From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • The transportive power of whisky

    15 November 2017

    It could be the season, the shortening days, or the year’s fast-approaching end which has made the sense of time passing uppermost in my mind. It’s been pushed further forward by the tasting of a number of venerable drams: the G&M Glenlivet which spent a mere 70 years in cask, Loch Lomond’s 50 Year Old, and a Glen Grant distilled in 1949, the latter tasted on my recent trip to Belgium where it sat alongside other aged malts with equally rich stories to tell.

    They are exotic, they are often waxy, they speak of rancio. You can, to some extent, analyse the aromas by process: the length of the ferment, the clarity of the wort, the gentleness of distillation, the relaxed nature of their maturation in specific types of cask, but that doesn’t give all of the answers. Chance has played as much of a role in this strange continuum.

    Unique journey: Each cask will mature whisky in its own, unpredictable, way

    I know that we are meant to think that distillers are canny enough to deliberately lay down casks which will only be broached in half a century’s time. In reality, there is rarely any such intent. More often than not, these are casks which have been forgotten (or half-forgotten) in the back of a warehouse. It was good fortune that they were left alone.

    Chance also plays its part in the creation of flavours. The moment when you put a new spirit in a cask is when the second part of its story begins, and it is one which you have less control over. Yes, you can say that this type of wood, combined with this character of spirit left for this length of time should give us something within a flavour spectrum, but the key word for me is ‘should’.

    You cannot guarantee what will happen inside the cask. You seal it you put it away and you pray. But without chance there is no creativity. Chance and time gives you the curve ball, the oddities, the element of unpredictability, the ‘flaws’ – but it’s the flaws which make whisky interesting. This is not a spirit which aims for purity, but one which wears time grubbily and proudly on its sleeve. It is scuffed by its passing, as well as being smoothed and refined. It speaks of how air and wood and atmosphere have worked together to impart specific flavours on this one cask. Its neighbour will be different. Chance.

    Venerable drams: The line-up tasted by Dave Broom during a recent sojourn at Belgium’s Spirit in the Sky festival

    When it works – and there’s no guarantee that it will – the whisky is shifted into a different realm. Any whisky tells a story. The tales these whiskies relate are more akin to legends. I try not to approach them with any more reverence than any other whisky. In fact, I try hard to be impressed. But then you get a dram which has something in its depths which puts you in a different space, one which is almost mythical. The aromas are blurred by age, glossy with the patina of time’s passing. They emerge as if from a different dimension, wreathed in smoke and swathed in velvet, rich with fruits and wax and polish and a mysterious otherness which remains, tantalisingly, beyond our grasp. Sipping them is to enter a hallucinatory realm as the time spent in cask suddenly reveals itself. It speaks of the seasons long gone, the coldness of winter, the funk of autumn soil, warm summers and the freshness, just there. There can be a sense of melancholy, even regret, or defiance against the dying of the light.

    They force you to think what has happened in the time spent in the cask, of the lives which have started and those which have ended, of fears and loves, joy and sorrows. You weave your own memories in with them as you enter this dream state watching the endless cycle of life spinning past as the whisky has sat. Maybe some of the shards of the world’s story have been embedded within it. It’s hard to tell. They are less spirits, more temporal missiles. It’s a privilege to try them. We should all try, because it is part of what makes this spirit so special.

  • Whisky innovation’s future is down to chance

    01 November 2017

    ‘It's a bit like a washing machine,’ says Lasse Vesterby, opening the lid of the long tank. Right enough, inside there’s a slowly rotating drum with holes in it surrounded by a frothy scum. ‘Actually, we got the idea because in the summer me and my brothers used to hunt mink and…’ he gestures ripping the skin off an animal, ‘… this works a bit like a mink-skinning machine as well.’ None of this could be described as the standard opening of a distillery tour. Well, not for me anyway.

    The mink-skinning/washing machine hybrid at Stauning on Denmark’s west coast was the solution to the first problem any distiller faces when trying to work with rye, namely its ability to gelatinise into something akin to wallpaper paste in the mashtun. This was a rather elegant way around that problem and given the quality of the whisky which has resulted, a successful one as well.

    Engineering change: Distilleries like Denmark’s Stauning are altering our perception of what’s ‘normal’

    I should have been used to the improvisatory aspect of Nordic distilling by then. The day before, Lars Williams had wandered into a clutter of tanks vats, pipes and probes and returned, holding the lid of a pressure cooker with various wires dangling from it. ‘I rigged this up and made it into a vacuum still,’ he says, with a surprising insouciance. ‘You did retreat when you used it for the first time?’ said Nick Strangeway, who was with me on the visit. ‘No, if it went wrong it would’ve imploded,’ Lars pointed out. ‘Actually, I suppose I did step back a little.’ Welcome to the world of empirical distilling, or rather Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, of which Lars is the co-founder.

