What Whisky Distillers and Blenders Are Drinking During Lockdown

With much of the world practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many daily habits have changed, from commuting to childcare to mealtimes. Whisky lovers, too, are adapting to the new order by converting in-person tastings to virtual meetups, and visiting distilleries digitally rather than actually traveling there. The ongoing isolation is giving every drinker a chance to kick half-consumed bottles, revisit comforting old favorites, and even pull down the special stuff—because if not now, when?

It’s just the same with whisky professionals, many of whom—when not making hand sanitizer or high-proof ethanol to use in sanitizing products—are working from home or have found their schedules adjusted to reduce contact with colleagues. Ashok Chokalingam, master distiller at India’s Amrut, has been trying to finish off bottles, including high-end releases like Greedy Angels and Spectrum, matured in a one-of-a-kind hybrid cask. But he’s not limiting his drams to Amrut’s whiskies; he has also been enjoying single malts from other Indian distilleries, as well as a couple of bourbons: Blanton’s and the now-discontinued Old Charter 12 year old.

Four Roses Distillery is currently closed, and master distiller Brent Elliott—who has been enjoying a variety of Four Roses Limited Edition bottlings—says there are plans to host a virtual tasting for fans around the world. “It was just something we thought would be nice since Four Roses is about bringing people together….and now people can’t get together,” he says.

Still Serving Whisky Lovers

Virtual tastings and other digital outreach have quickly become the primary way for whisky makers to engage with fans from a distance. Heather Greene, master blender for Milam & Greene, has been scrambling to sustain the ongoing rollout of her new bourbon and rye, supporting it with educational videos. “I am now working on a YouTube series that will bring my book, ‘Whiskey Distilled,’ to life, and that is something that gets me excited,” she says, noting that one of Milam & Greene’s brand ambassadors is lending video editing skills to assist. “We’ll do at least 30 episodes. I want people to come out of this as great consumers.”

The challenges of working during a lockdown are especially tough on small brands. Louise McGuane, founder of Ireland’s Chapel Gate Whiskey Co., which makes J.J. Corry, is still paying her staff despite them all being isolated at home. “I’m alone on site,” she says. “It’s back to the start-up days when I was doing absolutely everything myself. We opened an online home delivery service [in late March] and got lots of orders, so I’m packing all of those; I’m proofing a few blends in the blending room, pulling samples. All the while I’m totally restructuring the business financially and radically overhauling our business plan.” Fueling her through each day are sparkling water, locally roasted coffee, local beer, and nips from a very special cask.

Like Greene, McGuane is turning to the internet to stay connected with drinkers, and is hosting a session to create a crowd-sourced blend. “We’ll be live streaming a basic blend process for about an hour and taking questions, then sending samples to folks to help us choose the blend,” she says. Those interested in participating in the blending session and other future online activities can sign up to Chapel Gate’s mailing list.

While Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are closed per recommendations of the UK government, director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks Bill Lumsden continues to work from his kitchen.

Staying Connected While Apart

Where distilleries are closed altogether, whisky makers are still hard at work from home. Glenmorangie and Ardbeg shuttered in line with UK government recommendations but director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks Bill Lumsden says he’s working harder than ever, with a mini sensory lab set up in his kitchen to ensure no delay in future new releases. And when it’s time to take a break, he’s turning to beer, wine, and some very special Glenmorangie that’s never been released to the masses.

Bruichladdich on Islay is closed as well; head distiller Adam Hannett has been contemplating the island community’s normal togetherness, now interrupted by social distancing, and is drinking a lot of Bruichladdich Islay Barley as a result. “Our community comes together to make this whisky, from sowing the seed through to sealing the bottle,” he says. “The components are so connected, and that’s so important to our identity. It’s a reminder to me, that as we look for new ways to have closeness, comfort and camaraderie, we must always be connected and we must always look out for each other.”

What Whisky Distillers and Blenders Are Drinking While Social Distancing

Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg: “I am occasionally treating myself to some interesting liquor…In terms of beer, mainly Pilsner Urquell (a long time fave of mine); in terms of wine, I am going through an Italy phase just now; and in terms of whisky, I am really treating myself—our recently released Truffle Oak re-release (this one is 26 years old), which is available through the Moët Hennessy Private Client route, is currently filling my glass. This came from a wee experiment I carried out about 15 years ago, when I filled some 10 year old into very rare new German oak casks…So this release has had about 15 years finishing, fabulously deep, rich, and nutty.”

