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Master of Malt Blog

Category: Features

The Rum with No Name needs you

After a record-breaking nine months circumnavigating the world on a tandem bicycle, George Agate created a spiced white rum inspired by flavours he came across on the historic Silk Road….

After a record-breaking nine months circumnavigating the world on a tandem bicycle, George Agate created a spiced white rum inspired by flavours he came across on the historic Silk Road. Unfortunately, a trademark conflict forced Agate to abandon the brand name – Silk Road Distillers – mere months after launching. Now, he needs your help choosing a new one…

Having designed his rum specifically to pair with tonic, Agate’s intention behind Silk Road Spiced Rum – temporarily dubbed Rum with No Name – was to breathe new life into white rum. It’s a category he knows plenty about; prior to setting off on the ride that would raise more than £13,000 for charity and earn him a Guinness World Record, Agate worked as a bar manager.

George Agate resplendent in lycra

Around that time, the gin boom was kicking off. “It started off with Hendrick’s as a premium and Gordon’s as a house, and then you started getting your Silent Pools and your Sipsmiths,” he recalls. “And I was watching that and thinking, ‘Wait a second… There’s nothing happening for rum, especially white rum’. We had Koko Kanu and a few cachaças, maybe a bottle of Wray & Nephew. The rest was mainly dark spirits.”

Not long after, Agate set out on the bike trip with cycling buddy John Whybrow, covering 18,000 miles over nine months. Unassisted and carrying all their equipment, they started in Canterbury and headed to Istanbul through Europe. “From there we took the Black Sea and headed to Georgia, and then through Azerbaijan,” he says. “We couldn’t get visas for Iran, so we had to fly down to India.”

The duo cycled the coast of India, through south-east Asia and onto Australia and New Zealand. “One of the rules is that you have to go through opposite points on the planet,” he explains. “Two cities where, if you were to drill through the earth’s core, you’d come out at the other city. And so ours were Wellington in New Zealand and Madrid in Spain.” 

They flew to San Francisco and cycled through central America and Mexico to Panama. A flight to Morocco saw them cycle back up to Canterbury for the final stretch. Back home, Agate began working on his rum, inspired by the journey the duo had taken following the Silk Road eastwards from Istanbul.

Rum & Tonic coming right up

“That was my favourite part of the journey,” he says. “Everyone was so friendly. Locals put us up in mosques some nights, they would take us in and allow us to camp in their gardens. You go through a town and the locals would call you over to have tea with them and play dominoes. It was endless.”

Agate travelled the UK speaking to craft distillers – about 50 in total – before he found a partner that shared his vision for bringing the botanical elements of gin together with the flavours found in traditional spiced rum to create a spiced white rum that pairs beautifully with tonic. “Drinking rum with Coca-Cola as a standard mixer can really drown out the flavour and depending on what ginger drink you drink, that can hide the rum, too,” he explains. “But tonic works really well.”

Together, they imported rum from Guyana to be redistilled and vapour-infused with spices commonly found along the Silk Road trading route: lemongrass, ginger, pink peppercorns, rosehip, hibiscus and cinnamon. “Our rum is 42% ABV, so it’s got a little bit of heat afterwards if you drink it neat,” says Agate. “When we serve it with tonic, we add a little bit of lemon or hibiscus as a garnish. They both work really well. It’s a really refreshing drink.”

Less than six months after applying for the British trademark and launching the brand as Silk Road, the European trademark holder got in touch. Due to Brexit, European trademarks are being converted into British trademarks, so the two businesses faced a battle over who would retain the rights. Reluctantly, Agate decided to change the name – and he’s asking rum fans to rename the brand. 

There are only three rules. Firstly, it has to be three syllables or shorter. This is for simplicity, but also because the signature serve is tonic, so it needs an ‘and tonic’ bar call e.g. Silk Road and Tonic. The second rule is that it can’t be rude in another language or offensive in another culture, for fairly obvious reasons. And the third rule? “It can’t be Rummy McRumFace,” says Agate. 

Got a great idea for a name? To submit yours, all you need to do is donate between £5 and £500 on the Rum with No Name crowdfunding page – and you’ll even bag some rum goodies in return. Be quick, the campaign ends on Monday 8th June at the oddly specific time of 9:24am.

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Five minutes with. . .  Mark Harvey from Chapel Down 

English wine is on a bit of a roll at the moment and the country’s largest producer, Chapel Down, is based right here in Kent. But that’s not all, it…

English wine is on a bit of a roll at the moment and the country’s largest producer, Chapel Down, is based right here in Kent. But that’s not all, it also makes gin, vodka, beer and cider alongside it’s award-winning wines. We thought it was time to learn a bit more. . . 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, those lines seem particularly apt for English wine. On one hand there’s been booming sales, a run of great harvests and increasing brand recognition by consumers; on the other there’s the uncertainties caused by Brexit and Covid plus a lack of profitability among some producers. One company, however, that looks set to thrive even in today’s uncertain times is Chapel Down. It produces everything from popular still wines to the superb single vineyard Kit’s Coty range which tops out at around £100 a bottle for the prestige Couer de Cuvee. In addition, there is beer, gin, vodka and cider. It’s a one stop shop for all your English drinks needs. Recently we ran a sale on the site of Chapel Down products and were stunned by the response so we thought we’d find out a bit more from the company from managing director Mark Harvey who joined the firm in 2015. 

MoM: How are you finding lockdown at Chapel Down?

MH: It’s a really mixed bag. Our restaurants, shops and tours are all shut. The minute we got the advice, we acted pretty swiftly on that, which felt like the right thing to do. All of the on-trade which is heavy on the beer but lighter on the wine is switched off. Then the retail side, we’re in Majestic, Waitrose, Sainsburys, all that lot, they seem to be doing really well. I mean all the signs are pretty positive. And then online it’s just gone bonkers. I mean, literally, 10-15 times up what it would normally be! 

Mark Harvey, MD of Chapel Down

MoM: How are things in the vineyards?

MH: The vineyards just don’t stop obviously and we’re kind of going through frost season [we spoke to Harvey at the end of April] at the moment, so kind of nervously looking at the ground each morning but so far, we got a little bit of frost last week on one parcel of land, one block of land, but nothing major. But we’re not out of the woods yet so we’ve probably got another two weeks of just looking and checking. But the forecast is good, so that should be all right. Last year’s harvest was so big, we are still processing 2019 wines. This week we are doing all of the Bacchus and then we need to get onto blending the sparkling wines because we will start bottling in, hopefully June if the French guys can come over and do it, or if not it might be a little bit later. But yeah, the vineyards and the winery are dead busy. 

MoM: Are you worried about potential shortage of pickers because of Covid 19 and Brexit? 

MH: That’s an ongoing thing. Lots of this stuff is just really unknown. I saw that there was a plane-load of Romanians coming in a couple of weeks back for the fruit that needs picking now, so whether that will happen with us, I don’t know. We obviously work with external companies, who bring these guys and girls in, so they obviously paint a pretty positive picture, because, why wouldn’t they? If we’re in a bit of a corner come August time, it will be around that time, we will probably look to see if we can get local pickers. 

A team of pickers in the vineyard

MoM: And what’s your background before you joined Chapel Down?

MH: I used to work at LVMH so I sold champagne and spirits. I was in the UK for probably half of that and then I was general manager in Ireland. My last job was business director for the whiskies in the US. 

MoM: You joined Chapel Down in 2015, is that right?

MH: It will be five years in September that I’ve been here. It’s gone really quick actually! I’m kind of the glory boy, it [English wine] was already good when I started but it’s going really well now. This next period will be interesting with corona and on-trade shutting down and all of that, as it will for lots of businesses. But long term you step back from it and the future is pretty rosy.

MoM: Do you think at some point there’s going to be a bit of consolidation in the British wine industry? 

MH: Without doubt, yeah. I think this current crisis might possibly accelerate that. And I think the large harvests of 2018 and ‘19 might make things difficult for some as well. Because up until now, the dynamic has been massive demand and not sufficient supply so lots of people have been planting like crazy and then suddenly we’ve had two whopping harvest in ‘18 and ‘19 and I think it’s going to get tougher. And then it’s brands ultimately that win out. There’s lots of lovely boutique wineries but in terms of brands, with a guy wandering down the Waitrose aisle, how many English wine brands does he know? Not many. And even the top ones, like Chapel Down and Nyetimber, the awareness isn’t that high. I think it’s going to be really interesting and yeah, I think a consolidation in the next few years is inevitable. 

MoM: And in the time that you’ve been in the wine business, English wine has changed massively. What are the factors that have seen it become the industry that it is today?

MH: Oh man, it’s changed out of all recognition. I mean, fundamentally, the wines are really good now. I think site selection at the starting point is really important and that’s got better. The knowledge and the expertise of the guys in the vineyards planting the vines and cultivating and all of that, the establishment of the vineyards has got much better. The guys in the winery have got much better. And it’s a combination of talent coming in so there’s some New World and Champagne guys have come over. And then, in our example, it’s two home-grown talents in Richard Lewis and Josh Donaghay-Spire, our winemaker. They’re graduates of Plumpton, the wine school in Sussex. So the expertise has got a lot better and the resulting wines are better. 

