Booze interview with Ian Buxton

I am delighted and honoured to have Ian Buxton as guest on my blog. His new book, Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries, comes out this month. It’s an idiosyncratic and often very funny stroll around some of Scotland’s most romantic distilleries. There’s some autobiography, some history and a whole lot of whisky but what I like the most about it is Buxton’s constant questioning of the sheer amount of bullshit that surrounds Scotch. And yet for all the iconoclasm not for a moment do you doubt Buxton’s deep love for Scotland’s greatest export.

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When did you first realise that whisky was something special and can you remember the whisky that triggered this feeling?

Many of my fellow whisky writers appear to be able to recall this with blinding clarity as some sort of Damascene moment.  I fear I cannot offer any such startling revelation, though it was a happy day when working in the whisky industry paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

What was your first job in the whisky business?

It was in the late 1980s for Robertson & Baxter the blenders, now more or less subsumed into the Edrington Group.  They were, though I didn’t realise it at the time, whisky royalty and behaved accordingly.  I thought it all rather stuffy. As they had come to the conclusion that food was the way forward they had an ill-starred project to buy food companies and, to my chagrin, I was involved in that side of the business more than whisky. It was not a happy time, and I left after a couple of years to join Glenmorangie as their Group Marketing Director.

That offered more whisky but even less happiness.

Do you have a favourite whisky?

Would it be too optimistic to suggest it’s the one you’re about to buy me?

I am a great fan of Highland Park and older Glenfarclas.  But I have taken a great partiality recently to better American rye whiskies, such as that from Michter’s.

Do you have a least favourite whisky?

Can’t say I do.  But I completely fail to see the point of vodka.  Will that do?

Which whisky country are you most excited about?

Curiously, almost everywhere, but especially the new wave of ‘world whisky’ producers in countries such as Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, France and so on.

And which distillery?

I was an early fan of Kavalan in Taiwan and I’m delighted to see how far and how fast they have developed. Teerenpeli in Finland make whisky which surprises all who try it – and I have very high hopes for the English whisky due any day from the Cotswold Distillery.

What is it about island distilleries that make them so romantic?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this in my new Whiskies Galore book.  There is an inherently romantic appeal to islands, especially the Scottish ones, that seems to draw visitors from all round the world, and the more urban and congested their home environment the more the isolation and open spaces attract them.  But it was not always thus, and in the book I recall a time, not so very long ago, when island distilleries were closed and virtually abandoned and their whisky all but unsaleable.

Does the salt air really affect the taste?

I doubt it, especially as most of the whisky made there spends most of its life far from the sea.  But, then again, Highland Park and many Islay whiskies have an undeniable, indefinable salty tang to them.

You have in the past been quite vocal in your criticisms of the conservatism of Scotch whisky, what do you think they could do to be a bit more innovative?

My consultancy services are available at very reasonable rates.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of whisky?

This information is classified, particularly from Mrs Buxton.  But actually, not a great deal.

What do you think of the prices of say old Macallan? $25,000 for a bottle of 50 year old.  

They are certainly beyond my pocket.  In the near future I doubt they will come down as demand evidently exceeds supply.  But I fear this is a bubble, driven by fashion and spurred on by those with a vested interest, that will eventually end in tears.  And not to pick on The Macallan particularly, but I cannot help notice the vulgarity and excess of the packaging of many so-called ‘luxury’ whiskies and wondering how much of the cost is accounted for by the hand-blown bottle; silver decoration and undeniably lovely oak boxes and so on, and how much by the whisky.  And that is before we mention the percentage margins applied all through the supply chain to the retailer’s shelves.

What’s the most memorable whisky you’ve ever had?

That’s a score draw between a very old Bowmore drawn directly from the cask in the No. 1 Vaults (a most atmospheric space) and a cask-strength Glenfarclas from 1953.  And, thinking about it, the very old expressions Glenglassaugh were quite special.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

Those who have served a proper apprenticeship in the industry – on whisky, Charles MacLean and Dave Broom come to mind; the late Michael Jackson pioneered writing on both beer and whisky; I enjoy Alice Lascelles’ journalism and the trenchant, cutting commentary of The Whisky Sponge.  Will Lyons happily avoids the pretension that accompanies quite a lot of wine writing and Jonathan Ray’s column in The Spectator offers excellent buying pointers.

