Building work is now underway following a lengthy excavation process at the historical site.
From the Editors
Shorts from our editorial team
07 December 2016
I was watching an old BBC documentary about the Clyde shipyards the other night, which took me back to my childhood; memories of standing on the doorstep at midnight on Hogmanay, listening to the horns of the ships on the river.
I’m old enough to remember the docks still in operation, the Black & White horses in their stable at Washington Street and, further along the Clyde, those shipyards. On occasion, we’d go down to watch launches, as enormous hulls rattled splintered logs, dragging chains sliding into the green-and-brown murk of the river.
I’m also of the age to recall the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, that inspired piece of industrial action. Faced with a disputed bankruptcy the workers, instead of striking, locked the management out and kept on building ships.
Shipyard on the Clyde: Distillers must learn from the lack of forward planning that destroyed shipyards
It’s perhaps easy to be nostalgic. No-one misses the lack of safety and the tough working conditions, but the ultimate failure of shipbuilding on the Clyde was the start of Scotland’s great industrial decline, the ramifications of which are still being felt. The closures also destroyed communities and a sense of worth – something that was commented on in the film by the great trade unionist leader, the late Jimmy Reid.
He recalled once walking into a Clydeside pub and noticing that a lot of the old guys were crying. He figured that someone had died on the yard – an occupational hazard – but discovered that their grief was because the Queen Elizabeth, built at the John Brown’s yard on Clydeside, had caught fire and sunk in Hong Kong.
No matter that none of them would ever have been able to afford to sail on her; she remained their ship, forged out of steel and sweat on the clarty banks of the river. She was part of them.
His reminiscences had an echo of talks I’ve had over the years with distillery workers – especially those of an older generation. ‘I was on holiday,’ the story would begin, ‘and there was a bottle of [he’d name his whisky] behind the bar. It gave me real pride. Imagine that, my whisky going all that way around the world.’ Sometimes they’d mention it to the bartender, but more often they’d just sit and smile inwardly.
It was the same when overseas visitors started to arrive at distilleries, the same sense of amazement and pride that this tiny speck of a place could so affect people’s lives that they would spend time and money to make a pilgrimage there.
That warm and fuzzy side of whisky is not how it is often viewed by those in charge. To them it, like shipbuilding, is a business – and businesses are there to make profit. Seeing Jimmy Reid again took me to his extraordinary inauguration speech as rector of Glasgow University in 1972, which The New York Times compared to the Gettysburg Address.
‘Profit is the sole criterion used by the establishment to evaluate economic activity,’ he said. ‘From the Olympian heights of an executive suite, in an atmosphere where your success is judged by the extent to which you can maximise profits, the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants' books.
‘To appreciate fully the inhumanity of this situation, you have to see the hurt and despair in the eyes of a man suddenly told he is redundant… Someone, somewhere has decided he is unwanted, unneeded, and is to be thrown on the industrial scrapheap.
‘From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’
Pride and joy: Distillery workers will often feel immensely proud to spot their whiskies on back bars around the world
Firms have a duty of care to the people who work for them. All of the major distillers are currently, quietly, embarking on sly and brutal cuts to their workforces. People who have dedicated their lives to a company – and to whisky – are being let go in the name of supposed ‘efficiencies’. Rather, they are the collateral damage from poor business decisions made by others whose jobs are safe.
This might seem strange when all the indications are that this is a time for opportunity for Scotch – and therefore a time when investment, rather than cutbacks, is needed – but at the corporate level there is a sense of unease.
The people who pay are usually those who care the most. They don’t just work in distilleries; they are the unseen ones, who assiduously work behind the scenes. They may not all distil whisky, but they help make it what it is.
They are the ones with tears in their eyes when something they have made disappears, the ones with that quiet smile of pride when they see their bottle in some far-flung bar, or a stranger nods at them in acknowledgement of the pleasure that their work has brought.
The shipyards went as a result of bad forward planning, poor industrial relations and lack of investment in equipment, but also a lack of faith in people. There’s a lesson to be learned.
29 November 2016
‘So we’re drinking and we’re dancing, and the band is really happening, and the Johnnie Walker wisdom running high.’ – Leonard Cohen, Closing Time
I’ve been confined to my scratcher [he means bed – Ed] for a few days. I’m better now, thanks for asking, or maybe it’s just the drugs. Anyway, it stopped travelling, drinking, tasting and (up until now) writing.
