A who’s who of Scotch whisky is on hand to answer this most challenging of questions.
It was only after a few minutes that I realised that my hand had stuck to my glass. ‘Can you feel your beard?’ Westland’s Matt Hofmann asked. ‘Mine’s beginning to freeze.’ He was right. A distinct crisping of the facial hair was taking place.
A source of inspiration: The World Whisky Forum took place at Box distillery in Sweden
Up the snowy slope, the steam from Box distillery mingled with the fog emanating from our mouths, as we huddled around the fires on the frozen lake, the whisky helping to heat the core. ‘It’s only -14˚C,’ said Box distiller Roger Melander. ‘It’s often -26˚C.’
This was the start of the first World Whisky Forum, the brainchild of Box’s Jan Groth. A chance for distillers from around the world, irrespective of size, to come and talk and share. And, apparently, freeze.
‘Just as well we’re not in Finland,’ said Martin Tønder Smith from the Norwegian alcohol monopoly, ‘otherwise they’d also be getting us to jump in the lake.’ He didn’t look too worried about the possibility. Made of hard stuff, these Nordic folk.
The temperature may have been cold, but the welcome and the talks over the next two days were anything but. Don’t get me wrong – debate was rarely heated, rather a warm glow of consensus and friendship began to suffuse the room.
Non-attendees could glance at who was speaking and conclude that this was simply a chance for small(er) players to get together to moan about big firms, and about Scotch. It wasn’t.
In fact, Scotch was praised, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was praised, big companies were not seen as the enemy, but as another (important) facet of an increasingly complex whisky world. If you are true to your vision, the message seemed to be, then size does not matter. The issue was: how do we keep whisky moving onwards?
A Swedish sunrise: Debates at the World Whisky Forum were rarely heated, much like the surroundings
Two topics kept re-appearing. There had been a passionate debate at the end of the first day’s sessions about the need for legislation, but also about how frustrating it could be to work within its idiosyncrasies and interpretations, and try to reconcile different interpretations of ‘tradition’.
Lone Wolf’s Steven Kersley’s opening gambit of ‘challenge everything’ may have sounded like being radical for the sake of it, but his stance was more nuanced: accept the realities of Scotch and the need for big distilleries to make a consistent product, and learn from the experiments which have been created to achieve that consistency. At the same time, he saw a real need for Scotch to keep pace with developments elsewhere.
‘Why do we malt this way?’ he asked. ‘Why do we only use these grains, or those yeasts? What can we learn from brewing? Could we freeze-distil? If you don’t know the answers, then find out.’ That shouldn’t be seen as radical. It should be seen as normal.
A different side of this notion of challenging norms came from Ichiro Akuto’s back-to-basics approach at Chichibu, where his staff have learned how to plant barley, cut peat, do floor malting and coopering; an involvement in the process leading to a more profound understanding – the same deep thinking which pervaded Hofmann’s inspiring talk about the importance and relevance of examining what ‘local’ means, and how it could be used in creating a new quality style of whisky.
Yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition. The reason Scotch whisky is where it is today is because distillers over hundreds of years have adapted and evolved that tradition. When something is fixed, it atrophies.
‘Challenge everything’: Attendees were encouraged to embrace new ways of whisky-making to ensure its future
The key is evolution, as long as that allows you to study older, perhaps forgotten, techniques and reinterpret them within today’s frame. The rules appear to permit flexibility, though their interpretation – wedded to an obdurate reading of ‘tradition’ – can appear to negate that.
It’s why Ludo Ducrocq’s (William Grant & Sons) piece was so vital. If you are new, he said, learn from your mistakes (and don’t bottle them); leave written, tangible, evidence of having been there. Understand and protect your legacy, because your legacy is being created today. And, as he alluded subtly, pick your battles with legislators.
I left inspired by the passion and dedication shown by all the attendees. Something happened in the frozen north, a coming together and the emergence of a common belief. Not necessarily a ‘movement’, but a new willingness to share and help, to find common purpose.
Scotch needs to be part of those future discussions, it too needs to move on, writing its own future. At times, we all need to be thinking outside the box.
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