And there’s a new Henry Jeffreys fellow who can be quite droll.  I like what he’s doing these days.

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out?

Ends (tearfully)

Thanks Ian! Buy the book here

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Fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show

I’m giving what’s being very grandly billed as a fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show at Olympia (London) on Tuesday 3rd October at 12 noon which is the perfect time for your first glass of something over 17%.

It’s really an excuse to talk about some of the more obscure fortified wines that I love and wish more people did as some are very much on the endangered species list. Everyone knows about port and sherry but similar wines are made all over the world. I’ve picked a few from the south of France, Australia, Sicily and near Lisbon. The great thing about these wines is that for the quality, the prices are absurdly low. Look at the age of some of these wines! This is what I’ll be talking about:

Marsala vergine 2001, Terre Arse, Cantina Florio – regular readers will know about my deep affection for this Sicilian wine and my never ending amusement at the name. This is one of the very few unsweetened marsalas available in Britain, though saying this it’s actually becoming quite hard to get hold of.

Rivesaltes 1998, Frères Parcé – think of this as a sort of southern French tawny port though made from white grapes, grenache gris/ blanc and macabeu. It’s aged in old casks that are left out in the heat and the rain so that it gently cooks and takes on nutty dried fruit flavours. It’s a real crowdpleaser.

Maury 2005,Cuvée Aurelie Pereira de Abreu, a Préceptorie de Centernach – if the wine above is a tawny then this is a southern French vintage port. I mean that it’s immensely fruity, quite tannic and needs time in the bottle to soften, though it is drier and lower in alcohol than its Portuguese cousin. It’s mainly made from grenache noir and despite being 12 years old still has tonnes of primary fruit.

Bleasdale, The Wise One Tawny, 10 Year Old, Langhorne Creek – the Australian wine industry was built on wines such as this which were until quite recently called ‘ports’. Nowadays they are very much a minority interest and all those old vines, mainly grenache, shiraz and mouvedre, now go into excellent dry wines. But you must try an Australian ‘port’ because they are like nothing else on earth.

Moscatel de Setubal, Adega de Pegões – made near Lisbon this is made from ultra sweet late harvest muscat grapes (muscat of Alexandria and moscatel roxo) which are fermented briefly and then fortified with spirit to stop fermentation leaving masses of unfermented sugar. The grape skins are then left in the wine for about six months which gives this particular wine a unique richness and bite. I had a bottle from 1980 recently which was superb.

Stanton and Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, 12 Years Old – an Australian classic from Victoria. This is made a little like the muscat from Setubal but then the wine is left to age in a solera system in hot sheds where the flavours concentrate.  It’s one of the sweetest wines in the world with about 282g of residual sugar – most Sauternes has about 100. Despite being as sweet as molasses it still has acidity and a haunting floral taste, I find it immensely drinkable.

Please come along, try some unique wines and listen to me prattle on. If you can’t make it most of these wines are available from the Wine Society except the marsala which I had great trouble tracking down and the Maury which is from my own cellar.

Here’s a picture of an old barrel from the Baglio Florio in Marsala:

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Miracle Brew is brilliant!

This is a review of Pete Brown’s latest book, Miracle Brew, that appeared in the TLS. Rereading my words now, I realise that I have not communicated by enthusiasm for the book strongly enough. It’s really a wonderful book. Every page contained something I didn’t know. It’s a strong year for booze books but Miracle Brew is definitely a candidate for booze book of the year. Also amazed that the TLS left in my joke about the Burton Snatch.

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I like beer. I like reading about it, I write about it, I sometimes even drink the stuff but when I heard about Pete Brown’s latest, a detailed examination of beer’s constituent parts: barley, water, hops and yeast, I thought it sounded a bit technical. Perhaps aware that the book might be not be an easy sell, Brown ramps up the enthusiasm level from the first page. At times he writes like a cross between Brian Cox and Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show, brilliant!!

But the book also has a strong narrative thread. It’s nothing less than a history of beer from a primitive drink made by chewing grain to release sugar, to the introduction of hops from the Low Countries, Pasteur’s work on yeasts, and the present day craft beer boom. Brown’s argument is that despite its humble image, beer is one of the pinnacles of civilisation. Extracting fermentable sugar from barley is a process so complicated that it could not have been invented accidentally but nobody knows when it was discovered. In contrast wine is simply crushed grapes.

