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From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Are writers missing whisky’s real stories?

    20 March 2019

    Jay Rayner has just celebrated two decades as restaurant critic of The Observer, which means a lot of lunches and dinners, and probably larger trousers. It’s also a long time to continue to be, as he is, engaged, perceptive and witty. After 20 years I’d imagine a sense of ennui would set in. ‘Been there, eaten that’ would be most humans’ response. So, congratulations Jay.

    The only reason I know this is that he wrote a piece on the anniversary. His inspiration, he says, was the work of his peers Matthew Fort and Jonathan Meades, ‘who both made it clear that food is not just about taste and texture. It’s about politics and history, about love and sex, the environment, architecture and so much more. I wanted the chance to write about all of that’.

    In-depth look: Jay Rayner highlights the importance of the story behind the food (Photo: Bella West)

    Food writing is about more than just what the chef has put on a plate; it is about where the food was grown and by whom, and how it fits with a place and a culture. If we are what we eat, then what we eat embeds us on the planet – it touches us in multifarious ways. Where does that leave drinks writing?

    This thing we now call ‘whisky writing’ started to form in the 1980s because of the growing interest in single malt. The field was open, there were many areas to explore. Information on production was still handled with a certain caution (and, in some cases, suspicion) by distillery managers who, in the words of former Diageo master distiller Mike Nicolson, were ‘strange men with oil stains on their tweed jackets who were locked away from the public gaze’.

    Now, every distillery has been logged multiple times; the same questions asked and reported, the same stories repeated, the same people interviewed. As food writing has continued to move onwards, the focus in drink seems to have narrowed, and the flow of ideas has clotted.

    While it is always essential to return and revisit a distillery, each time it has to be with the intention of learning something new. If all the information is already out there, why ask for it again? Instead, the question should be: what angle hasn’t been tried?

    Last year, at the World Whisky Forum, InchDairnie’s Ian Palmer spoke of the death spiral that would happen if the industry only talked to (and then agreed with) itself. The same applies to writing. It has to be more than just tasting notes and the same distillery profiles, and tossed-off trivia.

    Worldly influence: The story of food, like whisky, originates from people and places (Photo: Rawpixel)

    If food is also about politics, then so is whisky. If what is on your plate has a cultural resonance, then the same applies to what is in your glass. If it matters where food comes from and how it affects farming, then it matters where barley and wood and peat come from as well.

    Writing can be a way to get into brand ambassadorship (one of the toughest and, often, most thankless gigs out there, by the way), but that should not be the sole aim. As a writer you might get sent samples and maybe go on trips or to events, but freebies are not a reason to start writing.

    The story isn’t the liquid, or the distillery. It is what lies behind these structures and products. It is the ‘why’ as much as the ‘what’. Writing isn’t about you, your profile or your ambition. It is about the people, place or liquid you are writing about. You don’t matter. It’s not about clicks, it is about quality.

    We all need to look at whisky, wine, beer or food, and see the bigger picture. We need to be provocative, challenging, entertaining and see connections to show how, like food, whisky is a lens through which to understand the world.

  • Extreme whisky tasting in Glencoe

    13 March 2019

    We inch our way up. Kick-step, ice axe to balance, stumble forward. The sky and mountain have blurred into one. Not that I could see, were it any different. I’ve had to take my glasses off as, snow-spattered and misted, they were completely useless. I only needed to see a yard ahead in any case. The holes left by Will’s footsteps are cyan-ringed, revealing the ice below. Another gust of wind forces us to stop. Then on we go, kick, step, stumble. I look at Arthur. There’s ice on his beard. All you can do is laugh.

    I’m sure, reader, that your impressions of what a standard new product launch would go something like: luxury hotel, dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, a hired celeb to smile and hold something, buckets of booze. It’s not always exactly like that, but this is the first time in my experience that, in order to get the first taste of a dram, you have to climb a 3,000ft mountain. In Glencoe. In winter. In a blizzard.

    Wintry whisky: The climbers on the summit of Buachaille Etive Beag, ready for a chilly dram [Photo: Jonny McMillan]

    To be fair, Jonny McMillan cannot control the weather. Even Berry Bros & Rudd has limits to its reach. His idea was a sound one. On paper at least. The firm’s new Perspective range of blends has images of Scottish landscapes on the labels. As Buachaille Etive Mor is on the 40-year-old, let’s crack the first bottle on its summit. Royal Mile Whisky’s Arthur Motley and Highlander Inn’s Tatsuya Minagawa joined me in pandering to his mad notion.

    The closer the day got, the worse the forecast became. The big Buachaille was out of the question – a risk of avalanches – so we headed up its little brother Buachaille Etive Beag. Little is relative; it’s still in excess of 3,000ft. Thankfully – and wisely – Jonny had hired Will Manners as a guide. If you are attempting something like this, it’s best to have a man who has winter climbed in South Georgia, the Rockies and Himalayas on your side.

