How to Get on the Trip of a Lifetime

Experiencing the birthplace of spirits, the people who craft them and unique ways they carry forth the flavour of their homeland is one of the many delights our industry can offer…

And you don’t have to win a competition or be invited on an all-expenses paid trip to do it either.

Iceland looking crepuscular, courtesy of Reykjavik Bar Summit
Iceland looking crepuscular, courtesy of Reykjavik Bar Summit

As a drinks writer I’ve been stupidly lucky for the places I’ve been able to see and, more importantly, the people I’ve meet.

If anything can communicate that it’ll be a memory of standing in an open rye field in northern Poland filming the way the crops bent under the relentless icy winds. It was the absolute depth of winter and a charming, albeit frozen, farmer, who earlier that morning had put out an incredible spread of meats, cheese and cakes from his own pantry, was explaining the harvest and distillation of the rye. While trying to scribble down the words of the translator my pen froze and the last 20 minutes of his explanation went unrecorded.

That entire trip was a whirlwind of incredible hospitality from the kindest bartenders, distillers and scientists I have ever encountered, but the rye field has stuck in my memory for the sheer determination of that man to explain the exact process from field to bottle of Belvedere vodka, no matter the weather. He’s not the only one though. Our industry is filled with people who accepted the clueless fresh-out-of-university journalist they were lumped with and stuck by me.

New Orleans, in the days before Si Webster got a girlfriend.
New Orleans, in the days before Si Webster got a girlfriend.

There was Amanda Garnham in Gascony who drove me around each producer in Armagnac, while distiller after patient distiller tried to help me understand continuous distillation. The manager at Macduff distillery who gave me my first dram on the banks of the River Deveron and Jesús Hernández, the Maestro Tequilero of Olmeca who let Hamish Smith and myself jump in his car along the Mexican freeway as he tried to navigate traffic and answer our questions on market trends, production and cartels.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do three years at university as a journalism student, and then try to land a job in booze, or every time you enter a competition you’re up against a Reynolds brother and have no hope in hell of wining – this is how you can enjoy the trip of a lifetime: ask.

Ok so the BNIA – Armagnac’s official body – isn’t going to be able to cover your airfare (in advance it’s about £60 return to Toulouse from London) but if you’re planning a trip to the south of France to take a paddle in the Mediterranean and quaff some rosé, call Amanda (+33 (0)6 85 51 08 22 or and jump in a car. She’s always happy to put bartenders in touch with houses. You’ll see the idyllic small towns, the blonde cattle and rows of maize and grapes, sample floc de Gascon and fall head over heels for French brandy.

“I can put them in touch with houses in all three of the appellation zones like Chateau de Laubade, Chateau du Tariquet, Marquis de Montesquieu (Comte de Lauvia), Armagnac Delord, Baron de Lustrac, Baron de Sigognac, Janneau, Chateau de Pellehaut, Armagnac Castarède, Darroze, Dartigalongue (these are more likely ones that are available in the UK) and others. I can help them plan a route as I am so familiar with them all after 13 years working for the BNIA!” says Amanda.

Most distilleries are open to the public anyway and you’ll often find that tour is no different to one you’ll have on a brand trip. Even the illusive Chartreuse have free cellar tours with tastings, and a trip to Tennessee wouldn’t be complete without a stop in to say hi to Mr Jack himself.

An indescribably good day in New Zealand with 42Below
An indescribably good day in New Zealand with 42Below

If it’s an area of appellation there’s someone just like Amanda working for each area – which isn’t limited to spirits either, you’ll find helpful figures in wine bodies such as Loire Valley Wines – and if you’re wanting an in-depth tour then brand ambassadors are another great route to go down, they often have all the contacts and, given enough notice, can arrange production tours.

Matthais Lataille of Martell only just recently arranged a VIP visit of the Martell House for Tony Hogan, a bartender at Hawksmoor in Manchester while he was visiting Cognac with a friend. Finding out who to contact from various brands is incredibly easy, and if they’re doing their job right these people should be popping in and out of your city for trainings and activities frequently. Brand ambassadors also travel to their spirit’s local town or city a lot so they’ll know all the guest houses, bars and authentic local restaurants.

The easiest way to find out who to speak to at certain brands is to ask your bar managers, owners and even suppliers. They should have dealt with a brand representative at some point, and from there, if the rep can’t help, they can put you in touch with the ambassador.

The best place on Bourbon Street
The best place on Bourbon Street

Of course asking friends or putting a call our on social media could be much simpler; this is one industry where we all know each other. Check out Facebook groups like UKBG. Once you’ve got a name and hopefully an email don’t be afraid to get in touch whether it’s a global ambassador or UK-based – even the big fish are keen to help.