Water, yeast and barley have just as much effect on the taste of the beer as the more glamorous hops.  “Hops are just lipstick on beer. Barley is its soul” as one brewer says. We learn that water from the Liffey has never been used for brewing Guinness and a ‘Burton snatch’ refers to the  sulphurous taste from Burton water not something that you go looking for after too many pints of Bass.

The book is full of facts to amaze your friends at the pub: the common fruit fly drinks alcohol to poison the larvae of parasitic wasps that would otherwise eat it from the inside. My favourite chapter is the one on yeast not least because I learned that lager yeasts cannot survive in the human stomach therefore have a less volatile reaction on your digestive system than ale yeasts. Bitter makes you fart, lager does not. For this we have to thank Emil Christian Hansen who isolated the lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, at the Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark.

This is the joy of Brown’s book, he manages to make you appreciate the magic of beer even in its most everyday form. Anyone who has ever drunk homebrew knows how hard it is to get right. That bottle of Pilsner Urquell is a miracle of human ingenuity. Isn’t beer brilliant?

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Waiter, these carrots are corked!

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Checking a wine for faults using the Plumpton-prescribed one nostril technique.

Whenever wine professionals get together rather than enjoy the wine, they are thrown into a state of anxiety that there may be something wrong with it that they haven’t spotted. The bottle will be opened, noses will go in and you’ll hear “mmmm the fruit’s just not there, I think a little TCA” or “yes very reductive, it’s those screw caps they insist on using.”

Every day it seem like I hear about a new wine fault. So in order not to fall behind, I went on a training day put on by CSWWC (|Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships) and Plumpton College (like UC Davis but smaller and a lot more English.)  I was surprised by the sheer number of things that can go wrong at every stage of the winemaking process from fermentation to  bottling and even after. I am sure most readers will know about a corked wine (if not there’s more information below) but what about light struck? And what the hell is goût de souris? Stick your nose into a glass and you might find baby sick, mould or even rotting flesh aromas.

Here for your delectation are just some of the things that might be wrong with your wine so that you can impress your friends or thoroughly ruin dinner parties. Just to confuse matters, things that some people might think of as a fault can actually be considered an intrinsic part of particular wines. It’s enough to make you turn to hard liquor.
Brettanomyces aka Brett

The most common descriptor for this is sweaty saddles but as so few of us go around sniffing saddles these days an easier aide memoire is wet dog. You might also get barnyard aromas or even old socks! It’s caused by a yeast called Brettanomyces. It normally comes from infected barrels but according to Tom Stevenson from the CSWWC, it can also lurk in the vineyard. It is very very common, Tom estimated that nearly ⅔ of French wine has some. It used to be endemic in Australia but they have cleaned up their act in recent years. The funny thing about Brett is that in small quantities, it’s quite nice adding a savoury quality and crops up in some prestigious reds from the Rhone and, though less than before, in Bordeaux. I’m actually fairly Brett tolerant but in larger quantities it obliterates the fruit and can smell like a horse has just crapped in your wine.

Volatile Acidity:

Usually acetic acid, in other words vinegar. Most wines will have a tiny bit but if you can smell vinegar then there’s probably some sort of bacterial infection. Certain wines such as Château Musar from the Lebanon, old-fashioned rioja, and some Australian shiraz including the greatest of all, Penfold’s Grange, have high levels of volatile acidity. Madeira is pickled in volatile acidity. But you shouldn’t be getting it in an everyday red or white. Other volatile acids you don’t want include lactic acid which smells like baby sick. Lovely!

Oxidation:

Meaning that oxygen has got to the wine. Characteristic smells are cider (I’m talking farmhouse hard cider), nuts or sherry. Certain wines owe their character to controlled oxidation such as madeira, tawny port, amontillado and oloroso sherry. Then there are certain wines that flirt with oxidation such as certain Chenin Blancs from the Loire or Marc Sorrel’s famous Hermitage Blanc. But most everyday wine should not have oxidative notes. If you’re drinking wine by the glass and it smells raisiny then the bottle may have been open to long.

