The last couple of months we have done a number of interviews with a few smaller independent bottlers here at Malt. And to continue this series, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce you to Asta Morris. A Belgian independent bottler, owned and founded by Bert Bruyneel.
Bert, who kindly took the time to answer all my questions, is someone I’ve been following for a while now on Instagram. But to date, it has not been possible to review one of his bottles. A pity, because there have been some very good releases and his new bottlings also seem to be very nice. So instead of just an interview, I also took the opportunity to review some of his single malts, to give you an impression of this label.
MALT: Can you tell a bit about yourself first and how you got involved in whisky.
Asta Morris: Well, I’m Bert, vintage 1975, married, and father of 2 children (7 and 8 years old). I didn’t drink any alcohol until 1994, when a friend who was a bartender in a speakeasy bar, seduced me to taste a whisky. My first one was a whiskEy in fact because it was a Jack Daniels Single Barrel. Lightning struck and the week after we tasted a second one. Then I started to buy a first bottle, a second, a third, and the fire was lit. In 1999, that same friend/bartender and I visited Islay, where we wanted to visit Bowmore, Lagavulin and Bruichladdich because we had tasted and liked those. When we arrived on Islay, we discovered there were also other distilleries there, with sometimes funny and unpronounceable names (Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, …). That was the time before the internet and whisky forums/blogs … can you imagine. During that week, we also founded the Wee Dram Whisky Society, which still exists today. I became a Malt Maniac in 2006, and started Asta Morris in 2009.
MALT: So you started Asta Morris in 2009, but as a writer first. What made you change to become an independent bottler.
Asta Morris: That was never a ‘decision’. As I said, I tasted my first whisky in 1994, went to Islay in 1999 and founded the club with Carlos. Then I started writing articles, hosting tastings, and I was asked to select casks for importers/distributors, so it was just a logical next step. That’s also me, if I go for something it’s all the way. So hobby became a passion and passion became a profession.
MALT: Where did the name Asta Morris come from.
Asta Morris: Let people search for it.
MALT: What distinguishes you from other independent bottlers.
Asta Morris: Mainly that Asta Morris is very small, so it doesn’t need huge volumes. Which means I can make different choices from time to time. I’m also not looking for big names. I prefer to come up with good casks from lesser-known distilleries. This can sometimes surprise people more than the bigger names.
MALT: The Asta Morris bubble style labels are very distinctive, how did you come up with this idea?
Asta Morris: That was David’s idea (DOgraphicdesign). He’s a friend for years and he does all my designs.
MALT: You are very big in Japan. You even are one of the lucky few independent bottlers who has bottled Chichibu. Can you tell us a bit more about this.
Asta Morris: I got contacted in 2013 by a Japanese company who wanted to do a cask with Asta Morris. I first thought it was a joke. However, six months later, the cask was bottled and in November 2014 I visited Japan for the first time. Meanwhile, I went there around 15 times.
MALT: In Japan cocktails and highballs are very popular. Do you anticipate to that with your brand?
Asta Morris: The cocktails in Japan are simply the world’s best. I often say whisky is my profession, cocktails are my hobby. Highballs are less my taste/preference. Asta Morris is not intended to go in cocktails, but Glorious Bastard is another brand of whisky, and that one goes great in cocktails (whisky finished on a gin cask). There also is the Maman Brigitte Rum that does very well in cocktails.
MALT: What are your main markets currently? And do you have plans to expand?
Asta Morris: Belgium, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, soon Ukraine, Israel, France, Holland, Denmark, and one did something with Canada. I never make plans with Asta Morris. We just see what happens, and it’s a great ride so far
MALT: What are your set of criteria for selecting casks.
Asta Morris: I have to like the whisky .
MALT: At the moment you see more and more independent bottlers popping up. Do you think there is room for such an abundance of independent bottlers on the market?
Asta Morris: Why not? Time will tell …
MALT: What are your personal favourites from Asta Morris and/or is the most special to you.
Asta Morris: The most special one was the BenRiach 1975, because it was the first time I bought a whole cask, just because I simply LOVED it. My biggest worry was ‘who will buy all those bottles’, but I sold out in 1 day. And 1 week later, there wasn’t anything left on the shelves in the shops as well … Nice memories
MALT: Which brand would you ever want to bottle and why?
