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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Let’s start treating whisky as an ecology

    10 July 2019

    I was wondering quite what that noise was in the thorn bush. I half-expected to see a giraffe poke its head out of the canopy; began to wonder if the sound of grass being torn and chewed came from arhinohidden in the long grass.

    We rounded the corner. There was a small herd of Longhorn cattle. Butterflies continued to do their apparently indecisive dance around the flowers. On the lake, swifts were skimming the water to drink, while great crested grebes and moorhens fussed around their young.

    Half-a-mile on, six storks began to wander across the grass, lazily grazing.The previous night we’d gone to sleep with the static of bats and shrieks of owls. At 4am we were woken by crows and doves. Above the raptors, a plane began its descent into Gatwick. This was Sussex, not Africa. This is Knepp

    In 2001, Knepp’s owner, Charles Burrell, and his wife, Isabella Tree, were in trouble. The estate was struggling, the heavy Sussex clay not the ideal medium for crops. Even flinging fertiliser on it didn’t seem to work.

    Their solution was a dramatic one. They stopped farming conventionally and gave nature a chance, turning their 3,500 acres over to fallow and red deer, Exmoor ponies, Longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs, which now roam freely through the estate.

    The animals became the managers – and the land responded. What was dying began to breathe again. In came insects, which brought back a cacophany of birdlife – including nightingales, turtle doves (Britain’s fastest-declining bird) and now the storks. 

    The ordered fields have been replaced by grasslands, thick stands of oak and meadows. The estate is in profit, a place for safaris, courses and camping, and a beacon for rewilding. 

    I’d seen something similar earlier this year when I visited Stauning, where a misguided attempt in the 1960s by the Danish government to introduce intensive farming to the Skjern delta by straightening the river and draining the floodplains had failed utterly.

    English Longhorn cattle at Knepp

    English Longhorn: Cattle, ponies, pigs and deer have all helped to ‘rewild’ Knepp in Sussex

    The soils became depleted, the salmon disappeared, the birds flew away. In the late ’80s the process was reversed – and now the land on either side of the again meandering river lives once more.

    There are related rewilding projects across Britain, including the reintroduction of keystone species such as beavers, or the programme to restore the Caledonian forest undertaken by Trees for Life. The results have been remarkable: all have resulted in a richer and more biodiverse environment as balance is reintroduced. 

    ‘That’s all well and good,’ I hear you say. ‘Now, tell us something important like how you scored the new Macallan. I mean: what’s any of this got to do with whisky?’ It’s a fair question, dear reader. One to which I’d answer: everything. 

    I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea to have beavers romping through barley fields (though imagine having them build a distillery dam…), but the underlying principles of rewilding also apply to the need to bring the role of agriculture within whisky into sharper focus. 

    The fact that the over-simplistic regional explanation of Scotch is being challenged does not invalidate an examination of what the concept actually means. Rather than regions, we should be thinking of bioregions: areas defined by geology, climate, watersheds, altitude and culture.

    Focusing on that creates the understanding of what grows best, and how resources can be managed and enhanced. The bioregion of Islay is different to that of the Spey watershed. The conditions are different, so distinct solutions are required. 

    In whisky, this starts by understanding that barley isn’t a commodity, but a crop from a specific spot, grown by people who have to make money in order to pay their bills. What, though, if what you are asking them to plant in order for them to live can only be grown with the aid of pesticides and fungicides, which deplete the soil and reduce biodiversity? 

    Stork nesting at Knepp

    Welcome return: Knepp’s rewilding has brought many species back to the land, including storks

    Is there not then a logic in discovering what can be grown with minimal impact, yet which would still be profitable, as well as nutritious and flavourful? If a crop can only grow with the aid of chemicals, then maybe it’s the wrong variety, and another might be better-suited to the conditions. 

    We are familiar with the idea of a spirit’s flavour being the outcome of an intricate set of causal links within the distillery. Change one small thing and it has an effect. Whisky comes into being thanks to this fragile equilibrium.

    Why, though, don’t we apply the same thinking to what lies outwith the distillery – the health of the forests used for the casks, and the cereals growing in the field? It’s all very well saying ‘grain to glass’, but what of the soil the grain is grown in?

    If rewilding is about re-establishing lost connections, then part of it is starting to think beyond the idea of industrially-farmed commodities and recalibrating the relationship between distiller and farmer, and between farmer and land.

    There is now a plan to rewild 2.5 million acres of land and 30% of Britain’s waters by 2115. Can it work? I think it could, though I’m under no illusion about the challenges it presents. It won’t be easy to turn around an entire commodity-based system, but do we honestly have another option, given the climate disaster which is unfolding?

    The dram in your glass isn’t divorced from any of this. Its production impacts on the places from which it draws its ingredients. It is a living product of a place and conditions. We need to start thinking of whisky as an ecology.

    Further reading
    Isabella Tree, Wilding (Picador)
    George Monbiot, Feral (Penguin)
    Susan Wright, Peter Cairns & Nick Underdown, Scotland: A Rewilding Journey
    scotlandbigpicture.com
    rewildingbritain.org.uk

  • How can we face down the whisky flippers?

    03 July 2019

    He’s not one given to black moods, my distiller friend; so what he said was more with baffled resignation than despair. He’d been doling out some of his whisky in the pub. Under the table. You wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that you were reducing the takings.

