From the editors

Whisky innovation depends on drinkers

  • As you may know, for reasons which are too tedious to go into here, I’m not the greatest for social media. I do however occasionally dabble in the world of Instagram in the belief that pictures are less open to misinterpretation, and less of a bully pulpit than 140 characters.

    Many of the folks I follow will post shots of cocktails and bottles. Hey, it’s the world I (and they) live in. Some people prefer brows and pouts. I’m not judging. Anyhow, one recent posting concerned the arrival of the new trio of whiskies from Bruichladdich (to be reviewed on these pages soon) which looks at the influence of barley on flavour.

    For once, rather than just likes and emojis, the image attracted comments. The person who posted the shot was enthusiastic about this latest development in the debate, though it wasn’t a position that was universally shared. One of the responses stated (and I paraphrase), ‘Who cares about all of that? All I want to know is, do they taste good?’

    Whisky debate: Bruichladdich’s barley studies attracted attention on Instagram

    My initial reaction was: ‘Of course it feckin’ matters. This is an interesting – and significant – area of development in whisky.’ My sanctimonious thumb was poised to painfully tap out a response. Then I stopped. He was right. Does it matter if the whiskies aren’t any good? What does any of this experimentation mean if the result is less than compelling? The consumer might buy into the concept on a theoretical level, but it can only be considered a success if the whisky is good.

    In fact, if a new area is to be opened up, ‘good’ isn’t sufficient. The whisky has to be head-turningly, goose-pimple-stimulating, eyeballs on stalks amazing. If it isn’t, then people will, rightly, move on.

    If whisky is to genuinely innovate rather than just being like some heritage rock act hauling their saggy arses around halls playing the hits one last time – ‘Remember this one from the ’90s? It’s Port finish!’ – it has to be bold and make new whiskies which are not just different, but extraordinary.

    The retailer will only stock the whisky if they know it will be sold. The distiller will only move to a new lower-yielding model if it still proves to be profitable. The farmer will only plant the barley if he makes a return. It’s a chain, with us at one end.

    Stand-out spirit: Innovations should lead to bold new whiskies for drinkers

    This means that as a distiller you have to be honest and open. Not all the new ideas will work. Some innovations will fail, but others will stick. Those will be the ones which have serious thinking behind them, which look at the long-term rather than the quick fix, innovations which show a path rather than just leaping on whatever influencers’ goldfish minds have decided is this minute’s hot thing. It’s the whole lipstick on a pig thing all over again.

    It means trying to move things along while also understanding, deeply, the style, character and the templates which have been laid down over the years. Then putting your liquid findings out there in the hope that someone finds it as interesting as you do. As a writer you do something similar, putting your suggestions out there to be considered, then more often than not, rejected. It’s all you can do. You make the whisky, or you write about it, then you hand it all over to the drinker and it becomes theirs. They make the decision. You move on.

    As I was writing this I was listening to David Berman’s new (and, heartbreakingly, final) album Purple Mountains. One verse jumped out:

    Songs build little rooms in time
    And housed within the song’s design
    Is the ghost the host has left behind
    To greet and sweep the guest inside
    Stoke the fire and sing his lines.

    All we can do is keep on creating those new spaces.

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