    Refshaleøen, on the edgelands of Copenhagen’s docks where Empirical is located, looks like the setting of some Nordic Noir series. It is in fact relatively close to the original Noma restaurant where among many other things, Lars ran the test kitchen.

    He jumped ship this year to take his fascination for fermentation to the next step – making spirits – or to be more precise asking, ‘what is distillation?’ and ‘what is a spirit?’. He and the team aren’t making shochu, whisky, gin, or fruit spirits, but liquids which occupy a liminal space between all of those.

    Outside the box: Lars Williams demonstrates how Empirical’s pressure cooker operates. Right: the site’s koji sauna

    The base is made from pearl barley that’s inoculated with koji. Needing more volume Lars has modified a giant butter churn to rotate and steep the barley. ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t roll off when we get it going,’ he says. I notice that his desk is clear of the potential disaster, sitting on top of the wood-lined former shipping container which is used as the koji ‘sauna’.

    If it sounds ramshackle, it’s not. There’s hardcore science behind all of this questioning and adaptation (and creation) of distillation equipment. They’re asking why a spirit has to be strong, why a base spirit has to be neutral, whether you can focus on precise flavours by taking micro cuts from a spirit run and retain the portions you want; whether a distilled kombucha spirit can be used to give an acidic intensity to a fruit spirit. It’s more lab than distillery and as the answers come it’s one which will grow in importance.

    The origin story of Stauning is more… earthy. A group of nine friends deciding to make whisky because, well, they liked whisky. Lasse and his brothers came from a family of butchers and so set up Stauning Mark 1 in the old abattoir. As you do. The cold store was used for floor malting, the barley was peated on a barbecue grill in the smokehouse, the grist was minced in a meat grinder, fermentation was in an old pickling vat, distilling took place in two small Portuguese pots fired with wood. And you know what? It worked. They’re engineers, you see. When a challenge arose they found a way around it.

    In November 2007 they expanded to an old farm. Therein the barley is malted in two long lanes turned by gently rotating flails which they designed, mashed in the mink-skinning/washing machine combo, fermented in open-top washbacks and distilled in pots of the same shape as the originals, just larger – and still direct fired.

    There’s unpeated and peated expressions (using local peat), a remarkable heather-smoked one, and another that’s been aged on an ocean-going schooner. American oak is the normal cask type, but there’s a nod to the local with the use of cherry wine casks for finishing.

    Express lane: Stauning’s barley is malted in two long lanes

    Now with a thanks to seed money from Diageo's Distil Ventures a new distillery is taking shape, but the approach and equipment will remain the same, just at a larger scale – 900,000lpa larger in fact, coming from 24 pots of the same shape, and still direct fired.

    It’s all been a product of improvisation and empirical testing, where flavour was more important than efficiency.

    Distillation has always been like this: a constant process of trial and error, and finding solutions. Don’t think for a moment that whisky’s story is a line of gentle improvement. It’s filled with blind alleys and failures, a story of bodging and inspiration, and happy accidents. It’s a fusion of the minds of alchemists, the women who ran the stills in grand houses and farmers making do with what they had. Style emerges from this glorious mess.

    What is happening at Stauning and Empirical and numerous other new distilleries is a continuation of this ‘what if?’ impulse which results in new flavours and a progression of spirits’ saga.  There is no guidebook, no path that has to be slavishly followed. The element of chance, and inspired improvisation is a thread which has always linked all great spirits.

  • Do whisky writers dream of electric soup?

    25 October 2017

    He was nervous when the cork came out. Nervous in fact that the cork wouldn’t come out or would crumble. After all this was one of the last bottles. Doubly nervous because who can really tell what the contents of an old bottle will be like? Will it be clean or smell like boiled cabbage on a compost heap? Tasting the remnants of a past time will always be educational, but it’s not always necessarily pleasant.

    The bottle in question was ‘Trade Mark X’, brewer James Eadie’s house whisky.

    It was first blended in 1854, trademarked in 1877 and sold in Eadie’s 300-strong estate in the Midlands until 1944. This would have been the whisky quaffed by generations of workers on their way home with their wage packets. Who knows what tales were told over glasses in those pubs, or what trouble its ingestion might have caused when the men eventually got back to their houses. But I digress. This was a working man’s tipple now being uncorked in the offices of a whisky investment fund. How strange life is.

    Revisiting the past: A bottle of James Eadie’s Trade Mark X tastes not how Broom would expect

    The man with the slightly shaky hand was Rupert Patrick, the great-great-grandson of James Eadie. The bottle came from one of the last batches and probably was blended at the start of the Second World War.

    Alongside Rupert was Norman Mathison, former master blender at Mackinlays, Tom Bruce-Gardyne of this and many other parishes, and myself. I think we were all nervous.

    It was poured. It was dark. It was smoky, really smoky. It was richly Sherried, filled with fruitcake notes. It was balanced and generous and complex. It was mature and seemed malt heavy. It was everything we didn’t expect it to be. The images of the smoke filled pubs of the Midlands, and men belting back whisky for effect suddenly faded.

