Does Scotch single malt’s absence from a leading bar show speak volumes about cocktail snobbery?
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
02 October 2019
For once in Glasgow the taps were on. ‘What beer do you have?’ came the question.
‘None tonight pal, it’s only whisky down here.’ The questioner looked bemused.
‘Smoky Cokeys on three taps – you can have one made with Caol Ila, Lagavulin, or Talisker’.
There’s a moment’s hesitation, to see if this is a wind-up – it is Glasgow after all, a city where even the simple act of asking for a drink can be the start of a comedy routine. ‘Which one would you recommend?’
‘Well, Lagavulin is considered the classic mix.’ Another slightly quizzical glance.
‘Sure… OK. I’ll have four.’
…and so it started. Frank Murphy (of the Pot Still) and I in a pop-up whisky bar situated in the basement of Finnieston’s superb Kelvingrove Café (is a basement takeover a pop down? Answers on a postcard please).
Cocktail evolution: The Singleton challenge required a solid or gaseous element
There were was an extensive range of malts behind us – arranged by flavour, mixers on the shelves and a steady stream of punters.
Perhaps some context is required. This was an evening’s entertainment within Diageo’s World Class global finals, the Olympics of the bartending world (full disclosure: I am one of the judges). This year the finalists, representing 55 countries (and selected from 10,000 entries), were put through five days of challenges, which tested their product knowledge, bartending skills, storytelling ability and quick wits.
Whisky has been slowly becoming more prominent. In the early days it was an option (and one rarely taken). Then it got its own challenge. This year, there were three: one at Talisker with a mystery box of ingredients which had to be transformed into a drink, then one each for Singleton and Johnnie Walker Black in Glasgow.
The last two were deceptively simple. The Singleton challenge asked for two drinks, one using two liquids – one of which was homemade, the other creating an ‘experience’ with the malt served either neat or on the rocks – accompanied by two ingredients, either in solid or gaseous state. It’s how I ended up toasting the duck fat marshmallows made by Canada’s Jeff Savage over a fire of flaming spices and beeswax. Did it work? Of course it did, the duck fat softening the potentially nippy whisky, the aromas taking you into a new space.
The Johnnie Walker ‘Striding Can’ (geddit?) Challenge asked for a fizz aligned with occasion and place followed by a canned cocktail (which the bartender had to design) containing a Highball made from one part home-made cordial, one part whisky and three parts mineral water – also made to fit an occasion.
Simply effective: Canned Highballs prompted bartenders to consider whisky’s flavours
The challenges were about the drinks – of course they were – but what was more significant for me was the thinking which lay behind them. The simplicity of the task at hand means that there was nowhere for the bartender to hide. It demanded that they focus on a deep understanding of the whisky’s flavours and showing how they could be tweaked, elevated and transformed.
This wasn’t a shot of amber liquid in a glass. Neither was it an overcomplicated drink made to showcase a mastery of technique, but a way to show a deeper understanding of whisky and flavour – the sort of thinking which sticks in the bartenders’ minds.
Back in Frank & Dave’s basement, we were running out of Highball glasses as the Smoky Cokey orders kept flooding in. The Linkwood and Glen Elgin and Mortlach were taking a hammering (though the Royal Lochnagar distillery team remained resolutely brand loyal) – and that’s the point. Nips, Highballs, mixed drinks: whisky can play in each area.
The same was being repeated across the city, whose top bars and pubs all featured global bartending luminaries doing a guest slot. In The Gate, Tristan Stephenson (of Black Rock fame) was putting in his hardest bar shift of the last few years just to keep up with demand, while across The Gallowgate, Crucible’s Stu Bale had taken over The Cabin (Glasgow’s smallest pub), turned up its karaoke machine and started rocking out Roe & Coe mixes. Whisky was running through Glasgow’s veins (in a responsible fashion of course).
No-one is taking away your right to have a neat dram or add a little water. Equally, no-one is saying that cocktails are now the only way to drink it. The days of a blind adherence to the ‘right’ way are over. Instead, slowly and steadily whisky’s possibilities are being widened – not just how to drink it, but when to enjoy it as well.
11 September 2019
I was amused by the linguistic convolutions that Willie Grant’s has had to go through with regard to identifying the type of cask used for their newie (which I haven’t yet tried, just sayin’ guys…). ‘French cuvée casks that once contained the liquid that goes on to become some of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines,’ which, let’s face it, is a lot to try and fit onto a label.