    And so it continues. Grasp rock, slip, plod. Baby steps, flounder in thigh-deep drifts. The gradient, once relentless, seems to ease, then there’s scattered rubble in the snow, and then the summit cairn. The bottle is produced. Glasses as well (this is Berry’s after all) and frozen-fingered we toast ourselves with a now wind-chill-filtered and spindrift-diluted dram. Warmth at last. Does it taste good? What do you think?

    New view: Berry Bros & Rudd’s Perspective series features Scottish landscapes on its labels [Photo: Jonny McMillan]The celebration over, we head down. The mountain is tolerating us at best and while it is never frightening, you must be wary over where to place your feet, conscious of every step and accepting of what it may throw your way. You walk up any mountain on its terms, not yours. We hadn’t conquered anything. We had worked with it, become part of it, in order to get to the top.

    There is something in the idea of summiting, the ‘because it is there’ impulse, which can be aligned to some aspects of collecting: seeking out the extreme, the rare, the remote. There is another way though, one outlined in Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain, where she talks not of walking up a mountain but being, ‘out of [her] body and into the mountain’.

    I can see both sides. The climb has rekindled my old desire to be in the hills again, to stand there on the top. There is reward in that, just as there is in getting that bottle of prized whisky. Yet a stronger urge, that of walking into the mountain, is there as well, opening my mind and body and letting the mountain speak to me, rather than the other way round. That too is like whisky.

    Spirited summit: Buachaille Etive Beag [centre] reminds Broom of the lengths collectors go to acquire unusual whiskies [Photo: Pxhere]

    Collecting is less about possession than buying to understand and share. That, I suppose, is the difference between the collector with a locked cupboard for their investment portfolio, and the whisky lover with open bottles; the walker into mountains and the acquirer of peaks who walks up but cannot see – which is ironic, given my current state.

    On the descent, inching over lumps of granite, the cloud clears and I rest beside a burn brimming with snowmelt, looking over to the Aonach Eagach ridge, smothered in snow. A raven scuds down the valley below us. Our slow progress, the speed of the bird, ancient heave of rock, blast of wind, water wellings. All combine.

    Back at the car, Jonny assures me he’ll send samples of the range. I wonder whether, to get the proper effect, I’d best taste them inside a freezer. I do know though that the next time I try the 40-year-old, part of me will be back on the mountain, happy, cold, aching, thrilled. It has become part of the dram.

  • The genius simplicity of Mark Hollis’ music

    27 February 2019

    This might seem a strange place to write about this. I didn’t know the musician Mark Hollis (1955-2019), who has died at age 64. I haven’t a clue whether he liked whisky or not. Why, then, is he here? Because there was a quality about his music which aligned itself to the manner in which we sometimes come to terms with the phenomena around us – it could be a landscape, a look, a piece of art, a plate of food, or in what we are all apparently obsessed about, a glass of something.

    Hollis started out in a synth-pop band called Talk Talk. They were good at what they did and had some hits. Not, to be honest, the music I was listening to in the 1980s. Then came Spirit of Eden which oscillated between ambience and jazz, loudness and almost silence, emotion and detachment. It was arranged, but seemed improvisatory, thrillingly haunting and immersive.

    ‘Haunting genius’: Mark Hollis did not allow his creativity to be restricted by dogma nor genre

    Spirit and its even further out companion Laughing Stock moved beyond genre. You could identify elements – the way the cymbals set up a pulse which was not always followed, how the guitar then played across everything, switches from electronic noise to harmony, peaks which lasted too long, followed by abrupt silences. Music as collage. They were unsurpassed in modern music. Naturally, they hardly sold.

    The band split up and seven years later Hollis resurfaced with a solo album. Here the space has widened, the music is almost becalmed, existing in space and tone. The creaks of a stool, a voice so close it is in your head. Woodwind and classical arrangements. At times things are barely there at all. The references shift again. Aligned to ECM or modern classical composers like Morton Feldman.

    The lyrics are gnomic poems speaking of war, loss, wanderings and the search of and for a spirit. There’s something of Schubert’s Winterreise. ‘I’d like to make music that can exist outside the timeframe,’ he once said. Outwith time itself.

    ‘“Forget our fate
    The peddler sings
    Set up to sell my soul.
    I've lived a life for wealth to bring
    And yet I'll gaze
    At the colour of spring
    Immerse in that one moment
    Left in love with everything.’

    [The Colour of Spring, 1998]

    ‘I wanted to make a record where you can’t hear when it has been made… I also… like the character and the realism of acoustic instruments… I adjusted the volume of the instruments, so the manner in which these instruments resonate are a part of the total sound. I looked for instruments who could grow above the limitations of a certain style like a clarinet, trumpet and flute.’

    The limitations he spoke of are as much about technique and approach as physical. To be truly creative is to transcend boundaries and genres and the restrictions of dogma.

