Monkey Shoulder Is A Malt Whisky Made For Both Mixing And Sipping

Monkey Shoulder is one of those quite well known Scottish malt whiskies one uses for blending a range of quality cocktails at bars. Established as a new whisky label by parent company William Grant & Sons back in 2005, it is a marriage of of selected 100 percent malt whisky blended from a range of distilleries in Scotland’s Speyside region.

Such is the popularity of this whisky that it was named last year as the best selling Scotch whisky amongst the world’s top bars, surpassing the Johnny Walker label in usage by bartenders mixing drinks. It is an expression that is pretty rich in flavors useful to tying it with a range of other ingredients, especially considering the forward aspects of fruity aromas and mellow vanilla notes.

To learn more about the Monkey Shoulder brand story, we recently chatted with brand ambassador Anna Mains about it. Note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Monkey Shoulder Penichillin

Monkey Shoulder Penichillin (image via William Grant & Sons)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Can you talk a little bit about the history of the brand?

Anna Mains: Monkey Shoulder first launched in 2005 in the UK and it was a great success. It launched here in the United States in 2012. The whole vision behind Monkey Shoulder, to begin with, is [that we are] William Grant, a Scotch house, and we have some of the most well respected Scotches in the world.

So keeping true to what our passion and kind of knowledge is, we started to see a rise in bourbon, at the time, and a lot of bartenders moving to mixing cocktails with it, and having fun while mixing cocktails. And Scotch has always predominantly been a spirit that you think of, if you went back 10 or 15 years, where people would say, “You’re going to put Scotch in a cocktail?” They might reach across the bar and slap you.

But considering that Scotch is made upon highlighting different flavors and key characteristics from each barrel, and that blending those barrels to make something that is beautiful and enjoyable is almost is the same thing that we do with cocktails, it made sense for us to play in that space.

We said, “what if we made a Scotch that’s super approachable, and that is made with the idea of mixing in cocktails behind it?” So let’s make it with really high quality liquid, and we’re going to do it with a hundred percent malt and no grain whiskey. So we know that we’re going to give people great quality and great flavor, but we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t have any pretension to it. Let’s completely challenge the conventions that everybody usually thinks of when they think of Scotch, and let’s kind of transcend this category.

Obviously you like for it to taste good, but so much of it is more of an escape, and it’s fun, it’s a community, it’s this playfulness that I think that everybody enjoys and that’s part of why we enjoy going out to bars. So this is all encapsulated in the personality of Monkey Shoulder. 

TWW: So Monkey Shoulder, owned by William Grant and Sons, is a blended malt. Can you talk about the blend mix, what distilleries it’s from, and how do each of those distilleries’ malts influence the final product?

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Mains: When Monkey Shoulder first came out, it was a blend of three different Speyside Scotches, which was our Glenfiddich, our Balvenie, and then our Kininvie. Brian Kinsman, our master blender, was looking specifically for certain flavor notes that would also be able to work while in mixing, and would probably attract a lot of the bourbon drinkers that had become so popular at the time.

So he was looking for barrels that had the flavor notes of the fruity malts, the oranges, the gingers, some of that spice that you get, the great cinnamon notes. And then that vanilla that is so approachable and, I think, comforting and fun for people to enjoy. So that was what originally, when they tasted through all these different barrels from those three original distilleries.

And that became, if you look on every bottle of Monkey Shoulder, Batch 27. And that is the batch that we hold our flavor profile to, that every single bottle now that is produced is made to taste exactly like.

Monkey Shoulder, when it came out, grew in popularity, I think, quicker than anybody expected it to. I know here in the United States that during the last five years it’s been, among bartenders, the number one trending Scotch, the best selling ssotch in your top tier bars. And so, to keep up with the demand, because it is so popular, we have expanded now to where we sometimes use not necessarily just those three distilleries – it’s not the same exact thing that it’s a barrel from each – but it is just Speyside malt that we are blending, just to make sure that we hit that same exact flavor profile that we have in Batch 27.

So we blend it in small batches. Brian selects three different barrels from those Speyside distilleries and blends that in a small batch. After we know our taste panel tastes those barrels to make sure that we’ve hit the exact notes that we’re looking for, we then marry that into a larger marrying tun. That’s being continuously married into a larger tun after we’ve married those small batches, and then from that tun, where we’re marrying those batches, is where we bottle from.

And the reason we do it this way is because, as we’ve grown in size, we want to make sure that we never change or veer off from that exact flavor profile that we had in Batch 27.

TWW: Why the emphasis on Speyside distilleries?

Mains: All of our Speyside distilleries are using ex-bourbon casks. They also have a lower amount of sulfur, which gives us those great fruity notes and that lightness that has become very recognizable in Speyside malts.

TWW: What does the actual name Monkey Shoulder reference?

