From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky rules are there to be challenged

    23 August 2017

    After my recent musings about usquebaugh, some helpful soul wrote in, pointing out that such a drink couldn’t be called ‘whisky’ under the Scotch Whisky Act. Well, duh… They also added obligingly that ‘...if it were labelled “usquebaugh”, then it would be banned under reg. 6(2): “A person must not label, package, sell, advertise or promote any drink in any other way that creates a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public as to whether the drink is Scotch Whisky”.’

    Well, I’d say that this was open to interpretation. As they themselves admitted, Dewar’s Honey was out there, as was J&B’s equivalent (quite why they called it Urban Honey, rather than J&Bee is beyond me), so a precedent has been set even if, as my mystery correspondent said, ‘certain elements of the industry (and the SWA) were very unhappy about that one.’ Stir in a brand such as Compass Box Orangerie and you can see that Scotch-based flavoured spirits are out there already.

    Floral scent: Unlike Scotch whisky, usquebaugh traditionally featured local botanicals

    I could of course fall back on history and point out (again) that usquebaugh never tried to pass itself off as ‘whisky’, but was regarded as a separate style of drink for about 400 years. Creating new usquebaughs, a clever Edinburgh lawyer could argue, is simply a continuation of an old, established, craft.

    Also, most of these usquebaughs were ‘dulcified’ – sweetened either with sugar for the high-class variants, or more commonly, honey. In other words, they were liqueur-like. Drambuie started life as an usquebaugh and no-one seems to be moaning about its existence. So, should anyone want to explore the botanical angle, I believe that there are ways around this apparent legislative block. 

    Will anyone do it? Who knows? One distiller called my extravagant notions ‘provocative’ (I think in a positive way) though I figured they were just logical and grounded in whisky heritage. While it would be interesting to see a new generation of usquebaughs appearing, if they don’t it won’t be because producers are scared of innovation.

    The Scotch industry isn’t naive, and while innovation and contrivance often go hand-in-hand, and clumsy appropriation of other spirits’ clothes does take place, that doesn’t mean that Scotch cannot learn and adapt to a changing market. Indeed, I would argue that to survive and prosper that it has to – as long as it does not lose its sense of identity.

    The idea that there is nothing going on in terms of new product development in whisky is fantasy. There are experiments underway which would make jaws drop in astonishment. Not all will make it to market, but questions about ‘what is Scotch, and what else can it be?’ are being asked constantly. Boundaries are being pushed in ways which we haven’t seen for years.

    Cereal question: Could more types of grain be used in Scotch?

    Moving away from usquebaugh for the moment, as last year’s series on Scotch whisky regulations outlined, there are many flex points within the regulations where new flavours and characters could be introduced. Could you smoke barley over a wood fire for example? What would a heather-smoked whisky be like?

    Scotch is currently made from barley, or corn, or wheat, but what of what of other cereals – some of which were used in Scotland in the past – which are being used successfully by other whisky makers around the world?

    If the reaction to modest proposals such as these is, ‘we can’t envisage doing that because it is possibly against the rules’, it is pretty much an admission of defeat from the outset. Rules – or to be more precise the interpretation of these rules – are open to debate and challenge. Accepting the need for change is why rules and regulations are always in a state of slow, steady adjustment. Whisky today doesn’t operate under exactly the same legislation as it did in the 1990s, never mind the 1920s.

    Asking what can Scotch become shouldn’t be interpreted as a cry for mass disobedience, but as a continuation of this natural process of incremental change. This world is full of flavour possibilities. It is also fluid.  

  • Why can’t whisky be like usquebaugh?

    16 August 2017

    ‘When my ancestors were determined of a set purpose to be merie, they used a kind of aquavite, void of all spice, and onelie consisting of such herbs and roots as grew in their own gardens.'

    Hector Boece's words, written in 1526, swam up from memory. I quickly refocused. Botswana Dave was still talking: ‘…but don’t get this one, hemlock, confused with this one, wild carrot. Hemlock will kill you. Wild carrot won’t.’ Handy to know.

    We were on a nature walk at the RSPB Gruinart reserve on Islay. There were few birds around, so Dave, like any good guide, had switched to flora, including a diversion into the world of lichen and fungi when we came across trees draped in lungwort, before we returned to mugwort, pineapple weed, gorse flower and meadowsweet, and others, many of which go into The Botanist gin, produced by Bruichladdich.

    Scotland’s west coast is hoaching with gins these days. The Botanist led the way, but in the past few months, Islay has been joined by gins distilled on Jura (Lussa), Kintyre (Beinn an Tuirc), and Harris (er… Harris). Colonsay has plans to make its gin on the island, as does Tiree.

    All make a big play about using local botanicals. The Botanist uses 22 from Islay, Harris has sugar kelp; Icelandic moss and sheep sorrel are in Beinn an Tuirc’s botanical recipe, while Lussa uses ground elder, honeysuckle, rosehip, bog myrtle, sea lettuce and Scots pine among others.

    Machair Tiree

    Floral flavours: Is there a place in whisky for the larder of the machair?

    Gin, the world’s first global spirit in terms of ingredients, is now becoming increasingly terroir-fixated. It’s no longer sufficient to say your gin comes from a place, it has to somehow taste of that place as well.

