Our expert Prof tackles this oxymoronic riddle that often leaves whisky drinkers puzzled.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
21 August 2019
The office has a distinct smell of juniper. In fact, I’m pretty convinced my skin smells of it as well. That comes from deciding to make 300-plus serves from 80 different gins. It’s been a long day, but I wanted to get to grips with what has happened to the gin market in recent years – and the change is noticeable.
Gin started life as the first global spirit, though in a manner different to how we use the term these days. It was the first social spirit whose character came from ingredients obtained from around the world; the offspring of the mercantile empires of the Netherlands and Britain; the first manifestation of the world shrinking, an exotic distillation of trade routes.
Local spirits spoke in a different way. If gin was expansive, they looked to their soils, earth, and air. They looked inwards. In time although Cognac and single malt Scotch became global in reach, they remained rooted to place. Gin stayed global in flavour… until now.
As gin has become reborn, so its new distillers have begun to make spirits which reflect more clearly the scents of the place: South Africa’s fynbos or the Australian outback, the shores and moors of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England; the mountains of Norway, the hillsides and forests of Japan. Pepperberry and lemon myrtle, yuzu, sencha and hinoki; bog myrtle and horseradish, rowan berries, elderflower, milk thistle, and seaweed. Yes, the botanical mix still has global reach, but many gins are now more determinedly distillates of a specific environment.
Sense of place: Single malts like Talisker are rooted in their locality and individual identity
Blended Scotch has long been moving in the opposite direction. By their nature, global brands become – or can become – stateless, not so much the product of a place than a concept with a tangential relationship to origins. The brand becomes the focal point; its place of manufacture is secondary.
Maybe blends’ success is down to them being malleable, their ability to adapt to the needs of different occasions and markets, having the versatility to be served in numerous ways. This fluidity of image and usage makes it easier for people to relate to. It becomes theirs, but as a consequence it loses touch with its roots.
Blends’ biggest challenge in a world where the local is becoming a more important motivation for purchase is to try and reinforce their Scottish roots. It’s a tricky manoeuvre, and one which can easily slip into cliché and sentimentality. But the majors are trying – the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh is at the forefront of this recalibration.
If the blend world is one of amenability, flex and inclusiveness, single malt’s point of difference is being an intense expression of a singular identity. Each single malt will always be different to its neighbour. Why? Because blenders need that to be the case. It means that the malt world is one of variety and exploration.
Global-local: Johnnie Walker’s Edinburgh Experience fuses the locality of malts with the global reach of blends
It may chafe with the globalist views of marketing departments, but malts do what blends can’t – and vice versa.
If single malts begin to try and wear the same garments as blends in an attempt to become global brands their essence is eroded. Malts are defined by location and the specificity of their flavour. The distiller has to balance being true to that distillery character while still finding new ways of expressing it.
The danger lies in forgetting that and trying to imitate what other malts are doing. ‘There’s a backlash against Sherry? OK we’ll do a volte face and take it out.’
‘Consumers like vanilla? We can do that as well.’
‘Some folks don’t care for smoke? We can hide it.’
In each case, the distillery’s foundations are being chipped away, individuality being replaced by standardisation. Malts can become brands, they just can’t become brands in the same way as blends. Malts are local.
14 August 2019
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.
31 July 2019
My Dad worked at Glasgow Cross, selling clothes. He used to say he travelled in ladies’ underwear, and at one time he did. By the time I came along, he’d given up being on the road as a representative and settled for a buying job in a department store. It suited him, being an East End boy. I never asked him what it was like leaving that very different part of the city for the leafier environs of the west.
I never went for a drink with him. He died when I was (legally) too young to indulge. If we had, it is likely we would have gone somewhere around here. A back-street boozer, a place to sit and chat with a hauf and hauf. Maybe we’d even have ventured to the Saracen’s Head (aka the Sarry Heid) one of the city’s famous – or notorious – drinking establishments. A place where you could nurse a pint while looking at the skull of Maggie Wall, the last witch executed in Scotland, and watch locals drink the house speciality, the White Tornado; a concoction of all the dregs and spirituous remnants in the bar.
Fresh look: Despite its modern exterior, a pub has stood on this premises in Glasgow since 1820
Yet the Sarry wasn’t always like that. The original, across the Gallowgate, was built in 1755 as a high-class establishment, with 36 bedrooms and stabling for 60 horses. It was where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed in 1773 as they headed south after their tour of the Isles.
‘He enjoyed in imagination the comforts which we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee,’ Boswell reported. ‘I remember he put a leg up on each side of the grate, and said, which a mock solemnity, by way of soliloquy, but loud enough for one to hear it: “There am I, an Englishman, sitting by a coal fire”.’