Beyond the production-side, you’ve got more professionalism coming in. So, dare I say it, someone like me coming in from LVMH. You’ve got people from big wine organisations coming in, we recruited a guy from Treasury Wine Estates. I’m a massive believer in brands and I think the fact that the leading players are doing the right thing by the brands. The pricing is right, the bottle looks decent on-shelf, it’s sold in the right channel. English wine as a brand is really well-established. The only fear now is that as more wine comes on-stream, that people do the wrong thing with price and… we’ll just have to see how it goes. 

Head winemaker and Plumpton graduate Josh Donaghay-Spire

MoM: What do you think is going to be the next thing that takes off in English wine?

MH: From a varietal point of view, there will be bits and pieces and innovation round the side and we have had a grower that’s planted some Albariño, that was a bit of fun. Ben Wallgate at Tillingham does some interesting stuff and so there will always be bits and pieces around the outside. I think it’s great that you get that diversity. But actually the two main messages whenever I talk about English wine are ‘the traditional method’ and the link back into Champagne. And then Bacchus on the still side. And those, I think, are the two flags that will keep going for a long time. 

MoM: Do you think still Chardonnay will go mainstream or is it always going to be a premium product?

MH: That’s a good question. I think for us it will always be a premium product actually. Just given the scale of it, the quality of it and we shift it, we’re always after more! So unless somebody comes in and plants a lot more… I mean you never know what’s going to happen but I think Bacchus will continue to be at the entry-point still wine scale and then Chardonnay will tend to be at that more premium price point. Our single vineyard chardonnay is 30 quid, which is obviously premium and we just can’t make enough of it. 

MoM: You’re part of the Wine Garden of England group with other Kent winemakers. Do you think Kentish wine has its own identity? 

MH: Yeah, it’s a really interesting one. I like the Wine Garden of England because I think at core there’s a sort of truth to it which is ‘we all believe that Kent is the best place for growing grapes for traditional method wine – lots of clay, lots of chalk and the right climate. So there’s something to it, we’ve all planted in Kent for a reason, so it’s not made up. It makes sense to hold hands on tourism and attracting people to Kent but personally, I don’t think there’s much merit in complicating it beyond that. I think the smart thing to do is just forge ahead as brands. Kent is part of the makeup of what we do, it’s a bit complicated because we also source grapes from Essex and Sussex. I just think that all of us should just go hell-for-leather on our own brands and then the details of ‘Kent’ and ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, it’s just secondary messaging. I think the most interesting things for consumers are individual brands and stories and provenance and that’s what’s of interest. Whether the fact you have an overriding Kent logo or England logo on the bottle, I just don’t think they care. 

Kit’s Coty, Chapel Down’s most prestigious vineyard

MoM: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the sparkling Bacchus because that’s quite innovative isn’t it?

MH: It is and controversial in a way as well as it’s carbonated. Bacchus, because it’s fresh and it’s meant to be drunk young, you don’t want the brioche-y notes you get from secondary fermentation, so it just works. And it’s cheaper to make. And the price point is lower. And it’s a bit of fun. And we’ve been really happy with it and we partnered with Waitrose from the start, who have gone gangbusters with it, it’s now in Majestic [it’s done very well through Master of Malt too]. It was flying in the on-trade and it’s irked a bit because it was about to skyrocket in a few national chains, but such is life. But yeah, it’s a cracking product. 

MoM: How did making gin come about?

We started making spirits a couple of years back. We make a grappa from the Chardonnay grape skins that are left at the end of harvest and that’s the base of the vodka. And that’s then blended with English wheat spirit and it’s as simple as that. We’ve got two gins. One is a Bacchus base and the other one is a Pinot Noir base. And then the botanicals mirror the flavour profile of that particular grape varietal. 

MoM: How is the beer side of the business developing?

MH: We opened up a brewery in Ashford last May and that’s going well. The difference between wine and beer is that wine is really heavily weighted on off-trade while beer is weighted on-trade, so beer is tough right now. But then the online sales of everything has gone bananas and we have got some retail. 

MoM: And finally, you do a cider as well don’t you?

MH: Yeah, I’ve just been drinking it actually! Every week, it’s a bit cringey, but I do this cocktail online for Instagram and I’ve just made a ‘Taste of Kent’ which is the Chardonnay vodka blended with the Curious Apple. It’s pretty punchy: 60ml of vodka, 40ml of the cider, poured over ice, two cracks, two twists of black pepper, stir it round and that’s it. But it’s very punchy.

The Chapel Down range is available from Master of Malt.

 

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The American Bar at the Savoy, where the magic happens

The American Bar at the Savoy with its roster of famous alumni and groaning trophy cabinet has been making cocktail magic for 100 years. But it’s not resting on its…

The American Bar at the Savoy with its roster of famous alumni and groaning trophy cabinet has been making cocktail magic for 100 years. But it’s not resting on its laurels; Bartender Nate Brown looks at all the little things that come together to create perfection.

There’s no such thing as magic. It’s a trick. I don’t like tricks. Fool me once and I’ll hold it against you for an eternity. Similarly, I don’t like surprises. I’m not one for pomp. I don’t take kindly to those who show off. I’m not an attention seeker. Nor do I handle compliments well. I don’t like it when people make an effort for me, nor for themselves. Least of all, I hate it when people believe that different equals better. Difference for the sake of difference gets no stars from me. 

I don’t like the showmanship, the frills. I’m a sucker for the understated, the details. To me, it’s obvious that a table should be kept clean, cocktails should arrive subito, and the wine should arrive before the meal. On the whole, a well functioning bar is a case of simple mechanics. I want a bartender to know more about the products they’re selling than the guests do. I want the lighting to make me feel something other than self-conscious. The music in lounge bars should be there, providing a welcome function, noticeable only by its absence. Like a belt.

Basically, there are component parts to hospitality propositions. And these can be executed well or poorly, accounting for subjectivity. Nevertheless, when these things are all in alignment, they form something greater than the sum of their parts. A great bar, by doing the simple things well, can do something special.

That carpet!

Picture, if you will, the Mona Lisa. What do you see? Some see a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, others see an intriguing lady, others see colours, others see a story. But almost no one sees the hundreds of thousands of imperceptible brushstrokes that make up the whole. On their own, each brushstroke, each mark on the canvas is insignificant, irrelevant, unskilled, and inconsequential. But you only have to look at the whole to understand the power achieved when each one is executed perfectly. 

And it’s much the same when we enter an excellent bar. London is blessed with a prudent handful of these masterpieces. Homeboy’s jovial conviviality is a masterpiece. The drinks at Mint Gun Club too (hurry back please MGC).

Yet, for me, there is none more so masterly than the American Bar at the Savoy. There is no place I’d rather be. It’s fancy, but not it’s not the frills that excite me. This is the place where the team enact a supernatural ability to blend the familiar with the formal. They are the ultimate creators of their environment, here to lord over us guests with benevolent charm and intoxicating potions.  

This place is a true masterpiece. It’s a place where guests like me can feel special without being special. It’s a place where the bartenders, in their fancy dress, know your name. I’ve always said (borrowed) that guests don’t return to the bars that they know best, they return to the bars that know them best. With the American Bar, not only is this true, but it’s probably the only place where I want them to know me best. 

Cocktail perfection

This is the place where a cocktail of guests from all over the world, existing on all time zones, with all manner of agendas, come together to have a Sazerac, or a Hanky Panky, or a beer, or a vino. Where else can a grumpy introvert like me freely engage in a conversation with the guest at the next stool over, not knowing if they’re a Sheik or a shopkeeper, a millionaire, or just a bartender on his night off? This is a bar where Hemingway and Sinatra drank, and where I take my Dad. It’s a place where I can host, or be hosted, where I can entertain and be entertained. That’s a thought worth savouring.

I could (and did) try to break the bar down to its component parts. The canvas, for example, isn’t the best. As fabulous as the lobby entrance is, the carpet in the bar (I have a thing about carpets) is all kinds of wrong. Likewise, the bar itself is tucked away in the corner of the room. It shouldn’t be. The music is bordering on cliche. But how I wish I was there right now, listening to ‘My Way’ again, sipping on my Martini, expertly made my way: painting my palate brilliantly cold, all gin and spice and steel. How refreshing it is to see some not just take my order, but understand it. So simple. So powerful.

I want to be there now, having oysters, drinking pastis, chatting to the bartenders and the hosts, seeing familiar faces and close friends, hearing the ice rattle in the shaker, and the popping of corks table-side. I want to wander out at the end of the night, half-elated, half-skint, all happy. 

Trying to analyse what makes this bar so darn good is like looking at the brush strokes on the Mona Lisa. I’m not down for that. Instead, I’ll hurry back to this place, this, dare I say it, magical masterpiece. 