The advantage was that, other than mainlining daytime antique shows and drifting into crazy and crazed sleep patterns, I could listen, uninterrupted, to music. Leonard Cohen’s never far away in normal circumstances, but he’s been on heavier than usual rotation recently for obvious reasons. He became the foundation of the sick bed soundtrack.
Leonard Cohen: The late singer used whisky to ease his stage fright
And so to Closing Time’s opening phrase. We’ve all been there, or wish we had, or fooled ourselves into thinking that we were. We have experienced the whisky wisdom running high, been energised by a flood of erudition and intellect, the sudden blazing revelation of truth, and words that come too quickly to articulate.
A place where the problems of the world seem to solve themselves after one amber kiss, where madcap schemes are hatched, lifetime friendships formed and rivalries banished. Where everyone is spinning and dancing in a room which is revolving on a planet that is hurtling through the void.
We know, as Cohen tells us, that ‘there will be hell to pay when the fiddler stops’, but she is still there, elbow bent, and as long as that music continues there is hope that these mad possibilities may become reality; the world will change and be better.
Why did he pick whisky to help fuel this? ‘Johnnie Walker wisdom’ works in terms of rhythm and alliteration, but Cohen always chose his words precisely, laid them down gently. Whisky is a wise drink when treated with respect. It has a quality which, in the right company and at the precise moment, will suffuse the company with a golden glow of possibilities. It binds you all tight, illuminates and warms. It is a drink of the heart.
He knew this because he was a whisky drinker. He would have one before going on stage to calm the stage fright that he still suffered from, even in his eighties. His voice, he once said, was the result of ‘about 500 tonnes of whisky and millions of cigarettes’.
But Closing Time is a Leonard Cohen song. On the surface, it’s about decadence and debauchery, but it’s also about love, lust, ageing, parting and death. It’s a mad dance at the end of time, where we have one eye looking out for the dawn to break behind our left shoulder.
It asks: should we stop dancing and be sensible, or keep dancing because connecting with life is what matters? It says this hedonism has to be balanced, that the wisdom accrued fades in the morning light as the hangover hits. The party will stop. Closing time will happen.
You search for the possibility that the moment can be stalled, that maybe a balance can be achieved and the wisdom retained. There was a glimmer of that possibility contained in a video interview Cohen gave when he was sequestered at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. On entering his quarters, he offers his interviewer a whisky. She’s surprised.
One more pour: When treated with respect, there’s wisdom to be found in whisky
‘When one isn’t working and is entertaining, it would be entirely appropriate to drink,’ he replies. ‘In fact, it would be a great breach of hospitality if I didn’t offer you something to drink.’ She’s still clearly bemused. Zen monks aren’t meant to have a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Riedel glasses.
‘If you want to take a nip of Scotch and still follow the [Zen] regime then… fine,’ he explains. ‘If you can incorporate it into your practice, then go ahead. People worry that I am not working hard enough, or suffering enough… or following the regime as seriously as I should, [but] even though I smile occasionally and raise my glass, I am suffering sufficiently and following all the rules.’ He grins.
As the song slides into 5am introspection, he sings: ‘It looks like freedom, but it feels like death, it's something in between, I guess it's closing time,’ which seems a particularly prescient phrase at this point in history.
At a time when wisdom seems to be in short supply, we need to find that bar and that fiddler, then create some of our own. The music of hope will play until we tell it to stop. The hangover is too dreadful to contemplate. One more sip. It’s not closing time yet.
23 November 2016
Oslo. It was snowing. The kid inside, never far away, woke fully and poked its tongue out, allowing the first flake to melt on my tongue. Later, there would be snowball fights. It wasn’t settling thickly in the city, but friends reported that in the hills above the city it was lying deeper.
The skis had been brought out, tyres changed, and plans were being laid for the winter’s cross-country expeditions. When winter arrives, Norwegians seem to wake up. As the rest of the northern hemisphere draws its whisky festival schedule to a close, so theirs begins.
Community spirit: The ambience at Oslo Whisky Festival is akin to a family gathering
Maybe it makes perfect sense. Whisky to many is a drink of the darker months, to be taken indoors, as central heating. Who am I to disagree with that Nordic frame of mind?
I certainly wouldn’t ever dispute the insider knowledge of the show’s presiding genius, the indefatigable Chris Maile, Norway’s ambassador for Scotch and Scotland.
