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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Are writers missing whisky’s real stories?

    20 March 2019

    Jay Rayner has just celebrated two decades as restaurant critic of The Observer, which means a lot of lunches and dinners, and probably larger trousers. It’s also a long time to continue to be, as he is, engaged, perceptive and witty. After 20 years I’d imagine a sense of ennui would set in. ‘Been there, eaten that’ would be most humans’ response. So, congratulations Jay.

    The only reason I know this is that he wrote a piece on the anniversary. His inspiration, he says, was the work of his peers Matthew Fort and Jonathan Meades, ‘who both made it clear that food is not just about taste and texture. It’s about politics and history, about love and sex, the environment, architecture and so much more. I wanted the chance to write about all of that’.

    In-depth look: Jay Rayner highlights the importance of the story behind the food (Photo: Bella West)

    Food writing is about more than just what the chef has put on a plate; it is about where the food was grown and by whom, and how it fits with a place and a culture. If we are what we eat, then what we eat embeds us on the planet – it touches us in multifarious ways. Where does that leave drinks writing?

    This thing we now call ‘whisky writing’ started to form in the 1980s because of the growing interest in single malt. The field was open, there were many areas to explore. Information on production was still handled with a certain caution (and, in some cases, suspicion) by distillery managers who, in the words of former Diageo master distiller Mike Nicolson, were ‘strange men with oil stains on their tweed jackets who were locked away from the public gaze’.

    Now, every distillery has been logged multiple times; the same questions asked and reported, the same stories repeated, the same people interviewed. As food writing has continued to move onwards, the focus in drink seems to have narrowed, and the flow of ideas has clotted.

    While it is always essential to return and revisit a distillery, each time it has to be with the intention of learning something new. If all the information is already out there, why ask for it again? Instead, the question should be: what angle hasn’t been tried?

    Last year, at the World Whisky Forum, InchDairnie’s Ian Palmer spoke of the death spiral that would happen if the industry only talked to (and then agreed with) itself. The same applies to writing. It has to be more than just tasting notes and the same distillery profiles, and tossed-off trivia.

    Worldly influence: The story of food, like whisky, originates from people and places (Photo: Rawpixel)

    If food is also about politics, then so is whisky. If what is on your plate has a cultural resonance, then the same applies to what is in your glass. If it matters where food comes from and how it affects farming, then it matters where barley and wood and peat come from as well.

    Writing can be a way to get into brand ambassadorship (one of the toughest and, often, most thankless gigs out there, by the way), but that should not be the sole aim. As a writer you might get sent samples and maybe go on trips or to events, but freebies are not a reason to start writing.

    The story isn’t the liquid, or the distillery. It is what lies behind these structures and products. It is the ‘why’ as much as the ‘what’. Writing isn’t about you, your profile or your ambition. It is about the people, place or liquid you are writing about. You don’t matter. It’s not about clicks, it is about quality.

    We all need to look at whisky, wine, beer or food, and see the bigger picture. We need to be provocative, challenging, entertaining and see connections to show how, like food, whisky is a lens through which to understand the world.

  • Extreme whisky tasting in Glencoe

    13 March 2019

    We inch our way up. Kick-step, ice axe to balance, stumble forward. The sky and mountain have blurred into one. Not that I could see, were it any different. I’ve had to take my glasses off as, snow-spattered and misted, they were completely useless. I only needed to see a yard ahead in any case. The holes left by Will’s footsteps are cyan-ringed, revealing the ice below. Another gust of wind forces us to stop. Then on we go, kick, step, stumble. I look at Arthur. There’s ice on his beard. All you can do is laugh.

    I’m sure, reader, that your impressions of what a standard new product launch would go something like: luxury hotel, dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, a hired celeb to smile and hold something, buckets of booze. It’s not always exactly like that, but this is the first time in my experience that, in order to get the first taste of a dram, you have to climb a 3,000ft mountain. In Glencoe. In winter. In a blizzard.

    Wintry whisky: The climbers on the summit of Buachaille Etive Beag, ready for a chilly dram [Photo: Jonny McMillan]

    To be fair, Jonny McMillan cannot control the weather. Even Berry Bros & Rudd has limits to its reach. His idea was a sound one. On paper at least. The firm’s new Perspective range of blends has images of Scottish landscapes on the labels. As Buachaille Etive Mor is on the 40-year-old, let’s crack the first bottle on its summit. Royal Mile Whisky’s Arthur Motley and Highlander Inn’s Tatsuya Minagawa joined me in pandering to his mad notion.

    The closer the day got, the worse the forecast became. The big Buachaille was out of the question – a risk of avalanches – so we headed up its little brother Buachaille Etive Beag. Little is relative; it’s still in excess of 3,000ft. Thankfully – and wisely – Jonny had hired Will Manners as a guide. If you are attempting something like this, it’s best to have a man who has winter climbed in South Georgia, the Rockies and Himalayas on your side.