    We think we know what the old days were like, but do we really? As I mentioned in the last rant, we can learn from the past but can never repeat it. It’s not that we just cannot go back, but that we don’t really know what ‘then’ was. Memory is fickle. Summers were always sunny, it always snowed at Christmas, and Partick Thistle won more games than they lost. How devastating it is to find out all of that might not have been true.

    Our scent memory is remarkable. We all have a remarkable ability to retain every aroma we have encountered and file it away for future reference, pulling it out when stimulated by the same scent decades later. Smell, we know, is linked to memory, but is memory accurate?

    I was thinking about this when we went on a family outing to see Blade Runner 2049. Like the first film, the plot hinges on the nature of memory and consciousness. Replicants have memories implanted, providing them with a backstory, but they are false. It’s this existential crisis which sits at the heart of the film.

    Blade Runner: Replicants’ memories are false, but how reliable are our own?

    In some ways it’s replicated (pardon the pun) when we smell a whisky. Is that aroma really the same one as in our granny’s house when we were a child? Does it matter if it isn’t? After all, we cannot ever go back to our granny’s house on the day when we encountered that aroma. What we are seeing in our minds is a composite of the aromas in the glass, a hallucination, a dream of place and people, and faces and experiences.

    It’s not our granny’s house but a memory of what it might have been like with other details thrown in. We are creating a memory out of everything within the aromas rising from the glass. The complex picture is created by our minds out of a multiplicity of memories which are rearranged in a new context. When tasting we have to decode them.

    That is what was happening with Rupert’s whisky. In addition, I was having to deal with a different sort of implanted memory, that one gleaned from books, conversations, and theories about what a pub whisky from the early 20th century would have tasted like.

    It had to be light, even though Sherry casks would have been more prevalent, it would have had a young age profile to hit a price point, and used lots of grain; it would be smokier than the blends of today but not heavily peaty because it wasn’t what the ‘English’ palate demanded. The truth about the whisky confounded everything which had been implanted in our minds.

    A reality check is always good, but what is real? I think I need a sit down.

  • Distillery revivals and the single malt boom

    17 October 2017

    Only those with hearts of stone would have failed to celebrate the carefully choreographed announcements of Brora’s, Port Ellen’s and Rosebank’s reopenings.

    Hearts of stone, or the belief – as spouted on anti-social media – that nothing Diageo ever does can be praised (Ian Macleod is naturally exempt from this). Damned for closing them, damned for not reopening them, damned when they do.

    Those embittered naysayers aside, the news has, rightly, been welcomed. It means jobs, and it means a return of whiskies which were either iconic or became elevated to that status.

    What, then, does this say about the health of Scotch in a week when the Scotch Whisky Association claimed that tax hikes had directly led to a sales loss of 1m bottles in the UK? Can the market cope with three more distilleries being added to an already rapidly expanding estate? 

    The revival of the three sites, I believe, demonstrates the continuing recalibration of an industry whose firms are not all wholly reliant on providing fillings for blends. You can now be a dedicated single malt producer.

    This will be a slow readjustment – the volume difference between the two categories is still huge – but, although blends will remain the foundation, there are now clear indications that single malt should be seen as a category operating to its own rules.

    Port Ellen

    Not needed: Port Ellen closed because its spirit wasn’t required for blends

    Diageo didn’t decide to reopen its pair because it needed liquid, but because there is a perceived demand for single malt – and single malt of a specific style. It is noticeable that, while the firm has revived two lost plants, it hasn’t gone ahead with the doubling of capacity at Mortlach and Teaninich. It’s optimistic, but cautiously so.

    The reopenings are modest – both distilleries will have a maximum capacity of 800,000 litres of pure alcohol (lpa; the same as Oban) – but who is to say that the maximum will be required?

    These will be small-scale, profitable units appealing to a changing market and benefiting from an already established reputation. It makes perfect strategic sense, as well as making folk feel all fuzzy and warm.  

    Rosebank, too, is a canny move from an extremely canny firm which quietly gets on with the job. Ian Macleod doesn’t spend money unless it knows there is a return, and also knows that whisky is about playing the long game.

    Both firms have sufficiently long memories to remember why the stills closed in the first place, although the specific reasons might have been slightly different: Brora only reopened the first time because of short-term requirements; Rosebank closed because of effluent issues and location (if it hadn’t been next to a then disused canal, it would have been a Classic Malt); Port Ellen was surplus to requirements when there was a glut of smoky whisky; all fell silent because of the stock surplus of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    Leonard Russell Ian Macleod Distillers

    Canny move: Leonard Russell and Ian Macleod are playing a long game with Rosebank

    Distilleries closed at that time because their makes weren’t required for blends and because there wasn’t a single malt market to speak of. Size, style, quality, location – all were taken into consideration when the cull took place.