At a time when many shows are edging themselves away from classic Scottish imagery – am I the only one to notice the distinct lack of kilts at events these days? – at Oslo’s, every announcement was preceded by a skirl on the bagpipes, played by Chris of course. When you have a show on three floors you need something to draw people’s attention.
If Oslo often has the feeling of a small town, then the show gives the impression of a family gathering. There’s a sense of community, as people take time to chat and socialise in between dramming. At times it seems as if the whisky is only there as a support for socialising, and that’s not a bad thing either. There’s no rubber legs, no barging in to get drams, just a slow and gentle appreciation.
While Scotch-centric, the buzz at the show (other than an excellent ‘Chris Maile’ single cask from Highland Park) were the whiskies from three Norwegian distilleries: Gjoleid from Arcus; a selection from Grimstad’s Det Norske Brenneri (DNB), already showing the influence of new blender Jon Bertelsen; and the first offering from Myken, an island (with a population of nine) in the Arctic Circle, a five-hour sail off the west coast. I know dedication to whisky-making has now reached new levels of madness.
What’s it like you ask? Myken’s peated new make was truly excellent; Gjoleid’s akvavit casks showed great balance; while the mix of ex-Cognac and Sauternes casks by DNB showed huge promise.
If, on an initial glance, Oslo is a traditional show, it was the reaction to these whiskies which showed how the market is changing. After all, the toughest audience to win over is often the domestic one – just look at Scotch in Scotland.
Sip and savour: Oslo Whisky Festival offered three floors of spirits to sample
The snow was still falling on the Sunday morning as I skittered over the ice to the station. A quick turnaround – home, what’s home? – a swap of case, and I headed to Singapore for Whisky Live. Safe to say, it wasn’t snowing, though I suppose anything is possible. If Dubai can have a ski slope, then I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of Singaporean engineers to do something similar.
Think of this as Paris Whisky Live with extra humidity. It is, after all, run by La Maison du Whisky. Long days, pop-up bars (Tokyo’s stellar Trench Bar re-appeared much to my distinct joy), Marlène’s chamber of secrets and a specialities room.
It was also the first time I’ve seen a binocular and camera stand at a whisky show, but it was for Leica. This probably says as much as you need to know about who drinks whisky in Singapore.
If Norway was a guy’s night out, then Singapore was more inclusive: younger, with a probable 60:40 male: female split and, on the Sunday, more bartenders.
Here, as in Oslo, there seemed to be a general trend away from established brands towards smaller players and independents, and a willingness to explore non-Scotch whiskies and other spirits.
For me, the equivalent to the Norwegian whiskies was the discovery of Chalong Bay rum from Phuket in Thailand, while in a joint class with Luca Gargano of Velier we found a new and eager audience ready to treat rum as a quality spirit – the equal of Scotch.
The only way a show can prosper is by understanding its audience and being willing to lead them into new directions. For Scotch, that means having new stories to tell.
14 November 2016
Recently, the singer Shirley Collins was described as being a ‘radical traditionalist’, which seems a somewhat paradoxical statement. Tradition, after all, is permanent, unchanging, the sound of the past being handed down through generations. It is sober, constant, conservative even, built in established truths.
Radicalism, on the other hand, challenges everything that tradition stands for. It is innovative, iconoclastic, edgy.
Yet Shirley Collins is just that. She has just released her first new record for 38 years – Lodestar – and at the age of 81. Her singing is deeply embedded in tradition, but has never been purist or restrictive. Rather it has always seemed to exist in a different timeframe, simultaneously modern and ancient while being neither.
It is ‘folk’ in the sense of ‘folk tale’, a fabulous place of metaphor and symbolism; a place of death and blood; betrayal and love; murder and innocence; celebration and nonsense. It is unadorned, but never simple. She doesn’t sing as much as let the song possess her, allowing those old words and music to rest gently in the air, slowly altering your perceptions. Radical, yes, but traditional.
Golden Decanters: Is the independent bottler really challenging the norms of Scotch?
While listening to it, I remembered something which Eriko Horiki had said to me earlier in the year. She is an extraordinary, Kyoto-based artist who has taken Japanese paper-making (washi) into the world of fine art and sculpture. ‘Hand crafts like washi were innovative,’ she said. ‘That is why they have lasted for 1,500 years. Nothing can last without innovation.’
In other words, to maintain a tradition you have to be radical. Tradition has to adapt, be open to new voices, and needs to change while being respectful. There’s a lesson there for Scotch, surely?