I know why they have done it. After all, Bunnahabhain rightly got a polite warning earlier this year for naming said cask type. The Voldemort of wines is not aged in wood, meaning that there can be no such thing as a ‘that which shall not be named’ cask.
It does make me wonder whether this could be the start of something. Rather than simply saying what cask type has been used, give the punters clues instead. ‘A red wine which has been fortified before it is fully fermented’, ‘a fortified wine from the largest island in the Mediterranean, allegedly created by an English wine merchant’, and so on. Now that the industry is brimming with a new spirit of honesty maybe we can now name correctly the ‘Sherry’ casks which have been seasoned with wines from outside of the delimited region.
Glenfiddich Grand Cru: The new whisky is finished in casks used to ferment a wine which should not be named
I was musing on this and other things on the way to the pub the other night. I wanted a long refreshing drink that wasn’t beer, or still wine, or even liquid that goes on to become one of the world’s most extraordinary sparkling wines. There had been enough of that the night before. A Highball would be perfect.
I scanned the back bar. Smoky whisky and soda, that would do. It’s a great combination – all to do with the way in which dilution heightens smokiness while the mineral element of soda latches on to any salinity. Highballs work – but I suspect you might have heard me say that before.
‘A Caol Ila Highball, if that’s OK,’ I said to the generous person buying. The conversation turned to Brexit and whether David Frost had been as good a negotiator for the Scotch Whisky Association as he is being for Boris. The drinks were taking a while. Eventually my friend returned.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘they refused to make you a Highball. Said that they never allow malt whisky to be mixed’. This took me by surprise. Especially as he then handed me a Highball. ‘I had to buy a dram and then a soda water and do it myself.’
‘Haud me back!’ cried one of the party. ‘I’ll sort him out.’ We calmed him down. No need to make a fuss. After all, we had drinks.
Scotch and soda: Is serving malt whisky in a Highball really such an affront?
In my time, I’ve had a number of discussions with barmen over the Highball, but have never been refused one. Sometimes it’s led to a chat about why the mix works, sometimes it’s just a raised eyebrow and an infinitesimal shake of the head, but I get the drink. The customer is always right… or thinks they are always right as I used to tell staff.
So, this was an exception, but it made me pause. Any resistance I’ve met over the Highball has come in the UK, and more so in Scotland and yet one reason whisky has long struggled in this country is because generations have been inculcated with the belief that whisky has to be taken drunk neat. If they tried it for the first time that way, I’ll wager that most didn’t like the taste and never tried it again. You get one shot at this if you pardon the pun. If it doesn’t work you’ve lost a drinker for life.
I looked round the bar. The tourists were all on drams (served neat) while the locals were on anything else. Yes, you are seeing more Highballs being served and becoming bartenders’ favourite mixed drink. It’s all heartening news, but we are only at the start of a long road to get whisky seen as a drink that is a versatile as its competitors.
Standing there arms folded, saying: ‘No. This is the only way you can drink it,’ will not help whisky’s cause. Making one while being obviously irritated by the effrontery of someone asking for their whisky to be lengthened, while gaily serving gin and tonics hardly sends out a positive message either.
If whisky is to make new converts, if it is to show that a Highball is as good a drink as a gin and tonic, then Scotland should be leading the way in demonstrating whisky’s versatility rather than being a bastion of outmoded and reactionary thinking. The fight continues… Next time I’m going to ask for a Smoky Cokey and see what happens. There might be a small explosion.
04 September 2019
‘Let the light in,’ says George Broadhurst. ‘Light is life in a forest. It feeds biodiversity.’ Somewhere deeper in the grove, a woodpecker drills, while the eyes of young deer warily regard us from their shelter. We’re in a managed plantation at Killearn, near Glasgow, where George is the forester, gazing up the trunk of an oak tree selected for potential felling. If the wood is suitable, it will be used to make a cask for Whyte & Mackay.
Time expands when you look at a tree, unravelling backwards to when it was planted – this tree would have gone into the ground in 1880 – then leaps forwards to an unimaginable future. The oak saplings which will be planted here this year won’t be harvested until 2140. Laying down whisky for use in 30 years is nothing compared to planning and managing a forest.
I started to thinking of all I’d been told about Scottish oak: some folks said that there wasn’t any, others claimed that, if there was, it was unsuitable for whisky. And yet, here it is being felled, seasoned and coopered, one element in a wide-ranging project initiated by Whyte & Mackay’s blender Gregg Glass.
