Birth of a Sherry Cask

The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.

Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.

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Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles Location

In his 1895 book, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells posits a tabletop device that takes people backward and forward in time. Even if you can’t literally travel through time (yet), the ability to compress it has nearly limitless appeal. With his disruptive, rapid aging technology for spirits, Bryan Davis is doing just that: A way of forcing the chemical reactions that occur during barrel aging to happen orders of magnitude faster than Mother Nature would allow in her own sweet time.

It’s no surprise that Davis has latched on to a time machine metaphor for his rapid-aging spirit reactor (“a time machine for booze”), even using it as the title of his TEDx presentation about it.  Now, I realize this may be old news to many of you, as the story of Lost Spirits and Bryan has spread far and wide.  Stories in Wired, the Huffington Post, and numerous other spirits publications (including yours truly) have told the story many times over.

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Lagavulin Brings its Ultra-Rare Whisky And Stories to Tales of the Cocktail

The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.

Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?

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Planning your Scotch Whisky Distillery Pilgrimage

If you’re a fan of Scotch single malt whisky, and really, why wouldn’t you be, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland increases your appreciation by an order of magnitude. Having recently completed a ten day trek through Speyside in the Scottish highlands, as well as the island of Islay, Mrs. Wonk and I agree it was the trip of a lifetime. While writing my earlier Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit article, I realized I had a ton of distillery visit planning trips to share, so I wrote this post to focus on those topics. A special bonus is that Mrs. Wonk joined me in writing this. She always handles the high level logistics of our trips (planes, hotels, etc…), and she’s a top notch writer with even more experience than I. You can find her insights in the second half of this post.

When planning a Scotland journey, the time of year when you visit matters a great deal. Summer may be ideal in terms of weather, but many distilleries aren’t distilling in the summer months—so there is less activity to see. During the spring and fall seasons, the most popular time to take on distillery visits, popular locations are often overwhelmed by visitors, yielding less than optimal conditions to linger a bit, meet the still operators, or maybe get a peek at something not on the usual tour.

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Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit

In January 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I crossed the pond to spend eight days the Islay and Speyside regions of Scotland, visiting as many whisky distilleries as possible during an all-too-brief visit. We battled snow, hail, fierce winds, flooded railway tracks, comically narrow roads, and tire-killing curbs. In the end, it was the trip of a lifetime, visiting thirteen distilleries and experiencing profound moments several times per day. Over the next dozen or so posts, I’ll share the stories of each distillery through words and photos.

On Islay:

In Speyside:

We also made appearances at Ardbeg and Aberlour, but circumstances prevented a full tour.

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London Underground: Stepping Back Through Spirits History in the Cellars and Back Rooms of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

The framed letter on the wall reads:

“Dear Sirs,

TITANIC

Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot.

Yours faithfully,

For WHITE STAR LINE.”

We’re standing in 3 St. James Place, the London store of Berry Bros. & Rudd, purveyor of wine and spirits to the British Crown since 1760. The family-owned company can trace its history at this location back to 1698, when it was established just footsteps from St. James Palace, the onetime residence of kings and queens of England. Today Berry Bros. & Rudd are very much an international enterprise, selling wine from around the around, as well as high-end spirits, which include their own Berry Bros. & Rudd label. Their cellar in Basingstoke, Hampshire, currently holds close to nine million bottles of wine, so no small operation here!

Doug McIvor, who holds the title of Spirits Director for Berry Bros. & Rudd, is very generously giving Mrs. Wonk and me a private tour of the No. 3 St. James complex, including their very old original cellars. (Henceforth I’ll use BB&R as shorthand for their full name.) During our preliminary small talk before the tour, I asked Doug about what his job entailed. One of his duties is tasting and selecting spirts still at the distillery for their eventual use in a BB&R labeled release. Doug quite obviously has a Scottish feel about him (born in Scotland, moved to England at age 11) so I mentioned that it must be fun for him to travel around Scotland sampling whisky straight from the cask. He laughs –“That’s the romantic view of what I do.” He’s more likely to do his spirits tasting at his desk, as distilleries usually ship him barrel samples in small bottles, a process I got to experience firsthand a bit later.

Our tour started by stepping outside to the front of the festively decorated storefront – the decorations fresh from Christmas just a week prior. Doug begins by pointing out the gate to St. James Palace, less than a block away. In the distant past, wine from the BB&R would be carried through underground tunnels to a locked subterranean palace gate; after departing, staff from the palace would appear and move the wine and spirits inside to the palace, completely from prying eyes and possible thievery at street level. He also mentions that in the days before running water, royalty would occupy one of the several palaces along the Thames until the sanitary conditions became off-putting, then migrate to the next palace, presumably leaving the staff to clean up behind them.  Thus the nearby proliferation of palaces in the neighborhood, assuredly with better plumbing systems these days.