Reduction:

If you get a burnt sort of smell, it could be that you are drinking pinotage in which case stop immediately, or that your wine is reduced. Reduction is the opposite of oxidation, it’s caused by a lack of oxygen. Other smells that point to this include sulphur, garlic, struck match or rubber. Some varieties especially syrah are particularly prone to it and you are more likely to get it from screw caps than natural corks because they provide a less permeable seal. In small quantities especially in modern lean Chardonnays from Australia or Burgundy a touch is considered desirable. A lot of reductive smells will dissipate after time in the glass but if it smells like Hades then you might want to complain.

Lightstruck:

This is my new favorite one. Tom Stevenson gave us a champagne which smelled strongly of burnt cabbage. At its worst it can smell of rotting flesh. This is caused by the action of light on the wine. It can even happen in the glass if the sun is hot enough. It’s particularly common on rosés because they usually come in clear bottles. Dark green bottles help prevent it but dark amber is even better. Don’t buy any wine that you know has been sitting in a shop window especially in a clear bottle, it will almost certainly be ruined.

Corked:

Known in the trade as TCA, an abbreviation of the compound lurking in the cork that causes it. According to Tom Stevenson roughly around 3% of wines have TCA.  In most cases you will notice a strong smell of mould or wet cardboard. Some wines have TCA in such small quantities that you can only detect it by a lack of fruit rather than an overt taste of mould. I find if I’m not sure the best thing to do is get the waiter to try it. He should be familiar with how the wine is meant to taste. Though it’s usually caused by an infected cork, you can have TCA without a cork. In fact I’ve had garlic and carrots that smelt of TCA though I’ve never had the nerve to say, “waiter, take these carrots away, they’re corked!”

Mousiness

A few years ago I began to notice a new problem.  The wine would smell normal and to begin with it would taste fine even delicious but then at the back of the throat I would get a stale yeasty flavour or in the worst cases a feral animal sort of taste. This is mousiness aka hamster cages or in French, goût de souris. It is caused by an infection of lactobacillus. The reason it’s become so common recently is the trend for low sulfur wine making. It’s the most frustrating fault because it could so easily be cured by using tiny quantities of sulfur. It’s the main reason that I am wary of natural wine especially as some people, including some winemakers and sommeliers, can’t detect it. The worst mousiness I’ve ever had was in Armenia which actually tasted like a rodent was rotting at the back of my mouth when I swallowed. The winemaker smiled at me and said, “good isn’t it? No chemicals.”

Anyway happy drinking!

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

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Whatever happened to the boozy publishing lunches?

Not that people ever ask me for writerly advice but a bit of advice I would offer to any budding hack is that an article is never dead. Even if it has been spiked some of what you put into it will at some point resurface elsewhere. You must never give up.

Last year an editor at the Spectator asked me to write something on literary mavericks tied to the death of publisher Peter Owen. I duly did lots of research, probably too much, spoke to everyone I knew in publishing and produced a thoughtful article that to be honest was a bit worthy It would have worked in the Bookseller but not the Spectator so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t run it. The editor then left the Spectator and the article was finished.

Or so I thought. I spoke with Alexander Chancellor at the Oldie earlier this year and he liked the sound of something about publishing and suggested I talk to his deputy Jeremy Lewis who used to work in publishing in the 70s and 80s. After a long and amusing chat with Jeremy, I rewrote the article to make it a lot more gossipy. It was slated to run earlier this year when Alexander Chancellor died. I felt like Lena Dunham in that episode of Girls where her editor dies and all she can say at the funeral is “but what about my book?” Then Jeremy Lewis died. There was now no chance of my article appearing.

In April I had a boozy lunch with an old journalism crony in New York and I told him about my article. He asked to take a look and said that it might work for his website. I thought he was just being nice but I sent it to him last month and he liked it but said it needed to be even more gossipy and anecdotal. So rather than ask serious questions to serious publishers, I called up some gossipy journalist cronies and they all said the same thing: read Jeremy Lewis’s memoirs, Playing for Time, Kindred Spirits and Grub Street Irregular. They are perhaps the best books about publishing ever written. If I’d read them back in June last year then this article would not have had such a long gestation.

Anyway click below to read the article. I’ll put it up on my site in its entirety in a couple of weeks:

Mad Pen! Publishing Was a Better Business When it Was Fueled by Alcohol and Long Lunches

 

 

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Getting trolleyed in London – the return of old school dining

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Order a dish or a drink at some of London’s most fashionable restaurants and rather than a waiter put it down in front of you, don’t be surprised if you see your order making a stately progress from the kitchen on wheels. Yes the trolley is back, and how! At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge they have a bon bon trolley, at the Oxo Tower they have a martini trolley complete with a James Bond paperback to read whilst your drink is prepared, and at the Berners Tavern they even have a pork pie trolley, £17 for a giant pie cut at the table with a choice of condiments.

