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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Today’s whisky drinker deserves better

    06 February 2019

    Over many years of taking tasting sessions, I’ve begun to appreciate the format’s ability to unlock people’s personalities. Everything you have ever smelled is locked away in your memory; when an aroma leaps into focus, it comes with a context attached which reveals something about you to everyone else in the room.

    I remember a very quiet woman who found it hard to articulate what she was smelling – we’ve all been there – suddenly shouting ‘amyl nitrate!’ as her first public tasting note. To be fair, I didn’t push her as to why she knew what poppers smelled like (if only because it might have shown that I did…).

    Anyway, tasting in public, or with friends, becomes a little like a therapy session. We dredge up aromas which tell us – and the company – about where we are from, and what we like and dislike. Sharing it is good. Knowing your comfort zone and aversions is the only way in which you can start to navigate whisky and, who knows, maybe it helps you in other ways. Pour a dram, lie down on the couch, and tell me about yourself. I’m listening.

    Having a regular column is in some ways similar. It too allows you to work out some issues.

    Individual appeal: A whisky’s aroma is often linked to a person's memories and experiences (Photo: Jen Steele Photography)

    I come to this having finished tasting and then writing the next two weeks’ tasting notes (I hasten to add everything was spat out) and, as this is the day after, there’s no vestigial alcohol adding to my irritability.

    What is inflamed is (or was) my palate, as yet another cask-strength whisky seared its way down my oesophagus. It’s something which has bugged me for months, years maybe, and for some reason has bubbled to the top of the pile of things to grumble about. I’m allowed to. I’m old. 

    Don’t get me wrong. I see the attraction of cask strength (whatever it means). Whisky in its naked condition, no adulteration, no buggering about. Alcohol carries flavour, after all. Whiskies at 43% or 46% tend to have more depth than those bottled at 40%. That ideological purity does, on occasion, need to be tempered by common sense – namely, can you drink the bloody stuff without wincing?

    One of my maxims is that whisky is about pleasure, not about pain. If all you care about is the latter, then, well we are back to whisky revealing darker psychological secrets. Pop back on to the couch and tell me about your mother.

    Just add water, you say? I do as a matter of course, for the simple reason that it opens the whisky up and also reveals positives and negatives such as astringency or inactivity. That raw heat is coming from spirit which hasn’t been mellowed by air or wood. It is there because cask or time haven’t worked… yet.

    Adding water might cut the heat, but in the worst examples it doesn’t. It’s still there, nagging away at the back of the palate. The water exposes the whisky, confirming what the neat tasting suggested: it’s not balanced. Reducing bottling strength wouldn’t have worked either, because that balance doesn’t exist.

    Some high-strength whiskies will mellow and improve with some water, but that is because they have an inherent balance and complexity. Water opens up what the alcohol has obscured when it’s tasted neat. You cannot, however, open up something which isn’t there.

    So, the question is, why bottle it? I know that one person’s ‘vibrancy’ can be another’s ‘immaturity’, but rushing to bottling just because you have the cask makes little commercial sense. We are inundated with whisky, be it Scotch or from the rest of the world.

    The result is that the quality bar has been (or should have been) set higher. The days of bottling whatever came along have surely gone. Now there are plenty of quality alternatives.

    Shaky foundations: Is ‘innovation’ used to mask mediocre or immature whisky?

    Immature? Hang on to it, blend it – that vibrancy can be useful in a vatting. Oh, and don’t think that a quick dunk into an active cask for a short period of finishing will sort it out. It won’t. You’ll just get an immature whisky with wine on top of it. That’s not what finishing is meant to be about.

    The lofty principles revolved around looking carefully at the distillery character of a mature spirit and then using a short time in an active cask to spin the flavours in a new and harmonious direction, adding complexity which complemented and, perhaps, subtly contrasted with the original. It’s not a way of covering up – and yet it still happens.

    Neither should finishing be seen as innovative. It might have been in the 1990s (or earlier), but we’ve moved on. And don’t fob me off with starting in ex-Sherry then finishing in ex-Bourbon. That’s not innovation, that’s desperation.

    Although innovation is the most misused word in Scotch, it is needed. Things must always move forward, while being cognisant of the past (in fact, with a keen eye on what might have been the norm decades ago, which could be revived and reinterpreted). It can take years for innovation to pay off – Glenmo’s yeast work proves that.

    Balance, complexity, character. The three-legged stool, the foundation, the three words that should always be thrumming away at the back of the mind. If they’re not there, then go back, rework, rethink and blend, because there’s always a new opportunity.

    In a world which will soon be awash with whisky, the standard has to be higher. We, the drinkers, deserve it.

    Good. Can I get off the couch now?

  • How can a whisky be worth $60,000?

    25 January 2019

    Into the warehouse, enveloped by the time-infused smell of dunnage, all bung cloth, damp earth and whisky-steeped wood. Someone should bottle it. (©DB Unlikely Ideas 2019). Hands clamped to ice-cold glasses, the aromas reluctant to move, grumpy at being disturbed after 72 years of slumber.