Asta Morris: Honestly, I don’t think too much in terms of brands, in a way that I prefer a good Glenwhatever over a mediocre Clynelish. If I hear marketing guys talk about ‘their brand’, it often makes me smile… They have no clue. That’s ok for the big volume brands and the blends, but the people who like/appreciate good whisky don’t really care about ‘brands’. It’s a very knowledgeable niche that isn’t easy to fool or to trick.
MALT: You have been a Malt Maniac, but left because you started Asta Morris. Can you explain to our readers what and who the malt maniacs are? And why you left.
Asta Morris: When I joined the Malt Maniacs in 2004, there were only 24 Maniacs over the world. We were all very passionate and wrote about whisky for the sites Malt Madness and Malt Maniacs, founded by Dutchman Johannes van den Heuvel. It started small but soon got very popular.
MALT: Besides Asta Morris, you also have a few other labels now. Rasta Morris for rum and then there is NOG! for gin, for instance. Can you tell us a bit more about these projects?
Asta Morris: Rasta Morris is a brand of single cask rum, with no added sugar, never chill-filtered, never any colouring, and no dilution … rum as pure as can be. Maman Brigitte is a blended rum, from 8yo Barbados (Foursquare), 5yo Dominican Republic, and 3yo Jamaican rum. Glorious Bastard is a whisky finished on an ex-No Ordinary Gin cask.
Pete’Series is a vatted (teaspooned) peated malt whisky, around 8 years old and finished in a sherry butt. No Ordinary Gin is a gin matured 12 – 36 months on an ex-Asta Morris whisky cask. Soul Gin is NOG! Before maturation, so a regular white gin, with tangerine, orange, juniper, coriander, poppy, angelica root, fennel, hops and cacao as leading botanicals. This one was initially only for Japan, then came to Europe exclusively for The Jane in Antwerp, later also for Pure C., AirRepublic and Blueness in Cadzand. And now it is wider available.
MALT: Can we expect more of these projects in the future?
Asta Morris Strathmill 1991 – review
Matured in an oak cask for 22 years, and bottled at 50.3%.
On the nose: Caramelized pineapple, peach. Lemon in the background. A hint of honey. Coconut. This is followed by tobacco leaves. But mixed with caramel fudge? Then menthol. And later even a bit floral.
In the mouth: Caramel fudge and plenty of it. Quite creamy and thick mouthfeel. Toffee. Bananas. Wood spices. Lovely long finish with vanilla, lemon and the wood spices.
Asta Morris Miltonduff 2011 – review
Matured in a sherry butt for 7 years and bottled at 60.6%.
On the nose: Ooff a bit of sulphur in the beginning. But luckily this disappears rather quickly. Then it becomes really fruity and lovely. Tinned apricots. raisins, fresh plums. And a nice layer of honey.
In the mouth: Sweet honey. Cappucino in the background. It is actually quite creamy for such a young whisky. Then oranges. And a long finish again, with a slightly bitter edge. Water makes it fruitier. Grapefruit, more oranges, and a hint of lime.
Asta Morris Caol Ila 2011 – review
Matured in a sherry cask for 8 years and bottled at 55.1%.
On the nose: Wet rope. Bonfire smoke. Brine and sea air. Lemons. A hint of honey. Followed by blueberries. Chocolate, a hint of leather. And then it goes towards seaweed. With water: oranges and more lemons. Fruitier. Softer.
In the mouth: A gentle layer of peat. But a bit vegetal. Weird combination, but nice. Earl Grey tea. Oranges in the background. A little bit earthy and somewhat salty. Then it gets sweeter. Honey, sweet raisins and caramel. Soy sauce, which is followed by Iodine. With water: More oranges, fruiter, but also more one dimensional.
Starting with the Strathmill, which was an older release (Bottled in 2013) I’m not that familiar with Strathmill, but this is really good. Especially the nose which just keeps on going. Maybe not overly complex in the taste but it sure is delicious. Nice ending with the long finish.
Both the Miltonduff and the Caol Ila are recent releases. And I was pretty surprised by both of them, as they both are still young. The Miltonduff is only 7 years old, but it is a lovely dram for a good price. But give it a bit of time to get rid of the sulphur edge. Maybe just a tad too much influence of the sherry cask, which covers the character of Miltonduff a bit. But it is still there though.
The 8-year-old Caol Ila is a bit nicer even. It keeps its character despite the sherry cask. A nice combination that turns out to work well here. More complex than you would expect from such a young single malt.
All in all a nice bunch of Asta Morris bottlings. A label to keep an eye on!