Last week seven bartenders from across the country battled it out at the Nc’nean distillery over two rounds to see who would emerge victorious.
At a break between rounds, I found myself alone outside the distillery eating homemade nettle soup and bread, whilst the finalists prepped their ingredients for round two. As I ate, I looked out at the view from the distillery, a deer was also enjoying her lunch in a field just a couple of hundred yards away, past her ancient trees framed the calm sea beyond on which fishing boats bobbed, on the other side of the narrow sea hills rose into the low hanging clouds which obscured their peaks. It was spectacular painting come to life.
As I stood there I wondered if I’d ever get bored of this majestic view if I worked at the distillery. As if reading my mind Distillery Manager, Gordon Wood who’d judged the first round with me, appeared at my shoulder and followed my gaze out.
‘Do you ever get bored with this view?’
A smiled crossed his lips and he shook his head ‘Oh no…… not yet anyway’
I nodded and we went back to watching the fishing boats.
The Set Up
The thing about spectacular views is that, unless you are lucky enough to live there, they tend to take a bit of effort to get to. The Nc’nean distillery is no different, a 3 hour coach journey from Glasgow followed by ferry and another hour drive. The difference here is that the journey is itself spectacular (as well as occasionally heart stopping as giant trucks drive at you at breakneck speed down narrow roads) with the coach passing valleys, hills and lochs. There is only one lake in Scotland so you can be pretty sure you’re seeing a loch, more Gordon wisdom.
As beautiful as the journey was the group was very happy to arrive at our accommodation. Lochaline was our base, a sleepy little village by the sea, it has no hotel and as of recently no pub (this seems to not be a popular revelation) but thankfully there is a spot divers stay. 12 on-suite bunk rooms and a large communal lounge and dining area, plus giant kitchen which, as the competitors settled in was put through its paces.
Nc’nean Blender and Brand Ambassador Matthew Hastings and his faithful trip assistant Cocktail Trading Co’s Elliot Ball were soon knocking up a delicious chicken curry with homemade naan breads. BarLifeUK were busy on beer quality control, very important.
The long day of travel and appreciation of the day that lay ahead tomorrow combined for a sensible evening (sensible apart from a brown sauce layback). As the bartenders moved to the kitchen for last minute prepping of ingredients, the laptop came out and the superb Bo Burnham Netflix’s special Inside went on.
The lyrics on one of the tracks from Inside, All Eyes On Me, which looks at his relationship with stand-up comedy, sums up the experience of competition presenting better than any other I have heard:
Are you feeling nervous?
Are you having fun?
It’s almost over
It’s just begun
Don’t overthink this
Look in my eye
Don’t be scared, don’t be shy
The Nc’nean distillery may be beautiful and the welcome from the team couldn’t have been warmer (especially from the distillery dog Doug) but there was no avoiding the fact this was a competition and the prize, helping Matt select an AON single cask release and receiving a 6 bottle case as well as 10% of net profits from the release, was one they were all desperate of receive. Add to that the quality of the bartenders competing and you could understand the nerves hanging in the air as the coach dropped us off and the competitors were shown the bar and prep area.
Jemima Christie, Filthy XIII, Bristol
Josh Black, Silverleaf, London
Holly Law, Murder Inc, London
Shaun Hall, V&B, Northampton
Tiago Oliveira, Fazenda, Edinburgh
Simon Dacey, Cocktail Trading Company, London
Elena Wright, Mecancia, Manchester
After a judge’s briefing, BarLifeUK being joined by the aforementioned Gordon and the wonderful founder of Nc’nean Annabel Thomas, we were ready to get round one off the ground where they would have to make the drink that got them through the heats to the final.
Nc’nean are pioneers when it comes to sustainability (find out more about their amazing achievements here) and round one saw that as a key component of the brief. There is always the worry with sustainability chat in a cocktail comp is that it can become a little dull, but finalist number one soon put pay to any worry in that department.
Jemima may not know where rice comes from, but boy does she know how to entertain a crowd and rarely have I seen a comp kicked off so well. I learnt stuff, I laughed…. a lot, and in the end I got a fantastically tasty cocktail. The Net 0.2 Brigadoon was a refreshing peach and lemon forward Nc’nean Single Malt drink which woke up the pallet and got me ready for the day ahead.
Josh impressed the judges with his use of not only the Nc’nean whisky but also the Botanical Spirit which was used very cleverly to give a savoury back note to the drink which was combined with a meadowsweet and heather honey cordial for a refreshing and elegant serve. The sustainability of his ingredients was in no doubt, but it was the apple blossom garnish he foraged that really caught the eye.
Holly is another natural entertainer who quickly had the room hanging on her every word. During the judge’s deliberation I did get a raised eyebrow or two when I mentioned that her drink, a combination of the Nc’nean Botanical Spirit and a lemon & white wine syrup, was ‘a fantastic wakey uppy breakfast cocktail’. In fact her Small Things serve could be enjoyed all day long and the use of charity shop glassware underlined the meaning of the name.