    This is all good news, when it works. Gin is a fiendishly difficult spirit to get right. Each botanical has to be there for a reason. There’s no point in making a gin with an added botanical which you then can’t notice, or one where the unusual botanical has been dialled up to such an extent that the gin is unbalanced. That said, this aspect of terroir suits gin perfectly.

    Why then did Boece’s words keep nagging away at me as I stravaiged up the west coast from island to island, finding a gin at every corner? Could whisky play in this area as well?

    He shows that a Scottish-distilled spirit – probably made from cereal – was flavoured from the word go. It became known as usquebaugh, and it and ‘usky' co-existed for centuries, the former flavoured, the latter a straight distillate (which in turn was usually drunk as a punch or toddy).

    The ‘herbs and roots as grew in their own garden’ would have included hyssop, marjoram, lavender fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, sweet marjoram, sage, rue, wormwood, horehound, lovage and pennyroyal. The hills would have provided wild thyme, rosemary, rowan berry, and heather, maybe in the form of honey. These early usquebaughs were as much distillates of place as the whiskies.

    On Colonsay, I picked up a reprint of a 1903 book by Murdoch McNeill on the flora of the island. Lurking there was an entry for ‘heath vetch, aka bitter-vetch [Lathyrus montanus]… which was used for flavouring whisky’. The dried and roasted vetch tubers have a slight anise flavour and were also used as a hangover cure, a way to offset drunkenness, and as an appetite suppressant. Hebridean coca! I’ve ordered some seeds.

    Tiree beach: With plenty of space and time for some ‘extravagant thinking’

    I’m writing this on Tiree. Outside, the machair is filled with buttercup and red clover, knapweed, birds foot trefoil, ragged robin, tormentil, tansy, wild thyme and harebell. Its beaches are a larder of different seaweeds. Little has changed since Boece’s day. It’s all out there still. From this perspective there is an argument that whisky can play in this field as confidently as gin.

    Whisky already has the remarkable ability to somehow distil what surrounds it. Is it not possible, then, to extend this property to reflect terroir by using the flora of the place, either in terms of new usquebaughs, home flavouring, or in bartending? After all, Thomas Pennant wrote in 1772: ‘The people of the Hebrides extract an acid for [whisky] punch from the berries of the mountain ash [rowan].’

    The west coast does this to you. The wide skies, the open seas, the wind bringing the sweet-smelling machair hissing through the marram grass. The Scottish poet Kenneth White calls it ‘extravagant thinking’, but what is whisky if not a drink which welcomes that?  

  • A postcard from Islay

    09 August 2017

    ‘It’s at its best like this.’ The glasses were raised at Clàs Uig. Perhaps in memory of the audacious German U-boat commander who slid into its waters to steal sheep, maybe just to the landscape, or to the wildlife we’d seen, to the waves, or just for being there and alive at this moment.

    I hadn’t been deliberately depriving myself of whisky, but neither had I actively sought it out. Maybe that’s the nature of a holiday – you do the things you don’t normally get the chance to – so for me it’s rambles rather than drambles.

    Clàs Uig: Dave Broom raises a glass to 'U-boat Bay', Islay

    ‘You’re here… on Islay… on holiday?’ say some when I meet them in the Co-op, the pub, or the ferry. ‘A working holiday?’ And they smile slightly and look at my wife and daughter as if to say, ‘Poor you – ­what a bastard he must be, dragging you round distilleries when you’re meant to be relaxing’.

    But it’s true, we come here because we can switch off and not work (he said, writing this piece while they sleep, but the relentless nature of the web dictates against not remaining silent for too long).

    Anyway, the glasses were raised. It seemed saltier, more attuned to the environment, the slow slither of seaweed mirroring the gentle viscimetry taking place in the glass. A hint of the moorland, a bracing gasp as if, on that first sip, you were immersing yourself in the waters of the bay. As thick as the sodden peat bog, as gentle as the curve of the seal on the rocks. Salt on the lips, an encapsulation of place.

    The day after, we headed north through the islands of the sea, then onwards to Tiree, birds careening in our wake. Shearwaters ­– those enigmatic, wave-dancing acrobats, in the Sound of Islay the week before. If gannets take issue with the water, punching holes in its surface, shearwaters and fulmars caress it, using the updrafts lifting off the crests to help them in their endless loop of the oceans. There is no battle here, rather a fusion of mind, intuition and understanding.

    For a second, it seemed as if my mind had pulled them into being. I’d been reading Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry and had just finished the chapter on shearwaters. As I put the book down, there they were.

    Shearwaters are sea wanderers, cousins to albatrosses and fulmars. It’s long been wondered how they navigate themselves on their pelagic roamings, how they can find their way home to their chicks, or to food. Recent research has given a surprising answer. With larger than normal olfactory systems compared to other birds, these members of the tube-nose family achieve the seemingly miraculous by their sense of smell.

    Prof. Nancy Devitt of UC Davis had long believed this to be the case but could never find the clincher to her theory until, in conversation with another scientist working in a different discipline, the topic of dimethylsulfoniopropionate – DMSP to its friends – arose. As it does.

    It is emitted by dying phytoplankton and smells, Devitt realised, of newly-opened oysters. DMSP means phytoplankton has been eaten by krill, and the krill is being eaten by larger fish. The tube-noses, drifting above the waves, pick up the aroma of DMSP clouds at levels of 1 part in 10 billion and use them to find their food source.