Forest Folklore: Scottish oak does exist, but its presence in the whisky world will only ever be modest
Each forest is part of a complex network of roots and fungi, a mycorrhiza, sharing food, nutrients, and resources, communicating and warning. A forest is not a collection of trees and plants, but a single organism -– the Wood Wide Web.
This linkage has not been mirrored above the leaf litter. Symbioses have been fractured as economics and warfare impinged on Scotland’s ancient hardwood forests. As they have declined (replaced by faster-growing softwood monocultures) so sawmills have disappeared, and cooperages have become places for repair rather than cask construction. Building a sustainable future for Scottish oak necessitates creating new connections.
For Glass to find the oak, he first must speak with landowners and foresters, seek out the dwindling number of small-scale specialist sawmills, explaining the specific requirements needed for building a cask which they may have not encountered before, then work out which cooperages can process the wood.
There’s also the matter of what to do with the rest of the tree. Only a small amount of the wood can be used for casks, so on a long night drive to Invermoriston we try to think up other ways of using oak (other than firewood). There’s alliances with furniture- and cabinet-makers, but what of ink, dyes, perfume, tanning, cocktail bitters, tiny cups made from acorns (it was getting late by the time that one emerged)?
If it had been light outside we’d have been revelling in the wildness and emptiness of our surroundings, the bare hills, the heather, the isolated lochs, those solitary pines. Instead we should turn that on its head and see it as an unnatural landscape, rather than a natural one; a desert, denuded and devastated by deer and sheep.
Giving back: Replanting schemes like Trees for Life are vital to maintaining Scottish oak forests
‘This is what a Scottish woodland should look like,’ says Alex Baxter the next morning. We’re at Dundreggan where the charity Trees For Life (for which he’s corporate development officer) is revitalising the Scottish wild forest. We’re standing beneath a waterfall among a rich layering of bracken and heather, juniper, birch, oak and pine. Trees For Life shows what is possible and by also working with them, Glass has shifted the project away from being for commercial gain – a gimmick, a PR exercise – into something richer.
Later that day, we’re at the Speyside Cooperage to see its apprentices assembling Scottish oak casks and ends. ‘Scottish oak?’ says general manager Andrew Russell. ‘It’s interesting… because it’s Scottish. There’s no reason not to do it, and we’re the only ones able to do it because we have the equipment.’ He is now amassing a reserve of oak for the future – and the wider industry.
Though the species may be the same [Q.petraea and Q. robur] as in mainland Europe, how will each express itself in terms of flavour? Only time will tell. Perhaps the aroma might not be substantially different, but that wouldn’t negate the need to use and plant oak in Scotland. It should be done because it is good for biodiversity, because it is the right thing to do.
‘You don’t find out until you open it,’ Kenny Brodie, sawmill owner and bespoke joinery specialist had told me as we looked at the inside of a trunk the day before. ‘What looks promising might be unuseable.’ The same applies here. You don’t know what might happen until you try it, but that’s not reason not to do it.
Scottish oak won’t compete in volume terms with the US or mainland Europe, but that’s not the point. This isn’t whisky riding into town saying ‘we will save you’, but being another element in the slow, precarious revival of the country’s forests as they move away from the dark blanket of Velcro-needled Sitka spruce and return to a richer biodiversity. It is a reconnection. Let the light in.
21 August 2019
The office has a distinct smell of juniper. In fact, I’m pretty convinced my skin smells of it as well. That comes from deciding to make 300-plus serves from 80 different gins. It’s been a long day, but I wanted to get to grips with what has happened to the gin market in recent years – and the change is noticeable.
Gin started life as the first global spirit, though in a manner different to how we use the term these days. It was the first social spirit whose character came from ingredients obtained from around the world; the offspring of the mercantile empires of the Netherlands and Britain; the first manifestation of the world shrinking, an exotic distillation of trade routes.
Local spirits spoke in a different way. If gin was expansive, they looked to their soils, earth, and air. They looked inwards. In time although Cognac and single malt Scotch became global in reach, they remained rooted to place. Gin stayed global in flavour… until now.
As gin has become reborn, so its new distillers have begun to make spirits which reflect more clearly the scents of the place: South Africa’s fynbos or the Australian outback, the shores and moors of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England; the mountains of Norway, the hillsides and forests of Japan. Pepperberry and lemon myrtle, yuzu, sencha and hinoki; bog myrtle and horseradish, rowan berries, elderflower, milk thistle, and seaweed. Yes, the botanical mix still has global reach, but many gins are now more determinedly distillates of a specific environment.