They were joined by various professors from the university and, according to legend, Adam Smith; a meeting which, according to the story, ended in a swearing match between the father of economics and the man of letters. I daresay it was an occupational hazard in those days when drinkers would fathom the house’s mighty five-gallon punch bowl many times; the very punch bowl which is on display down the road in the People’s Palace.
A coaching inn and a poet’s pub in whose beds rested Robert Burns, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Then, the gentry moved west and the area became a working class district, the coaches stopped and the Sarry moved over the road to become the pub it is today – although whisky historians might like to know that, in 1892, an illicit distillery was discovered in Saracen Lane.
Famous patron: Scots poet Robert Burns frequented Glasgow’s whisky waterholes
Now though, there’s another reason to go down to the Gallowgate. One of those bunker-like pubs where you expect the seats and tables to be screwed to the floor (and in the old days the ashtrays to be screwed to the tables) has been painted bright yellow and black and renamed The Gate. It’s located directly opposite Barrowlands – the finest music venue in Britain by the way – and the Barras market, where you can buy pretty much anything you need, or didn’t know you needed.
Inside The Gate, there’s 120-odd whiskies (the number seems to grow daily), a cocktail menu and Tennent’s on draught. There’s a toastie machine and, in time, you’ll be able to play a Highball game based on Wheel of Fortune. It’s the brainchild of Andy Gemmell, bartender, former brand ambassador, bar consultant and gent.
There’s been a pub on this site for 200 years. As the crew started to peel back layers of plaster and wood, other eras revealed themselves. Some of the oldest timbers have been repurposed for the interior, though the tree which was growing out of the roof has, sadly, gone.
Choice for everyone: The Gate features more than 120 whiskies on its shelves
Is this gentrification? Certainly there’s money finally being invested in the area, but Gemmell is wanting this pub to be somewhere where you can drink a pint of Tennent’s (made just down the road), or a dram, a Highball or a cocktail. It’s a pub, and pubs are by their nature democratic. Who knows, in time maybe a lecturer in economics might get stuck into an argument on the nature of free trade with a stallholder from the Barras. It joins the Ben Nevis in Finnieston, the Lismore in Partick, the Pot Still and Bon Accord in the town centre, and the nearby Scotia as a great Glasgow whisky pub.
The Gallowgate’s pubs have been high-class joints, then dives. The Gate’s arrival shifts this paradigm. It, and the area, also mirrors whisky’s fortunes; its rise, decline and reawakening in a slightly different guise.
In the past, as a whisky drinker you were either the height of fashion, or a drunk. What The Gate does is reflect a modern, more nuanced view of a drink which no longer exists in the old dichotomy which stated you were either a whisky drinker, or not.
If you want that pint of Tennent’s then have it; if you want a cocktail, that’s okay as well. No rules, no airs or graces. It encapsulates what whisky should always be about: egalitarian, enjoyable and fun.
It was only after the third drink that I realised that we were here on what would have been my Dad’s birthday. I quietly raised a glass. He’d have loved it here.
17 July 2019
Snath, tang, rib, beard, swath and windrow. Terms as mystical to me as wort, grist, mash, bung and draff are to the vast majority of the populace. As Jim Beveridge pointed out when I chatted to him, to fully understand something, you need to have the right language. I’d add you also need to have the right skills, which is why I was standing in a field at the marvellous Weald & Downland Living Museum, the handle (sorry, snath) of my scythe in hand.
Yes, you read that correctly. A scythe. I can’t quite remember how the conversation had started, but as it involved my friend Karen (the world’s best-connected person), it potentially had begun with the breeding rates of puffins, careered through leather-working in the Cotswolds before alighting, somehow, on the revival of scything. ‘Always fancied a scythe,’ I mused, thinking no more of it. Two days later, a book on learning how to do it arrived.
‘Thought you might like this, K,’ read the inscription.
As usual, she wasn’t wrong, but hey… who actually owns a scythe these days? On my birthday I discovered the answer to that question. Me. I’m still not sure whether it was a subtle comment on the part of my wife about my advancing years, or a less-than-subtle hint about the length of the grass, but it came with a voucher for a day’s scything lesson at Weald & Downland, which is why I was standing, etc…
Old ways: Scything highlights why some traditional skills should be kept alive
We assembled our scythes and took a few hesitant swipes at the grass, then moved to the orchard, which was waist-deep in grass and nettles. Scything is a complex, yet gentle business. Back straight, knees bent (‘pretend you’re a sumo wrestler’), use the hips, not the arms, cut in an arc, always keep the blade on the ground, don’t push, let it do the work, sharpen every couple of minutes, don’t cut your fingers off.
