Interview: Mark Ridgwell on spirits

Ever wonder whether paying top dollar on the top shelf is a status symbol or sensible? Want to know what booze is best to start, end or accompany a meal? I caught up with the author of Spirits Explained, spirits expert Mark Ridgwell to find out just this sort of information, now I doubt I’ll ever just order a ‘G&T’ again.

What’s so interesting about spirits then?
Spirits tell the history of the world and they have changed the world: they have brought about revolution in Russia, they contributed towards the slave trade, they have changed governments and created taxation the world over. Some recipes have been going for over 200 years and the families are still here too, after seven or eight generations. One thing I try to get across to people is that spirits are like wines, they are products of nature and, like wines, they are the creation of some very clever people who wanted to make the most of nature. There’s an awful lot happening in this game that people don’t realise. When people ask for spirits, it tends to reflect what you were born into, what your father drank or what your mother liked, and that goes through life with you. You go into a bar and you see all that’s on offer and yet you still plump for the same. I think most people think, ‘I would love to know what all of these gins are… gin and tonic please.’ And that’s it.

So how should spirits be drunk, is it okay to mix them?
Spirits have to be mixed, that’s the only way most people would like to drink them. What I do say to people is if you do want to enjoy the spirit, just hold it in the mouth for long enough for it to warm up and you will be amazed that you will pick up the alcohol, the weight and the taste.

What is the biggest misconception about spirit drinking?
The alcohol is without shadow of a doubt the biggest. A full measure of spirits is just 1.5 units whereas a pub glass of wine is 3.5. People don’t realise that, so there is a lot of prejudice.

What are people drinking now?
Gin is on a roll. There are obviously plenty that are there to ride on the back of a fashion wave but there are some serious contenders in there like Botanist, made by Bruichladdich, one of the most famous Islay whiskey distillers. Its distiller Jim McEwan said all his life he has wanted to make a gin, because it reflects his personality. A whiskey is a whiskey, made according to years of tradition, but a gin is entirely its distiller’s creation. The other one that is coming up fast now is tequila. We’re moving away from Cuervo Especial, thankfully, and getting into 100%, reposado and añejo tequilas that have been made by people who really care.

Does price matter?
Price matters if you know what you’re paying for. In Scotland it is damn cold, and they use old wood, so you have to have a good few years in the cask for anything to really happen, so you look for a year and that is likely to cost you. With bourbon, in Kentucky it’s hot, but it means that spirits mature very quickly indeed. You’ll find a lot of bourbon doesn’t have any age statement at all, and if it does it could be 8, well that will be much cheaper than a 25-year-old Scotch, and certainly as good value because it would have matured three times as fast. With rum, some rum can be aged in Scotland, in which case it will take longer, and it might cost less or more, so find out where it’s aged. Tequila, if you really love the taste of agave, you don’t want to pay any extra for the years because that will just fade.

What should I look for in order to get top bang for my buck?
I’d love to say the first thing is a recommendation, because that’s what my aim is, to get more people willing and informed enough to make recommendations. Otherwise, I would counsel you to go into a bar and taste something before you buy a bottle. Don’t go for cocktails all the time; use a bar as an experimentation opportunity.

Can you cook with spirits?
Oh sure, yes. You wouldn’t find a French kitchen without three different sorts of rum. Obviously white spirits wouldn’t serve any purpose but rums and whiskies, bourbon particularly because of the sweetness, are fabulous things to cook with.

Do you have a favourite boozy recipe?
I would certainly go for bourbon and chocolate cookies or brownies.

Can you serve spirits with a meal?
I’m sure there are ways in which it can be done, in fact in July I’m doing a tasting in London which will require me to find spirits to go with a meal, so yes you can, but it wouldn’t be my habit. I used to work for a Canadian company and I used to arrive in the base at about 5pm after flying from London, we would go straight to the office for a debrief and then out for a meal. They’d start with a whiskey before we ate and then take whiskey through the meal and I thought then and I think now, what an uncultured lot you are!

How about after dinner?
I don’t drink much after dinner. I’m not a cognac person and I find spirits tend to jar a lot of already heavy tastes that have been going across your palate. I have discovered recently however, that good quality vodka can be a lovely close to a meal, one which has a lot of texture as opposed to flavour.

If you want to find out more about the weird and wonderful world of spirits, from the reason Grey Goose is so luxy to the correct way to enjoy absinthe, without fire, you should invest in Mark’s book.

Mark Ridgwell has ‘dedicated his life and liver’ to the business of booze. His corporate work for the likes of IDV, Hiram Walker and Makers Mark has led him to travel the world and even help to create new drinks, like Beefeater 24. For the last thirteen years he has directed Taste & Flavour, a consultancy and network of speakers that ‘teach people to appreciate spirits like wines.’ His book Spirits Explained is a comprehensive guide for both professional and recreational drinkers. The book contains a raft of useful and entertaining information: from spirits’ origins and place in history to their production and importantly, how to enjoy them.

Spirits Explained (Feb 2013) is available to buy on Kindle, iBooks and in print. If you live in Sussex you may like to join Mark for his next tasting and book signing at Harvey’s Brewery on 26th July.

Photo by Gino Meenen

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of Spirits Explained but this is in no way a sponsored post.

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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3 comments on “Interview: Mark Ridgwell on spirits

  1. June 18, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Urghhh. The worst thing about this pregnancy so far is that my single, solitary craving is for gin and tonic, strong, with three ice cubes and lots of fresh lime. I’d saw my arm off for one right now….

    • June 19, 2013 at 7:56 am

      I remember it clearly, hang on in there dear, gin time will come.

  2. June 18, 2013 at 11:36 pm


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