    It’s pale, paler than you expect – a good thing for a whisky of this age. Less oak, more oxygen. It flickers into life (see my official tasting notes to find out how), revealing how the years have not just been about slow absorption, but also a steady peeling away, so that concentration and opening are revealed as part of the same thing. The Lalique decanter skims the cask end, its gentle flow a dramatic contrast to the skyscraper thrusts of the rest of the series.

    It was A Moment. No question about that. I know that this is the only time I’ll taste it. Sniff gently and wet the lips. I’ve noticed that time seems to stop for a second when I taste a spirit of this age, whether it’s Black Bowmore, some pre-phylloxera Cognac, or this Macallan, the oldest whisky released by the distillery. There’s a pause, a mental gasp, as the mind gets to grips not just with the flavours, but with all which has happened since the cask was filled.

    Time capsule: Macallan 72 Year Old in Lalique – The Genesis Decanter is representative of another era

    Moon landings, wars, summers of love, new ways of communication, changes in climate. This was made the same year Dolly Parton, Sly Stallone, Syd Barrett and, er, Donald Trump were born.

    They put you in a different place, these whiskies. Even if they don’t work, even if they are too astringent and tannic, they speak to you, of men you will never meet, a time you have never seen; messages in bottles which have only now reached a distant shore. You know you are blessed to be in this job at this moment.

    The tasting was the culmination of a day which had started with Highland cows posing as if in some Landseer painting, a smirr over the Spey as we go into the fishing hut for drams and warmth.

    It had been a chance to get my head around the new Macallan and the way it flows across the estate from the river, to the cows and barley on the farm beside the hummocks of the new distillery, then rising up to the earth-brown warehouses. Water, to earth, to air. It’s a self-contained world, a Macallan world, or rather a world created by Macallan, culminating in a distillery which looks, and sometimes behaves, more like a modern art gallery: the Scottish equivalent of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but with the equipment still left in. I’m inside it now, glass in hand, still inhaling, the whisky now starting to open in the warmth. What would the guys have made of all of this?

    What were they thinking in 1946 as the distillery sputtered back into life, still with barley rations, still using peat? Optimistic, or stunned by conflict? Was the stillman thinking of being home or on the Front when he was making the cut; did the mashman see fallen friends when the tun was being filled?

    Changing landscape: Those that worked at Macallan in the 1940s wouldn’t recognise the distillery today

    What was in the mind of the warehouseman as he filled the casks, sending them off to blenders and merchants, to be opened who knows when? Family, love, the morning dram? It’s unlikely to be what might happen in seven decades time. But in a world in the process of renewal there were some constants: the barley would be sown, the salmon would run and whisky would be made. Distilling as an attempt to regain normality.

    Reality crashes back in as the conversation restarts. There’s 600 decanters we’re told. Each will cost US$60,000.

    We might never get used to prices like that, but they are becoming more familiar, part of whisky’s evolution, the next pool in the river, the next leap of faith (or hope). I can never quite be inured to the fact that a bottle can cost twice the average yearly wage, the same price as a car, or a luxury watch.

    I try to rationalise it via the latter. I can appreciate the craft in its construction, but the time is the same whether you are looking at a Swatch, phone, computer clock or a Patek Philippe. A fine watch doesn’t qualify you for better time. I do, however, understand why they are collectible and beautiful pieces of functional art. You want to spend US$60,000 on a watch? Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

    Why then is there this niggle about whisky playing in the same realm? It isn’t simply that nothing is worth that, because these decanters will sell, proving some people clearly think they are.

    Is it because whisky is something I care about, because, once, I could afford pretty much all of it and now resent that some is (way) beyond my reach? Could it be because it’s evidence of whisky getting a bit uppity? That last one’s a very Scottish reaction. There’s a saying here, ‘I kent his faither’ (translation: ‘I knew his father’, meaning the father was better, yet made no fuss about it).

    Saying that, however, also suggests that whisky shouldn’t exist in this domain, a peasant with his mucky boots, sitting at a table in a three-Michelin star restaurant. Why shouldn’t it? Bugger that. Bring me the tasting menu, thank you garçon. There’s your beginner’s guide to the contradictory nature of the Scottish psyche.

    Spey fishing: Broom finds life’s most valuable moments aren’t always anchored in luxury

    In other words, I’m conflicted. Not resentful, but not wholly accepting. Maybe I can’t get my head around it because it is impossible to assess a whisky at this price in a normal way. Can you ever say anything is worth US$60,000 if you’ve never had that amount of money to spend? Strangely, it’s easier to assess whiskies at £3,000 than it is when they are 10 or 20 times that amount. This exists in its own bubble. 72 years, 400 litres in total, Lalique, amazing packaging. Why not US$60,000?

    And yet, when I look back at the day, it’s not just that moment of time stopping then scrolling backwards as a remarkable liquid touched my lips; it’s also standing by the Spey, a dram of 12-year-old, talking about fishing with the ghillie.

    The river flows, changes, yet stays a constant. You need that in whisky, that anchor to place and people. You might have a 72-year-old, but you need the 12 even more. I’ve sat at the top table and loved it. I’m back at the river, with mud on my boots, and am happier there.