    For them, it is the smell of home. The birds flying up the Sound were impregnated in it; their chicks, cocooned in their burrows, would smell little but for the first weeks of their lives. An aroma lesson: ‘this smell means comfort and a full belly, seek it out’. It operates, albeit in a more intense way, in the same fashion as our own olfactory memories which are triggered when we smell a glass of whisky and the childhood memory – a snack, a sweetie on the way back from school, our grandmother’s house – snaps into focus. Our first navigations around the world are embedded in smell memory.

    It would appear that aroma doesn’t simply show the shearwaters and their relatives where food is, but plays the vital element in how they navigate. Shearwater research by Prof Anna Gagliardo posits that different parts of the ocean have distinctive smells. What to us is ‘sea smell’ is in fact complex and multifaceted – each part as identifiable as a rose is from an orange. Aromas guide them, warn them, act as markers. A landscape which to our eyes is hard to read, whose only constant is that its features are forever in flux, is to a shearwater a tapestry of aroma, with each thread of scent redolent with meaning. Some tugging them home, others suggesting danger.

    Briny minerals: The aroma of Islay whisky is often reminiscent of the Hebridean seaWe can get a sniff of that when we stand on the shoreline, or on the deck of a boat, maybe with a glass of Islay whisky. That briny smell, the minerality is also the aroma of those shucked oysters and scallops. For a second, we are like the birds. As they dip their wing tips into the sea, so we raise the glass to our noses. The sea doesn’t smell like the sea, but of the elements within it – the death pulses of phytoplankton and algae, seaweed pheromones and much more. And the same elements are detectable in the glass.

    That whisky smells best here because it’s where that fusing of liquid and place is at its strongest – thanks partly to emotion, but also a literal (or littoral) link to place. It’s also there, ready to be drawn out, when we sit at home or in bars thousands of miles away across the oceans. A filament of aroma, bringing us back home. 

  • The joy of consensus

    12 July 2017

    ‘What is the piece of technology you would like to see removed from your discipline?’ It’s fair to say none of us were expecting that as an opening question. While panel discussions are rarely as benign as a post-match Wimbledon press conference, this one was a doozie. ‘Dave,’ said host Angela Clutton, ‘perhaps you could start?’ A tip to anyone planning on sitting on a panel soon ­– never be seated next to the host.

    It’s hard to think what to get rid of in distillation. I mean, without the equipment you can’t, er, distil. After what seemed an unseemly delay I put chill-filtration units into Room 101 for daring to remove mouthfeel.

    Borough Market

    #LoveBorough: The market has bounced back in defiant fashion from the events of 3 June

    Catriona Felstead MW of Berry Bros & Rudd went for the spinning cone which reduces alcohol levels in wine, but ‘removes its soul’. Wish I’d thought of that line. Dan Tapper from the Beak Brewery went for filtration – hey, a theme! and old mucker Tony Conigliaro of The Drink Factory went for bad cocktail books.

    We were all on stage at the latest of the excellent Borough Talks, held at London’s Borough Market to talk about the state of play in our respective branches of the drinks industry: wine, beer, cocktails and spirits; and also to give advice on how to start a career.

    I’m always slightly amused by this last one as I didn’t exactly plan a career – maybe a background in improvised music finally paid off. Listen, ask why, never think you are an expert, and pass on the information humbly was what my careers advice came to.

    That there was consensus was the most rewarding element of the evening. Do the hard yards, get stuck in, work in retail, listen and learn… we all agreed.

    Tony summed up how the drinks trade is evolving when he said: ‘To create chaos, you need a lot of order. The more ordered we have become, the more creative we've been.’

    Any move forward has to be disruptive, but in order for that to happen you have to have a structure; there’s no use just flinging every idea at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s a waste of time, energy… and money.

    His conclusions mirrored Felstead’s talk on minimum intervention winemaking in what used to be called the New World. This involves having the guts to step back and allowing the wine to make itself, which takes enormous skill, faith... and money. It’s like a musician understanding silence (that improv training again).

    Tapper picked up the theme. His is an intriguing model. He’s a nomadic brewer who moves around the country, borrowing tank space: I envisage him descending on wires, Mission Impossible-style, into a brewery at night, pockets bulging with hops, yeast under his balaclava.

    He acknowledges that some of the beers he makes won’t make money, but those are the ones which have helped establish his style: he mentioned a porter being aged in Bolney Estate wine casks, or another made with raspberries foraged around the outskirts of Leeds. Create the personality, focus on provenance and quality.

    Borough Talks

    On the panel (l to r): Angela Clutton, Dave Broom, Catriona Felstead MW, Dan Tapper and Tony Conigliaro

    If the same questions had been asked 10 years ago, the answers would have been very different. There would have been little consensus. Instead the four arms of the trade would have looked with mild amusement on the activities of the others. There was little dialogue, no co-operation and precious little consensus. Now shared themes exist and are welcomed and acted upon.

    I’d seen some of Felstead’s colleagues the week before at the Imbibe Live trade show. In the old days there was an invisible line. On one side sommeliers sipped, on the other bartenders caroused.

    That barrier has gone. On the Berry’s/Fields, Morris & Verdin stand there was whisky, gin and rum as well as Lustau’s Sherries and vermouth – the last two being the hot trends in bartending. There is now no separation, no ghettoisation of the drinks industry. We are in it together and have common goals.

    That this manifested itself at Borough Market was appropriate. I started my writing life opposite the market, drank in its pubs early in the morning and watched the site transform into one of the world’s great food centres – produce from around the world next to the best of artisanal British, be that meat, fish, cheese or drink.

