We weren’t half chuffed when at the biggest farmers market in the world ie Real Food at Earls Court last year Zoe from Jamie Oliver’s new magazine chose our minis as perfect for a gift she was putting together for Jamie’s new product range – superb quality, good fun available on line and from Jamies new lifestyle shops Recipease – the first of which opens in Clapham on 26th February – keep up the good work Jamie, we love you, and much admire your fearless truthful approach to food and drink…..you are one of us.
Full article below for those who havent yet bought Jamies first magazine – I do recommend you do though as youll keep them always for reference as well as beautiful to look at they are tactile and full on information about small producers and makeable recipes!
I had just turned 50,” says Alex Nicol. “I’d worked in whisky for years but had always wanted to make it myself because I knew I could do a good job. I thought, if I leave it any longer I’ll be too old, I won’t have the will. So I said, ‘Sod it. I’ll do it now!’”
That was three years ago. Since then, the blended malts Alex produces, both much-loved brands that he rescued from the verge of extinction, are finding new friends. His flagship brand, Sheep Dip, was developed in 1974 by Gloucestershire publican MJ Dowdeswell, who originally served it at his pub in the village of Oldbury-on-Severn.
Pig’s Nose was launched three years later, as a stablemate for Sheep Dip. From their high points in the 1970s – at one stage, Sheep Dip was the bestselling brand in Harrods – both fell on hard times, tossed from one firm to the next as the spirits business went takeover crazy during the 1990s. “Now, there are only four big players left,” explains Alex. “It’s like feral fish. They’ve all eaten one another.”
The brands ended up at Whyte & Mackay, where Alex was a director. “They were being taken off the market, which I thought was wrong because they had a bit of heritage. People liked them.” He persuaded his colleagues to let him take them on – for a price – and so Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose were granted a new lease of life, though for much of the first year it felt merely like a stay of execution. “It was terrifying,” recalls Alex. “I remember waking up one night thinking, ‘I’ve got 6,000 cases of whisky I haven’t sold. Each week, I’m being sent a £3,000 bill for storage. What am I going to do?’”
Sheep Dip HQ is Spencerfield House in Fife, the 16th-century, four-storey farmhouse that Alex and his wife, Jane, call home. Their office is out the back, in the converted tack room of the stables that house Alex’s two racehorses. Out front, Doug the patterdale terrier frolics in fields that fall away from the house, tumbling down to the Firth of Forth. This happy scene is watched over by the Forth Rail Bridge, a triumph
of Victorian engineering and an iconic structure long before Robert Donat dangled over the side of it in Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps.
Aptly enough, whisky plays a role in the farmhouse’s long history. In 1651, after Oliver Cromwell’s troops had exacted bloody retribution on Fife’s remaining Royalists at the Battle of Inverkeithing, they were billeted at the house, where they toasted their success with a dram or two of the whisky distilled next door. Alas, the celebrations got rather out of hand and, before they knew it, the soliders had torched their gunpowder kegs, blowing off the east wing of the house. This tradition of destructive revelry is,
it seems, being proudly upheld by Hannah, the Nicols’ teenage daughter, who took advantage of her parents’ absence one evening a few summers ago to invite round 300 of her closest friends, a soirée that resulted in the wholesale destruction of the greenhouse in the kitchen garden.
Spencerfield was also the wellspring of the US bourbon industry. “In 1791, a man called James Anderson farmed here,” says Alex. “His crops weren’t doing well so he decided to emigrate to Virginia, where he wound up working as a factor [farm manager] for George Washington. So he was in charge of all these wheat fields and he thought, ‘why don’t I make whisky?’ So it was that Mount Vernon, America’s first distillery, was born.”
For Alex, part of the appeal of Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose lies in their curious names. One dates from the days when farmers would hide their home-distilled whisky from the prying eyes of the taxman in vats labelled ‘Sheep Dip’; the other comes from the old country expression ‘soft as a pig’s nose’, a reference to its smooth flavour. “I love how the name ‘Sheep Dip’ is so iconclastic,” he says. “People can take whisky far too seriously. You get huge amounts of whisky snobbery and it needs breaking down. We’ve won two gold medals at the International Wine & Spirit Awards, and if we can do that with a bit of humour, we’re doing a big service to everyone who’s fed up with stuffy and pompous whiskies.”