Louise McGuane, founder of Chapel Gate Whiskey Co.: “I’m starting the day with sparkling water with a liberal squeeze of fresh lime juice, then it’s onto a pot of locally roasted coffee from Anam Coffee, a local company who import single origin beans and then roast them on-site in the Burren. They also deliver; I’m trying to support as many local food and drink businesses as I can right now as we are all hurting. In the evening I’m going local again with a Western Herd IPA. They also deliver and are good friends of ours; we’ve done a few collaborations with them. In terms of whiskey, you know what? I’ve been dipping into a bottle of J.J. Corry The Chosen (a 27 year old single malt) because if not now, when? I also have a belter of a sherry cask in the rackhouse that is 29 years old and I look to solace in that at the best of times, so I’ve been dipping….”

ashok chokalingam of Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India

Ashok Chokalingam, master distiller for Amrut, has been enjoying some of the distillery’s rarest offerings during India’s national lockdown. (Photo by Cory Goldberg)

Ashok Chokalingam, master distiller at Amrut: “I have revisited some of our iconic brands; to name a few, Spectrum, Naarangi, Greedy Angels 8 year old, Raj Igala [currently available in the EU]. As we are into summer now, I found Raj Igala is awesome as it is 40% ABV and chill-filtered. I found this has more aroma on the nose and is very palatable. Outside of Amrut, I always appreciated high-end bourbons. I have emptied Old Charter 12 year old and Blanton’s single barrel. I found Blanton’s was simply amazing with an explosion of tropical fruits combined with vanilla custard. I really enjoyed that. I also visited Paul John, Rampur, and Solan [made by Mohan Meakin]—all the single malt players from India at the moment. All of them are in a different league with their own personality.”

Paul Hletko, founder and distiller, FEW: “I’m drinking a lot of FEW Whiskey, and Tequila Ocho! I’m overall feeling good, healthy, family healthy, and counting blessings. E-learning with teenagers is tough and whiskey helps many people! And, if you haven’t seen, I’ve started reading childrens books on my personal Instagram page (@paulmhletko) and people seem to be really liking it, both whiskey people and civilians alike. I’m starting to collaborate-read, and getting friends on Zoom to read with me. It’s very fun, and I find it soothing.” [The author recently did a collaboration read with Hletko of Jamberry.]

Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller at Cascade Hollow (George Dickel): “I’m mostly drinking club soda, sometimes with whisky, often without. My go-to is Dickel No. 12, but I’ve been digging into my archives and last night I enjoyed a port-finished bourbon from my friends Ted and Dana at Huber’s Starlight Distillery.”

Heather Greene, CEO and master blender, Milam & Greene: She’s drinking Gin and Tonic with a splash of Campari and expressed orange oils, served over chipped ice. The recipe is from friend and photographer Sarah Baumberger. “Like a good drink can do, it evokes a nice memory—being at Sarah’s house in late summer. It’s simple; it’s also not whiskey, but I need something that doesn’t demand so much of my palate sometimes. I have a little deck (first time ever!) with my plants where I go, put on some tunes, and watch the birds in the pecan tree branches. I use binoculars too, and spotted an owl two days ago doing owly things like hoo hoo-ing and spinning his head.”

Brent Elliott, master distiller at Four Roses: Like many folks, he’s taking the opportunity to finish off half-drunk bottles, although his collection is probably a bit more high-end than most. “I’ve revisited a few partial bottles of Private Selection and Limited Editions.”

Adam Hannett, head distiller at Bruichladdich: “The whisky I’m turning to during this time, when life is turned upside down, is Bruichladdich Islay Barley. At the moment the distillery is shut, the still house is cold, the lights are off and the casks are undisturbed in the warehouses. Instead of a hive of activity and chat—silence. We are working from home, disconnected from normal life at the distillery and the rest of the community. Normally we are so connected to the people around us and now we must keep our distance. In the evenings (or late afternoons), having a couple of drams of Islay Barley as I look out the window of my sitting room, taking in the view over the distillery and out across Lochindaal, I’ve got time to contemplate this whisky and the people who created it. Our community comes together to make this whisky, from sowing the seed through to sealing the bottle. The components are so connected, and that’s so important to our identity. It’s a reminder to me, that as we look for new ways to have closeness, comfort, and camaraderie, we must always be connected and we must always look out for each other.”

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