With trolleys comes the return of the sort of cooking that you thought died out in the 1980s. Coin Laundry on Exmouth Market offers chicken kievs and Ottolenghi in Spitalfields has avocado vol-au-vents on the menu.  Forget sous vide, foams, and liquid nitrogen, we want our chefs in whites, red check trousers and the puffiest of puffy hats not in lab coats and goggles.

45 Jermyn Street opened in 2015 in Fortnum and Mason but walk into the dining room and you might think it’s 1975. Your dover sole will be cooked on the bone and then expertly filleted at the table; there’s a trolley on which the waiter will whip up scrambled eggs to go with your caviar; best of all they offer a dish that combines two retro standards, a black forest gateau baked alaska – flambeed in front of you, naturally. This is cooking with shoulder pads.

Going even further back in time is Otto’s in Gray’s Inn Road. It only opened in 2012 but looks like it’s been around since before the war. . . . the First World War. They have starched white tablecloths, antique Persian carpets and a (nearly) all French wine list. Otto’s offers the sort of food one can imagine Edwardian aristocrats tucking into. The house speciality involves a whole duck, the breast cooked pink and thin-sliced at the table, the legs served crisp, then the carcass is crushed in an antique silver press and the juices transferred to a sauce prepared by the waiter in front of you. They do something similar with a poulet de Bresse or, if you’re feeling really fancy, with lobster. It’s a sumptuous treat for all the senses. As Lee Stretton from 45 Jermyn Street put it:  “the classic dishes lend themselves to theatre.”

He went on to say: “there is a movement to appreciate the art of service within the room. It is a reaction to all the stripped back restaurants which have good but simple and utilitarian service.” It makes a welcome change from the minimalist aesthetic that was so big in the 2000s where restaurants such as St. John’s In Farringdon had informal, casually-dressed waiters and no tablecloths.

The decor of 45 Jermyn Street with its bright red leather seating, immaculate white linen and table lamps compliments the theatricality of the service perfectly.  It was designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio who also created the interiors for some of London’s most chic restaurants including the Ivy, Scott’s and the Caprice. It’s all about glamour. Diana Henry author of Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours, told me: “I loved the look of the life that went with this food: hessian walls, bottles of Burgundy, women with chignons and men in lounge suits, red candles on the dining table, this is the life to which I aspired.” Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in Mayfair even has a piano player to go with the comfy chairs and heavy curtains.

All this plushness absorbs sound making restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street the perfect place for a long seductive lunch or perhaps somewhere to take your hard-of-hearing aunt. Compare this with St John’s, a cavernous former smokehouse, where I  would  leave with my ears ringing and voice hoarse from shouting over the hubbub.

One can chart the beginning of the retro revival to the opening of the Wolseley way back in 2003. Offering classic standards like omelette Arnold Bennett and Wiener Schnitzel in glittering surroundings, it quickly felt as if it had always been there. Then Brasserie Zedel opened in 2012 with its “chariots de fromage” and subterranean art deco dining room, like eating on an ocean liner.

The retro food trend isn’t just confined to London. No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain has tipped old-fashioned French cuisine of the sort championed by Elizabeth David and Julia Child as the next big thing, think Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about these dishes. Rather than the shock of molecular gastronomy, it is about comforting flavours cooked to perfection. Diana Henry told me: “I grew up with ‘retro’ food, which is why I don’t quite see it as ‘retro’. I was making steak Diane aged 11 and I thought it was impossibly delicious. I still also think prawn cocktail is fabulous.”

Simon Hopkinson agrees: “the prawn cocktail is wonderful.” He’s the author of a book about retro food called appropriately enough, The Prawn Cocktail Years. He went on to say “these dishes have never really gone away. They are what are what cooking is all about.” He told me that the chicken kiev and beef stroganoff were originally restaurant dishes. They are hard dishes to get right in the home so it’s great to see them back on the menu and done properly. Some restaurants, however, never lost faith with the classics. Oslo Court in St John’s Wood has been offering duck a l’orange, veal holstein and napery you could use to soundproof a recording studio since 1982. It’s food that people love to eat and will be eating for years to come. When the sous vide machine is gathering dust in the basement, the trusty trolley will still be doing the rounds.