    Now, with a new single malt category, what might we expect in terms of style from the trio? We’ve heard that the set-up in each distillery will be the same in terms of equipment, but do you honestly think either firm won’t also apply the learnings from the intervening years?

    Although some may wish it, I don’t see these reopenings creating heritage sites manned by folk in period costume using the same barley type, yeast strains and equipment as in the ‘Good Old Days’ to make a spirit which will then be filled into the same (often exhausted) wood.

    These aren’t Sleeping Beauty distilleries, waiting for the kiss of Princes Ivan (Menezes) and Lenny (Russell) to reawaken them so they can continue as they were. You can learn from the positives (and, more importantly, the mistakes) of the past, but you can’t go back (ok, the Cabrach distillery might just do that, which would make it academically fascinating, but hardly a commercial venture in the way that Diageo and Ian Macleod envisage their revived three).

    What, then, will the rebooted distilleries be facing when their mature whisky appears on the market in a decade or more’s time? Scotch has got better at reading the cyclical nature of the market, but any aged spirit category is always a hostage to fortune.

    Brora distillery

    Brora’s back: But how will the ‘new’ spirit produced differ from the past?

    Having old heads who have seen the worst of times in charge is essential. It is not just about having a product to sell, it is being able to anticipate the needs of the market in five, 10, 15 years’ time.

    The trio will emerge with mature stock at (roughly) the same time as another 10 or 12 new distilleries. In recent weeks I’ve been round five of them. All are well set-up. All will make excellent whisky. All (bar one) are 100% single malt-oriented.

    The question which needs to be asked now is: how do they cut through against 100 other established malt distilleries, plus their contemporaries? Where’s the point of difference?

    The rebooted trio have the advantage of being able to draw on an already established reputation. They, I feel, are in a secure place. The rest? There are many options open to new distillers, but the smartest ones better have started wargaming exercises now. The ones who take the long-term view should prosper.

    The single malt category is new. We don’t know how the market will change in the next decade. Will we really see Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Macallan all sell in excess of 2m cases a year – and, in Macallan’s case, at a price premium?

    I’d be more worried about not getting those sums right than about the relatively small amount of spirit coming from the rebooted trio. Three cheers for them, but wise heads are required if the faith that all of the industry has in the projected single malt boom is to be repaid.

  • Whisky dreams with WB Yeats

    11 October 2017

    ‘There's a bookmark. Read it and bring it with you.’ Such were the instructions. I took it to mean: ‘Open at the bookmarked page because you’ll read from it later on.’ The ‘it’ in question was a volume of WB Yeats’ Collected Poems, and my bookmark lay between pages 116 and 117.

    This gave me a choice of four poems. Which one was intended for the recitation? He wishes his Beloved were Dead didn’t seem that likely, neither did He thinks of his Past Greatness…, though it does start: ‘I have drunk ale from the country of the young.’

    It might have been The Fiddler of Dooney, which is considerably more upbeat, but I had a hunch that the lines I was apparently expected to quote from were contained in He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which ends as follows:

    ‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

    That sounded more like it.

    Press trips are like this sometimes. You’re given tasks which fit in with the theme of the event and break the ice. Better than just standing around awkwardly drinking (free) whisky. Hmm. Still, we hacks are probably regarded as being easily bored, and so the event organisers are always thinking up new scenarios which will pique our jaded interests. Spoiled? You bet.

    WB Yeats Midleton Very Rare

    Tread softly: Dreams are very important in whisky-making, says Dave Broom

    A chance to taste the full range of Midleton Very Rare (MVR) annual releases would have been sufficient to get me to Cork – and Midleton owner Irish Distillers is noted for always throwing a brilliant bash. The addition of Yeats wasn’t needed, but if it would help the party along I’d be more than happy to cough out a stanza.

    With time on my hands, I began to wonder what the subtext of the lines might be. Was it a polite request not to be too harsh on the works of master distillers Barry Crockett and Brian Nation? To go easy on the old whiskies; maybe to take time to think about the creative process, and the thought and care which went into their making? Was this a subtle and polite attempt to melt the cold heart of a cynical critic?

    Dreams seemed an appropriate way to talk about the genesis of MVR, which with the benefit of hindsight can be seen as the starting point of Irish whiskey’s reawakening – or, to be more precise, our realisation of it.

    It was the whiskey which showed that Ireland could play in the same lofty field as top-end Scotch. It showed what was possible, demonstrated what had been going on behind the gates at New Midleton, illustrated the faith placed in the distillers and blenders by the directors.

    The dream was that it could recalibrate people’s thinking of Irish whiskey, show that the country was not ‘an irrelevance’ (in the words of DCL’s William Ross) or a footnote; that it wasn’t a demonstration of the potential hubris which exists within any industry whose success is predicated on the quirks of fashion, and the influence of politics.