    Not that there was any fear of that. The drams were simply top-ups. Tasting samples. In any case, as the landlord had wandered over, empty Glencairn in hand, there seemed to be tacit approval of the behaviour.

    We were all eager to try the wares that he’d carried down from the distillery in a rucksack. ‘I’m on the train,’ he’d told me. ‘We might have got thirsty… In any case, I thought people might be interested.’ We were.

    Sip versus sell: How many new Scotch whiskies will end up in collections?

    He told me how some of them were to be bottled soon. ‘But you’ll possibly be some of the only people to try them.’ I must have looked bemused. Or more bemused than usual. I know that single casks are, by nature, limited; a few hundred bottles for the market, maybe the world.

    ‘At times I wonder if anyone has ever tried any of my whisky,’ he went on. ‘I put it out, people buy it, and then I see the bottle on an auction site for twice or three times the amount I sold it for. I suppose some might be holding on to it for a special occasion, but I reckon most are flipping them. No-one really knows what it tastes like… want to try this one?’

    A few days later, back at home, I was chatting to a blender/bottler. ‘We’ve become a cult,’ she said. ‘Great,’ I responded, ‘… that’s what you want.’

    ‘Well…’ she replied. ‘We released a small batch for sale locally. It sold out within 24 hours. People were driving from all over to get a bottle.’

    ‘That’s amazing,’ I replied.

    ‘Aye, well,’ she went on. ‘The thing is, it’s now on auction sites for four times the initial cost. It worries me. I’m not a big fan of collector madness, but suddenly we are hot.’ 

    Both are new players trying to build their reputations on the strength of their liquid, but the liquid is of no concern to the flippers. All that matters is the name, the rarity. Whisky is irrelevant; this is speculation which revolves around the reward, which could be achieved by some commodity.

    Spirit of sharing: Newer distilleries such as Daftmill want whisky fans to taste their Scotch

    The nature of the product doesn’t matter, only the potential profit. It’s pork futures, the orange harvest, coffee. It’s like buying a rare record and never taking it out of the wrapping; it’s having a piece of art and keeping it in a bank vault.

    Will it stop? Of course it won’t, and therein lies the problem. Think of the number of new distilleries due to open in the next few years. All will be standing there, proud parents showing their newborn to the world, only for it to be snatched away and hidden until the market decides.

    At the moment, the only way to try and dampen down the rampant speculation is by using the blunt weapon of price. Distillers ask more – and you can see why – so retailers then have to adjust accordingly. The result? The real whisky lover is still priced out.

    The other consequence is that some established distillers, having seen the way in which this area of the market is moving, are releasing whiskies purely to satisfy the speculators.

    Let’s see how high we can push it. Have a lovely pack to lure them in. They’ll make the money eventually and we’ve at least pocketed a decent return. Can the whisky reflect the packaging and justify the price? You’d hope it would… Cynical? Moi?

    Are there any other ways around it? I asked my distiller friend. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve been wondering whether I should only sell them at the distillery and open each bottle when they buy one,’ he mused.

    Perhaps someone can invent some sort of device that pops the cork after three months. Until some solution is found, maybe distillers will have to sit in pubs, pouring drams under the table.

  • Whisky’s identity lies in the landscape

    19 June 2019

    Maybe he was lost this time; perhaps he knew a shortcut he’d not told us about. I started to suspect the former. After all, he was new to this job and hadn’t driven in this part of the world before, so it only seemed fair to give some advice – which he declined to take. His body language was sufficient in way of reply: ‘I’m the driver,’ it said. ‘Let me do my job ferrying you from one distillery to the next. You just sit there.’

    Old Man of Storr: Skye’s rugged landscape is intrinsically linked to its whisky

    We’d come in from the south the day before, the rain clouds seemingly unable to clear in the hills above Strome Ferry, leaving the west in sunshine. Down the hill to Auchtertyre, we went over the bridge and followed the long drag into Skye’s once-molten heart. The talk of green grassiness, which had dominated the morning, was receding. This was a place of coast and ridge, whose roads had come to a sometimes awkward compromise with the sea, mountains and peat bog.

    Logic suggested that if we’d passed the turning to Talisker the previous night, we should retrace our route; but instead he headed north and west, towards Dunvegan. Isolated farmhouses and bed and breakfasts, rusted red roofs, and signs for crafts, and courses. Skye is nothing if not a place with enterprising souls.

    To the north a sheer sea cliff, headlands and on the horizon, the Harris hills. Through Treaslane we went, and into Edinbane, then south to Heribost and around Loch Caroy. Steep valleys and encroaching moor, lambs clinging close to their mothers, a hen harrier, fishing boats in the loch, and white horses flicking off the water as the wind picked up.

    Striking a balance: Can whisky bottles adequately reflect the spirit’s origins?

    Is it possible to capture all of that in a bottle? Can you do it by colour coding and branding, font and followers, recipes and codes? Is Skye too hard to include, is it irrelevant to a world of price points, look and logos?

    There is a balance to be struck, I know. The outside of the bottle matters, the cues and cunningly-coded signifiers are essential for success. But there is more to the whisky than the outside of the bottle.