As Alex says, once you get over the names – and their suggestions of gut-rot moonshine – the whisky is good stuff. Sheep Dip is a blend of 16 single malts, each aged for between eight to 12 years in first-fill wood (that’s new barrels to you and me). These single malts are sourced by Alex from distilleries throughout Scotland’s four whisky producing areas, and carefully blended by third-generation whisky blender Richard Paterson to create the brand’s distinctive flavour profile. Delicate and refined on the nose with soft floral and fruit notes, the whisky is full-bodied on the palate with warming spice notes and a lingering finish. Pig’s Nose, meanwhile, achieves its trademark smoothness by marrying oak-aged Speyside, Islay and Lowland malts with gentle grain whiskies. Both are best appreciated with a splash of water to loosen them up and give their flavours room to express their full nuances.
All the same, Alex is aware that not everyone will look past the name, preferring instead the seemingly safer option offered by more expensive, aged single malts. “If people don’t know about whisky, they cling on to two things,” he says. “One is an age statement, so 20 years old is better than 12 years, which is nonsense. When I turned 50, a pal of mine who owns a distillery gave me an Isle of Skye 50-year-old. When I opened it up a couple of days later it was like chewing wood.
“The other is price, but just because a whisky is expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. I could sell you a Johnnie Walker Blue Label for $200 but it’s not very good. It’s the same with wine. I saw a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild being sold online recently. People were buying it en primeur for £125 a bottle. And I thought, ‘you’ve never tasted it, you don’t know what it’s like!’ You see, people don’t take the time to discover what’s good and what’s bad any more. It’s like with branded clothing. Whether it’s actually a good piece of schmutter isn’t as important as whether it’s Diesel, Firetrap or whatever. People just badge up and go, ‘Am I wearing enough now?’”
Thankfully, Alex has found enough converts to his whiskies to put his early financial worries behind him. “We turned in a profit in year two, not a massive one, but we’re doing OK.” For Alex, this is good – not only for its own sake, but because it means that he can afford to spend time developing new products, such as the new emergency sampler pack of Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose he’s developed for the Jme Collection.
His eyes light up when he talks about his future schemes. “I want to do a flavoured whisky, from a recipe of 1725, and it’ll be called Black Sheep. I’ve had a bit of a run in with the authorities on that one. I’m not allowed to call it a whisky, it has to be ‘spirit drink’. Then I’ve got one called Flockwork Orange. It’s going to be a whisky, orange and ginger liqueur. It’s fantastic. And I want to do a proper, high-strength gin, with real botanicals, not just bits of chemicals, formulated especially for a gin and tonic. Then I want to do an Indian rum. I’ve registered the name Bhang-Bhang.
“I’m not too interested in how commercial these ideas are, as long as they’re interesting. I’ve had enough of the same-old, same-old – it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I saw something wonderful at a trade show recently. Some guy’s making a kind of wine from cows’ milk whey. It used to be made by folk who didn’t have access to grain. That’s fascinating. There’s not enough of that. The big companies don’t take any risks. Their priority is, ‘What will we pay the shareholders?’ It’s not, ‘Do we want to do this? It would be a laugh.’”
You get the feeling Alex rather revels in his underdog status as a plucky independent fighting the faceless corporate regime. “Last year, I was doing a tasting at a pub in Edinburgh and this guy in the front kept asking questions. It turned out he was from Diageo, and they wanted to know what I was up to” he says. A huge multinational, Diageo owns brands such as Johnnie Walker, Jose Cuervo, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Baileys. “Then he asked me for a job! I said, ‘I can’t afford to pay what you’re earning!’ But I’d clearly stirred up some interest among the big boys. That was rewarding. I was ever so pleased about that.”