Cask masters: investment and innovation drive scotch whisky

Dead Parrot Monkey Shoulder whisky

With new distilleries and new ideas, scotch whisky is set for growth, reports Mark Ludmon

David Stewart has worked at The Balvenie distillery for over 50 years. Credited with innovations such as the now-common process of finishing a whisky in a second cask, he has seen many changes in the world of scotch during his time as malt master and master blender – something he has played a key part in. As he faces the prospect of one day retiring, he has come up with a new collection of limited releases that encapsulate why whisky is such a unique and exciting spirit. The Balvenie DCS Compendium – named for David Charles Stewart’s initials – is being released as “chapters” of five bottles a year for the next five years. The first single malts from 1968, 1978, 1985, 1997 and 2005, aged in refill American oak barrels, were chosen because they capture the essential characteristics of The Balvenie such as its notes of honey and butterscotch.

The next five have been chosen for what they reveal about the effects of different ways of maturing in oak while 2017’s will explore the skill of the malt master in selecting casks, whether for bottling in a single malt after 12 years or laying them down for a single-cask release further down the line. The fourth “chapter” will feature whiskies that demonstrate the unpredictability of how spirit ages while the final five will be David’s special choices, or “indulgence”.

The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 1

Along with Glenfiddich, The Balvenie has been driving growth for owner William Grant & Sons but, in the category overall, sales of scotch in the UK declined between 2009 and 2014. This has not been due to a lack of enthusiasm for whisky but high taxation pushing up prices, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. After a 2% cut in duty on scotch in March, the industry hopes that the appetite for whisky will lead to an upturn in volume sales.

The category is benefiting from considerable sums from Diageo which, alongside its annual release of rare and limited special releases, has been spending on high-profile campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Haig Club, the grain whisky it launched with David Beckham. “One year on from its launch, Haig Club is going from strength to strength as experimentation remains at the front of the consumer mindset,” says Nick Temperley, head of Diageo Reserve Brands GB. The focus for the whisky has been mixing, from signature serves such as The Clubman with Appletiser to using it to replace gin in a Negroni for a variant on a Boulevardier. “With demand for whisky at an all-time high, by stocking Haig Club, operators can appeal to a broad audience and maximise the opportunity to attract new consumers to the category as well as whisky connoisseurs looking to experiment with new and exciting products,” Nick adds.

New distilleries have been appearing across Scotland such as Wemyss Malts’ Kingsbarns in Fife, Ballindalloch and Dalmunach on Speyside, Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, Eden Mill in St Andrews, Glasgow Distillery Company, Isle of Harris, and Gartbreck on Islay while Annandale in Dumfriesshire has been brought back to life. Wolfburn distillery in Caithness began making spirit in January 2013, bring back production to a site after a break of 150 years. Under experienced master distiller Shane Fraser, the first releases are due in January, available through Amathus Drinks. “The whisky will be aimed at specialists initially but we would hope to use our large number of on-trade customers to make it more available in the on-trade,” says Amathus brand development manager Guy Topping.

Euan Mitchell Isle of Arran

A resurgence of interest in scotch is partly down to other countries such as Japan growing sales in the UK and attracting attention for their single malts, says Euan Mitchell (pictured), managing director of the Isle of Arran Distillery. “In turn, there has been a distinct resurgence of interest in single malt scotch whisky from consumers who are returning to the category as they recognise its quality and heritage.”

He believes consumers are particularly attracted to the provenance of whiskies from independent distilleries like Isle of Arran as well as scotch’s heritage. Inspiration for Isle of Arran’s releases comes from the landscape, history and myths such as its new Smugglers’ Series which references the illicit whisky trade between Arran and up the Clyde to Glasgow in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first release, The Illicit Stills, is hidden inside packaging that resembles a book, reflecting how bottles were smuggled. “The enthusiastic reception to all of these releases, with the limited editions often selling out online within hours, is a clear reflection of the consumer desire for quality and something original,” Euan says.

Over the past two months, limited releases in the UK have seen a strong surge in peaty expressions. The dark and smoky Rascan has been launched by Highland distiller anCnoc as the fourth in its Peaty Collection while Old Pulteney has added a second peated whisky to its range, the Old Pulteney 1989. New from Pernod Ricard UK, The Glenlivet Nàdurra Peated Whisky Cask Finish adds a sultry, gently smoked taste profile by finishing the spirit in American oak casks that previously held heavily peated scotch.

A major limited release from Maxxium UK is Laphroaig 32 Year Old, matured exclusively in first-fill ex-oloroso sherry casks, launched as part of the celebrations for its bicentenary. William Grant & Sons has reminded us how single malts have only been popular over the past few decades by releasing Glenfiddich The Original – a reproduction of the original “Straight Malt” released in 1963 which helped to open up the market for single malts. The Last Great Malts collection from Bacardi’s distilleries has continued to grow this year with new single malts including The Deveron from the Macduff Distillery in Aberdeenshire.

Highland distillery Balblair has championed vintages for its releases, combining a house style with individual characteristics each time. “This vintage statement system allows for a diversity that is not permitted in age-statement whiskies,” explains distillery manager John McDonald. Its core range is whiskies that were laid down in 2003, 1999, 1990 and 1983, with the latest release being last year’s Balblair Vintage 1990 2nd Release, matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks and ex-sherry Spanish oak butts.