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Westerhall Rum: Grenada’s best-kept secret

Grenada’s Westerhall Estate has produced rum since the late 1700s, but it only ever supplied neighbouring Caribbean islands. That all changed in 2014, when entrepreneurial rum lovers Annabel Kingsman and…

Grenada’s Westerhall Estate has produced rum since the late 1700s, but it only ever supplied neighbouring Caribbean islands. That all changed in 2014, when entrepreneurial rum lovers Annabel Kingsman and her father Nick set out to share the phenomenal liquid they discovered on this laid-back island – dubbed the ‘Spice Isle’ – with the rest of the world. We caught up with Annabel to find out more…

Located between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean on the West Indies archipelago, Grenada is similar in size to the Isle of Wight – and has a population to match, with just 100,000 inhabitants. Thanks to the bountiful nutmeg and mace crops grown there, it’s known as the ‘Spice Isle’. “When you walk off the plane, you just get that hit of spice straight away,” says Annabel Kingsman, co-founder of Westerhall Rum. “It’s in the air. Grenada really is such a fragrant island, so it’s pretty unique.”

St. George’s, the island’s capital. Looks alright

The Westerhall Estate lies in the south eastern corner of Grenada, and has been owned by the Williams & Wells families since the early 1940s. The estate has long been bottling its own rum – indeed, its distilling history dates back to the late 1700s – but its liquid had only ever been enjoyed by locals and a few neighbouring islands. Until the Kingsmans came along, no one at Westerhall Estate had ever considered exporting it elsewhere.

“We used to go to Grenada a lot on holiday as a family, and fell in love with the rum,” says Annabel. “On one trip, we went to the distillery to chat with the owner about getting hold of it in the UK. When they said they don’t ship it anywhere, we thought, ‘We really love it. Maybe other people will too?’ We had zero experience in the drinks industry between us – I was fresh out of university and my dad has a background in construction – but we ordered 50 cases and said, ‘Let’s see what happens’.”

Loving a specific rum so much you start an entire business dedicated to it? That’s dedication folks. We couldn’t approve more. You might be wondering what makes Grenadian rum – specifically Westerhall’s creations – quite so alluring. Is there something in the water? And the answer is: yes, literally. The waters of Grenada are naturally infused with the spices and flavours of the island, and during the blending process, these are filtered into Westerhall’s rums.

Everyone loves Westerhall rum

“They’ve got a lot of nutmeg and mace, real flavours of the island, but they’re very subtle because they come through in the water,” Kingsman explains [referring to the water used to reduce the ABV of the rum before bottling]. “There’s a stream that runs through the estate, where they grow all these spices and limes, and the water picks up all those flavours. It’s all natural spring water, so they’ve got naturally-infused spices.”

When it comes to production, the Kingsmans leave the technical process to the professionals. And by ‘professionals’ we mean ‘the owner’ – who also happens to be the master blender – and his family. At present, each rum recipe is a closely-guarded secret composed of carefully-source distillates from across the Caribbean. However, thanks to a new initiative, these recipes may be about to evolve.

“For the past couple of hundred years, they’ve been sourcing the raw product from various other Caribbean distilleries – finding the best, blending them together, and then using their barrels and water to create this unique product,” Annabel says. “They’ve just started planting sugarcane on the island and so it will soon become a completely Grenadian product from cane to bottle, which is going to be really great.”

Mojito made with Westerhall Rum No. 2

When the Kingsmans first launched the brand with those initial 50 cases, they had mixed results. While the liquid was well received in spirits tastings, the packaging wasn’t quite right. After 18 months of hard work, they re-branded and re-launched the range in late 2016. The master blender and his family liked the new design so much, they rolled it out in Grenada, too. 

Westerhall Rum relaunched with five bottlings in the range: No.2, No.3, No.5, No.7, and No.10, which denote the ages of the liquids within. There are still a few first-release bottles lingering, including the seriously punchy Jack Iron, a 69% ABV overproof rum that scooped up a Master medal at The Spirits Business’ awards. 

By the end of the year, a (deliberately) spiced liquid will join the fresh line up. “We’ve been working on that for a while, but because it’s coming from the Spice Isle, we want it to be absolutely perfect,” she continues. “We’ve been going back and forth trying to get the perfect balance. Hopefully that’ll launch by the end of the year. That’s the plan.”

 

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Five minutes with… Natalie Wallis from Langley Distillery

Home to some of the UK’s oldest working copper pot stills, and with a century of gin-making under its belt, Langley Distillery creates bespoke recipes for around 75% of the…

Home to some of the UK’s oldest working copper pot stills, and with a century of gin-making under its belt, Langley Distillery creates bespoke recipes for around 75% of the country’s artisanal gin brands – including its very own Palmers Gin. We take five with master distiller Natalie Wallis, whose great-great-great-grandfather founded the business more than 200 years ago…

Incredibly, it’s been over two centuries since the Palmer family first began distilling spirits, and precisely 100 since they started producing gin at Langley Distillery in the Midlands. Today, the Oldbury-based distillery boasts some of the oldest working copper gin stills in the UK; the oldest, McKay, dates back to the mid 19th century.

When she stepped into the business to cover a maternity role a little over 10 years ago, Natalie Wallis became the sixth generation of the Palmer family to work at the distillery. Today, she’s responsible for distilling more than 300 stock gin recipes. Here, she talks stock recipes, surreal stills, and the nation’s love of gin.

It’s Natalie Wallis!

Master of Malt: Let’s start with your family’s incredible distilling history. How far back does it go, and what was it like growing up in that environment?

Natalie Wallis: Our family’s distilling journey began in Old Street, London in 1805 with my great, great, great grandfather, who sold chemical sundries and varnishes. Charles Dickens used to pop into his shop to pick up supplies, so we had well-known faces buying our wares from the start! As the business grew, it was moved to East London – where part of our chemical business resides to this day – and to Oldbury, just outside Birmingham, where all of our global distillation happens. As a child, I was lucky enough to occasionally visit the distillery in Oldbury. I remember it being a real treat, full of the most exotic and wonderful aromas. Even from an early age you could feel how special it was. 

MoM: When it comes to production, your stills certainly set the distillery apart. Tell us about those – is it surreal to make gin with some of the oldest working copper gin stills in the UK?

NW: Our stills are named after influential women within our family and the company’s history, with some dating back to the very early 1800s. Our distilling method is very traditional and respects the age and style of each individual still – they were all made in the UK and each has its own story to tell. When you consider the people and botanicals those copper stills would’ve seen and the multitude of gins that they have produced, it is very surreal. We are so lucky to have these wonderful works of art, all with their own idiosyncrasies and stories.

That’s Jenny, that is

MoM: How important is contract production to Langley Distillery? Do you ever say ‘no’ if an idea or concept won’t work?

NW: Contract gin production is integral to what we do; it’s in our veins. The stock recipes have a real story around each of them – some have been created exactly from our old recipe books from the 1800s, others are new-fangled gins influenced by current trends, CBD, for example. They start life in our laboratory on our test still and are continually assessed and adapted to meet customer specific requirements. There are always a few runs before we get the recipe spot on. We spend a great amount of time working closely with our clients – sometimes they come to us with very specific briefs, other times we are given free reign. We’ve never said no – people come to us with their dream, and we guide them on what we think would work in the market and within category definitions. 

MoM: People can be dismissive of contract distilling, even though the quality of the liquid is far higher than a gin made by an inexperienced distiller. Do you think drinkers are starting to appreciate that?

NW: One of the great things about the resurgence in gin is that there’s room for everyone to enter the market. Sometimes contract distilling can get a bad rep for being cold and mass produced, but if you think about ‘craft’ gin, that’s still what we do. The recipes are all created by a person – not by some sterile corporate computer – and our stills are loaded with ingredients by hand; the team manually filling the still with up to 60kg of juniper. There is no machinery to do the lifting or weigh it out. One benefit of contract distilling is the benefit of experience and experimentation, so we have the capability to grow with all of our customers. We have kept very true to our roots in our methodology, despite our size. The distillery is 200 years old; there is so much romance and tradition there. We have a minimum order quantity of 5 litres and Jenny, our largest still can distil 250,000 bottles of liquid a day. So we really do work with gin companies of all sizes.

Cocktail? Don’t mind if I do

MoM: 2020 is Langley Distillery’s 100th year of producing gin – a remarkable achievement in a hugely busy and diverse category! With your insight, what’s next for gin? 

NW: I don’t think the nation’s love for gin is going to change. The category will continue with the great strength it has seen over the last few years, it has such a rich past and such an exciting future. We’re starting to see a move back to classic gin profiles now – moving away from the flavoured gins that reigned supreme in 2019. I love classic gins, especially our own Palmers London Dry. It’s made in a 1,000 litre still from 1903 called Angela, named after my grandmother Angela Palmer who died in 2016 at the age of 91. She loved a classic gin and this was her favourite recipe.  