Maybe, but maybe not one everyone has learned, as it was around the same time that I made this connection between the two women that news of the launch of Golden Decanters emerged.
I know Richard has dealt with the issues surrounding their price in his usual perceptive fashion, but that wasn’t my concern. Instead, it’s the firm’s claim that they were ‘tired of tradition, tartan and twee’ and as a result had commissioned Glasgow-based textile designers Timorous Beasties to create the aforesaid decanters.
The fact that Famous Grouse had worked with the design firm a few years ago was not an issue. I’m a fan of the studio’s work, which challenges norms and takes a tradition forward. They came to people’s attention with their ‘Glasgow toile’ fabric, which on first glance is an accurate recreation of 18th-century French toile with its scenes of rural life.
On closer examination, the figures in the Beasties version were junkies shooting up in graveyards. Radical? Yes, but within a tradition.
The Golden Decanters are anything but. Their scenes of shooting, fishing, golfing and, er, a Heilan coo are the very symbols of the Balmorality*, which has ossified so many parts of Scottish culture for the past 170 years.
Whisky prospers when it challenges tradition, questions the norm and takes it gently forward. It respects the past, but sees the need for change. It succeeds when it has the same mindset as Shirley Collins when she allows a song to glow through her.
* Thanks to George Monbiot for the term.
24 October 2016
‘Things have moved on,’ my friend Z was telling me. ‘It’s less about the strength and effect these days. Now we’re all more concerned with flavour.’
It struck me that anyone with more than a passing interest in a flavour-led substance makes a similar journey. To begin with, it is taken for the impact: the euphoria, the talking, the sense of fun, the loosening of inhibitions, everything which allows whisky to become a social lubricant.
Over time, however, a more considered approach begins to take over. The fun aspects may remain, but now the drinker has moved beyond wanting the blunt hit of alcohol and is seeking out the subtleties, the quieter transportative trails of aroma which bring to mind place, memory, fruits and flowers.
But Z wasn’t talking about whisky – he’s more of a rum drinker anyway. He was talking about cannabis. Let it be said from the outset that I am not advocating the ingesting of illegal substances. Z’s findings were undertaken in countries where the partaking of such things is perfectly legal.
Cannabis calling...: Will consumers turn away from whisky to new worlds of flavour?
The shift, he explained, was away from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychotropic element in cannabis) and towards the plant’s terpenes – and specifically the different terpenes contained in each strain. A shift away from strength and on to subtlety. ‘A guy like you would love it,’ he enthused. ‘It’s what you’re always banging on about. Anyone who loves flavour will get off on this.’
Keeping things in simple terms, terpenes and terpenoids are the compounds which give aroma to the essential oils contained in plants. They’re used in perfumery, important in winemaking – and exist within whisky.
The list of terpene-drived aromas contained in cannabis is familiar to any whisky lover. ‘Myrcene’ gives clove, hops, citrus fruits, bay leaves, eucalyptus, wild thyme and lemon grass; ‘pinene’ is as piney as you’d expect; ‘limonene’ is contained in citrus fruits and rosemary; there’s the peppery accents of beta-caryophyllene; the floral elements given by linalool… you get the drift.
It’s an area of research of great interest to those involved in the potential medical applications of cannabis, and website Greenhouse Seeds has even created a cannabis terpene flavour wheel, which is worth comparing to the Scotch one.
This is of more than academic interest: cannabis has been legalised in many states in the US and the repeal movement is growing internationally. Only last week, the SNP (Scottish National Party) backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use and requested the UK government to devolve the power to regulate the drug to Holyrood. As we’ve seen in North America, medical use inevitably leads to full decriminalisation.
Could we see a time when a next generation turns its back on alcohol and goes instead for the impact of THC, and then terpene-derived bliss? Will there be Scotchcannabis.com? It’s entirely possible.
Favouring flavour: There is even a cannabis terpene flavour wheel
There have been numerous financial reports in the US predicting that the alcohol industry could be damaged by the legal cannabis industry, though it is too early to say whether people will make the choice between smoking and drinking – or simply do both.
The potential threat has been serious enough for that most sober of drinks producers, Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman, to state in its last four annual reports that the legalisation of marijuana should be considered ‘a business risk’.