    There is always more. It is why some of us obsess about it. I look at the place names and wonder about Ose and Bracadale, Struan and Coillore. I remember asking Cailean MacLean once if anyone could really understand Skye unless they had Gaelic. He paused and said no, then told me the story behind the name of the peak opposite. Maybe it is never able to be fully known, but it shouldn’t stop us trying.

    There are clues in the names and the landscape, the stories, songs and dreams of the poets, singers and people, just as there are clues in the aromas and tastes which come in the glass. Comprehension comes not just from books but from the ground underfoot, or when the wind is on your face. You need to get out there and look at the landscape, rather than screens.

    Faraway place: Not everyone can make the journey to Talisker distillery

    We got to Talisker eventually and, inhaling when I stepped out of the bus, I remembered what my nephew had said to me the week before; of how, when he’d stood here for the first time in eight years, the smell of the smoky mash and spirit immediately brought all the memories of our trip there back.

    How, though, can you translate all of this sense of space, seaweed, gabbro, heather and fire that this place invests into the glass, unless you go there? Very few will be able to make that trip, which makes understanding the connections between the outside and the inside, the place and the distillery, the culture and the liquid inside the bottle, so vital. Fail to do that and you have nothing but a cipher. It might work for some spirits but not, I’d argue, for single malt. You need the story, the truth, the place. It all must be balanced.

    Later, I looked at the map. It turned out he’d taken a long loop rather than the slightly more direct route. Still, what would have been missed if we’d gone that way? The detour is often a good thing. It helps to show you what is on the inside.

  • Whisky never stands still on Islay

    05 June 2019

    They nip your head. Midges, that is. As does whisky come to think of it, should it be taken in less-than-responsible quantities. Not that anyone at Fèis Ìle would ever dream of doing that. The midges would be the only thing to blame for any ache in the bonce.

    Anyway, we were all suffering from the latter having descended or maybe sneaked into (it was slightly vague) the back of Caol Ila at the precise moment that light misty rain (aka smirr) began to form around us. What had been set up as a garden with idyllic views over the sound where we could relax with a couple of Highballs was now revealed to be the nexus point of the island’s midge breeding grounds. We all sped off, sharpish, up the hill to the house.

    It was all slightly reminiscent of my youth. West coast evenings would always culminate by being crammed into someone’s front room, music playing, whisky bottles being passed around among friends, strangers and hangers-on from the pub. Your role would shift: sometimes you’d be the host, other times the one kidnapped from the pub. No-one cared. All that mattered was the chat, the songs and the drink. Outside the midges would be raging at not getting their dinner.

    This was much the same, albeit with considerably better food. Or to be precise… food. The noise level rose along with the laughter and conversations, in which whisky played a tangential role, simply existing as the glue which brought this random group together. Just as it is meant to be. Maybe there should be a warning on the label: ‘might cause hilarity and new friendships’.

    The reason for the gathering might have been the launch of a new whisky by Atom Brands called Aerolite Lyndsay. If this was the case it was achieved very subtly, which might have been part of a very cunning plan, because at Kilchoman the next day, folks who had been in the house were still trying to make sense of what precisely had happened. People who weren’t there were pretending they’d attended, making it the Fèis equivalent of the Sex Pistols at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. I’ll write more on the whisky later this week, but I can say that, on the night, it was very toothsome indeed.

    Whisky pilgrimage: A lone walker heads toward Kilchoman distillery to pay his respects

    The following morning, heading back from the Kilchoman graveyard after paying my respects to the Beatons’ cross I began following a lone figure, bare-headed, wearing trainers and a thin jacket, walking down the middle of the road through the steadily falling rain towards the distillery. The loneliness of the long-distance whisky lover answering the call of the dram. We walked together, him from the coastguard cottages, me a blow-in, chatting about life and whisky, and weather.

    The big warehouse at Kilchoman where Anthony Wills held his masterclass was dry however. It kicked off with four new makes, followed by five single cask samples. Each of the new makes had been fermented with a different yeast (barley variety, ferment time and distillation were the same for all). Each was distinct from the other: Mauri was clean and creamy; Kerry M drier, with more smoke; Kerry MX was fruitier, while an MX/Mauri blend had the greatest complexity.

    The cask samples looked at the character differences between Kilchoman’s own malted barley (fresh, light smoke) compared to Port Ellen’s (phenolic) as well as the influence of the different cask types (ex-Bourbon, ex-Madeira, American oak, ex-Sherry hoggie and ex-European Sherry butt).

    Signature flavour: Wills’ Kilchoman masterclass focused on developing distillery character

    We talked of the fluctuations and different spins, discussing everything from the origins of foam bananas to how Sherry butts seem to push phenols. Geeks in sweetie shops swathed in smoke. The talk in the class (and after) was about how, while a signature distillery character is paramount, it doesn’t mean things are set in amber. Kilchoman is looking forward in a host of new ways while remaining true to itself.

    Sheltering in the marquees in the courtyard, the hardcore whisky enthusiasts were enjoying themselves. Adverse conditions seem to bring out the best in them: there were drams, cocktails, the new, hugely-improved Islay Ales and music. What’s a bit of rain anyway? Some were still applying cream to the sunburn they’d got while waiting in queues at Caol Ila and Laphroaig two days earlier. Who cares if the plane didn’t leave (or indeed arrive) for two days? There was whisky to be drunk and people to see.