    And so it continues. Grasp rock, slip, plod. Baby steps, flounder in thigh-deep drifts. The gradient, once relentless, seems to ease, then there’s scattered rubble in the snow, and then the summit cairn. The bottle is produced. Glasses as well (this is Berry’s after all) and frozen-fingered we toast ourselves with a now wind-chill-filtered and spindrift-diluted dram. Warmth at last. Does it taste good? What do you think?

    New view: Berry Bros & Rudd’s Perspective series features Scottish landscapes on its labels [Photo: Jonny McMillan]The celebration over, we head down. The mountain is tolerating us at best and while it is never frightening, you must be wary over where to place your feet, conscious of every step and accepting of what it may throw your way. You walk up any mountain on its terms, not yours. We hadn’t conquered anything. We had worked with it, become part of it, in order to get to the top.

    There is something in the idea of summiting, the ‘because it is there’ impulse, which can be aligned to some aspects of collecting: seeking out the extreme, the rare, the remote. There is another way though, one outlined in Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain, where she talks not of walking up a mountain but being, ‘out of [her] body and into the mountain’.

    I can see both sides. The climb has rekindled my old desire to be in the hills again, to stand there on the top. There is reward in that, just as there is in getting that bottle of prized whisky. Yet a stronger urge, that of walking into the mountain, is there as well, opening my mind and body and letting the mountain speak to me, rather than the other way round. That too is like whisky.

    Spirited summit: Buachaille Etive Beag [centre] reminds Broom of the lengths collectors go to acquire unusual whiskies [Photo: Pxhere]

    Collecting is less about possession than buying to understand and share. That, I suppose, is the difference between the collector with a locked cupboard for their investment portfolio, and the whisky lover with open bottles; the walker into mountains and the acquirer of peaks who walks up but cannot see – which is ironic, given my current state.

    On the descent, inching over lumps of granite, the cloud clears and I rest beside a burn brimming with snowmelt, looking over to the Aonach Eagach ridge, smothered in snow. A raven scuds down the valley below us. Our slow progress, the speed of the bird, ancient heave of rock, blast of wind, water wellings. All combine.

    Back at the car, Jonny assures me he’ll send samples of the range. I wonder whether, to get the proper effect, I’d best taste them inside a freezer. I do know though that the next time I try the 40-year-old, part of me will be back on the mountain, happy, cold, aching, thrilled. It has become part of the dram.

  • The fake news fallout of Lidl’s Queen Margot

    05 March 2019

    ‘Is this fake news?’

    Texts and Facebook notifications have been lighting up my phone in the last week, all from enthusiastic whisky-loving friends questioning whether an eight-year-old blend from a budget supermarket could really have just been named the ‘best whisky in the world’.

    At least, that’s what the national press were reporting. In a world of ever-inflating whisky prices, where a bottle of Macallan 1926 recently sold for over £1 million, at just £13 a bottle the headlines sounded too good to be true.

    They were.

    You see, Queen Margot, a budget blended Scotch bottled for German supermarket chain Lidl, had indeed been named ‘best whisky’ at the World Whiskies Awards, but it was within the ‘blended whisky aged under 12 years’ category. It was judged in its competitive set against the likes of Label 5 12-year-old, Scottish Leader 12, Dewar’s 12 and Johnnie Walker Black Label, which sells for twice the price.

    All hail?: Queen Margot eight-year-old has not been declared the ‘world’s best whisky’ after all

    According to judges, more than 120 whiskies won their respective category; Queen Margot eight-year-old was just one of them.

    In fact there were four blended Scotch whisky categories: aged 12 years and under, aged 13-20 years, aged 21 years and over, and no age statement. Just one will be named overall ‘best blended Scotch’, and even that will go head-to-head against the winners of the American, Irish and Japanese blended whisky categories to determine the world’s best blend.

    When you consider Lidl’s entrant is up against the likes of Royal Salute 21-year-old and Johnnie Walker 18-year-old, the chances of the humble Queen Margot winning are slim.

    So how did we get here? Lidl, being rightly proud of its award for ‘best blended Scotch aged under 12 years’, issued a press release celebrating its win. But somewhere along the way that award was adapted by a number of media titles from ‘one of the best whiskies in the world’ to a definitive ‘best whisky in the world’. Cue hysteria among whisky fans and stampedes in Lidl’s wine and spirits aisles.

    The depressing truth is that some – not all – perfunctory journalists are under pressure from their publishers to increase web traffic with engaging, eye-catching headlines. The least offensive of articles merely exaggerate for effect; the worst amount to outright erroneous reporting, aka ‘fake news’. But when writers are under pressure from a rapidly descending deadline there’s too much temptation to simply copy and paste a story, especially when it’s printed by a usually respected title. Yet journalists are trained to question everything, to always seek a story from the source. To report the truth.

    Budget brands: German supermarket chain Lidl is known for its affordable own-label goods

    Whisky is a popular subject for the international press these days, so sadly occurrences like this are becoming more common, whether the ‘news’ is an ‘award-winning’ budget dram or the ‘discovery’ of fake rare whisky. Especially irksome are the ‘Become A Whisky Expert In 5 Minutes’ features that are littered with more inaccuracies than even the best-researched Donald Trump speech.