  • Industry woes brought new era to whisky

    16 January 2019

    I was concerned that you might consider last week’s account of my early days in whisky as evidence of how badly run the trade was in those days. The thoughts of long, boozy lunches scratch and itch like a new tweed suit against our 21st century sensibilities of how business transactions should be undertaken. In my experience, you discover the best (and worst) of people over lunch. We should do more of them, not less. I have four planned this month.

    I began to realise over the years, that the conversations which took place away from the setting of the formal interview was what mattered. Yes, it was off the record, ‘Chatham House rules, old boy’, I was told once to my complete bafflement, but it didn’t mean that the comment couldn’t be discreetly mentioned without attribution, or the lead followed up. Names would be mentioned, connections made. The liquid web which held the whisky world together was slowly being revealed. Trust was being gained.

    What was clear was that things were changing fast. Glasgow’s docks were empty, the sheds falling to bits, rustling with the ghosts of dockers, the scent of the millions of casks drifting away into the smoggy air. It wasn’t just whisky which had left. The shipyards were shuttered, the steel furnaces dampened, car plants closed. The city felt hollowed out. All of my friends had fled like me, a new generation of economic migrants. There was nothing for us here – or that was the feeling.

    Bygone era: Glasgow’s Queen’s Dock was once busy with whisky casks waiting to be shipped

    Yet over those lunches a rearguard action was being plotted. ‘Whisky is a long-term business’ I was told on a regular basis, though I’m not sure if anyone thought it would take as long as it did to turn things around.

    It would be wrong to think of them as fossils or the remnants of the generation who screwed it up. They were whisky men*. Casks and stills, and the echo of dunnage warehouses, were in their blood. They knew Jerez as well as Govan. Many had worked their way up from shop floor to boardroom. They were exploring new routes out of the mess. Not all worked – some were dreadful dead-ends – but the intention was there.

    Which is how I ended up on the banana.

    There was this new thing called single malt, you see. Well, it wasn’t that new, but it seemed to be what everyone from retailers to producers were beginning to talk about. For all the brave words, blends were in a death spiral of discounting. No-one in my generation was drinking them. Single malt, on the other hand, was untainted.

    Hence the banana.

    It was sitting there in Loch Indaal behind a speedboat. We waded out and sat astride it. A strange crew. A few trade hacks, a couple of supermarket buyers, and the executive branch of Morrison Bowmore, including a young bloke called Kenny MacKay and a chap called Jim McEwan

    Riding the wave: A wild banana boat ride (example pictured above) became a metaphor for whisky’s resilience

    The speedboat headed off like the clappers in the general direction of Kintyre. We clung on, awaiting the inevitable swerve which, when it came, flipped us into the water. We got on again. The same thing happened. I remember thinking that there was probably a metaphor somewhere in this – fill it in yourself dear reader.

    It was just a laugh and that was the most remarkable thing about the whole experience. This wasn’t the whisky world of declining sales and closed stills. This was whisky saying, you know, you can have fun. Whisky’s problems were far from over, but something had shifted. Retailers, distillers and writers were working together, trying to hold on to an inflatable banana and when they were pitched off, they got straight back on. Told you there was a metaphor.

    It was also the start of another set of conversations, not just over lunches with the marketing teams, but with distillers and blenders. The whisky men who had been hidden away, the ones with secrets and answers and tall tales, the ones who would take me on a new journey. Lunches would be involved. 

    *I use the term advisedly. This was still very much a male environment.

  • Whisky’s changing times and fortunes

    09 January 2019

    It would have been around 30 years ago this week when I was sent on my first trip to Scotland to write about whisky. Blended whisky to be specific. I’d started at Off Licence News in the November and had spent the intervening period learning how to use an electric typewriter, learn the style sheet, write news stories (‘read the press release, disbelieve it and phone up the PR to get the real story’) and attend wine tastings. Now it was time to break me into features.

    ‘You’re Scottish, eh?’ You could almost hear the gears shifting in my editor’s mind.

    ‘Dave, do you think you might like to write the blended feature for this year?’ It was more of an order than a topic for discussion, but he was a kindly man. I said yes.

    ‘Here’s the list of people in Glasgow to see – you can sort out what time suits each. Try and fit in Perth as well, OK? We’ll sort out the flight and the hotel.’

    Flight? For years, any trip home had been by overnight bus, train or hitching. This would be luxury. Hotel? That would necessitate some fast thinking to get past my mother.

    Big business: Broom recalls whisky meetings in grand offices like Teachers’ in Glasgow

    So it was that I found myself at 10:45am on a dank January morning standing in West Nile Street to meet with Lang Bros. I was taken past a room where two men in white coats were heads down over a bench of glasses, and up to the offices. The details of the interview are long forgotten. What happened next remains vivid.

    We’d chatted around my questions for about an hour before my victim looked at his watch and said something along the lines of, ‘what about a dram? I think we’ve earned it.’ We went through to another room, the drinks cabinet was opened, a decanter was extracted, and hefty drams splashed into cut glass tumblers. Lunch followed, washed down with rather excellent wines. A farewell dram, a handshake and I found myself out on the pavement blinking in the afternoon light in a somewhat dazed condition. Thank Christ I was in the hotel and not at my mother’s.

