Festivals and events

Tales of the Cocktail: Day 2


Day two of Tales throws up a heated debate over sourced American whiskey, a heavy metal bagpipes surprise, and a new Chivas Master.

Fred Minnick's The Audacity of Sourced Whiskey seminar
Hitting the source: Fred Minnick's The Audacity of Sourced Whiskey seminar

Even considering the NAS furore that’s planting Scottish distilleries’ marketing departments directly in the line of fire right now, there is far more controversy and bitching over American whiskey. If the industry isn’t tied up debating the origin of Bourbon or the strict definition of Tennessee whiskey, it’s getting its pedantic pants/knickers in a twist over labelling terminology and provenance.

American consumers have gradually come to expect clarity over the origins of whatever product they are purchasing, be it a loaf of bread, a t-shirt or furniture. But despite both Scotch and Irish whisky brands calling the decision to disclose the source of their liquid their prerogative for hundreds of years – a preference long respected by consumers – American whiskey producers don’t seem to be able to get away with it.

According to whisky writer Fred Minnick, ‘industry insiders have known about sourced whiskey for years’ – as if it’s some kind of scandal the industry has been covering up – but now ‘consumers perceive many so-called non-distiller producer brands to be dishonest’.

This controversial introduction to Minnick’s seminar, The Audacity of Sourced Whisky, was precisely why I was so devilishly keen to attend today, particularly as David Dykstra, VP of alcohol sales and marketing at third party distilling powerhouse MGP would be on the panel. Of course the room was packed with some 200 equally curious and no doubt opinionated faces. So much so that I was lucky to nab a seat.

‘Sourced spirits is like a dirty little word in the spirits industry,’ said Minnick. ‘It’s time people learn the truth.’ Helping him and Dykstra to deliver the truth, if the room could handle it, were John Little, head distiller for Smooth Ambler, and whiskey specialist Wade Woodard, who describes himself as ‘public enemy No.1’ to ‘several companies with improperly labeled whiskey’ – in other words, he makes a point of reporting them to the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) (think Templeton Rye – Ed).

The main points made during the 90-minute panel discussion – which eventually descended into a heated back-and-forth with the audience – can be summarised into a few bullet points:

  • According to Minnick, American consumers are generally shocked by how many different distilleries’ whiskeys go into a batch. ‘It doesn’t mean the whiskey is bad, it just contains a lot of whiskey,’ he says.
  • Non-disclosure agreements issued by the big distillers prevent smaller brands from revealing the source of their liquid.
  • According to Wade, marketing ‘fluff’ like claiming Elijah Craig was the founder of Bourbon is fine, but claiming a whiskey is from Texas when it’s not distilled there should be unacceptable.
  • The TTB requires all straight whiskeys to have the state of distillation printed on their label if produced in the US.
  • ‘If you see the words ‘hand-bottled by’ on the label it means it’s sourced; if you see ‘distilled by’, the TTB will take notice,’ said Woodard. ‘Support the products that are being honest with their labels and void the products that are being deceitful’.
  • Smooth Ambler’s Little, said: ‘Sourcing whiskey has allowed us to grow our brand. We are not starting from scratch when we start distilling; we are starting with an existing reputation.’

Diageo, Beam Suntory and William Grant put their whiskies where their money is in the MMA Faceoff

It was a gruelling 90 minutes to sit through, and by the end I’d had enough seriousness for one day. Thankfully the cure came in the guise of an MMA Faceoff (Multiple Malt Ambassadors) – another 90 minutes consisting of six Scotch whisky ambassadors from Beam Suntory, William Grant & Sons and Diageo trading personal insults and slurs as they tried to convince the audience that their chosen whisky was the best.

With Scotchwhisky.com’s very own Dave Broom moderating – at least attempting to with this rowdy bunch – the seminar easily came off as the most entertaining of the week. While I learned absolutely nothing about whisky I didn’t already know, I did discover that Balvenie ambassador Lorne Cousins can play AC/DC on the bagpipes.

Hidden talent: Balvenie's Lorne Cousins learned the bagpipes as a wee lad

Come the evening the place to be was at Antoine’s Restaurant, where oysters Rockefeller were first created, and where the winner of the 2015 Chivas Masters global cocktail competition was to be announced.

As the restaurant’s speciality oysters were served alongside a tropical Chivas Extra Sherry Cobbler, the winner was revealed as Josh Reynolds, of London’s Hawksmoor Spitalfields. To celebrate, every competitor around the table was given a ticket to the most exclusive event in town that evening – The 86 Co’s Bar Fight Club, which pitted pop-ups of some of the world’s best bars against one another.

Unfortunately the oversubscribed event was so exclusive that even I – and many others – couldn’t get in. No bother, it was off to Nightjar’s pop-up in a loft on Conti Street, where specially prepared, and thankfully ice-cold, cocktails had been prepared in the London bar’s signature extravagant glassware in collaboration with Vantguard, owner of Gin Mare. After the excitement of the day, to relax in style with reliably impeccable service delivered by the Nightjar team away from the crowds was an absolute treat.

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