It was a struggle. There’s a mass of movements to remember and you automatically flail around, hacking the grass rather than slicing it and leaving the pile (the windrow) to one side. Yet, somehow, over the hours, a rhythm started to emerge.
I became aware of every element without focusing on any specific one; scything without scything, if you want to be Zen about it. I began to listen rather than look, then something would slip and I’d revert to my default ball of confusion.
I began to see the parallels to whisky-making, the skills which are learned through touch, aroma and sound, so that your movements and decisions become second nature, almost intuitive. Whisky-making without making whisky, if you like.
You establish a muscle memory, like Jason Roy flinging the ball to take that last New Zealand wicket (though the match should have been drawn, surely?).
There are other parallels. We scythers – who sneer and shake our heads at wrong techniques such as those seen in the BBC’s Poldark (we also keep our shirts on, which is probably a wise idea) – have gone back to the craft because it is quiet, calm, better for wildflower meadows, and less destructive than strimming. It also keeps an important old craft alive.
Tried and tested: Some craft skills in whisky-making are essential to the process
Who, though, wants to go back to the old ways of making whisky? These days we have greater automation, the process is safer and more streamlined and, as we are told constantly, it all helps to deliver greater consistency. Why stick to outmoded practices when you have computers? Why scythe when you can fire up the lawnmower?
But while in no way disputing the talents of the highly-trained folks working at distilleries, or suggesting they don’t care about quality, I do wonder – if you are locked in a control room looking at a screen, if you can’t smell or hear what is going on in the distillery – whether you become distanced from the process, whether you inevitably start to trust the machine, not your knowledge and experience. Are skills being worked out of the industry?
More than one of the (rapidly diminishing) old guard have asked where the new distillers are coming from. In this boom time for distilleries and breweries, is there sufficient new blood coming in – and who is teaching tomorrow’s distillers the craft? Is a skills gap emerging?
The issue touches on the real need for apprentice schemes as well as graduate training programmes, which teach the practical hands-on skills of distilling. Understanding that is more important, I’d argue, that showing proficiency at filling in compliance forms and colour-coding your day.
You can’t turn the clock back and ignore the changes. At the same time, maybe whisky occasionally needs to pick up its scythe.
10 July 2019
I was wondering quite what that noise was in the thorn bush. I half-expected to see a giraffe poke its head out of the canopy; began to wonder if the sound of grass being torn and chewed came from a rhino hidden in the long grass.
We rounded the corner. There was a small herd of Longhorn cattle. Butterflies continued to do their apparently indecisive dance around the flowers. On the lake, swifts were skimming the water to drink, while great crested grebes and moorhens fussed around their young.
Half-a-mile on, six storks began to wander across the grass, lazily grazing. The previous night we’d gone to sleep with the static of bats and shrieks of owls. At 4am we were woken by crows and doves. Above the raptors, a plane began its descent into Gatwick. This was Sussex, not Africa. This is Knepp.
In 2001, Knepp’s owner, Charles Burrell, and his wife, Isabella Tree, were in trouble. The estate was struggling, the heavy Sussex clay not the ideal medium for crops. Even flinging fertiliser on it didn’t seem to work.
Their solution was a dramatic one. They stopped farming conventionally and gave nature a chance, turning their 3,500 acres over to fallow and red deer, Exmoor ponies, Longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs, which now roam freely through the estate.
The animals became the managers – and the land responded. What was dying began to breathe again. In came insects, which brought back a cacophany of birdlife – including nightingales, turtle doves (Britain’s fastest-declining bird) and now the storks.
The ordered fields have been replaced by grasslands, thick stands of oak and meadows. The estate is in profit, a place for safaris, courses and camping, and a beacon for rewilding.
I’d seen something similar earlier this year when I visited Stauning, where a misguided attempt in the 1960s by the Danish government to introduce intensive farming to the Skjern delta by straightening the river and draining the floodplains had failed utterly.
English Longhorn: Cattle, ponies, pigs and deer have all helped to ‘rewild’ Knepp in Sussex
The soils became depleted, the salmon disappeared, the birds flew away. In the late ’80s the process was reversed – and now the land on either side of the again meandering river lives once more.
There are related rewilding projects across Britain, including the reintroduction of keystone species such as beavers, or the programme to restore the Caledonian forest undertaken by Trees for Life. The results have been remarkable: all have resulted in a richer and more biodiverse environment as balance is reintroduced.