    I now realised why the trip was so prolonged. Every interview started at 11:00am because, well, lunch would have to be taken and no-one would want to discuss business after that (if they were capable of it). It was taken in Teacher’s magnificent building in St Enoch Square, and then at Matthew Gloag’s appropriately monikered HQ, Bordeaux House.

    I seem to recall (allow me some latitude dear reader, some of the memories are understandably hazy) that one firm – I think Whyte & Mackay – also threw in a dinner in one of Glasgow’s old-school Italian establishments, places I would come to appreciate over the years, where Business Was Done.

    Merry meals: Restaurants like Rogano were once centres of whisky discussions

    I also learned that lunchtime was the time for gossip and discussion, all of which was off the record and therefore contained all of the information which had been withheld during the interview. I discovered which other firms were in (apparent) trouble, their strategies would be dissected, scurrilous rumours spread, my insights (not that I had any) sought, then invitations would be issued to come and visit distilleries, and have lunch again next time I was up – or they were down.

    It was, I soon realised, the ending of an era. Sales were crashing, prices were being slashed, and mergers were underway. I think back with hindsight to the men (and they were all men) with their tumblers and wine glasses, their avuncular airs and clubbable talk; of how after laughing and yarning over lunch they would have returned to their offices, locked the door, looked at the sales figures and started to weep. No wonder they needed a lunchtime dram.

    Within the next two years our coverage had shifted from blends to single malt. The lunches continued for a good few years, but as the old guard retired, so mineral water replaced the drams, then phone calls took the place of the face-to-face interview, before e-mailed answers filleted of content by zealous PRs became the norm.

    What I remember most, three decades on, is how they all welcomed this skinny kid in his badly-fitting suit, poured him drams, answered his naïve questions and over lunches brought him into the world of whisky.

  • Could whisky become the drink of 2019?

    02 January 2019

    A new year (and I trust it will be a happy one dear reader) means that it is time to rip the entrails from the twitching corpse of last year’s whisky world and divine what might occur. 

    I should be happy because others better versed in this form of haruspicy are saying that 2019 is going to be a good year for whisky, with it (and that means all whiskies, not just Scotch) being tipped as the spirit to watch.

    There’s certainly a buzz about it in the on-trade, while mentions in the press and on air seem to be more frequent and less negative. I doubt that we’ll see a gin-like boom, but there does seem to have been a shift in mindset.

    Whisky cocktails: Save the Old Fashioned for the bar – the star at home will be the Highball

    Scotch and Irish whisky serves seem to be shaking free of the proscriptive edict that ‘thou shalt not add water’, something which is, I’m sure we’ll agree, A Good Thing. I do wonder however whether responding to the question ‘how should you drink whisky?’ with ‘any way you want’ is too glib. Rather than the Crowleyan ‘do what you wilt’, perhaps the new(er) drinker could benefit from having more practical options.

    The Highball would still seem to be the most sensible of these. It works in terms of flavour, and ticks a whole number of boxes: a simple whisky and soda is refreshing, and is low in alcohol and sugar.

    It is also easy to make at home, which is important at a time when pubs and bars are seeing a decline in trade. Few folk make whisky cocktails at home, so even if you choose an Old Fashioned or Penicillin when you, occasionally, visit a bar, it’s unlikely that either will become the go-to beverage when you’re back on the sofa, baffies [slippers, Ed] on, watching Poirot. The Highball just might bridge both occasions.

    It might also help with the issue of Generation Z’s drinking habits. Are the new generation of consumers drinking less but better, or just less? I’m ancient enough to recall how, in the ‘80s, fears that whisky was entering a catastrophic decline as Generation X turned towards vodka would be airily dismissed.

    ‘Their palates will mature,’ I was told on a regular basis, ‘and until they do, we should concentrate on our core drinkers.’ As we know, they stayed with the vodka and the core drinkers died.

    The situation may be different now – that goodwill towards whisky does seem to exist – but finding ways to engage with a generation which isn’t drinking should be uppermost in whisky execs’ minds. Why aren’t they drinking? Is it health, serve, flavour… or earnings? Real wages are falling in the UK and the US, debt is rising, and people are going out less. It’s another trend which producers should take into account when considering whether to hike prices ever further.

    Changing climes: Locality and environmental practices can give whisky a stronger market presence

    The importance of the local will also become increasingly relevant. I don’t mean the pub, but the growing interest in provenance and sustainability. The latest gin craze has not only allowed whisky distillers to start exploring whisky’s long-forgotten botanical side (something which will continue this year), but made the concept of a local distillery a familiar one.

    It’s helped to shift the belief that whisky could only be made in Scotland (and more precisely the Highlands and Islands), Ireland, Canada, Kentucky, Tennessee and Japan to one where it can come from anywhere.

    The powerful pull of the local taps into this, which should benefit the large number of newer distilleries releasing their first mature (legal) product in 2019, though there is a caveat: any goodwill felt towards the newcomer will soon cool if the quality of the spirit is not up to scratch. Shelves and back bars are not made of elastic, money is tight and competition is growing. If the new distiller has to charge more, then the quality of the spirit on offer needs to justify the price tag. Being small, or new is no longer sufficient. The other side of whisky’s growing popularity is that people know what’s good – and what isn’t. 