    Some news titles have since amended their claims following pressure from Lidl and the World Whiskies Awards, although those who have purchased a bottle of Queen Margot likely won’t be too disappointed by the revelation. It may not be the ‘world’s best’ but the expression was still voted by a tasting panel above its contemporaries, which include some of the world’s best-selling blends.

    If there have been any positive repercussions we can always hope that the offending journalists have had their knuckles (figuratively) rapped by their editors and assigned to write out 100 lines: ‘I must not copy and paste’. Though perhaps also the frenzy has gone some way to not only highlight a previously obscure brand, but also the value to be found in blended Scotch. Could the headlines have serendipitously encouraged malt purists to give blends a try?

  • The genius simplicity of Mark Hollis’ music

    27 February 2019

    This might seem a strange place to write about this. I didn’t know the musician Mark Hollis (1955-2019), who has died at age 64. I haven’t a clue whether he liked whisky or not. Why, then, is he here? Because there was a quality about his music which aligned itself to the manner in which we sometimes come to terms with the phenomena around us – it could be a landscape, a look, a piece of art, a plate of food, or in what we are all apparently obsessed about, a glass of something.

    Hollis started out in a synth-pop band called Talk Talk. They were good at what they did and had some hits. Not, to be honest, the music I was listening to in the 1980s. Then came Spirit of Eden which oscillated between ambience and jazz, loudness and almost silence, emotion and detachment. It was arranged, but seemed improvisatory, thrillingly haunting and immersive.

    ‘Haunting genius’: Mark Hollis did not allow his creativity to be restricted by dogma nor genre

    Spirit and its even further out companion Laughing Stock moved beyond genre. You could identify elements – the way the cymbals set up a pulse which was not always followed, how the guitar then played across everything, switches from electronic noise to harmony, peaks which lasted too long, followed by abrupt silences. Music as collage. They were unsurpassed in modern music. Naturally, they hardly sold.

    The band split up and seven years later Hollis resurfaced with a solo album. Here the space has widened, the music is almost becalmed, existing in space and tone. The creaks of a stool, a voice so close it is in your head. Woodwind and classical arrangements. At times things are barely there at all. The references shift again. Aligned to ECM or modern classical composers like Morton Feldman.

    The lyrics are gnomic poems speaking of war, loss, wanderings and the search of and for a spirit. There’s something of Schubert’s Winterreise. ‘I’d like to make music that can exist outside the timeframe,’ he once said. Outwith time itself.

    ‘“Forget our fate
    The peddler sings
    Set up to sell my soul.
    I've lived a life for wealth to bring
    And yet I'll gaze
    At the colour of spring
    Immerse in that one moment
    Left in love with everything.’

    [The Colour of Spring, 1998]

    ‘I wanted to make a record where you can’t hear when it has been made… I also… like the character and the realism of acoustic instruments… I adjusted the volume of the instruments, so the manner in which these instruments resonate are a part of the total sound. I looked for instruments who could grow above the limitations of a certain style like a clarinet, trumpet and flute.’

    The limitations he spoke of are as much about technique and approach as physical. To be truly creative is to transcend boundaries and genres and the restrictions of dogma.

    And that, reader, is the creative impulse. Taking something and making it greater, but not by adding things. Complexity isn’t necessarily about accumulation; it is more often about having the courage to strip elements away. It is all there. It is how he approached his music. It is how we can approach that liquid in the glass, or life itself. Quietly, immersed in the moment.

    It’s My Life, Talk Talk (Live at Ahoy in Rotterdam, 1984):

  • Japanese whisky faces its new future

    19 February 2019

    As we headed to Yamazaki last week, my trusty companion could barely contain his excitement. Not just at finally visiting the place, but about what (in his mind) would be the treasures on offer in the distillery shop. Plans were afoot for buying a case full of exclusives, and a haul of Hibikis.

    I tried to calm him down as gently as I could, but nothing I said would dent his belief that this would be the mother lode. He had a yen for Yamazaki, you could say. Then he arrived. The whisky offering was, er, scant. There was a better selection in the bottle shops in Kyoto – and their shelves were pretty much empty.

    The best bet for finding old whiskies in Japan these days would involve heading into the countryside and hoping to find the Japanese equivalent of a ‘mom and pop’ store. Alternatively, whisky lovers are now haunting estate sales in the hope that there might be a collection up for sale.

    The stock shortage shows little signs of easing in the short term. The liquid is dwindling, and what’s left is being managed as best it can. Last year, Suntory announced a further cull of brands, including a large size of its (and Japan’s) top-selling brand Kakubin, while Nikka is about to follow suit, with its Nikka 12 being replaced by Tailored and, more worryingly, a ‘temporary suspension’ of its Coffey Malt and Grain. The third major brand, Kirin Gotemba, is about to drop its Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50˚. The cupboard, it would seem, is bare.

    New era: Yamazaki may have been the first, but today Japan boasts 23 operational distilleries

    At the start of the millennium, Japanese whisky was the newest, brightest star in whisky’s constellation. Now, within 20 years, it seems to have imploded.