MoM: What’s your favourite gin cocktail and why? 

NW: The Bees Knees [made with gin, lemon juice and honey]. It will forever remind me of sitting in my favourite hotel in Hampshire in the sunshine with my husband.

*Interview edited for length and clarity

 

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Lessons in sherry casks with Tamdhu

We take a lesson in the complexities of sherry cask-ageing with one of the very few single malts that is entirely aged in sherry casks, Tamdhu in Speyside. The last…

We take a lesson in the complexities of sherry cask-ageing with one of the very few single malts that is entirely aged in sherry casks, Tamdhu in Speyside.

The last tasting I attended in person before lockdown was with Gordon Dundas, brand ambassador from Tamdhu. We met in a tiny room in London: a few writers, lots of whisky and no social distancing. At the time it was fun and enlightening, looking back, it seems almost miraculous that such a thing was possible.

Tamdhu has to be one of Speyside’s least-known distilleries. Dundas said that he’d never even heard of it before he got the job at Ian McLeod Distillers, the parent company. “Even whisky people don’t know Tamdhu”, Dundas said. “We are not an old distillery,” he continued, “when the distillery opened in 1897, it was the most modern distillery of its time.” Tamdhu nearly disappeared a couple of times: no distillation took place between 1925 to 1947 and then after a period of expansion in the 1970s, it was mothballed by the Edrington Group in 2010. Ian McLeod acquired the distillery in 2011 and production resumed the following year. The company, Scotland’s second largest family-run distillers, now owns three whisky distilleries, Tamdhu, Glengoyne, and the soon to be reborn Rosebank, along with brands such as Smokehead, Sheep Dip and Edinburgh Gin

Sandy McIntyre and Gordon Dundas

The distillery:

At Tamdhu there’s capacity to produce four million litres of pure alcohol per year, 85% of this goes into blends. The rest is put into sherry casks to be sold as a single malt. Despite the rather trendy looking St. Germain-style bottles, introduced in 2013, it’s marketed very much at the single malt lover. There’s no line about demystifying the category or changing whisky’s image. Dundas commented: “We’re after the whisky drinker. We’re not trying to convert people nor are we after the cocktail market.” 

While sister distillery Glengoyne packs in 90,000 visitors per year, Tamdhu doesn’t even have a visitor centre. According to Dunadas it would cost £1million and they would rather spend the money on sherry casks. He also added: “We are not a pretty distillery”. The whole operation is automated. Dundas told us little about the process: “we heat the stills slowly. It’s a very different whisky when stills get too hot. It’s more of a simmer than a boil which gives us lots of reflux. Historically people used to whack the stills on full power.” 

The new make certainly tasted good. We tried it at 66.9% ABV and it showed lots of cereal character and green minty notes. Water brought out a creamy texture. You wouldn’t know it but Tamdhu uses a tiny amount of peated barley because, according to Dundas, that’s what’s always been done.

The casks:

Then we got onto the serious business of sherry casks. The distillery has its own on-site cooperage presided over by an ex-Glenfiddich cooper. The firm has produced a useful 12 minute film called Spain to Speyside (above) to explain how the casks get to Scotland. The team buys from various firms in Spain: Tevasa, Vasyma, and Huberto Domecq (scion of the great Domecq sherry family). Tamdhu uses butts (around 500 litres), puncheons (like a dumpier butt, no giggling at the back!), and Hogsheads (250 litres). These are sent whole to Scotland, not broken down. 

The casks are all seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry of roughly five years of age. This is real sherry, not sherry-style wines that some producers use. The wood soaks up about 35 litres of sherry per year. Dundas said: “The role of sherry is to modify the oak. Colour and flavour come from oak not the sherry. Sometimes it can be hard to tell sherry-infused oak from bourbon oak.” 

Tamdhu uses both American oak (quercus alba) and European oak (quercus rober). The Spanish wine industry has long-used American oak barrels which are much cheaper as you get many more casks per tree. It’s not just in Jerez, traditional Rioja owes its signature taste to long ageing in American oak. The final factor to be considered is whether the casks are first-fill or refill.

Tamdhu cooperage (you probably don’t need a caption here)

 

So when someone says ‘sherry cask’, there are a number of questions we can ask:

-What size is the cask?
-Is it European or American oak?
-What type of sherry was used to season?
-How long was the sherry in the wood for?
-Is the cask refill or first-fill?
-How long was the whisky in the sherry cask for?

It’s complicated. To demonstrate the importance of just one of these factors, European or American oak, we tried two limited edition Tamdhus:

– Representing America was a single cask bottling named in honour of Sandy Mcintyre, distillery manager, winner of best Single Cask at the World Whiskies Awards this year. It was distilled in 2003, bottled in 2019 at 56.2% ABV, and only aged in a first fill American oak sherry butt.

– And in the European corner was the Edinburgh Airport Cask which was distilled in 2006, bottled in 2019 at 58.9% ABV, and only aged in a first fill European oak sherry butt

 

Casks, very important

The American oak one had some of what you might think of as sherry notes on the nose, some dried fruits, but really it was all about fresh fruit with vanilla, crème brûlée, and caramel. Tried blind, I think most people would say something about bourbon casks. The American oak character is really strong. 

Then we tried the European one, the colour is much darker (all Tamdhu expressions are the colour they came out of the cask, unlike some other famous sherry-influenced malts that Dundas mentioned). Now this is what you’d think of as a sherry bomb: dried apricot, tobacco, leather, a smell like getting into a Jensen Interceptor. Then the mouth, it’s all about wood tannins, strong chilli spice, drying leather and maraschino cherries. 

Both are superb sherry-influenced whiskies but only one is what you’d think of as a classic sherried whisky, the European oak version. Those ‘sherry bomb’ notes come not from sherry but from European oak. It makes sense, because those flavours also crop up in old Cognacs. Old Macallan often tastes a lot like Cognac. 

Tamdhu 12 Year Old, a lovely drop

We then tried some of core range bottling that combine the two oak types, different cask types as well as refill and first fill casks: 

– The 12 Year Old leans more to American oak. The nose smells of butter and vanilla with a touch of tobacco then peachy fruit with some strong herbal new make character coming through. It’s creamy and sweet on the palate with some peppery notes.

– The 15 Year Old is matured in around 40% European oak. The nose is so fruity with apricot, pineapple, oranges in syrup, lots of rancio character. On the palate, there’s vanilla, orange peel, demerara sugar with walnuts on the finish.

– Finally, we tried the Batch Strength #4, a limited edition NAS expression bottled at 57.8% ABV.  It’s a real beastie that would appeal to lovers of whiskies like Mortlach. Nose is marmalade, dark chocolate, then the palate is like burnt sugar, thick dark marmalade, dark chocolate and chilli spice. 

My favourite of the day was probably the 15 year old, a graceful melding of European and American oak but everything we tried was spectacularly good. Tamdhu is very quietly, without making too much fuss about it, turning out some of the finest whiskies in Scotland. You should check them out. And now you’ll never use the words ‘sherry cask’ when tasting whisky without thinking carefully again. 

 

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Whisky business

On the blog today, Ian Buxton looks at two scions of whisky families, Edwin York Bowen and Richard Seaman, who turned their backs on the booze business to become a…

On the blog today, Ian Buxton looks at two scions of whisky families, Edwin York Bowen and Richard Seaman, who turned their backs on the booze business to become a composer and a racing driver respectively.

If we turn the clock back to the late Victorian period there were substantial fortunes to be made in whisky and, in a period before industry consolidation, much of this accrued to a privileged class of owners who lived in considerable style. But their offspring didn’t always care to follow their parents into ‘trade’, preferring very different lifestyles. In one case, this brought respectability in the arts whilst another was to excel briefly in the raffish world of pre-War Grand Prix motor racing – with a tainted and notorious association with the Nazi party.

The composer Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961) achieved early fame and was hailed as the ‘English Rachmaninov’. Indeed, Camille Saint-Saëns saluted him as ‘the finest of English composers’ after attending the premiere of Bowen’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The whisky connection came through his father who was a partner in the blenders Bowen & McKechnie. Bottles of its Lords & Barons and Gold Braid blends appear from time to time at auction and an attractive water jug decorated with the message ‘Ask for Melrose whisky’ forms a poignant coda to his story. 

York Bowen: Photograph by Herbert Hughes, 1935. McCann Collection, ©Royal Academy of Music.

Bowen’s fame as a composer was short lived, though he continued to compose, perform and teach for the rest of his life, by the late 1920s his romantic style was considered outdated and his reputation faded. But in recent years, his reputation has risen. Bowen was a great pianist and some of his early recordings are now available on CD from Presto Classical. His own compositions may be obtained on notable classical labels such as Chandos and Hyperion, and are occasionally heard in the present day repertoire of a number of performers resulting in something of a recovery of interest in his work.