    The midges began nipping away once again. No-one seemed overly concerned. Peaty whisky is a great repellant, so they say. Maybe if you drink just enough (in a responsible fashion of course) you simply don’t notice them.

    By the time I’d reached Bunnahabhain, there were already folk queuing for the Champagne cask bottling, which wasn’t even being released until the following morning. Some, it transpired, had been there since the day before, which is either dedication or madness. Maybe a bit of both. Perhaps they’d heard that it was a one-off, as the Scotch Whisky Association had gently pointed out to the distiller that as there is no such thing as a ‘Champagne cask’ (*) the label was misleading. An easy mistake, and one which will add an extra level of interest whenever a bottle is brought out to share.

    *Though the still wine may be fermented in cask, it only becomes Champagne by being given a secondary fermentation in bottle.

    Time of change: Bunnahabhain's £10.5 million facelift is well underway (Photo: Rebecca Sneddon)

    Songs were ringing inside Warehouse No. 9, courtesy of David Brodie, ex-bank manager, publican, hotel owner and now all-round entertainer and tour guide at Bunna’ as we ran through a set of three single casks (and the Moine French oak) comparing the same oak type with unpeated and peated whiskies, before tasting three more from different Sherry types. Oh, and the excellent Sauternes cask finish [reviewed among this year’s official Fèis Ìle releases]. I have a distinct feeling we ended up talking more about Sherry than whisky. But hey, that’s the way that conversation works, isn’t it?

    The village of Bunnahabhain has gone, warehouses have been flattened and a new distillery complex is beginning to emerge. For all the talk of continuity and consistency, the truth is that Islay never stays still. It is as multifaceted as its weather, and its whiskies reflect it.

    I thought back to the lone pilgrim trudging up the road. In his heart was hope. He knew things would change for the better. If Islay is the first place to get rain, it’s therefore the first place to get the sunshine.

  • The whisky world is changing

    29 May 2019

    My life isn’t all swish launches and whisky festivals, you know. There’s a business to consider, which is how I ended up being invited to Edinburgh for the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) annual Members Day. The theme this year was ‘The Changing World of Whisky’. As the SWA’s chief executive Karen Betts said in her keynote address, ‘Scotch whisky is the world’s number one internationally traded spirit, and more Scotch is enjoyed worldwide than American, Irish and Canadian whiskies combined.’ But that world is changing rapidly.

    Let’s put this in some sort of context. In 1870, the world of aged spirits had four major players: Cognac, and Irish, Scotch and American whiskies. By 1900, the global battle was between the last three. By 1921, only Scotch was left and it remained that way for the rest of the century. Okay, American whiskey came back post-war, but never forget that Canadian whisky still outsold Bourbon in the United States until the end of the century.

    Top dram: Will Scotch continue to be the most popular whisky in the future?

    Since then, the whisky world has changed utterly. It’s worth remembering that Japan only started to export in any volume in 2000. At that point there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. Now there are 35, while there are 20 in England and… well, I could go on. All of that has happened in the last decade. The century of Scotch is over, as is its hegemony. To paraphrase Judy Garland: ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (though we perhaps should be aware of what is going on there).

    As the SWA’s chairman Peter Gordon said in his opening remarks, ‘Whisky across the world has seen an increase in activity, but Scotch’s share has fallen… We have real and capable competitors across the world, and while I remain optimistic, there are headwinds to overcome.’

    His cautious warning underpinned Betts’ vision of the state of Scotch in 2050, and the multifarious ways in which the SWA would be involved (something which I think isn’t as well-publicised as it should be): climate change and the aim for the industry to be carbon neutral, free trade, training and skills, taxation, gender balance and diversity, packaging, transportation, farming, social responsibility and… yes… Brexit, which might just be sorted by then.

    Her belief is that ‘Scotch will remain the world’s pre-eminent whisky… its global competitors… will have done their best to knock us off our perch in the intervening years. But they will not have succeeded. Because Scotch whisky’s consistency, quality, diversity and authenticity, alongside its heritage and its stories, will win the day.’

    Industry rebirth: New Irish whiskey distillers, such as Killowen, are opening

    There is no reason to doubt this, but without wishing to diminish the importance of all of the elements in Betts’ perceptive analysis, for any of it to happen depends on the quality of the spirit and the ability of the industry to change with the times.

    Whisky is a long-term industry where innovation, by necessity, takes time. Scotch, however, is having to learn how to be nimble and meet challenges it has never encountered before.

    ‘Our industry is good at change,’ Betts added, ‘and remarkably resilient in finding balance between continuity and change… By 2050 we will have innovated in our products, so too will we have innovated in the way that we make Scotch.’

    This is no time for complacency and seeking comfort in the mistaken belief that just because Scotch is the biggest player it is automatically the best. It’s pretty easy to be the biggest and best in a field of one. Those days have gone.

    For Scotch to retain its pre-eminent position it is important to understand the difference between pride and arrogance. The SWA has realised this; what about all of its members?

