expressions, the 12 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Sherry Wood Finish, the 10 Year Old Port Wood Finish and the 8 Year Old Koval Rye Quarter Cask Wood Finish. A visitor centre and shop were also unveiled in May which will welcome people to the distillery for the first time since it was built in 1967. Such has been the progress, The GlenAllachie even managed to pick up the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award at the Scottish Whisky Awards.

We thought it was high time we sat down once again with the veteran of the industry to discuss all the above, talk about what the future holds and more.

Billy Walker

Say hi to Billy Walker!

Master of Malt: Hi Billy! Congratulations on the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award.

Billy Walker: Thank you! It’s fantastic of course. It’s a pretty amazing award, but it doesn’t surprise me. That’s not a conceit, because it’s got nothing to do with me frankly, it’s got to do with the team and the available inventory, the shape of the inventory, the range of the inventory and indeed the spirit the distillery makes. Was it a surprise? Yeah, a little bit. We were delighted to be in the final choice, but yeah, to win it is fantastic.

MoM: How have the last two years been for you at GlenAllachie Distillery?

BW: The last two years have been all about interfacing and understanding, being really intimate with the individual casks, understanding what we have in the casks and working out if there is going to be enough for the direction we want to go in. It’s the case with all distilleries. You have to understand what the style of whisky is, the wood it’s in and what direction you want to take it. So, these last two years has helped us get an in-depth understanding of where we’re going and what we can release and the quality that we expect it to deliver.

MoM: What did you learn from your time at BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh?

BW: The one thing that was certainly brought home to me is that there is no shortcut to quality. It is important to understand the kind of vibrancy and the dynamism that is in the single malt sector in the last ten to 12 years. In that period we have learned that we need to be loyal to the routes to market through the private, independent sector. It’s a way for us to get visibility and loyalty without tiptoeing into the territory of big companies like supermarkets. We really don’t want to be in supermarkets in the short to medium term, if ever at all. And that’s the one thing we’ve learnt: build the brand, be patient, build the brand through the private independent retailers. Engage with informed consumers. Because these are the guys that will act as loyal and refreshing and honest ambassadors for our brand and indeed for other people’s brands.

Billy Walker

The Glenallachie Distillery

MoM: How would you describe the distillery to someone who didn’t know much about it?

BW: I always had an admiration for the spirit from Glenallachie because it was an extremely important contributor to some very, very famous blended whiskies. So we were familiar with the style, but we weren’t terribly familiar with the distillery infrastructure, but everything was perfect. The water supply is wonderful, it runs over granite and peat so it’s fantastic for both whisky and for fermentation generally. It’s a relatively big distillery. It can make 4.2 million litres of alcohol but we’ve tailored it down and we’re reaching about 800,000 litres at the moment. This has allowed us to do very important things like long fermentation (120 – 160 hours), which we’re big advocates of. We introduced it at the Ben Riach, we introduced it at Glendronach and we also introduced it at Glenglassaugh. With long fermentation, you get an extension of flavour development in the fermenter but more importantly, you bring a very benign, calm wash to the wash still so that the distillation process is much easier to control. The big bonus that we also have is warehousing capacity, we can store about 50,000 casks so we’re pretty well fully integrated. The only thing missing is a bottling plant but who knows… maybe that’s something we can do in the future. All-in-all, what we have inherited we are very, very happy with.

MoM: You’ve mentioned the possibility of creating a bottling plant. How likely is it that there will be any expansions or alterations of any of the distillery buildings or equipment in the near future?

BW: The bottling plant is certainly an idea at the moment. We would like to have the flexibility of having access to our own bottling unit, but it brings with it as many problems as solutions! But we’ll see. It’s too early, we’re too much in our infancy at the moment. We’re using a contract bottler with whom we are more than comfortable and it’s not on the horizon at the moment but it’s not off the radar. Well, one of the attractions of this distillery at Glenallachie is that it has terrific storage capacity, but I suspect that we will probably have a need to have some additional storage and that would certainly be something we would have to do sooner rather than later. It won’t be in the next 12 months, however, it wouldn’t surprise me if we did have to do it within the next 24 months.

Billy Walker

Walker is experimenting with different cask types

MoM: Can you describe the profile of the GlenAllachie new-make and what the distillery character is?