‘That’s all well and good,’ I hear you say. ‘Now, tell us something important like how you scored the new Macallan. I mean: what’s any of this got to do with whisky?’ It’s a fair question, dear reader. One to which I’d answer: everything.
I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea to have beavers romping through barley fields (though imagine having them build a distillery dam…), but the underlying principles of rewilding also apply to the need to bring the role of agriculture within whisky into sharper focus.
The fact that the over-simplistic regional explanation of Scotch is being challenged does not invalidate an examination of what the concept actually means. Rather than regions, we should be thinking of bioregions: areas defined by geology, climate, watersheds, altitude and culture.
Focusing on that creates the understanding of what grows best, and how resources can be managed and enhanced. The bioregion of Islay is different to that of the Spey watershed. The conditions are different, so distinct solutions are required.
In whisky, this starts by understanding that barley isn’t a commodity, but a crop from a specific spot, grown by people who have to make money in order to pay their bills. What, though, if what you are asking them to plant in order for them to live can only be grown with the aid of pesticides and fungicides, which deplete the soil and reduce biodiversity?
Welcome return: Knepp’s rewilding has brought many species back to the land, including storks
Is there not then a logic in discovering what can be grown with minimal impact, yet which would still be profitable, as well as nutritious and flavourful? If a crop can only grow with the aid of chemicals, then maybe it’s the wrong variety, and another might be better-suited to the conditions.
We are familiar with the idea of a spirit’s flavour being the outcome of an intricate set of causal links within the distillery. Change one small thing and it has an effect. Whisky comes into being thanks to this fragile equilibrium.
Why, though, don’t we apply the same thinking to what lies outwith the distillery – the health of the forests used for the casks, and the cereals growing in the field? It’s all very well saying ‘grain to glass’, but what of the soil the grain is grown in?
If rewilding is about re-establishing lost connections, then part of it is starting to think beyond the idea of industrially-farmed commodities and recalibrating the relationship between distiller and farmer, and between farmer and land.
There is now a plan to rewild 2.5 million acres of land and 30% of Britain’s waters by 2115. Can it work? I think it could, though I’m under no illusion about the challenges it presents. It won’t be easy to turn around an entire commodity-based system, but do we honestly have another option, given the climate disaster which is unfolding?
The dram in your glass isn’t divorced from any of this. Its production impacts on the places from which it draws its ingredients. It is a living product of a place and conditions. We need to start thinking of whisky as an ecology.
Isabella Tree, Wilding (Picador)
George Monbiot, Feral (Penguin)
Susan Wright, Peter Cairns & Nick Underdown, Scotland: A Rewilding Journey
03 July 2019
He’s not one given to black moods, my distiller friend; so what he said was more with baffled resignation than despair. He’d been doling out some of his whisky in the pub. Under the table. You wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that you were reducing the takings.
Not that there was any fear of that. The drams were simply top-ups. Tasting samples. In any case, as the landlord had wandered over, empty Glencairn in hand, there seemed to be tacit approval of the behaviour.
We were all eager to try the wares that he’d carried down from the distillery in a rucksack. ‘I’m on the train,’ he’d told me. ‘We might have got thirsty… In any case, I thought people might be interested.’ We were.
Sip versus sell: How many new Scotch whiskies will end up in collections?
He told me how some of them were to be bottled soon. ‘But you’ll possibly be some of the only people to try them.’ I must have looked bemused. Or more bemused than usual. I know that single casks are, by nature, limited; a few hundred bottles for the market, maybe the world.
‘At times I wonder if anyone has ever tried any of my whisky,’ he went on. ‘I put it out, people buy it, and then I see the bottle on an auction site for twice or three times the amount I sold it for. I suppose some might be holding on to it for a special occasion, but I reckon most are flipping them. No-one really knows what it tastes like… want to try this one?’
A few days later, back at home, I was chatting to a blender/bottler. ‘We’ve become a cult,’ she said. ‘Great,’ I responded, ‘… that’s what you want.’
‘Well…’ she replied. ‘We released a small batch for sale locally. It sold out within 24 hours. People were driving from all over to get a bottle.’
‘That’s amazing,’ I replied.
‘Aye, well,’ she went on. ‘The thing is, it’s now on auction sites for four times the initial cost. It worries me. I’m not a big fan of collector madness, but suddenly we are hot.’
Both are new players trying to build their reputations on the strength of their liquid, but the liquid is of no concern to the flippers. All that matters is the name, the rarity. Whisky is irrelevant; this is speculation which revolves around the reward, which could be achieved by some commodity.