    Star spirit: Japanese whisky continues to enjoy a surge in popularity

    Delivering Betts’ vision will necessitate hard work and open minds. It will mean all of the industry understanding that Scotch’s competitors are every bit as obsessive about quality as it is. It involves tasting these new rivals and discovering why a new consumer might be excited by the new wave of Irish, Danish, Aussie or American whiskies. Whether their industries are smaller than Scotch is immaterial. How good is the juice, and what can Scotch do to compete, without losing its own identity? Those who don’t see the need for change are the ones who will suffer.

    As the world of whisky evolves so too will people’s idea of what whisky is in terms of flavour, production, sustainability, occasion and method of consumption. That will mean that definitions will inevitably have to shift, another facet of Betts’ innovations in the way in which Scotch is made.

    The arrival of a multiplicity of new, small, independent distillers also means that the SWA itself will have to change in order to accommodate their thinking, and understand their challenges – and I’d argue that it is best for all Scotch firms to be inside the tent (as the saying goes).

    As Betts said, ‘2050 isn’t far away.’

  • Whisky is a whole sensory experience

    22 May 2019

    ‘I use the Dewar’s to clean the shoes,’ Shingo tells me. We are standing next to the shoeshine stand on the staircase outside his bar, Sip. I suspect that sentence needs to be dissected. There’s just too much weirdness going on.

    Shingo Gokan is a bartender who has worked in New York and Shanghai and now has his own joint, SG Club, in a surprisingly chilled part of the Shibuya district of Tokyo. The club, like a great cocktail, comes in three parts. At street level is Guzzle, a laid-back, busy, pub-style drinking den. Downstairs is Sip, a speakeasy-style den for the cocktail aficionado – there’s cunningly crafted whisky drinks galore in both places. On the first floor there’s a private members’ cigar lounge (there’s also a secret ‘ninja space’, but if I told you its location I’d have to kill you).

    I suspect that doesn’t fully explain why there’s a shoeshine stand.

    Cultural exchange: Japan sent a delegation of samurai to New York in 1860

    ‘I heard a story that when Japan was opening up to the West in the mid-19th century, some samurai went on an official visit to New York,’ Shingo continues. ‘It turns out they stayed close to where Jerry Thomas (author of the first cocktail book) had his bar. I wondered if they visited it and brought some of the ideas back to Japan.’

    So, the whole of the club is an imagining of what a Japanese-influenced American bar of the 1860s might have looked like… or maybe it’s an American-influenced Japanese bar. Hard to tell when things blur. Anyway, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to believe that a samurai might have decided to hang up his sword and start slinging drinks instead – though it’s unlikely that he would have turned a margarita into a clear drink which tastes like Riesling… No, I’m not going to explain that one.

    It seems like an outlandish story, but in 1860 a delegation of 70 samurai left Edo to travel to New York. It’s claimed that they were the first such group to leave Japan for 200 years. While it’s unclear what they drank, or whether they frequented Jerry Thomas’ bar, it was noted that they were prodigious shoppers.

    Oh… the Dewar’s. Before Shingo gets a visit from an irate rep, let me tell you it’s there as a finish for the shoes, just to give them a bit of a sparkle. You can also get it in a slightly more conventional manner in Guzzle, infused with Earl Grey and served Highball-style.

    Gokan’s gaff: Shingo opened Tokyo’s American-influenced SG Club in 2018

    SG Club is an example of how different elements influence each other. In the bars, it is how design sets the mood and tells a story, but we can go deeper. Over the past couple of weeks, first in Elgin, and now in Tokyo, I’ve been doing blind tastings where drams are first tasted neat, and then re-tasted with one (or in Tokyo’s case two) pieces of music (much like the sensory evaluation sessions held in Scotchwhisky.com’s Future Trends Lab at The Whisky Show last year). 

    The remarkable thing is the manner in which the taste of the whisky changes, often dramatically, when music is included. Take Kilchoman’s smoke. In Tokyo we tasted it, and then I played an ambient piano piece by Virginia Astley. The smoke went and the sweetness was lifted further into focus. This then bled into a piece by John Surman, all multi-tracked bass and baritone saxophone. The smoke suddenly surged forward once again, more intensely than when we’d tasted the whisky in silence.

    It shows how it is wrong to believe that our senses exist separately from each other. Instead they are all constantly influencing each other: colour affects taste, as does shape… and sound. High tones accentuate sweetness, and low tones heaviness, while tempo will affect feel and where the flavours concentrate themselves.

    Heightened experience: Using all of your senses can draw out different flavours in whisky (Photo: Sascha WenningerCC BY-SA 2.0)

    Music doesn’t add flavour; rather it acts as an aid to reveal elements which might have been hidden, accentuating some flavours or textures, adding new layers of complexity. It’s a dramatic introduction to the cross-modal world, often showing what lies beneath, where the connections are. We tend to see flavour as fixed, whereas the truth is that it is malleable, at the whim of our senses and suggestibilities. 

    It is another facet of the blurring of boundaries that Shingo is trying to achieve at SG. Are you in Japan or America? The 21st century or 19th? How does the decor and the lighting change your mood? Does that drink taste different in the three bars – or outside in the street? Would sipping it on the shoeshine stand trigger different flavours? Only one way to find out. 

  • Rebalance the approach to whisky making

    08 May 2019

    Walking along Calum’s Road on Raasay as the sun shone on the Cuillin; sipping boilermakers in Aberdeen; the smell of peat and paint in the new Lagg distillery as Storm Hannah belted in from the north; a shift in The Pot Still bar in Glasgow making cocktails; being ensconced in the Copper Dog and Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, and Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler bar as the snow fell and the whisky world walked through the doors... it’s been quite a month.