Considering you’re old enough to serve alcohol you should know how to politely address someone when asking for a favour, but let’s run through it just to be safe; introduce yourself, which bar you work at and why you’re hoping to visit their distillery. You can say you just want to learn more about the brand and are keen to immerse yourself in the category, perhaps you’re planning to enter their competition and want to see where the spirit is made in person to get some inspiration or simply really love the product.

You’re not simply limited to Europe either, whether it’s rums in St Lucia, peated Scotch on Islay or tequila in Tequila, all these places are overjoyed when bartenders want to visit and learn more. In fact in Mexico you can jump on the Tequila Express which will guide you through several distilleries and out into the burnt orange desert to see the agaves growing.

Most importantly don’t just jump from distillery to distillery but see if you can get a flavour of the place your favourite spirit comes from, whether that’s watching jimadors cut down agaves with their sharp coas and tasting pluque, seeing peat being carved out of the soaking bogs of Scotland, grapes being harvested under the French sun or experiencing the karaoke bars in the warm Caribbean evenings as locals belt out classics while sipping on rum and coke.

All it takes is a little research to see what’s nearby on your next holiday, a facebook message, a point in the right direction and your trip this year could just open your eyes to the international wonders of booze.

A word of warning however: only visit Poland in the summer.

BarLifeUK’s Distillery Wish List

Jane Ryan’s picks:

Fortaleza, Mexico

I can only imagine this is on at the top of most bartenders’ lists, and with good reason. This tiny distillery uses the traditional Tahona stone method of crushing the agave and stepping into the production area is like slipping through the cracks in time itself, the only caveat being the tractor pulling the stone rather than a donkey. Here I overlooked the misty valley of Tequila, tasted fleshy, cooked agave, watched it crushed and then the juices distilled into what is one of my top tequilas. To cap it off it’s a stone’s throw from tequila mecca La Capilla, its owner is mildly crazy and throws bartender parties in his storage caves. Yes, this is top of my list for many good reasons.

Aberfeldy, Scotland

On my first ever trip up to Scotland with work I toured all five of Bacardi’s whisky distilleries, and this was my last. At the beginning I couldn’t understand the process at all, let alone the distillery workers’ accents but by Aberfeldy I was finally falling for the amber drams. Here you can see the process of evaporation from the barrels, known as angel’s share, get to know the bon vivants and raconteurs of the Dewar’s family and even mess around with blending. Our guide’s father had worked in the distillery and he was born across the road, finally returning in his retirement to the picturesque green valley to guide people around his old father’s work place. I don’t think I’ve had a more pleasurable dram with anyone since.

Rhumerie de Chamarel, Mauritius

High up in the mountains of Mauritius is this beautiful rum distillery. Upon entry we crushed some freshly cut sugar cane (the men have to cut at dawn and dusk otherwise it’s too hot to work) and drank its fresh juice before tracing the production process from the fields to the stills and finally the gift shop and restaurant. You can get a wonderful understanding of the local rums and how the sugar industry has shaped the island, from the days of the Dodo and slaves to the light and aromatic spirits being shipped around the world.

Simon Webster’s picks:

Casa Herradura, Mexico

Simply the best distillery tour I have ever done. A beautiful setting with the ability to sample raw material and product at every stage of the process. Hosted by Master Taster Ruben Aceves Vidrio no question was off limits and everything was answered honestly with full transparency. To top it all off we were followed around by a donkey carrying two barrels of tequila.

The Diamond Distillery, El Dorado, Guyana

It’s all about the stills at the El Dorado distillery, the wooden pot and continuous stills are from a bygone era and from sight you know they are going to make superb rum. There is also a cooperage on site to allow you to marvel at the coopers skills, finishing off in the ageing warehouse for a Willy Wonka-esque rum tasting experience.

Four Roses Distillery, USA

There had to be a bourbon distillery in my picks and with Four Roses you have a truly beautiful set up, full of majestic old buildings and a sense of history which is palpable. There is plenty of shiny new metal industrial machines to keep up with modern demand but that doesn’t take away from the sense of hand crafted quality.

Andy Ives’ picks:

Buffalo Trace, USA

More like a small town than a distillery, Buffalo Trace has a ‘main street’ and its own fire station. It is an enormous place that still manages to feel friendly, indeed everyone we met was lovely and very understanding of Simon and my crippling hangovers. Ask to visit the Blanton’s bottling room, and visit the nice old ladies who do their work to a stream of non-stop chat and laughter.

Jack Daniel’s, USA

Another monster distillery, that you can smell (in a good way) from half a mile away. Try and time your visit for a day they are burning ricks, and watch as they spray white dog on the wood to get in burning. Visit the distillery shop and get your face engraved on a bottle, and sit on the safe that killed Uncle Jack. Most importantly, go for lunch at the guest-house that Daniel used to frequent… the food is spectacular.

Monkey 47, Germany

The absolute other end of the spectrum – a collection of small buildings in the Black Forest. Lots of interesting experimental liquids to try, in an utterly beautiful part of the world. Lots of beards.