BW: We’re actually in the process of changing the character. Essentially what we’re looking for in the new-make is clean, sparkling fruits, vanilla, butterscotch, biscuity notes, the latter of which the long fermentation will deliver for us. We don’t want a dull, flat spirit. We want a full-bodied spirit that allows us to interface with rich wood. And we’re achieving that. We’ve done a lot of cask experiments and looked into various types of wood such as PX and oloroso and that’s exciting, just to see how you can change the direction of the flavour profile of the whisky as you go along. I go up to the distillery once or twice a week essentially to follow the development and note how each of the individual casks is developing and how the DNA of both young and mature spirit is moving along.

MoM: The distillery has a relatively recent history, is that liberating for you creatively to not have too much tradition and history to keep in line with?

BW: Oh unquestionably. It’s important to understand that back when this distillery was built the purpose of almost every single malt was to feed into one of the many famous and very good blended Scotch whiskies that existed then and indeed continue to exist now. If you reflect that when this distillery was built in 1960, it was at a time when there was a lot of activity in modernising and in building new distilleries that could become an integral part of some very important blended whiskies. The Glenallachie was made to feature in some of these blends, which I’m not going to name. You can contrast that to what we’re doing now because we have adopted a policy that we are not releasing any of our production to any third parties. We are focused on owning everything that we produce.

MoM: What does the future hold for GlenAllachie Distillery and what do you hope to achieve with the distillery?

BW: The important thing with any distillery is that you define and create your range of products to be compatible with the consumer base that you’re targeting. We’ve already discussed the importance of being a brand who aim to reach the market in a manner where they can be built and developed slowly, but in a way that where you are targeting and engaging with informed consumers who, in many ways, then become your ambassadors. We have to be patient; we know this is not a sprint, there are no shortcuts to quality. It’s a long term goal to deliver Glenallachie and we have ambition frankly. Our ambition is to be the best Speyside single malt in the region, and there are some competitors in there! But if we don’t have ambition we shouldn’t be creating.

Billy Walker

Walker wants Glenallachie to be the best single malt on Speyside

MoM: Back in 2017, you seemed open-minded when asked if you’d purchase another distillery, how do you feel now?

BW: We would not be against having another distillery in the stable. My only caveat in all of that is that it is becoming more and more difficult to actually acquire that kind of an asset. If something came up and it was the right fit and the price was right, then unquestionably we would be interested. But right now the prices are not really right! Of course, we would be comfortable having another distillery in-house and having the opportunity to work with another whisky would be fantastic. Playing with whisky is just such a wonderful obsession.

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Five minutes with… Sandie van Doorne, creative and communications director at Lucas Bols

Dating back to 1575, Amsterdam-based Lucas Bols has earned its place in the history books as the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand. Here, creative and communications director Sandie van Doorne…

Dating back to 1575, Amsterdam-based Lucas Bols has earned its place in the history books as the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand. Here, creative and communications director Sandie van Doorne shares insight into those early days of distilling – and the dynamic company’s future plans…

With more than 400 years of distilling know-how under its belt, and recipes that have been handed down over centuries, Lucas Bols is one of the oldest Dutch companies still active today – a remarkable feat, you’ll agree. But the company has not stood the test of time by sitting still or resting on its laurels. 

While the processes of distillation, percolating and macerating are practised as they have been for the last four centuries, Lucas Bols has its sights set firmly on the future, working closely with bartenders across the globe to develop new products and flavours as well as exploring and adapting old recipes according to the latest cocktail trends.

We sat down with Sandie van Doorne, creative and communications director at Lucas Bols, to find out more about the past, present, and future of the Dutch spirits-maker…


It’s Sandie van Doorne!

MoM: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Sandie! First of all, could you explain a little about your job and how long you have been in the role?

Van Doorne: I’ve been with the company since 1999 and in this role since 2006, which was the year our CEO, our CFO and myself completed a management buyout. We came back to Amsterdam and re-established ourselves in The Netherlands again after a couple of years of the company being in French hands. It was then that I stepped into the role of creative and communications director to tell the beautiful story of over four centuries of craftsmanship and history of Lucas Bols, and make sure that we are innovative and that whatever we do in the market is special – and giving tender loving care to this company and these beautiful brands. 