    If anything linked them all (other than fun and drams) it was a sense of momentum building and a broadening of thinking around that eternal question: ‘what is whisky?’ 

    Scotch has conceivably sat back and said: ‘It’s what we’ve always made, whereas whisky is what you will be making in the future.’

    Break with tradition: BrewDog is one of several new distillers challenging convention

    It’s what’s behind BrewDog’s (formerly known as LoneWolf) deconstruction of whisky making and asking why it has to be done that way and whether it can be done better; it’s there in Raasay’s building of individuality through its approach to distilling, cereal and maturation; and at Lagg as well. Arran’s new distillery may be a beautiful, sympathetic design – and another contender for ‘best distillery view’ – but at its heart it’s a centre for exploration into peat.

    Even The Pot Still cocktails, while ridiculous fun (Buckie Boulevardiers anyone?) showed that there is another way to think and drink, in the same way as BrewDog is finessing the hauf and hauf (or boilermaker).

    In all, there lies a shared belief that approaching whisky in a cookie-cutter fashion is a dangerous strategy. If new distillers are to make their mark then they can’t all be using the same casks, telling the same story, or thinking that just because the new make is good (or great) that the job is done. There has to be something different, grounded in quality but pushing things onwards.

    I was chatting this over with Ryan Chetiyawardana [aka Mr Lyan] the other day, and he said something along the lines of: ‘It is important to have tradition as well as innovation. As long as we have both pushing each other then we move things forward.’

    Tradition is a reference point, but not to the point of it causing stasis.

    Another shared theme came into focus when I met up with Bob Dalgarno (ex-Macallan whisky maker) in the Copper Dog. As well as recalibrating Glenturret he is independently looking at barley and malting, his thinking chiming with that of BrewDog and Raasay (and others such as Arbikie and Bruichladdich), and Lagg’s examination of peat’s possibilities. There seems to be a rebalancing of the thinking behind flavour.

    Tradition redefined: BrewDog has refined the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker, serveWhile the back end (distillation and maturation) is understood, albeit not known fully, the front end (cereal, malting, smoking, mashing and fermenting) is now being given greater focus.

    Rather than the misleading statement that 70% of a whisky’s flavour comes from wood, we are now seeing how every element within the ‘process’ (how I hate that word) is important; that whisky making is holistic, and every part is of equal importance, and all interdependent.

    It can be a brewer’s mentality to ferment, or give equal focus to the variety of grain being grown and how it is being cultivated. What a few years ago seemed like an interesting offshoot is now showing signs of being a movement. Underpinning it all is the belief that efficiency is not the be-all and end-all, and if quality (flavour) means accepting lower yields, then so be it.

    It may seem paradoxical that a belief in continuity exists within this idea of a constantly-moving continuum, but that is to confuse continuity with consistency. I can see the need for consistent levels of quality, but really, should the ultimate aim of a distiller be to make the same thing every day of the year, forever? Should efficiencies be solely linked to this idea of consistency – making the same but making it cheaper? Or, should whisky making be about improving flavour and quality, even if that means changing it?

    Welcome addition: The finishing touches are being made to Arran’s new Lagg distillery Continuity is a state of mind. It is understanding the past, but moving forward. It also applies to people. It is about passing on knowledge. There are worrying signs of a skills shortage across all parts of the industry. As whisky expands, where are the people with knowledge, talent and experience to train the new generation?

    It is also about being a guardian of flavour and philosophy while also being open to change. If the new distillers can challenge and move things on with a certain ease because of a lack of branded baggage, then the established players also need to understand this idea of there being continuity within change.

    Think of how Gregg Glass is being trained by Richard Paterson, but also being encouraged to develop Whisky Works – whose wood project could be a significant deepening of our understanding of oak.

    In a decade’s time will we be able to look at Macallan and say there was a Bob Dalgarno style, and now there is a Sarah Burgess one? I think we could – in fact I think we should. But all that depends on firms having the strength to think beyond the bottom line and instead about how things shift and alter; of how guardianship runs from the seed, to the bottle and to the consumer; and understanding that the key isn’t consistency, but continuity. It means having faith in product and people, and also being bold.

  • Carlsberg’s new slogan is oddly refreshing

    24 April 2019

    Confidence and honesty sometimes combine in weird ways. Look at what’s happened in the beer world, where Carlsberg has replaced its long-standing slogan of ‘probably the best lager in the world’ to ‘probably not the best beer in the world…’ I always liked the former. It had a certain Danish humour, delivered with a knowing wink. ‘We know it isn’t the best, but it’s fun to suggest it just might be’.

    The new one seems to aim for some post-postmodern irony, but runs the risk of turning people off entirely before the second part of the tagline, ‘so we’ve changed it’, has been read. Even then, a seed of doubt has been sown.

    Carlsberg… now better than it was… probably.

    New approach: Carlsberg has seen a modern demand for craft beer over lager

    In justifying up to this volte-face, Carlsberg prostrates itself at your feet in the manner of some medieval penitent and confesses about how it ‘lost its way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being “probably the best beer in the world”, we had to start again.’ Hadn’t its brewers been tasting their own beer?