Bartender education has been important for Balblair alongside developing ideas for pairing the whisky with food, showcased through consumer master classes in the on-trade. “Flights of whisky can be enhanced by matching bespoke canapés which reflect the whisky’s depth and complexity,” explains Balblair’s UK trade marketing manager, Sarah Clark. “This is another great way to introduce new consumers to the category and gives the traditional drink a contemporary feel.”

HAIG CLUB™ & Ginger - Cucumber Garnish at HAIG CLUB™ Miami

Part of the work with bartenders for Haig Club has been to create bespoke food pairings for different venues. “Whisky pairs beautifully with food, and works well with complementing and contrasting flavours,” says brand ambassador David Sinclair. “I would serve chilled Haig Club alongside freshly seared scallops so the consumer is able to discover Haig Club’s sweet creamy notes and hint of citrus.”

With its focus on mixed serves, Haig Club is part of a revival over the past three to four years in using scotch in cocktails. Euan at Isle of Arran Distillery has no qualms about recommending bars use their single malts for mixing. “Mainstream cocktail recipes can be adapted to include single malt, and a wider range of styles, ages and expressions gives operators increased options to create long serves that best suit their patrons. Our Robert Burns Single Malt, for example, features light citrusy tones that marry well with ginger beer, fruit juices and liqueurs, giving operators the freedom and flexibility to create a varied list of recipes.”

Great scotch-based cocktails include the Blood and Sand, the Rob Roy, the Godfather, the Penicillin and the Rusty Nail with new recipes being developed by bartenders through competitions such as Glenfiddich Malt Mastermind and Diageo Reserve’s World Class which, for 2016, features Johnnie Walker, Haig Club, Talisker, The Singleton and Cardhu. The complex flavours of different whiskies mean it is not as easy to mix as other spirits, points out Simo, the owner of Milroy’s of Soho – London’s oldest whisky shop. In its 55-seater basement bar The Vault, Simo and bar manager Natalino Marano have created an extensive list of cocktails, including several with scotch. “With whisky cocktails, you can’t blag it – there is an art to it in balancing and pulling flavours from each individual whisky,” Simo says. “You can’t just interchange the scotch thinking the cocktail will still work, unlike with vodka for example. The choice of whisky depends on the flavours you pull from it and play on with the cocktail you are making. Whether it be peat, sherry, spices or teas, as long as you can exaggerate certain tastes within the whisky – pull them from the whisky so to speak – you can then play around with them and create a vast range of cocktails.”

Drinks at The Vault include Memoirs of a Geisha (pictured below) in which the base is a scotch infused with gunpowder tea – a type of green tea – plus fino sherry and scotch gunpowder bitters. Another is called When a Scot Punched a Swede, combining the complex peaty and smoky Ardbeg Ten Years Old with Swedish arrack-based liqueur Flaggpunsch plus Cocchi Americano aperitif and orange bitters, garnished with an orange twist. “A good scotch cocktail for me is the sign of a good bartender,” Simo adds, “as not only is it the hardest spirit to work with due to the complexity of the spirit but if done properly it can produce some of the world’s best cocktails, as history has shown.”

The Vault - Memoires of a Geisha

The Dead Parrot: All the fun of the circus

A team of bartenders from The Dead Parrot in Horsham in West Sussex served cocktails with Monkey Shoulder whisky at their own pop-up during London Cocktail Week in October. They won the chance to run the bar through Monkey Shoulder’s Ultimate Bartender Championship earlier this year, impressing judges with a colourful circus concept.

Drinks at The Flying Circus Bar included Hook A Buck, mixing Monkey Shoulder with Monin Toffee Nut and Monin Apple syrups, a malic acid solution, fresh ginger juice and Caple Rd Cider. The Strongman(go) combined Monkey Shoulder with mango juice, Kamm & Sons aperitif, Wood’s navy rum, Spanish bitters and demerara syrup, shaken and strained over fresh ice with bacon essence candy floss.

The winning team from The Dead Parrot was led by Andrew Harrod (pictured top), Adam Manning and David White. Monkey Shoulder’s Ultimate Bartender Championship challenges teams of bartenders to work together to develop an entire bar rather than just create one-off cocktails.

Visit the “Ultimate Bartender Championship” page on Facebook for updates on the 2016 competition.

The Gallery

The Gallery: Whisky 101

With 101 whiskies behind the bar, Urban Leisure Group’s The Gallery (pictured) in West Hampstead in London has launched a series of consumer events promoting whisky pairings. The inaugural Whisky 101 event in October was run with Isle of Jura single malt and its brand ambassador Rishi Ravalia along with The Gallery’s bar manager and beer enthusiast Daniel Pavey. It presented ideas for matching scotch with a craft beer and canapé course designed by head chef Nik Prescott and sous chef Laura Reed who are behind Urban Leisure Group’s Coin Laundry which opened in Exmouth Market in November.

Future workshops will look at pairing whisky with food, cheese and other beers as well as tasting sessions exploring and comparing whiskies from different regions of Scotland, the differences between whisky and bourbon, and new-make spirits and whiskies from craft distilleries. “Our aim for Whisky 101 is to make whisky a more accessible drink,” Daniel explains. “The emphasis will be on interaction with the audience because the perception of flavour is something that people enjoy in a very unique way.” They also hope to run more hands-on workshops on whisky cocktails and DIY whisky infusions.

A version of this report was originally published in the November 2015 print edition of Bar magazine.

Previous Three Wise Men and a Snowball lead the way in Christmas cocktails
Next ALMR announces Operations Managers Awards winners