I’ve recently acquired a taste for malt whisky. Yes, the names are often hard to pronounce and drinking it neat is an acquired taste, but for people like me who are prepared to commit some time in getting to know the world of Scotch it reveals itself as one of the most rich, varied, rewarding area of spirits.
A recent report by Mintel, suggested Scotch whisky risks losing out on £300m of sales as its connoisseur positioning and reliance on romantic rugged Scottish imagery, while working in international markets, means it struggles to attract new consumers into the UK.
Scotch is seen as a drink you need to know to appreciate and there are plenty more accessible drinks out there which don’t demand so much of the drinker. It is often frowned upon to mix a good malt whisky, viewed as heathen-like behaviour, and therefore younger consumers are getting into other dark spirits, bourbon, and rum where it is more acceptable to mix and the marketing focuses on more engaging messaging for younger consumers. These younger drinkers may later move to sipping a Makers Mark bourbon or an El Dorado rum, for example, neat as time goes on, but rarely do they start there. Cocktails could therefore be viewed as a way in to the category for premium dark spirits.
With this conundrum in mind, I was very intrigued to receive an invite to the UK final of the Auchentoshan Switch – one of the most exciting cocktail competitions I’ve heard of in a while. Here, is a quality single malt producer who is encouraging bartenders to experiment with a superb sipping single malt – Auchentoshan Three Wood. This is a seriously smooth tipple, which whisky connoisseurs rate highly and a Scotch I would gladly smell and sip all night but with the Auchentoshan Switch we were actively encouraged to mix it up.
Auchentoshan (pronounced ‘och’n’tosh’n) is a lowlands whisky which likes to do things differently, it is the only Scottish single malt to use triple distillation on all of its blends. Auchentoshan’s triple distillation helps to create a light-bodied whisky which is gentle and soft but never bland or boring.
Auchentoshan Three Wood is a smooth delicate whisky with layers of complexity from being aged in three different types of wood; it spends 10 years in ex-Bourbon barrels, 1 year in ex-Oloroso sherry barrels and 1 year in Pedro Ximenez barrels. This ageing creates an indulgent whisky with a rich array of flavours; oranges, plums, chocolate, dried fruit. This whisky deserves a post in its own right, which I’ll get round to next time I buy a bottle (promise).
So for the competition. Bartenders in the UK and the USA were invited to enter a video of them creating an Old Fashioned cocktail. It is actually quite difficult to get people to go to the trouble of creating a video for a competition, however, Auchentoshan got a great number of entries, no doubt due to the quality of the prize. The winners of the UK and US competitions get to swap countries to work in London and New York City’s most prestigious bars – the award winning 69 Colebrooke Row and Apotheke.
It was a risk insisting on video entries, but one that paid off. Auchentoshan believes a good bartender needs more than just a good cocktail recipe, and so the final of the Auchentoshan Switch involved a range of challenges to show the different sides of a champion bartender.
Round one involved four heats of five bartenders. Each bartender had 5 minutes to create their signature cocktail and then three minutes to present it to the judges.
One of my favourites at this stage was Guiseppe Miggiano from The Bar at Chancery Court, he was full of energy and charisma and was hugely entertaining. He created the ‘Right Time Martini’ a simple cocktail to counterbalance the complex whisky which included 60ml of Auchentoshan Three Wood, 30ml of Midori, three drops of Angostura Bitters, warmed to 60-70 ˚C, stirred 15 times and finished with some melon essence. A classy little number.
Sadly, Giuseppe didn’t make it through to the next heat but he did win a prize for best presentation.
Round two of the competition involved the bartenders thinking on their feet and creating a unique cocktail under pressure with a secret bag of ingredients. The two successful bartenders from Round Two went into Round Three – the Masterclass round, where they both had to conduct a 5 minute masterclass on Auchentoshan.
Martin Ball from Manchester’s Corridor was declared the UK finalist. His simple ‘Tight Corner Fizz’ cocktail won plaudits from the judges and he led a charismatic, knowledgeable and engaging masterclass in the final round.
Martin will be heading stateside early next year to experience the theatre performance and chemistry lab of Apotheke in NYC, where the presentation of the cocktail is said to be as dramatic as the cocktail itself.
The US winner will be spending time at 69 Colebrooke Row, which has a very special place in my heart and last week was one of 5 London bars named among the 10 best cocktail bars in the world. We are so very spoilt here in London.
The Auchentoshan Switch is a great cocktail competition, which opened my eyes to the versatility of Scotch as a cocktail ingredient, from classy martinis, to decadent chocolate/cherry concoctions and everything in between – kudos to Auchentoshan for being open to mixing things up a bit – I’m sure they’ll win over plenty of new bartenders and consumers through this initiative.