Likewise, Richard ‘Dick’ Seaman’s reputation has recently been boosted by the publication of Richard William’s book A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Richard Seaman.  Seaman (1913-1939) was the son of William Seaman. Originally destined for the diplomatic service, a decline in the family fortunes meant William was sent to work for his uncle William Lowrie, then said to be the world’s largest whisky stockholder. Lowrie took a shine to his nephew, paying him handsomely and appointing him a director. By 1910, recently widowed, he was a significant shareholder in not only W P Lowrie & Co., but also Haig & Haig, Mackie & Co. and Dewar’s, where he was also a director. 

In fact it was the great Sir Tommy Dewar who introduced him to his second wife, Lillian Pearce at a dinner at the Savoy Hotel. Love followed at first sight, Dewar later quipping at the wedding reception that this was the last time he was going to introduce any of his widows to any of his friends, as it always led to trouble.

John Richard Beattie Seaman. Photo courtesy of Daimler-Benz

Trouble – and great sorrow – certainly followed their son Richard. Educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge, he began motor racing in 1934 and was very soon successful in European competition driving first, as a privateer, an MG with later an ERA and Delage. His victories were spotted by Mercedes-Benz, whose Silver Arrow cars were a dominant force on the European Grand Prix circuit, and he signed for them in 1937. This resulted in a breach with his mother, who was opposed to him driving for a “Nazi team”, and the family tensions worsened when he married the daughter of a BMW director.

However, success on the track continued and in 1938 he won the German Grand Prix, came second in the Swiss event and was third at Donington. Now seen as one of the leading drivers on the European circuit he was leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa when he crashed and was severely injured, dying just a few hours later of the burns he received in the crash.

Richard Seaman’s wrecked car, Belgian Grand Prix, 25 June 1939. Photo courtesy of Daimler-Benz

Driving for a German team in the days just prior to the Second World War was bad enough, but Seaman gave further offence when he was seen to give, rather half-heartedly it must be said, a Hitler salute on winning the German Grand Prix. Worse was to come – at his funeral at Putney Vale Cemetery (where, curiously, F1 driver James Hunt is also buried) an enormous wreath of white lilies was placed among the piles of flowers, adorned with the name Adolf Hitler. It is said that Mercedes continues to tend his grave to the present day.

The very varied lives of Dick Seaman and York Bowen are linked by whisky and hark back to a world of great wealth derived from the Scotch whisky industry.  Yet in very different ways they set their faces against the source of their privileged existences – and perhaps are remembered all the more for that.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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Creating a legacy with Pearse Lyons Distillery

We spoke to global brand ambassador Conor Ryan to learn about one of the standout brands from the Irish whiskey resurgence, Pearse Lyons Distillery, founded by a self-made billionaire and housed…

We spoke to global brand ambassador Conor Ryan to learn about one of the standout brands from the Irish whiskey resurgence, Pearse Lyons Distillery, founded by a self-made billionaire and housed in a deconsecrated church in Dublin.

If you’re anything like me, planning a trip to a city means you immediately make a note of all the distilleries in the area. When it comes to Dublin, you’re spoilt for choice. The city that once ruled the whisky world is very much back on its feet and is now the home to a number of exciting new projects. But it’s hard to imagine you’ll see a more striking sight across all these delightful sites than a distillery housed in a church, complete with pot stills sitting on top of an altar. 

A short distance from the Guinness storehouse is St. James’ Church, a structure that dates back to the 12th century but has spent much of the last few decades in disrepair. Now, it’s home to the Pearse Lyons Distillery. Stained glass windows and all. I’m a guest of brand ambassador Conor Ryan, who tells me that, despite the distillery’s young age, it has a rich and remarkable history. He was initially brought on board to communicate what he describes as the brand’s “amazing message”. But his role soon expanded. “What I do with them now has ended up being more in the realm of liquid innovation,” Ryan explains. “I do the blending for the whisky, the cask management and the recipes for the gins. I was also involved in the liquid development for a ready-to-drink gin and tonic and worked with the marketing team on the branding”. 

This “amazing message” is rooted in man behind the brand, Dr Pearse Lyons. The Irish entrepreneur sadly passed in 2018 at the age of 73, but not before he had a chance to realise his dream. While he made his money in the animal nutrition industry, Dr Lyons was always a booze man at heart. “He was the first Irish man to get a formal degree in brewing and distilling from the British Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He did his internship in John’s Lane, Powers Distillery in the 70s before it closed down. He then worked with Guinness and after that, he was one of the main engineers that built Midleton Distillery,” Ryan explains. “He eventually went to the USA and his love of brewing and distilling made him curious about the subject of yeast. He did a PhD in biochemistry and yeast & fermentation and then he set up Alltech in 1980”. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Dr Pearse Lyons and his wife Deirdre, who painstakingly restored St. James’ Church

Dr Lyons then used the wealth and influence he generated to start his own brewing and distilling empire. “In 1999 he bought the oldest brewery in Lexington, which was closing down. He renamed it into Lexington Brewing and Distilling and made beer first, before then commissioning a distillery over in Lexington on the same site called Town Branch, making a bourbon, a rye and a single malt,” Ryan explains. “Dr Lyons was an innovator. In 2008, we started distilling single malt in Kentucky, the first single malt in bourbon country since 1919. He brought Scottish stills to Lexington and was one of the first people on the Kentucky bourbon trail to distil pot still only because that was his preferred method of distillation. We celebrated our 20th year in Lexington last year and we’ll launch a special edition whiskey to mark this. It’s a 12-year-old single malt, and we haven’t seen any other American 12-year-old single malts”.

Knowing Dr Lyons history, it seems inevitable that we would return to his homeland to make whiskey. The Dundalk man imported two Kentucky Vendome stills, Mighty Molly & Little Lizzie (named in honour of the Lyons family’s distant relatives), to Carlow in 2012, making it the first distillery in Carlow in 200 years and the first distillery in the south-east of Ireland in 100 years (interestingly, it’s also technically the first lost distillery of the new wave of Irish whiskey). But Dr Lyons went about his business without much fanfare, quietly distilling spirits that he could launch when his distillery in Dublin was ready. “When we actually opened our distillery to the public in a site in Dublin, in two of the expressions of whiskey that we had on the market included our own malt,” Ryan says. “It was produced on the stills that are in the Pearse Lyons distillery today, but while they were in a different location in Carlow in O’Hara’s Brewery”.

Dr Lyons made no secret about his dream to create an Irish whiskey distillery in Dublin and was always drawn to the rich history of The Liberties. He presumably never would have imagined this dream would be realised thanks to his old family church. “The first funeral Dr Lyons was ever at was his grandfather’s in that church. We know of nine relatives of his buried in the graveyard there, alongside James Power, the man who founded Powers Whiskey, and many more amazing characters,” Ryan explains. “He has a deep-rooted family connection with the area. Sixth generations of his family have been involved in Irish whiskey, including himself, and five generations before him on his mother’s side, the Dunnes, were coopers who had their own cooperages. His grand-aunt was actually the first female cooper ever registered in Ireland. Incidentally, distillery operations are now overseen by Pearse and Deirdre Lyons son, Mark Lyons., who himself holds a masters in brewing and distilling and a PhD in Biochemistry and has become the 7th generation of his family involved in the Dublin Whiskey industry”.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

The Pearse Lyons Distillery and visitor centre

While St. James’ Church seemed like the perfect location, logistically it wasn’t easy. The church, which was deconsecrated in the sixties, was almost falling to rack and ruin, so there was a huge restoration required. Then, two weeks after Dr Lyons and Mrs Lyons bought the church, it got turned into a national monument. “That turned an 18-month project into an almost five-year project that cost close to €20 million. The church had to be renovated to a point would’ve been the day it was built. Which meant a quarry reopened in Wales to get the exact same slate; a quarry reopened in France to get the exact same limestone and beams for our roof were brought up from South America because there were no trees long enough to do the beams for the roof that was required,” Ryan says. “We’re delighted with what we built. The church itself is an amazing place to see as a visitor attraction. It’s so meticulously done and there’s amazing history in the church itself, and why wouldn’t there be? There’s been a church on that site for nearly 800 years. Dr Lyons used to always say, ‘whiskey is only part of our story’. He always wanted us to ensure we told the full story of the site and that we’re only caretakers of the place”. 

The location of the Pearse Lyons Distillery means that it’s part of the remarkable revival in The Liberties area of Dublin. At one time, close to 40 distilleries were in operation in Dublin, nestled in a one-mile radius better known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. Pearse Lyons Distillery is part of a recent revolution that has seen the likes of Teeling, Roe & Co. and Dublin Liberties all open in the area in the last decade. “The Dublin identity is important as a distillery because there are such strong Dublin connections with Pearse Lyons’ family and the Dublin story is very much ingrained in our history. This area of Dublin used to be the focal point of Irish whiskey back when Irish whiskey was the focal point of whiskey globally, so it’s synonymous with great whiskey,” Ryan says. “It’s an incredible community, we’re all new together, we’ve got a great relationship with everyone. Everybody’s got their own whiskey, everybody’s got a very different visitor experience and everybody works together, to rise together. We’re all in the same camp. We don’t think of ourselves as being in competition with each other, we’re in competition with other categories like rum, Cognac and other whiskey countries. The more unified we can be, the better it will be for everyone”.