Spirit of sharing: Newer distilleries such as Daftmill want whisky fans to taste their Scotch
The nature of the product doesn’t matter, only the potential profit. It’s pork futures, the orange harvest, coffee. It’s like buying a rare record and never taking it out of the wrapping; it’s having a piece of art and keeping it in a bank vault.
Will it stop? Of course it won’t, and therein lies the problem. Think of the number of new distilleries due to open in the next few years. All will be standing there, proud parents showing their newborn to the world, only for it to be snatched away and hidden until the market decides.
At the moment, the only way to try and dampen down the rampant speculation is by using the blunt weapon of price. Distillers ask more – and you can see why – so retailers then have to adjust accordingly. The result? The real whisky lover is still priced out.
The other consequence is that some established distillers, having seen the way in which this area of the market is moving, are releasing whiskies purely to satisfy the speculators.
Let’s see how high we can push it. Have a lovely pack to lure them in. They’ll make the money eventually and we’ve at least pocketed a decent return. Can the whisky reflect the packaging and justify the price? You’d hope it would… Cynical? Moi?
Are there any other ways around it? I asked my distiller friend. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve been wondering whether I should only sell them at the distillery and open each bottle when they buy one,’ he mused.
Perhaps someone can invent some sort of device that pops the cork after three months. Until some solution is found, maybe distillers will have to sit in pubs, pouring drams under the table.
19 June 2019
Maybe he was lost this time; perhaps he knew a shortcut he’d not told us about. I started to suspect the former. After all, he was new to this job and hadn’t driven in this part of the world before, so it only seemed fair to give some advice – which he declined to take. His body language was sufficient in way of reply: ‘I’m the driver,’ it said. ‘Let me do my job ferrying you from one distillery to the next. You just sit there.’
Old Man of Storr: Skye’s rugged landscape is intrinsically linked to its whisky
We’d come in from the south the day before, the rain clouds seemingly unable to clear in the hills above Strome Ferry, leaving the west in sunshine. Down the hill to Auchtertyre, we went over the bridge and followed the long drag into Skye’s once-molten heart. The talk of green grassiness, which had dominated the morning, was receding. This was a place of coast and ridge, whose roads had come to a sometimes awkward compromise with the sea, mountains and peat bog.
Logic suggested that if we’d passed the turning to Talisker the previous night, we should retrace our route; but instead he headed north and west, towards Dunvegan. Isolated farmhouses and bed and breakfasts, rusted red roofs, and signs for crafts, and courses. Skye is nothing if not a place with enterprising souls.
To the north a sheer sea cliff, headlands and on the horizon, the Harris hills. Through Treaslane we went, and into Edinbane, then south to Heribost and around Loch Caroy. Steep valleys and encroaching moor, lambs clinging close to their mothers, a hen harrier, fishing boats in the loch, and white horses flicking off the water as the wind picked up.
Striking a balance: Can whisky bottles adequately reflect the spirit’s origins?
Is it possible to capture all of that in a bottle? Can you do it by colour coding and branding, font and followers, recipes and codes? Is Skye too hard to include, is it irrelevant to a world of price points, look and logos?
There is a balance to be struck, I know. The outside of the bottle matters, the cues and cunningly-coded signifiers are essential for success. But there is more to the whisky than the outside of the bottle.
There is always more. It is why some of us obsess about it. I look at the place names and wonder about Ose and Bracadale, Struan and Coillore. I remember asking Cailean MacLean once if anyone could really understand Skye unless they had Gaelic. He paused and said no, then told me the story behind the name of the peak opposite. Maybe it is never able to be fully known, but it shouldn’t stop us trying.
There are clues in the names and the landscape, the stories, songs and dreams of the poets, singers and people, just as there are clues in the aromas and tastes which come in the glass. Comprehension comes not just from books but from the ground underfoot, or when the wind is on your face. You need to get out there and look at the landscape, rather than screens.
Faraway place: Not everyone can make the journey to Talisker distillery
We got to Talisker eventually and, inhaling when I stepped out of the bus, I remembered what my nephew had said to me the week before; of how, when he’d stood here for the first time in eight years, the smell of the smoky mash and spirit immediately brought all the memories of our trip there back.
How, though, can you translate all of this sense of space, seaweed, gabbro, heather and fire that this place invests into the glass, unless you go there? Very few will be able to make that trip, which makes understanding the connections between the outside and the inside, the place and the distillery, the culture and the liquid inside the bottle, so vital. Fail to do that and you have nothing but a cipher. It might work for some spirits but not, I’d argue, for single malt. You need the story, the truth, the place. It all must be balanced.
Later, I looked at the map. It turned out he’d taken a long loop rather than the slightly more direct route. Still, what would have been missed if we’d gone that way? The detour is often a good thing. It helps to show you what is on the inside.