Sense of place: Single malts like Talisker are rooted in their locality and individual identity
Blended Scotch has long been moving in the opposite direction. By their nature, global brands become – or can become – stateless, not so much the product of a place than a concept with a tangential relationship to origins. The brand becomes the focal point; its place of manufacture is secondary.
Maybe blends’ success is down to them being malleable, their ability to adapt to the needs of different occasions and markets, having the versatility to be served in numerous ways. This fluidity of image and usage makes it easier for people to relate to. It becomes theirs, but as a consequence it loses touch with its roots.
Blends’ biggest challenge in a world where the local is becoming a more important motivation for purchase is to try and reinforce their Scottish roots. It’s a tricky manoeuvre, and one which can easily slip into cliché and sentimentality. But the majors are trying – the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh is at the forefront of this recalibration.
If the blend world is one of amenability, flex and inclusiveness, single malt’s point of difference is being an intense expression of a singular identity. Each single malt will always be different to its neighbour. Why? Because blenders need that to be the case. It means that the malt world is one of variety and exploration.
Global-local: Johnnie Walker’s Edinburgh Experience fuses the locality of malts with the global reach of blends
It may chafe with the globalist views of marketing departments, but malts do what blends can’t – and vice versa.
If single malts begin to try and wear the same garments as blends in an attempt to become global brands their essence is eroded. Malts are defined by location and the specificity of their flavour. The distiller has to balance being true to that distillery character while still finding new ways of expressing it.
The danger lies in forgetting that and trying to imitate what other malts are doing. ‘There’s a backlash against Sherry? OK we’ll do a volte face and take it out.’
‘Consumers like vanilla? We can do that as well.’
‘Some folks don’t care for smoke? We can hide it.’
In each case, the distillery’s foundations are being chipped away, individuality being replaced by standardisation. Malts can become brands, they just can’t become brands in the same way as blends. Malts are local.
14 August 2019
As you may know, for reasons which are too tedious to go into here, I’m not the greatest for social media. I do however occasionally dabble in the world of Instagram in the belief that pictures are less open to misinterpretation, and less of a bully pulpit than 140 characters.
Many of the folks I follow will post shots of cocktails and bottles. Hey, it’s the world I (and they) live in. Some people prefer brows and pouts. I’m not judging. Anyhow, one recent posting concerned the arrival of the new trio of whiskies from Bruichladdich (to be reviewed on these pages soon) which looks at the influence of barley on flavour.
For once, rather than just likes and emojis, the image attracted comments. The person who posted the shot was enthusiastic about this latest development in the debate, though it wasn’t a position that was universally shared. One of the responses stated (and I paraphrase), ‘Who cares about all of that? All I want to know is, do they taste good?’
Whisky debate: Bruichladdich’s barley studies attracted attention on Instagram
My initial reaction was: ‘Of course it feckin’ matters. This is an interesting – and significant – area of development in whisky.’ My sanctimonious thumb was poised to painfully tap out a response. Then I stopped. He was right. Does it matter if the whiskies aren’t any good? What does any of this experimentation mean if the result is less than compelling? The consumer might buy into the concept on a theoretical level, but it can only be considered a success if the whisky is good.
In fact, if a new area is to be opened up, ‘good’ isn’t sufficient. The whisky has to be head-turningly, goose-pimple-stimulating, eyeballs on stalks amazing. If it isn’t, then people will, rightly, move on.
If whisky is to genuinely innovate rather than just being like some heritage rock act hauling their saggy arses around halls playing the hits one last time – ‘Remember this one from the ’90s? It’s Port finish!’ – it has to be bold and make new whiskies which are not just different, but extraordinary.
The retailer will only stock the whisky if they know it will be sold. The distiller will only move to a new lower-yielding model if it still proves to be profitable. The farmer will only plant the barley if he makes a return. It’s a chain, with us at one end.
Stand-out spirit: Innovations should lead to bold new whiskies for drinkers
This means that as a distiller you have to be honest and open. Not all the new ideas will work. Some innovations will fail, but others will stick. Those will be the ones which have serious thinking behind them, which look at the long-term rather than the quick fix, innovations which show a path rather than just leaping on whatever influencers’ goldfish minds have decided is this minute’s hot thing. It’s the whole lipstick on a pig thing all over again.