    Midleton pot still

    Starting point: The creation of Midleton Very Rare began to reawaken Irish whiskey

    Any whisky worth its salt starts as a dream. I’d arrived in Midleton fresh (well… less than fresh, to be honest) from three days at The Whisky Show, where I’d talked and listened to whisky people speaking of their visions: the dream of Dan Szor at Cotswolds, those of David Fitt at English Whisky Co; the dreams of the new team at Loch Lomond; while, in masterclasses, those of Shinji Fukuyo and Bill Lumsden were also revealed.

    Fukuyo led us halfway into the world of geekdom, with charts of the chemical compounds which arise in maturation, before saying, with a grin: ‘But we don’t bother with all of that. Whisky-making is an art.’

    Lumsden’s idea was to discover what might happen if control could be applied to wood selection, and what difference different species might bring to Scotch. The successful manifestation of both dreams hasn’t just given us standalone whiskies, but has benefited both firms’ ranges, in the same way that MVR has shown the breadth of possibilities within Irish whiskey.

    That must be what they hoped I took from the poem. Whisky as dream, not as the product of marketing or focus groups, or chemistry, but the product of imagination, a creative weaving together of flavour, texture and aroma.

    Of course, I’d misunderstood. The bookmark was the slip of card with my name on it which told me I’d be in Brian Nation’s group for the tasting. There was no reading, no need for the volume in my hand. No-one else had even brought theirs. I slipped it in my pocket. Hey, it’s always good to have some Yeats around. You never know when he’ll come in handy. He already had.

    Tread lightly when we taste. Think of the people behind every whisky, and their dreams.

  • Embracing a world beyond Scotch

    27 September 2017

    It made a strange gurgling sound, but distiller Nick Franchino continued to palpitate the tube more gently than you would expect a former cage fighter to be able to. The liquid began to spurt (there is no other word, I’m afraid) along the plastic and into the bottle being held by Dan Szor.

    The first splashes of the first legal bottle of Cotswolds whisky. Three years and a day after it was laid down. The fact that it was a public occasion might be not that surprising. That it was happening at Whisky Live in Paris (23-24 September), however, did give things a mildly surreal turn, but whisky is nothing if not a global phenomenon.

    Glasses were passed around, followed by a slight silence as people nosed. That Man from Del Monte moment. There was no fear needed. This is a great whisky. I could tell that everything was going to be fine when I first tried Cotswolds at the same show – in fact, weirdly, on exactly the same spot – two years previously.

    Now it was rounded and not at all prickly, the fruits had a light hint of honeyed ripeness and – despite Szor’s fears that the short time in the small cask they had brought across had taken effect – not wood-dominated. Franchino’s team had done their work well.

    New liquid: Szor (left) and Franchino crack a cask to fill one of the first bottles of Cotswolds whisky

    It had also proved Szor’s hunch right. One morning he woke up, disillusioned with life (or as disillusioned as you can get when you are in the Cotswolds), thinking about going back to work in London and had a ‘why am I doing this?’ moment.

    We all have them. Not all of us then decide to build a distillery, but there again not all of us are at that point looking out at 600 acres of barley waving in a gentle breeze and thinking: ‘Why hasn’t anyone ever made whisky here?’

    Now the distillery makes (excellent) gin, with a new genever style recently added, there’s absinthe and apple brandy ‘Cotswoldados’, but whisky is the main business. They also do things their own way – the staff are warned of crucial timings in production by various egg timers scattered about the place – part of its ‘why not?’ charm.

    Take barley. It’s all local – which makes sense – and has been Odyssey, but the trials with the almost-forgotten Plumage Archer variety show great promise. It’s all malted close by in Warminster, aged in Jim Swan’s patented STR (shaved toasted recharred) ex-wine casks, first-fill ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and in time Calvados and, well, who knows what?

    All of that continues another of these themes that seem to weave their way into the loom of whisky these days – that of place. As whisky evolves, so the importance of the local will grow. That could mean ingredients, or wood, or a deeper understanding of roots.

    If it is real, it becomes a tangible asset. Location becomes not just a selling-point (and 21st-century whisky makers have to be hard-nosed marketeers, as well as dreamers), but a foundation which helps drive style and quality.

    It’s one reason why Szor refuses to say that he is making ‘English whisky’. ‘There is no such thing,’ he argues. ‘We’re making Cotswolds whisky. We are a single distillery. The TOAD (The Oxford Artisan Distillery) is nearby and they are doing things completely differently to us. How can you say we both make the same thing?’

    Whisky in England is a world of possibilities. By coincidence, that night I was chatting with Dhavall Ghandi, whisky maker at Lakes distillery, and the same topic came up. He too is taking his own path, one that if it pays off opens up new possibilities in the interface between science and art.

    Cocktail focus: Whisky shows are moving beyond traditional drams to delight curious visitors

    The fact that these conversations were taking place at a show which used to be pretty much the sole preserve of Scotch shows how far we have come in a short period.