05 June 2019
They nip your head. Midges, that is. As does whisky come to think of it, should it be taken in less-than-responsible quantities. Not that anyone at Fèis Ìle would ever dream of doing that. The midges would be the only thing to blame for any ache in the bonce.
Anyway, we were all suffering from the latter having descended or maybe sneaked into (it was slightly vague) the back of Caol Ila at the precise moment that light misty rain (aka smirr) began to form around us. What had been set up as a garden with idyllic views over the sound where we could relax with a couple of Highballs was now revealed to be the nexus point of the island’s midge breeding grounds. We all sped off, sharpish, up the hill to the house.
It was all slightly reminiscent of my youth. West coast evenings would always culminate by being crammed into someone’s front room, music playing, whisky bottles being passed around among friends, strangers and hangers-on from the pub. Your role would shift: sometimes you’d be the host, other times the one kidnapped from the pub. No-one cared. All that mattered was the chat, the songs and the drink. Outside the midges would be raging at not getting their dinner.
This was much the same, albeit with considerably better food. Or to be precise… food. The noise level rose along with the laughter and conversations, in which whisky played a tangential role, simply existing as the glue which brought this random group together. Just as it is meant to be. Maybe there should be a warning on the label: ‘might cause hilarity and new friendships’.
The reason for the gathering might have been the launch of a new whisky by Atom Brands called Aerolite Lyndsay. If this was the case it was achieved very subtly, which might have been part of a very cunning plan, because at Kilchoman the next day, folks who had been in the house were still trying to make sense of what precisely had happened. People who weren’t there were pretending they’d attended, making it the Fèis equivalent of the Sex Pistols at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. I’ll write more on the whisky later this week, but I can say that, on the night, it was very toothsome indeed.
Whisky pilgrimage: A lone walker heads toward Kilchoman distillery to pay his respects
The following morning, heading back from the Kilchoman graveyard after paying my respects to the Beatons’ cross I began following a lone figure, bare-headed, wearing trainers and a thin jacket, walking down the middle of the road through the steadily falling rain towards the distillery. The loneliness of the long-distance whisky lover answering the call of the dram. We walked together, him from the coastguard cottages, me a blow-in, chatting about life and whisky, and weather.
The big warehouse at Kilchoman where Anthony Wills held his masterclass was dry however. It kicked off with four new makes, followed by five single cask samples. Each of the new makes had been fermented with a different yeast (barley variety, ferment time and distillation were the same for all). Each was distinct from the other: Mauri was clean and creamy; Kerry M drier, with more smoke; Kerry MX was fruitier, while an MX/Mauri blend had the greatest complexity.
The cask samples looked at the character differences between Kilchoman’s own malted barley (fresh, light smoke) compared to Port Ellen’s (phenolic) as well as the influence of the different cask types (ex-Bourbon, ex-Madeira, American oak, ex-Sherry hoggie and ex-European Sherry butt).
Signature flavour: Wills’ Kilchoman masterclass focused on developing distillery character
We talked of the fluctuations and different spins, discussing everything from the origins of foam bananas to how Sherry butts seem to push phenols. Geeks in sweetie shops swathed in smoke. The talk in the class (and after) was about how, while a signature distillery character is paramount, it doesn’t mean things are set in amber. Kilchoman is looking forward in a host of new ways while remaining true to itself.
Sheltering in the marquees in the courtyard, the hardcore whisky enthusiasts were enjoying themselves. Adverse conditions seem to bring out the best in them: there were drams, cocktails, the new, hugely-improved Islay Ales and music. What’s a bit of rain anyway? Some were still applying cream to the sunburn they’d got while waiting in queues at Caol Ila and Laphroaig two days earlier. Who cares if the plane didn’t leave (or indeed arrive) for two days? There was whisky to be drunk and people to see.
The midges began nipping away once again. No-one seemed overly concerned. Peaty whisky is a great repellant, so they say. Maybe if you drink just enough (in a responsible fashion of course) you simply don’t notice them.
By the time I’d reached Bunnahabhain, there were already folk queuing for the Champagne cask bottling, which wasn’t even being released until the following morning. Some, it transpired, had been there since the day before, which is either dedication or madness. Maybe a bit of both. Perhaps they’d heard that it was a one-off, as the Scotch Whisky Association had gently pointed out to the distiller that as there is no such thing as a ‘Champagne cask’ (*) the label was misleading. An easy mistake, and one which will add an extra level of interest whenever a bottle is brought out to share.