    The importance of the local will also see some distillers (though probably not enough) continuing with a deepening examination of place and what it gives in terms of understanding grains, food culture and history, and how all of these could then impact on flavour.

    It is a major philosophical shift in thinking which asks the question whether 21st century whisky is an industrial product or an agricultural one. Maybe that should be agri-cultural.

    We concentrate on the end product, the liquid in the bottle and its production process, when the focus should be at the start: what goes into the soil. In actuality, we should be thinking about the soil itself.

    Dealing with climate change should be behind every major decision we all make. Whisky can play a small but significant role in this not just by reducing emissions and becoming more energy efficient, but also by creating new connections with agriculture, which itself needs a radical overhaul in order to stop soil degradation and boost biodiversity.

    Any practices which can be pioneered within whisky (or beer) which can benefit the soil, boost small-scale profitable farming and help feed people, as well as give us all the bonus of an alcoholic treat, will be a true legacy. Maybe it will start in 2019.

  • Whisky’s future lies in the everyday

    25 December 2018

    ‘So what’s going to be new for whisky next year, Dave?’ Alice asked me the other day. Given I had a glass of Madeira in front of me (and the remnants of a rather toothsome Rhone) you might have thought I had already abnegated any rights to comment, but it was a valid enough question. As writers – which Alice also is – we are hardwired to be dissatisfied with the norm, junkies seeking the next thrill, clambering over each other to be the one to catch the next wave just before it forms.

    ‘I don’t know,’ I answered truthfully, ‘but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Although there’s plenty going on in terms of flavour development, maybe it isn’t what’s next or new, but looking at what we have now and seeing how it will evolve.’

    She gave me a rather old-fashioned look, clearly believing I was just prevaricating. I continued, ‘rather than looking for the new, perhaps it’s best to look at the occasion – where and when whisky’s being served, how it’s being drunk and by whom and then make whisky a part of people’s lives. That doesn’t need something new – we have Highballs, we have cocktails, we have the liquid. It’s the context that needs to be looked at.’ I had another gulp of Madeira.

    Top spot: Whiskies vie for space on the floor-to-ceiling shelves at The Ben Nevis in Glasgow

    Her question nagged away at me, and over the next few days I began to think back about where I’d been drinking over the year, not just the high-end bars which you probably think are the only places I haunt, but the pubs (or dives as our North American cousins quaintly call them) as well. Of being ankle-deep in discarded peanut shells in a pitch-black bar in Victoria, BC talking about music with Mike Nicolson, that impromptu singing session in Wanaka, the late-night craziness of Melbourne’s Hats & Tatts.

    There was that late, late night when I was hunched over the bar clutching a Dewar’s and soda, rambling to the barkeep in New York’s Ear (which was once called the Bear before the B fell off the sign) as old-timey music played behind me, or hungover as hell the day after, sorting myself at McSorleys with fellow hacks, around a table full of beer mugs and cracker shards.

    Or the summer spent filming in Scotland, which could also be considered a four-month pub crawl, that brought me back to Glasgow’s Old Toll, Laurieston, the Pot Still, Ben Nevis and Heraghty’s, as well as the afternoon calm of Edinburgh’s Kay’s. There were early morning drams in Bennet’s listening to the Furrow Collective singing temperance songs, or chatting about literature and music with Ian Rankin over drams and pints in The Abbotsford and the splendour of the Cafe Royal.

    Way-back when: Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal offers grand interiors with a nod to its heritageAll places where time stopped and conversation flowed, usually at times of the day where people relax and open their minds and hearts. Whisky times. Or rather, times where whisky seems appropriate, where it can play a role. That’s the context.

    The question is whether whisky is trying to play there. Is the whisky trade so obsessed with image and the top end that it’s missing the late-night spots, the quiet afternoon sessions, the places around the world where its drinkers, existing and potential, go to sing and laugh, cry and swear?

    I think back to sitting on plastic chairs in African shebeens with a bottle in front of me, to whisky-fuelled Taiwanese karaoke bars, and Japanese izakaya with half pints of ice-cold Highballs, of lazy Susans spinning in China, to bottles and ice buckets in Tunisia, or drams in a hot tub in the Arctic. Whisky adapts itself to all of these. It’s a shape-shifter.

    Widespread appeal: Victorian decor combined with over 150 whiskies makes Bennets in Edinburgh a cosy establishmentIt’s this malleability which is the key. Everywhere whisky has touched down it’s been absorbed in some way and adapted itself to fit, and yet it’s these occasions which are rarely mentioned. Rather than being something to learn from, they are ignored. Yet, they are the contexts which should be explored. It’s as if the industry has only chosen the choicest cut of meat and ignored the seething, reeking offal where true satisfaction resides.