A report by financial services firm Cowen and Co senior analyst Vivien Azer concluded that ‘while the alcohol beverage category has looked insulated from cannabis thus far – from a revenue perspective – with the legal market still in its infancy we think the risk to alcoholic beverage consumption will become increasingly apparent… In the last 10 years, alcohol incidence for US men has fallen 200 basis points, while cannabis has risen 260 basis points. Beer and whiskey are the most at risk of losing business’.
After all, as Z said, it’s all about flavour.
10 October 2016
You can tell by looking into their eyes. There’s a mildly crazed look, half sleep deprivation, with a dash of jetlag, mixed with just a soupçon of excess, garnished with a rasping throat.
Autumn is the time of year when the big consumer fairs, cocktail competitions and trade shows all crash together like mastodons, the fallout from the collision felt in the liver of each participant. We carry the battle scars with pride.
Not that I’m complaining; I’d rather be doing this than working down a mine – or working anywhere come to think of it. The close proximity of the shows does, however, produce a blurring effect which makes you – hopefully – see things in a new way.
It started as ever with Whisky Live Paris, which was – as the report will tell you – as inspiring as ever. It also seeded the idea of a breaking down of barriers. I’m old and grey enough to recall the times when ‘other spirits’, indeed ‘other whiskies’ were relegated to a different room, then rooms and then a wing.
Now, while there are zones containing each category people flow naturally from one to the other, pausing from their dramming to taking a Cognac here, a grappa there, now a rum or three, and then downstairs for gin. In one sense it was liberating. In another, you couldn’t help but wonder what Scotch’s role might be in this new egalitarian world.
Class act: Diageo World Class finalists didn’t shy away from Scotch
Twenty-four hours later I was sheened with sweat beside a Miami swimming pool watching the global finals of Diageo’s World Class competition, the world’s toughest test for bartenders.
Scotch has steadily inveigled itself into the event. Rarely used in early years, it now has equal billing with other quality spirits. No eyes widen when a bartender reaches for a single malt or blend to make a drink.
This year, Scotch again had its own challenge, as evil a test as I have witnessed. The finalists had to identify whiskies in a blind tasting, then dissect a blend and say what percentage of each whisky was in it, before plotting said blend on a flavour map, tasting a cocktail made with the blend and saying what the other component parts were. Impossible? Damn right.
Even though I always thought the idea of blending was to subsume individuality in favour of unity, thus making separation well-nigh impossible, this was still fiendishly difficult. Anyone who did well has a palate to die for, so step forward the winner of the challenge, Dandelyan’s Aidan Bowie.
As well as surreptitiously sipping mezcal (as any sensible person should), we talked Scotch, its future and the way in which throughout its history it has always been flavoured, mixed and lengthened.
Our weapons? An ‘improved’ Mamie Taylor made with Johnnie Walker Red (which like most standard blends is intended to be drunk long) and what has become a standby, Lagavulin and Coke. Before anyone writes in complaining about the latter – guys, it works as a combination but it is not the only way to drink this malt, merely an option.
If Scotch is to grow its presence behind the bar, then there has to be an acceptance that it has a role to play in mixed drinks as well as being excellent when taken neat, with rocks or water. Those who want to enjoy a single malt on its own are right – it is an amazing multi-faceted drink. But it is the fact that it is an amazing multi-faceted drink that means it has a role to play in bartending when used in a considerate and judicious manner.
Anyhow, from there it was overnight to London for the Whisky Show where the balance, as Angus MacRaild rightly points out, was perfectly struck between the ultra-rare ‘dream drams’ – the Bowmore class featuring Tempest, 1970s Deluxe, 25-year-old Small Batch, 30-year-old Sea Dragon, Black Bowmore and 1964 will go down in legend (and more on this later) – and new releases.
The Whisky Show: Imbibers were brought together by their love for Scotch and other whisky styles
Like Paris, this wasn’t restricted to Scotch. Amrut appeared with a 100% malted rye, there was Westland’s Garryana oak and the English Whisky Company’s pot still grain to name but three on the floor. In the ‘three masters’ class, Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo blew us all away with the first all-Mizunara (Japanese oak) blend, which had that restless innovator Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie salivating.
As with Paris, or Miami, there was a sense of tectonic plates continuing to shift. It is not as simplistic as Scotch being under threat, rather that the drinker is more open-minded as to where their whisky (or beverage) comes from. Prejudices are being shelved; quality and character rule.
This, as I’m sure I’ve said before, offers a great opportunity for Scotch. Rather than just leading, it can build on this interest and further develop its own identity.