    Confession can be liberating. Once you start it can be hard to stop. ‘The move comes at a time when interest in standard lager is at an all-time low,’ says Liam Newton, Carlsberg UK’s marketing vice president.

    Newton explains: ‘The beer market has been forced to accept the prevailing winds of decreased consumption, with 1.6 million fewer drinkers than five years ago, alongside the emergence of craft beer – with its new flavours and brand tribalism grabbing drinkers’ attention.’ He’s right. My friends don’t drink standard lager any more. They drink ales and talk about hops and sourness. So, it’s time for Carlsberg to reformulate, repackage and relaunch. Trying to tap into the new beardy beer market by doing something a wee bit differently. Probably.

    Admitting you’ve got things wrong is a rare thing in a brand. ‘Mr Kipling makes pretty average cakes’; ‘McDonalds – not really lovin’ it’; ‘Macallan: make the call… helllllppp’. You just don’t hear it.

    Carlsberg is right for saying that the beer world had moved on. It probably realised that when it started the joint venture with the enterprising Brooklyn Brewery. Actually, I had some Carlsberg Jacobson Vintage just last week. It was bloody great.

    In those simpler days when beer meant lager, Carlsberg might have been able to stick its tongue in its cheek and say it was probably the best, but today how can you compare a lager to a porter, or a super-hopped IPA, or a saison?

    Modern tipple: Will Carlsberg’s #newbrew campaign help it regain popularity?

    Who in their right mind can even say what ‘the best’ is? Carlsberg’s new claim coincides with the start of the drinks awards season, with bottles garlanded with medals like children at a nursery sports day. ‘Never mind if your egg smashed Jimmy, here’s a prize for turning up.’

    No matter how good the organisation, criteria and judging panel, a competition will only ever be a snapshot of who performed best on that day – and who entered in the first place. Even if every whisky in the world was being tasted, the results would still be influenced by numerous uncontrollable factors: the flights, the order of tasting, humidity, glassware, you name it.

    As long as you accept that, you can treat a competition as a bit of fun that gives a good, sober, indication of quality. Both of Carlsberg’s claims follow that line. It’s almost as if they’d taken advice from fellow Dane Søren Kierkegaard and his attestation that ‘subjectivity is the truth’. Kierkegaard’s point was that you cannot root faith on objective evidence or reason: ‘...the paradoxical character of the truth is its objective uncertainty’. Okay, he was concerned with Christianity rather than beer, but you get my drift.

    Despite trying to be objective, competitions, and brewing, will always stumble over that truth. Damn that existentialism.

    Whether we are brewers, judges or drinkers, all we can ever say is ‘probably the best today’, a statement which already contains the dark truth: ‘and probably not the best, but, hey, I like it.’

    That makes sense. Probably.

    Trust your palates.

  • The power of Sherry cask provenance

    17 April 2019

    Provenance is an increasingly important factor in our decision-making process when it comes to food and drink. Where does it come from, who grew it, what are the air miles involved? Establishing a connection between what is on your plate or in your glass, and a place and a person is important. We want to know. Single malt has been a beneficiary of this trend – a drink made at one specific place on the earth’s surface. That’s powerfully attractive.

    As whisky evolves, the idea of provenance grows to include barley and the agricultural aspects of flavour. What goes into the distillery matters as much as what goes on inside of it.

    What then of the warehouse? 

    Spanish provenance: Valdespino is one of several Sherry bodegas in Jerez (Photo: Marcel van Gils)

    The days of the whisky trade being happy to use any old cask as long as it came from an oak tree have long gone. Most distillers have wood policies in place, and all understand how vital the interaction between oak, spirit and air is on the whisky’s final flavour. But if wood is important, then so is its provenance.

    We know that there are three main types of casks: ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and refill, but that is no longer sufficient in this new provenance-oriented world. The first two terms are meaningless if you don’t know the cask’s previous history.  

    As Bourbon is made from a wide range of different mashbills, the char levels will vary between producers, as will the length of time the Bourbon has spent maturing. All will have an impact on the character of the extractives in the wood.

    Sherry is even more of a minefield. Despite a long trading relationship with bodegas, I wonder how much the whisky trade actually knows about the wine itself: fortified, made from Palomino, and aged in solera either biologically under a layer of protective flor – giving fino and manzanilla; or oxidatively – giving amontillado, Palo Cortado or oloroso. All have very distinct flavour profiles, so which one was used for that ‘Sherry cask’?

    Fortified wine: There are a multitude of bodegas producing various styles of Sherry

    Was the cask ex-solera? If so, the wood will be virtually inactive as bodegas want their fino or manzanilla to be fresh, flor-accented and wood-free, while in the other grouping, the impact of oxidation is more significant than the oak type. You’ll get more influence from the Sherry type used if ex-solera casks are used, but very little oak interaction.  

    These days, most ‘Sherry casks’ used in the whisky trade are made from new wood and only seasoned with the wine. Some distillers will work with cooperages and specify oak type, toast level, type of wine used and length of time of the seasoning. Not all do however. Using new wood means the oak type is more significant. European oak has become the norm because it adds grip, colour and aroma, but American oak is also used. The flavour profile is significantly different between the two.