    It’s appropriate to talk about food because in all of these contexts whisky has become part of the food culture. What we eat tells a story about place and people, and so does drink. It too is an element in the poetry of our lives, yet you wonder if whisky has forgotten this, that in the desire to elevate its reputation its role, its function, its qualities, its evolution and its sheer democratic nature has been pushed to the side.  

    It’s time to learn from the dives and shebeens, the pubs, bothies and bars where whisky is quite simply enjoyed without pretension.

    Have a splendid Christmas dear reader.

  • Whisky’s Chinese paradox

    19 December 2018

    On the road again to another gig. Another grey and blue dawn. Mountain tops above the clouds. Below, a vast grey city.

    Yesterday it was Xiamen, before that Beijing, Fuzhou and Quanzhou; now it’s on to Guangzhou, with a trip to Dongguan because you might as well when you’re in the neighbourhood. Six cities, six days talking whisky all the way. I can do it.

    Thinking of last night and the visit to the late-night noodle joint, which is naturally where you head after a 10-course meal and a nightcap or three. It’s a considerably healthier option than a kebab.

    Our way in was blocked by a dog which had pulled a pair of pants from the washing line and was playing with them. We laughed. Thought little more about it. There were noodles to eat and, anyway, we hadn’t finished talking about other things, such as how does Scotch break into China in a meaningful way? It was the time of night when the big questions tend to emerge.

    China is facing the same issues as any market. Who are the potential drinkers, where do they drink, what do they drink, how do they drink it, and how then can whisky align with them? Sounds simple.

    Dog days: Scotch must disrupt the Chinese market for a meaningful impactI’m thinking about the dog. In fact, I’m obsessing about it. I have a tendency to look for metaphors and allegories everywhere. It’s one of the pressures of writing a column, or maybe the belief that, if everything is connected, then you can draw a line between any two points. The combination of jet lag, early mornings and late nights has resulted in a somewhat deranged state, so forgive me gentle reader (I always assume there’s only one of you) as I tease this one out.

    Is the dog whisky? If so, what do the pants represent? Maybe the shock of a dog eating pants is like Scotch disrupting the baijiu-dominated Chinese market.

    I think back to the last meal. Food and spirits are inextricably linked in China, but not the ‘whisky dinner’ contrivances of the West. Spirits are seen as the natural accompaniment to an occasion which is about bonding, networking, hosting, socialising and in this case, teaching in a light way about Scotch.

    The number of courses and the continual toasting means that your glass is regularly drained (fear not reader, the measures are small and the consumption responsible, just don’t tell my doctor). No sooner is it emptied than it’s refilled and the toasting continues.

    I start to think of the girls doing this as whisky angels, following me no matter where I am, silently topping me up. As my friend Jasmine pointed out, ‘angels don’t take whisky here, they give’.

    What do they think of the laughter and rising volume of the conversation? They pass no comment, just open another bottle. Be careful with the angels, they control your destiny.

    Given the central role of the meal in terms of socialising and the focus within the event on spirits, can Scotch subtly begin to promote itself as the ideal accompaniment, and shift the thinking from a bottle, to a bottle of a specific brand?

    The dog chews on the pants on the doorstep of the noodle bar.

    Angels’ share: Always on standby, armed with a never-ending supply of whisky 

    Maybe the dog is me and the pants are my confusion over this piece. Maybe it is Scotch, the pants are opportunity, and the noodle bar is China.

    I put this to the angels. They stay silent.

    Every conversation circles back to this question: how to move things forward? It floats above the cigar smoke, Negronis and the one last bottle of malt. The answer seems tantalisingly close, yet remains unresolved.

    The dog worries away.

    The strategy has been to build Scotch’s presence from the top down. Get a whisky seen as being rare, precious, collectable (and expensive) and its prestige will ripple down. The first element is working. There are Glenfarclas single casks galore, Macallan is betting heavily on the top end, Balvenie is building its rep, while Diageo is combining a prestige strategy with a countrywide, category-based education campaign [full disclosure: I help out on this campaign].

    The dog’s still there, outside the noodle bar.

    The angels say nothing. Top up my glass.

    Maybe that’s one of the issues. Scotch is too busy gnawing away at the problem of how to get into the noodle bar, when the door is already open. Just walk in.

    Perfect match: In China, spirits are seen as a natural accompaniment to a meal

    The downside of the top-down strategy is that little has rippled down. Whisky is exclusive, thank you very much, but there is a gap between the top-end malts and entry-level expressions, which also manifests itself as a split between the well-off, usually older, drinker and the younger generation – the very people who need to start drinking Scotch.

    The dog’s still there. The angels smile in an enigmatic way. 

    It’s not an either-or option, just two different conversations. Scotch needs to build volume and that won’t come from selling 20-year-old single malt. The work starts not just in restaurants but in bars, be they in Shanghai, Beijing or places like Xiamen’s Bumper Bar, where owner JoJo rocks out fantastic cocktails while also having SMWS and Compass Box front and centre.

    Next door to the same city’s Fiddich Bar (classic cocktails and/or single malt a speciality), hidden behind the shelving of a convenience store, is a speakeasy. It’s rammed with potential whisky drinkers, but Scotch is nowhere to be seen. How do you get through that door? I ask the angels. They pass no comment, just quietly top up my glass.