    It was with this in mind that we pushed open the door of Zoetrope in Tokyo. Established by Horigami-san a decade ago in Shinjuku, with the intention of specialising in ‘Western-style Japanese-distilled spirits’, this is where you go to take the pulse of the industry. We began chatting about what was new, what had gone.

    ‘There’s this…’ he said, putting two small bottles in front of me. Both were from Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture, which opened last year. One, New Pot, was a limited release of new make spirit; the second, New Born, an eight-month-old aged in American oak ex-shochu casks (the beachfront distillery is owned by shochu producer Komasa Jyoza). Rather good they were too – the New Born especially shows real promise.

    Then there followed new releases from Mars Tsunuki (also in Kagoshima), while on the bar top stood bottles from Hokkaido’s excellent (and smoky) Akkeshi.  

    The comments of one senior exec earlier in the week came back to me. ‘We have a lot of whisky,’ he had said, ‘it’s just that it’s not ready yet.’

    Rather than dwell on what has gone, maybe it is time to look at what is on the way. Japan now has 23 operational whisky distilleries – most small, nearly all new.

    The past year has seen bottled statements of intent from the multifunctional Shizuoka distillery (where the Karuizawa stills now nestle), Nagahama, Akasa and the crowd-funded Wakatsuru Saburomaru.

    While there’s still plenty of imported whisky (Scotch, but increasingly Canadian) being blended or simply relabelled as ‘Japanese whisky’, and the practise of relabelling aged/coloured rice shochu as ‘whisky’ continues, there does seem to be the start of a rebalancing.

    Even the obscure Matsui Shuzo (where a considerable amount of ersatz ‘Japanese’ whisky came from) appears to have turned over a new leaf and is releasing what seems to be 100% Japanese-distilled wares.

    New spirit: Kanosuke distillery opened in Kagoshima Prefecture in 2018

    Is Japanese whisky rebooting itself? Maybe come 2024 – the centenary of the first whisky distillation taking place – we will see Japanese whisky 3.0 emerge (2.0 was the radical shift in approach after the bulk-oriented low-strength days of the 1960s/70s whisky boom).

    By then, the landscape will have changed dramatically. The newest players will have mature examples while, if all plans are approved, there will be more distilleries coming into production.

    We will have a second distillery at Chichibu, while Kirin’s Gotemba expansion, which will see capacity increased by 20%, will have been running for three years. The current increase in production (and capacity) at the other established distilleries will by then have resulted in some easing of stock restrictions.

    Maybe a reboot isn’t the right term. Japanese whisky has always reflected the concept of kaizen (continual incremental improvement). This is just the latest manifestation of that approach.

    The question is: what will the rest of the whisky world be like by then? Japan is hardly alone in building new distilleries; the memories of the old days will have gone and a new set of consumers will have emerged.

    However, the latest stage in Japanese whisky’s evolution isn’t as simple as waiting for stock to mature. It means looking at what a future market might want, what other countries are producing, finding points of difference, while still reinforcing Japanese identity.

    Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed. There are many more stars in the constellation. Japan won’t return as the new kid on the block, but will have to fight its way back. Its plans for the future start now.

  • Why foreign owners are good for Scotch

    13 February 2019

    ‘Up there? Seriously?’ After 12km of following undulating paths through the bare, wintry vineyards, we’re closing in on our destination, the quintessentially Tuscan town of Montalcino.

    The farm track we’ve been following has been taking an inexorably upward trajectory, and now, as we reach Montalcino’s outskirts, a ribbon of innumerable steps ascends steeply around the next bend and beyond. For walkers at least, the beauty of these Tuscan hilltop towns comes at a price, and that price has a name: gravity.

    But we’re not complaining (you need to be able to breathe to do that). We’ve spent the past few hours zig-zagging our way from the village of Torrenieri towards Montalcino’s ever-visible outline, our walk punctuated by stops to sample the local fare. Fortified by soup, salami, ricotta, honey and the odd glass of red wine, we’re fully fuelled for the climb ahead.

    Banfi vineyards in Montalcino

    Prized vineyards: But Brunello di Montalcino was once almost unheard-of in the wider world

    This is the annual Brunello Crossing event, including our 13km walk, plus gruelling running races over distances of 13km, 23km and 44km. In that context, despite the climb ahead, we’ve taken the easy option.

    The metaphor of an arduous ascent into the light is an apt one for what was once the poorest part of Tuscany, where sharecropping grape growers scratched a living by shipping Sangiovese north to the big wine companies in Chianti.

    In those days, Brunello di Montalcino – for the few who had heard of it – was Italy’s Cahors, a forbidding, inkily powerful red wine that demanded the patience of decades in bottle to tame its wildness.

    And now? It is, to quote one local producer, one of Italy’s ‘Killer Bs’, a premier league fine wine alongside Barolo and Bolgheri, with a roster of big-name wineries: Biondi-Santi, Altesino, Argiano, Soldera, Castelgiocondo.

    If Montalcino’s transformational story is compelling, so is that of the region’s biggest producer, Banfi. Banfi is an incomer, an interloper, an American company whose Italian roots couldn’t allay the initial suspicion of the locals when it parachuted in during 1978.