Balance scale for weighing customers at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Above us hangs a painted black sign, similar to others on English pubs and shops, this one featuring the image of a coffee mill. The sign hearkens back to the early 1700s, when the grocery at 3 St. James (started by the Widow Bourne, progenitor of the BB&R family) became a coffee merchant. The original sign was stolen not too long ago, and a hefty reward (a case of BB&R champagne) was offered for its return, but the offer wasn’t taken up, so what hangs above us now is sadly a reproduction.
A few steps to the left, we turn down a small passageway between 3 St. James and the adjoining building, but immediately pause to read the plaque commemorating the establishment of a legation (an embassy) from the Republic of Texas (then an independent country) to the Court of St. James, aka the British Crown, between 1842 and 1845. Continuing to the end of the passageway, we find ourselves in a courtyard ringed by other small buildings, residential and commercial, similar to the one we exited. We are standing in Pickering Place, London’s smallest public square. All of the buildings surrounding the square are owned by BB&R.
Doug McIvor showing us the customer weight recording books.
From the courtyard, we head back into the storefront where we marvel a bit at the Titanic letter. A few feet away, a human-sized balance-arm scale sits; a tray of metal weights on one arm, on the other what appears to be an uncomfortable sitting bench for one. And in fact, Doug tells me, this is exactly what it was once used for–after it was no longer needed as a coffee scale. He then leads Mrs. Wonk and me over to a small bookcase holding nine red leather-bound books, and selects a volume. Doug opens to a random page and explains that customers of the store we’re standing in would come here to be weighed and have their measurements recorded in these volumes—as it was not common practice for medical doctors of the day to have scales in their offices. One volume is dedicated exclusively to ladies – very important to keep that information separate, you know. Famous people who appear in the books include Lord Byron (early 19th century) and the Aga Khan (early 20thcentury).
The cellars at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Doug then grabs a set of keys and down  the narrow stairs we go, into the original BB&R cellars which today still hold thousands of bottles of wine and spirits, some probably unimaginably rare, not to mention expensive. Modern equipment works to keep humidity and temperature at a hospitable level. The cellars are the interconnected basements of the multiple Pickering Place buildings we saw above, so the overall effect is of several connected rooms at slightly different levels. Dusty bottles are everywhere, some behind metal gates, but most easily touchable if we so dared.
Doug McIvor shows the wine course room at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
In the midst of all this dusty history, it’s a bit jarring to come across one reasonably modern room with rows of tables arranged to face a large video screen at the head of the space. This is the training room where BB&R teaches wine courses, everything from basic wine appreciation to master sommelier training.
Napoleon Cellar at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Another set of stairs takes us even deeper below the store to a room filled with large brick pillars supporting a low vaulted ceiling. This is the Napoleon cellar, named after Napoleon III who used these cellars to hold secret meetings while he was in exile. Countertops and cases line the room’s perimeter, filled with extremely old, obviously handmade bottles, a museum of sort. Running down the middle, and nearly the length of the room is a giant banquet table. BB&R hosts company events here, and for a modest fee, you can hold your own private party here as well.
The room were Cutty Sark was conceived, at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back up at store level, we step through a locked door at the back and into a quintessential British parlor. Old books, black & white photos, and bottles are everywhere. A small fireplace is lit, which keeps the room warm. This is where Cutty Sark blended whisky was conceived in 1923, partially in anticipation of the eventual end of prohibition in the US. At that time, BB&R was doing booming business in the Bahamas, a popular stop for smugglers bringing liquor into the US during prohibition. By the 1970s, Cutty Sark was the largest selling brand of blended whisky in the United States, and was contributing the vast majority of BB&R’s spirits (non-wine) revenues.
Today, Cutty Sark is no longer in the BB&R portfolio. BB&R, seeing the potential decline in blended whisky sales due to markets focusing on single malt scotch as well as increased competition, decided to sell the high revenue generating Cutty Sark brand in 2010 and use the profits to refocus BB&R on premium spirits. Part of this strategic shift included buying the Glenrothes distillery, which makes the whisky in Cutty Sark. Another substantial deployment of the proceeds was purchasing a forty percent stake in AnchorBrewer and Distillers, a San Francisco-based distiller and importer of many highly-regarded spirit lines, currently including Luxardo, Glendronach, Nikka, and Tempus Fugit.
Antique, handmade bottles at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Today, BB&R and Anchor carry each other’s product lines, on both sides of the pond. Thus, the product lines that BB&R directly owns are available here in the US, including The King’s Ginger, The Glenrothes, Penny Blue rum, Pink Pigeon rum, and Berry’s Own private label — whisk(e)y, rum, cognac, etc. I’m immensely excited to have these spirits available here, and in fact it was BB&R/Anchor partnership that led to our private tour. The Anchor PR folks had traveled from San Francisco to hold a portfolio tasting at Westland Distillery (also part of the Anchor portfolio) here in Seattle. I got to chatting with Georgiana Green, one of their senior brand managers, about rum, and when I mentioned I would be in London a few months later, she told me I absolutely had to get a tour of BB&R and the cellars. A big thanks to her for making this happen!
Just a few of the available spirits at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back in the storefront area, with the tour concluding, Doug asked us if we wanted to taste some rum. But, of course! We moved to one of the store’s display rooms, lined with bottles from across the BB&R portfolio on display. He brought out a small package with several small sample bottles. The first four were cask samples of the four rums from the Medine distillery in Mauritius, selected by Doug and comprising the fourth batch of Penny Blue rum. A fifth bottle held a preview of the final blend of those rums. (I’ll save a writeup on this for a future post, but I will say it’s quite good.) Next, we tasted a cask strength, 66% ABV sample from Barbancourt in Haiti. And saving the best for last, Doug brought out a sample of the Exceptional Cask 1977 Jamaican Overproof rum, aged for 35 years and bottled at 121 proof. It was quite simply exceptional. At only £495, or about US $750, Mrs. Wonk had to keep a watchful eye on me to make sure I didn’t reach for my credit card. The agony of leaving without it!
The tour of BB&R was easily one of my top highlights from our two week European tour. Doug McIvor is a wealth of spirits information, a wonderful tour guide, and a generous host. If you find yourself in London, I highly recommend visiting the store, including a walk to Pickering Place. Even if you don’t get the private tour, it’s something not to be missed!