    In the early days you’d stroll past the rum room and there would be the Parisian equivalent of tumbleweed blowing through. Now it’s dramatically different. There’s as great a selection of Scotch as ever, but there’re as many whiskies of the world – and every stand was equally busy.

    I got happily lost in the rum’s gentle embrace, particularly a Marsala cask from Jamaica’s Worthy Park which had the fortified wine’s decadent dark fruits in perfect balance with the punchy Jamaican pot. Strange how more Sherry casks seem to be appearing in rum, just as Scotch seems to be wholeheartedly embracing first-fill Bourbon.

    Should Scotch be scared? No. It just needs to be aware and not arrogant in its belief that size means guaranteed success (for it) and failure (for everyone else). It should also be aware that today’s consumer – you guys – might love whisky, but they too are looking beyond Scotch and to other spirits.

    After a day’s sipping and spitting it was time for an aperitivo, specifically a Nardini Mezzomezzo – the superb bottled blend of its Rosso and Rabarbaro. But only after a taste of its newly reformulated aged grappas: a softly spicy, cherry-accented seven-year-old, and a 15-year-old which, though dry on the nose, exploded in the mouth with a perfumed, fruity, cigar-tinged elegance. ‘One for whisky lovers,’ said the firm’s ambassador Sharla Ault with a grin. Point taken. 

  • Raasay distillery: a sense of place

    20 September 2017

    It was a first, I’ll give you that. The ferry docked, some cars bumped up the slipway, followed by some bemused looking tourists, constantly looking over their shoulders. Then the sound of the pipes started.

    ‘Does this happen every Saturday?’ an American asked me. I was tempted to say, ‘yes, it’s a Raasay tradition that the Skye pipe band marches in step off the ferry to be greeted by the entire population of the island’, but I thought it might be taken as being sarcastic. Honesty is often the best policy. ‘No, it’s a special day,’ I told him. ‘The island’s distillery is being opened. Come along.’

    Hebridean welcome: Isle of Raasay distillery opened to the sound of the Skye pipe band (Photo: Scott Mooney)  

    Any new distillery deserves a celebration. This was different, though, because other than some moonshining taking place in the distant past, Raasay has never had a legal still. The tide of fate which has swept past its shores has carried off its people and brought in the malign influence of absentee landlords and get-rich-quick firms. Finally, it seemed the wind had changed and the current was now pulling this small, friendly, fascinating island into the renaissance of Hebridean whisky making.

    Even the weather was behaving. The clouds had gathered late the night, drenching the land. On Skye, the Cuillin ridge was shrouded. As the pipe band arrived, the last spots fell and the skies began to clear. By the time the ribbon had been cut and the islanders, guests, (and still bemused tourists) had walked through the shiny new plant, sipped their Champagne and whisky, the sun was blazing off the gold-cladded entrance.

    It was hard not to see it as some sort of blessing, as an affirmation of the people who had stayed on through Raasay’s tribulations and believed in a better life. For, despite all of the setbacks, there is a thread of resilience about the folk living here. They believe in the place and what it could be. Not just making do, but making better.

    This distillery, for all its beauty, isn’t there for cosmetic reasons. It is a business, but one which is rooted at the centre of island life. As the afternoon melted into night and then the wee hours, the chat was of how whisky making gave a new focal point for the island.

    Sense of place: Raasay’s stillhouse looks out onto the Isle of Skye

    Those of us who live outwith a distilling community only see the end result of the work. As a result, we obsess and delight in the finished product and don’t give a second thought to how a distillery interacts with its locality.

    Look at it from that perspective and the distillery ceases to be a place where spirit is made, or a note on a balance sheet, and becomes the site which distils the spirit of the place. That’s an important, and significant, difference. Any distillery can have this, but Raasay brought home how the links between whisky and community run deep, of how its existence will ripple out across the island.

    The distillery will bring in tourists; in turn they will need to be fed and (well) watered. Some will want to stay and holiday there. That will necessitate a new hospitality infrastructure, and business opportunities. The distillery will, if all goes to plan, also help farmers. Trials are underway with different barley varieties and Bere.

    It won’t be plain sailing (if I can extend these watery metaphors further). Isle of Raasay is only one of any other new plants starting up across Scotland and there are robust challenges to be faced. It needs to work out its character, what is its point of difference, how it can cut through in what is a cluttered market, but they are going in with eyes open.

    The conversations slow, the ceilidh band packs up, the last Gaelic song is sung in tight harmony, the tears of happiness dry on the cheeks as the sun rises again, lighting up the building, igniting a little flame in the hearts of all who were there. Now the real work starts. 

  • Is perfume the new whisky?

    13 September 2017

    Late night, slick pavements, walking past bags in doorways and orange peel littering the gutter. The scene shifts to peeling cucumber and making melon balls next to starched linen.