It means trying to move things along while also understanding, deeply, the style, character and the templates which have been laid down over the years. Then putting your liquid findings out there in the hope that someone finds it as interesting as you do. As a writer you do something similar, putting your suggestions out there to be considered, then more often than not, rejected. It’s all you can do. You make the whisky, or you write about it, then you hand it all over to the drinker and it becomes theirs. They make the decision. You move on.
As I was writing this I was listening to David Berman’s new (and, heartbreakingly, final) album Purple Mountains. One verse jumped out:
‘Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines.’
All we can do is keep on creating those new spaces.
31 July 2019
My Dad worked at Glasgow Cross, selling clothes. He used to say he travelled in ladies’ underwear, and at one time he did. By the time I came along, he’d given up being on the road as a representative and settled for a buying job in a department store. It suited him, being an East End boy. I never asked him what it was like leaving that very different part of the city for the leafier environs of the west.
I never went for a drink with him. He died when I was (legally) too young to indulge. If we had, it is likely we would have gone somewhere around here. A back-street boozer, a place to sit and chat with a hauf and hauf. Maybe we’d even have ventured to the Saracen’s Head (aka the Sarry Heid) one of the city’s famous – or notorious – drinking establishments. A place where you could nurse a pint while looking at the skull of Maggie Wall, the last witch executed in Scotland, and watch locals drink the house speciality, the White Tornado; a concoction of all the dregs and spirituous remnants in the bar.
Fresh look: Despite its modern exterior, a pub has stood on this premises in Glasgow since 1820
Yet the Sarry wasn’t always like that. The original, across the Gallowgate, was built in 1755 as a high-class establishment, with 36 bedrooms and stabling for 60 horses. It was where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed in 1773 as they headed south after their tour of the Isles.
‘He enjoyed in imagination the comforts which we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee,’ Boswell reported. ‘I remember he put a leg up on each side of the grate, and said, which a mock solemnity, by way of soliloquy, but loud enough for one to hear it: “There am I, an Englishman, sitting by a coal fire”.’
They were joined by various professors from the university and, according to legend, Adam Smith; a meeting which, according to the story, ended in a swearing match between the father of economics and the man of letters. I daresay it was an occupational hazard in those days when drinkers would fathom the house’s mighty five-gallon punch bowl many times; the very punch bowl which is on display down the road in the People’s Palace.
A coaching inn and a poet’s pub in whose beds rested Robert Burns, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Then, the gentry moved west and the area became a working class district, the coaches stopped and the Sarry moved over the road to become the pub it is today – although whisky historians might like to know that, in 1892, an illicit distillery was discovered in Saracen Lane.
Famous patron: Scots poet Robert Burns frequented Glasgow’s whisky waterholes
Now though, there’s another reason to go down to the Gallowgate. One of those bunker-like pubs where you expect the seats and tables to be screwed to the floor (and in the old days the ashtrays to be screwed to the tables) has been painted bright yellow and black and renamed The Gate. It’s located directly opposite Barrowlands – the finest music venue in Britain by the way – and the Barras market, where you can buy pretty much anything you need, or didn’t know you needed.
Inside The Gate, there’s 120-odd whiskies (the number seems to grow daily), a cocktail menu and Tennent’s on draught. There’s a toastie machine and, in time, you’ll be able to play a Highball game based on Wheel of Fortune. It’s the brainchild of Andy Gemmell, bartender, former brand ambassador, bar consultant and gent.
There’s been a pub on this site for 200 years. As the crew started to peel back layers of plaster and wood, other eras revealed themselves. Some of the oldest timbers have been repurposed for the interior, though the tree which was growing out of the roof has, sadly, gone.
Choice for everyone: The Gate features more than 120 whiskies on its shelves
Is this gentrification? Certainly there’s money finally being invested in the area, but Gemmell is wanting this pub to be somewhere where you can drink a pint of Tennent’s (made just down the road), or a dram, a Highball or a cocktail. It’s a pub, and pubs are by their nature democratic. Who knows, in time maybe a lecturer in economics might get stuck into an argument on the nature of free trade with a stallholder from the Barras. It joins the Ben Nevis in Finnieston, the Lismore in Partick, the Pot Still and Bon Accord in the town centre, and the nearby Scotia as a great Glasgow whisky pub.
The Gallowgate’s pubs have been high-class joints, then dives. The Gate’s arrival shifts this paradigm. It, and the area, also mirrors whisky’s fortunes; its rise, decline and reawakening in a slightly different guise.
In the past, as a whisky drinker you were either the height of fashion, or a drunk. What The Gate does is reflect a modern, more nuanced view of a drink which no longer exists in the old dichotomy which stated you were either a whisky drinker, or not.