    Borough is a celebration of the local and the international, of the diversity of food cultures alive in Britain, a community to browse and graze in and, with every mouthful or sip, you see connections and learn that little bit more about how the world should be – which is what we do when we take a sip of a new whisky, or wine, or beer, or Sherry.

    A community, in other words, and one which remained resilient after the hideous events of 3 June. London didn’t reel, the traders reopened the market and the place got on with doing what it does so effectively, showing how the world can come together. #LoveBorough.

  • Tasting by numbers

    05 July 2017

    The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a couple of changes to our tasting section this week. Firstly, it now rejoices under the title of ‘Whisky Reviews’; secondly, we have made significant changes to our scoring system

    Essentially, we have moved from a scoring system which ran from 0 to 10, to one which runs from 0 to 100 (though it starts at 50). So, instead of having a 10-point scale which, thanks to the use of decimal points, became a 100-point scale, we now have a 100-point scale which is effectively a 50-point scale. As someone with dyscalculia this is not an easy concept to grasp but, as even I have managed to get my head around it, I hope that you will be able to as well.

    Whisky glass

    Question of taste: The words remain more important than the numbers, says Dave Broom

    Personally speaking, I would have preferred a star system to be used, one in which whiskies would have been placed in bands of excellence. It seems to work for hotels, restaurants, films, theatre and even the malign Tripadvisor.

    This, I will always believe, allows readers an indication of quality, rather than then obsessing over what the difference might be between a score of 83 rather than 82, but it’s not the system which governs alcohol, apparently, so numbers it had to be.

    Why then, if we already had numbers, did we have to change how they were utilised? In order for scores to be brought into some sort of alignment with other media (though not all use a 100-point scale, many do). This, it is believed, will allow you, gentle reader, to more easily compare and contrast between the same whisky tasted by different people on different sites.

    Again, personally I’d have thought that reading what was written about the whisky, rather than what it scored, would have given more accurate information, but you might as well have belt and braces. There is a psychological reason as well. One hundred points just seems better than 10. A score of 92 is far more meaningful than 9.2. Apparently.

    ‘But Dave,’ some of you might be saying at this point, ‘it isn’t really 100 points, but 50.’ This is not only in line with other grading systems, but considerably better than some which only run from 80 and which, in my opinion, artificially inflate the ‘worth’ of the whisky being assessed.

    If your bottom score is actually the same as most readers’ idea of excellence, then not only does the taster have little room for manoeuvre, but the score is inaccurate. Any scoring system needs to have sufficient breadth for the tasters – and the reader – to be able to discriminate between one whisky and another. So, a 50-point scale it is.

    I would hope, as a whisky lover, that most of the drams sitting on my table would be 70 and above. There’s no excuse for faulty or poor whiskies these days (though, if they do appear, they’ll be marked as such).

    If a whisky gets a 70, then it’s still a decent dram, just not one whose balance is as good as one which scores 75 and above… and so on. Hopefully having 50 points to play with will not only allow you to differentiate between the whiskies tasted, but also give you reassurance that the lower-scoring whiskies are well worth trying.

    As the key shows, it’s easier to look at our new system as being split into five or six bands, with tiny amounts of fine tuning within each band. A bit like a star system, in other words.

    Inevitably, our scores will differ from those on other sites or magazines, but I’d like to think that the overall impression will be the same. Comparing our scores with those on, say, Whiskyfun (which you all should read) will give an idea of how the whisky falls into another band of shared – and, more than likely, agreed – opinion.

    That opinion is contained in the words, which are infinitely more important than the numbers. When I taste, I’m constantly thinking about how the whisky fits into the three main criteria: complexity, balance and character. The words are my objective opinion of how well these are delivered.

    When I’m tasting, I’m looking for the positive points and whether they outweigh any negatives; how persistent is the dram’s flavour, how does it develop over time and on the palate; how complex is its aroma; does it take you on a journey; how could it be consumed?

    Only then does the score come into play. What band does it sit in; are there subtle differences between whiskies of similar character? The score is the full-stop at the end of the process. It doesn’t lead or dictate it. For me, it’s almost an afterthought.

    If numbers were the most important element in assessment, there would be no need for any words. A score would be sufficient. The reasoning behind the numbers is what is important. It allows a conversation to take place, analysis to be shown, opinion to be offered.

    You might not agree with the score I give, but with the words to hand at least you know why I gave it. Then, hopefully, you can see the logic at work to the extent that the score given becomes irrelevant.

    Clinging to numbers means narrowing your appreciation of whisky. Reading the words increases it. So read the words, my dears, please read them.

  • Rediscovering the wonder of whisky

    28 June 2017

    I’d read the text before, but seeing it painted across an entire wall brought the significance of the words into sharper focus.

    ‘One Theoricus wrote a proper treatise of Aqua Vitae, wherein he prayseth it to the ninth degrée. He destiguisheth thrée sortes therof, simplex, composita, and Perfectissima. He declareth the simples and ingrediences thereto belongyng. He wisheth it to be taken as well before meate as after.

    ‘It dryeth vp the breakyng out of handes, and killeth the fleshe wormes, if you wash your handes therewith.

    ‘It skoureth all skurse and skaldes from the head, beyng therewith daily washte before meales.