MoM: What’s 2019 been like for Bols – what are some of the highlights so far?

SvD: The work that we’re doing on low-alcohol cocktails and the revival of using liqueurs as a base spirit. It’s something we started working on about two years ago, and we’ve really seen this picking up in 2019. When you pair, for example, Bols Cucumber liqueur with tonic, it’s a classic low-alcohol Gin and Tonic alternative. Sometimes you want a really flavourful drink with an alcohol bite but without the alcohol effect – when you take a liqueur that has the natural flavours of a fruit or a botanical and mix that with tonic or soda, or, for example, Bols Watermelon with bitter lemon, it’s a fantastic drink. You have an adult drink without having a high alcohol content.

MoM: Lucas Bols has a long and storied history – could you talk about how the family business first set up and what those early days of distilling might’ve looked like?

SvD: In 1575 – I still think it’s amazing that we go back that far – the Bols family established on the outskirts of Amsterdam, which at that point was very small. Where the distillery would have been is now in the centre, because the city emerged around it. They started by distilling liqueurs for medicinal purposes and festive occasions, and later, in 1664, they also started making genever. Genever had been around for a long time for medicinal purposes, but in the 17th century it became popular with the wider population and there became a recreational demand for it. The Bols family, who were very good at distilling, picked up on this and started making genever and it became the second pillar of their company, next to liqueurs. The company is named after the grandson of the family, Lucas Bols, because he transformed this small distillery into an international company. 

Lightbulb moment at Bols

Innovative cocktails are a big part of Bols’ business

MoM: Amazing! How did Lucas Bols turn the business into a global brand?

SvD: In 1700 he became a majority shareholder in The Dutch East India Trading Company, and with that, he received exclusive rights to all the new herbs and spices coming into Amsterdam, which was the centre of the world for trading at the time. With those herbs and spices Lucas Bols was able to create over 300 different liqueur recipes and started the international distribution of the brand, which today is in over 110 countries. So he really made what was a small distillery into a big company with a wide product range and an international footprint. After he died in 1719, the Bols family carried on for about another 100 years until the last male heir died in 1816. The widow and her two daughters sold the company off. It has always remained the Lucas Bols company because she made the buyer sign a promissory note saying that the name would be forever used on the product. By doing that, she created the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand. 

MoM: Could you talk about Dutch drinking culture and how it has changed over the years?

SvD: In the 17th century, people were drinking beer and genever a lot, and they have stayed with us for a long time. Genever is still the biggest spirits category in the Netherlands – the aged genevers especially are in favour, and a lot of people like to pair them with a nice craft beer which we call a ‘headbutt’ or kopstoot. Beer and genever share a lot of the same ingredients, with the grains and the hops, so they go very nicely together. And then in the last decade or so we’ve seen strong cocktail development in the Netherlands. We opened the Bols Bartending Academy in 2006, where we train about 3,000 bartenders every year, and we really see the growth of cocktail-making and cocktail drinking and of course the Gin & Tonic trend has helped that a lot as well. 

MoM: Today, Bols has more than 20 brands in its portfolio, including Damrak Gin, Galliano and Passoã. What’s the main challenge for you when creating a global strategy?

SvD: Bols is the main brand that we focus on, so the hard part is that you want to give tender loving care to all the other brands in our portfolio. But the upside is that since we are distributed in over 110 countries, having all these different brands gives us the opportunity to really match every market with a different product, because they all have different needs – especially the emerging markets. 

Bols Amsterdam

Traditional methods and modern technology sit side-by-side at Bols

MoM: On the flipside, what’s the most fun aspect of the company?

SvD: We are a small player in a huge market, and that is so much fun. We’re a small team, so we are able to do things how we like to do them, and do them in a different and special way. That’s why we created the House of Bols Cocktail and Genever Experience and the Bols Bartending Academy, that’s why have the opportunity to bring genever back around the world. It’s very difficult to bring a category back and it’s a huge and long project that takes investment but we can do this because we are agile and flexible.

MoM: Finally, on a personal note – on a Friday night, what’s your go-to drink or cocktail?