If you want that pint of Tennent’s then have it; if you want a cocktail, that’s okay as well. No rules, no airs or graces. It encapsulates what whisky should always be about: egalitarian, enjoyable and fun.
It was only after the third drink that I realised that we were here on what would have been my Dad’s birthday. I quietly raised a glass. He’d have loved it here.
17 July 2019
Snath, tang, rib, beard, swath and windrow. Terms as mystical to me as wort, grist, mash, bung and draff are to the vast majority of the populace. As Jim Beveridge pointed out when I chatted to him, to fully understand something, you need to have the right language. I’d add you also need to have the right skills, which is why I was standing in a field at the marvellous Weald & Downland Living Museum, the handle (sorry, snath) of my scythe in hand.
Yes, you read that correctly. A scythe. I can’t quite remember how the conversation had started, but as it involved my friend Karen (the world’s best-connected person), it potentially had begun with the breeding rates of puffins, careered through leather-working in the Cotswolds before alighting, somehow, on the revival of scything. ‘Always fancied a scythe,’ I mused, thinking no more of it. Two days later, a book on learning how to do it arrived.
‘Thought you might like this, K,’ read the inscription.
As usual, she wasn’t wrong, but hey… who actually owns a scythe these days? On my birthday I discovered the answer to that question. Me. I’m still not sure whether it was a subtle comment on the part of my wife about my advancing years, or a less-than-subtle hint about the length of the grass, but it came with a voucher for a day’s scything lesson at Weald & Downland, which is why I was standing, etc…
Old ways: Scything highlights why some traditional skills should be kept alive
We assembled our scythes and took a few hesitant swipes at the grass, then moved to the orchard, which was waist-deep in grass and nettles. Scything is a complex, yet gentle business. Back straight, knees bent (‘pretend you’re a sumo wrestler’), use the hips, not the arms, cut in an arc, always keep the blade on the ground, don’t push, let it do the work, sharpen every couple of minutes, don’t cut your fingers off.
It was a struggle. There’s a mass of movements to remember and you automatically flail around, hacking the grass rather than slicing it and leaving the pile (the windrow) to one side. Yet, somehow, over the hours, a rhythm started to emerge.
I became aware of every element without focusing on any specific one; scything without scything, if you want to be Zen about it. I began to listen rather than look, then something would slip and I’d revert to my default ball of confusion.
I began to see the parallels to whisky-making, the skills which are learned through touch, aroma and sound, so that your movements and decisions become second nature, almost intuitive. Whisky-making without making whisky, if you like.
You establish a muscle memory, like Jason Roy flinging the ball to take that last New Zealand wicket (though the match should have been drawn, surely?).
There are other parallels. We scythers – who sneer and shake our heads at wrong techniques such as those seen in the BBC’s Poldark (we also keep our shirts on, which is probably a wise idea) – have gone back to the craft because it is quiet, calm, better for wildflower meadows, and less destructive than strimming. It also keeps an important old craft alive.
Tried and tested: Some craft skills in whisky-making are essential to the process
Who, though, wants to go back to the old ways of making whisky? These days we have greater automation, the process is safer and more streamlined and, as we are told constantly, it all helps to deliver greater consistency. Why stick to outmoded practices when you have computers? Why scythe when you can fire up the lawnmower?
But while in no way disputing the talents of the highly-trained folks working at distilleries, or suggesting they don’t care about quality, I do wonder – if you are locked in a control room looking at a screen, if you can’t smell or hear what is going on in the distillery – whether you become distanced from the process, whether you inevitably start to trust the machine, not your knowledge and experience. Are skills being worked out of the industry?
More than one of the (rapidly diminishing) old guard have asked where the new distillers are coming from. In this boom time for distilleries and breweries, is there sufficient new blood coming in – and who is teaching tomorrow’s distillers the craft? Is a skills gap emerging?
The issue touches on the real need for apprentice schemes as well as graduate training programmes, which teach the practical hands-on skills of distilling. Understanding that is more important, I’d argue, that showing proficiency at filling in compliance forms and colour-coding your day.
You can’t turn the clock back and ignore the changes. At the same time, maybe whisky occasionally needs to pick up its scythe.
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 a rhino hidden 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, 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?
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.
Isabella Tree, Wilding (Picador)
George Monbiot, Feral (Penguin)
Susan Wright, Peter Cairns & Nick Underdown, Scotland: A Rewilding Journey
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.
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.
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