    ‘Beyng moderately taken, sayth he, it sloeth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth fleume, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the hart, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirites, it cureth the hydropsie, it healeth the strangury, it poũceth the stone, it expelleth grauell, it puffeth away all Ventositie, it kepeth and preferueth the hed from whirlyng, the eyes from dazelyng, the tongue from lispyng, the mouth frõ mafflyng, the téeth frõ chatteryng, the throte from ratling, the weasan from stieflyng, the stomacke from wambling, the harte from swellyng, the belly from wirtchyng, the guts from rumblyng, the handes from shiuering, the smowes from shrinkyng, the veynes frõ crumpling, the bones from akyng, the marraw from soakyng.

    ‘Vlstadius also ascribeth thereto a singuler prayse, and would haue it to burne beyng kindled, which he taketh to be a token to know the goodnesse therof. And truly it is a soueraigne liquour, if it be orderly taken.’

    Aqua vitae

    History lessons: In the 16th century, aqua vitae was seen as a miracle cure

    This appears in an account of Ireland in Holinshed’s Chronicles, printed in 1577. Who Theoricus was is a mystery, but that mattereth not (enough of the Old English – Ed).

    Its appearance on the wall came, appropriately enough, while I was wandering around the almost completed Lindores Abbey distillery (of which much more in a few weeks). History nuzzles up to you in that part of Fife – ancient trade routes, royal palaces, battles, breweries, beehives and, undoubtedly, distillation. What struck home when being confronted with the text again is the multifaceted way in which people used spirits.

    Is there anything to learn from this, 500 years on? I’m sure today’s distillers would baulk at ever suggesting that alcohol would stop ageing and strengthen youth. They’d probably take issue with any notion that alcohol, even if taken in moderation (how modern the two authors are), could possibly make you happier, wittier and generally more intelligent.

    Not that the Irish in the 16th century appeared to heed any suggestion of sensible drinking. Later in the section, Holinshed reports that they devour flesh:

    Without bread, and that halfe raw: the rest boyleth in their stomackes with Aqua Vitae, which they swill in after such a surfet by quartes & pottels.’

    The Irish, it would seem, had already built a reputation. ‘I will rather trust…an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle… than my wife with herself,’ wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor a few years later. The absence of any mention of distillation in the Chronicles in England and Scotland infers that it had become an Irish speciality.

    But I digress. What the account shows is how aqua vitae (be it grain- or grape-based) was the cure-all, the universal panacea, the miracle drug. Today, there is no suggestion of whisky having a similarly multifaceted aspect. It’s rarely used as a medicine, though a Hot Toddy still works miracles in my experience, and compared to its early, miraculous manifestation, is a simple social lubricant.

    Holinshed's Chronicles

    Holinshed’s Chronicles: An extract of text is displayed at Lindores distillery

    It struck me, on reading the extract, how the wonder of whisky, its magical nature, is being forgotten. We rarely dwell on its transportive qualities, which magically summon up place, people and season when it is taken in exactly the right (and moderate) quantities. Even the manner of its drinking has been narrowed.

    Familiarity, while maybe not breeding contempt, has reduced whisky to a drink whose boundaries are understood and tacitly accepted. This, in turn, drives how it should be drunk, and when it should be drunk. The field of vision has narrowed and the opportunities are, as a result, missed.

    Although Scotch cocktails are now an accepted part of the whisky world, they are still restricted. As bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana said to me recently, to ‘vanilla, or smoke’? You can be creative, but only up to a certain point.

    Whether we are bartender or drinker, we need to somehow tap into the open-eyed wonder and joy of these early texts, when all the world was green and all possibilities seemed to not only be open, but the logical approach to take.

    Or perhaps I’m just mafflyng. I’ll let you know after one more draught.

  • Binary thinking won’t work in whisky

    13 June 2017

    Unlike Theresa May (I told you, no politics! – Ed), I’m all for debate. I've been struck, however, by how polarised what passes for debate in Scotch has become. You could, if you were of a philosophical bent, blame Aristotle for bequeathing this ‘either/or’ logic to the western world, a manner of thinking which, in whisky, manifests itself as: blends or malts, independent bottlers or brand owners, big companies or small, condensers or worms, smoke or no smoke.

    Whisky debate

    Preferred pour: What you like may not be someone else’s choice of dram, but that doesn’t make them wrong

    Call it binary thinking, call it logocentrism, but this reductionist approach boils down to: ‘You are either wholly on my side or you are against me.’ There is no grey area, no room for, well, debate, especially when the voices are loud.

    The drinker feels compelled to choose between one or the other, and once that decision has been made the rejected option (blends, condensers, big companies, for example) is either ignored or, in the more extreme circumstances, condemned. In this way of thinking, whisky is comprised of mutually exclusive camps.

    As soon as those lines get drawn, there is no space left for nuance, or accepting that both options are valid. We may prefer one over the other, but that is significantly different to saying that the one we haven’t chosen is wrong.

    We have acted in a specific way at a point in time, but may swing back in the future. So I drink a blend, then a smoky malt, I buy an independent bottling, and then a brand, I buy one dram from a small distiller, and then one from a major, have a cocktail, and then something neat. That is how whisky works.

    It is a spirit of nuance, one where aromas and flavours shift and change in the glass; it pulls your memories one way and then another. It can be a guided missile aimed directly at your pleasure zone, or something contemplative, which needs to be teased out gently. It is layered and therefore contradictory – in other words, it’s complex.