    Montalcino

    Typically Tuscan: Montalcino is a quintessential Italian hilltop town

    Banfi, owned by the Mariani family, came to Montalcino to make sweet wine (aiming to repeat the huge success story of its Riunite Lambrusco), but stayed to make Brunello when that didn’t work out, hastily ripping out much of its Moscadello vines in favour of Sangiovese.

    Four decades on, Banfi isn’t simply the biggest producer of Brunello, and the one that has arguably done most to secure the wine’s global reputation – certainly in the US – but it is also a pioneer in research and innovation.

    Its Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello bottling is the fruit of 20 years of studies that identified no fewer than 600 clonal variants of Sangiovese in Montalcino, narrowing this down to 15 and then three that are now thought to produce the finest and most complex wines.

    In the vineyards, the diversity of soil types has spawned a painstaking, labour-intensive approach to viticulture: Sangiovese vines planted on more fertile soils use the more productive spur cordon trellising system; those on poorer ground are trained according to Banfi’s own alberello system of two spurs in a v-shape. Assessment is not made block by block, or even row by row – but vine by vine.

    Sangiovese vines in Banfi vineyard

    Spot the difference: Banfi uses a painstakingly precise vine trellising system

    No doubt there’s still some lingering resentment about the fact that an American company owns fully 850 hectares of Montalcino vineyards, but more than 40 years of continuous investment, and the salaries paid to 350 full-time employees, have helped to soften those early doubts.

    There’s a feeling sometimes in Scotland that the very idea of foreign acquisition of whisky distilleries and brands is wrong, that owners from France, Japan or the US – England, even – are somehow robbing the country of its natural resources, exporting revenues and profits that should never have been allowed to leave its borders.

    But the best overseas owners create jobs and prosperity with their investment, and are a positive force for the collective good of Scotch whisky when they bring their own ideas and expertise with them, driving local producers to adapt and improve in order to compete.

    In the simplest terms, they’re givers, not takers; like the vast majority of immigrants to every country, their presence enriches, rather than detracts. Look at the broad sweep of history, and whisky in Scotland, like wine in Montalcino, would be many times the poorer without them.

  • Today’s whisky drinker deserves better

    06 February 2019

    Over many years of taking tasting sessions, I’ve begun to appreciate the format’s ability to unlock people’s personalities. Everything you have ever smelled is locked away in your memory; when an aroma leaps into focus, it comes with a context attached which reveals something about you to everyone else in the room.

    I remember a very quiet woman who found it hard to articulate what she was smelling – we’ve all been there – suddenly shouting ‘amyl nitrate!’ as her first public tasting note. To be fair, I didn’t push her as to why she knew what poppers smelled like (if only because it might have shown that I did…).

    Anyway, tasting in public, or with friends, becomes a little like a therapy session. We dredge up aromas which tell us – and the company – about where we are from, and what we like and dislike. Sharing it is good. Knowing your comfort zone and aversions is the only way in which you can start to navigate whisky and, who knows, maybe it helps you in other ways. Pour a dram, lie down on the couch, and tell me about yourself. I’m listening.

    Having a regular column is in some ways similar. It too allows you to work out some issues.

    Individual appeal: A whisky’s aroma is often linked to a person's memories and experiences (Photo: Jen Steele Photography)

    I come to this having finished tasting and then writing the next two weeks’ tasting notes (I hasten to add everything was spat out) and, as this is the day after, there’s no vestigial alcohol adding to my irritability.

    What is inflamed is (or was) my palate, as yet another cask-strength whisky seared its way down my oesophagus. It’s something which has bugged me for months, years maybe, and for some reason has bubbled to the top of the pile of things to grumble about. I’m allowed to. I’m old. 

    Don’t get me wrong. I see the attraction of cask strength (whatever it means). Whisky in its naked condition, no adulteration, no buggering about. Alcohol carries flavour, after all. Whiskies at 43% or 46% tend to have more depth than those bottled at 40%. That ideological purity does, on occasion, need to be tempered by common sense – namely, can you drink the bloody stuff without wincing?

    One of my maxims is that whisky is about pleasure, not about pain. If all you care about is the latter, then, well we are back to whisky revealing darker psychological secrets. Pop back on to the couch and tell me about your mother.

    Just add water, you say? I do as a matter of course, for the simple reason that it opens the whisky up and also reveals positives and negatives such as astringency or inactivity. That raw heat is coming from spirit which hasn’t been mellowed by air or wood. It is there because cask or time haven’t worked… yet.

    Adding water might cut the heat, but in the worst examples it doesn’t. It’s still there, nagging away at the back of the palate. The water exposes the whisky, confirming what the neat tasting suggested: it’s not balanced. Reducing bottling strength wouldn’t have worked either, because that balance doesn’t exist.

    Some high-strength whiskies will mellow and improve with some water, but that is because they have an inherent balance and complexity. Water opens up what the alcohol has obscured when it’s tasted neat. You cannot, however, open up something which isn’t there.

    So, the question is, why bottle it? I know that one person’s ‘vibrancy’ can be another’s ‘immaturity’, but rushing to bottling just because you have the cask makes little commercial sense. We are inundated with whisky, be it Scotch or from the rest of the world.

