Sometimes too much choice makes it hard to see the wood for the trees, says Dave Broom.
Walking along Calum’s Road on Raasay as the sun shone on the Cuillin; sipping boilermakers in Aberdeen; the smell of peat and paint in the new Lagg distillery as Storm Hannah belted in from the north; a shift in The Pot Still bar in Glasgow making cocktails; being ensconced in the Copper Dog and Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, and Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler bar as the snow fell and the whisky world walked through the doors... it’s been quite a month.
If anything linked them all (other than fun and drams) it was a sense of momentum building and a broadening of thinking around that eternal question: ‘what is whisky?’
Scotch has conceivably sat back and said: ‘It’s what we’ve always made, whereas whisky is what you will be making in the future.’
Break with tradition: BrewDog is one of several new distillers challenging convention
It’s what’s behind BrewDog’s (formerly known as LoneWolf) deconstruction of whisky making and asking why it has to be done that way and whether it can be done better; it’s there in Raasay’s building of individuality through its approach to distilling, cereal and maturation; and at Lagg as well. Arran’s new distillery may be a beautiful, sympathetic design – and another contender for ‘best distillery view’ – but at its heart it’s a centre for exploration into peat.
Even The Pot Still cocktails, while ridiculous fun (Buckie Boulevardiers anyone?) showed that there is another way to think and drink, in the same way as BrewDog is finessing the hauf and hauf (or boilermaker).
In all, there lies a shared belief that approaching whisky in a cookie-cutter fashion is a dangerous strategy. If new distillers are to make their mark then they can’t all be using the same casks, telling the same story, or thinking that just because the new make is good (or great) that the job is done. There has to be something different, grounded in quality but pushing things onwards.
I was chatting this over with Ryan Chetiyawardana [aka Mr Lyan] the other day, and he said something along the lines of: ‘It is important to have tradition as well as innovation. As long as we have both pushing each other then we move things forward.’
Tradition is a reference point, but not to the point of it causing stasis.
Another shared theme came into focus when I met up with Bob Dalgarno (ex-Macallan whisky maker) in the Copper Dog. As well as recalibrating Glenturret he is independently looking at barley and malting, his thinking chiming with that of BrewDog and Raasay (and others such as Arbikie and Bruichladdich), and Lagg’s examination of peat’s possibilities. There seems to be a rebalancing of the thinking behind flavour.
Tradition redefined: BrewDog has refined the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker, serveWhile the back end (distillation and maturation) is understood, albeit not known fully, the front end (cereal, malting, smoking, mashing and fermenting) is now being given greater focus.
Rather than the misleading statement that 70% of a whisky’s flavour comes from wood, we are now seeing how every element within the ‘process’ (how I hate that word) is important; that whisky making is holistic, and every part is of equal importance, and all interdependent.
It can be a brewer’s mentality to ferment, or give equal focus to the variety of grain being grown and how it is being cultivated. What a few years ago seemed like an interesting offshoot is now showing signs of being a movement. Underpinning it all is the belief that efficiency is not the be-all and end-all, and if quality (flavour) means accepting lower yields, then so be it.
It may seem paradoxical that a belief in continuity exists within this idea of a constantly-moving continuum, but that is to confuse continuity with consistency. I can see the need for consistent levels of quality, but really, should the ultimate aim of a distiller be to make the same thing every day of the year, forever? Should efficiencies be solely linked to this idea of consistency – making the same but making it cheaper? Or, should whisky making be about improving flavour and quality, even if that means changing it?
Welcome addition: The finishing touches are being made to Arran’s new Lagg distillery Continuity is a state of mind. It is understanding the past, but moving forward. It also applies to people. It is about passing on knowledge. There are worrying signs of a skills shortage across all parts of the industry. As whisky expands, where are the people with knowledge, talent and experience to train the new generation?
It is also about being a guardian of flavour and philosophy while also being open to change. If the new distillers can challenge and move things on with a certain ease because of a lack of branded baggage, then the established players also need to understand this idea of there being continuity within change.
In a decade’s time will we be able to look at Macallan and say there was a Bob Dalgarno style, and now there is a Sarah Burgess one? I think we could – in fact I think we should. But all that depends on firms having the strength to think beyond the bottom line and instead about how things shift and alter; of how guardianship runs from the seed, to the bottle and to the consumer; and understanding that the key isn’t consistency, but continuity. It means having faith in product and people, and also being bold.
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