SvD: Definitely the Amsterdam Mule, which is ginger beer and Bols Genever. Ginger beer mixes really well with genever because of the maltiness; the ginger goes very well with that.

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We taste the new Royal Salute 29 Year Old Pedro Ximénez cask finish in Seville

Royal Salute is back with another exciting new release! To celebrate the new 29 Year Old Pedro Ximénez cask finish, we headed to Seville with master blender Sandy Hyslop and…

Royal Salute is back with another exciting new release! To celebrate the new 29 Year Old Pedro Ximénez cask finish, we headed to Seville with master blender Sandy Hyslop and creative advisor Barnabé Fillion to learn all about the history and processes behind the blend.

“I think we’ve been pretty humble with Royal Salute for years and years,” Sandy Hyslop tells me. His pride is evident and, after a few days in Seville learning all about the brand, I can see why. It’s the only whisky brand which has consistently has a 21 year old expression since its origins in 1953, which is also the youngest blend in the brand’s portfolio. Royal Salute was first created as a gift for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the inspiration for the latest release, a 29 Year Old blended malt finished in Pedro Ximénez casks, came from the Queen’s first royal visit to Spain in 1988, hence the sherry wood. Rather appropriately, the new expression is presented in a deep red ornate porcelain bottle, rather than the blue we’ve seen before. 

royal salute 29 year old

The Royal Salute 29 Year Old PX finish, in all its glory!

The whisky

This is a first for Royal Salute, which hasn’t finished a whisky exclusively in sherry casks before. “With this release, we’ve done everything as it should be done,” says Hyslop. The blend was finished in sherry casks for 18 months or so, though the processes to source the casks began around four years before the whisky entered the wood. The casks used for this expression are custom-made from Spanish oak to hold Royal Salute. PX is so viscous that if it’s filled straight into new oak, it won’t be able to permeate the wood. So, after the cask has been dried for around 18 months, it’s first filled with Oloroso sherry for two years to prep it for the PX. Hyslop and Fillion even popped over to Spain to choose exactly which PX they wanted.

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

The Ave Maria orange grove, not a bad spot for lunch…

We make our way to the Ave Maria orange grove just outside of Seville. Wandering through the orange trees and scent of orange blossom, we come to a clearing that is to be where we have lunch. Next to a glass of the 29 Year Old there is an incredibly dark, viscous liquid, revealed to be the PX sherry used to season the whisky casks. No wonder they chose this one: it’s like nectar, dried fruits galore, choc full of cherries and liquorice. There are murmurs around the table, many people are saying that this has converted them to sherry, and that they can’t wait to try some when they get back home. Hyslop later tells me, “they’re going to be so disappointed.” This PX is over and above exceptional.

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

Sandy Hyslop tasting us through the awesome PX sherry.

Then it’s time to try the whisky. “The first time, seven years ago that I tried Royal Salute, Seville orange was the first thing I picked up,” Fillion tells me. What better spot to try the whisky than here? On the nose, there is indeed that classic Royal Salute chunky orange marmalade, along with sandalwood, treacle toffee, ginger spice, liquorice and loads of plump sultanas. It’s incredibly rich and complex on the palate, and tried next to the PX, the sherry influence shines. There’s plum, honey, dark chocolate-coated almonds, and more treacle toffee. Vanilla and syrupy fruits appear, with prickles of spice around the edge. The finish just goes on and on, taking an age to disappear thanks to the use of top quality casks. 

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

Barnabé Fillion and some Seville orange. On the nose of the whisky, on the trees, it’s everywhere!


“A 29 Year Old in a sherry cask… It was a dream for me,” professional nose Barnabé Fillion tells me. Fillion has been in the perfume business for most of his adult life, having created scents for brands like Aesop while also working as an independent perfumer, joining Royal Salute as creative advisor for the brand in 2016. Evening draws in, and a sensory dinner (which is really more of a banquet) hosted by Fillion awaits us for our final evening in Seville. He begins by telling us the 95% of your sensory experience comes from your nose; now there’s no excuse for not nosing your whisky first. He wants to flood our senses, giving us new experiences and olfactory memories. “You may end up feeling a bit overwhelmed, but this is sort of the point,” Fillion says. To help us dissect the nose of the 29 Year Old, Fillion has deconstructed it scent by scent. Various oils are dipped onto paper, there’s incense, and some scents are presented on 3D printed ceramic, which more accurately replicates how a scent appears on your skin.