    The result is that the quality bar has been (or should have been) set higher. The days of bottling whatever came along have surely gone. Now there are plenty of quality alternatives.

    Shaky foundations: Is ‘innovation’ used to mask mediocre or immature whisky?

    Immature? Hang on to it, blend it – that vibrancy can be useful in a vatting. Oh, and don’t think that a quick dunk into an active cask for a short period of finishing will sort it out. It won’t. You’ll just get an immature whisky with wine on top of it. That’s not what finishing is meant to be about.

    The lofty principles revolved around looking carefully at the distillery character of a mature spirit and then using a short time in an active cask to spin the flavours in a new and harmonious direction, adding complexity which complemented and, perhaps, subtly contrasted with the original. It’s not a way of covering up – and yet it still happens.

    Neither should finishing be seen as innovative. It might have been in the 1990s (or earlier), but we’ve moved on. And don’t fob me off with starting in ex-Sherry then finishing in ex-Bourbon. That’s not innovation, that’s desperation.

    Although innovation is the most misused word in Scotch, it is needed. Things must always move forward, while being cognisant of the past (in fact, with a keen eye on what might have been the norm decades ago, which could be revived and reinterpreted). It can take years for innovation to pay off – Glenmo’s yeast work proves that.

    Balance, complexity, character. The three-legged stool, the foundation, the three words that should always be thrumming away at the back of the mind. If they’re not there, then go back, rework, rethink and blend, because there’s always a new opportunity.

    In a world which will soon be awash with whisky, the standard has to be higher. We, the drinkers, deserve it.

    Good. Can I get off the couch now?

  • What is English whisky?

    30 January 2019

    ‘What does English whisky taste like?’

    I’m taken aback. We both look down at the bottle of Cotswolds single malt I’ve just handed over as a gift. ‘Well…’ I’m tempted to tell them to crack open the bottle and find out for themselves, but that might seem unhelpful.

    I opt for a different cop-out: replying to one question with another (always good when you don’t know the answer): ‘What does Scotch whisky taste like?’ Quizzical look. ‘No, think about it. You like Lagavulin. You like Glengoyne. They don’t have much in common, but would you say they both “taste like” Scotch whisky?’

    When we don’t know much about something, easy definitions and pigeon-holes are tempting, reassuring even. To whisky newcomers, Islay = peat and Speyside = fruit are comforting equations. As the journey progresses, their limitations become all too apparent.

    With English whisky, everyone’s at the start of that journey. St George’s and Hicks & Healey have been distilling for well over a decade now, but they are the outliers, the pioneers. Now, with 20-plus distilleries making whisky from Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight, critical mass beckons.

    After talking to a number of English distillers in recent months, I’m no nearer to answering the question – and neither are they. Then again, how many of them set out to create something ‘English’ in the first place? And how would they even begin to define that?

    Cotswolds Distillery

    Whisky landscape: Cotswolds aims to make a spirit that reflects the distillery’s surroundings

    Some appear to be following the Scottish template quite closely: St George’s, with its Forsyths pots; The Lakes, led by the likes of Paul Currie (son of Arran founder Harold Currie) and ex-Diageo production director Dr Alan Rutherford OBE; Cotswolds, where founder Dan Szor was inspired by the resurrection of Bruichladdich.

    But St George’s does peated, triple-distilled and a range of grains that uses rye, oats, wheat, unmalted barley, and chocolate and crystal malts; The Lakes, while overtly ‘Scottish’ in its approach, has released two hybrid whiskies, The One and Steel Bonnets; Szor wants the Cotswolds spirit to echo its ‘gentle, beautiful’ landscape, and the cereals and fruits that grow there.

    In Kent, Copper Rivet has drawn up its ‘Invicta Charter’ as a starting-point for a discussion about common standards for English whisky – but not as a restraint on flavour creation, as its two contrasting new make spirit styles show.

    In Southwold on the Suffolk coast, Adnams uses brewer’s yeast and a Christian Carl ‘beer stripping column’ to produce its high-abv wash; The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) has manually-operated stills, employs an archaeobotanist to source ancient grains and isn’t scared to release a pure rye spirit at an obscenely young age – because it tastes good.

    The Lakes Distillery

    Traditional template: The Lakes is close to Scotland geographically and in whisky terms

    The Lakes sold its first bottle of single malt at auction for a record £7,900, and is laying down stock for an aged range up to 25 years old; meanwhile, Cotswolds’ first release was priced at £45 a bottle.

    Can you see a common thread here? No, neither can I.

    These are people forging a new path, learning and borrowing from what has gone before, but refusing to be enslaved by it, and certainly not scared of voicing their own opinions.

    To Szor, most Scottish distilleries are now mere ‘manufacturing plants for a global brand’ (whether that’s a criticism or not depends on your viewpoint), while Copper Rivet distiller Abhi Banik decries the misuse of the word ‘solera’ by some Scottish distillers, and was shocked to see the artificial ‘seasoning’ process that most Sherry casks go through prior to their use for maturing whisky.