That’s one to ponder on my way to Bar Convent Berlin today following last week’s annual London Cocktail Week...
Rest? Who needs it?
27 September 2016
We walk down the hill, detectors aloft, waiting for the click as the orange glow of Brighton dips away. The sun has gone. Sheep sit like boulders in the grass; a crow on a fencepost pretends to be an owl. It’s a time of settling down and seeming silence.
I did my first bat walk on Islay, leaving the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) centre at Loch Gruinart and heading along the road towards the loch in the gloaming, as long-eared and pipistrelle bats flitted out of farm buildings and started dive-bombing us for the mealworms we were flinging into the darkening air. When we arrived home, we bought two bat detectors to reveal this invisible sound world.
As we pass the badger sett, the bat calls start sounding like some strange mutant dub, growing in intensity as we group together in a little glade listening as they loop crazily above our heads, caught in torch beams guzzling gnats, fattening up for a long sleep. A tawny owl, hidden in the trees, starts murmuring.
Nocturnal behaviour: Can the sights and sounds of silent distilleries be recorded, like bats?
This magical little place is Balsdean. It was once a hamlet – just two farms, some workers’ cottages and a Norman chapel. The chapel went first, converted into a barn. One of the farms was next, spending time as a lunatic asylum. The final farm was evacuated in 1940 and the buildings used as target practice by the Canadian infantry.
Nothing is left; a community gone, leaving the hollow to the bats, owls, shapeshifting crows and startled sheep.
It’s strange how fragile things are, how places can just be wiped away; made invisible. It happens with whisky too. The Balsdean bats reminded me of a chat I’ve been having with photographer Sean Dooley about a potential project.
Not a catalogue and history of lost distilleries – that has been well-charted by Brian Townsend (there’s a new edition of his excellent book just out) – but how silent stills act as palimpsests, images of empty spaces, an examination of the untrustworthy nature of memory.
Is a former distillery site always just that, or does the space change as its former use is forgotten? Can echoes still be heard in each location? What sort of detector do we need for that? A camera? Words?
Thoughts about silent stills were floating about anyway, what with Brora and Port Ellen making their annual reappearance at the 2016 Diageo Special Releases tasting, the ghosts at the feast. I’m doing a tasting of two 50-year-old Karuizawas later today. The same applies there.
Drinking whiskies from silent stills becomes a process of exhumation because the distilleries only live in the taste. With each sip there is one less mouthful in the world, with each swirl of the glass more aromas are released never to return. With each year, the men who worked there dwindle.
Perhaps there’s little surprise that when we encounter whiskies such as these we lapse into sentimentalism and reverence. Critical faculties are suspended because we have all been brought up not to speak ill of the dead.
Better, surely, not to mourn but celebrate, and when tasting them meditate on the transience of things and the invisible world.
16 September 2016
Late night in downtown Bangalore: street food carts and alleys, electrical shops and eye clinics, faltering neon. Push through crowds along rutted pavements, with the constant pulse of horns and drone of motorbike engines, down some steps into a blasted out concrete bunker with a warren of side rooms.
Men – all men – move in a strange choreography, weave and dodge to the high bar, order from the pink shirted barkeep, hands blurring as a tetra pak of local whisky is bought, corner snipped, its contents poured into a glass, topped with water and brought to mouth.
Some slam it back, some take three gulps and others stand in groups talking. More take their place – order, hand over notes, take the packet, snip, pour, top up, drink… and repeat.
Apart from one guy who buys two miniatures of 100 Pipers for his ritual serve, everything served was local. This is whisky drinking Indian style.
Why isn’t Scotch breaking through? Look around. ‘We have two sorts of connoisseurs,’ my friend Vikram tells me. ‘The single malt ones and these guys. Don’t be fooled. They know what they want and if you alter your whisky in any way, they will tell you. Their fathers drank this brand, and their grandfathers.’
With Scotch three times as expensive as the local whisky, it looks like a tough road for many brands – but I’m not concerned here about strategic approaches for Scotch. Daniel Jones has done that recently (and if you haven’t read his piece yet, I recommend that you do, here). Instead, standing there in the noise and elbow jostle it made me wonder what we think of when we think of whisky, and what that response says about our own prejudices.
Logic suggests that the best place to see how whisky is drunk is where the bulk of whisky is consumed – call it a pub, dive bar, cantina, shebeen, or these ‘retail’ and ‘wines’ in India. You find them in almost every country – the hole in the wall where people have always congregated to drink, sing, debate and laugh. Places of domino tile slam and noise, camaraderie and purposeful drinking.