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

Incense, flowers and whisky – Fillion’s sensory dinners have it all!

Sandalwood incense is passed around the table, leaving a trail of aromatic smoke, as well as sandalwood oil, which has an almost milky scent while still remaining dry. Then there’s the rare scent of vanilla orchid, which is creamy and intensely floral. Then, vanilla extract obtained through Co2 extraction comes around, which captures it in its purest form, and at first nobody is quite sure what it is. Usually vanilla is associated with sweetness, though this is so earthy and raw. The point of this is to pick up these subtle notes in the whisky, which we have to nose alongside these various scents. 

If you were to hold your nose while eating or drinking something, then you wouldn’t be able to taste anything. It’s why having a cold is totally rubbish. So, scent has a huge impact on our taste, and they are completely intertwined. Having said that, smell and olfactory is pretty subjective as it relies on your past experiences, smells and memories. So how does somebody like Fillion ensure that each person gets the same experience out of a certain scent? Well… he doesn’t. “I don’t want to standardise your experience, I don’t even want to guide it,” Fillion tells me. “I just want to plant some little seeds that will make your tasting even more interesting.” For Fillion, the whole idea of this olfactory is to “celebrate your subjectivity and life experience,” and give us the vocabulary to describe our sensory experience, rather than create it.

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

Hyslop and Fillion, the dream team!

What’s next?

“I think this is a bit of a golden period for us,” Hyslop tells me, referring to the explosion of new releases for the brand. Throughout his tenure Hyslop has made history, bringing three new expressions into the range where only one stood before for decades, with the Malts Blend and Lost Blend released earlier this year, and now the 29 Year Old. He’s not done yet either, and is now laying down casks that he will never see come to fruition, the responsibility of future stock on his shoulders. So, what’s next for the brand? Quite simply, more experimentation, namely in the form of cask finishes. “We need to start saying, ‘this is what else we can do’,” says Hyslop. “If we want to do Port, we’ll try and do Port.” Of course, whatever cask finish comes next will go through the same rigorous process to seek perfection. “Consumers want different things now,” Hyslop continues. “If it’s not right, we’re not doing it.” That in itself sums up why Royal Salute has had such success, as well as only a small handful of core releases throughout its 66 years.

Keep an eye on our New Arrivals page for Royal Salute 29 Year Old PX finish!

Royal Salute 29 Year Old

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Five things to look for in rum in 2020

Will 2020 really be rum’s time to shine? We’ve got a hunch it just might be – and so does Lucy Cottrell, brand manager for Dead Man’s Fingers. Here’s her…

Will 2020 really be rum’s time to shine? We’ve got a hunch it just might be – and so does Lucy Cottrell, brand manager for Dead Man’s Fingers. Here’s her hot takes for the year to come in rum.

It’s official: rum is on the up. It’s a sprawling category, defined, perhaps more than anything else, by its immense flavour and aroma spectrum. From fun, lively, often sweet, spiced and flavoured bottlings, to seriously delicious, highly luxurious, oak-aged sippers that challenge the status of even the fanciest of Scotch whiskies, there literally is a rum for everyone. And it seems we’re collectively waking up to the tastiness: volume sales here at MoM Towers have soared by a whopping 55% year-on-year. 

Someone else looking to harness our collective hankering for the wonder that is rum is Lucy Cottrell, the brand manager for Dead Man’s Fingers. The Halewood-owned brand has had a stellar year itself, not only launching its latest flavour expression, Hemp Rum, but opening a brand new distillery, too. The Bath & Bristol Distillery will predominantly focus on rum, giving rum geeks and bartenders alike the kind of experience you’d usually have to travel to the Caribbean for. 

“It’s not just looking ahead to 2020; 2019 already is a huge milestone for the growth of the rum category,” Cottrell told me over the phone shortly after the distillery opened its doors in October. With that in mind, and after years and years of being told now is rum’s time, has the category really stepped forward? Here are her top five reasons we’ll all be looking to rum in 2020.