    Shake the head. I can hear the creak of leather as I get off the bike next to an old-growth forest, filled with redwood and sandalwood, resin oozing from trunks, a distant camp fire and sage smoke lifting off from the hogans in the desert, the rustle of dry corn husks under my feet.

    Open my eyes. I’m not on some lost Californian highway, but in London’s Somerset House, halfway through the hallucinatory experience in 10 acts that comprises Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent.

    Each of the installations in this sense-expanding experience presents you with a different setting: white scarves tied to a bench, or an unmade bed reeking of last night’s lovemaking.

    They are cues, or clues perhaps, which lead to a certain degree of auto-suggestion. It’s hard not to think of chainsaw oil, cut timber and campfires fires when you’re sitting on a log, but Lyn Harris’ Charcoal does exactly that even away from the installation.

    The exhibition showcases how perfume is currently being driven by ‘experimental’ brands which are pushing what was a lucrative but safe luxury market in a new and radical direction.

    Perfume, in this reading, is no longer about smelling good, or sexy, or elegant. Today’s scents are about telling a story, taking you on an olfactory journey.

    Perfume installation: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques

    Some demonstrate a shift from the exotic to the explicitly erotic: Antoine Lie’s Secretions Magnifiques combines the aromas of semen, blood, sweat, saliva and breast milk.

    Others seem more abstract: a white cube containing Geza Shoen’s Molecule 01 (made from a single molecule) conjures up a picture of weeping while reading a newly-printed book; my night-time city was Mark Buxton’s CDG2, the brief for which was ‘the smell of a swimming pool of ink’.

    Then there are those which are olfactory dioramas of place: my desert highway is David Seth Moltz’s El Cosmico, while Harris’ Charcoal is inspired by her Scottish grandfather. I’d willingly wear either of those every day.

    All of this is bound up in the belief that for perfume to remain relevant it has to change its frame of reference and be experiential, not simply aromatically complex. We demand stories. We can now wear them on our skin, like scented, molecular tattoos.

    Olfactory diorama: Mark Buxton’s CGD2 has notes of ‘night-time city’

    There has been an equally dramatic shift in the way in which perfumers, rather than being the person behind the curtain, are now the focal point; and also how these new scents are open about the science behind their creation.

    Yes, these are synthetic molecules, they say, but look at how they are used creatively and artistically. The ‘disruption' caused by the arrival of these new scents isn’t making perfume more luxurious. By incorporating the wonders of the apparently mundane, it is making it real.

    In the accompanying catalogue, perfume writer/consultant Lizzie Ostrom has written one of those essays which should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in the making, selling or drinking of whisky – and not just because she uses the drink as an example.

    ‘Perfume is becoming less like fashion and more like food and drink,’ she writes. ‘…We are being invited to pay attention when we smell our scents, just as we might pay attention while tasting a whisky.’ You don’t just wear a scent, the argument goes – you are a participant in it.

    It’s ironic, then, that as the perfume industry moves away from an over-reliance on packaging and image towards this idea of experience, whisky is moving in the opposite direction.

    One reason for perfume’s shift is a rejection of the old school belief that because aroma was so difficult to talk about, the only way to describe (and sell) a perfume was through its look. It was about surface, not content. Now, it would seem, there is a realisation that you can engage with people by talking about aroma, function, and the creative process.

    Visitors were encouraged to smell the perfumes, then write down their impressions. The responses were fascinating to read. Because no-one was trained in the language of perfumery, they weren’t constrained by orthodoxy.

    No top, middle, or base notes, there was precious little ‘sillage’, and no-one seemed concerned with ‘dry down’. In its place were impressions, jokes, doodles, likes and dislikes. Honest responses.

    All of this made me wonder about the formulaic way we talk about whisky. If the flavour wheel has been turned on its head, does the tasting note also need a reappraisal? Nose, palate, finish, this, then this, then this… Now, repeat. Yes, there are advantages in having an agreed method, but are our responses not also constrained by its formulaic nature?

    Being able to see the difference between a ‘fruity’, a ‘fragrant’, and a ‘smoky’ whisky gives people confidence, but what comes next? Dare to try something more radical? Can the tasting note not be about what this whisky speaks of at this precise moment, can it not tell a story of place, or of memory? Seen this way, and tasting becomes a phenomenological experience, not an analytical one.

    The exhibition also made me wonder whether you can put a story within a blend? Should we think of ‘wearing’ whisky as well as drinking it? Perhaps that form of disruption and freeing of language can help to put you in a different creative space as a whisky maker and consumer. 

    Re-reading Ostrom’s and co-curator Claire Catterall’s introductions, I started to replace ‘perfume’ with ‘whisky’. Catterall’s essay then read as follows: ‘It is precisely whisky’s position as an object of material culture that makes it compelling.

    ‘Whisky appeals to us on many levels, not just the abstract or artistic. It signifies who we are and what we aspire to, where we come from and where we want to go, and of our time and place in the world.’

    Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September.

  • Remembering Michael Jackson 10 years on

    30 August 2017

    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.

  • Is it time to reinvent the flavour wheel?

    30 August 2017

    I’ve had a slightly strange relationship with flavour wheels. Obviously they make sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be so widely used. I use them myself, albeit carefully. The research paper which gave us the current Scotch whisky flavour wheel remains a go-to for me when I’m trying to get a fix on not just what aromas are there, but where they come from.

    When I’m out and about teaching, I get folk to look at the standard Scotch wheel while I (try to) explain how it works, from the bullseye of cardinal aromas in the centre and the subdivisions of aroma/flavour in each outward ring, to the creative space of your own memories which exists in the white space beyond. Then I ask them to put it away, as having a flavour wheel next to you when you are tasting is too much of a temptation. You can’t help glancing at it, but the moment you do, the words on it inveigle their way into your brain – driving you towards a potentially inaccurate and less personal analysis.

    So, a flavour wheel is useful before a tasting, and certainly after, and as a way of showing whisky’s diversity of flavour, it remains invaluable. But while it is a handy tool, it is not one (it’s fair to say) which has been front of mind.

    Until, that is, I had the distinct honour to sit recently on a panel with Dr Don Livermore, master blender at Canada’s Corby distillery; and my old buddy the Canadian whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux.

    The class was a fascinating exploration of the flavour profiles of the different grains and distillation processes at Dr Don’s distillery. He did all of the heavy lifting, while Davin and I chipped in with tasting notes for all of the new makes.

    Canadian version: Click the image to view Dr Don's whisky wheel in more detail

    Central to it was Dr Don’s new Canadian whisky flavour wheel. ‘I’d looked at the old one for years and always wondered what wasn’t quite right about it,’ he explained. ‘Then I realised, the issue is that it has flavour at the centre. From a blender’s perspective, that’s not the starting point. What if, I wondered, you put the three drivers of flavour – grain, yeast, and wood – there instead and then look at what flavours they produce?’

    So, he did – and it makes sense. Now you can see what yeast adds (fruity, floral, soapy, sulphur), what wood contributes (cask notes, ‘finish’ notes) or what each grain type can give. This being Canada, the range is wider than is (currently) used in Scotland. All of these building blocks are further subdivided and then, to please geeks such as myself, the outermost ring is a breakdown of which chemical compound each of these is made from. Finally, he then uses the flavour wheel to make graphic fingerprints of each of his new makes or blends.

    For me, it has opened up a new understanding of the complexities of whisky – and is a beautifully simple explanation of what a distiller and/or blender has to play with. While giving a more scientific analysis, it remains focused on flavour, which it strikes me to have been the theme for this holiday season as far as I’m concerned.

    Cataloguing how flavours arise is a way of easing ourselves away from the (over)reliance on regionality. The two are hard to reconcile, y’see. The drinker who has started with Glenlivet or Glenfiddich may well feel confident to then try something else from Speyside and wander unwittingly into the meaty power of Mortlach. Likewise, the lover of smoky Islay might be bemused by the unpeated Bruichladdich, or vice versa. The drinker exploring the Highlands (and how amorphous is that ‘region’?) will wonder why Glenmorangie isn’t like Dalmore, or Aberfeldy isn’t the same at Ben Nevis, if they are ostensibly from the same area. You get my drift.

    Dr Don’s fingerprints are one way to show not only where flavour comes from, but the variety which exists within the possibilities. The Single Malt Flavour Map [full disclosure: I’m still involved in its management] does the same. Both demonstrate how individuality is key.

    We can’t however expect everyone to have a flavour wheel (or map) to hand when they walk into a shop or bar. If we are to shift thinking away from region to flavour, then we also need whisky lists to be organised in terms of flavour or style rather than where the distillery is located (it would also allow blends to be included, by the way). Wines have been arranged in this fashion for years, so why not whisky? The wheel and map are the starting point for this new(er) recategorisation.

    I’m writing this during a brief sojourn in London when, in need of wine, I discovered the truly excellent Theatre of Wine. For a second or two, it was hard to work out how the wines were arranged. There wasn’t the normal division into countries, internal regions, and price. Instead the world’s wines sat next to each other. It seemed that the higher up the shelves you went, the more expensive things became, which made sense. Then it became apparent. All the light reds were in one column, medium bodied in the next, etc. The same applied to whites. It worked a treat, throwing new wines, styles, and countries at me (and I might have passed over the Georgian red if it had been hidden away in an ‘others’ section). In some ways it’s an approach akin to that taken by London whisky bar Black Rock, but not by many other bars or retailers.

    Wheels, maps, lists and shelves arranged by flavour help to communicate diversity. Because consumers understand flavour as a concept, this gives them confidence, which in turn makes them relax. And when that happens, they enjoy exploring. Simple, really.

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