    The size of cask – butt, puncheon, gorda or hogshead – will also have a part to play, as will the seasoning Sherry. What type was it, how long was it in the cask and most importantly, what was the quality of the wine going in?

    In other words, it’s provenance. The quality of the final whisky will be not only determined by the quality of the wood, and the coopering, but also the quality of the Sherry which went into the cask. I’m always tempted to ask producers if they know not just what type of Sherry was used, but who made it and whether they’ve tasted it – and if they’d drink it?

    Is it even Sherry at all? Does it come from the demarcated region of Jerez, or from Montilla, which sits to the north, or somewhere else again? Montilla makes excellent fortified wines, but as it is warmer they have a different, fatter character (this is also where much of the Pedro Ximénez hails from). Will a cask rejuvenated with ‘Sherry’ in Scotland be the same in flavour terms as one seasoned in Jerez?

    Prime location: Jerez is a specially demarcated region for Sherry in Spain

    All this might seem as if I’m being pedantic for the sake of it, but think of this. Within the next decade there will be 140 Scottish distilleries with mature whisky. As the market expands, you might expect that the flavour options would increase significantly, but the opposite is more likely to be the case. What defines a whisky’s character style might be down to small, but significant differences between it and its 139 rivals.

    Whisky making has parallels to the philosophy of marginal gains that Dave Brailsford placed at the heart of British cycling; the multiple tiny tweaks and adjustments which gave his teams a vital advantage.

    Whisky’s marginal gains can come in many forms and that includes the cask and its history. Without a deep understanding of, in this case, Sherry, one potential element of difference has been removed.

    You can apply all of this to ‘wine casks’. Some distillers will name the type of wine, maybe even the producer, but I wonder how much of that is for PR rather than flavour. Like Sherry, it’s the finer details which matter. Bordeaux wine casks from two different chateaux may use different oak types, different grape varieties and toasting levels. One chateau might use the casks for three vintages, the other only for two. All of this makes a difference. I’m not even going to go into the options which can exist within rum or brandy. Having a forensic understanding of each is time-consuming, but also hugely exciting in terms of crafting flavour.

    Provenance matters, because provenance is flavour.

  • Easter’s about more than chocolate

    10 April 2019

    As a child I drove my late mother to distraction every Easter. Let me rephrase that. As a child, I drove my late mother to distraction. One of the many – and as a parent now I see justified – reasons for her baffled frustration at my behaviour would come, without fail, in the middle of summer. She’d be rummaging in a cupboard for something and pull out a box. ‘This is your Easter egg,’ she’d say. ‘You’ve still not eaten it!’ She might have then fetched me a mighty buffet around the ears.

    The offending chocolate shell, still in its cheap shiny paper, would be placed in front of me. I’d look at it, wait until she’d left the room and hide it again. Inevitably, it would be excavated from its second hiding place later again in the year, the chocolate now dusted with white mould. I think it would then be thrown out.

    She’d (rightly I now see) raise the issue with my father. He’d gently chide me, but I knew his heart wasn’t in it. You see, like me, he didn’t like Easter eggs. Eventually, she got the message. The eggs stopped.

    Worst nightmare: Broom is averse to chocolate, particularly of the cheap, egg-shaped variety

    Since it’s confession time, although I’ve hosted my fair share of whisky and chocolate classes – a series with the astonishing chocolate sommelier Sanae Hirata in Tokyo being a highlight – I don’t actually care that much for chocolate.

    That isn’t to say I don’t find the pairing fascinating. I do. I get a thrill from seeing how flavours and textures match or oppose, set up accords and contrasts, why the alcohol cuts through the fats in the chocolate to release flavours, how different fermented worlds can work together. I get it. It works. It’s just that chocolate won’t feature in my life between these events. It just isn’t something I seek out. Chocolate bars, boxes, buttons, brownies exist, but are things I can take or leave, mostly the latter.

    All of this means I am still agnostic when it comes to the whole chocolate egg ritual at Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Easter. I’ve fond memories of painting hard-boiled eggs with my Perth cousins and rolling them (and ourselves) down the hill. That was fun. That was Easter for me. Actually, I now realise, ever slow on the uptake, being with them was Easter.

    If I don’t indulge in the chocolate egg orgy, organising Easter egg hunts is a different thing altogether. I take great, my family might say obsessive, care with those.

    Colourful creations: Painting eggs with family is a fulfilling way to spend Easter, says Broom

    First take the eggs: a few handfuls of small ones, with a clutch or two of hen-sized, and distribute them around the site, be that garden, or house. Be as fiendish as you can. Place some in plain view, others deliberately out of the reach of small arms and eye-lines, a few in places which will never be found until, by chance, they turn up later in the year spotted with white mould. Have one large egg as prize for each of the participants.

    Some will devour them, others – my daughter for example – will eat the gathered ones and leave the big egg. It will sit in a cupboard for months, much to the frustration of her mother. When it is rediscovered, now dusted with white mould, I will gently chide her, but my heart won’t be in it. 

    Sit back and watch the fun begin. Smile as they happily discover some. Grin that little bit more when they don’t. Go and get some whisky and pour yourself a dram. Add ice, and a mixer of choice (it is the daytime after all). Sip slowly. Pair the whisky to the enjoyment of the moment.

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