Thursday, 13 January 2011

This year’s dark horse is a Monkey!

Most years one or two brands really take off. In 2010 it was Sailor Jerry and J√§germeister making giant leaps forward in their popularity. Before that Magners had a massive boom and if you head a little further back you could not move for Absolut Vodka. There was even a time you needed to be drinking Mateus Ros√© to keep up with the Jones’.

It may be a foolish man who makes predictions about the future – far better to simply comment on the past – but I am going to be that fool here. For 2011 the next big thing will be Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Whisky.

Monkey Shoulder has been around for about six or seven years now and is just starting to get some traction with drinkers. For the first few years Monkey was only available in the high end bars of London, Edinburgh et al but over time distribution has spread. Today you can find the triple malt whisky starting to appear in the mainstream on-trade and in the supermarket chains. A retail price around £22 means it’s on the expensive side if you view it as a blend but excellent value if as a Malt.

So why is Monkey Shoulder going to break its shackles in 2011? Firstly there is a gradual shift in what drinkers are looking for. Yes, the bars are still full of the Vodka generation but taste and flavour are back - Malt Whisky is growing again and Rum is the fastest growing of all the spirits categories. Men are looking to be masculine again on the back of TV shows like Mad Men and , looking for something new women are a huge driver of growth for quality whisky. Secondly, Monkey Shoulder manages to combine top quality whisky with an innovative and exciting brand image – a perfect combination for those looking to show they are moving on to something a little more serious to drink.

The whisky itself is deliciously smooth. All the lovely sweet flavours you can get from the most buttery and delicious of Scotch’s – vanilla, toffee, brown sugar and honey. There is enough pedigree for the seasoned whisky drinker (the blend is made up of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie) and yet it remains approachable enough for the experimenter. As for the brand – hugely important if it is to explode this year – it is young, different, exciting and engaging. The web site ( is interactive and rather than spend its time discussing tasting notes and history it focuses on what cocktails you can make and events they putting on.  

Finally I have to cover off the question that’s always asked – why is it called Monkey Shoulder? Simple really, it’s a nod to a condition suffered by the old time malt men at the distilleries. In turning the malting barley with shovels they developed a shoulder condition similar to tennis elbow and affectionately knew it as ‘monkey shoulder’.

Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt Whisky
Nose: Light, citrus fruit, toffees
Palate: Sweetness – vanilla, brown sugar. Balanced with grain cereal
Finish: Not long but pleasing. Invites another drink

Monday, 3 January 2011

Maker’s 46 - that difficult second album

Musicians have always talked about that difficult second album. After taking as long as needed to create their first record, the pressure is on getting the second one out there. It’s not only rock stars however that have a follow up to worry about.   

It’s about 4 years ago now that I spent a very long, and very enjoyable, night at The Rockwell bar in London with Dave Pickerell, the former Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark. Over the course of the evening we discussed anything and everything bourbon, including future plans for Maker’s Mark releases. Whilst remaining quite tight lipped about what was around the corner, Dave did let me know he had a few casks laid down and was monitoring them to see how they were progressing.

Rewind back to 1953 and Bill Samuels Sr bought the Burk’s Spring Distillery and set about creating his new – bitterness free – bourbon. A family history of distilling going back to the previous century gave Samuels a good idea of what he was doing and in 1959 the first case of Maker’s Mark was sold to Keeneland Racecourse. Maker’s was on its way.

51 years later and Maker’s Mark is stronger than ever. A focus on what they do and doing it to best of their ability has meant a consistent quality in the whisky. Other than a brief foray into a slightly spicier, stronger Bourbon back in the 90’s that only really went to Japan, Maker’s Mark has remained a one whisky distillery. That is until now.

Gradually through 2010 Maker’s has been shipping Maker’s 46 across the US, state by state. The work begun by Dave Pickerell that I was given the very slightest insight into has been carried forward and bought to market by his successor, Kevin Smith. Despite the new expression hardly leaving the USA and Duty Free I have managed to get a bottle and give it a little road test.

The original Maker’s Mark bottle was designed by founder Bill Samuels Sr’s wife, Marjorie and 50 years on and the folks from Loretto have created a perfectly modernised version of the classic design. Clearly Maker’s Mark but distinctively different.

Maker’s Mark has always had a very distinctive nose and Maker’s 46 follows the same pattern – vanilla, toffee, honey and butter. To taste, it is no surprise that Kevin Smith and his team have stuck to the mantra at Maker’s of ‘remove the bitterness’. This bourbon is so smooth it almost feels as though you could spread it on your toast in the morning and the hefty 47% ABV slips by unnoticed. All of those sweet notes from the nose continue on the palate and thoughts of creamy toffees come to mind with the complement of cinnamon. For the finish it becomes sweet joy again with those same caramel and toffee themes. Unlike most bourbon, where rye is used in the mash bill, there is no side-of-the mouth bitterness.

There it is. The first genuine addition to the Maker’s Mark range and it’s a real triumph. For Kevin Smith and Bill Samuels Jr, it is fair to say that their difficult second album is sure to go platinum.