Inside the Pearse Lyons Distillery, I found one of the most polished and presentable distillery floors I’ve seen in this job. Flanking me as I walk around are stained glass windows, which depict four stories associated with the art of the cooper, Irish whiskey and St. James, as well as the Camino de Santiago. But the most striking detail of all is the stills, sitting proudly at the centre of the church on the altar.  Mighty Molly, the wash still, was designed with a neck and ball configuration to assist in refining the spirit character, while Little Lizze, the spirit still, is somewhat unusual as she has four rectification plates installed in her neck to further purify and refine the spirit. The stills that we use in the church today are genuinely unique to Ireland. We have our own inclusion in the Irish whiskey technical file because of Little Lizzie’s swan neck and rectifying plate. They allow the distilling team to create a different type of spirit because they’ve got control to produce a different liquid through flavour differentiation and the temperatures that they bring it to,” Ryan explains. What they create is a single malt new make that Ryan says is as good as he’s ever tasted from anywhere. “It’s absolutely spectacular. It’s got a beautiful, clean freshness to it, but I suppose what makes it different is the balance of the malt flavours with higher fruit notes, it really does stand apart,” he says. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Mighty Molly and Little Lizzie, taking pride of place on the altar

Milling takes place elsewhere and the grist is broken down to specification, but every other stage takes place at St. James’ Church, from the mashing and fermentation to the distillation. “Our brewhouse is a little bit unusual, it’s like a craft beer set up than what you’d see in the bigger distilleries. We ferment in steel first and then we put the spirit into our Oregon pine open washbacks. Our wash goes into the stills at about 7.5% ABV and then we distil slowly enough for the size of the wash,” Ryan explains. “When it comes off the back of the still and we’ve taken the heads and tails off, it’s about 72-74% ABV, which we then bring down to a cask strength of 62.5% ABV”.

The Pearse Lyons Distillery matures its whiskey using an enviable resource, barrels imported directly from its sister distillery, Town Branch in Kentucky. “We’ve got access to incredibly fresh barrels because when they’re disgorging in the US they let us know and we bring them over straight away. We use the ex-bourbon from Town Branch, as well the ex-rye ex-single malt and, most interestingly of all, two different ex-beer barrels,” Ryan says. “It’s fantastic when we use our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, which has a huge cult following in the USA, because when I tell people who are craft beer drinkers what some of our whiskey was aged in they can relate to it straight away. It’s basically an Irish red beer that’s been rested for 40-60 days in a refrigerated warehouse in B1 barrels and to freshly decanted bourbon barrels. We also do our Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout, which have a heavy, dark, roasted chocolatey, burnt and almost smokey note. The beer barrels add nice diversity to the range”. 

All Pearse Lyons whiskies are bottled at 43% ABV (it was previously 42% ABV, as you’ll see with some of the bottlings on our site) with no chill-filtration or additional colouring (there are tasting notes for all of them are at the conclusion of this feature). The entry-level expression of the Pearse Lyons range is Pearse The Original, a blended Irish whiskey that contains malt whiskey produced in the distillery’s own stills. “When we opened up in 2017 we brought out The Original, which initially was a no age statement ‘three to five-year-old whiskey’. The proportions of it were that it was 36% malt and the remainder was grain. Half of that malt was aged in Kentucky bourbon stout barrels and the other half was aged in bourbon barrels, as was the grain,” Ryan says. “The whiskey now has a five-year-old age statement and the malt is the same percentage so it’s quite a malt-forward blend and the inclusion of the stout gives you a slightly smoky wisp. It’s also very citrusy and beautifully crisp, it’s a real aperitif style whiskey and it goes superbly well with sour cocktails. It also pairs beautifully with food, like a soft goat’s cheese or even cold white seafood like a crab tian or something like that”. 

Pearse Lyons Distillery

How many distilleries inside a church have you been to?

Also in the core range is Distiller’s Choice, again a blend of several malt and grain Irish whiskies, which was a category winner for Blended Irish Whiskeys 12 Years and Under at the World Whiskies Awards 2020. “Distiller’s Choice is your more atypical blended Irish whiskey. It contains seven to nine-year-old whiskey with our own malt in it and sourced grain, so its 38% malt and the remainder is grain whiskey. The malt that’s used is a combination of whiskey mature in Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale barrels and bourbon barrels that were finished in sherry, while the grain is a combination of some that were only aged in bourbon and some that were finished in sherry,” Ryan explains. “We wanted to create diversity within the range, we know that every palette is different”.

One of the most interesting whiskeys in the core range is Pearse Lyons Founder’s Choice, which was created to honour Dr Lyons and bring together his two creations from across the pond. “It’s supposed to bridge our Irish whiskey with the kind of sweeter flavour notes that Dr Lyons was working with at the Town Branch Distillery in Kentucky. It’s a 12-year-old whiskey, but we weren’t distilling 12 years ago so it’s probably the one that we’ve put our least personal stamp on as this is a fully sourced liquid. But every drop was re-casked into Town Branch barrels to make sure that even if we didn’t distil it, we had it in our own barrels at least. When we brought out that whiskey in 2017, it would’ve been in Town Branch barrels for a minimum of three, three and a half years at that stage,” Ryan explains. “The barrels were all B1 and B2 bourbon barrels that we decanted, recast into first-fill bourbon barrels again, which gives it a huge vanilla influence with crème brûlée and custard notes. I’ve tasted sourced whiskies from all different brands and it’s an important part of the evolution of Irish whiskey, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I could tell our whiskey separate from other bourbon-barrel-aged expressions, because Town Branch bourbon contains a rye element and that extra spice comes through in our Founder’s Choice, with ginger and clove”.

The distillery also released a limited edition bottling, The Cooper’s Select, named in tribute to the vital job coopers do and owing to Dr Lyons own personal connection with the craft. It’s is a no-age-statement blend of grain and malt Irish whiskey that was aged in bourbon barrels and then at about four and a half years, that was vatted together and then it was refilled into first-fill oloroso sherry hogshead. “When it came out it was teetering anywhere between eight to nine years old from when we started and finished bottling. It’s an exceptionally wooded whiskey, as you’d guess for a salute to Pearse’s family heritage. Dr Lyons wanted to almost bring people into a full immersion of the barrel. So when you smell it and taste it, you get a profile of caramelised orange, burnt treacle, toasted wood and lovely rich sherry notes. It was a real sit at home, delve into it and give it time whiskies,” Ryan says. “Sadly, it was a limited edition that’s pretty much finished now. The Cooper’s Edition was the first Irish whiskey in living memory, certainly, we can’t identify another one, where someone made a blend and then they aged the blend. Instead of bringing together your component whiskies to create a blend, Dr Lyons created a blend and then aged it for three and a half to four years before releasing it. He always looked to do things differently, to set us apart”.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Dr Lyons’ legacy is secured

Arguably the most significant release from the distillery was the Pearse 5-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey in 2018, which was the first five-year age statement Irish Whiskey to appear from a new distillery in the whole of Ireland in more than 25 years. Presented in 4,000 individually numbered bottles, this limited release was the first showcase of the distillery’s own spirit in its entirety. “This was a whole new whiskey DNA coming onto the Irish whiskey market, a whole new bloodline. We made sure that this was not a very casked wood flavour for the whiskey, we made sure that it was more of a spirit-forward whiskey because it was more important that we were showing people our distillery character, a new and different flavour profile. Subsequent versions will have a more wood influence to show how the spirit interacts with wood,” Ryan says. “The quality of the spirit, its crispness and maltiness are amazing. There are so many fantastic fruity, citrusy notes with this beautiful clean, fresh malty backbone. There’s a lemon drizzle note that always sticks out to me and you’re going to get spirit-based spices too. There’s a lovely toasted wood spice in the whiskey without it being overpoweringly oaked.”

The future for Pearse Lyons Distillery is clearly very exciting and we’ll watch with interest as its considerable stock of ageing whisky reaches maturity. But it’s future isn’t all whisky. The Ha’penny Gin School is due to open on the distillery grounds, housed in a newly restored early 20th Century townhouse. “People will be able to distil their own unique gin across two-hours, with help from in-house experts who will guide guests through the history of gin. There’s also a sensory experience to enjoy while you choose your botanicals before you’ll be able to put your miniature copper pot-still to work,” says Ryan. “While they’re bubbling away, local food will be served and paired with a Ha’Penny Gin and Tonic. Once your gin is distilled, you can seal the 70cl bottle before adding a personalised label ready to take home”. On the cards is also an Irish hard seltzer. “We’ve seen over the last two years the rise of the hard seltzer in the USA, it’s taken the place by storm. Our edition is made in a similar fashion to those in the US and we’ll have two flavours, a pineapple punch and a peach fizz. The brand is called Flying Flamingo. It’s going to be 5% ABV and it’s going to be under 90 calories, vegan-friendly, gluten-friendly and just a really clean, crisp drinking experience,” Ryan adds.