This is an early version of something I wrote for a luxury good magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arak and a hard place

Last November I was fortunate enough to have dinner in one of Beirut’s best restaurants, Em Sherif, with a group of Lebanese winemakers. There was no menu, they just bring you seemingly endless small dishes such as Kibbeh nayyeh, finely chopped raw lamb with onions, or baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts. Each one was more delicious than the last though I made the schoolboy error of filling up on the insanely good hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Mezze really isn’t designed for greedy Englishmen. Along with the food we had some excellent local wines but one of the winemakers admitted to me that the best thing with mezze isn’t wine, it’s Arak. This aniseed spirit drunk diluted with water and ice, cleans the palate and sharpens the appetite so you’re ready for a bite of something different. I looked around the restaurant and most of the fantastically glamorous clientele (everyone in Beirut is very chic) were all drinking Arak.

Arak is part of a family of aniseed-flavoured spirits that exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. The word comes from the Arabic for sweat: a description of the alcohol dripping off the still. There’s Raki in Turkey, Rakia in Bulgaria and Ouzo in Greece. Further afield there’s Sambuca in Italy, Anis in Spain and Pastis in France. In fact about the only country in Europe that doesn’t do something similar is Britain.

Though Arak is similar to its Greek and Turkish cousins, it’s a generally a far superior product. Michael Karam author of a Arak and Mezze: the taste of Lebanon told me “the Lebanese are very quality driven. There is no industrial Lebanese Arak.” It’s only ever made from a spirit distilled from locally-grown grapes rather than the neutral alcohol more common in Europe. I visited Domaine des Tourelles in the Bekaa valley who make Arak Brun which according to Michael Karam is “considered by the Lebanese to be the gold standard”. It was November and they were still bringing in grapes for Arak production mainly Obaideh and Merwah but also some Cinsault. The grapes are gently pressed and the juice run off for fermentation in enormous concrete tanks. No sulphur can be added or it would be accentuated during distillation and they use wild yeasts for fermentation.

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Faouzi Issa from Tourelles with his arak-craving face

The winery is a living museum. They use a 19th century copper alembic that was made in Aleppo in Syria for distillation. The aniseed comes from Syria too, a village called Hina.. There are sacks of it piled high everywhere like sandbags, insurance in case the war cuts off supply. Damascus is only 40 miles away. The wine is distilled twice to create an eau-de-vie and then once more with aniseed. “We make arak 330 days a year,  making it in small batches like this is very costly” according to Faouzi Issa from the family who own Tourelles.  

They then age Arak Brun for one year and the Special Reserve for five in clay jars similar to classical amphora but with flat bottoms.  Recently they wanted to expand production but nobody knew how to make the jars. Luckily they found a 70 year old man in a remote village who was probably the last person with the requisite knowledge. They have now started a workshop making jars where younger men can learn the necessary skills. It’s a slow labour intensive process so they can only make 30 to 40 jars per year.

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Arak ageing at Tourelles

At Clos St Thomas just up the road from Tourelles, they make Arak Touma. Here I tried the pre-aniseed eau-de-vie which tastes a little like an unaged Armagnac crossed with rum. The flavour of this high quality spirit doesn’t need disguising with sugar which explains why good Arak is so refreshing.  Said Touma, the patriarch of the family, showed me how to add water from a height into the arak so that it goes cloudy, “louching” is the technical term. You generally drink it in a ratio of two parts water to one Arak with ice. I was gently reprimanded by Michael Karam for adding too much water – “your Arak looks a little weak” he told me.

The ageing and care at every stage of production makes Lebanese Arak so much smoother than Ouzo or Raki. In fact for a drink so strong, usually around 50%, it’s dangerously drinkable. Once you’ve acquired a taste for it you’ll be like Faouzi Issa who said that when he is away from Lebanon: “I crave Arak” .  Michael Karam told me “as one drinks sake with sushi, I dream of the day when people will eat Lebanese food and drink arak.” With the growth of Middle Eastern food across America and Europe, Michael’s dream might just come true.

 

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

 

 

 

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