It’s Lucy Cottrell

Rum in 2020: It’s no longer about just white rum

Mojitos, Daiquiris, Punches, or simply with cola, white rum has, in recent history at least, owned the mixed drink space. Gold and dark styles just… didn’t quite work. Maybe we were just all used to clear spirits in drinks after vodka’s 90s heyday. But things are changing – and there’s been a collective realisation that there’s more to rum. “In terms of the on-trade, after gin, rum is the fastest growing category at 7% growth,” Cottrell outlines. “Then in the off-trade, flavoured and spiced rums are up 8% in volume and value, and are now bigger than white rum in the off-trade. What we’ve seen over the last few years is this real evolution of consumer perception, from rum being just white rum to now being much more diverse. I really think it’s a big milestone in a category that flavoured and spiced rum has now overtaken the value of white rum.”

More than just Mojitos: rum cocktails of all sorts are coming to the fore

Rum cocktails are stirring up interest

Cottrell reckons that cocktails in general have a lot to answer for when it comes to this new-wave rum boom. “If you look at the top 10 mainstream cocktails in the on-trade, four of them contain rum, and only two contain gin [CGA data],” she says. “We hear non-stop about gin, and obviously it’s huge, but when you go back to the bare bones of cocktails, rum is inherent. It’s been there for a long time, it’s arguably the most versatile spirit of all, and as the brand manager on a rum, I was super happy to read that [data]. It’s very much a staple ingredient.” Forget rum in 2020, it’s here already!

Sweet and bitter drinks will lead the way

Our palates are shifting in two seemingly incompatible directions, Cottrell says, and rum can bridge the gap between both. “We’re almost seeing a polarisation in terms of trends within drinks,” she muses. “We’re seeing the success of very sweet drinks; the number one cocktail in the UK is the Porn Star Martini, and look at the number of sweeter profile gins. But then we’re also seeing the rise of more bitter serves, so Aperol, Campari, and even in soft drinks you’ve got vitamin shots, kombucha. They’re very different, but equally both are really growing.” She adds that rum’s established reputation is for slightly sweet serves, and sweetness levels can be dialled up even further. But some flavoured rums, like Dead Man’s Fingers Hemp Rum, can help in the other direction, too. “We have something with a slightly more bitter profile, a bit more complex.” Can we expect rum in 2020 to follow a similar pattern?

At the Dead Man’s Fingers Hemp Rum launch

Expect more flavoured and spiced expressions

The short answer to that question is yes! “We’re seeing statistics that show from a consumer point of view, a quarter of rum drinkers are disappointed with the lack of choice, and that’s actually the highest out of all spirits categories,” Cottrell continues. “There’s evidently a gap in the market.” She says it’s clear from the gin boom, and flavoured vodka before that, that we’re an experimental bunch and happy to try different flavour combinations. “So why aren’t dark spirits categories doing that to attract new and slightly younger consumers?” It’s not just in booze that we’re seeing the demand for new flavours. “Ten years ago, you could only get three or four cuisines from a supermarket. Now you can get such a variety,” she says. “Consumers’ palates are changing as well as their expectations, so there’s a wider confidence piece – they want to explore and try new things.” For rum in 2020, expect a lot more in this space. 

Inside the Bath & Bristol Distillery

Get set for a host of rum experiences

It’s not just flavour experiences: we want hands-on, drinks adventures, too! In the same way that pop-ups, blend-your-own workshops, schools and distillery visits for gin have hit the mainstream, 2020 should see rum come to the fore IRL, too. This is something Halewood definitely has its eye on. “As a business we understand the importance of white spirits, but also that trends come and go, and that we need to start investing in dark spirits,” Cottrell states. “You’ll be aware that we’re building a whisky distillery in Leith, for Crabbie Whisky, we’re building a distillery in North Wales at Aber Falls, and The Bath & Bristol Distillery is kind of the third prong to that in terms of investing in dark spirits. Because of the geographical challenge with rum mostly being made in the Caribbean, you can’t just pop over and make your own rum like you can with gin. This is a bit of a hybrid solution for us that gives us the opportunity to educate people about how rum is made, and also get them involved and become almost advocates for it as well, because rum is still very much misunderstood.” A distillery to visit that will result in an army of rum ambassadors? Sign us up!

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