    When Szor thinks about whisky, he comes back to the individuals watching over the stills, not their postal addresses: Ichiro Akuto, Patrick Zuidam, Matt Hofmann: ‘I think of individual distilleries and the people behind them, and what their aspirations and ambitions are,’ he says. ‘Those personalities will come through.’ 

    If anything unites the emerging generation of English whisky distillers, it is the healthy determination of each of them to follow their own path, create their own philosophy, rather than the fact that they all happen to be located in the same country.

    ‘What is English whisky?’ Apart from being unanswerable, the question’s irrelevant.

  • How can a whisky be worth $60,000?

    25 January 2019

    Into the warehouse, enveloped by the time-infused smell of dunnage, all bung cloth, damp earth and whisky-steeped wood. Someone should bottle it. (©DB Unlikely Ideas 2019). Hands clamped to ice-cold glasses, the aromas reluctant to move, grumpy at being disturbed after 72 years of slumber.

    It’s pale, paler than you expect – a good thing for a whisky of this age. Less oak, more oxygen. It flickers into life (see my official tasting notes to find out how), revealing how the years have not just been about slow absorption, but also a steady peeling away, so that concentration and opening are revealed as part of the same thing. The Lalique decanter skims the cask end, its gentle flow a dramatic contrast to the skyscraper thrusts of the rest of the series.

    It was A Moment. No question about that. I know that this is the only time I’ll taste it. Sniff gently and wet the lips. I’ve noticed that time seems to stop for a second when I taste a spirit of this age, whether it’s Black Bowmore, some pre-phylloxera Cognac, or this Macallan, the oldest whisky released by the distillery. There’s a pause, a mental gasp, as the mind gets to grips not just with the flavours, but with all which has happened since the cask was filled.

    Time capsule: Macallan 72 Year Old in Lalique – The Genesis Decanter is representative of another era

    Moon landings, wars, summers of love, new ways of communication, changes in climate. This was made the same year Dolly Parton, Sly Stallone, Syd Barrett and, er, Donald Trump were born.

    They put you in a different place, these whiskies. Even if they don’t work, even if they are too astringent and tannic, they speak to you, of men you will never meet, a time you have never seen; messages in bottles which have only now reached a distant shore. You know you are blessed to be in this job at this moment.

    The tasting was the culmination of a day which had started with Highland cows posing as if in some Landseer painting, a smirr over the Spey as we go into the fishing hut for drams and warmth.

    It had been a chance to get my head around the new Macallan and the way it flows across the estate from the river, to the cows and barley on the farm beside the hummocks of the new distillery, then rising up to the earth-brown warehouses. Water, to earth, to air. It’s a self-contained world, a Macallan world, or rather a world created by Macallan, culminating in a distillery which looks, and sometimes behaves, more like a modern art gallery: the Scottish equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but with the equipment still left in. I’m inside it now, glass in hand, still inhaling, the whisky now starting to open in the warmth. What would the guys have made of all of this?

    What were they thinking in 1946 as the distillery sputtered back into life, still with barley rations, still using peat? Optimistic, or stunned by conflict? Was the stillman thinking of being home or on the Front when he was making the cut; did the mashman see fallen friends when the tun was being filled?

    Changing landscape: Those that worked at Macallan in the 1940s wouldn’t recognise the distillery today

    What was in the mind of the warehouseman as he filled the casks, sending them off to blenders and merchants, to be opened who knows when? Family, love, the morning dram? It’s unlikely to be what might happen in seven decades time. But in a world in the process of renewal there were some constants: the barley would be sown, the salmon would run and whisky would be made. Distilling as an attempt to regain normality.

    Reality crashes back in as the conversation restarts. There’s 600 decanters we’re told. Each will cost US$60,000.

    We might never get used to prices like that, but they are becoming more familiar, part of whisky’s evolution, the next pool in the river, the next leap of faith (or hope). I can never quite be inured to the fact that a bottle can cost twice the average yearly wage, the same price as a car, or a luxury watch.

    I try to rationalise it via the latter. I can appreciate the craft in its construction, but the time is the same whether you are looking at a Swatch, phone, computer clock or a Patek Philippe. A fine watch doesn’t qualify you for better time. I do, however, understand why they are collectible and beautiful pieces of functional art. You want to spend US$60,000 on a watch? Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

    Why then is there this niggle about whisky playing in the same realm? It isn’t simply that nothing is worth that, because these decanters will sell, proving some people clearly think they are.

    Is it because whisky is something I care about, because, once, I could afford pretty much all of it and now resent that some is (way) beyond my reach? Could it be because it’s evidence of whisky getting a bit uppity? That last one’s a very Scottish reaction. There’s a saying here, ‘I kent his faither’ (translation: ‘I knew his father’, meaning the father was better, yet made no fuss about it).

    Saying that, however, also suggests that whisky shouldn’t exist in this domain, a peasant with his mucky boots, sitting at a table in a three-Michelin star restaurant. Why shouldn’t it? Bugger that. Bring me the tasting menu, thank you garçon. There’s your beginner’s guide to the contradictory nature of the Scottish psyche.

