A decade after his death, five leading whisky figures pay tribute to the great writer.
Hard to believe that it’s been a decade. Not simply because time appears to speed up as you age, but because it is as if he is still there. Even now, I pause and think, ‘what would Michael do?’ The reply is immediate, delivered with lugubrious Yorkshire tones. ‘Avoid cliché.’ I see him, at his desk, looking over his specs at me, a quizzical, amused light in his eyes. A look that still contained a warning. Michael might have taught me about whisky, but more importantly he taught me about writing.
I first came across him on television as The Beer Hunter, a series on the infant Channel 4, where he toured the breweries of Europe discovering beers which none of us had heard of. It seemed a dream job. As importantly, in those days when wine was still seen as being beyond our social reach, he showed that the humblest drink – the one we supped in sticky-floored boozers – had history, heritage and an array of flavours every bit as fascinating and complex.
Legendary writer: Michael Jackson helped elevate whisky’s status
When, years later, I had to do a wheat beer feature for the paper I was working on, I had the brilliant idea of doing a panel tasting. I knew little about the subject. [Michael raises an eyebrow]. OK, I knew nothing about the subject, so could deflect my ignorance by hosting and hopefully learning at the same time. I asked him because he was famous, never thinking he’d turn up. Of course he did. He talked, and tasted. We all listened and learned. Our friendship started at that point.
I remember visits to the Dickensian chaos of his office where you negotiated your way to the desk, through shattered columns of ancient press releases, magazines, and quite probably old rugby league programmes. He seemed to be deliberately building his legacy physically around him. [Another look. I know, Michael. My room is in much the same state].
There were the trips to Scotland and Japan. On my first overnight to Tokyo, he charmed the stewardess – what a way he had with the ladies – to get an upgrade because ‘I need to plug in my laptop. I’m a writer.’ On arrival, his first words to me were: ‘Japanese vending machines are amazing. You can get beer from them.’ Another look, that gentle grin. I hurried off. Returned and picked up his extra bags, or tried to. ‘Books, buddy. Never trust your publisher to send them, or send enough.’ Bag carrier to Michael Jackson. That was something for the CV.
The extra books made perfect sense. He was famous by then. The boy from Huddersfield, who had started on the local paper, worked on The Daily Herald and then founded Campaign, had not just made his name by being the first serious writer about beer but had also by then helped elevate whisky – single malt, especially – from an oddity consumed by landed gentry and obscure Scottish poets, into a drink with a new following.
Would there be a single malt category without his work? Undoubtedly yes. Would it have evolved in the same way? Probably not. His words helped to craft the way in which this new phenomenon – single malt, small batch Bourbon, Japanese whisky – was appreciated, talked about... and therefore sold.
Funny, isn’t it, that the decade since his death has seen the biggest changes globally that whisky has ever encountered, while ‘whisky writing’ has become, if not a career, then something which is commonplace [‘Ahead of the curve, buddy’] even if hardly any of the new generation will have heard of him, or read his works. [He smiles. Shrugs]
Although he always dismissed himself as a hack [‘We’re all hacks. Don’t forget it. It’s the story which matters’] his prose was remarkable. Clear, concise, wearing its knowledge lightly, yet capable of eloquence and a profundity rare in this subject. Here’s the opening paragraph from his 1987 book, The World Guide to Whisky:
‘Some spirits are timorous, others feel the need for disguise, but whisky is bold and proud. There are spirits of such aimless material origin that they must be distilled to the point of breathlessness: driven by a colourless, tasteless submission that passes in the West for vodka. They are for drinkers who suffer from Fear of Flavour, an affliction of our times… In its nobility, its profundity, its bigness, its complexity, whisky of either spelling is a pleasure meant for men and women who enjoy drink, and probably food.’
I like that ‘probably food’. Makes me smile. The rest? It should be enough to make people want to read more, and writers to either give up, or perhaps try that little bit harder. He was the best because he was a writer and wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail – and an understanding that he would never know everything.
‘You’ve been here before, Michael,’ said one distillery manager to him when we were visiting. ‘Why are you taking notes?’
‘Because you always learn something new,’ Michael replied, decades into his work.
He was seriously ill for the last few years of his life, but never stopped writing. If anything, he seemed to be liberated from the treadmill, the hack work. The result was a remarkable flaring of pieces about his early days for Slow Food, and a witty farewell in Whisky Advocate, explaining the different ‘Michaels’ who emerged, depending on the symptoms and what drugs he was on at the time. Read them, read it all, if you can find it.
He was my mentor. More importantly he was my friend.
[He looks at me again. ‘This is getting maudlin. Let’s just talk about jazz’].
OK… Coltrane or Dexter Gordon? You first.
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