    I look round.

    The dog has wandered off.

  • Texture’s vital role in whisky tasting

    05 December 2018

    I’m sitting there looking at the duck’s flipper on the plate in front of me. The first question buzzing in my brain is why? Judging by the reaction of my fellow diners, I’m on my own when it comes to considering the appendage a somewhat unusual addition to a dinner. After a week in China I thought I was inured to such arrivals, but every meal brings a new surprise.

    ‘Don’t ever ask what it is,’ old China hands have told me, ‘just eat it.’ But this is clearly a flipper and the question is still why? (although the supplementary how? is rapidly pushing it out of the way). Judging by my companions’ actions you just pick it up and bite.

    Someone appears at my side. He’s holding a glass. Time for a toast. I stand up, we clink glasses and drain the whisky. I’m secretly hoping that he strikes up a conversation and the flipper will be whisked away and the next course set down. No chance. It’s still there.

    I pick it up and bite. To be honest, there’s not much flavour, bar soy. The texture however is exactly what you expect. Chicken feet are crunchy. Duck flippers are… well… flippery. It’s a cultural thing.

    Unique nose: Our perception of an aroma is based on our own personal experiences

    Each of us interprets the world in different ways because our experiences are so varied. Upbringing, culture, preferences and aversions all impact how we read and speak about our experiences. Because of this, no two people will describe an aroma in the same way.

    The downside of this is that trying to understand what someone means when they describe an aroma is akin to cracking a code. If we all say different things for the same smell — I smell a clean hamster cage in this glass, you smell porridge — then how can we reach some type of consensus, or understanding? We are both correct, but how do we understand what the other is saying?

    One way is by creating an agreed terminology. My hamster cages and your bowl of porridge both mean ‘malty’. It’s a step in the right direction, while also reinforcing the point that you must trust your own nose.

    Having this shared nomenclature is important, especially as we’re told that nosing a whisky is the most important element within ‘tasting’. Given this, there’s little surprise, then, that Richard Paterson’s conk is insured for US$1 million, just like Kim Kardashian’s arse (I apologise for the image this has created in your mind).

    Sacred snifter: Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson's nose is allegedly insured for more than US$1 million

    ‘The nose knows’ makes sense if you are assessing a huge number of whiskies, but it’s a line which, I think, downplays the importance of the palate.

    The same issues over language still apply in the mouth, because there we are dealing not just with smell but with taste, and specifically the fusing of those two senses into the thing we call flavour. There is however another sense which we overlook, that of touch.

    A whisky doesn’t give all its secrets up at the same time. It develops and changes on the nose and in the mouth. What appears at the start of the tongue is different in the middle, and changes again at the end. There’s a journey, a narrative, and texture’s role in this is hugely significant — if underappreciated.

    I’ve found out over the years that while smell is cultural (and therefore hard to translate), our sense of textures are shared. We will use different words to describe aroma and flavour, but we’ll agree about the whisky’s texture and the shape it makes in the mouth. It can be thin and sharp, or it can fatten in the middle of the tongue. It can whizz along, or slowly coat the mouth. We concur when smoke emerges, or at what point tannins grip.

    If you ignore texture, you lose a significant element of the whisky’s story. Within texture lies a way to discover a common language. By thinking and talking about feel and shape, we can discuss more easily how things evolve on the palate.

    That flipper now makes more sense. Asian cuisines always take texture into consideration. Foods are eaten not just because of their flavour, but because of complementary and opposing textures: soft, rigid, pliant, gluey and slippery. They are there to give the senses something else to think about, and to add to the overall balance of a meal. It’s the same in whisky. Being aware of feel and the way things change in shape, are both things we can share. Allow them to flow.

    Now… back to the flipper.

  • How to ‘not taste’ whisky

    21 November 2018

    It’s the same every week. There’s work to be done. So, I pour them out, cover them, wait, and then get started. Don’t rush, take your time, don’t force it – trying to nail that elusive aroma that’s on the tip of your nose often ends up with you falling over from inhaling too many fumes. It’s never good to collapse during a tasting. Learned that the hard way. It’s a routine, but a pleasant one.

    Yes there should ideally be silence and no intrusive aromas, sounds etc. providing you with a sensory blank slate for the tastes and flavours to emerge. Simple really. Why then is it so hard?

    Why does it work some days and not others? Why do the aromas fly out and hit you when you go through the same ritual, at the same time of day. It seems like the same conditions – but of course the conditions have changed because you are not the same today as you were yesterday. So you do the best you can and work at it, steadily.

    Zen approach: Focus, analyse, but simultaneously relax into ‘not tasting’ (Photo: Proof on Main)

    Concentrate, focus, you bugger. Go through the flight, get the initial impressions, go back, and compare one whisky against the others. Then go back again and compare another against the rest, but in a different order. Repeat. Write it all down.

    Then taste neat. Think about texture, taste again, now work out how the flavours emerge across the tongue, what’s the structure, is it balanced, what happens on the finish, what can you tell about wood, maturity or oxidation, what of the distillery character, the positives, and faults? There are so many permutations. What’s the story, what’s the whisky trying to tell you about itself? Concentrate. Focus. Write. Rest. Add water, repeat. Rest. Repeat.