    And that, reader, is the creative impulse. Taking something and making it greater, but not by adding things. Complexity isn’t necessarily about accumulation; it is more often about having the courage to strip elements away. It is all there. It is how he approached his music. It is how we can approach that liquid in the glass, or life itself. Quietly, immersed in the moment.

    It’s My Life, Talk Talk (Live at Ahoy in Rotterdam, 1984):

  • Japanese whisky faces its new future

    19 February 2019

    As we headed to Yamazaki last week, my trusty companion could barely contain his excitement. Not just at finally visiting the place, but about what (in his mind) would be the treasures on offer in the distillery shop. Plans were afoot for buying a case full of exclusives, and a haul of Hibikis.

    I tried to calm him down as gently as I could, but nothing I said would dent his belief that this would be the mother lode. He had a yen for Yamazaki, you could say. Then he arrived. The whisky offering was, er, scant. There was a better selection in the bottle shops in Kyoto – and their shelves were pretty much empty.

    The best bet for finding old whiskies in Japan these days would involve heading into the countryside and hoping to find the Japanese equivalent of a ‘mom and pop’ store. Alternatively, whisky lovers are now haunting estate sales in the hope that there might be a collection up for sale.

    The stock shortage shows little signs of easing in the short term. The liquid is dwindling, and what’s left is being managed as best it can. Last year, Suntory announced a further cull of brands, including a large size of its (and Japan’s) top-selling brand Kakubin, while Nikka is about to follow suit, with its Nikka 12 being replaced by Tailored and, more worryingly, a ‘temporary suspension’ of its Coffey Malt and Grain. The third major brand, Kirin Gotemba, is about to drop its Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50˚. The cupboard, it would seem, is bare.

    New era: Yamazaki may have been the first, but today Japan boasts 23 operational distilleries

    At the start of the millennium, Japanese whisky was the newest, brightest star in whisky’s constellation. Now, within 20 years, it seems to have imploded.

    It was with this in mind that we pushed open the door of Zoetrope in Tokyo. Established by Horigami-san a decade ago in Shinjuku, with the intention of specialising in ‘Western-style Japanese-distilled spirits’, this is where you go to take the pulse of the industry. We began chatting about what was new, what had gone.

    ‘There’s this…’ he said, putting two small bottles in front of me. Both were from Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture, which opened last year. One, New Pot, was a limited release of new make spirit; the second, New Born, an eight-month-old aged in American oak ex-shochu casks (the beachfront distillery is owned by shochu producer Komasa Jyoza). Rather good they were too – the New Born especially shows real promise.

    Then there followed new releases from Mars Tsunuki (also in Kagoshima), while on the bar top stood bottles from Hokkaido’s excellent (and smoky) Akkeshi.  

    The comments of one senior exec earlier in the week came back to me. ‘We have a lot of whisky,’ he had said, ‘it’s just that it’s not ready yet.’

    Rather than dwell on what has gone, maybe it is time to look at what is on the way. Japan now has 23 operational whisky distilleries – most small, nearly all new.

    The past year has seen bottled statements of intent from the multifunctional Shizuoka distillery (where the Karuizawa stills now nestle), Nagahama, Akasa and the crowd-funded Wakatsuru Saburomaru.

    While there’s still plenty of imported whisky (Scotch, but increasingly Canadian) being blended or simply relabelled as ‘Japanese whisky’, and the practise of relabelling aged/coloured rice shochu as ‘whisky’ continues, there does seem to be the start of a rebalancing.

    Even the obscure Matsui Shuzo (where a considerable amount of ersatz ‘Japanese’ whisky came from) appears to have turned over a new leaf and is releasing what seems to be 100% Japanese-distilled wares.

    New spirit: Kanosuke distillery opened in Kagoshima Prefecture in 2018

    Is Japanese whisky rebooting itself? Maybe come 2024 – the centenary of the first whisky distillation taking place – we will see Japanese whisky 3.0 emerge (2.0 was the radical shift in approach after the bulk-oriented low-strength days of the 1960s/70s whisky boom).

    By then, the landscape will have changed dramatically. The newest players will have mature examples while, if all plans are approved, there will be more distilleries coming into production.

    We will have a second distillery at Chichibu, while Kirin’s Gotemba expansion, which will see capacity increased by 20%, will have been running for three years. The current increase in production (and capacity) at the other established distilleries will by then have resulted in some easing of stock restrictions.

    Maybe a reboot isn’t the right term. Japanese whisky has always reflected the concept of kaizen (continual incremental improvement). This is just the latest manifestation of that approach.

    The question is: what will the rest of the whisky world be like by then? Japan is hardly alone in building new distilleries; the memories of the old days will have gone and a new set of consumers will have emerged.

    However, the latest stage in Japanese whisky’s evolution isn’t as simple as waiting for stock to mature. It means looking at what a future market might want, what other countries are producing, finding points of difference, while still reinforcing Japanese identity.

    Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed. There are many more stars in the constellation. Japan won’t return as the new kid on the block, but will have to fight its way back. Its plans for the future start now.

  • 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.

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