Mains: Our name is a nod back to old tradition. A long time ago, when you had all these most houses, you had all of the barley that they would spread out over the malting floors. The malt masters and the malt men that work these malt floors would have a large shovel that they would use to turn the malt. They shovel the malt and throw it over their shoulder to turn the malt so that it will all dry out evenly.

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And the malt men, who worked these floors for years and would do that for hours upon hours every day, would develop an injury that they started calling Monkey Shoulder, because one shoulder would start to droop because they were shoveling the barley from that one side, day in day out. So that was the name of the injury that they would develop, they would have one shoulder that would kind of be pulled down heavier than the other as a result of shoveling and malting the barley all day.

TWW: The Monkey Shoulder brand today is not only popular as a drink used for cocktails, but it seems also to be popular just as something to sip. Was that the original intent, or did that come about more as a result of people just discovering the brand and finding it was versatile enough to go either way?

Mains: I think a little bit of both. When we created Monkey Shoulder, we wanted to make something that’s going to be fun to mix with. But what was always the cornerstone and was most important behind everything, as they were creating, was let’s make something that’s top notch quality. Let’s make a spirit that’s good enough to stand on its own, because I think if you just made a whiskey that you said, “We don’t care if it’s good enough to stand on its own, we just don’t drink it by itself, just mix it,” I don’t think that’s going to do very well, because whiskey lovers, in general, care about a quality product.

TWW: There was a report that came out early last year which basically said Monkey Shoulder was doing better selling at some of the world’s top bars versus Johnny Walker. What do you attribute to that?

Mains: In the world’s top 50 bars, the majority of them now tend to be a lot more cocktail focused, and I think that the flavor notes in Monkey Shoulder are easier to mix with than any other of the blended malts. So I think that, honestly, just our flavor profile, once people mix with it, they realize you can almost create any cocktail using Monkey Shoulder and you can make it taste good, especially when you’re a great bartender like you have in those top 50 bars.

But I think that, beyond that, and Monkey Shoulder understood early on, we have always been very advocacy and trade focused, because we get that when you’re going to say, “Let’s create a scotch and let’s make it for mixing,” you have to have your top bartenders and your top mixologists around the world that buy into the idea that that’s what it’s made for, because you’re challenging people’s normal ways of thinking and using the spirit.

TWW: With regards to Monkey Shoulder here in the US, how is it received and how widespread is the whiskey among the different states?

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Mains: I think that, right now, Monkey Shoulder is, as we move forward, if you are talking to people who are in cocktail circles, everybody knows what Monkey Shoulder is. I think that when you talk to people who are in the trendy bar scene, they know what Monkey Shoulder is, all bartenders, especially, know what Monkey Shoulder is. 

And so we’re wondering now, how do we reach the consumers that don’t go to cocktail bars? In New York, LA Miami, Dallas, Austin, Washington, DC, Denver, cities that have a pretty bustling bar restaurant scene, Monkey Shoulder’s really popular and does really well there. We are now trying to reach the states and the cities and the people that are not a part of that cocktail scene, and that are more just your everyday drinkers and your everyday consumers. 

How do I get somebody that’s a Tito’s and soda drinker to feel comfortable switching to trying a whiskey highball, or maybe a pina colada made with Monkey Shoulder, or maybe a Monkey and ginger ale? How do I get them to feel confident that they can branch out and try those drinks? Because you have these consumers that are kind of stuck on they drink what they drink, and Monkey Shoulder is definitely is a spirit for the new generation.

And so pushing to reach those people that are still kind of not quite into cocktails and not on that scene, that’s our challenge now as we try to spread the word to them.

TWW: What kind of cocktails does Monkey Shoulder do well in?

Mains: Monkey Shoulder does extremely well with a kind of model, by saying like, “Okay, let’s take a Negroni, let’s take out the gin and let’s substitute Monkey Shoulder for it.” They were looking for one that would play well as a substitute for almost any of your base spirits in a lot of your classic cocktails. Plays really great in, instead of a rye or a bourbon or a gin, a Negroni or a Boulevardier. It plays great with drinks like Old Fashioneds, but anything that has great citrus notes, that if it really does well and pairs with orange notes, Monkey Shoulder plays great in that space.

The ginger notes that are pretty subtle in Monkey, if you mix it with some ginger beer or ginger ale, it really helps those kinds of spicy notes sing and it plays really well with that. So if you think of an old fashioned, a mule, a whiskey ginger, a highball, which are rising in popularity, just your whiskey soda, Monkey Shoulders, it’s made specifically for all of those drinks, to play really well in them.

And the high ball, especially, since that’s becoming more trendy, I tell people that the light notes, the vanilla, the ginger, the orange, the cinnamon, when you add those bubbles of the soda to that pour of whisky, those bubbles kind of transport the flavor and the aromas to your nose as you’re drinking it. And in that Monkey plays really, really well in there.