    It’s revealing, it is necessary, but it is unnatural. You find yourself thinking about the mechanics of tasting: form, structure, aromas, acidity, fruit, complexity, balance. Boxes to tick. It’s at times like this that I wonder whether all this talk of sensory evaluation and tasting techniques are just putting more barriers between the whisky and the drinker.

    I have to be uncharacteristically methodical in this, but while I’m concentrating I also realise that I’m also stopping thinking about what I am experiencing and am thinking instead of what the next box on the ticklist of techniques has to be. I’m thinking about the ‘tasting’, and not the whisky.

    Recently though, I’ve done the session, covered the glass, walked off, and returned later. There’ll be music on, as I sit down again and sip. I’m not thinking about ‘tasting’ anymore, but relaxing with a dram. And, you know what? New things emerge, hidden qualities appear. I’ve been so busy thinking about how to untie the knots and find the secrets that I’ve missed the heart. It’s not drinking, rather it’s ‘not tasting’ which, unsurprisingly perhaps, sounds somewhat Zen.

    Hang on Dave, you say (and not unreasonably, as I said it to myself just a moment ago), isn’t that just drinking? Not really. Drinking is when the whisky is part, an important part, but nonetheless just a part, of a wider experience. During the drinking you may suddenly taste, but tasting isn’t the main purpose.

    ‘Not tasting’ happens when you’ve allowed the technique to slip into the background, leaving just you, and the whisky, and the moment. I suppose that the ultimate aim is to have the focus there, but simultaneously not worry about it and relax into ‘not tasting’. The analytical side is important, but never at the expense of the enjoyment. It’s there in front of you. Just be open and aware.

  • Storytelling brings whisky to life

    07 November 2018

    As my friend, the recently departed Nick Faith, told me many times, ‘remember, dear boy, we deal in higher level bullshit. Higher level, always.’ I laughed the first time he told me; then wondered quite what he meant. Shouldn’t we, as writers, always be telling the truth and avoid bullshit? Maybe it was just said with a hefty dose of self-deprecation.

    Nick, to the best of my knowledge, never dealt in the world of fantasy. His books on Cognac are masterpieces of accuracy, the same for his work on wine, or trains, but he balanced the facts within the frame of a good story. His writing was never dry. He was a master of self-deprecation though.

    Nick had also mentored me during my time as a judge on spirits competitions. ‘Dear boy,’ he said to me on one memorable evening when I was the last to leave the building, ‘I just realised that we still have to do cream liqueurs and advocaat. Fancy giving me a hand?’ That’s why the rest had turned tail so quickly. I don’t believe that a drop of a cream liqueur has passed my lips since that day.

    The Storyteller: Nick Faith always dealt in facts, framed within entertaining anecdotes

    Along with other spiritous luminaries greater than I, we were part of an eccentric bunch of educators called Taste & Flavour, led by our ringmaster Mark Ridgwell. It was in those sessions of competitive judging – yes even of cream liqueurs – and listening to him holding forth on Cognac that I got to understand about the importance of balance and authenticity, but also about having a wryly cynical eye on the machinations of companies, and the importance of story-telling, because it is through the last that we make connections. That self-deprecation is important as well. No-one can be judge and jury on all spirits. Best to deflate any thoughts that that might be the case early on.

    I began to realise that Nick’s ‘higher level’ didn’t mean being inaccurate, or deceptive, or plain wrong. That’s plain bullshit (and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that recently). Higher level was totally different. It meant to enter the world of story-telling, of making people laugh with you, at you, and engaging with them.

    Working in this higher level means you can weave in the tall tales, the people, the heritage, the rootedness of it all because that is what people, I think at least, are interested in. Who are the best presenters in whisky? The ones who tell stories. Here’s a case in point.

    Pillars of Islay: Jackie Thomson, Georgie Crawford and Lynne McEwan brought their island home to life through story

    Recently, I had the honour of moderating (because I am moderate in all things – apart from excess) a class at The Whisky Show between Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin, Lynne McEwan of Bruichladdich, and Jackie Thomson of Ardbeg. They were, rightly, insistent that it was to be a relaxed conversation about Islay by women who, in Georgie’s words, ‘love the work we do, the place we do it, and the people we do it with’. It was agreed that any mention of ‘women in whisky’ would result in the questioner being ejected from the room.

    The whiskies – which were amazing – became props on a wide-ranging, often hilarious, and also emotionally engaging and touching 90 minutes where Islay and its people took centre stage. They talked about each other’s drams, told tales and showed how community is at the heart of whisky. As a result, the drams shone with a new relevance. 

    Dealing solely with hard facts reduces whisky to a list of processes and chemical compounds. You can read the scientific papers on those (and I do) but it misses the point because whisky-making isn’t just about strike temperatures and seeding rates, grind ratios and speed of flow. While all of that is necessary to make the whisky, the same information is used to create something which communicates and connects on a different, higher, level. And that, I realise, is part of what Nick meant. Find what you enjoy at this moment. Raise a glass. Have faith.

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