Heading off the Christmas avalanche

18 August, 2016

So here we go again – I got my first Christmas press release on July 25.

It informed me that, before Britain had even had any summer, Christmas was just over the horizon. Really? So soon after last Christmas disappeared into the sunset? That festive season trickle has now inevitably turned into a stream and will soon become a flood. And, once again, we’ll be faced with a barrage of glittery corporate ads for sparkly vodka brands and mass-produced gins. David Beckham is set to pop up in countless magazines promoting a perfume-bottle whisky, and our TV  and cinema screens will be overwhelmed with stylish, affluent, sexy looking young folk, filmed in the world’s wealthiest locations and on millionaire yachts, sipping some premium spirit or other as drinks producers try to persuade us all we should be stocking and promoting their drinks.

In these days of austerity and terror, there’s something distinctly distasteful about this other-worldly exhibitionism, and something utterly depressing about the homogenous, ubiquitous, avalanche of product placement and promotion.

On the surface it doesn’t look good, but don’t believe the hype. Dig down a little and there’s a whole world of originality, innovation and creativity. It’s at its most obvious and glorious in the world of beer, where across the planet microbrewers are making small-batch brews which are bringing excitement and flair to a growing customer base keen to explore new bitters, pale ales and lagers.

And it’s happening in the world of gin, too. You have to tread carefully here, because many ‘craft’ gins are nothing of the sort, and some distillers are playing fast and loose with the definition of gin. Look around, though, and you’ll discover fantastic new products, often with a fine back story and a large dose of provenance and heritage.

One purveyor of premium spirits is the UK’s East London Liquor Company. Here you’ll find a simple drinking space with a bar furnished with an imaginative selection of drinks, including some rarely seen bottles of whisky and bourbon. There’s a shop too, but the real attraction is the pair of stills visible through an acrylic wall at the back of the bar. You can sit here and watch spirit being distilled. The company produces gin, vodka, rum and, most exciting of all, whisky. And not any old whisky, either. Distiller Tom Hills and his team are working on a range of innovative whiskies, including one made with a mash bill comprising 52% rye and 48% malted barley.

It won’t be ready for some time – “I don’t know when, because you can’t predict these things. It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” says Hills – but the new spirit has been speed-aged in a small cask and the signs are that it will be a delight, with sweet, vanilla and honey notes on the one hand, and a spicy, citrussy note on the other.

The company steers clear of the word ‘craft’ because it thinks the big companies are ruthlessly propagating the term, but it now exports to bars and retail outlets in nine countries. The company’s not alone. A network of quality alternatives to the big boys has sprung up, and many of them are only a couple of clicks away on the laptop.

There’s hope yet that Beckham and co won’t have it all their own way this Christmas.

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