Current global pandemic aside, Dr Lyons couldn’t have picked a better era to reignite his Irish whiskey journey. “The leg work has been done, the money has been spent and we arrived as everyone was becoming aware that Irish whiskey exists. The future is increasing the international appreciation of Irish whiskey as a category and, even in the countries where you’re known, developing more customer base. But the interest is going in such a positive direction,” Ryan explains. “We’re creating great whiskey, being innovative and offering new flavour profiles. Our innovation and releases demonstrate that we’re trying to offer something new to our customers and the whiskey market as a whole”. With the distillery that bears his name, Dr Lyons has made his mark and secured his legacy. Credit where it’s due, it’s a bloody tasty legacy.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Original tasting note:

Nose: Honey toasted oats, lemon sherbets and dry grass lead. Toasted oak and dry nutmeg aromas arise among mellow malt, sweet spearmints and vanilla elements.

Palate: Crisp spice trickles through milk chocolate and caramel shortbread. A hot flash of spearmint emerges among ripe apples and dry oak.

Finish: Creamy vanilla and buttery malt linger.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Distiller’s Choice tasting note:

Nose: Through oily barley and double vanilla bourbon ice cream, there’s stewed apricots, wet grass and touches of fruitcake. Subtle spices percolate throughout.

Palate: Complex fruit notes come from white grape and tinned pear, while a creamy element continues to sweeten things, developing into rhubarb tart and custard. There’s a suggestion of black fruit and ripe malt on the mid-palate among cooking apples and dark caramel.

Finish: The finish dries slightly with a chestnut-like note and hit of clove spice.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Founder’s Choice tasting note:

Nose: Crackles of woody tannins lead among buttered toast and rich vanilla. Orchard fruits add depth in the backdrop.

Palate: The fruit develops to become ripe and juicy against big oak notes and prickles of nutmeg underneath. Butterscotch adds a complex sweetness throughout.

Finish: The oak spice tingles away in a composed, long finish.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Lyons Cooper’s Select tasting note:

Nose: Rich and refined, there’s hazelnut buttercream, flamed orange peel and traditionally Sherry notes of raisins, dates and figs initially. A hint of toasted oak and star anise linger underneath.

Palate: Milky coffee and dark chocolate lead with plenty of juicy citrus, dark fruits and gingerbread.

Finish: Sweet stewed pineapple lingers alongside a touch of vanilla.

Pearse Lyons Distillery

Pearse Five-Year-Old Single Malt tasting note:

Nose: The nose is light and malty and filled with notes of citrus peels, dusty apples and fresh oak. Touches of marshmallow, green grass, golden syrup and vanilla ice cream add depth among wood spice, almond pastries and sticky toffee pudding.

Palate: Full-bodied and fruity, the palate begins with plenty of orchard fruit, mostly honey-drenched pears, as well as vanilla and toffee. There’s some oiliness and metallic elements among hints of dried herbs and darker fruits, which mingle with black pepper and clove spice.

Finish: Candied fruit, baking spices and more of that vanilla sweetness lingers.

 

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Five minutes with. . . John Little from Smooth Ambler

Almost by accident, John Little built a business around his ability to sniff out great mature whiskey for his award-winning Old Scout brand. But what happened when other people got…

Almost by accident, John Little built a business around his ability to sniff out great mature whiskey for his award-winning Old Scout brand. But what happened when other people got in on the act and those sources dried up? We find out. . . .

John Little never intended to go into the whiskey business. He ran a number of ventures in West Virginia with his father-in-law Tag Galyean before founding Smooth Ambler in 2009 to make craft gin and vodka. But when they came across casks of quality mature bourbon that nobody else wanted, they saw an opportunity. According to Little: “A lot of people start businesses and they start sourcing and they create a brand, and if it goes really well maybe they build a distillery. Ours was the opposite story”. The result was Old Scout, a range of sourced mature whiskeys. They quickly built a reputation, winning awards and selling in unexpectedly large quantities. But success brought its own problems as good mature whiskey became harder and harder to source, and the Old Scout brand nearly disappeared. In 2016, Pernod Ricard took a majority stake in the company, with Little staying on as CEO. Since then the company has stabilised, producing a range of whiskeys from bought-in new make and spirits distilled by the team at Smooth Ambler. We talked to Little to find out more. . .

John Little nosing out some quality whiskey

Master of Malt: How are things in West Virginia?

John Little: They’re pretty good. Well, as well as can be expected during this crazy craziness. We’re still bottling but mashing and distillation has switched over to bottling hand sanitiser. So right now we’ve committed to 19,000 bottles of hand sanitiser so we’re getting those out. We’ve taken the crew that was doing mashing and distillation over to hand sanitiser.

MoM: When did you set up your distillery?

JL: We had the idea in 2008, my father-in-law and I were in a separate business together. We were trying to showcase what we love about living here in West Virginia: clean water, clean air, really wonderful people. It’s a cheap place to buy land so putting some sort of facility here was great. We’re an eight hour drive from 70% of the US population because we’re so close to all these big cities. We looked at making clothes and doing a customer service centre and making furniture. One day my father-in-law saw an article in Time magazine that talked about the growth of the distilling business. Ten days later there was a conference in Louisville Kentucky and that kind of set us on a path to where we are today. 

MoM: Were both of you keen whiskey drinkers before?

JL: At the time I was drinking a lot of vodka and some red wine and that was pretty much it at the time, and a little bit of whiskey. Our original business we started off was making vodka and gin. All those craft folks, everybody was trying to figure out how to do the shortest amount of time without any sort of profitability! With vodka and gin you can make it today and sell it tomorrow. When we first started we were making vodka and gin and making whisky whenever we had time; whisky wasn’t the focus. We did that for a while and then realised that vodka sells for one of two reasons: it’s either priced very well or marketed very well and ours was neither.

Smooth Ambler warehouses in West Virginia

MoM: How did you get into buying casks of mature whiskey? 

JL: In 2010 we realised that we needed another still to be efficient. We went to buy a still in Kentucky and I met Richard Wolf. He is a broker, he sells barrels for a living. At the time, late 2010/ early 2011, the bourbon business was much different than it is right now. There was bulk inventory available from probably six or seven different places. And we tasted through some of that. I think the tenth or eleventh sample that we tried was this high-rye mash bill from MGP [Midwest Grain Products of Indiana]. As soon as I nosed it I thought ‘yeah, this is what I’m looking for’.

MoM: Where did the name Old Scout come from?

JL: Everything up until that time had been about grain-to-glass. Then I found this juice and I called one of our distributors and I said ‘We have this chance to buy some bourbon that is really good and it’s affordable and we’re going to do different than what some other people have done, which is to say that they made it, we’re going to tell people that we didn’t make it’. That’s where the name ‘Old Scout’ came from, we’re going to say that we scouted this out. I said ‘can you sell it?’ and he said ‘yeah, I think so’ and so we bought 40 barrels. And then we bought 80 barrels. And then we bought 120 barrels. And then my partner said ‘I’ve seen enough, let’s buy all of them that we can!’  

MoM: How important is it to be honest about where your whiskey comes from?

JL: I want to make sure that we’re being open and honest in running our business, whether it’s about this or anything. That’s the way we try to live our lives and certainly that’s the way we’re going to run the business. I remember we won World’s Best Single Barrel in 2016 [at the World Whiskies Awards] with a single barrel of MGP and people were upset because we didn’t make it. A reporter, Mark Gillespie, asked me about it and I said ‘look, let’s be honest, MGP did the heavy lifting, I just made it available’. We have never lied about it, we have always told people the truth.

Inside one of the warehouses

MoM: And now that the American whisky boom has happened is it harder to get these whiskies or are they just a lot more expensive?

JL: Well, both! The ability to be able to buy whisky from other people, that went away quickly, in two years, maybe from 2011 to 2013. There just wasn’t stuff out there, people saw what was happening so fast. Investors were buying barrels and trying to flip ‘em. And that’s really what screwed us, right? Well, a lot of things. We made a lot of mistakes early on right, we just didn’t know. Like we bought a bunch of whisky, at one point in time we had about 3,800 barrels, early on. We were tiny our first still was 175 gallons and we had a little bitty business and we have 3,800 barrels and I thought ‘God, this is going to take a lifetime to sell!’ Turned out it took about three or four years! Our business was booming Old Scout was just going crazy and the plant was expanding and we were adding people and it was enabling us to do all sorts of other things. We kept thinking there were some deals out there, or strategic partnerships that we were going to make that would give us access to more whiskey. They never really materialised. 

MoM: How did this shortage affect the business?