    That quality, along with character and balance, are the foundations of assessing quality. The very nature of balance also rejects the dualistic approach. Every dry element has to be balanced by sweet, for example. If this principle is whisky’s heartbeat, then surely we can extend that approach outwards and look at ways in which we stop thinking in such a reductionist fashion?

    I was chatting about this over a drink with a friend, when he said: ‘You know what? The word I hate the most at the moment [he has an ever-shifting list of pet hates] is “standard”. What’s “standard” about a single malt? What aspect of its being can ever be defined as “standard”?’

    Whisky cocktail

    Change of heart: It’s not uncommon – or wrong – to switch from neat whisky to cocktails, and back again

    It’s a sound point. In the dark ages when I started to write about booze, whisky was divided into two camps: ‘standard’ and ‘deluxe’. In simple terms, ‘standards’ were blends without an age statement, while those with one (usually 12 years old) were ‘deluxe’. Standard was also shorthand for ‘cheap’. 

    To be honest, the only people who ever used these terms were those in marketing – and journalists. No-one today walks into a bar and asks for a ‘deluxe’, ‘super-premium’ or ‘luxury’ whisky. They do, however, still see the term ‘standard’, by which they mean ordinary, or ubiquitous. Its deployment is done in a disparaging fashion, it says: ‘It is beneath me.’

    Glenfiddich 12-year-old, The Glenlivet 12, Glenmorangie 10, Talisker 10, Laphroaig 10 are considered ‘standard bottlings’ – but how can this possibly be true? By its nature, single malt is anything but standard, so why call it that? Perhaps it is because when people explore the malt realm, the most popular bottlings are not considered worthy of the consideration of the serious drinker.

    They may have started with the biggest sellers, but have moved on. Our very human desire for fresh stimulation, when exacerbated by an aggressive consumerist culture, makes it easy for us to dismiss our starting-points as youthful folly. It’s another example of binary thinking.

    I’ve said it many times and will never stop repeating it: revisit these whiskies. Be prepared to be amazed at their quality – and often absurdly low prices. Doing so might just be a starting-point to begin to dismantle this binary world.

  • Ten things I learned at Fèis Ìle 2017

    06 June 2017

    1. Whisky drinkers are changing

    A criticism levelled at the Fèis some years back was that it was becoming too much of a club. The same people would turn up every year and, as accommodation was limited, there was little room for newcomers. That appears to have changed significantly.

    Not only are there more hotels, but the number of tents and camper vans made some pitches look like mini-Glastonburys. While it is always great to hook up with old friends, there is plenty of evidence that there is a new whisky drinker (younger, more women) out there, making the effort to get to Islay and that the Fèis is beginning to adapt to this shift in the demographic.

    2. The transformation of the ‘whisky tasting’

    There will always be space for the established format of a person talking about six (or seven) drams, but there was plenty of evidence that new possibilities are now being trialled. Having food with the whisky was pretty much standard; there were excellent street food stalls at every event, while Martine Nouet pushed things further with her pop-up restaurant.

    There was whisky and music, the innovative Whisky 101 at Jura’s Tastival, and a greater presence of cocktails and Highballs – seeing the Smoky Cokey on draught was a personal thrill, while Alessandro Palazzi’s Negroni Torbato (Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Cynar and Aperol) is a potential new classic.

    It showed a desire to engage with this new whisky community, and a willingness to see whisky as something which should be aligned with people’s wider lives. Innovative and, yes, fun.

    Feis Ile 2017

    Lagavulin views: As the sun sets on Fèis Ìle 2017, Dave Broom shares some nuggets of wisdom​

    3. Flippers

    Not the dolphins, which didn’t appear (as far as I know). The question was asked – inevitably online by someone who wasn’t there (and answered by people who weren’t there) – as to whether Fèis had lost its mojo and was now just an event for buying bottles.

    Well, while there were queues – Bowmore won that battle, with Bruichladdich a close second – I didn’t spot any great obsessive collecting taking place. Perhaps the wise decision to have larger runs (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) has changed the mindset of the attendee.

    Bowmore might think of having a maximum two bottles per person purchase, though. While the sight of auction vans cruising the roads looking for people willing to do an immediate flip was saddening, what I found was a willingness to share rare drams – not hoard them.

    4. Whisky diffusion lines

    As well as the usual T-shirts/polo shirts, fleeces, waterproofs and bunnets, the appearance of distillery-branded underpants seemed a somewhat quixotic decision – until plane-loads of folk without luggage arrived in need of such essentials, only to discover that Kilchoman was the sole place to buy underwear.

    Is this the start of pants wars? Why only men’s? Is there an opportunity for the Lagavulin Ladies range, the Ardbeg Intimates? Laphroaig Foundations? Laddies and Ladies? (I’ve copyrighted all of these, by the way.)

    It was also a lesson for those who hadn’t stayed on the island for a period of time, that what is considered commonplace on the mainland might not be quite as easily obtainable here. You need to plan in advance on Islay and to operate with a different mindset – and that goes as much for the whisky as for underwear.

    5. Fèis Fringe?

    There were so many events that sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what was going on and where. While the Fèis hasn’t become quite as crazy as Spirit of Speyside, the distances between events can be considerable (see number six); buses don’t run 24 hours a day, taxi fares are steep and designated drivers get understandably grumpy.