The whisky could be a taken from a bottle on a table, or in bulbous glasses littering the bar; in half-pints of Highballs in red-faced, sleeved-shirt, smoke-filled izakayas beside the tracks in Japan, or here in the dim light of snip and drink India. You don’t find out how South Africa drinks whisky by cowering in five star hotel bars in Sandton, but by going to Sowetan shebeens.
What whisky? What we call ‘standard’ brands. Whisky might have gained credibility and momentum when it became an acceptable middle class drink but it has continued to be built in places like these, and by brands such as these.
As a category, Scotch cannot survive on cocktails or high-priced single malts. There always has to be something (and by extension someone) doing the heavy lifting, and that will be what is known as – often dismissively – ‘standard’ blends.
Whisky grew thanks to Jack or Jim, or the two Johns – Jameson and Walker. (Enough of the Js, Ed). Yes, single malt is vital to the growing health of Scotch. It widens the notion of what whisky is (and can be), pulls in new drinkers, gussies the image up, and it will continue to have a growing influence. But – and it’s a big but – the importance of the ‘standard’ brand remains crucial.
It’s also worth pausing to consider what ‘standard’ means – a word for the basic, or instead something which sets a standard? Don’t sneer at them, don’t dismiss them, because when you do, you insult the people who drink (and make) them.
Instead, next time you are in a bar order one, mix it and enjoy.
12 September 2016
Was it a surprise that Sazerac stepped in? Initially, perhaps, but when you take a look at how it has developed its Bourbon portfolio – almost single-handedly creating a super-premium sector – you can begin to see why it views The Last Drop as a natural partner to brands such as van Winkle (which it distributes), Blanton’s and its annual Antique Collection limited release series. The firm was quite open in claiming that buying The Last Drop will ‘allow [it] to extend its portfolio into the super-premium, craft market’.
It is certainly good for The Last Drop. The issue for firms such as this is, obviously, access to stock. The Last Drop is well named as it specialises in the rarest of the rare – precious and unusual whiskies. The advantage of this business model is that they are able to supply what few others can.
Unusual offerings: The Last Drop specialises in the rarest of rare spirits
Its drawback is that, by their very nature, these whiskies are in short supply – mere dribbles in some cases. How can you grow a business which stands on the pinnacle of the finite? The answer, it would seem, is investment from a larger player.
It’s a good deal for both sides, giving Sazerac a small but snazzy string to its bow and access to this top-end market, while The Last Drop now has the capital to grow its business and, one would assume, widen the remit further (it has already bottled a Cognac) outwith Scotch.
Already, the naysayers are bemoaning another Scotch whisky firm falling into foreign hands. I’d look at it from the other side. Why are American firms investing (again) in Scotch? In the past few months we’ve had Brown-Forman buying BenRiach. Now, albeit on a smaller scale, here comes Sazerac (and I wonder if this is the only purchase it will make).
They have done so, not because both Scotch firms were being sold at bargain-basement prices, but because Scotch added something to their portfolio.
Firms like these don’t buy into categories which are staid, boring and in decline. They want to invest in ones which are dynamic and which will benefit their bottom line – this is business, guys, not altruism. Scotch has prestige; it has heft. It’s not a stolid, dependable, performer but a drink which people continue to be excited about.
It’s often hard to discern what any of these deals mean to whisky drinkers. I mean, does it matter to us who owns a whisky as long as it is still made and we can still buy a bottle?
What the two American purchases do give us is an indication of how the world sees Scotch whisky – as a drink with a bright future; at the top end, Sazerac says; and with single malt, chips in Brown-Forman.
Scotch isn’t in decline. It isn’t moribund, but in good health and is a drink which people – be they in the corporate world, or bellying up to a bar somewhere – continue to believe in.
Now that is more relevant to the drinker than the intricacies of finance.
31 August 2016
Recently, I misread a review of Beyoncé’s tour which said: ‘She whips the crowd up by getting them to chant: “I slay! I slay!”’ For a moment, I thought she was outing herself as an Ardbeg fan. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I mean, who doesn’t love Islay? I do, for starters: the place, the people, the whiskies. It’s an endlessly fascinating, layered place that goes way beyond peat and spirit.