*Though the still wine may be fermented in cask, it only becomes Champagne by being given a secondary fermentation in bottle.
Time of change: Bunnahabhain's £10.5 million facelift is well underway (Photo: Rebecca Sneddon)
Songs were ringing inside Warehouse No. 9, courtesy of David Brodie, ex-bank manager, publican, hotel owner and now all-round entertainer and tour guide at Bunna’ as we ran through a set of three single casks (and the Moine French oak) comparing the same oak type with unpeated and peated whiskies, before tasting three more from different Sherry types. Oh, and the excellent Sauternes cask finish [reviewed among this year’s official Fèis Ìle releases]. I have a distinct feeling we ended up talking more about Sherry than whisky. But hey, that’s the way that conversation works, isn’t it?
The village of Bunnahabhain has gone, warehouses have been flattened and a new distillery complex is beginning to emerge. For all the talk of continuity and consistency, the truth is that Islay never stays still. It is as multifaceted as its weather, and its whiskies reflect it.
I thought back to the lone pilgrim trudging up the road. In his heart was hope. He knew things would change for the better. If Islay is the first place to get rain, it’s therefore the first place to get the sunshine.
29 May 2019
My life isn’t all swish launches and whisky festivals, you know. There’s a business to consider, which is how I ended up being invited to Edinburgh for the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) annual Members Day. The theme this year was ‘The Changing World of Whisky’. As the SWA’s chief executive Karen Betts said in her keynote address, ‘Scotch whisky is the world’s number one internationally traded spirit, and more Scotch is enjoyed worldwide than American, Irish and Canadian whiskies combined.’ But that world is changing rapidly.
Let’s put this in some sort of context. In 1870, the world of aged spirits had four major players: Cognac, and Irish, Scotch and American whiskies. By 1900, the global battle was between the last three. By 1921, only Scotch was left and it remained that way for the rest of the century. Okay, American whiskey came back post-war, but never forget that Canadian whisky still outsold Bourbon in the United States until the end of the century.
Top dram: Will Scotch continue to be the most popular whisky in the future?
Since then, the whisky world has changed utterly. It’s worth remembering that Japan only started to export in any volume in 2000. At that point there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. Now there are 35, while there are 20 in England and… well, I could go on. All of that has happened in the last decade. The century of Scotch is over, as is its hegemony. To paraphrase Judy Garland: ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (though we perhaps should be aware of what is going on there).
As the SWA’s chairman Peter Gordon said in his opening remarks, ‘Whisky across the world has seen an increase in activity, but Scotch’s share has fallen… We have real and capable competitors across the world, and while I remain optimistic, there are headwinds to overcome.’
His cautious warning underpinned Betts’ vision of the state of Scotch in 2050, and the multifarious ways in which the SWA would be involved (something which I think isn’t as well-publicised as it should be): climate change and the aim for the industry to be carbon neutral, free trade, training and skills, taxation, gender balance and diversity, packaging, transportation, farming, social responsibility and… yes… Brexit, which might just be sorted by then.
Her belief is that ‘Scotch will remain the world’s pre-eminent whisky… its global competitors… will have done their best to knock us off our perch in the intervening years. But they will not have succeeded. Because Scotch whisky’s consistency, quality, diversity and authenticity, alongside its heritage and its stories, will win the day.’
Industry rebirth: New Irish whiskey distillers, such as Killowen, are opening
There is no reason to doubt this, but without wishing to diminish the importance of all of the elements in Betts’ perceptive analysis, for any of it to happen depends on the quality of the spirit and the ability of the industry to change with the times.
Whisky is a long-term industry where innovation, by necessity, takes time. Scotch, however, is having to learn how to be nimble and meet challenges it has never encountered before.
‘Our industry is good at change,’ Betts added, ‘and remarkably resilient in finding balance between continuity and change… By 2050 we will have innovated in our products, so too will we have innovated in the way that we make Scotch.’
This is no time for complacency and seeking comfort in the mistaken belief that just because Scotch is the biggest player it is automatically the best. It’s pretty easy to be the biggest and best in a field of one. Those days have gone.
For Scotch to retain its pre-eminent position it is important to understand the difference between pride and arrogance. The SWA has realised this; what about all of its members?
Star spirit: Japanese whisky continues to enjoy a surge in popularity
Delivering Betts’ vision will necessitate hard work and open minds. It will mean all of the industry understanding that Scotch’s competitors are every bit as obsessive about quality as it is. It involves tasting these new rivals and discovering why a new consumer might be excited by the new wave of Irish, Danish, Aussie or American whiskies. Whether their industries are smaller than Scotch is immaterial. How good is the juice, and what can Scotch do to compete, without losing its own identity? Those who don’t see the need for change are the ones who will suffer.