    It would be good to get the fringe side (whether it’s ancillary distillery events or non-official happenings) quasi-organised with a central information point. If only there was a generic whisky website which might be able to help with that. If you know of one – oh, hang on…

    6. Difficult decisions

    There was considerable buzz around the arrival of Ardnahoe, with buses ferrying people to look at the site. What’s going to happen next year in terms of schedule, when the distillery is open? It would be logical for them to share the day with Bunnahabhain, though that’s by no means guaranteed, given the fact that Kilchoman and Jura – the two distilleries which are furthest away from each other (25 miles plus a ferry trip) – share their open days. It leaves people with an either/or decision. Surely Jura and Caol Ila makes more sense?

    Feis Ile 2017

    Global gathering: Festival-goers old and new, and from around the world, are welcome on Islay

    7. Engaging with a deeper Islay

    We had foraged cocktails – admittedly for gin (and, come to think of it, with The Botanist and now gins from Jura and Colonsay, who knows what next year might bring?) – but also walks and talks, which opened up the island.

    The distilleries have long been running behind-the-scenes tours, giving visitors access to the parts of a distillery you don’t normally see – the opening of the maltings is a great example of this as well – but engaging with landscape, water and nature is a significant part of the development of Islay’s whiskies. If distilleries are now talking terroir, then they also need to find ways to show what it means. It seems to be happening.

    8. Suited and booted

    Adam Hannett rocks a three-piece suit. A strange thing to say? Well, generally speaking you're more likely to spot a corncrake than a suit on Islay – there’s no need on a working island for such formal apparel, but Adam’s light blue number had the ladies swooning, and nods of approval from (some) chaps in the audience.

    The days of compulsory kilt-wearing are long gone. The suit says the guard has changed, we’re serious, smart players; and, while Islay might be remote, don’t treat us like ignorant islanders. We’re setting the rules.

    9. Community engagement

    Bruichladdich and Ardbeg are the big days in terms of locals being able to join in with the Fèis properly (they have to work during the week) but, as ever, Islay’s hospitality shone. I heard of stranded people getting lifts in police cars, while in every pub which I went into (all in the way of research) I saw locals chatting with incomers, sometimes to the latter’s surprise.

    Advice would be offered, stories told, recommendations given, deep whisky talk entered into. If you want to get an idea of what the Fèis is really about, you can’t stay in your own little group, but get out there and chat. This is a community festival, after all.

    10. Plan ahead…

    …and have a Plan B in case of transport issues. Start it now. There’s only 51 weeks to go until the next one. 

  • Trains, buses, ferries and community spirit

    30 May 2017

    The sleeper seemed to be a good idea. Overnight to Glasgow, first bus to Kennacraig and the ferry over to Islay in time for Lagavulin’s celebrations. What could go wrong? I turned down the idea of the lounge car (‘Get you!’ – Ed) in preference of turning down the sheets and getting some rest. I was asleep before we even left Euston, only briefly surfacing as we rolled and rocked gently through sleeping England on the way north.

    Islay Festival

    Combined effort: It took a train, bus, ferry and 23 hours, but Broom finally made it to the Islay Festival

    The sleep was deep. In fact, as I woke up at 5am it felt like the most restful night I’d had in ages. Then I realised we had stopped. There was the blurred, echoing sound of a station announcement. ‘Must be Glasgow Central,’ I thought, ‘we’re early.’ I went back to sleep, waking 90 minutes later to the sound of a tearful guard and a somewhat irate fellow passenger outside. ‘We’re in Preston?!’ he was saying.

    ‘I’m sorry,’ she was replying, ‘but the power lines are down. Nothing’s moving north or south.’ Two-and-a-half hours later we are boarding an emergency coach to take us the three-and-a-half hours north to Glasgow. I’ve missed the connections, but there are other buses, other ferries. I’m in a better position than the lady next to me who is heading to Iona via Glasgow, Oban and Tobermory. She’s giving a presentation at a conference. First thing the next day. We start to talk, as you do when adversity throws you together.

    It’s funny how we unburden ourselves when the situation is right. You can sit next to the same person on a long-haul flight or train journey and not exchange a word. When an incident happens, however, all of that reserve goes out of the window and you form a group mentality which holds as long as the situation exists.

    So, as well as the intricacies of the Scottish transport system, we talk of things we’d normally never reveal to strangers – family, exams, children, where we stay, our lives, dreams. She works for Kairos, a Christian organisation that lobbies actively for peace and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.

    We chat about building communities and understanding, and how Iona was founded on such principles – communal living, discussing, meditating, eating and working together to gain a greater understanding and opening up possibilities. It’s why there are so many places with the Kil- prefix in the west: cells of communities of monks finding their desert, places to contemplate and plan new possibilties.

    England flattens out and leads into Scotland’s southern uplands, its hills festooned with wind farms. Maybe, I muse to my new friend, Nicola Sturgeon’s secret plan is to build so many of them that one day we undo the zip that binds us to England and we propel ourselves north-east to dock once more with Norway.

    Caledonian sleeper train

    Caledonian Sleeper: The sleeper train seemed like a good idea… until the power lines came down

    We part in Glasgow, steaming hot, people in flip-flops looking dazedly at the unfamiliar bright disc in the sky, and I wait for the bus to Kennacraig, a further three hours west – the land of dreamers.