JL: The ability to buy those barrels had gone away. We grew that business explosively from 2011 to 2016, and in 2016 we stopped selling Old Scout Ten, Old Scout Rye and Old Scout Bourbon. We took our three biggest sellers off the market because we just didn’t have the inventory. In 2014, we started buying whisky from MGP but instead of buying it in an aged format we bought it as new-made contract. That whisky that we bought is now just coming available for us at the end of last year. When we first started sourcing Old Scout it was all five years old. Then we went for three years without selling it. From 2016-19 we didn’t have any Old Scout except for a little bit of American Whiskey. And then just last September we bought out some more Old Scout (Revenant) Five Years Old. 

MoM: Have you noticed any difference between the stuff that you were buying in ready-aged and the stuff that you’ve aged yourself?

JL: No, I can’t taste any difference. When we started selling Old Scout it was five years old, the same age as what we’re selling it right now. The problem is that it aged up. So it was five years old and then it was six years old and then it was seven years old. Well then at the end, when we stopped selling it, some of that whisky was eight, nine, ten years old. We changed it from ‘Five’ to ‘Six’ to ‘Seven’ but by the time we got to ‘Seven’ we were big and we had a lot of distribution so we didn’t want to change it to an ‘Eight year Old’ and we’d have some Seven and some Eight so we just understated the age. We were putting eight, nine, ten year old juice in a seven year old bottle. So if you drank Old Scout in 2016, or whatever was leftover from 2016-17 you were drinking an eight, nine or ten year old product. And if you taste that aside the Old Scout that we’re putting out you say ‘well, it’s good but it’s as good’ because it’s a five year old whisky compared to an eight or nine year old whisky. That’s one of the issues that we have but with Old Scout I didn’t really see a way around it right, unless we waited another four years which is something that we just couldn’t do.  

The Smooth Ambler range

MoM: Have you been distilling your own whisky as well and maturing it alongside Old Scout?

JL: Yeah, we do it for Big Level, which is 100% house-made. We think of our business now in three ways: the stuff we make, Big Level and some other products that aren’t even out yet; the things that we don’t, which is Old Scout; and then in 2013/14 we created a brand called Contradiction, and it’s a blend of things that we make and things that we don’t. That’s where the name came from. We used to primarily make a wheated bourbon, that’s what Big Level is. It’s about a third of what we make and two-thirds sourced. So a wheated bourbon mixed with a bourbon made from rye. 

MoM: How has it been working with Pernod Ricard?

JL: There have been some growing pains, mostly from figuring out how a small brands fits in among the big brands. But they have made us a better business, that makes better whiskey, is safer, and more efficient. And they are as much like family as any corporate business can be. We’re proud of our relationship with them.

MoM: And do you still do a vodka or was that left behind?

JL: We stopped selling vodka in 2015-16, and stopped selling gin in 2017. If you go into a store and you have ten minutes of their time, and you only have three things to show them, what do you show ‘em? You show them the three biggest sellers and they were always whisky. So gin was sort of forgotten about. But our gin was delicious and we still have people all the time begging us to make it again. Our response is always ‘well if you had been buying a whole lot more back in the day we wouldn’t have stopped making it!’ 

MoM: How has the EU/US trade tariffs affected your business?

JL: We’ve had to change our prices on everything, in order to be competitive in the EU and UK. Trade wars, as far as I can tell, are bad for everybody. But you know, I love the market there. London is one of my favourite cities to go to. The best bars in London just also happen to be some of the best bars in the world.

MoM: What are your favourite ways to drink your whiskey?

JL: I’m pretty simple, at home I’ll make bourbon and ginger ale. In a bar I’m going to be pretty basic too. I’ll probably drink it in an Old Fashioned. One of my favourites is a drink called the Brown Derby. A mixture of bourbon, grapefruit and honey, it’s named after a Los Angeles diner that was shaped like a hat, a brown derby [take a look at the picture on Wikipedia].  

Smooth Ambler whiskeys are available from Master of Malt.

 

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Hey big spender: private cask sales part two 

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers,…

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers, big spenders and fat cats.

As we moved into the final years of the twentieth century it may have seemed that the private cask [read the first part of the story here] would become little more than a curious historical footnote to whisky’s story. But the industry is nothing if not cyclical. Though most larger distilleries eventually closed their doors to the private clients, fresh opportunities arose, slowly at first and, from the turn of the millennium began gathering pace. New distilleries, some actually opened and some merely a glint in a promoter’s ambitious eye, began to sell casks of whisky yet unmade to finance their construction or expansion.

Not all were successful. There were some very suspect deals around and, on occasion, well-intentioned failure, such as the Ladybank Company of Distillers. In 2003 it announced plans “to create one of the world’s greatest single malt whiskies” at a proposed micro-distillery in Fife, charging their founder members an initial £3,250 for the promise of future bottles. Perhaps the 15% commission on offer to intermediaries should have sounded the alarm – in any event, by 2007 problems were apparent and the business placed in liquidation by 2011, with investors losing their entire stake.

However, the sale of single casks to the public has gained renewed impetus and, if willing to risk your money to a start-up at some historically rather inflated prices, there are several offers from new ‘craft’ distilleries available on the web. But what if you would like a cask of something special from a recognised distillery?

Macallan cask, probably worth a bit

Well, once again you can but this side of the business has changed a lot since the 1980s. Not just anyone can buy. It helps to be VHNW or, better still, UHNW (that’s Very or Ultra High Net Worth – filthy rich to the rest of us) for this is where the private cask action is to be found today.  Macallan appears to have started the trend, launching their En Primeur programme in April 2007 with a large and very tasteful brochure. At 30 x 41.5 cm it was indeed very large, but then ‘go large’ was clearly the message: prices started at £5,000 (presumably for the 200 litre ex-bourbon barrel) with more to pay on delivery after the recommended 12 years maturation. 

This was a whole new level of pricing for new fillings and, in retrospect, may be seen as a landmark in the transition of certain whisky brands to Veblen goods, where the marketing becomes as much about the trappings and experience of purchase as the product itself. We enter here the world of luxury and high-end marketing. Macallan maintains that the scheme proved a success, stating that they “took the decision to close the En Primeur programme in 2019 indefinitely due to unprecedented demand and an extensive waiting list of over five years.” Currently, no new applications will be considered.

But then, very quietly, something really interesting happened: brands noticed that very old whisky, long rather looked down on, could be very valuable indeed especially if it could be sold direct (just think of the margin). So single casks are once again available for sale. Not new make, however, for the new class of very wealthy buyer does not want to wait while their purchase matures – no, the demand now is for exceptionally old casks from distilleries with an established reputation that can be enjoyed as trophies.

Now let me stress that there’s nothing illegal going on here, though very few of the companies involved in the business want to talk about it. While multiple anonymous sources maintain that “everyone’s in the game”, I’ve seldom encountered such a wall of silence.  However, both Whyte & Mackay (W&M) and Diageo were willing to describe some aspects of their operation to provide a glimpse of this market.

Your own private label whisky would look splendid on your yacht

Both have identified that there is a small group of intensely private buyers prepared to pay handsomely for exclusive access to rare single malts. They may contact the distillery but, more likely, the marketing team have tracked them down to make a personalised approach.  As W&M’s Rare Whisky and Private Client team see the business, it’s more of a relationship than a transaction and they look to trade with “the right people for the right reasons”. That definitely precludes flipping these precious bottles for profit and it’s stressed that the whisky is sold for drinking not for investment, with prospective buyers carefully vetted as to their suitability.

Be clear that we’re looking at a minimum of six figures to pay to play, and frequently the transaction will run well into the millions including bottling and bespoke, customised packaging.  But then the likely client may call up from his superyacht (the typical client does appear to be male) where the whisky will be served to his guests while glancing casually at his million-pound Patek Philippe. Some of the figures quoted were eye-watering – one deal was mentioned at close to £20m!

Diageo, too, is represented here with a Rare & Collectable Spirits team established in 2015. It offers the Casks of Distinction – described as “special, old and very rare; entirely unique and individual in character… representing the most exceptional and singular expressions of their distilleries’ character.”

Feis Ile

You could even have your very own cask of Port Ellen

What distilleries? Well, any of them it seems. According to James Mackay, the head of rare & collectable spirits, nothing is off limits, and includes “some of the most famous Scotland has ever known; Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, Talisker, Mortlach and Cardhu, Clynelish and Brora, Oban and Royal Lochnagar on Royal Deeside” as well as “Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Carsebridge, Convalmore, and Dalwhinnie to Dailuaine”.

Like W&M, marketing is very discreet. “Casks of Distinction are offered only by appointment with one of Diageo’s network of private client teams in various cities around the world,” says Mackay, adding that “because Casks of Distinction is such a very small and niche programme, addressing the needs of a community of individuals who tend to be quite private by nature, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to promote it widely.”

So there you have it. If you haven’t been asked, don’t keep a Bugatti as your weekend car and consider flying in First Class a tiresome economy, you can probably forget access to these exceptional whiskies. In the words of an old song, “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure” but whether or not you find it all a “blooming shame” probably depends on the state of your bank balance.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

 

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