Why, though, are people so obsessed with building distilleries there? There are three projects under consideration at the moment – Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe proposal is due to be discussed by councillors in the next few weeks – and there might be more. In fact, by the time the Islay bush telegraph gets hold of this piece, we’ll be hearing that there’s 12 new stills planned.
The question is: why Islay? There is a theory that the most profitable place to start a new ice cream shop in a seaside town is not at the other end of the prom from an existing establishment, but right next-door.
Starbucks operates on much the same principle. Build a distillery on Islay and you, the theory goes, benefit from the halo effect. If you’re near to a famous distillery, then surely something will have rubbed off?
Aren’t we in danger of getting Islay distillery overload? How many variations on the Islay theme can you get? How much more land is there – or, to be more precise, how much more water is there?
Islay, for all that you might have read and maybe experienced, is not blessed with infinite supplies of water. In fact, in many places it’s scarce. That restricts the number of sites which can be built, and also their capacity.
The other aspect to consider is: how do these new distilleries cut through? If there are eight established distilleries, each with its own character (in fact more, if you factor in the peated/unpeated variants at Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila), where will your point of difference be? More peaty? More Ardbeggy? Less?
If you build it…: Hunter Laing’s Ardnahoe plans are up for discussion soon
Speaking personally, I’d rather be the first distillery on Colonsay than the ninth, 10th or 11th on Islay. That would give me a point of difference immediately. Actually, I might not build on Colonsay, tempting though it is, as it already has a decent wee brewery and semi-regular transport links to the mainland – needed for supplies and, let’s not forget, tourists.
Canna would be fun because I could then also run the Canna Film Festival (©D Broom/C Orr), but transport links would be trickier. Muck would be worth a look, but the same applies.
The outer isles have possibilities, as Harris and hopefully Barra will demonstrate, though St Kilda might be a push. Mull could support a second still, but water issues might make it tricky for a third one on Skye. Building on Raasay, seen in this light, makes a lot of sense.
I’d probably head to Tiree. I said as much to someone who was thinking of building on Islay. ‘Where’s Tiree?’ they said. Maybe that’s part of it. Most of Scotland’s islands are insulae incognitae to many whisky lovers because they don’t have distilleries on then.
The name Tiree, some believe, comes from the Gaelic Tir-iodh land of corn, or Tir-I the granary of Iona. It is the sunniest spot in Britain; it’s also the windiest. It’s fertile as well – hence the name – allowing the possibility of using some locally grown barley. It also has previous, which in itself is a salutary tale of whisky-making in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Sunny spot: Tiree would be Dave Broom’s choice of island distillery location
Up until 1786, most of the farms on Tiree were making whisky, which was either being drunk on the island, used as rent money, or exported (up to 300 gallons a year went off the island).
There appear to have been two legal distilleries in 1790, using local and imported barley, but these seem to have stopped with a failure of crops in 1794. Illicit distillation did, however, continue.
At the same time, the 5th Duke of Argyll was trying to ‘improve’ the island, shifting it away from the old ‘run-rig’ agricultural system and towards crofting and industries such as kelp farming, which would in turn make him more money..
Rather than seeing a distillery as a potential source of revenue (like Talisker or Clynelish), the Duke clamped down on illicit whisky-making which, as in other parts of Scotland, was the easiest way for farmers to pay their now rising rent. He also wished to sell the barley himself on the mainland (actually, barley was being shipped off the island – destination Ireland, where it was being used to make illicit whiskey!).
In 1801, 157 men were convicted of illicit whisky-making and, in a letter to Malcolm McLaurin, Chamberlain of Tiree, in June that year the Duke’s instructions were laid out:
‘His Grace is pleased to order…that every tenth man of these 157 be deprived of their present possessions & of all protection from him in the future…it is left to Major Maxwell & you to select the ring-leaders & and most idle and worthless, or to lay the punishment on the whole 157 by lot as you think best.’
By then, people were leaving the island.
The Duke appears to have had a slight change of heart and tried to set up a legal distillery, but no-one wanted to work it, and so whisky-making on Tiree ceased. Probably.
Anyway, it’s high time this situation was redressed, which is why it’s Tiree for me. Anyone want to crowdfund me?
Cregeen, ER (ed) 1964; Argyll Estate Instructions, 1771-1803. Scottish History Society, 4th series, vol 1
IA Glen, A Maker of Illicit Stills, Glen Scottish Studies, vol 14 (1970)
A History of Tiree Whisky Distilling
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