As the world of whisky evolves so too will people’s idea of what whisky is in terms of flavour, production, sustainability, occasion and method of consumption. That will mean that definitions will inevitably have to shift, another facet of Betts’ innovations in the way in which Scotch is made.
The arrival of a multiplicity of new, small, independent distillers also means that the SWA itself will have to change in order to accommodate their thinking, and understand their challenges – and I’d argue that it is best for all Scotch firms to be inside the tent (as the saying goes).
As Betts said, ‘2050 isn’t far away.’
22 May 2019
‘I use the Dewar’s to clean the shoes,’ Shingo tells me. We are standing next to the shoeshine stand on the staircase outside his bar, Sip. I suspect that sentence needs to be dissected. There’s just too much weirdness going on.
Shingo Gokan is a bartender who has worked in New York and Shanghai and now has his own joint, SG Club, in a surprisingly chilled part of the Shibuya district of Tokyo. The club, like a great cocktail, comes in three parts. At street level is Guzzle, a laid-back, busy, pub-style drinking den. Downstairs is Sip, a speakeasy-style den for the cocktail aficionado – there’s cunningly crafted whisky drinks galore in both places. On the first floor there’s a private members’ cigar lounge (there’s also a secret ‘ninja space’, but if I told you its location I’d have to kill you).
I suspect that doesn’t fully explain why there’s a shoeshine stand.
Cultural exchange: Japan sent a delegation of samurai to New York in 1860
‘I heard a story that when Japan was opening up to the West in the mid-19th century, some samurai went on an official visit to New York,’ Shingo continues. ‘It turns out they stayed close to where Jerry Thomas (author of the first cocktail book) had his bar. I wondered if they visited it and brought some of the ideas back to Japan.’
So, the whole of the club is an imagining of what a Japanese-influenced American bar of the 1860s might have looked like… or maybe it’s an American-influenced Japanese bar. Hard to tell when things blur. Anyway, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to believe that a samurai might have decided to hang up his sword and start slinging drinks instead – though it’s unlikely that he would have turned a margarita into a clear drink which tastes like Riesling… No, I’m not going to explain that one.
It seems like an outlandish story, but in 1860 a delegation of 70 samurai left Edo to travel to New York. It’s claimed that they were the first such group to leave Japan for 200 years. While it’s unclear what they drank, or whether they frequented Jerry Thomas’ bar, it was noted that they were prodigious shoppers.
Oh… the Dewar’s. Before Shingo gets a visit from an irate rep, let me tell you it’s there as a finish for the shoes, just to give them a bit of a sparkle. You can also get it in a slightly more conventional manner in Guzzle, infused with Earl Grey and served Highball-style.
Gokan’s gaff: Shingo opened Tokyo’s American-influenced SG Club in 2018
SG Club is an example of how different elements influence each other. In the bars, it is how design sets the mood and tells a story, but we can go deeper. Over the past couple of weeks, first in Elgin, and now in Tokyo, I’ve been doing blind tastings where drams are first tasted neat, and then re-tasted with one (or in Tokyo’s case two) pieces of music (much like the sensory evaluation sessions held in Scotchwhisky.com’s Future Trends Lab at The Whisky Show last year).
The remarkable thing is the manner in which the taste of the whisky changes, often dramatically, when music is included. Take Kilchoman’s smoke. In Tokyo we tasted it, and then I played an ambient piano piece by Virginia Astley. The smoke went and the sweetness was lifted further into focus. This then bled into a piece by John Surman, all multi-tracked bass and baritone saxophone. The smoke suddenly surged forward once again, more intensely than when we’d tasted the whisky in silence.
It shows how it is wrong to believe that our senses exist separately from each other. Instead they are all constantly influencing each other: colour affects taste, as does shape… and sound. High tones accentuate sweetness, and low tones heaviness, while tempo will affect feel and where the flavours concentrate themselves.
Music doesn’t add flavour; rather it acts as an aid to reveal elements which might have been hidden, accentuating some flavours or textures, adding new layers of complexity. It’s a dramatic introduction to the cross-modal world, often showing what lies beneath, where the connections are. We tend to see flavour as fixed, whereas the truth is that it is malleable, at the whim of our senses and suggestibilities.
It is another facet of the blurring of boundaries that Shingo is trying to achieve at SG. Are you in Japan or America? The 21st century or 19th? How does the decor and the lighting change your mood? Does that drink taste different in the three bars – or outside in the street? Would sipping it on the shoeshine stand trigger different flavours? Only one way to find out.
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