    Spey fishing: Broom finds life’s most valuable moments aren’t always anchored in luxury

    In other words, I’m conflicted. Not resentful, but not wholly accepting. Maybe I can’t get my head around it because it is impossible to assess a whisky at this price in a normal way. Can you ever say anything is worth US$60,000 if you’ve never had that amount of money to spend? Strangely, it’s easier to assess whiskies at £3,000 than it is when they are 10 or 20 times that amount. This exists in its own bubble. 72 years, 400 litres in total, Lalique, amazing packaging. Why not US$60,000?

    And yet, when I look back at the day, it’s not just that moment of time stopping then scrolling backwards as a remarkable liquid touched my lips; it’s also standing by the Spey, a dram of 12-year-old, talking about fishing with the ghillie.

    The river flows, changes, yet stays a constant. You need that in whisky, that anchor to place and people. You might have a 72-year-old, but you need the 12 even more. I’ve sat at the top table and loved it. I’m back at the river, with mud on my boots, and am happier there.

  • Remembering Gérard Basset OBE

    23 January 2019

    The hospitality business – working in restaurants, bars and hotels – is often an unforgiving one. Long and unsociable hours, enormous pressure, fierce competition… the timid need not apply. No wonder that it takes its toll, both on relationships and on individuals’ physical and mental health.

    Those who rise to the top in such a world often have a reputation for being, to use an understating euphemism, ‘difficult’. The pantomime goings-on of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may be exaggerated for the cameras, but they hint at an apparent underlying truth: here, nice guys (of either gender) don’t finish first.

    Gérard Francis Claude Basset gave the lie to that theory. When he died last Wednesday at the criminally young age of 61 from cancer of the oesophagus, the tributes naturally mentioned his many career achievements as a sommelier and hotelier (of which more in a moment), but without exception they focused on one aspect above all: his kindness.

    Perhaps it was something to do with the way that Gérard came into the business; visiting England in 1977 to watch his beloved St-Étienne play Liverpool in the European Cup (they lost), he stayed on, ended up working as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man and, slowly but surely, made his way. It says much of the UK hospitality scene of the time that he was picked out for a front-of-house role pouring wine ‘because I was French’.

    Gerard Basset

    Star sommelier: Gérard Basset’s unassuming demeanour hid a wealth of achievements

    So began a remarkable career, by the end of which the letters denoting Gérard’s qualifications came to outstrip the length of his name: MW (Master of Wine), MS (Master Sommelier), MSc (from wine organisation the OIV), MBA in wine business and – perhaps his proudest achievement – OBE.

    He co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain in 1994, selling it to Malmaison for £66 million a decade later; then, with wife Nina, set up the boutique TerraVina Hotel in the New Forest. Not bad for a lad who left school in St-Étienne with no qualifications and no idea what to do.

    A tireless entrant in sommelier competitions, Gérard’s most emotional triumph came in Chile in 2010, when he won the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde title at the sixth time of asking, after finishing second three times. Before the contest, he’d pledged that this would be his final attempt.

    Through it all, he appeared unchanged by success and setbacks alike – unfailingly humble, with a wicked, dry sense of humour. For someone so ceaselessly busy and hard-working, he rarely seemed in a rush, always making time to talk to people.

    These qualities were invaluable in shaping perhaps Gérard’s most lasting legacy to hospitality in this country: the generation of young sommeliers he mentored, and who are now some of the leading figures in the trade.

    If they learned from the great man’s patience and humility, they were also inspired by something less obvious – his immense drive, ambition and appetite for hard work.

    Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the formidable Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications will know just how hard it is to achieve either in a lifetime; Gérard passed both in less than a decade.

    His many competition wins were grounded in a ceaseless quest for knowledge, coupled with a fearsome regime of tasting new wines and spirits each and every day; he would draw detailed wine maps from memory, starting from scratch if there was even one error, and once employed a memory coach. There was steel beneath that humble exterior.

    Gerard Basset

    Lasting legacy: A generation of sommeliers was inspired by Basset’s example

    When diagnosed with cancer, Gérard used the time to write his memoirs; you can contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to enable their publication via the Unbound website; they ought to be quite a read.

    Kindness often appears to be an increasingly rare and undervalued commodity, in an age when opinions are voiced and dismissed with parallel disdain on social media, and when so much cruelty has crept into political discourse – so it’s salutary to bear in mind that being nice is in no way incompatible with being ambitious, driven and competitive.

    We would all do well to remember that in our discussions of whisky (and other topics). Fine to be passionate but, when so much is subjective, a little more respect for the other person’s opinion should not be too much to ask.

    In one of his last interviews, Gérard was asked (for possibly the hundredth time) if the cliché of the ‘snooty sommelier’ still persisted. His answer applies just as much to those involved in whisky as in wine:

    It has changed, but with any profession you get nice people and stupid people. When you meet a snooty sommelier – and they do exist – it’s a shame because most people who become sommeliers are passionate about wine.
    ‘Sometimes the problem is that they are too passionate about wine, and they think more about the product than the people.’

    With Gérard, whether with friends, customers, colleagues or employees, it was always about the people.

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