Shaun made good use of the knowledge he gained in his previous life as a chef. When it comes to sustainability in cocktails citrus is a constant discussion, for him sumac was the obvious choice not only as it’s often used by chefs to add citrus notes but it is an invasive species so foraging it is double good. However, it was a liqueur made with Beech Tree leaves which really stood out, if he bottled it, I’d buy it.
Tiago was the second finalist to use the Nc’nean Botanical Spirit as his main ingredient with a sustainable twist on the Martinez. The ‘Wild Beauty’ contained a pomegranate cordial, camomile tincture and strawberry infused Cocchi Rosa and was a full flavoured drink. On its own it was a delicious serve however the side addition of the left-over strawberries turned into delicious snacks brought everything together beautifully.
Simon somehow managed to pack as many flavours in his cocktail as he did gags in his presentation. He manged to lambast the judges and the British before turning on himself announcing ‘They are both aged in barrels like the one I scraped for that last comparison’. The both referred to the Nc’nean Whisky and balsamic vinegar, which he infused with shitake mushrooms, these were the base of his Old Fashioned style drink with the addition of a fir and acorn syrup. Presentation and drink definitely hitting the mark.
Last up came Elena and she went straight for the bonus points basing her presentation around founder and judge Annabel. The drink itself was a clever and beautifully balanced combination of Nc’nean Single Malt, British dry vermouth and a milk thistle & heather infused fino sherry. It wasn’t only the drink that was clever with the used milk thistle and heather being turned into a candle served alongside the elegant cocktail.
As the finalists grabbed some soup and went on a tour of the distillery, culminating in some direct from the cask tastings, we did a bit of maths and confirmed our suspicions that it was damn close and it was all going to come down to….
This time round I was joined on the judging panel by Head of Sustainability Amy Stammers and Distiller and newly appointed Beekeeper Simon Hewitt. They would be helping me judge the Nc’nean & Something pairing round. They may have been a little miffed they had missed out on the cocktail round, that lasted about 23 seconds once they saw what this bunch had in store for us.
Shaun brought out his chef chops again with a beautifully delicate apple pastry alongside a dram. Jemima had the whole room ‘oohhhing’ with vanilla ice cream topped with a Nc’nean salted caramel and Nc’nean syrup soaked walnuts, when Amy discovered you could stir the whisky through it I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen someone as happy. Simon went to the heart of the whisky with toasted barley seasoned with salt, beet sugar and grated preserved egg yolk. Josh put together a delicious mix of Nc’nean with a peach & lapsang tea cordial and summed up everyone’s thoughts announcing ‘The best way to enjoy whisky? Shared’ before producing a fourth glass for himself.
There were however 3 stand outs:
Tiago won the battle of the snacks with honey roast pine nuts with blackthorn sea salt which complimented the Nc’nean perfectly, I think I last saw Simon post judging ordering 3 kilo’s from him;
Elena won the mixed drink serve battle and showed off her Chemistry background going all molecular with flavours to match with the whisky resulting in sweet vermouth and aloe vera infused with guava and lychee, it was simply stunning;
Holly won the shot on the side battle and also the ‘most popular person at the distillery award’ for her take on a verdita for whisky. It contained lots of goodness including nettles and wild garlic and suddenly the number of people in the room seemed to double as distillery workers appeared from everywhere to try this taste sensation.
As the distillery team got the BBQ on the go and the drinks flowing and the finalists packed up and took a well-deserved breath (apart from Holly who was quickly dispatched into the kitchen to produce more ‘of that green stuff’) we hid ourselves away to do some more adding up.
With the smell of local meat cooking on the BBQ it was time to announce the winner. Before that however Annabel and Matt had decided that someone deserved special recognition and Holly was awarded with a bottle of aptly named Huntress. The winner was then revealed to be Elena who had hit the brief perfectly across both rounds as well as producing two delicious drinks.
As the evening and night unfolded we ate and we drank with the Nc’nean distillery team and had a truly fantastic time. As we got on the coach back Matt did a head count mainly to check one of the finalists hadn’t hidden themselves away, or been kidnapped, to stay at the distillery forever.
It was a wonderful few days, and if you ever get the chance to go to the Nc’nean Distillery I can’t recommend it enough. A huge thanks to Matt, Annabel, the whole distillery team, all the finalists and Elliot for making it so much fun.
Massive congratulations to Elena, it was a hell of a way to mark your one year anniversary in bartending and we can’t wait to see what you and Matt come up with for your special bottling.
Elena Wright, Mecanica, Manchester
40 ml Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
10 ml Milk Thistle & Heather Fino Sherry
15 ml Dry Vermouth
Stirred briefly then strained into a Nick n Nora glass.
Milk thistle and heather fino is 5% milk thistle 3% heather cold infusion
Equal serve of Nc’nean Single Malt Whisky with the pairing
Sweet Vermouth lengthened with Aloe Vera, infused with Guava and Lychee
Vermouth is 2:1 vermouth:aloe juice infused with 35% Lychee 50% Guava