    There’s the usual stop at Inveraray for a ‘comfort break’ as my American friends coyly put it. For me, that means the comfort of Loch Fyne Whiskies, a quick purchase of the Living Cask Batch 4, a tasting of a truly excellent cask strength Laphroaig, and then it’s on the bus and onwards.

    At Ardrishaig a quartet of ladies gets on, one talking loudly about dating and how hard it is these days. ‘Men just don’t chat you up any more,’ she complains. ‘It’s harder than ever to make friends.’ I’m not eavesdropping. I can hear this through the music on my headphones. There’s a sense of people falling apart.

    On the ferry, it binds once more. The Whisky Exchange crew are there with an (over)-laden van, the ferry a buzz of excitement from visitors and returning Ileachs, the familiar, reassuring CalMac smell of macaroni cheese and chips mingles with the Caol Ila Highball next to me.

    Tiredness is forgotten. It’s taken 23 hours to get here and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m home. On Islay. This festival is about whisky, for sure, but it is also about community – of the people making it and living here, and those who come to join them for this remarkable week.

  • Local doesn’t always mean better

    24 May 2017

    It’s not every day that you wake up, look out of your hotel window and see a rollercoaster opposite, and to the left a baseball stadium. There again, having a theme park, spa, stadium and hotel all together in the city centre seems a perfectly normal and rational thing for Tokyo. Things are done differently here.

    The stadium’s conference centre was the venue for this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show (TIBS), which itself morphed out of Whisky Live six years ago to embrace a new, wider-ranging Japanese bar culture. The geek fest of the whisky years has receded significantly, replaced by a more egalitarian (and noisy) approach.

    Nothing shows how far and how fast the Japanese bar scene is moving than the gin wars that broke out at the event. The Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi and a new variant KiNoTea (with added – and crazily expensive – tea from Uji), while Nikka weighed in with its new Coffey Gin and Vodka, made at Miyagikyo. Not to be outdone, Suntory chose the event to launch its new gin, Roku.

    Tokyo International Bar Show

    KiNoBi gin: Kyoto Distillery launched a limited edition Navy Strength KiNoBi gin at the show

    All are based on a mix of traditional botanicals with added Japanese elements: sansho pepper, red shiso, bamboo, hinoki, yuzu, kinome and gyokuro tea for KiNoBi. Coffey Gin combines a traditional botanical mix with distillates of sansho and a Japanese citrus mix of yuzu, kabishu, amanatsu (and apple); while Suntory adds sansho, yuzu, gyokuro, matcha, sakura leaf and blossom to its traditional base. When Hombo’s earthier WaBi (shell ginger, yuzu, gyukuro) is stirred in, you can see how Japanese gin has gone from nothing to a category – almost overnight.

    The key to all of these is the use of those local botanicals – and with such a diverse range of citrus alone, not to mention herbs and tea, this is a gin-maker’s paradise. They are there to give the gins identity and set them apart from the standard London Dry base.

    Japan is not alone. Northumberland’s Hepple uses botanicals grown on its estate – including juniper and Douglas fir, while the biosphere gin of Dyfi explores Welsh botanicals in a similar way to Norway’s Vidda, or the approach taken by California’s St George’s Terroir.

    There was an echo of this thinking in the chat I moderated between three of Japan’s newer whisky distilleries: Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak. All of the distillers agreed that they were still looking for their character, itself an understanding of the long-term nature of whisky. While gins can be brought to market (relatively) quickly, whisky makers have to sit and wait to see how the work done at new make stage then matures.

    Mars is looking at yeasts and roasts of barley; White Oak has completely re-evaluated its whisky making to try to make a lighter, and more gentle, style; while even Chichibu is still experimenting and focusing ever more heavily on the local: peat, barley – even wood – but, as brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa pointed out: ‘Only if it gives us quality. Local doesn’t automatically mean better.’

    Nikka Coffey Vodka

    New spirits: Nikka’s new Coffey Gin and Vodka are made at Miyagikyo

    This approach is echoed at newer builds such as Akkeshi on Hokkaido’s east coast, which aims to produce a 100% Akkeshi single malt whisky using local barley, peat and mizunara wood from local forests. Japanese barley is the ultimate aim for Shizuoka along with double, and partial triple, distillation. The climate is the main difference for Hombo’s new Tsunuki distillery in the southern city of Kagoshima, where the ambient temperature will have a significant impact on maturation. The local suddenly increases in its importance, but why is that unusual?

    While using local botanicals may seem logical for gin, in reality this is a spirit which sprang from the spice trade and has always been internationalist in approach. Whisky, however, started as a localised spirit whose ties have been slowly loosened – or, perhaps, overlooked. Even those apparently rootless creations, blends, were originally crafted to suit the tastes of their respective markets – the Glasgow palate being very different (and, inevitably, superior) to those of Edinburgh or London.

    Now those links with the immediate environment are being re-established. We are seeing it around the world and, while the ‘grain to glass’ tagline is often overused, there are indications that the shift is under way in Scotland as well. All single malt distilleries reflect their place – part of their individuality comes from how the template was devised hundreds of years ago, expertise, the availability of ingredients and their flavours, all the way down to the lactobacillus unique to that place. The local subtly guides character in the right direction.

    Finding character is as much about listening to those whisperings as it is about imposing a formula. The local is not about copying, or trying to force the issue (such as using tiny casks again). It is about taking your time, looking, tasting, reading and listening. Without having this understanding, you will struggle in tomorrow’s whisky world. 

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